611.61/5–2252: Telegram

No. 499
The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Department of State1


1861. I wish to invite attention to scope and significance of present violent anti-American campaign being waged by Sov propaganda machine and to share with Dept certain considerations that occur to me in this connection.


In the fortnight since I arrived in Moscow, Sov internal propaganda outlets have been intensively employed, as Dept is aware, in an anti-Amer campaign of extreme violence, centering around bacteriological warfare and prisoners of war issues. The quantitative figures on space and time given to the subjects are impressive enough. We estimate that on an average well over half entire foreign news sections of major papers have been devoted to these subjects, not to mention domestic radio programs and other outlets. But mere statistics on volume give no adequate idea of violence of [Page 972] this effort. I have had many years of direct exposure to Sov propaganda, and for nearly three years during the recent war was obliged to observe at first-hand workings of the Nazi propaganda machine at the peak of its offensiveness, but I must say that I have never seen anything to equal in viciousness, shamelessness, mendacity and intensity what is now being done in this country to arouse hatred, revulsion and indignation with regard to Americans in general and our armed forces in particular.

As Dept knows, campaign began nearly two months before my arrival. (Embtel 1475, March 15 and others2) Prior to middle of April the accent was almost exclusively on the bacteriological warfare issue. To my mind it is significant though not to be over-rated, that propaganda action on this issue went into high gear immediately after the acute Sov reaction to revival of the Katyn issue.3 With the virtual breakdown of Korean armistice negots on prisoners of war issue, and with what must have been for Commies the almost incredible success of the provocations carried out in Kojedo prisoner of war camp,4 the issue of atrocities against POW’s was eagerly added, and woven in with, existing bacteriological warfare propaganda.

Although there has never been a time since the revolution when Sov propaganda failed to distort Amer realities, I do not recall any propaganda line in the past so clearly calculated as this one to stir [Page 973] up hatred and fear of Amers generally. Lip service is still paid to social distinctions by vigorous attention to the iniquities of Wall Street; but emphasis of this campaign is plainly on Amer armed forces, with implication that they represent the habits and proclivities of Amer people at large; and reckless violence of the slander directed against them can best be realized if it be considered that it is probably no less in intensity and offensiveness than that directed against Ger army at peak of recent war.

While Sov propagandists in many of their past campaigns have shown caution by putting the more violent items in other mouths, quoting from theoretically irresponsible press sources, and avoiding direct statements by authoritative Sov organs, in present instance these restraints seem to have been dropped. Izvestiya ran a frontpage editorial yesterday morning flatly accusing the Amer command of “mass destruction of innocent women, old people and children” of “utilizing the most fantastic and revolting means for achieving their criminal purposes,” of torturing prisoners of war with red hot irons, hanging them upside down, pouring water into their noses, forcibly tattooing them, forcing them to sign treasonable statements in blood, etc. There is, I reiterate, no attempt in any way to soften or disguise responsibility for these charges which are made editorially by a paper the stated publisher of which is the Presidium of the Supreme Sov of the USSR. To this we must add Malik’s savage statements in the UN, plus such things as Konev’s insults in his speech in Praha on Victory Day. I think it important to note that before launching this campaign Sov Govt made no attempt to discuss with us matters at issue or to develop true facts.


So much for the picture. What does it mean? It is not hard to find reasons why the Sov leaders, being what they are, conduct anti-Amer propaganda. But we must distinguish between routine motives which are generally operative and the special considerations which lead them to undertake a campaign of this violence and ruthlessness at this particular time. Major Sov moves rarely stem from a single motive. They are rather apt to be result of the coincidental focus of a number of considerations on a given action at a given time. In the present instance it is not hard to see what some of these motives might be. The Katyn massacre is evidently a point of pathological sensitivity in Moscow, so much so that one suspects it must involve embarrassments of an extremely delicate domestic political nature. Revival of this issue by a Congressional committee in our country this winter plainly stung the Kremlin where it hurt. It is standard Commie tactics when in danger of being exposed in one’s own misdoings to go over to the attack with great violence and confuse the issue by deluging the opponent with every possible sort of counter-charge and accusation, and this [Page 974] would be a normal reaction to revival of Katyn. Again the grotesque success of the provocation on Kojedo must have aroused in the Sov mind eager hopes of persuading large masses of people here and abroad, particularly in Asiatic countries, that our military authorities had really been guilty of inflicting a regime of terror and intimidation on helpless prisoners, and thus of dealing an important blow to Amer prestige generally.

Furthermore, although dipls residing here in the thirties and early forties wld have been reluctant to believe that there was room for any marked deterioration in atmosphere of Sov-Amer relations, it must be acknowledged that room did exist and such deterioration has now taken place. In contrast to robust but relatively good-humored attitude of ideological and political competition which seemed to mark Sov postures in those days, I sometimes think now sense a deep and burning embitterment of which we Amers are the main objects. Altho Sov leaders are not normally given to emotion, I cannot rule out possibility that such things as Grew diary5 and other developments capable of giving personal offense or alarm have had a greater effect than we realized, and that we have succeeded in touching deep sources of genuine fury and resentment in people whose pathological habits of mind render them only too quick to suspicion and false conclusions of every kind, and whose system of govt makes them vulnerable to any degree of malicious distortion of information by underlings.

Yet even these reflections do not to my mind constitute adequate explanation for what is here in progress. The prodding about Katyn wld normally have led to an angry spluttering of counter-charges but hardly anything of this duration and intensity. Hopes for a good propaganda effect in Asia by capitalizing on the mass destruction weapon issue and on our misfortunes with the POWs would justify a steady and vigorous pounding of the drums such as we have seen on many occasions, but nothing of this suddenness and violence. In addition to this we have puzzling fact that campaign is being waged with great intensity internally among the Sov population as well as abroad. Finally, as far as personal bitterness and emotion are concerned, it wld not be in character for the Sov leaders to let such feelings drastically affect their action in propaganda field unless they had in mind some specific program of retribution to which the propaganda was subsidiary.

For all these reasons, I think there must be some special motives here involved which we here cannot see as of this moment and which go beyond the normal springs of Soviet propaganda and behavior. [Page 975] This is view of all senior officers of this mission and of all dipl colleagues with whom I have spoken thus far. I wld not like to speculate at this time on what their motive cld be. But likelihood of their existence seems to mean that we shld observe utmost caution and vigilance and shld submit manifestations of Sov policy to most searching and concentrated analysis in the coming period.


Finally, the question as to how we handle existing manifestations;

First, altho I have no doubt that much attention and effort have been given to this, I wld plead that we re-examine all aspects of our governmental behavior and see whether we cannot contrive to present fewer openings and possibilities to the Sov propaganda machine just at this time. So long as we do not make clearer than we have to date our general disapproval of the use of all mass destruction and inhuman weapons, this gap in our armour is going to be exploited by Commie propagandists. I know military experts will point out that all these questions are ones of degree, that necessity compels us to perfect these weapons, that others are doing the same, that many of the weapons have legitimate milit uses, etc. This is not what I am talking about. There is a plane of reality and a plane of propaganda. The two have little connection; and as long as we permit literal and practical reflections about weapons to prevent us from assuming a clear external posture of abhorrence of mass destruction weapons and of determination not use them unless they are used against us, we are going to continue to be vulnerable propagandistically on this point.

Beyond this general consideration there must be things we can do in detail and in point of timing to decrease the number of opportunities we give to the Sovs. Alleged recent public statements by Gen Bullene about our progress in chemical warfare have been gleefully seized on here, and it is hard for us to believe that a better time cld not have been found for such statements. Unless we wish to play into the hands of Sov propagandists I feel we shld be extremely careful in official public statements generally about our progress in development of chemical and bacteriological weapons, and should invariably couple such statements with disclaimers of desire to bring suffering to helpless people. The same applies to statements about our milit purpose being “to kill” as many of our adversaries as possible, about our units being efficient “killing” machines, etc. Aside from fact that our primary milit purpose is surely to cause our adversaries to submit rather than to kill them for the sake of killing, mere use of such words plays directly into the hands of Commie propaganda machine and will continue to be ably exploited by them. With regard to bacteriological warfare, our general statements have been excellent, but we here have not seen [Page 976] point-by-point refutations of statements allegedly made by captive US fliers or of other detailed fabricated evidence which has made considerable impression on many people here and presumably elsewhere. As for POW issue, provocation is lesson number one in the primer of Commie strategy, and as long as Commie factions within these camps are permitted to intrigue, agitate and disturb, and word of these happenings continues to reach outside world, we must expect Commie propaganda machine to make extremely effective use of this issue.

It wld seem to me that only most vigorous discipline, segregation of trouble makers, and isolation of camps generally cld prevent our being taken advantage of in this way.


This leaves us with the question of our direct governmental reaction to this Sov propaganda effort. We have all become accustomed to the excesses of Sov propaganda machine and to extensive violations of normal courtesy and good form by Sov authorities. The question at issue here is whether there is any point beyond which we wld not be prepared to let this sort of thing proceed without protest, and if so where that point lies.

It is my feeling that differences of degree are important here as everywhere, and that we shld not permit Commie leaders to conclude that there are no limits on extent to which they may go in abusing our country, spreading falsehoods about us, slandering our armed forces, and creating hatred of us here and abroad, without reaction on our part. We must remember that the charge of bacteriological warfare is of itself an extremely serious one for them to raise in any manner, to say nothing of making it subject of a propaganda campaign of unprecedented scope and nastiness. Whether we shld or can afford to ignore this is a real question. There is a certain question of dignity involved in residing and going through the motions of representation in a capital where your people, your armed forces, and in effect your flag are being subjected daily to a deliberate effort of vilification and degradation by the local govt on a scale hardly excelled in human history. I realize that it has generally been the policy of our govt that our representatives behind the iron curtain shld treat this sort of thing with deaf ears and bland indifference, and as far as our personal situations are concerned, we can do this. But we must realize that we are now up against about the worst the boys can produce in the propaganda field; and I think we must be careful, precisely in this semi-oriental country, not to permit our presence and silence to be exploited as an exhibit to others of our weakness, our lack of pride and dignity, and our helplessness in face of insult.

However, implications of this present campaign go far beyond the mere position of a mission in this city and shld be judged accordingly. [Page 977] I do not see how Sov Govt can deny responsibility for editorial articles in Izvestiya and it is difficult to think of allegations more offensive than those which have now been raised without scruple or inhibition in this sheet. There can be no question but that, measured against anything approaching normal standards, these charges wld be considered gravely offensive, as wld some of the recent statements made by leading Sov figures.

For the moment I can only recommend these reflections for Dept’s consideration. If campaign does not begin to wane at early date, I may wish to recommend sharp public statement to Sov Govt, for terms of which I wld submit suggestions at appropriate time.

  1. Copies of this telegram were transmitted by Deputy Under Secretary Matthews to Secretary of Defense Lovett, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Bradley, and CIA Director Smith on May 22.
  2. Telegram 1475 reported that there was reason to believe that bacteriological warfare charges, which had received full attention in the Soviet press and in subsequent Moscow mass meetings of protest, were convincing to a considerable portion of the Soviet population. It suggested that a VOA effort to counter the germ warfare charges should be a matter of prime concern because the campaign in the USSR was a major one. (Microfilm telegram files, Moscow, FY 53)
  3. On Sept. 18, 1951, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution establishing a select committee to conduct a full and complete investigation of the deaths of as many as 15,000 Polish army officers and other leaders in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1940. Between October 1951 and early June 1952, the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre took testimony in the United States and Europe from 81 witnesses and examined hundreds of depositions and exhibits. In its findings the Committee concluded unanimously that “the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs committed the mass murders of the Polish officers and intellectual leaders in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia.” The committee also recommended the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate mass executions wherever they might occur. The committee observed similarities between the fate of Polish officers at Katyn and the possible fate of U.N. soldiers captured in Korea. The account of the committee’s hearings as set forth in seven volumes and the Interim Report of the committee (Report of July 2, 1952; H. Rept. No. 2430, 82d Cong., 2d sess.) which contained the findings and conclusions of the inquiry, were transmitted to the U.N. Secretary-General on Feb. 10, 1953, by the U.S. Representative; for text of the note transmitting the documents, see American Foreign Policy: Basic Documents, 1950–1955, pp. 2143–2144.
  4. For documentation on the disturbances occurring at U.N. prisoner of war camps in Korea, see vol. xv, Part 1, pp. 449 ff.
  5. Reference is presumably to Joseph C. Grew, Turbulent Era: A Diplomatic Record of Forty Years, 1904–1945, in two volumes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952).