861.01/2160: Telegram

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

218. My telegram 216, May 4, 1 p.m. [a.m.]. Insofar as can be ascertained up to the present it would appear that the resignation of Litvinov was the result of a sudden decision presumably taken late yesterday. The British Ambassador43 who saw Litvinov yesterday noon was given no intimation that any change was contemplated and other members of the Diplomatic Corps who were in communication with the Foreign Office late yesterday afternoon had no reason to believe that the officials there were cognizant of the contemplated action. Furthermore, the Foreign Office professed to be unaware of this decision even after it had been announced on the Soviet radio late last night.

Up to the present there has been no authoritative indication of the actual reason which may have prompted the elimination of Litvinov and conjectures are based on the question as to whether this action in his regard was due to personal considerations affecting Litvinov himself or to a contemplated change in Soviet foreign policy or the manifestation thereof. Although the question of his resignation was currently discussed after Munich (see my telegram No. 374 of October 31, 11 a.m.44) there has been recently no recrudescence of the rumors current at that time and in view of the bond which has recently been placed on a renewed implementation of the policy of collective security with which Litvinov’s name has been so closely associated conjectures as to a weakening of his personal position have been quieted. On the ground, therefore, that Litvinov’s removal was prompted by considerations affecting him personally the presumption would be that he had in some way recently failed in carrying out a policy already laid down and was eliminated for some technical error on his part or as a punishment for failure to succeed in that policy.

There is an obvious inclination, however, to explain this step at the present time on the basis that it portends some change in the direction [Page 759] of Soviet foreign policy. This change might constitute a step away from the principle of collective security and one towards the establishment of relations with Germany in conformity with the indication contained in Stalin’s speech to the Eighteenth Party Congress (see my telegram No. 99, March 10 [11], 4 p.m.) and in this connection unconfirmed rumors have recently been current in Moscow of some German approach to the Soviet Government presumably to counteract Franco-British influence. Although it is generally accepted here that Litvinov was little more than the instrument for the execution of such policy as had been decided on by Stalin and consequently powerless to pursue a personal policy, nevertheless his name has been so closely associated with the advocacy of the principle of collective security and resistance to Germany that any real or feigned departure from this policy that might be contemplated would be prejudiced by his remaining as Foreign Minister. It may likewise be that Litvinov desired to go farther in the direction of committing the Soviet Union to a definite alignment against Germany than the Kremlin considers desirable at the present time and consequently his elimination was determined upon. On the other hand the possibility cannot be excluded that the removal of Litvinov may be designed to produce, particularly in England, the impression of an imminent Soviet-German rapprochement with a view to accelerating a British decision in regard to the Soviet proposals which it is understood are still being discussed in London, and that the appointment of Molotov may have been due to the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with Litvinov’s conduct of these negotiations.45

Whatever may have been the real reasons for the removal of Litvinov at this particular time, this action is generally regarded as of major significance in Soviet foreign relations, the real direction and portent of which will only be apparent in the light of further developments. Litvinov’s removal, however, is already arousing immediate speculation in special relation to the Soviet-British negotiations and to the delay which has apparently been encountered and the British Embassy, here, is expressing open concern over the possible effect which the change may produce on these negotiations and on Soviet foreign policy in general.

  1. Sir William Seeds.
  2. Ante, p. 591.
  3. Negotiations between Great Britain and France and the Soviet Union for the possible conclusion of a defensive alliance against aggression by Nazi Germany.