The Chargé in the Soviet Union ( Henderson ) to the Secretary of State

No. 976

Sir: Since I realize that the treatment accorded by the Soviet customs authorities to members of the American Embassy at Moscow as described in my despatch No. 961 of February 18, 1938,49 raises problems of a somewhat vexatious nature, I have the honor to make herein certain suggestions as to the attitude to be assumed by the American Government and the Embassy with respect to Soviet customs regulations and practices. The suggestions herein contained are based merely upon the experience of the Embassy in dealing with Soviet Customs and other authorities and without knowledge of the manner in which the Department has been accustomed to meet situations of an analogous nature in other countries. It is my thought that even though some of my suggestions may not be entirely in line with our general policy, others may aid the Department in deciding how best to meet the situation in Moscow under present conditions.

Before venturing any concrete suggestions, I desire to make the following statements regarding Soviet policies and practices:

It should be considered as axiomatic that the ruling forces of the Soviet Union have always considered and still take the view that the presence of foreign diplomatic representatives in the Soviet Union is an evil which world conditions force them to endure;
In order that the effects of this evil may be reduced to a minimum, they consider it advantageous to follow a policy which will tend to [Page 639] restrict the influence, prestige, and effectiveness of the diplomatic missions in Moscow;
This policy is expressed in part by the adoption of measures, the purpose of which is to discourage the maintenance of large missions, to cause the population of the country to look with suspicion or at least with lack of respect upon those missions, to restrict the activities, freedom of movement, and number of contacts of members of these missions, and to cause members of these missions gradually to acquire a feeling that if they forfeit the good will of the Soviet authorities by fearlessly and resolutely defending the interests of the Governments which they represent they are likely to encounter increased difficulties in operating their chanceries and households with a reasonable degree of effectiveness and economy and in performing the various duties imposed upon them by their Governments, and are even likely to be attacked openly or privately as saboteurs of Soviet relations with their respective countries;
One of the most effective instruments which the Soviet authorities possess for the execution of this policy is their power to decide by means of the formulation and interpretation of customs regulations the conditions under which diplomatic missions may bring articles into or take them out of the country;
The Soviet customs laws and regulations are deliberately so worded that if given a strict interpretation the life of members of diplomatic missions in the Soviet Union would be so unpleasant and the cost of the upkeep of such missions so expensive that comparatively few governments would endeavor to support diplomatic representation in that country;
Since in present world conditions, the Soviet Government feels that it is necessary for it to maintain diplomatic relations with other countries, it follows the policy of interpreting and applying the customs regulations in such a manner as not to cause foreign governments to withdraw their missions from the country;
The Soviet authorities apparently are of the opinion that at the present time most diplomatic missions in Moscow are maintained by governments which feel that under existing world conditions their representations in the Soviet Union must not be withdrawn even though the conditions under which such representations are compelled to work are difficult;
This opinion and the rise of anti-foreign feeling, particularly noticeable during the past year, undoubtedly partially explain the increasing degree of strictness with which Soviet customs regulations are enforced;
This strictness will increase until it runs counter to opposition of a nature that will cause the ruling forces to find it to be the best policy to call another temporary “breathing spell”;
If, therefore, the American Government and other governments maintaining diplomatic missions in Moscow permit without protest curtailments of the courtesies accorded by Soviet Customs officials to their diplomatic representations, new and more serious curtailments of such courtesies may be expected in the future;
In view of the impossibility of obtaining in Moscow supplies for office and household and of the exorbitance of Soviet import and export duties, the matter of customs courtesies is much more serious in the Soviet Union than in most countries; and
Since merchandise in the United States is plentiful and since exports are not subject to export duties, customs courtesies mean much more to the American Embassy in Moscow than they do to the Soviet Embassy in Washington.

In view of what has been said above, I feel that the American Government should give the Soviet Government definitely to understand that it expects the members of the staff of the Embassy in Moscow to be accorded courtesies, with respect to customs, similar to those which members of American Diplomatic Missions in other countries are accustomed to receive. It is my opinion, furthermore, that the American Government should resist, even to the point of bringing the dispute to an issue, demands which the Soviet customs authorities may make that:

The Chief of Mission pay any kind of customs duties, appraisal fees, and so forth on articles imported or exported for his personal use regardless of the origin of such articles;
The American Government pay any kind of customs duties, appraisal fees, and so forth on articles imported by it for governmental use;
American members of the staff, regardless of the fact of whether or not they possess diplomatic status, pay export duties or appraisal fees on articles which they have brought into the country with them, for the use of themselves or members of their household.;
Outgoing household effects of departing members of the staff on the diplomatic list be examined in the customhouse (this demand should be opposed on the ground that it is not permissible for such members to remain idle in the customhouse—sometimes for days—awaiting the convenience of the customs inspectors to examine their effects, and that it is impossible for such effects to be packed safely and in a sanitary manner in the conditions which prevail in the customhouse); and that
Books and other publications sent to the Embassy for the official use of the Government be excluded by the customs officials on the ground that they contain matter displeasing to the Soviet Government.

The American Government should also insist that the Soviet customs authorities should accept the statements of members of the staff possessing diplomatic status whenever questions arise regarding the origin, disposition, and intended use of articles which they are bringing into or taking out of the country.

Although in my opinion the American Government should at no time give the Soviet Government the impression that it acquiesces in certain other Soviet customs practises which are lacking in the courtesy which members of diplomatic commissions [missions] in most countries are accustomed to expect, nevertheless, I feel that it should not protest to the extent of joining issue when the Soviet authorities insist:

That members of the staff on the diplomatic list, other than the Chief of Mission, pay appraisal fees and the usual export duties on [Page 641] supplementary household effects, wearing apparel, and so forth which they admittedly have purchased in the Soviet Union and which because of their size or number cannot be taken out with personal baggage under cover of a laissez passer;
That incoming household effects of members of the staff, other than the Chief of Mission, be examined in the Soviet customhouse; and
That certain publications among the effects of incoming members of the staff, other than the Ambassador, be not permitted entry.*

In making the above recommendations, I am prompted not so much by consideration of the convenience and welfare of members of the Mission, but rather by the fact that unless the American Government resolutely resists demands of the nature outlined, the Soviet Governmental authorities might take advantage of their power to endeavor to exercise pressure upon them.

In order to keep friction between the Soviet customs authorities and members of the Mission at a minimum, I also suggest that:

In the future all American citizens, including the Ambassador, Foreign Service Officers, clerks, and miscellaneous employees assigned to duty in Moscow be instructed to have prepared in advance for immediate submission to the Soviet authorities complete lists of all household effects, jewelry, furs, and Unusually valuable wearing apparel which they are bringing with them. In making up such lists they should include such details as:
The title, date and place of publication, and author of all books;
The dimensions, subject, painter or engraver, and color of paintings and engravings;
The dimensions, color, approximate period, place of origin (when possible) of each piece of furniture and fixture and a description of material to be found in it (rugs in particular should be described in great detail);
A full description of each article of wearing apparel which may have permanent value; and
The mark (if any), country of origin (if known), and color of each piece of porcelain or pottery;
All American members of the staff should endeavor to obtain evidence proving the foreign origin of all articles which they may import from abroad while they are on duty in Moscow.

It will be observed that thus far in this despatch I have made little mention of the American members of the Embassy possessing non-diplomatic status. This omission is due to the fact that in some respects the Soviet customs authorities treat them more liberally than the customs authorities of a number of other countries are accustomed to treat employees of American diplomatic missions who are not carried on the diplomatic lists. For instance, in so far as the import of articles for personal use is concerned, the clerical members of the [Page 642] staff are given the same treatment as those members of the staff possessing diplomatic status. It is believed that this treatment is accorded them, not because of a liberal attitude on the part of the customs authorities, but because, in view of the present lack in the Soviet Union of articles of every day consumption, the Soviet Government realizes that all Governments maintaining diplomatic missions in Moscow would make vigorous and determined protests if the clerical employees of such missions were not able to bring in articles which they might need duty free.

On the other hand, the clerical employees meet with still more serious difficulties than the members of the Embassy on the diplomatic list in taking their effects out of the country since they are not granted laissez-passers. Most of the clerical employees stationed here have had comparatively few household effects to take out of the country and the Embassy has usually, after more or less prolonged efforts, been able to prevail upon the customs authorities to grant the necessary export permits.

Since according to international practise the clerical employees of the Mission are not entitled to far reaching customs privileges, it is believed that it would be useless to demand more for them than the privilege of taking out duty free such articles as they may have brought into the country.

It will be observed that I am making no recommendation in this despatch with respect to the manner in which the views of the American Government, with respect to the customs courtesies which it expects to be granted to its representatives in the Soviet Union, might best be conveyed to the Soviet Government. I have not done so since I feel that the Department is in a better position than the Embassy in Moscow to decide whether it would be preferable to inform the Soviet Government in this respect formally or informally, and orally or in writing.

Respectfully yours,

Loy W. Henderson
  1. Not printed; but see Embassy’s telegram No. 24, January 21, 1938, 6 p.m., p. 630.
  2. Such publications may be exported and if desired may be reintroduced under cover of a laissez passer. [Footnote in the original.]