57. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

    • The Lithuanian Defector2 Case

In accordance with your request,3 reports have been submitted to you on this incident by Acting Secretary of State Irwin (Tab B) and Secretary of Transportation Volpe (Tab C).4 Both reports agree generally (but diverge on specifics) that the investigations revealed the following two problems were immediately involved in this case:

  • —the Coast Guard unit involved was not adequately informed of the standing instructions and procedures for dealing with potential defectors;
  • —there was inadequate communication between the State Department and the Coast Guard.

In addition, Secretary Volpe notes that when this incident arose the State Department did not inform the Coast Guard of the existence of the general guidelines relating to defectors, but also points out that the Coast Guard failed to retain the defector on board the cutter pending receipt from State of specific guidance, nor did it notify, in a timely way, the State Department of subsequent developments.

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Both memorandums report that the following actions have been taken:

  • —Guidance on defectors has been provided to all Coast Guard commands and units, as well as to all other agencies of the Government which had not heretofore been involved in refugee and defector affairs.
  • —The Coast Guard has now assumed membership on those interagency bodies dealing with refugee and defector affairs.
  • —Steps are being taken to establish a direct communications link between the Coast Guard Headquarters and the Operations Center at the State Department.

Secretary Volpe also reports that pending the conclusion of a formal Board of Investigation, the three Coast Guard officers directly concerned with this incident have been suspended from their duties without prejudice. He suggests that any public announcement of the suspensions at this time could conceivably prejudice the legal proceedings of the Board of Investigation and any actions which may follow under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, he notes that a factual statement to the effect that an investigation is being conducted to determine whether or not there is a basis for courts-martial would not prejudice any subsequent legal actions.

The memorandums relate generally consistent statements of the factual situation of the events of Monday, November 23. There are, however, significant differences with respect to some of the details. At Tab A is a rough chronology of the actions that day, drawn from both memorandums. It is clear, however, that during the entire day and night of the attempted defection and return, no attempt was made to contact the White House or the Interagency Defector Committee.5

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Tab A6


The following rough chronology of the events of Monday, November 23, has been drawn from both the State and Transportation memorandums.7

The Coast Guard cutter cabled the Boston District Headquarters at 12:43 p.m. reporting that there was an estimated 80% probability that a crewman from the Soviet ship would attempt a defection. This cable was received at State shortly after 3:00 p.m. Shortly thereafter, State advised the Coast Guard in Washington that the possible defector should not be encouraged, and noted the possibility of an attempted provocation by the Soviets. The State Department asked that it be kept informed of the developments in the case.

At 4:00 p.m. the Coast Guard told State it had no further information and thus assumed an attempt at defection had not been made. At 7:45 p.m. the Coast Guard Duty Officer telephoned the State Department Operations Center. According to the Coast Guard’s record of the conversation, its Duty Officer reported that the crewman “is being returned” at the request of the Soviet Master. The State Department’s record of the conversation is that the Coast Guard Duty Officer said that the probable defection case “had been resolved by the return of the seaman.” The last action in Washington that evening was when a State Department officer telephoned the Coast Guard Duty Officer at 11:30 p.m. for further information. The Duty Officer reported he had no further information, and assumed that the case had been resolved.

Returning to the events on board the cutter, the defector arrived on board at approximately 4:00 p.m., and by 5:00 p.m. the Soviets had informed the commander of the cutter, Commander Eustis, that one of [Page 179] its crewmen was missing. At 5:15 p.m. Commander Eustis phoned Rear Admiral Ellis, the Commander of the Boston Coast Guard District, who was at his home in a sick leave status. Rear Admiral Ellis advised the commander to put the crewman back if the Soviets requested him, and if he jumped into the water to allow the Soviets the first opportunity to pick him up.

Following this there was a series of telephone conversations between Commander Eustis and Captain Brown, the Boston District Chief of Staff. At 6:11 p.m. Commander Eustis advised Captain Brown that the defector was “definitely in fear of his life.” Captain Brown noted that this was a situation which is “going to have to be resolved by the State Department.” During another telephone conversation shortly after 7:00 p.m. Captain Brown instructed Commander Eustis to return the defector if the Soviets formally requested him. Commander Eustis again noted that if the defector returned his life would probably be in jeopardy. At 8:30 p.m. Commander Eustis advised Captain Brown that he had a formal written request from the Soviet Master for the return of his crewman. Captain Brown instructed Commander Eustis to proceed in accordance with previous instructions—to have the defector returned.

Subsequently, when the defector refused to return to his vessel at the request of Commander Eustis, the Commander advised the Soviet Master that he could send Soviet crewmen on board for the purpose of apprehending the defector. After four Soviet crewmen arrived on board, there was a considerable struggle with the defector who was then beaten severely, bound, and returned to the Soviet vessel at 11:55 p.m. in a Coast Guard boat.8

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 908, Soviet Defector Case, November 70. Confidential. Drafted by Kissinger and Downey on December 2. Printed from an uninitialed copy.
  2. Simas Kudirka.
  3. On November 30, Kissinger notified Rogers and Secretary of Transportation Volpe that the President wanted an “immediate investigation of the circumstances surrounding the alleged defection of the Soviet seaman to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant.” Kissinger added that the two agencies should report their findings by the close of business on December 2. (Ibid.)
  4. Both memoranda dated December 2; attached but not printed.
  5. On December 11, Nixon read a summary of a wire report on his failure to meet more often with the press, including the following passage: “The President’s isolation was nowhere more discernible than in the case of the Lithuanian seaman. RN learned of the event six days after it occurred. Not only were his intelligence reports lacking, but news stories available to millions of newspaper readers did not reach him.” Nixon underlined the last sentence and wrote a message for Kissinger in the margin: “K—did we drop one here?” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, President’s Office Files, Box 32, Annotated News Summaries, December 1970) Haig answered this question on December 21 as follows: “I believe that the White House staff should not be faulted for not providing this information rapidly because there was no official reporting and the sketchy unofficial reports we did receive did not reveal the full circumstances or significance of this tragedy.” (Memorandum from Haig to Staff Secretary; ibid., NSC Files, Box 908, Soviet Defector Case, November 70) For the subsequent Congressional investigation, see U.S. Congress, House, Subcommittee on State Department Organization and Foreign Operations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Attempted Defection by Lithuanian Seaman Simas Kudirka, Hearings and Report (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971).
  6. Drafted by Kissinger and Downey on December 2. In a memorandum to Kissinger on November 30, Sonnenfeldt forwarded the “best obtainable chronology,” including the following background information: “The Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant tied up with a Soviet fishing vessel [Sovetskaya Litva] off Martha’s Vineyard (in US territorial waters) to discuss the question of limiting the size of the Soviet catch of yellow-tailed flounder. This was the first US-Soviet meeting on yellow-tail, but there are informal meetings on fishing matters a couple of times a year. The discussions take place generally under the auspices of the North West Atlantic Fisheries Convention. The meeting was set up some weeks ago with State Department approval. Participating in the meeting were Coast Guard, industry representatives, and Marine Fisheries officials from Interior. The meetings switched back and forth between the two vessels. State had also obtained Port Security clearance for the Soviet vessel.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 908, Soviet Defector Case, November 70)
  7. The documents cited in the chronology are attached to the memoranda at Tabs B and C.
  8. According to Kissinger: “It later turned out that Kudirka had a valid claim to US citizenship. He was permitted to emigrate to the United States after President Ford interceded privately on his behalf with Brezhnev.” (Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 795–796)