Did Truman Meet with NATO Foreign Ministers on 3 April 1949?
A Cold War Mystery
Edited by William Burr
August 2000

"Memorandum of Conversation, " 3 April 1949, The White House
[Location of original: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Records of the Executive Secretariat, Records of Robert W. Komer, 1948-68, box 1, "Komer Washington Papers."]
      This relatively obscure document presents an extraordinary puzzle.   Although purportedly recording an extraordinarily candid and illuminating off-the-record meeting at Harry Truman's White House on the eve of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, so far no documentation of this event has shown up in the official or unofficial records of the Truman administration.   Some historians believe that this document is a concoction and that the meeting it supposedly records never took place.  That may well be true and further research may only confirm that assessment.   If this document is genuine, however, only multi-archival research can confirm its authenticity.

The Puzzle
    Ostensibly, this document is the transcript of a White House meeting on 3 April 1949, the day before the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty.  The creation of a trans-Atlantic alliance was a momentous step and the document indicates President Harry Truman and senior U.S. policymakers--Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson--providing secret briefings to the foreign ministers of other NATO signatory countries, including Paul-Henri Spaak (Belgium), Robert Schuman (France), Ernest Bevin (U.K.), Dirk Stikker (the Netherlands), Count Carlo Sforza (Italy), and Halvard Lange (Norway).  The discussion is extraordinarily illuminating not only for the straightforward way in which the Europeans expressed their concerns about U.S. thinking but also for the candor with which U.S. officials presented their objectives.

    If the document is the genuine record of an important meeting, it has exceptional significance.  As University of Virginia historian Melvyn P. Leffler observed after reading it for the first time, "it is a terrific document" and "very revealing."1  The problem is that, so far as this writer knows, other than this document, there is absolutely no record of, or any other information about, such a White House meeting on the evening of 3 April 1949.  Neither the standard biographies nor the more specialized studies refer to this event and neither Truman nor Acheson mentioned it in their memoirs.2   About fifteen years ago, this document came to the attention of State Department historians when they reviewed the papers of the late Robert Komer.  They brought it to Komer's attention, but he had no recollection of the document.3  They also showed it to archivists at the Truman Library who could find no record of the meeting or any information about it.  Dean Acheson’s appointment book does not indicate a meeting on 3 April; neither does the appointment calendar of Louis Johnson.  Truman’s appointments secretary, Matthew Connelly, did not, as a rule, prepare an appointments schedule for Sunday.4

      That the meeting was "off-the-record" may explain the lack of references in the literature. Nevertheless, the existence of this document is mysterious.  Who created it? As Truman is reported to have said, no "advisers" were present, so there was no lower-level State Department official to take notes.  Perhaps some official eavesdropped during the meeting but who it was remains to be learned because no drafting information appears on the text.  Certainly, Robert Komer's relationship to the document is a mystery.  He was, in 1949, a junior analyst in the CIA's Office of Reports and Estimates (ORE), although in later years he would hold senior positions, on the NSC staff, in Vietnam and Turkey, and as deputy secretary of defense.  Regrettably, Ambassador Komer does not recall how the document came into his possession.5  The "Return to Bob Komer" notation on the first page's top right corner indicates a proprietary interest, but not necessarily authorship.

      Surprisingly, this document bears no classification marking.  Consistently, records of sensitive meetings from this period were classified secret or top secret; moreover, the initials or full name of the transcriber would generally be indicated on the document itself.  Those anomalies, as well as the absence of any information about the meeting in contemporary documents, make it reasonable to question the authenticity of this document.  Thus, State Department historians along with Archivists at the Truman Library eventually concluded that the document was very likely spurious.6  After all, if NATO foreign ministers had descended upon the White House on a Sunday evening, it would have been difficult to keep it a secret.  Nevertheless, before government historians had reached such conclusions, it had been published on microfiche as a supplement to the State Department's document series, Foreign Relations of the United States.7

       The Dutch scholars Cees Wiebes and Bert Zeeman later saw the document in the FRUS microfiche series and decided that it was significant enough to be published independently; they reproduced the English-language text, with an introduction, in Zeitgeschichte.8  Treating the document as authentic, Wiebes and Zeeman nevertheless looked for archival traces of a 3 April meeting in the British, Dutch, and French archives but found nothing to confirm that it had taken place.

      Professor Stephen Schuker, University of Virginia, has suggested the possibility that this document "could have been made up contemporaneously by bright lower-level aides on the U.S. side."  Schuker hypothesizes that the aides may have been disgusted by the "cautious way in which the top people actually talked to each other at such an important event."  Perhaps they "constructed this as a spoof of what the various sides really should have said if they were placing their cards openly on the table."  For a fuller exposition of Professor Schuker's views, see Appendix A below.

The Substance
    As Stephen Schuker notes in his detailed comments, if this memorandum of conversation is genuine, it is "one of the most explosive and fantastic documents of the Cold War."  Even if the document was concocted, however, those who prepared it were Truman administration insiders who had very detailed knowledge and a sophisticated understanding of the direction of U.S. foreign policy as well as the hidden agendas of the U.S.'s European allies.  For example, the document captures the essential features of Dean Acheson's thinking about the German problem as it had developed by the spring of 1949: that the new West German state had to be tied very closely to the West in order to avoid the danger of neutralism, with Germany "play[ing] off one bloc against the other."

      Also showing insider knowledge is the portrayal of the European reaction to "Acheson's" arguments that Western security required taking “calculated risks.”  For example, the Europeans argued that reviving Germany and Japan could not only lead to nationalist resurgence but also increased commercial competition.  The Europeans did not want to compete with Japan in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, although ”Acheson" insisted that if the West did not tolerate Japanese exports, Tokyo could fall under Soviet influence.  Singling out the Dutch and the French, "Truman" and "Acheson" further advised the Europeans to avoid a reactionary approach toward independence movements in the colonies; otherwise “native radicalism” and Communists could gain influence, and the control of important colonial economic resources could be jeopardized. Dutch Foreign Minister Dirk Stikker, who was already under heavy U.S. pressure to liquidate Dutch rule in Indonesia, is portrayed as showing his resentment by insinuating that the Americans wanted the Dutch out so they could capture Indonesian markets.9

        As shown by NSC 68 and the Korean War military buildup, Truman and Acheson came to believe that "vast rearmament" was necessary.  They would give far greater support to French colonialism in Southeast Asia than they may have originally intended.  Nevertheless, readers may find striking how much this document discloses about the main lines of Truman-Acheson national security policy, as well as U.S. policy beyond the Truman years.  For example, both Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, shared the same commitment to “undermin[ing] the base of Soviet power,” to rebuilding Western Europe, to reviving the German and Japanese economies and to integrating them into the West, and to ensuring that Southeast Asian economies served Western needs.  Thus, just as Truman and Acheson believed that French Indochina was important for European economic recovery, their successors, Eisenhower and Dulles, believed that Southeast Asian resources, including Vietnam, had to be available to the West.

A World-Wide Web Parallel Processing Experiment
        Plainly more work is necessary to determine how this document was created and found its way into Robert Komer's papers.   If any of Komer's colleagues from CIA/ORE days are alive and well, perhaps they may have some recollections.  A more comprehensive sweep of Western European archives--the archival equivalent of computer parallel processing--may confirm what Wiebes and Zeeman learned, that supporting documents do not exist.  Archival clues may show, however, that there was a meeting or, alternatively, that European foreign ministers could not have been in the same room at the same time on 3 April.   If any readers are familiar with the papers of Ernest Bevin, Paul-Henri Spaak, Robert Schuman, Dirk Stikker, Carlo Sforza, or Halvard Lange, they may be able to help resolve the mystery of this document.  Any substantive contributions should be mailed to nsarchiv@gwu.edu, and will be posted as they arrive.

       If, as seems likely, further research confirms that a meeting on 3 April 1949 never took place, the Komer memorandum will serve as a useful warning to archival researchers: not all documents are what they purport to be.  A supposedly official paper that concocts a meeting is extraordinary.   Perhaps less exceptional are those doctored records that can be found in archival collections, documents that were once circulated as supposedly complete records of high-level meetings but that were prepared to conceal parts of the proceedings or otherwise prettify them.10  That such documents are necessarily hard to detect means that researchers must always approach their sources with healthy skepticism.

William Burr, Senior Analyst

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1. E-mail message from Melvyn P. Leffler, 27 December 1999.  Since then, Professor Leffler has become skeptical about the authenticity of the document.

2. For memoirs, see Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years at the State Department (New York, 1969) and Harry Truman, Memoirs: Years of Trial and Hope (New York, 1956).  For biographies, see David G. McCullough, Truman (New York, 1992), Robert Ferrell, Harry S. Truman (Columbia, MO, 1994), Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York, 1995).  For more specialized studies, see, for example, Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1949-53 (New York, 1982), and Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, 1992), and Lawrence S. Kaplan, The United States and NATO: The Formative Years (Lexington, 1984).

3. Conversation with historian at Office of the Historian, Secretary of Defense, 22 February 2000. Before it was determined that the document was probably spurious, State Department officials placed a copy of the document in a collection of Dean Acheson’s memoranda of conversations.   See National Archives, Record Group 59, Records of the Executive Secretariat (Dean Acheson), Memos of Conversation, 1947-52, box 12,”Memos of Conversations, March-April 1949.”

4. E-mails from Randy Sowell, archivist, Truman Library, 13 and 20 January 2000; e-mail from Ann Southwell, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library, 8 February 2000; e-mail from Steven Schuker, History Department, University of Virginia, 16 February 2000.

5. Telephone conversation with Robert Komer, 14 January 2000.  According to a staffer at the OSD historian's office, during the 1980s Komer was asked about the document back and he did not remember anything about it.  Conversation, 22 February 2000.

6. Conversation with State Department official, 27 February 2000.

7. U.S. State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States,  Memoranda of Conversations of the Secretary of State, 1947-52, Microfiche publication (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1988).

8. See Cees Wiebes and Bert Zeeman, "Eisen Lehrstunde in Machtpolitik:Die Vereinigten Staaten and ihre Partner am Vorabend de NATO Grundüng'[A Lesson in Power Politics: The United States and Its Partners at the Founding of NATO],"  Vierteljahrshefte für Zeigeschichte, 1992, 413-423.

9. Facing the threat of losing U.S. economic aid, the Dutch quickly settled.  As a U.S. diplomat observed,  “Money talked.”  See Robert J. McMahon, Colonialism and Cold War: The United States and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence, 1945-49 (Ithaca. 1981).

10. For example, Henry Kissinger's aides would sanitize records of Nixon's conversations, removing the more sensitive portions of the discussion, before sending them to the State Department. For the "truncation" of a "very spicy" Nixon conversation with British Prime Minister Edward Heath, see Winston Lord to Kissinger, "Memcons of Meetings Between the President and Heath, Brosio," 17 November 1970, PPS, box 334, Winston Lord-Chron November 1970.  Among the portions that were removed were discussions of Chile, U.S. war plans, and Nixon's racist comments on Africa and Africans.  A sanitized version ended up in Nixon's own office files; only Winston Lord (and presumably Kissinger) had the more complete record.

Appendix A

E-mail from Professor Stephen Schuker, History Department, to Professor Melvyn P. Leffler, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Virgina:

    The document that you sent me is so good that I can't but wonder whether it is fully authentic.  Do you think that this is an actual transcript of the conversation, or that the staff later prettied up what was said?  Indeed, I wonder about the status of this document in general, since it has no security classification.  Moreover, Truman starts off with such a brilliant analysis of the essential problems of the Cold War that one wonders whether he was capable of speaking that well without a prepared text.  What would he know, for example, of Lenin's "ebb and flow" doctrine?  Could he find Kamchatka or Skaggerak on a map?  And if he did not write the words attributed to him, who prepared them? Acheson or the White House staff?

    Acheson also seems more up front than he has shown himself in most documents I have seen.  Remember that at this time Acheson had commissioned a review of broad-gauged policy toward Germany.  We know that by 11 May he had more or less come around to the line here adumbrated.  But had he done so in time to outline the policy so clearly by 3 April?  If so, he had rejected Kennan's "Plan A" [for German reunification] many weeks before Kennan found out about it.  We then have the puzzle why someone (Kennan or his allies) sought to give the impression to Reston that Plan A was still in play shortly before the sherpas gathered for the Paris Conference in mid-May 1949.

    There are other problems with the text as well.  Both Schuman and Bevin are quoted saying things that everyone believed that they thought, but that they often officially denied.  For example, Schuman says that  "perpetual neutralization of Germany... appears to us the ideal solution."  He favors "keeping Germany decentralized and weak."  Elsewhere, however, he takes the official line that the Germans must show their readiness for readmission to the Atlantic community and that French public opinion will have to be brought along by deeds, but he denies the theory of perpetual subjugation.  Moreover, perpetual neutralization, to which the Russians agreed, would also rule out perpetually any defense in front of the Rhine line, which in effect might make France itself indefensible.

    Bevin argues that socialization of the Trizone economy is "essential" before the Trizone has been brought into existence.  He also says this in front of Spaak and Schuman, who have been arguing with his Foreign Office that the property rights of French and Belgian nationals in the Ruhr, constituting 15% of the whole, cannot be infringed.  Bevin also says that "to be perfectly frank, His Majesty's Government are no little concerned with the revival of German trade competition....  Revived German industry, especially in such categories as shipbuilding and machinery, is a dangerous thing."  Naturally, Bevin and his colleagues actually believed this, but they almost always said the opposite in public. Even in confidential committee meetings in London, it was the fashion at this time to allege that Britain wanted to restrict German industry purely for security reasons and that competition had nothing to do with it.  This was the official British line during dismantling discussions in September 1949.

    Another point that caught my eye was Louis Johnson saying that he could not look too favorably on rearming Western Europe if that merely permitted diversion of troops to "hopeless colonial warfare," e.g. in Indo-China.  Could Schuman really have let that go without a reply?  Then we have Sforza, whose country had just won admission to the North Atlantic Treaty on sufferance and against harsh British opposition, lecturing the U.S. on its tariff policy.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

    On the other hand, there are many other parts of the discussion that ring true.  There are some passages that would have been embarrassing to the Truman Administration, say in June 1950, and that one assumes would have excised from a document drawn up or revised later than that.  Imagine if the China lobby had caught Truman saying "I intend to order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to keep aid to strategically peripheral areas to the minimum."

    Bottom line: this document confuses me.  If it is fully genuine, it's one of the most explosive and fantastic documents of the Cold War.  It shows the principals of 1949 speaking frankly to each other and saying quite openly what historians have had so far to tease by indirection from a thousand different documents. But what guarantees to we have that it is fully genuine?  If the meeting was held with "no advisers present," who was the note-taker?  And why does the only copy turn up fifty years later in the Robert Komer Papers?

    Do you have any similar suspicions?  Or are there enough passages that echo what you have found elsewhere that you are inclined to accept the transcript?  Did your friends at the National Security Archive who have seen the original have anything to say about the paper or the typing?  Do the peculiarities of the typing (capital letters raised out of alignment) conform to other documents around it in the file?

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