135. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Leddy) to the Under Secretary of State (Katzenbach)1


  • Preemptive Action by Administration to Suspend MFN for Poland: Information Memorandum
Many, perhaps most, of the members of the Congress resuming its session today will wish to express in various ways their indignation against the Powers that invaded and continue to occupy Czechoslovakia. The result may be Congressional action for withdrawing MFN from Poland, the only one of the invading countries enjoying this advantage. It has been suggested that we recommend to the President that he take the initiative in suspending MFN to Poland without waiting for possible Congressional action.
This proposal has certain advantages:
It might blunt the force of the Congressional attack and thus prevent more extreme action such as an embargo.
Presidential action could keep alive the option on the part of the President independently to restore MFN to Poland when the time was appropriate. (An opinion from L that this is legally possible is attached.)2
It would demonstrate that the Executive has used its arguments in the past on the desirability of flexibility in our relations to the Communist countries in good faith. It would show that the Administration while willing to give under appropriate conditions is also ready to withdraw.
It would show that the Executive is willing to forego substantial economic advantage both in trade and in possible loss of payments by the Poles on their long-term debt (see paragraph 3B below) by a gesture expressing the moral revulsion of the United States.
On the other hand, there are a number of disadvantages. I believe the first two of these most important. The others although less so are enumerated as of substantial cumulative weight.
Withdrawal of MFN from Poland would be a clear violation of our international obligations under GATT of which Poland is a member. Withdrawal of MFN by act of Congress would equally be a violation of [Page 370] GATT. The international impact of such a violation of an international obligation, however (only a year after we had supported the accession of Poland to GATT) on the initiative of the Executive charged with the primary responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs, would be far greater than if it were an act forced on the Administration by the actions of the Congress.
Withdrawing MFN from Poland would be a serious act having substantial impact on our bilateral relations, including possible withholding by Poland of payments on its claims settlement with which MFN had been linked and conceivably on its other long-term obligations as well. This strong action would be taken against a Soviet puppet. Would not members of the Congress contrast this action with the economic “pinpricks” likely to be taken by the Executive against the Soviet Union? Would not the demand then arise in the Congress that the punishment fit the crime by more extreme action against the Soviet Union, the prime actor, such as an embargo on trade?
To the extent that preemptive action would seem to many Congressmen a transparent device to ward off Congressional action of a less limited character, it would fail to have that effect.
The Administration would presumably support its action on one or both of two grounds, its punitive character and its possible effect on Polish conduct in the future, perhaps by inducing the Poles to withdraw their occupying forces from Czechoslovakia. Even ignoring the fact that the Poles presumably had and will have little opportunity for control of their own behavior in this case, use of the argument would run into the Congressional question of why we had not taken this action earlier to combat Polish support of North Viet-Nam. We have consistently taken the position that withdrawal of MFN could have no effect on Polish Vietnamese policy and might even intensify Polish “anti-Zionist” actions with all their anti-Semitic implications.
Preemptive action by the Executive on MFN would be inconsistent with the position heretofore consistently taken by Administration spokesmen in public speeches and otherwise emphasizing the broad political advantages of trade and the importance, even under adverse conditions, of pushing ahead with the long-term advantages to be derived from it (impact on society, greater realism, strengthening of pragmatic forces). We have also emphasized the long-term effect of measures such as this in creating uncertainties among businessmen.
While it would be of course legally possible for the Administration to lift the suspension at an appropriate later time, this would in fact be politically difficult if not impossible unless current conditions had substantially changed.
Our objectives could be better achieved by attempting to have any Congressional act suspending MFN, if such action should seem [Page 371] inevitable, subjected to a provision that the suspension could be lifted at such time that the President would find this to the national interest. If absolutely necessary this could be coupled with the requirement that he find that the conditions which led to suspension (invasion and continued occupation of Czechoslovakia, “anti-Zionism” with its anti-Semitic implications if this should be involved in the Congressional action) no longer existed.
In my view, the strong balance of arguments weighs against preemptive action by the Executive to suspend MFN. I believe we should instead direct our efforts to ensuring that any Congressional action taken to suspend MFN be coupled with a grant of authority to the President giving him the right to lift the suspension at such time that he found such action would be to the national interest.
  1. Source: Department of State, S/S Files: Lot 74 D 164. Confidential. Drafted by Lisle. A notation on the source text reads: “U suggests you advise Ives at lunch we are working on this proposal. It needs refinement.”
  2. Not printed.