Memorandum by the Ambassador at Large (Jessup)1

top secret

Exploratory Talks With Soviets


To determine the most useful tactics in exploratory talks with the Soviets if they accept the suggestion of the three Governments.


The attitude of the French and British in the preliminary talks in Paris before the Brussels meeting indicated that they both were willing to attend a CFM even though there were no prior indication of Soviet willingness to agree upon any acceptable solution of any outstanding problem.

The U.S. refused to commit itself to a CFM unless exploratory talks indicated some Soviet willingness to enter upon talks which would justify the participation of the Foreign Ministers.

At Brussels, Mr. Schuman and Mr. Bevin agreed with the Secretary upon the U.S. thesis. However, it can be anticipated that they will tend to accept rather readily any arrangement which will make a CFM possible. The U.K. is reluctant to accept the idea that talks at the “official” level can consider important questions of substance. The French seem ready to make the gesture of starting ministerial talks to satisfy their public opinion even though no satisfactory basis is laid. They both may be expected to take in the exploratory talks what we would consider a “soft” attitude.

The standard Soviet technique is to enter upon negotiations with a rigid insistence upon their own position and a refusal to consider even a compromise with their adversaries’ position. They seem to count upon the Western tendencies to be “fair”; to be impatient; to yield to the pressure of public opinion which demands “results” from such negotiations.

The Soviets would have strong reason to believe that the Western powers themselves consider that they are leading from weakness and that they are prepared to make concessions to avoid war. They would expect to enhance such tendencies by prosecuting the “war of nerves”.

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Actually the Western position, in terms of basic Soviet estimates, is one of strength. The Soviets are fully cognizant of the productive power of the United States and admire it. They are impressed by the results of our effort in World War II and have not forgotten the recovery we made after Pearl Harbor. If they do not launch World War III now it may be because they realize better than we admit the basic strength of our position and because they believe our allies can be split and our position softened by the war of nerves.

There are two contrasting tactics which could be used in the exploratory talks with the Soviets.

We could start with a clear understanding among the British, French and ourselves of the subjects which we would be willing to have on the agenda of a CFM. For illustrative purposes we might assume these would be Germany and Austria. We could argue with the Soviets against taking the Prague declaration as a basis and insist on including merely such items as “The German Problem” and “The Austrian Problem”. In accordance with precedent, we might agree on a statement that “The Agenda will include such other items as the Ministers agree upon when they meet.”
Such an approach would probably be satisfactory to the British and French. It would not involve any real advance probing of Soviet intentions and would probably lead to the holding of a CFM at an early date upon terms which would give the Soviets substantially what they asked for in their original proposal. Such a development would not be in accord with the essence of the position taken by the Secretary at Brussels. It would still leave open the possibility of endeavoring at the CFM to build a record for possible propaganda exploitation of Soviet unwillingness to discuss many causes of tension.
We could as an alternative begin the exploratory talks with the tactics commonly employed by the Soviets. This would imply appearance of rigidity and the immediate airing of a list of questions in regard to which Soviet conduct or positions have been unacceptable to us. By way of illustration it might be suggested that we insist that an agenda item on the German question must include such matters as the eastern frontiers, a land corridor to Berlin, return of German POWs, etc. We might also insist that the agenda include items such as the violation of the Bulgarian and Rumanian Peace Treaties with respect to human rights and the limitation of the armaments of those countries. We could bring up such clearly non-negotiable subjects as the international subversive activities of the Cominform or the restoration of the democratic government of Czechoslovakia. We would take the offensive and raise one after the other a long series of issues, many of which have previously been argued with the Soviets and on which we have received no satisfaction.
Such tactics would presumably involve some discussion of substance and might well lead to prolonged argument with the Soviets. They would require long drawn-out exploratory talks requiring the kind of patience we have not usually displayed in such negotiations. They would probably meet with French and British resistance which would have to be overcome as it was when the Security Council “neutrals” [Page 924] endeavored to solve the Berlin case at Paris.2 Such tactics might or might not lead to a CFM which would have some chance of being productive of results. Even if it eventually resulted in agreement on a CFM agenda which included only such items as “The Problem of Germany” and “The Problem of Austria”, it might give the Soviets the idea that we were not in a mood to capitulate or that we felt we were in a weak position. It might lay the groundwork for strong positions in the CFM itself.

If there has been preliminary discussion of substance in the exploratory talks, we would be in a better propaganda position to break off the CFM when it was apparent that the Soviets were unwilling to reach a settlement. A “White Paper” or other publication could reveal the Soviet intransigence.

If the Soviets are willing to reach agreement on any issue on a basis acceptable to us, we are more likely to reach such agreement through aggressive than through soft tactics.

It would be possible while the four-power exploratory talks are in progress to attempt private conversations with the Soviets to feel out any possible basis of agreement on any specific questions or on any general issues. Opportunities for such private conversations should not be disregarded because of fear of French or British susceptibilities.


We should approach the exploratory talks and, if it eventuates, a CFM, with the belief that their value lies in a) gaining time; b) propaganda advantage; and c) convincing the Soviets that we are determined and confident. We should not be sanguine of reaching any real settlements although we should always seek them.
We should adopt as tactics the line indicated under 2 above on the ground that such tactics would best contribute to a), b) and c) under paragraph 1.
We should try to persuade the British and French of the soundness of this approach and should not give in to any evidence of “softness” on their part.
If necessary we should insist on following our approach in the exploratory talks with the Soviets, laying plans in advance to meet adverse public opinion reaction perhaps stimulated by French and British lines to the press.

  1. The source text was an attachment to a memorandum from Jessup to Secretary Acheson, dated December 25, not printed, which noted that it “had been approved by Mr. Matthews and the other officers who have been studying this problem.” Jessup proposed to have a preliminary talk with Ambassador Franks along these lines if the Secretary approved it. On the memorandum was the handwritten notation: “I approve the recommendations D[ean] A[cheson]”. (396.1/12–2550)
  2. For documentation on the Berlin case before the Security Council of the United Nations in the fall of 1948, see Foreign Relations, 1948, vol. ii, pp. 1197 ff.