The British Embassy to the Department of State 99

top secret

Paraphrase of a Telegram Received from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, of October 23rd 1946

“I have been considering the line to be taken in the General Assembly in answering the Soviet item on Allied troops abroad. To my mind the over-riding consideration is that in no circumstances can we admit the obligation to disclose all our troop strengths and dispositions abroad. It would be disastrous to reveal at the present time the exact strength and composition of our forces abroad, for the reasons I explained to Mr. Byrnes in Paris. Furthermore to agree under any circumstances that the General Assembly has a right to this information would establish a precedent consequences of which would require to be carefully thought out. Once the figures of service strengths overseas are given to the United Nations, there is nothing to stop a recurring request by the General Assembly or Security Council for the figures to be brought up to date. In other words every replacement or reequipment of land and air units overseas and every movement of naval units outside home waters might have to be notified. Powers with a high proportion of air and naval forces and scattered bases would have far more to lose by publicity of this sort than a land power depending mainly on an army inside its own frontiers, such as the Soviet Union.

“Similar objections apply to the idea of extending the proposal to cover ex-enemy territories. It is quite possible that Monsieur Molotov would jump at this offer and provide figures whose accuracy, although it might well be highly dubious, we should have no means of checking. In exchange the whole world would know the precise strength of British and United States forces in Germany and Austria, as well as elsewhere, which it is certainly not in our common interest to divulge at the present time.
“For these reasons I cannot take any line in the Assembly which, even if the Russians turned the item down when extended to cover ex-enemy territories, would admit the obligation to disclose our troop [Page 963] dispositions abroad. Even the Military Staff Committee, if it were a united and effective body, would still not be entitled to have this information beyond what is required for Article 43, and it seems to me out of the question to concede the point at the present time.
“I quite agree that the difference in procedure between the Security Council and the General Assembly makes it impossible to keep the Soviet item off the Assembly agenda, as was done in the Security Council. Apart from this, however, I would propose to take much the same line as was taken then, namely that this is a Soviet propaganda move, that British troops abroad are not a menace to peace and security and that nobody seriously believes they are. I am of course assuming, as I think is bound to be the case, that the Soviet spokesman in the Assembly will take essentially the same line as Monsieur Gromyko took in the Security Council. I understand that Article 11 will be invoked in the Assembly and this Article, though more widely drawn, seems to give as much scope for such a Soviet line as Article 34 did in the Security Council. I should then observe that the Soviet item specifically excludes those countries who cannot speak for themselves and yet have to bear the burden of a quite excessive number of Soviet troops. I should also point out that if any Governments feel aggrieved it is up to them to raise the question for themselves.
“I cannot be certain that a motion exonerating British and United States troops would get a clear two-thirds majority as there might be a number of abstentions. On the other hand, it is most unlikely that a Soviet motion on the lines of their Security Council argument would get a two-thirds majority. Our tactics should therefore be to get them to propose a motion which, provided the United States and United Kingdom delegates take a similar line, we should have no difficulty in defeating.”

Mr. Bevin very much hopes that Mr. Byrnes will agree with the foregoing and with the course of action suggested. If he does not Mr. Bevin hopes Mr. Byrnes will make no move until he has had an opportunity of discussing the matter further with him on his arrival in New York.

[Washington,] October 23, 1946.

  1. The source text bears the following marginal notation by Mr. Hiss: “Left (in single copy) with Mr. Hiss by Mr. Maclean 3:45 p.m. 12/23 [10/23].” The source text is accompanied by the following handwritten chit directed by Mr. Cohen to Mr. Acheson: “You will be interested in the enclosed note from Bevin. When you have finished reading it, please give to Mr. Reams [R. Borden Reams, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State] to bring to the Secretary’s attention immediately on his return from N. Y.

    “My thought is that we might let the Russian proposal for the agenda go on as submitted and hold our amendment until the matter comes up in the Committee after the item has gone on the agenda.”

    Regarding discussion of the issue by Maclean and Cohen at the time of the delivery of the note, see Mr. Acheson’s memorandum to Mr. Byrnes, October 26, p. 966.