The Assistant Secretary of State (Messersmith) to the Secretary of State 65

Dear Mr. Secretary: The attached telegram of December 10 from our Embassy in Moscow66 which the President wishes you to discuss with him is a reply to a telegram which we sent to the Embassy on the previous day. In our telegram we stated that the Soviet Ambassador in Washington when complaining because the United States Customs [Page 866]authorities had examined the effects of Mr. Zaikine, a newly appointed Soviet Vice Consul in New York, had asked whether Soviet customs authorities examine the baggage of American consular officers assigned to Moscow who are in possession of diplomatic passports. We asked the Embassy to cite several instances of this practice.

You will recall that ever since its establishment in 1934 our Embassy in Moscow has been hampered in its efforts to perform its functions as a result of the efforts of the Soviet authorities to isolate it and to refuse to grant to its members many of the courtesies and privileges which experience has shown facilitate international intercourse and reduce friction and misunderstandings. The Soviet customs authorities have been particularly active in causing inconveniences for our diplomatic and consular officers and employees. They insist, for instance, that all effects of members of our Mission, including those of the Ambassador, except those brought in or taken out as baggage under cover of a laissez-passer, be subjected to minute examination by Soviet customs inspectors before they can be entered into or taken out of the country. They have even endeavored to establish the rule that such effects, except those of the Ambassador and Counselor, be taken to the Soviet customs house and there be inspected and packed preparatory to being shipped out of the country. The customs inspectors are frequently boorish and overbearing. As a result of their lack of cooperation, the departure of members of the Mission has been delayed for periods of from two to six weeks. Members of our Foreign Service who do not have the status of diplomatic officers are refused laissez-passers, and regardless of the fact that they may be commissioned and acting as consular officers, are required to submit their baggage to grueling customs inspection when entering or leaving the Soviet Union. Our Foreign Service Officers traveling through the Soviet Union from Europe to posts in the Far East report that the inspection of their effects is in general more thorough than that given to most of the foreign non-officials on the same train.

You will remember that early in 1938 both you and I, in an effort to persuade the Soviet Government to assume a more cooperative attitude in its treatment of the American Embassy in Moscow, had informal conversations with the Soviet Ambassador. Mr. Dunn also discussed the matter with him in some detail. These discussions,67 unfortunately, have not resulted in any change of attitude on the part of the Soviet authorities.

When Mr. Steinhardt was here last summer preparing himself for his duties in Moscow he went into the matter rather carefully and [Page 867]decided with some reluctance that since we had failed by methods of persuasion to prevail upon the Soviet Government to extend to our representatives and employees abroad the treatment which our representatives and employees are accustomed to receive elsewhere, we had no choice other than to apply, to an extent at least, the principle of reciprocity when deciding upon the courtesies to be granted Soviet officials in this country. I understand that he informed the Under Secretary of his decision, and that Mr. Welles assured him that the Department would support him to the full in the carrying out of this policy.

Shortly after the arrival of Mr. Steinhardt in Moscow, the Soviet authorities took the position that Dr. Nelson, our Public Health Surgeon in Moscow, who had enjoyed the status there of an attaché and who had been ordered to duty in the United States, could not take his household effects out of the Soviet Union unless he consented to the Soviet request that they be taken to the customs house for inspection and packing. The Ambassador, rightfully, in my opinion, considered the request unreasonable, and insisted that the inspection, if desired, and the packing should take place in Dr. Nelson’s apartment. The deadlock, which lasted for a week or so, was broken only when the Department, at Mr. Steinhardt’s suggestion, refused to take favorable action upon a request of the Soviet Embassy that it intervene in order to facilitate the passage through the Panama Canal of the Soviet boat which apparently had left Leningrad without being in possession of a proper Bill of Health. It was pointed out to the Soviet Chargé d’Affaires, who had made the Soviet request, that we consider that the extension of courtesies rests upon a basis of reciprocity. The Department’s attitude apparently resulted in the withdrawal of the Soviet demand that Dr. Nelson’s effects be taken to the customs house.

In the middle of October of this year, the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs requested our Embassy in Moscow to issue a laissez-passer to Mr. Zaikine, who expected to leave soon to take up his consular duties in New York. Mr. Steinhardt replied that the Embassy would be glad to issue the laissez-passer if it could have assurances that in the future the Soviet Government would issue documents of a similar character to American Consular officers desiring to enter or leave the Soviet Union. The Commissariat refused to give such an undertaking and withdrew its request for the laissez-passer. Mr. Steinhardt advised the Department of the situation, and suggested that the Department “take the necessary steps on the arrival of the Vice Consul in New York towards placing the customs treatment accorded the consular officers of both countries on a reciprocal basis.”

The Department, therefore, in informing the Treasury Department of the expected arrival of Mr. Zaikine, suggested that in view of the [Page 868]treatment accorded American consular officers by Soviet customs officials, the Collector of Customs at New York be authorized to search the baggage of the Vice Consul.

On December 7 the Soviet Ambassador entered a protest by telephone with the Department because the baggage of Mr. Zaikine had been examined by our Customs authorities upon the latter’s arrival in the United States. Mr. Oumansky said that when a representative of the Soviet Consulate General in New York had objected to such an examination, the customs inspector had displayed a letter from the State Department suggesting that an inspection be made. Mr. Oumansky stated that he was astonished at the action of the customs officials, and wanted to know if it was the intention of the American Government to examine in the future the effects of Soviet consular officers entering the United States. He was informed that the examination had been made because Soviet customs officials insist upon examining the baggage of American consular officers entering or leaving the Soviet Union and that it was the practice of this Government to apply the principle of reciprocity in connection with the treatment of foreign consular officers. Mr. Oumansky replied that matters of this kind should be governed by the principle of the most favored nation, not by that of reciprocity. He was told that the American Government had handled such matters for many years on the basis of reciprocity, and was not prepared to change its long-established practice.

Mr. Oumansky then requested the Department to ascertain on his behalf whether Soviet customs authorities were accustomed to examining the baggage of American consular officers entering the Soviet Union for the purpose of assuming consular duties in Moscow. In order to be able to cite instances in which the Soviet customs authorities had examined the baggage of our consular officers stationed in Moscow, the Department sent its telegram of December 9 to Moscow, to which, as pointed out above, Mr. Steinhardt’s telegram of December 10 is a reply.

[G. S. Messersmith ]
  1. The original of this memorandum was sent to the President on December 21, 1939.
  2. Supra.
  3. For these discussions with Ambassador Troyanovsky, see the memorandum of January 13, 1938, by the Secretary of State; the memorandum of January 24, 1938, by Assistant Secretary of State Messersmith; and the memorandum of January 13, 1938, by the Political Adviser, Mr. Dunn, pp. 624, 631, and 627, respectively.