Introduction: Restoring Lost Voices of Self-Determination
Introduction to the King-Crane Commission Digital Archival Collection,
Oberlin College Archives
By Ken Grossi, Maren Milligan, and Ted Waddelow
At the end of World War I, the major powers negotiated the future of the areas under the control of the defeated Central Powers. One of the areas on the chopping block was the Ottoman Empire, long coveted by various empires. President Woodrow Wilson asked then Oberlin College President (1902-1927) Henry Churchill King to co-chair the American Section of the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey, which came to be known as the King-Crane Commission. The Commission, which was originally intended to be international in character, like other fact-finding missions of the Paris Peace Conference, became a solely American enterprise in the face of British and French foot-dragging.
Between June and August 1919, the members of the King-Crane Commission traveled from Constantinople to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and the southern reaches of Turkey. They traveled as far south as Beersheba and as far east as Amman and Aleppo to determine wishes of the region’s inhabitants concerning a post-war settlement. Wilson instructed the Commission to “to acquaint itself as intimately as possible with the sentiments of the people of these regions with regards to the future administration of their affairs.”1
The division of territory was complicated by conflicting British and French colonial ambitions in the region. While the British had encouraged the Arab Revolt (1916-1918) against Ottoman rule, promising to support the emergence of an independent Arab state through the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, it made parallel and conflicting agreements with France, particularly the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. This largely secret treaty delineated zones of French influence and control in Syria, Lebanon, and southern Anatolia, with the British gaining influence over territory stretching from Palestine to Iraq. British policies complicated matters further with potentially conflicting stances toward Zionism and Arab nationalism.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 stated “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”2 The tensions inherent in the Balfour Declaration presented yet another problem for the post-war settlement—and the fate of Palestine was a central part of the Commission’s work.
1.Report, “Future administration of certain portions of the Turkish empire under the mandatory system,” March 25, 1919, page 3. Henry Churchill King Presidential Papers, Record Group 2/6, box 128, folder 1, Oberlin College Archives.
2.Balfour Declaration, quoted in “First Publication of the King-Crane Report on the Near East: A Suppressed Official Document of the United States Government,” Editor & Publisher December 2, 1922, page 3. Henry Churchill King Presidential Papers, Record Group 2/6, box 128, folder 10A, Oberlin College Archives.