Memorandum by the Assistant Chief of the Division of European Affairs (Henderson)

It will be recalled that on August 28 the Soviet Chargé d’Affaires called upon me and asked me if the Department would take steps at once to facilitate the clearance through the Panama Canal of the Soviet steamship Kim en route from Leningrad to Vladivostock. He said that when the Kim left Leningrad the Soviet authorities were not in possession of the new rules of the Canal Zone authorities requiring bills of health, and the vessel, therefore, was not in possession of such a document.

I informed Mr. Chuvakhin that I would do all that I could to assist him and hoped that the matter could be arranged without a great deal of difficulty. I added that I would keep him informed of the steps which might be taken in the matter. Later in the day a telegram came from the Ambassador at Moscow, stating that the Soviet customs authorities were making difficulties for Dr. Nelson, the departing Public Health surgeon. They were demanding that he send all of his household effects and surgical supplies, which he wanted to take with him, to the Soviet customs house for inspection and packing. The Ambassador asked that until the Department heard further from him it take no steps to facilitate the passage of the Kim.

On the morning of August 29 I telephoned Mrs. Heinman at the Soviet Embassy, who is the Secretary of Mr. Chuvakhin, informing her that so far as I could ascertain no steps had been taken to inform the Canal authorities regarding the Kim, and I would let the Embassy know later in the day in case any such steps should be taken.

The Chargé d’Affaires telephoned me late in the afternoon from the Embassy and asked me if anything had been done in the matter. I told him that so far as I could ascertain no steps had as yet been taken, and I would let him know just as soon as they were taken. He expressed considerable concern, and I said that I hoped that no great difficulty would ensue.

On the evening of the 29th, the Department sent a telegram to the American Ambassador in Moscow, informing him that it would take no steps with regard to the Kim until it heard further from him.

On the morning of the 30th, I called Mrs. Heinman of the Soviet Embassy and read the following informal statement to her. I told [Page 848]her that I was giving her this information instead of to the Chargé d’Affaires personally because of language difficulties (the Chargé d’Affaires speaks practically no English and I do not feel that my Russian is good enough to make sure that any statement which I might give to him in that language contained the proper shadings).

“I regret to state that so far as I can ascertain, no steps have been taken with regard to the Kim.

“The Department is disturbed at reports from Moscow that Dr. Nelson, our departing Attaché, is being caused difficulties by the customs authorities, who are insisting that he take his household effects and medical supplies to the customshouse for inspection.

“The departure of Dr. Rumreich, Dr. Nelson’s predecessor, was delayed for over a month because of similar difficulties. It is hoped that Mr. Chuvakhin will find it possible to let his Government know at once the concern which the Department feels in the matter. If Mr. Chuvakhin would like to discuss these matters with me, I shall be glad to see him.”

The Chargé d’Affaires came in to see me this afternoon52 and spent an hour and a half endeavoring to persuade me to take some action with regard to the Kim. He stressed the fact that there was no connection between the Kim and the action of the Soviet customs authorities. He said that the Soviet customs authorities in demanding that Dr. Nelson’s household effects be examined at the customs house rather than in his apartment were merely carrying out a procedure which applied to all foreign diplomats. The procedure did not represent discrimination against the American Embassy. On the other hand, the request with respect to the Kim was not for special treatment, but merely a request that the Department explain the situation to the Canal authorities. He said that he was surprised that there should be any tendency to connect the two quite different questions.

I replied that I was not intending to connect the Kim and the customs inspection in Moscow. The fact seemed to be that the Soviet Government was concerned regarding the passage of the Kim through the Canal and the Department was disturbed over the customs treatment accorded the members of our Embassy in Moscow. I pointed out that even though no telegram should be sent to the Panama authorities, there would be no discrimination against the Kim. The Captain would be able to give the reasons for his failure to be in possession of a bill of health, and I was sure that the Canal authorities would be reasonable in the matter.

With regard to the inspection of the household effects of Dr. Nelson, I stated that the fact that the customs authorities are now demanding that all diplomats in Moscow take their effects to the customs house for inspection and packing did not prevent such a requirement from [Page 849]causing hardship when applied to the members of the American Embassy. The effects of members of the Embassy, who, like Dr. Nelson, have been ordered to the United States must not only make several journeys by railway, but must also cross the ocean. Good packing was, therefore, absolutely necessary. It was impossible for delicate household goods and surgical instruments to be packed carefully in the Soviet customs house. If the Soviet Government desired as a matter of courtesy not to apply its regulations strictly to members of the American Embassy, they apparently were in a position to do so. When Colonel Faymonville, the Military Attaché, and Mr. Grummon, First Secretary of the Embassy, left Moscow during the last few months, their goods had been inspected in their living quarters.

I said that it seemed to the Department to be merely a matter of courtesy, and quite possible for the customs authorities to apply their regulations in such a manner as not to cause unnecessary hardship to the members of the American Embassy staff. I pointed out that for the last four years customs difficulties had arisen in the case of nearly every American diplomat who left Moscow.

The Chargé d’Affaires replied that when Soviet diplomatic officials entered or left the United States they did not ask for any special customs privileges and he did not see why American diplomats in Moscow should request such special privileges. It was not possible, he said, for the Soviet Government to grant special privileges to the American Embassy without granting them to all diplomatic missions.

I replied that there seemed to be a difference in the views of our respective governments with regard to the extension of courtesies. The American Government took the point of view that the extension of courtesies was based upon reciprocity and international amenities, whereas the Soviet Government took the point of view that such extension was based entirely on the principle of the most-favored-nation. The Soviet Government thus far had shown an inclination to adhere to its views, and the American Government was not in a position to depart entirely from an attitude which many years of experience had demonstrated to be sound.

After considerable discussion, I told the Soviet Chargé d’Affaires that if he desired I would try to arrange for him to discuss the matter with higher officials of the Department since I personally was not in a position to assure him that a telegram would be sent to the Panama Canal authorities with regard to the Kim.

The Soviet Chargé d’Affaires thereupon handed me a memorandum which contained among others the following two statements: (1) that Mr. Henderson had not informed the Embassy during the whole day of August 29th that the Department was not taking any steps with regard to the Kim and (2) that the Embassy was surprised that Mr. Henderson [Page 850]should connect the matter of the Kim with an “unfounded statement received from the American Embassy in Moscow”.

I told Mr. Chuvakhin that I personally could not accept the memorandum with such statements in it, and suggested that he revise the memorandum before giving it to me. I pointed out that it would [be] preferable for him to state that Mr. Henderson did not inform the Embassy during the whole day of August 29th that the Department did not intend to have a telegram sent to the Canal authorities with regard to the Kim, since I had in fact told the Embassy twice on the 29th that no telegram had been sent and that I would inform the Embassy when a telegram was sent. I said that I could not understand why he referred to the “unfounded statements” of the American Embassy at Moscow. After some discussion, I learned that instead of “unfounded statements” he had meant “an unjustified request”. Following my suggestion, Mr. Chuvakhin took the memorandum back with him, and in pursuance of another suggestion, agreed that he would make an oral statement to me tomorrow instead of one in writing, since as I had pointed out, my statement to the Embassy had been of an oral nature.

I believe it my duty to point out at this time that it is possible that the dispute between the Embassy and the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs may assume rather serious proportions, since the Soviet Government is likely to be very stubborn in matters of this kind. It is my belief, however, that we must back the Ambassador to the full. Otherwise, the Embassy is almost certain to be more harassed by Soviet customs and other authorities in the future than it has been in the past.

  1. August 30.