69. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

302. For Secretary. After having delivered President’s reply to Bulganin’s letter June 6 to Bulganin,2 I told Bulganin that I had another communication received only this morning from the President. I then gave him letter (Deptel 141)3 which was translated into Russian. Bulganin listened very attentively and said that he appreciated very much the President writing him on this subject. I then said, as indicated in the letter, I had a number of other comments to make on the subject.

I said I thought the President’s letter in itself showed the deep concern with which he and the U.S. Government view the situation created in regard to the Suez Canal by the action of the Egyptian Government; that the U.S. had strongly supported the principle that this situation should be settled by negotiation and on a basis that would be fair and equitable to all concerned; that at the London conference, as might be expected, other and more direct measures of dealing with this situation had been considered but in large measure due to U.S. position these more direct courses of action had not been adopted and that the three Western powers had agreed on an attempt to settle this question fairly through peaceful negotiations, and to this end had proposed a conference to which his government had received an invitation last week. I said that the U.S., having made every effort, and successfully, to obtain acceptance of the [Page 157] principle of peaceful solution this problem felt that it was of the most vital importance that the proposal for peaceful solution should not fail and, in particular, should not be rejected by the Egyptian Government. In such an event the situation created by the Egyptian action would revert to a most dangerous stage and that more direct measures which had been considered and rejected by London conference might well become inevitable.

I added that as a personal opinion, but one based on information I had received, that it would be extremely difficult for the U.S. to argue in favor of solution by negotiation if this proposal met with no satisfactory response.

I added that having heard many times since I had been here statements from Soviet leaders that all international disputes and differences should be settled by negotiation, we had every right to expect support of the Soviet Union for the principle which had been adopted in regard to the Suez Canal by the three Western powers and expressed the hope that Soviet influence would be used to that end with other countries.

Bulganin listened very carefully to my statement and said that in general the position of the Soviet Government had been set forth in Khrushchev’s speech at the Lenin Stadium,4 that they had not yet reached a final decision as to the reply to the British invitation, but he expected the reply to be given either today or tomorrow. He said, however, Soviet Government had been giving careful consideration to the matter and he would like first of all to say that there seemed to be between the United States and the Soviet Union a common position in that both felt this matter must be settled by peaceful means. As to the conference itself, after repeating that no final decision had been made, he said nevertheless that they had doubts 1) as to the aim of the conference and 2) as to composition. In regard to the aim of the conference he mentioned that he had already seen the proposed resolution which the British Ambassador had given that morning to Shepilov, and from this it would appear that the purpose of the international authority was to undo the act of nationalization of the Egyptian Government, that the view of Soviet Government on this point had been clearly stated by Khrushchev and they felt that Egypt was entirely within her rights in so doing and that any attempt to undo this legitimate act would in effect be interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. As a result, he said, the purpose of the conference had aroused “doubts” and even invoked a “negative” reaction from Soviet Government.

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He felt that the composition of the conference was “tendentious”, a word which he was not using idly, since he felt that the list had been carefully drawn up in order to include nations favorable to Western powers. For example, he said, even the criteria for participants had not been observed since neither Austria nor other successor states of Austria-Hungary who was original signatory, for example Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia were not invited. As to other criterion of interest in navigation why, for example, had Ethiopia been included while Poland and the Arab countries, to say nothing of China, who had great interest in navigation Suez Canal, had not been included. Another question that had arisen was why had London and not Cairo been selected. He concluded by repeating that Soviet Government fully shared views U.S. Government as to necessity peaceful solution but felt that actual conference proposed raised doubts he had referred to.

With reference to his comments on nationalization, which of course follow standard Soviet line, I told him I thought if he read carefully declaration of the three powers he would see nationalization was not chief issue, but rather whether international agreements such as the Convention of 1888 could be violated with impunity by one country under the pretext of nationalization and that navigation Suez Canal, which was international question could not be left to the unilateral control and arbitrary will of any one country. I then said I did not believe that Soviet Government supported principle of unilateral abrogation international agreements, which we had already seen in pre-war period when Hitler’s action produced dangerous anarchy in international relations. Bulganin, at my reference to Hitler, first and only time during conversation showed signs of irritation and said that comparison between “legitimate” action of Nasser and Egyptian Government could not be compared to Hitler and he felt this comparison was inappropriate and could not accept it. I replied that it was he and not I who mentioned Egyptian Government and Nasser, I was merely citing fact of history and a principle which U.S. strongly supports. Bulganin then repeated that Soviet Government supported principle of peaceful solution this matter through negotiation but in any attempt to undo legitimate action Egyptian Government, which he felt proposal for international authority was designed to achieve, would be interference in Egypt’s internal affairs which Soviet Union could not support.

I then said to Bulganin that I wished to get the attitude of his government as clearly as possible so I could report accurately to the President. Was I correct in interpreting his statement that any international action in regard to the Suez Canal would constitute interference in Egyptian internal affairs, to which he initially said yes that was the Soviet position. I then said from that it would [Page 159] appear that Soviet Government was taking position that navigation Suez Canal was solely matter for Egypt to decide, that other countries had no rights in this connection and that entire matter, therefore, was not one for any form of international action or discussion. I said I wished to be entirely clear on that point because it was cardinal to the whole subject. Bulganin (who is not as fast on his feet as Molotov) saw the awkwardness of this position and backed away from his original statement, saying that other countries had an interest, including the Soviet Union, in the free navigation through the Canal and that, therefore, that aspect was legitimately a subject for negotiation, and even said that he “did not see why UN was being bypassed in this matter.” I asked him under what article of the charter and to what body he felt a question of this kind could be submitted, to which he had no clear reply. I pointed out to him that in 1954 Security Council (Deptel 145)5 Vishinsky had taken line that matters of Suez Canal were no concern of UN but only for signatories 1888 Convention. Bulganin merely said he was not familiar with this statement “former Comrade Vishinsky.”

At least five times I emphasized to him the seriousness of the situation which would be created if the attempt at peaceful solution which the U.S. had been instrumental in having accepted was rebuffed by Egypt or other interested powers, and left him in no doubt, without stating explicitly, as to what U.S. position might well be in that event. Bulganin at one point criticized Britain and France for use of threats, pressures and military measures such as movement of ships, which he said hardly creates atmosphere for peaceful solution. I told him that the official position of British and French was that set forth in the proposal for a conference and the measures he complained about were merely elementary precautionary measures in face of a very dangerous situation brought on by action Egyptian Government, and that only way to make sure more serious developments did not occur in regard to this question would be to support principle of peaceful international negotiation proposed by three powers.

In conclusion, Bulganin repeated his appreciation President’s letter which would be given “most serious consideration” by Soviet Government.

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Comment: Although as can be seen conversation with Bulganin was not satisfactory, and he stuck to Soviet line supporting Egypt in nationalization action and resistance to any international authority over Canal, it is not possible from conversation alone to judge effect of President’s letters and my comments Soviet position. I did, however, have impression that Soviet Government along general lines has reached its decision concerning reply to conference invitation which, as anticipated (Embtel 272),6 will probably support principle of negotiation but reject terms of reference, composition and probably date and place of conference. Bulganin’s reference to it may have been fortuitous, on the other hand may be indication line Soviet counterproposal. Whatever effect today’s discussion may have on Soviet position it has certainly left them no doubt as to seriousness with which US would view complete rejection by Egypt or Soviet Government conference.

Since I had no information as to how absolute terms of reference and membership were I did not attempt to discuss these aspects with Bulganin.7

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/8–756. Secret; Niact; Limited Distribution; Presidential Handling. Received at 2:44 p.m.
  2. See footnote 1, Document 66.
  3. The text of the letter is printed in footnote 4, ibid.
  4. A summary of Khrushchev’s speech of August 1 is in telegram 258 from Moscow, August 1. (Department of State, Central Files, 974.7301/8–156)
  5. In telegram 145 to Moscow, August 6, the Department of State sent the following report to the Embassy for background information: “The Soviet Union on March 29, 1956, at 664th mtg. Security Council, in course of debate on Israeli complaint re Egyptian restrictions ships passing through Canal in trade with Israel, referred to itself as successor to Russian signature to Constantinople Convention of 1888. Referring to Article 36 of UN Charter USSR objected to Security Council consideration of questions arising under Convention citing absence of certain parties to Convention and stated such questions should be dealt with in direct negotiations between signatory states.” (Ibid., 974.7301/8–656)
  6. Not printed. (Ibid., 974.7301/8–356)
  7. On August 9, the Government of the Soviet Union issued a declaration containing its reply to the invitation to attend the Suez Canal Conference. In the declaration, the Soviet Government stated that it would attend the Conference, but it also expressed a series of reservations and objections to the proposed Conference and the manner in which it was called. On August 10, the Embassy in Moscow, in telegram 341, summarized the “most important statements” made in the Soviet declaration as follows: “(1) that Egypt’s right as sovereign state and nationalization of Suez Company ‘cannot be called in question by any international conference’ and (2) ‘Soviet govt considers that this conference neither by composition of its participants nor by its character and aims can be in any way regarded as an international gathering competent to take any decisions in regard to the Suez Canal’ and (3) that insofar as Soviet attendance is concerned ‘Soviet govt does not consider that there is incumbent on Soviet Union any limitations or obligations arising out of either those principles which were declared by the three powers in joint declaration August 2 or which might be damaging to the sovereign rights and dignity of Egypt’.” (Ibid., 974.7301/8–1056) The text of the Soviet declaration and the note from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which the Soviet declaration was transmitted to the Embassy, are in despatch 74 from Moscow, August 10. (Ibid.)