H-Diplo Article Review 723 on “‘A Slice of their Sovereignty’: Negotiating the U.S. Empire of Bases, Wheelus Field, Libya, 1950-1954.”

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Article Review
No. 723
9 November 2017

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

H-Diplo Article Review on Gretchen Heefner. “‘A Slice of their Sovereignty’: Negotiating the U.S. Empire of Bases, Wheelus Field, Libya, 1950-1954.” Diplomatic History 41:1 (January 2017): 5077. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhv058.

URL: http://tiny.cc/AR723

Review by Andrew Buchanan, University of Vermont

In her path-breaking first book, The Missile Next Door, Gretchen Heefner presented a detailed study of the—literal—construction of the Cold War military state in the ‘missile fields’ of the American West.[1] In this article, she reaches out to desert soils of North Africa to apply a similar approach to the creation of the U.S. airbase at Wheelus Field, Libya, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. While the terrain is different, Heefner remains intently focused on very similar questions: how, under what terms, and to what effect did the United States military acquire control over land. While tightly focused on Wheelus Field, however, Heefner’s study has a bigger goal in mind. She argues, convincingly in my view, that by examining in detail the construction of one base in one former Italian colony, we can throw a great deal of light on the overall development of America’s postwar “empire of bases.” In this sense, she concludes, we can use “military histories to enrich our understanding of the United States and its interactions with the world” (52).

In the years immediately following World War II, the American airbase at Mellaha, Libya seemed destined to be abandoned by the U.S. military. Only a small skeleton garrison remained, tasked mainly with salvaging surplus equipment and preparing the final evacuation of the site. Then in January 1948, there was an abrupt change of course, and the junior officer in charge of the base found himself presiding over a dramatic re-expansion of the American presence. Within months, his 50-strong crew grew tenfold. In short order, his men repaired the runway, repainted the mess halls and cleaned up the baseball fields, and Mellaha, now renamed Wheelus Field, was ready to reopen as a base for long-range heavy bombers and other military aircraft.

The rebuilding of Wheelus took place in the context of the escalation of the Cold War signaled by the 1947 Truman Doctrine. American planners, as the New York Times explained, had reconceptualized North Africa as the West’s ‘Mediterranean Flank,’ and from bases there the United States could defend vital sea-lanes, protect the oilfields of the Middle East, and—most importantly—threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons (56). Washington’s decision to build up the ‘Mediterranean Flank’ overlapped with the unfolding and highly contentious process of decolonization in Libya. American attitudes towards decolonization varied considerably from place to place, but in Libya the United States brushed aside British insistence that Libya was not yet ‘ready’ for statehood and pressed for rapid and complete independence. The alternative—a more or less extensive period of United Nations trusteeship—would have precluded the establishment of foreign military bases, and was clearly not in the best interests of the United States. As it turned out, the Libyan people helped to shape the outcome by organizing mass protests against a British scheme for UN trusteeship to be exercised jointly by London and by Rome, the old colonial ruler. By late 1949, the UN had set Libya on a course towards full independence in early 1952.

Despite this success, the path towards the legal establishment of the Wheelus base was still fraught with difficulty. At this stage in the Cold War the process of negotiating Status of Force Agreements (SOFAs) to regularize and legitimize America’s ‘empire of bases’ was still its infancy, and U.S. diplomats in Libya were essentially making up their local variant of the process as they went along. This they did with great, if logically contorted, creativity, arguing that by negotiating away a “slice” of its sovereignty the provisional government of Libya was in fact demonstrating its legitimacy and competency (51). Perhaps not surprisingly, the parliament of newly independent Libya was not so sure, and in 1952 rejected the draft agreement negotiated by the provisional government. The sticking point, however, was not one of principle but of price, and Washington finally secured a basing agreement for $4 million per year. This was a big step up from the $600,000 initially offered, but it was still, as Heefner notes, a “tragically small” sum (67).

While Washington’s diplomats were wading through their negotiations with the provisional government, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was already hard at work expanding and upgrading Wheelus Field. Their efforts were backed by a global supply chain: cement was imported from Yugoslavia (there must be an interesting story there), rock asphalt arrived from Portuguese West Africa, and soil samples were sent to Mississippi for analysis. The project employed thousands of Libyans—up to 10 percent of the local workforce—and it “sucked men and materials” from across the country “towards Tripoli” (65-66). Independently of the ongoing inter-government negotiations, American army officers navigated the complexities of local land ownership to purchase the land on which the base was constructed. And, in contrast to American aid funding, which was both “insufficient and shockingly slow,” American military money was “faster and leaner and had fewer strings attached” (68). Not surprisingly, many Libyans quickly saw the benefit of dealing directly with the cash-rich U.S. military.

Heefner is careful to point out that the American base at Wheelus Field was not simply imposed on Libya from the outside, and that Libyan actors played an active role in shaping the emerging relationship between their new country and the United States. This is an important corrective to unilinear views of the imposition of empire, particularly as Libyan elites became increasingly adept at maneuvering for influence and wealth in the Cold-war environment. At the same time, the United States almost always got the final say, even when it appeared to be making concessions to Libyan national sentiment. So, for example, at Libyan insistence the United States was forced to abandon its goal of maintaining exclusive extraterritorial jurisdiction over its military personnel and to accept instead a system of “concurrent jurisdiction” (73). Under this system, already conceded by the British, Libyan authorities could claim primary jurisdiction over a wide range of criminal cases involving U.S. personnel. While this agreement had great symbolic importance, it was in reality a “façade” (73). In a secret exchange of notes, Libyan authorities agreed to cede jurisdiction to the Americans in almost all cases.

This gap between the appearance of sovereignty and its qualified reality gave Libyan officials sufficient cover to win parliamentary approval for the basing agreement in 1954. Under the agreement, the United States finally secured Libyan government approval for what already existed in practice—an “island of extraterritoriality” where American forces could “live, work, and play” (74). They would remain there, occupying what the Chicago Daily Tribune referred to as America’s “Gateway to the Middle East,” until they were kicked out by Muammar Qadhafi in 1969 (76).

Heefner’s work is thoroughly grounded in the relevant U.S. diplomatic and military archives, supplemented by newspaper reports and references to the—sadly rather limited—historiography. As in The Missile Next Door, Heefner has a wonderful eye for the illuminating anecdote and an ability to walk the reader through complex negotiations without getting bogged down in the detail. Moreover, her approach not only shows how at least one link in the empire of bases was actually put in place, but also underscores the interconnection between local and regional projects on the one hand and the overarching development of Cold War policy on the other. Her article is an invaluable contribution to the scholarly effort to unpack the “black box” that is the United States military and to utilize military history as a powerful lever for “internationalizing the study of U.S. history” more broadly (53). Its clarity and readability, as well as its subject matter, will surely recommend it for inclusion as assigned reading in classes touching on the postwar construction of American hegemony.

My only criticism of Heefner’s narrative—and it may say more about my own interests than an omission in the article—is that it would be worth putting more emphasis on the ways in which Wheelus Field, along with numerous other American bases in the Mediterranean, were acquired during, and not after, World War II. It is certainly true, as Heefner points out, that America’s network of overseas bases was scaled back substantially in the immediate postwar period. But it is also true that Wheelus, like similarly critical facilities in Morocco, was not shuttered during the postwar drawdown. Instead, the base was mothballed while the contours of the postwar world took shape. As a result, when it came time to (re)develop the ‘Mediterranean Flank,’ the United States was already in possession of significant ‘slices’ of territory on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of North Africa. Neither American diplomats nor American military engineers had to start from scratch. These considerations speak to important elements of continuity in American policy, and they link the Cold War ‘Mediterranean Flank’ to Washington’s grand strategic approach to the Mediterranean during the war itself. In fact, as early as December 1943 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had acknowledged that the establishment of a network of bases was a “primary war aim” in and of itself.[2] As a result, while many smaller facilities were closed during the postwar drawdown, Wheelus and other key bases were not. I do not want to read too much into the prescience of America’s wartime military planners, but an outcome along these lines was not the last thing on their minds.

Andrew Buchanan received his Ph.D. from Rutgers in 2011. He is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Vermont, and his publications include American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Buchanan is currently writing a text book provisionally titled World War II in Global Perspective.

© 2017 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License


[1] Gretchen Heefner, The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2] Andrew Buchanan, American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 94-95.