“The United States And Ethiopia, 1953-1977” is Part 2 of the “Arms for the Horn,” a book about Great Power Competition or how the Cold War played out in the Horn of Africa, particularly from an American Foreign Policy perspective. 


U.S. Security Policy In Ethiopia And Somalia


Jeffrey A. Lefebvre

Pitt Series in Policy and Institutional Studies

University of Pittsburgh Press

PART II – The United States And Ethiopia, 1953-1977


The United States And Ethiopia, 1953-1977

CHAPTER 3: The 1953 Arms-for-Bases Exchange

Between 1947 and 1953 the Imperial Ethiopian Government (IEG) tried without success to conclude a formal military arrangement with the United States. Six years of frustration and rejection by the Americans finally came to an end on May 22, 1953, when the U.S. Acting Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith and Ethiopia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Ato Abte-Wold Aklilou signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement (MDAA) and a Defense Installations Agreement (DIA). These two treaties would serve as the foundation for U.S.-Ethiopian military relations for a quarter-century. However, it required nine months of sometimes acrimonious negotiations to reach a satisfactory agreement on the substantive contents of these two documents. In the end, a tacit quid pro quo, arms-for-base-rights exchange, was enacted: in return for guaranteed access to Ethiopian military installations, Washington would grant Addis Ababa military assistance and military training.


The United States began preparing for these negotiations in early 1952 in anticipation of preserving its special position at Radio Marina, a communications facility located in the former Italian colony of Eritrea, then under British control. With the British due to relinquish administrative control of Eritrea to the IEG on September 15, under the terms of the December 1950 UN-sponsored Eritrean-Ethiopian federation plan, the Americans recognized that a base agreement would need to be negotiated with Ethiopia. To create the proper atmosphere, on March 6 the Department of State had requested the Defense Department to declare Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia eligible to receive grant military assistance under section 202 of the Mutual Security Act of 1951 and reimbursable military aid under section 408(e) of the Mutual Defense Assistance Act of 1949. The Defense Department responded on April 22 that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would declare lamented Beijing’s economic engagement model, saying it undermined democracy and mired African countries in debt. When he landed in Ethiopia eligible only for reimbursable military assistance since Ethiopia did not meet the eligibility requirements for grant aid. Nonetheless, the Americans felt this would be enough to entice Haile Selassie to sign a formal base rights accord.

In August 1952 the American ambassador to Addis Ababa. J. Rives Childs submitted a draft proposal to the IEG covering U.S. military rights in Ethiopia. On September 11, four days before the federation plan was to be enacted, Addis Ababa granted a continuation of U.S. military rights and privileges at Radio Marina, leading the Americans to believe that the negotiations for a formal base-rights accord could be speedily concluded. In late October, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Aklilou, accompanied by his American legal adviser John Spencer, arrived in New York to attend the seventh General Assembly session of the United Nations, scheduled to review the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation. During this visit, Aklilou informed Secretary of State Dean Acheson that while Ethiopia was ready to meet U.S. wishes regarding base rights, “There must of necessity be a suitable quid pro quo.” If the Ethiopians were to conclude what amounted to a unilateral agreement in which only they made concessions, other powers, according to Aklilou, might also insist upon similar one-sided concessions, as “many Europeans bees will want an equal right to sip the Ethiopian honey.” For the IEG, suitable compensation would be the right to procure arms and have the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States provide a formal military training mission.

The Ethiopians stalled the base negotiations until after the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 617 on December 17, certifying that the conditions of the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation had been fulfilled under the terms of the original UN Resolution 390 of December 2, 1950. Then when the negotiations resumed in late December, Aklilou attempted to up the ante. The foreign minister now complained that Addis Ababa was being rushed into signing an agreement far wider in scope than the IEG had agreed to in 1948 during discussions with former Secretary of State George Marshall and that the Ethiopians were assuming all the risks of the military alliance, without obtaining commensurate benefits. Aklilou again assured the Americans that the IEG had no intention of reneging on the 1948 assurances, but he warned that it would be difficult to sell the agreement to the emperor unless (1) it was limited to facilities at Asmara, or (2) he could provide sufficient indication of U.S. support in defense of the area. The latter requirement involved either a written U.S. defense commitment and agreement to consult with the Ethiopians regarding the defense of the area, as well as the provision of a military mission, or the promise of a military mission large enough to train a large Ethiopian army so that the IEG could defend itself. The emperor preferred that Aklilou acquire a broadly written U.S. commitment in which the Americans would defend the U.S.-operated installations against attack by internal and external forces, agree to keep the IEG “fully informed on all matters directly related to or of interest to the defense of East Africa,” and provide a permanent military mission of about fifty members, not one that would come to Ethiopia for a brief period to show the Ethiopians simply “how to insert cartridges in rifles.”

However, Washington simply wanted to pay rent for Radio Marina and limit its military involvement in Ethiopia. The Joint Chiefs of Staff would agree only to provide a small military mission of unspecified number, probably in the range often to fifteen advisers, to be sent for an unspecified period. Moreover, no written commitment would be given, although Ethiopia was welcome to purchase U.S. arms on a reimbursable basis. Aklilou refused to present the emperor with such an offer, and the negotiations broke down. As far as the Department of Defense was concerned, the next move was up to the Ethiopians.

During the interim, the State Department did keep an informal line of communications open to ascertain the IEG’s position with regard to the base agreement, the U.S. military mission, and the purchase of arms by Ethiopia by way of John Spencer, who offered U.S. officials at the State Department’s Office of African Affairs a “confidential appraisal” of the thinking in Addis Ababa. Of course, the American attorney had his own agenda acting on behalf of the IEG Foreign Ministry: to influence the Americans to sign a military accord that took into account Ethiopian sensitivities. He apparently succeeded. According to Spencer, there were divisions within the Ethiopian government between those who were partial to the death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4 has lead some in the United States and others who favored playing the imperial European powers against each other to maximize Ethiopia’s benefits. Moreover, some in the Ethiopian military “would be just as pleased to see a Swedish military mission” in Ethiopia as an American one. The issue of reimbursable military assistance also posed a problem; the IEG felt it deserved better treatment from Washington given its contributions in Korea.

Finally, while the emperor was prepared to give complete authority to the Americans within the U.S.-operated installations, complete freedom of import and export and permission to have the necessary cable and wireless communications, he was not prepared to give priority to the movement of goods and troops between U.S. military installations, which seemed to be too much of an infringement on Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Thus, when the U.S.-Ethiopia military discussions resumed again at the end of March 1953, the Ethiopian negotiating team of Aklilou, Spencer, and General Mulughetta Bulli of the imperial Ethiopian bodyguard were instructed by the emperor not to return home until they had settled three issues: (1) an agreement governing the U.S. Army communications station at Radio Marina and other military facilities in Eritrea, (2) details regarding an American military training mission, and (3) the difficulties concerning reimbursable military aid.

Aklilou would be in the United States for almost two months until the terms of a satisfactory military assistance agreement were processed and approved by the American bureaucracy. In this latest round of negotiations, the United States seemed ready to accommodate the Ethiopians’ three concerns. Hostilities were winding down in Korea and, more specifically, the emperor had dropped his demand for an explicit U.S. defense commitment. First, Washington accepted a modified base agreement, though one whose major provisions remained substantively the same, in which (1) American military personnel stationed in Ethiopia would be protected by extraordinary extraterritorial rights; (2) the United States was granted complete freedom of flight over all of Ethiopia; (3) military and other storage facilities, as well as port visiting rights, were granted at Massawa and elsewhere, and (4) the United States was assured of free access to Ethiopian facilities covered by the installation agreement, which included Radio Marina, for a period of twenty-five years. Second, the United States agreed to establish a formal military mission to train three Ethiopian Army divisions of 6,000 soldiers. Finally, to resolve the difficulties of providing reimbursable military assistance to Ethiopia, namely, that congressional legislation prohibited a reduction in the price of weapons or long-term repayments (which was the only way the financially strapped IEG would be able to purchase American arms), on April 6 the State Department requested that the Department of Defense declare Ethiopia eligible for grant military aid. The JCS gave its approval on May 8. At this time State sent a letter to the director for mutual security, who recommended on May 12 that the president should declare Ethiopia eligible to receive up to $5 million of grant military aid under section 202 of the Mutual Security Act of 1951. President Eisenhower did so on May 22. That same day representatives for the United States and Ethiopia signed the Defense Installations Agreement and Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement.


Haile Selassie’s persistent pursuit of a military accord with the United States was influenced by the hostile Arab reception that greeted his diplomatic triumph at the United Nations concerning the fate of Eritrea. On December 2, 1950, the UN General Assembly had voted forty-six to ten in favor of a federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea which would officially take effect in December 1952. But the federation solution created considerable animosity toward Ethiopia among the Arab states, who had favored independence for the former Italian colony. A U.S. defense commitment or, at a minimum, U.S. military presence came to be seen by the emperor as necessary to deter the empire’s Moslem neighbors from military retaliation or subversion against Ethiopia.

Haile Selassie had set his Eritrea policy in motion almost immediately after his return to Ethiopia in May 1941 after five years of exile. The newly restored emperor felt that the security of the Ethiopian state-required exclusive control over the coastal Eritrean colony. Twice within his lifetime, in 1896 and again in 1935, Selassie had witnessed the invasion of his country by a foreign army (Italy in both instances) operating out of Eritrea. Ethiopia’s political and economic independence could only be preserved, so he thought, by incorporating Eritrea into the empire and thereby removing a potential staging point for hostile forces, while at the same time providing Addis Ababa with direct access to the Red Sea.

The realities of international politics meant, however, that Ethiopia would have little or no say in the postwar disposition of colonial and enemy-occupied territories. Moreover, not only the Arab states, but Italy, France, and the Soviet Union opposed Selassie’s design for Eritrea. For Ethiopia to attain this geopolitical objective, therefore, the emperor would need to enlist the support of an influential great power sympathetic to Ethiopia’s landlocked plight. In the past, representatives of the United States government had seemed favorably disposed toward resolving Ethiopia’s dilemma. In April 1943 U.S. officials had expressed support for the idea that at least part of Eritrea should be given to Ethiopia. Following a meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and Haile Selassie at Great Bitter Lake in mid-February 1945, at which time the Ethiopian emperor made very clear his position that Ethiopia’s long-term interests necessitated a port in Eritrea, the United States government verbally committed itself to the idea of shifting at least southern Eritrea to Ethiopia.

But Haile Selassie’s concerns went beyond gaining control over Eritrea. The emperor feared most of all being left standing alone as he had been in 1935. Selassie wished to tie Ethiopia in as visibly as possible to great power. American support would be needed not only to press successfully Addis Ababa’s claim on Eritrea at the United Nations but also to deter those who might seek to undermine the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation.


At the end of the Second World War, the United States was not particularly interested in deepening its military involvement in the Middle East region. American policymakers instead invested U.S. military resources in Europe and the Far East. In other parts of the world, the United States emphasized the economic and technical development components of Harry Truman’s 1949 Point IV program. The fear of overextension, coupled with the belief that Europe and the rimland areas of the Eurasian landmass were the primary spots where the cold war would be fought, relegated more distant places like the Horn of Africa to the periphery of U.S. foreign policy concerns.

Ethiopia was viewed at this time primarily through a Middle East policy lens since organizationally it belonged to the State Department’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA). During the second half of the 1940s, even after the crises in Iran, Greece, and Turkey, American policymakers saw little reason to become involved in arming or forging security arrangements with Middle Eastern states. December 1947 forecast by the Joint Chiefs of Staffs Joint Strategic Plans Committee had concluded that war between East and West was unlikely to occur before 1957. Of direct consequence for U.S. policy toward Ethiopia, the JSPC did not foresee communism or the USSR making any inroads in the Arab world, and no war-threatening situation developing in the African colonies. Moreover, a July 1947 CIA report had played down the military significance of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland in any Mediterranean, Middle East, or northwest Africa contingency. In the absence of any imminent threat in the region, there was no vital reason for the United States to commit scarce military resources to Ethiopia.

At the start of the 1950s, Washington still remained reluctant to assume any new overseas responsibilities in the Middle East region. A May 1950 report prepared by the NEA contended that the United States was not in a position to consider any security pacts in the Eastern Mediterranean or Near East and that Washington should neither encourage nor discourage any spontaneous defensive grouping in the area. The NEA analysts argued, “We are not in a position to consider any security pacts with Greece, Turkey, Iran or other Near Eastern countries at the present time because we cannot tell whether our capabilities at this time are adequate to defend our vital interests in Europe.” Only an increase in Europe’s own defensive strength resulting from NATO and U.S. military assistance would allow Washington to consider further security arrangements. The Truman administration had turned down an offer by Saudi Arabia in 1948 of access to strategic facilities in exchange for military equipment; then in 1950, it refused to sign a treaty of alliance with the Saudi kingdom, which had been sought out by King Abd al-’Aziz. American defense commitments in Europe and the Far East, as well as concern about fueling an Arab-Israeli arms race, curbed Washington’s appetite for building binding security relationships in the Middle East.

Washington began to reconsider the benefits of adopting a higher profile posture in the Middle East following the July 1952 military coup in Egypt. Even before the Arab-nationalist government had seized power, Cairo had opposed and blocked U.S., British, and moderate Arab initiatives in the region. Cairo’s anti-Western behavior became more pronounced after the Nasser coup. With the decline of British influence in Egypt and the growth of America’s role in the defense of North and West Africa, the United States would need to create a strategic infrastructure in the region.

However, Ethiopia was not the linchpin of this strategy. As part of a larger effort to secure Western interests in the region, Washington had concluded a five-year extension with Riyadh in June 1951 for the Dhahran air facility. In 1952-1953, Washington was also engaged in an economic boycott and destabilization campaign against the National Front government in Iran following the nationalization of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. That would lead to the August 1953 CIA-supported coup against Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq, which returned the shah of Iran to power and restored Iran to the pro-Western camp.

Because Britain, Italy, and France continued to control the Somalilands, Kenya, Sudan and South Yemen, the Western alliance could use any number of locations to support military operations in the southern Red Sea region. But given this volatile regional environment, and with the globalist-oriented Eisenhower administration assuming power in January 1953, America’s traditional resistance to the creation of binding alliances in the Middle East had weakened.


Following the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941, Addis Ababa had first looked to the Western powers for weapons and military supplies. This experience, however, proved to be quite disillusioning and unsatisfying for the Ethiopians, especially in their dealings with Great Britain. After forcing the surrender of Italian forces in East Africa, Britain was determined to assume the role of predominant great power not only in the occupied Italian colonies but in Ethiopia as well. London feared that if the Ethiopians were allowed to assist in the war effort, Addis Ababa would demand territorial or other concessions after the war as a reward and would pose a challenge to Britain’s paramount position in northeast Africa. So throughout the war British colonial authorities opposed the transfer of military supplies to Ethiopia. To that end, after liberating Ethiopia from the fascist rule, the British and South African forces proceeded to remove everything they could that the Italians had brought into the country, including all weapons and military equipment, under the pretense of using it for the war effort. Much of it was thrown into the sea or burned.

The United States initially refused to provide military assistance to Ethiopia because it was reluctant to upset its British ally. Throughout most of the war, the Americans would defer to London when it came to political and security issues in East Africa. Even if the Americans did want to help Ethiopia, their hands were tied by the fact that after London had recognized Ethiopia’s independent status through January 31, 1942, Anglo-Ethiopian agreement, the British continued to exert substantial control over Addis Ababa’s internal and military affairs. Although President Roosevelt had declared Ethiopia eligible to receive U.S. Lend-Lease assistance in December 1942, American policymakers had no interest in preparing Ethiopia for war. As explained in a memorandum to President Roosevelt by Secretary of State Cordell Hull in 1944, U.S. actions, including Lend-Lease aid, were simply designed “to maintain a position of the equality of opportunity in Ethiopia so that the future development of American interests would not be prevented by exclusive or preferential rights obtained by third parties,” such as those enjoyed by the British.

Haile Selassie’s task, therefore, was to open a direct line to the Americans to discuss military matters without outside interference. The Ethiopians used the occasion of the World Food Conference held at Hot Springs, Virginia, in May 1943 to present the U.S. War Department with a request for weapons and equipment, including trucks and light tanks for three divisions of 12,000 soldiers. As an added inducement the emperor offered to send one of the divisions to fight in the Middle East theater or elsewhere in support of the Allied cause. Officials at the War Department put together an alternative internal security arms package, which included 5,000 rifles, five armored cars, twelve 37MM field guns, four 75MM field guns, fifty 30-caliber Browning machine guns, fifty 45-caliber submachine guns, and ammunition. British officials, however, stalled the proposed arms transfer for almost a year by raising political and security objections. But the State Department eventually found it “difficult to see how British security in northeastern Africa could be vitally affected by the Emperor’s possession of such a small amount of equipment.” But, as a sign of things to come, the weapons did not arrive in Ethiopia until April 1945.

Although by the end of the Second World War Great Britain no opposed the sale of U.S. arms to Ethiopia for internal security purposes (as long as Washington kept London informed of developments), the U.S. Department of State discouraged requests by the Ethiopian government for weapons and supplies. Immediately after the war, the State Department refused to support an Ethiopian request for equipment for a motorized division on the grounds that Ethiopia’s economy would be unable to stand the initial purchase price, let alone the cost of maintaining the unit. Washington also failed to fulfill other more general arms requests because of the unavailability of the type and quantity of weapons desired by the Ethiopians. America’s recalcitrance toward turning Ethiopia into a military asset was highlighted when the State Departments Arms Policy Committee approved the sale of a modest amount of weapons to Ethiopia in mid-1947 but on a “nonpriority” basis.

In 1947 Ethiopia began to acquire weapons from Czechoslovakia. Even after the Czechoslovakian communist coup d’état in early 1948, Addis Ababa continued the Czech arms connection. The emperor went ahead and concluded an $8 million arms deal with Prague that included mostly submachine guns, machine guns, and ammunition. According to the American legation in Addis Ababa, the arrangement stemmed from a “lack of success in obtaining arms in the U.S. and U.K. on Ethiopian terms.”

At the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union also began to show an interest in Ethiopia. The American attorney John Spencer, who had been serving as a legal adviser to the imperial government since the mid-1940s, reported that on repeated occasions the Soviet ambassador assured the Ethiopian foreign minister that Russian military aid could be had for the asking. American diplomats in the field, however, did not really expect Haile Selassie to turn to the Soviets for arms. Selassie’s diplomatic relations and discussions with Moscow were seen as part of a calculated design to “string them along in order to have someone to play off, later, if he deems it advantageous, against all the Western powers, including the United States.” American diplomats in Ethiopia also seemed to think that despite Russian overtures to Addis Ababa the Ethiopian emperor could be expected to block serious penetrations by the Soviet Union. Thus Haile Selassie’s attempt to pressure Washington into greater responsiveness to Ethiopian arms requests by fomenting uncertainty about Ethiopia’s relationship with the communist bloc was a very transparent bluff.

Selassie abandoned all pretense of playing up to the East bloc following the outbreak of the war in Korea in June 1950. This event jolted the emperor into recognizing that his country too was vulnerable to invasion and that antagonizing the Americans at this time might not be such a good idea. It seemed to be a time for small and weak countries to choose sides. In August 1950, Emperor Selassie declared Ethiopia to be a loyal ally of the West and offered to send 1,000 Ethiopian troops to fight alongside other UN forces in Korea.

Thus, when the U.S.-Ethiopia military discussions began at the end of 1952, Haile Selassie had given up all pretense of defecting to the East bloc for arms and had declared his loyalty to the West. During the March 1953 military discussions in Washington, Foreign Minister Aklilou pointed out to the Americans that the arms being given to the Arab states might not be used to support the West in a war, but that “the United States can count on Ethiopia more than it can count on the Arabs.” Moreover, Ethiopia had demonstrated its loyalty by voting against a Czechoslovakian resolution in the UN General Assembly that spring (stating that the U.S. Mutual Security Act of 1951 constituted aggression and interference in the affairs of other states), while the Arab states had abstained. The emperor was also expressing a desire to join a Middle East defense organization tied to NATO. Ethiopian negotiators utilized the “Northern Tier” concept, being developed by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, to argue that Ethiopia should form part of a “Southern Tier”—a secondary line of defense against communism in the Middle East—which could act as a safety valve should the Northern Tier fall. While the Americans never formally implemented the “Southern Tier” portion of this plan, Haile Selassie’s clear desire to align Ethiopia in such an overt manner with the United States tended to strengthen Washington’s negotiating hand.


Haile Selassie’s enthusiasm for establishing a political-military link between Ethiopia and the United States was not initially reciprocated in Washington. With the brief exception of the U.S. arms embargo directed against Italy in the late 1930s following the invasion of Ethiopia, Selassie’s empire had warranted no special attention from Washington. After the conclusion in June 1914 of the Treaty of Commerce between the United States and Ethiopia, which contained a “most favored nation” clause, American business never developed more than a limited commercial interest in Ethiopia.

Years later, a Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations that had been signed on September 7, 1951, was held up in the U.S. Congress for over two years by private U.S. interests. Strategically, Ethiopia’s control over the headwaters of the Blue Nile drew attention only from Cairo, Khartoum, and outside powers such as Great Britain who held a stake in Egypt and Sudan. From a military vantage point, Ethiopia’s armed forces were viewed as inconsequential. Diplomatically and culturally isolated in the Middle East, Addis Ababa perhaps could assume a position of political leadership in an independent Africa, but that was years away. Consequently, there was little reason for the United States to respond to Haile Selassie’s appeals for U.S. military support.

Whereas Ethiopia itself was of little value to the United States, during the Second World War American defense planners had begun to take an interest in Eritrea after it had fallen under British military occupation as a liberated enemy territory in early 1941. At a secret meeting held at the U.S. War Department on November 19, 1941, the United States government implemented a highly classified operation (Project 19) aimed at aiding the Allied war effort in Africa. Under the aegis of the Lend-Lease Act, the United States established a naval repair base at the Eritrean port of Massawa to support the British Mediterranean fleet. U.S. civilians under the management of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation also operated an airbase at Cura, Eritrea, to maintain Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) conducting operations against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Although Rommel’s defeat and departure from North Africa in March 1943 marked the end of Project 19, American interest and involvement in Eritrea continued into the postwar years.

As the war in North Africa drew to a close, the United States shifted its primary regional objective from a tactical military to the long-term strategic mission of establishing a fixed radio station site in Africa. At the end of January 1943, the War Department proposed that a communications facility should be established at the former site of an Italian naval radio station (Radio Marina) located outside the Eritrean town of Asmara. In late April a U.S. survey team arrived at Asmara to conduct a feasibility study. Refurbishing the station began the following month. By September the first communications and receiver sets were completed, and a staff of four officers and fifty enlisted men from the U.S. Army Signal Corps were assigned to the facility.

The extraordinary location of what would be renamed Kagnew Station made this communications facility invaluable for years to come. Radiofrequency changes were less frequent and operations facilitated because the station was situated in the tropics several thousand feet above sea level, far from the North and South magnetic poles, the Aurora Borealis, and magnetic storms, and in a zone where there was limited seasonal variation between sunrise and sunset. The station possessed an inherent ability to transmit radio signals back to Washington from the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific theater, as well as listen in on transmissions in the Middle East and Africa. Technically, the site was located in an ideal spot to fit into Washington’s worldwide defense communications network and serve as an intelligence-gathering outpost in the region.

Washington’s objective in the Horn of Africa, therefore, became quite simple—to operate and maintain unimpeded access to this strategic communications facility. During the last years of the war, the problem of access did not arise because final authority over the occupied colony’s internal affairs had been in the hands of the British since Eritrea was placed under a British Occupied Enemy Territory Administration in 1941. After the war, American officials apparently felt more comfortable with Great Britain, and thus initially favored ceding only southern Eritrea to Ethiopia and keeping the northern part of the territory, where Radio Marina was located, under British dominion. But London’s decision to relinquish control of the entire territory forced a change in Washington’s position.

American attitudes toward Ethiopia began to change around the middle of 1948. The Truman administration had now decided that U.S. security interests would be best served if the Italian colony of Eritrea fell under the political domination of Addis Ababa. During the summer and fall of 1948, the U.S. national security bureaucracy began formulating a plan to resolve the dilemma of maintaining access to the communications site without antagonizing other powers. The National Security Council argued against an independent Eritrea on the grounds that it would be a “weak state . . . exposed to Soviet aggression or infiltration.”

State Department officials recommended against an Italian trusteeship in Eritrea for fear that the unstable Italian government might fall to the communists; given Italy’s recent fascist past, the UN General Assembly might decide to restrict the use of the territory for military purposes. So the State Department concluded in early August 1948 that all of Eritrea should be given to Ethiopia. By the end of the year, after a report prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued that it would be inadvisable to remove the radio facility from Asmara because there was no other suitable location available in the Middle East, the Defense Department also favored Ethiopian control over Eritrea.

The U.S. foreign policymaking community was now in agreement that the communications operation had to be maintained and that some form of Ethiopian control over Eritrea and the radio facility was desirable. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal proposed that the United States obtain written guarantees from Ethiopia so that in the event Eritrea was ceded to Ethiopia there would be no political or technical interference in the operation of the station.“ Although Addis Ababa offered to supply such a written guarantee, Washington elected to settle for a purely verbal commitment. Consequently, in November 1948 Secretary of State George Marshall offered American diplomatic support for Ethiopia’s claim to most of Eritrea, in return for retaining “unhampered use of the radio station in Asmara and possibly other military facilities such as airfields and ports in the Asmara-Massawa area.”

When the UN General Assembly turned its attention to the Eritrean question in 1949 the United States’ UN delegation, having been formally debriefed about the verbal arrangements made with Addis Ababa concerning U.S. defense requirements in the Horn, began pushing for some form of Ethiopian control over most of Eritrea. By the latter half of 1950, in what was justified publicly as compensation for Ethiopia’s offer to contribute troops to the UN police action in Korea, the United States began advocating federation between Ethiopia and all of Eritrea. The American UN Mission presented the federation plan to the United Nations’ Ad Hoc Political Committee during the latter half of November, and the plan was adopted in early December. Under the U.S.-sponsored proposal, after a brief transitional period that would take effect in September 1952, Eritrea would “constitute an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown” beginning December 2, 1952.


Haile Selassie’s determination to link Ethiopia with the United States was an outgrowth in part of his experience with Great Britain in the 1940s. Selassie wanted a patron who could be trusted not to interfere in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, contrary to British behavior. Given the fall of the European states from the great-power ranks, the emperor was essentially left with two choices. He could either conclude a security arrangement with the United States or with the Soviet Union.

Moscow’s credentials to act in this capacity were as solid as those of Washington. Like the United States, the Soviet Union possessed an unblemished anticolonial, anti-imperialist record in Africa. It too was distant enough and distracted by other global matters to assure that Ethiopia would be buffered from constant interference. An arms relationship with Moscow, now recognized as one of the world’s two superpowers, also could act as a deterrent against hostile regional forces.

Yet, despite this favorable comparison and continuing Soviet offers of assistance, Haile Selassie always looked to the United States. John Spencer observed, “Throughout his reign, as automatically as a compass needle drawn towards the magnetic pole, His Majesty turned towards the United States.” Haile Selassie’s particular fascination with the United States could be explained in part by Washington’s having carefully avoided involvement in the intrigues of the European colonial powers in Africa. Moreover, unlike Paris and London, Washington had refused to recognize the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935. Despite criticisms of Washington’s determination to remain aloof from diplomatic efforts in late 1934 and 1935 to resolve the Italo-Abyssinian dispute, two days after war broke out between Ethiopia and Italy, the United States unilaterally imposed an arms embargo—an action that may have been seen as hurting Italy more than Ethiopia. U.S. actions suggested that among the great powers, the United States had no designs upon Ethiopia.

Tactical political-military concerns also weighed in favor of forging an arms connection with the United States. During Haile Selassie’s exile in London, he had approached the Americans for arms to use in his efforts to oust the Italians from his homeland. After Ethiopia’s liberation, the emperor then attempted to draw the Americans into Ethiopia to pry out the intrusive British. As the 1940s came to a close, Selassie hoped to keep the Arabs at bay through a U.S. presence in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian emperor developed a penchant for turning to the United States when in trouble. Selassie felt he could use and manipulate American power to counterbalance the activities of other external powers in Ethiopia and within the region. To this end, the emperor wanted to see Americans working on the ground inside Ethiopia by drawing the United States into a more direct and visible role in building and maintaining his country’s military forces.

Ethiopia’s arms options were also constrained by logistical and economic considerations. Lend-Lease aid during the war and subsequent aircraft purchases had accustomed the Ethiopian military to U.S. standards, calibers, and equipment types. The construction of an Ethiopian army of the size and sophistication the emperor desired could be accomplished more quickly and efficiently by staying with the Americans since a large-scale military commitment by another country was not in the offing. Moreover, the State Department had indicated its willingness to provide arms and military training on a grant basis; this made an American military connection all the more attractive and valuable for the financially strapped Ethiopian government. In May 1949, Washington had demonstrated the potential economic benefits of association with the United States by reducing Ethiopia’s Lend-Lease debt of more than $5 million to $200, 000.

Although the Soviet Union perhaps could have done as much for Ethiopia, given the perceived vulnerability and nature of Haile Selassie’s empire, the emperor preferred to keep Moscow at a safe distance. Ethiopia’s history had taught Selassie to be wary of great powers. Subversion of his semifeudal empire seemed more likely to be perpetrated by a revolutionary-minded Soviet government than by the status quo-oriented policies of the United States. In his pursuit of a great-power arms connection, Haile Selassie did not want to plant the seeds for his own political destruction.

One alternative Ethiopian negotiators hinted that the emperor might pursue to resolve Ethiopia’s security problems would be to reach a political accommodation with the empire’s Arab neighbors. Although most hostile Arab pressure had subsided once the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation had been sanctioned by the United Nations in December 1952, Addis Ababa then came under increasing pressure to align itself with the Arab-Asiatic bloc. The emperor could have elected to reduce Ethiopia’s perceived military vulnerability and head off future problems caused by the Eritrean issue by throwing in his lot completely with the Arab states. But given Ethiopia’s historical troubles with its Moslem neighbors, military alignment with the United States appeared to offer a surer solution to the problem of maintaining control over Eritrea.

The fact that Haile Selassie had staked his personal prestige on concluding a military agreement with the United States further reduced his leverage vis-a-vis Washington. Given Ethiopia’s extremely long military traditions, and with the British military mission departed from the scene in 1953, U.S. military assistance was viewed as essential. Concluding a military agreement with the United States had assumed such high importance for the emperor that Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Aklilou was told in the spring of 1953 that he “could not return home without it.” Thus, the United States needed to give Ethiopia only enough to keep Selassie interested in light of the emperor’s known obsession for things American.


Haile Selassie’s efforts to draw the United States into a close-knit security relationship met considerable resistance from the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy. State Department and Pentagon officials held little interest in financing an Ethiopian military buildup. If the cold war erupted into a hot war between East and West, the Ethiopian military was not expected to have any effect upon the outcome. Even by the end of 1948, when Washington had come to recognize Ethiopia’s future strategic importance with regard to its acquisition of Eritrea and Kagnew, Ethiopia continued to be viewed as a low-priority ally.

Washington’s light regard for Ethiopia’s military was aptly demonstrated in the mid-1950. Addis Ababa had inquired about the extent to which the United States would assist in equipping and arming a unit of approximately 1,000 officers and enlisted men, and provide formal military assistance to strengthen the IEC’s armed forces. U.S. guidelines required that in order to be declared eligible for military aid Ethiopia would have to demonstrate clearly that its ability to defend itself or to participate in regional defense would contribute to U.S. security. The State Department informed the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa that a determination in Ethiopia’s favor would be “extremely unlikely.” Even if Ethiopia were declared eligible, U.S. defense requirements and prior commitments would likely prevent the United States from furnishing the quantities of equipment desired by the IEG in the foreseeable future.

Despite this setback, Addis Ababa continued to press its case through the U.S. embassy. But even among the embassy staff in the field, the emperor won few converts. The concerns Selassie voiced about Ethiopia being forgotten and falling prey to an aggressor in the event of a general war fell on deaf ears. U.S. officials could find no imminent outside threat to Ethiopian security and were generally puzzled as to why the emperor felt he needed aid.

Despite their skepticism regarding Ethiopia’s supposed vulnerability, the U.S. embassy staff was troubled by the potential for negative political repercussions undermining not only U.S.-Ethiopian relations but also the emperor’s own position within Ethiopia if Washington kept rejecting Addis Ababa’s requests. Rather than becoming more responsive to Selassie’s pleas, however, the State Department instead instructed the U.S. embassy to discourage the emperor from requesting arms in the first place. But embassy officials felt that in order to dissuade Haile Selassie from making military expenditures beyond his country’s means and constantly pressing Washington for military assistance, some sort of stopgap political-military gesture would be necessary to reassure the emperor of the U.S. commitment to Ethiopia’s independence. Thus in mid-November 1950, the U.S. ambassador suggested that Washington send to Ethiopia a high-ranking, well-known American general, perhaps accompanied by some small show of force such as two or three medium bombers, to discuss political-military matters with the emperor.

More than six months passed before Washington acted on the ambassador’s advice. During this interval, Defense Department officials debated just what this American military representative should say to the emperor. Because its defense commitments in Western Europe and the Far East had been stretched to the limit since the outbreak of war in Korea the previous June, there was not much Washington could offer Ethiopia. Proponents of this diplomatic venture argued that given the pro-Western slant in Ethiopia’s foreign policy over the previous fifty years, coupled with the need to counter any Soviet attempt to intervene in the Red Sea-Indian Ocean region, sending a military mission to discuss mutual interests with Ethiopian officials would at least dramatize symbolically the country’s importance and would counter potential Soviet attempts at subversion.

Mindful of the soon-to-be-implemented Ethiopia-Eritrea federation scheme, Washington elected to play to the symbols that appealed to the emperor by dispatching a highly visible military mission to Ethiopia in June 1951 led by Lt. Gen. Charles Lawrence Bolte, deputy chief of staff for the army. General Bolte had been informed by the director of the Joint Staff before his departure that the United States would not be able in the near future to provide either military assistance or a military mission to Ethiopia.

The general informed the emperor that because U.S. global priorities placed Africa last, an American military training mission in Ethiopia, though a good idea, was quite low on Washington’s priority list. Addis Ababa would have to settle for assurances that the United States took seriously its obligations to support the United Nations in collective security action in the event of aggression and would “always take with great concern any danger to Ethiopia.” In essence, the emperor was treated to a symbolic political-military show of support, but little else of substance to go with it.

Bolte returned from his mission concurring with the majority opinion within the JCS that a formal aid program and military mission to Ethiopia was inadvisable. From a military vantage point, a U.S. military training mission would serve no useful purpose. Moreover, at a time when the U.S. embassy was seeking to encourage the emperor to direct his country’s resources toward economic development projects, if granted a military mission, the Ethiopian government would make further military requests that would be beyond justification for a low-priority country.

Despite these reservations, Bolte felt that Ethiopia warranted some consideration and recommended that the United States provide a modest amount of weapons such as bazookas and recoilless rifles, as well as communications equipment. The general further suggested that Washington should furnish a small training detachment, as opposed to a formal mission, to train replacements for the Ethiopian contingent in Korea. In addition to rewarding, however minimally, Ethiopia’s longstanding orientation toward the West and contribution of forces to the UN Command in Korea, it would serve a worthwhile, though limited, military purpose and represent a gesture of goodwill. It would at least indicate to the emperor that the United States had “not completely shut the door” on his military requests.

General Bolte’s limited and qualified military assistance recommendations reflected the dominant perception of the Department of Defense that Ethiopia could play only a very minor role in U.S. global policy. Moreover, the State Department, as well as the Pentagon, sought to limit the level of U.S. military involvement in Ethiopia. The Joint Chiefs of Staff fought to keep the U.S. training mission proposed by Bolte small and temporary. When the Ethiopian government transmitted a note requesting a complete program of military assistance in October 1951, the State Department did not begin to process this request until the following March.

Ethiopia was declared eligible to receive only grant and reimbursable military aid in June 1952. The low regard in which Ethiopia was held by American policymakers resulted in a tactic of putting off the Ethiopians for as long as possible and then only partially meeting their requests so as to limit the U.S. investment in Ethiopia.

The State Department’s decision to request grant military aid for Ethiopia in the spring of 1953 was not the result of an altered view of Ethiopia’s value, but of State’s having succumbed to the argument that U.S. credibility was now at stake and the diplomatic stalemate could be broken and U.S. base rights protected only by a show of tangible U.S. support. Haile Selassie had fostered close relations with the United States for ten years despite criticism of his policy within Ethiopia and from Arab states. According to the Ethiopians, it was time the United States demonstrated reciprocity toward a country in which American influence and prestige was greater than anywhere else in the Near East.

Thus, in early April the State Department transmitted a letter to the Department of Defense citing five reasons why Ethiopia should be declared eligible to receive grant military aid.

  1. Ethiopia should be repaid for its contribution to the UN contingent in Korea, which proved that they were on “our side” and strong supporters of collective security. Further, the presence of “colored troops from an independent African country [was] of great value to us in the propaganda war as well as in the Korean War.”
  2. The effectiveness of Ethiopia’s internal security forces needed to be improved particularly in light of the fact that the previous September the IEG assumed responsibility for the defense and security of Eritrea, where U.S. military installations were located.
  3. The emperor’s pro-American policy had been coming under increasing attack in recent months. Unless that policy showed obvious benefits, particularly in the field of military assistance, Ethiopia might turn to other countries, resulting in the loss of U.S. influence and prestige in a key country in that region.
  4. “Arms assistance to Ethiopia could be cited to the states in the Near East area as evidence that genuine cooperation with the United States and the United Nations, as in Korea, leads to mutual benefits.”
  5. The emperor had recently expressed an interest in joining any alliance or grouping of nations opposed to communism, especially any Middle East Defense Organization, in which the Department of State believed Ethiopia could become an effective member when, or after, MEDO was formed.


The outcome of the 1953 arms-for-base-rights negotiations certainly provided benefits for both the United States and Ethiopia. The Americans received a written guarantee granting them long-term access to the strategic Kagnew communications facility. Haile Selassie acquired the much-sought-after great-power arms connection. Still, neither side was completely satisfied with the terms of the exchange.

Washington and Addis Ababa both accepted certain conditions that under ideal circumstances they would have rejected or at least modified. The United States would have preferred to avoid hidden costs and pay straight cash rent for Kagnew. Instead, the United States was required to get involved on the ground in Ethiopia and achieve specified force goal objectives. Haile Selassie desired an outright U.S. security guarantee. But he had to settle for informal promises that the United States would protect Ethiopia’s security in international forums, promises that were not particularly reassuring, given the record of the United Nations’ predecessor (the League of Nations) in coming to Ethiopia’s aid in the 1930s.

Haile Selassie’s decision to enter into a military relationship with the United States on less than-optimal terms was the product of Ethiopia’s military vulnerability coupled with the unavailability of suitable alternative suppliers. The emperor’s obsession with security threats had created a perception of dependence upon the United States. Selassie and his associates were at once motivated and constrained by the fact that if they wanted the political, military, and economic benefits flowing from maintaining a great-power arms connection, and if they desired to survive politically themselves, they had no real choice but to go to the Americans. The Soviet Union was a bargaining chip to be used vis-a-vis the United States and kept at a safe distance—as were the Arab states. While an Ethiopian threat to defect to the East bloc or Arab bloc was viable, as far as the Americans were concerned it was not credible.

Washington’s bargaining weakness and inability to make a viable or credible threat of defection had to do with Radio Marina (Kagnew). In contrast to Ethiopia’s security predicament, during the period leading up to the conclusion of the MDAA and DIA, there were no high-level or immediate political-military threats to U.S. interests in the Horn of Africa. The primary concern of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy was how to acquire guaranteed access to Kagnew Station while making a minimum investment and having as few strings attached as possible.

Though the Defense Department tried to maintain a low profile by waiting out the Ethiopians following the breakdown of U.S.-Ethiopia negotiations in December 1952, Washington’s strategic vulnerability was too great. Kagnew’s operational uniqueness meant that the Americans could not threaten to go elsewhere or forego a deal without suffering a significant strategic loss. To break the stalemate in negotiations and insure the type of access to Eritrean military facilities the Americans desired, Washington would have to provide arms on a grant basis and a military training mission.

In the short term, the 1953 U.S.-Ethiopia arms-for-base-rights exchange was somewhat disappointing for Haile Selassie. But the emperor took some comfort in recognizing that this was only round one. These two treaties represented the first step in creating a security bond with the United States. The Ethiopians had gotten their foot in the door, and other opportunities would arise to get more from the United States. The 1953 arms-for-base-rights exchange was simply the opening bid made by the Americans for Kagnew.

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