Memorandum by the Assistant Chief of the Division of European Affairs (Henderson)
After complaining to me this morning regarding the detention for further investigation by the immigration authorities in New York of four Soviet engineers who had arrived yesterday on the steamship Gripsholm,64 the Soviet Ambassador told me that there was another disagreeable matter which he must discuss.
He said that several days ago when the new Soviet Vice Consul, Zaikine, arrived at New York, the United States customs authorities insisted on examining his baggage. He said that the authorities asked Mr. Zaikine to open all his trunks and bags and that they went through all his effects carefully. When a representative of the Soviet Consulate General protested at this unprecedented procedure, one of the customs officials showed him a letter from the Department of State suggesting that the search be made.
The Soviet Ambassador stated that he was astonished at this action on the part of the United States customs officials and wanted to know if it was the intention of this Government in future to examine the effects of Soviet consular officers coming into the country. He said he desired to know this in order that he might inform his Government.
I replied that questions as to whether the effects or baggage of foreign consular officials entering this country was to be exempt from customs examination are answered on the basis of reciprocity. It is a practice of the Department to inform the appropriate United States customs officials of the treatment accorded to American consular officers in a given foreign country, and for these officials to accord similar treatment to the consular officers of that country in the United States. It was my understanding that Soviet customs officials insisted upon examining the baggage of American consular officers entering the Soviet Union, and therefore, in accordance with our practice, the same treatment should be accorded to Soviet consular officers entering this country.
Mr. Oumansky said he was surprised to hear this. He was certain that American consular officials entering the Soviet Union were granted the usual customs courtesies.[Page 863]
I replied that according, to my recollection the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs had asked the United States Embassy in Moscow to issue a laissez-passer to Vice Consul Zaikine; that the Embassy had replied that it would be glad to do so in case the Commissariat could undertake that laissez-passers should in the future be issued to American consular officers and members of their families traveling in or out of the Soviet Union; that upon receiving this reply, the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs had withdrawn its request and had stated that Soviet laissez-passers may not be issued to any foreign consular officers except principal officers of foreign consulates in the Soviet Union. It would appear, therefore, that Vice Consul Zaikine was not entitled to introduce his baggage into this country without customs examination.
Mr. Oumansky stated that even if what I told him was accurate, he felt that he should protest on the basis of discrimination; that is, it was his contention that a question of this kind should be decided on the basis of the most favored nation; if we granted consular officers of other countries permission to bring in their effects without customs examination, similar treatment should be given to Soviet consular officers.
I replied that the question of this Government’s policy of reciprocity with regard to the treatment of consular officers had already been discussed on several occasions between the Embassy and the Department, and that this Government could not abandon this policy which it had followed for many years. I added that Soviet consular officers were not the only foreign consular officers whose baggage was subject to customs examination when entering the United States. I stated that it was my understanding that not only was the baggage of the consular officers of some countries examined when they entered the country, but the officers were liable to the payment of customs duties. Since, however, the Soviet Government did not levy customs duties on the effects of American consular officers entering the Soviet Union, I was glad to state that Soviet consular officers were also exempt from customs duties.
Mr. Oumansky stated that he felt that acts of this kind did not tend to improve relations between the two countries.
I replied that I heartily agreed with him; that it was the long-established practice of the American Government to be liberal in its customs treatment of foreign consular officers and that it was as a rule willing to go just as far in that regard as the governments of foreign countries were willing to go with respect to American consular officers. I told him that I personally regretted any inconvenience which might have been caused to Mr. Zaikine, just as I was sure that he personally regretted any inconvenience which may have arisen in the [Page 864]past to American consular officers passing through the Soviet Union. I told him that I felt that he might be interested in knowing that American consular officers entering the Soviet Union had on a number of occasions reported that their baggage had been given a much more thorough examination by Soviet customs officials than the baggage of other persons on the train who were not Government officials.
Mr. Oumansky asked me if it was my understanding that Soviet customs authorities had insisted on examining the baggage of American consular officers assigned to Moscow when they entered the Soviet Union.
I told him that I was not prepared to go into such details as those relating to the posts at which the officers examined had been stationed. He asked if I would make inquiries, pointing out that he may have made an error recently in issuing a laissez-passer to Vice Consul Hoffman, who left for his new post in Moscow.
I asked Mr. Oumansky if he had any complaint to make regarding the lack of courtesy by American customs officials during the course of the examination and he replied in the negative.
- Four Soviet engineers and technicians were detained by the immigration authorities overnight on board the vessel, and then taken to Ellis Island where they had been questioned for 5 hours, after which they had been admitted into the United States. The immigration authorities denied that there had been any act of discourtesy on their part. They had made the suggestion that, in order to facilitate the entrance of Soviet officials connected with the Amtorg Trading Corporation, it would be desirable to receive advance notification of the arrival of additional personnel. (811.111 U. S. S. R./549, 552)↩