Department of the Army Files

No. 1157
Memorandum by the Secretary of War (Stimson)1
top secret

Reflections on the Basic Problems Which Confront Us

1. With each International Conference that passes and, in fact, with each month that passes between conferences, it becomes clearer that the great basic problem of the future is the stability of the relations of the Western democracies with Russia.

[Page 1156]

2. With each such time that passes it also becomes clear that that problem arises out of the fundamental differences between a nation of free thought, free speech, free elections, in fact, a really free people with a nation which is not basically free but which is systematically controlled from above by Secret Police and in which free speech is not permitted.

3. It also becomes clear that no permanently safe international relations can be established between two such fundamentally different national systems. With the best of efforts we cannot understand each other. Furthermore, in an autocratically controlled system, policy cannot be permanent. It is tied up with the life of one man. Even if a measure of mental accord is established with one head the resulting agreement is liable to be succeeded by an entirely different policy coming from a different successor.

4. Daily we find our best efforts for coordination and sympathetic understanding with Russia thwarted by the suspicion which basically and necessarily must exist in any controlled organization of men.

5. Thus every effort we make at permanent organization of such a world composed of two such radically different systems is subject to frustration by misunderstandings arising out of mutual suspicion.

6. The great problem ahead is how to deal with this basic difference which exists as a flaw in our desired accord. I believe we must not accept the present situation as permanent for the result will then almost inevitably be a new war and the destruction of our civilization.

I believe we should direct our thoughts constantly to the time and method of attacking the basic difficulty and the means we may have in hand to produce results. That something can be accomplished is not an idle dream. Stalin has shown an indication of his appreciation of our system of freedom by his proposal of a free constitution to be established among the Soviets.2 To read this Constitution would lead one to believe that Russia had in mind the establishing of free speech, free assembly, free press and the other essential elements of [Page 1157] our Bill of Rights and would not have forever resting upon every citizen the stifling hand of autocracy. He has thus given us an opening.

The questions are:

When can we take any steps without doing more harm than good?
By what means can we proceed?

By private diplomatic discussion of the reasons for our distrust.
By encouraging open public discussions.
By setting conditions for any concessions which Russia may ask in respect to—
Territorial concessions
Any other concessions.

How far these conditions can extend is a serious problem. At the start it may be possible to effect only some amelioration of the local results of Russia’s Secret Police State.

7. The foregoing has a vital bearing upon the control of the vast and revolutionary discovery of X3 which is now confronting us. Upon the successful control of that energy depends the future successful development or destruction of the modern civilized world. The Committee appointed by the War Department which has been considering that control has pointed this out in no uncertain terms and has called for an international organization for that purpose.4 After careful reflection I am of the belief that no world organization containing as one of its dominant members a nation whose people are not possessed of free speech but whose governmental action is controlled by the autocratic machinery of a secret political police, cannot [can] give effective control of this new agency with its devastating possibilities.

I therefore believe that before we share our new discovery with Russia we should consider carefully whether we can do so safely under any system of control until Russia puts into effective action the proposed constitution which I have mentioned. If this is a necessary condition, we must go slowly in any disclosures or agreeing to any Russian participation whatsoever and constantly explore the question how our head-start in X and the Russian desire to participate can be used to bring us nearer to the removal of the basic difficulties which I have emphasized.5

  1. Given to Truman by Stimson on July 21 with the explanation that it “was in no sense an official paper”. For Stimson’s later reflections on this paper, see Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service in Peace and War (New York, 1947), pp. 638–641.

    The following extracts from Stimson’s diary show the genesis of this memorandum and the circumstances of its presentation to Truman:

    “[July 19:] … Later in the afternoon at a quarter to five McCloy, Bundy, and I had a long and interesting discussion on our relations with Russia; what the cause of the constant differences between the countries are, and how to avoid them. As a result, I dictated a memorandum on the subject to serve as a sort of analysis and possible basis for action. It boiled down to the possibility of getting the Russians to see that the real basis of the evil was the absence of freedom of speech in their regime, and the iron-bound rule of the OGPU. I have been very much impressed on this visit with the atmosphere of repression that exists everywhere, and which is felt by all who come in contact with the Russian rule in Germany. While the Russian soldiers and American soldiers seem to like each other individually when they meet, the people who have to deal with the Russian officials feel very differently, and it greatly impairs the cooperation between our two countries. Churchill is very rampant about it, and most of our people who have seen the Russians most intimately think we have been too easy and that they have taken advantage of it.

    “It is a very difficult problem because they are crusaders for their own system and suspicious of everybody outside trying to interfere with it. At the same time it is becoming more and more evident to me that a nation whose system rests upon free speech and all the elements of freedom, as does ours, cannot be sure of getting on permanently with a nation where speech is strictly controlled and where the Government uses the iron hand of the secret police. The question is very important just now, and the development of S–l is bringing it to a focus. …

    “[July 20:] … We then returned to the house and Ambassador Harriman soon came in on my invitation to talk over the subject of our relations with Russia which McCloy, Bundy and I were discussing last evening. I showed him the paper which I had dictated on the importance of getting freedom of speech in Russia. It wound up as a suggestion as to the importance of beginning to get the Russians accustomed to the thought of coming to that one of the Bill of Rights which in my opinion is the most important of all. Harriman read the paper and said that the analysis of the reasons for the difference were in his opinion exactly correct but he was pessimistic as to the chances of getting Russia to change her system in any way. He has been in Russia now for nearly four years and has grown evidently depressed and troubled by the situation. I talked with him for a long time regarding the matter and, in view of his intelligence and capacity, such a despairing view from him troubled me a great deal. …

    “[July 22:] Called on President Truman at nine-twenty. The foregoing day I had left with him my paper on reflections as to our relations with Russia, copy of which is hereto attached. I had told him that this paper was in no sense an official paper—that it did not even contain my matured opinions, but that it represented an analysis which I thought was correct and a program of what I hoped might sometime be done. With that understanding he asked me to see it and I left it with him and this morning I picked it up. He gave it to me and stated that he had read it and agreed with it. …”

  2. See Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Adopted at the Extraordinary Eighth Congress of Soviets of the U.S.S.R., December 5, 1936 (Moscow, 1937).
  3. i. e., atomic energy.
  4. See the sources cited in vol. i, document No. 619, footnote 3.
  5. Concerning the extent of Truman’s disclosure to Stalin at the Berlin Conference of the existence of a new atomic weapon, see ante, pp. 378379.