No. 509
The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State (Matthews)1

top secret

Dear Doc: I propose in this letter to speak about matter of such delicacy that I want you to know before you get into it that it is a [Page 1005] letter of which I am keeping no copy, and one which you will probably wish to destroy as soon as you have read it.

Since my arrival in Moscow I have become increasingly aware of a situation which not only gives me great concern but which seems to involve a very important question of principle concerning the attitude of our Government as a whole toward this mission and the functions which it is supposed to perform. I am prepared to go ahead and decide these questions on my own formal responsibility here, but in doing so I wish to make sure that the situation is clearly understood in Washington and that my decision here is in accord with the view of authoritative circles in our Government. It is for this reason that I am mentioning the matter to you.

I find upon arrival here and upon closer acquaintance with the activities of the staff that during the past two or three years this mission—and by that I mean its personnel, premises and extraterritorial status—has been intensively and somewhat recklessly exploited by the military intelligence-gathering agencies of the Government for their particular purposes. Their representatives here have, I am afraid, been encouraged by their home offices to utilize intensively such facilities as they enjoy here by virtue of their diplomatic status, for the purpose of assembling every possible shred of information on military subjects. I do not find that their instructions have called upon them to take adequate account of the effects their actions might have on the straight political and diplomatic potential of the mission, or on those very privileges and facilities from which they were profiting. So far as I can analyze the point of view which lies behind these activities, it is one which has not considered the diplomatic potential of this mission as a factor to be seriously taken into account, and which assumes the very existence of the mission as a short term provisorium, to be ruthlessly and intensively exploited while it lasts.

I would like to be able to list for you a number of the factual incidents which lead me to make these observations. Actually, I cannot bring myself to put them on paper for obvious reasons. I can only say the following about them:

Many of them are quite shocking and surprising, almost incredible to anyone who has had any extensive familiarity with the diplomatic profession.
In several instances little or no effort has been made to avoid detection by the Soviet authorities. In certain instances actions have been performed here under the very lenses of Soviet photographers appointed for the purpose of photographing them, and those actions were ones which the Soviet Government had specifically warned us were contrary to local law.
Many of these actions seem to me to have been of a childish and “Boy Scout” nature, which, in addition to serving as proof to [Page 1006] the Soviet Government of systematic misuse of our diplomatic status, must have brought smiles to the faces of higher Soviet authorities and cannot have contributed to Soviet respect for the mission.
Many of the targets are ones which I think could easily have been reached by other and less dangerous methods.
In general, these activities have been the result not of spontaneous initiative on the part of the men out here, but of pressures put upon them by their own superiors in Washington.

These activities have had and are having three effects which I think it is important for our Government to note:


They are self-defeating in that they lead to a steady and gradual curtailment of the very facilities which they exploit.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the curtailment of travel for this mission represents a reaction of the Soviet authorities to the extensive exploitation of travel facilities by this and other missions for purposes which cannot be viewed by them as legitimate. The same is true of the drastic and total isolation of the diplomatic corps here, including even neutral missions, from contact with the Soviet people. These things have probably had a good deal to do with the extraordinary pressures put on the servant and custodial staffs of diplomatic missions. If they are continued, we must expect a steady increase in the severity of these restrictions to a point where life will become practically impossible for foreigners in this city unless they wish to sit like prisoners within their buildings and be served by imported servants. The upshot of this is that activities of this nature must be predicated upon a lack of concern for maintenance of those very facilities whose existence they assume and exploit.


These activities have a deleterious effect on the actual diplomatic potential of the mission, i.e., of its value as a political reporting unit and a channel of communication with the Soviet Government, and have already probably reduced its possibilities significantly in these fields.

What has been said above about the exhaustion of these channels for intelligence purposes has its application in even greater degree to the normal purposes that these facilities were supposed to serve. With the increasing isolation of the diplomatic corps, the curtailment of travel facilities, and the constant increase of Soviet vigilance vis-à-vis foreigners, you have the ruin of those last vestigial positions which made possible, even in a minor way, something resembling normal life and travel in this country. Not only that, but one cannot help feeling that the attitude of members of the Soviet Government and officials of the Foreign Office toward individual diplomatic officers of our mission must be affected by what they know of the uses to which the mission is daily being put. This applies particularly to the ambassador here, for the Soviet authorities can only conclude either that he is aware of and responsible for this employment of his mission, or that he is not aware of it or is powerless to stop it. In the first case, they must regard him as the major offender. In either of the latter cases they must regard him as a secondary figure-head who is only being put up for formal [Page 1007] and protocol purposes like their own ambassadors abroad. I hardly need emphasize to you how serious a factor this is. In the end, the great political judgments about the nature of Soviet power, its psychology and its intentions, are of vastly greater importance to our Government than detailed tidbits of tactical information about the Soviet armed forces, much of which can be obtained in other places or (if really well-trained people are used) by other and more desirable methods. Yet we are seriously handicapped, in our ability to arrive at these major judgments, by the retaliatory actions brought upon us by these peripheral activities of the mission. Furthermore, the maintenance of the mission as a channel of communication with the Soviet Government is something which may be rarely of practical importance but when the moment does come that it is of any value at all, then its importance can be enormous. In the burdening and reduction of the ambassadorial position by the tolerance of these activities our Government is really taking a heavy responsibility in the face of the uncertainties of the future.

The continuance of this type of activity actually places in jeopardy, in my opinion, the physical security of the members of the mission and their families.

Thus far the Soviet authorities have been very correct in this respect, and no American official or employee has, in recent years, suffered (to my knowledge) any physical damage or open unpleasantness. However, we know very well that the Soviet authorities are assembling a careful, and, I fear, impressive record of all of our activities. The Grew diary2 is only a small part, I am sure, of what they have in their pocket. We also know that in the more remote past there have been instances when unwise Americans met with physical violence, judicial summonses and other forms of unpleasantness. We must remember that our American employees here—and by this I mean all those persons not on the diplomatic list—are by Soviet usage completely devoid of diplomatic immunity for any violations of Soviet law. We have not seen fit to challenge seriously this position of the Soviet authorities. That means that these people are all extremely vulnerable and can in most instances very easily be framed and made subject to court action at any time. Finally, you have the several possibilities that out of the present delicate international situation there might arise either a rupture of relations between our countries or an actual state of war. In either of these events, I think it entirely possible, if not likely, that individual members of our staff, and perhaps the whole staff might suffer seriously by virtue of these activities that have been conducted in the past. Our Government must therefore realize that if it wishes such activities to be continued at this post, it cannot hold the ambassador and other officers of the mission responsible for [Page 1008] the maximum safety of members of the staff in the face of possible consequences that may ensue.

I am aware that this is hardly a matter on which direct written instructions can be issued to this mission, and not even one about which there can be official correspondence. I do not wish to place the Government in the position of having to give me any written instructions of an undesirable nature. I am therefore writing this letter to tell you, first of all, that I propose to issue orders to all members of this mission that they are expected to comply strictly with Soviet laws and regulations so far as they are known, and also they are to avoid every form of public behavior which might be expected to give the impression to local citizens and officials that they are engaged in improper activities. This applies particularly to the use of cameras, radio receiving sets, and other electrical and auditory devices, and to the visiting or inspection of installations or areas of a known military significance. I have already discussed these matters with the service attachés, who have taken my observations in good part. But one of them points out that this will mean important modifications in his policies and activities, and that these modifications are not apt to be agreeable to his home office.

  • Secondly, I would like to ask that you call to the attention of the heads of the various intelligence-gathering agencies the fact that this is my intention, and that you ascertain whether any of them is in disagreement with this position and considers that it is, on balance, detrimental to United States interests.
  • Thirdly, in case there is this feeling on the part of any of the responsible heads of the agencies involved, I would earnestly request that you have this matter taken to a high interdepartmental agency for thorough discussion and settlement.
  • Fourth, if my proposed position here meets with the full understanding and approval of the Government—so that I need not feel that any subsequent reproach will rest upon me or this mission for its conduct in this matter—then I will expect no reply of any sort to this communication, and I will understand that silence means consent.
  • Fifth, if, on the other hand, it is the considered view of the appropriate higher authorities of our Government that the practices I have in mind are of an importance such as to override the disadvantages to which I have pointed, and if, therefore, it is the desire of the Government that I not alter any of the existing practices, then I would appreciate it if you could find means simply to inform me that my letter of this date has been duly considered but that the Government sees no grounds for alteration of existing practices. In such case, however, I want it clearly understood, both by [Page 1009] the Secretary and the President, that I cannot properly be held responsible for such deterioration as may ensue in the value of this mission both as an observation post and as a channel of communication with the Soviet Government, or for any other unhappy consequences.

I am sorry to have to write this letter, but if you will put yourself in my place you will see that I have no choice but to do so. I cannot allow to proceed a progressive deterioration in the actual diplomatic potential of a mission entrusted to my care, on a vague assumption that this is what the Government wants. On the other hand, I cannot, without at least apprising the Government of what I am doing and giving it an opportunity to overrule me, take administrative measures here which might later conceivably lead to my being charged with having deprived the United States Government of valuable information, and prejudiced the military interests of the country.

Very sincerely yours,

George F. Kennan

P.S. Two afterthoughts:

I neglected to mention above that I am afraid the situation I have described in this letter has led to a certain amount of bitterness against this mission on the part of other missions in the city, who feel that their status has also been worsened and their opportunities reduced as a result of our activities. I think there is something in this, if we take into consideration, in addition to the activities discussed in this letter, indiscretions that have been committed by individual Americans in the form of publication or leakage of information about their relations with other missions and with Soviet citizens here.

Secondly, I should make it plain that the reason I am addressing this letter to you now is that the first severe test of the policy I propose to enforce here will come in connection with the Soviet Air Force Day on June 28. I shall not be here myself, but I have given instructions through Hugh Cumming that there is to be no photographing or listening activity on the roofs of Embassy premises here which can be detected and photographed from other roofs (as has been done in the past). If the consensus of authoritative opinion in Washington wish to indicate that to Hugh by telegraphic message as suggested above, we will permit the activities; but my own feeling is that it is highly unwise and is bound to appear some day in a propaganda white book or some other disagreeable form, as proof of the systematic abuse by the American Embassy of its [Page 1010] diplomatic status and of its violation of local Soviet laws and regulations.

  1. Attached to the source text is a memorandum of July 22 by Fisher Howe (R), which reads:

    “At a meeting on July 17 with Doc Matthews, Chip Bohlen, Wally Barbour and myself, my recommendation was accepted that a message go to Kennan, suggesting that this letter be shown on a non-retention basis, to the Service chiefs. If Kennan objected he would need to write another letter which could be shown to the intelligence service chiefs. Kennan replied to the effect that he had no objection.

    “At Doc Matthew’s direction, Wally Barbour and I saw separately Admiral Stout, General Samford and Generals Weckerling and Phillips, each of whom read the letter and found no serious objection. All agreed to cooperate and recognized fully the controlling interest of the Ambassador.

    “I reported this to Doc and indicated to him that Wally Barbour would prepare either a message or a personal letter from Matthews to Kennan, indicating the results of our conversations with the Service chiefs.”

    A handwritten notation by Howe (dated July 24) on his memorandum of July 22 indicates that Barbour cleared with Matthews a personal letter from Matthews to Kennan of the sort suggested above by Howe. Neither this personal letter nor the exchange of messages cited in the first paragraph of Howe’s memorandum have been found in Department of State files.

  2. See footnote 5, Document 499.