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U.S. National Archives Web Site Uploads Hundreds of Thousands of Diplomatic Cables from 1977

A Step Forward for On-Line Research in International History

Newly Declassified Documents Include an Internal State Department Debate over Brezhnev's Health and Its Possible Impact on U.S.-Soviet Relations

Other Cables Include Warnings that Khmer Rouge Rule Would Cause the “Extinction of the Cambodian Race” and South Korean Dictator’s Justification for Not Showing Leniency toward Protestors

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 463

Posted March 27, 2014

Edited by William Burr

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From left, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, during Schmidt's June 1977 visit to Washington. The smiles concealed difficulties in the Bonn-Washington relationship. (Photograph from Still Pictures Unit, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59-SO, box 40)

Washington, DC, March 27, 2014 – In February 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted 300,000 State Department telegrams from 1977 — the first year of the Jimmy Carter administration — on its Access to Archival Databases system. This posting is another step in carrying out the commitment that NARA and the State Department have made to putting on-line major State Department document databases and indexes as they are declassified. The 1977 telegrams cover the gamut of issues of the day: human rights on both sides of the Cold War line, U.S.-Soviet relations, China, NATO issues, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East Crisis, African affairs, a variety of diplomatic and security relationships around the world from Latin American to Southeast Asia, and issues of growing concern, such as women in development. The last release of on-line State Department material — telegrams and other records for 1976 — was in January 2010. Meeting the requirements of the Privacy Act, budgetary problems, and a complex declassification process prolonged the review and release of the 1977 material.

NARA's mass posting of State Department telegrams began in 2006 when it uploaded nearly 320,000 declassified telegrams from 1973 and 1974. During the following years, NARA posted hundreds of thousands of telegrams from 1975 and 1976, bringing the total to nearly a million. The Access to Archival Databases (AAD) search engine permits searches for documents on a year-to-year basis, but in 2012 Wikileaks usefully repackaged the telegram databases by aggregating them, making it possible to search through all of telegrams at once.

The National Archives has not publicized this or previous diplomatic telegram releases so the National Security Archive is stepping in to the breach to alert researchers and to offer some interesting examples of the new material. Some key documents are already available in the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States historical series, but there is more material than the FRUS editors can use on many topics. A stroll through the AAD search engine produces absorbing results. Among the highlights from the search conducted by the editor:

  • During Jimmy Carter's first year, U.S. officials in Moscow and Washington wondered about Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's state of health and its implications for Moscow-Washington relations, which were already complicated by disagreements over strategic arms control and human rights policy. In an exchange of telegrams State Department intelligence and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow argued over the former's view that Brezhnev's health problems meant that he was "no longer in command of all aspects of Soviet policy." For the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), even if Brezhnev was losing control, he could still be a channel of communication, not unlike Mao Zedong's declining years where "we had more success with Mao's slobbering and shambling through critical meetings with U.S. representatives …than we have had since Mao's passing." Disagreeing with that assessment, U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon acknowledged that Brezhnev "suffers from a variety of physical ailments" but he "is still in control."
  • When two senior U.S. officials met with South Korean dictator General Park Chung Hee in 1977 to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they brought up human rights problems. The detention of dissidents arrested at Myeongdong Cathedral in 1976 was one issue that concerned the White House but Park was reluctant to take a lenient approach because it would "encourage defendants to violate Korean law again."
  • According to a report from the U.S. Embassy in Thailand on the situation in Cambodia and the status of organized resistance against the Khmer Rouge, two informants declared that "the fruit of Khmer Rouge rule might well be the extinction of the Cambodian race." While the Khmer Rouge had continued "to eliminate anyone associated with the former regime," the "greatest threat to life in Cambodia" was disease and famine. The recent rice harvest had been good but the regime was stockpiling and exporting the grain.
  • A telegram on a conversation between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and an influential figure in the South African National Party, Cornelius ("Connie") Petrus Mulder, who was "more liberal" but did not want to get "out in front of agreed policy on apartheid." Young conveyed the message that the administration sought "progressive transformation of South Africa toward majority rule" and the discussion covered the range of regional issues as well as the Young's argument about the possibility of reconciliation based on the "sharing of economic benefits."
  • In mid-1977, the Temple University biologist Niu Man-Chiang was visiting Beijing and met with Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-Ping in the Wade-Giles transliteration), who, after very difficult years during the Cultural Revolution, was again holding top-level positions. Deng claimed that he "was in charge of two things: science and the military," but kept bringing the discussion back to economic policy, especially solving the problem of "feeding a growing population," for which he proposed restricting births and growing more food.

The release includes telegrams at many levels of classification, from "Unclassified" and "Official Use Only" to "Confidential" and "Secret." Moreover, telegrams with a variety of handling restrictions are available, including "Limdis" [limited distribution], "Exdis" [exclusive distribution], and "Nodis" [no distribution except with permission], as well as "Noforn" [no foreign nationals] and "STADIS" [State Department distribution]. Unlike the previous telegram releases, the one for 1977 includes the "nodis" items and also the closely-held cables with the "Cherokee" distribution control, usually reserved for messages involving the secretary of state and senior White House officials. The Cherokee control originated during the 1960s, when Dean Rusk was Secretary of State.  It was named after Cherokee County, Georgia, where he was born.  Information confirmed in e-mail from David Langbart, National Archives, 28 March 2014.

The downside of the 1977 release is that nearly 60,000 telegrams have been exempted altogether, about 19.5 percent of the total for the year. This means that thousands of documents will remain classified for years; even if persistent researchers deluge NARA with requests they will take years to process under present budgetary limitations. Yet, 19.5 percent is close to the same exemption rate for the previous two years: 23 percent for 1976 and 19 percent for 1975. The specific reasons for the withdrawal of a given document are not given; according to information on the Web site, they are withdrawn variously for national security reasons, statutory exemptions, or privacy. No doubt specific statutory exemptions such as the CIA Act and the Atomic Energy Act play a role, which makes one wonder how many exempted documents concern such things as obsolete nuclear stockpile locations that are among the U.S. government's dubious secrets. Moreover, given the endemic problem of over-classification at the Pentagon, it is possible that the Defense Department erroneously classified some information, for example, telegrams relating to NATO's Nuclear Planning Group.

The collection of telegrams is only a segment of the State Department record for that year; still to be declassified and processed for 1977 is the index to the P-reels, the microfilmed record of the non-telegram paper documentation. Moreover, top secret telegrams are not yet available for any year since 1973 and collections of "Nodis" telegrams from the mid-1970s remain unavailable. No doubt, NARA's inadequate funding is an important cause of delay. OMB and Congress have kept NARA on an austerity budget for years; this is a serious problem, which directly damages the cause of greater openness for government records. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), the NARA budget has been declining since FY 2009, despite the agency's ever-growing responsibility for billions of pages of paper and electronic records. Consistent with the policy of forced austerity, OMB has cut NARA's budget for the next fiscal year by $10 million.

At the current rate it will be years before all the telegrams and other material for the 1970s, much less the 1980s, are on-line at AAD. While the State Department has moved forward in reviewing telegrams from the 1980s, its reviewers need to catch up with the "Nodis" and top secret central files from the mid-1970s and 1977 before they get too far ahead of themselves. As for the telegrams for 1978 and 1979, according to recent reports, they have been fully reviewed for declassification and physically transferred to NARA. When they will become available is not clear. They may have to go through a review for privacy information by NARA, for example, of material concerning visa applications. That was a major element contributing to the delay in the release of the 1977 telegrams. Such a review is justifiable, such as when social security numbers are at issue; certainly protecting private information deserves special care. Nevertheless, there is concern, even among NARA staffers, that the privacy review process may be becoming too extensive (e.g., excluding old mailing addresses). More needs to be learned about criteria used for the privacy review.

Note: As in the previous openings, some telegrams are missing for technological reasons. Over the years, when IT specialists migrated the telegram collections from one electronic medium to another some records were lost. Such missing records, of which there are over 3,800 for 1977 are indicated by this wording: "telegram text for this mrn [message reference number] is unavailable." That does not mean that all are gone for good; some copies will show up in embassy files or presidential libraries. Moreover, copies can often be found in P-reel microfilm collections at the State Department and the National Archives, depending on the years. The "message attribution" information appended to such documents [an example] includes the microfilm numbers that can be used for requesting copies.

 


THE DOCUMENTS

Documents 1A-C: Former Soviet Union

A. Moscow Embassy telegram 2124, "Human Rights in the Soviet Union: Where Do We Go From Here?", 14 February 1977, Secret Nodis Cherokee

B. State Department telegram 154538, "Brezhnev's Health and Its Implications for the U.S.," Secret, 2 July 1977, Secret, STADIS

C. Moscow Embassy telegram 9991, "Brezhnev's Health and Its Implications for the U.S.," Secret, 12 July 1977, Secret, STADIS

These cables cover some key issues during Carter's first year. As noted above, Brezhnev's health was a concern and INR and the Embassy exchanged views on this topic. When the new administration raised human rights concerns early on, it met Brezhnev's negative reaction. According to a February 1977 telegram, Ambassador Toon worried that the prestige of both Carter and Brezhnev "is so heavily committed that our area of maneuver may be dangerously circumscribed." He suggested "defusing measures" that could accompany a démarche to Brezhnev on human rights matters.

 

Documents 2A-C: The Middle East and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

A: Consulate Jerusalem telegram 0206, "Is Peace Achievable? A View from Jerusalem," 10 February 1977, Secret

B: State Department telegram 289817, "INTSUM," 5 December 1977, Secret

C: State Department telegram 296726, "INTSUM 461 - December 12, 1977," 13 December 1977, Secret

The Arab-Israeli conflict was a political and foreign policy challenge for the Carter administration, as it had been for its predecessors. Before U.S. policy had crystallized around the goal of an Egyptian-Israel settlement, a telegram from U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem Michael H. Newlin from early 1977 on "Is Peace Achievable," argued that an Israel-Palestinian "peace deal" was conceivable if Israel was "willing to run some risks in the pursuit of peace" and if the creation of an "entity" encompassing the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem sufficiently "meets 'Palestinian interests." Noting that Israel rejected the creation of an independent Palestine, Newlin suggested that demilitarization and "crackdowns" against "rejectionists and terrorists" would meet Israeli security interests. It would be interesting to know what reaction this cable met.

In 1976, when Washington deployed monitors to the Sinai to verify Israeli and Egyptian compliance with understandings on force withdrawals, INR began sending an Intelligence Summary [INTSUM] to the U.S. mission to provide staffers with the latest intelligence concerning developments in the region. Soon the Department was sending the INTSUM to other embassies in the region. Document B explains how the INTSUM was established while document C is a typical of the many INTSUMs that can be found in the 1977 telegrams in that it covers a wide range of issues, such as Israeli governing coalition developments, factionalism in the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's recent peace initiatives.

 

Documents 3A-C: Western Europe (to Pakistan)

A: State Department telegram 70403 (repeating telegram from Embassy Bonn), "Your Meeting with Chancellor Schmidt," 30 March 1977, Secret, Nodis

B: Islamabad Embassy telegram 7404, "French Ambassador on Reprocessing," 20 July 1977, Secret, Exdis

C: Rome Embassy telegram 13015, "Allied Attitudes on Neutron Bombs," 10 August 1977, Secret, Exdis, STADIS

With Western Europe a pivot in the Cold War, U.S-European relations remained very much at the center of Carter administration policies, despite preoccupations with Afghanistan, China, and elsewhere. Despite the close bonds, relations were sometimes difficult as in the instance of the Jimmy Carter-Helmut Schmidt connection. Just before Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was to travel to Bonn for a meeting with the chancellor, a telegram from U.S. Ambassador Walter Stoessel observed that Schmidt's "mood is deeply troubled." He appeared to be "alternately frustrated, perplexed, and irritated" by the administration's stance on nonproliferation, human rights, and economic policy. Moreover, Schmidt could not understand why Washington had suspended its "electronic surveillance operations in Berlin" which he believed were necessary for anti-terrorism purposes.

As in most years of the Cold War, nuclear policies and politics overlapped with major diplomatic relations in 1977. Nuclear nonproliferation was especially important and France was a significant concern in White House policy. A few years earlier, the French had signed a deal with Pakistan to provide a nuclear reprocessing plant, but the U.S. had pressed Paris to suspend it because of Pakistan's nuclear weapons ambitions. By mid-1977, the French were beginning to see the project as "ill-advised," but as U.S. Ambassador Arthur W. Hummel, Jr. observed, they were "hung-up on principle of carrying out contract." Another nuclear issue troubled NATO — the U.S. plans to deploy enhanced radiation weapons (ERW), or "neutron bombs," in Western Europe. A Washington Post story on the ERW roused anti-nuclear sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic and created a policy dilemma for President Carter — whether to produce or not, and then whether to deploy. In Italy, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti had told Carter he had no objection to deployment but with a debate emerging, "there was significant potential for trouble." To avoid fanning the flames, the Embassy had avoided the term "neutron bomb" except in quotation marks and saw "reduced blast weapon" as more appropriate.

 

Documents 4A-C: South Africa

A: State Department telegram 192827, "Soviet Demarche on Nuclear Weapons Development by SAG," 15 August 1977, Secret Nodis

B: State Department telegram 199071, "Evening Reading," 20 August 1977, Secret, Nodis

C: Embassy Pretoria Telegram 4549, "Conversation between Andy Young and Connie Mulder," 1 September 1977, Secret. Nodis

The record of the Young-Mulder conversation is of a fairly candid encounter between a U.S. critic of apartheid and a leading South African government official (although Mulder soon became embroiled in a major government bribery and disinformation scandal that would cost him his political career.) Other interesting items concern the August 1977 discovery of a probable nuclear weapons test site in South Africa's Kalahari Desert. In early August, Brezhnev had sent Carter a message about the South African program, which the State Department and the intelligence community were trying to check out, in this instance by consulting with the International Atomic Energy Agency. A 20 August 1977 "Evening Reading" item [sent to the Secretary of State when traveling] included South Africa's far-fetched denial of a weapons program.

 

Documents 5A-D: East Asia

A: Rangoon Embassy telegram 0447, "… And … Oh Yes, Burma in the Post-Vietnam Era," 14 February 1977, Secret

B: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 4457, "Human Rights: Meeting with President Park," 27 May 1977, Secret, Nodis

C: U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing telegram 1767, "Teng Hsiao-Ping's Conversation with Dr. Niu Man-Chiang," 17 August 1977, Secret, Noforn

D: Bangkok Embassy telegram 21997, "Cambodia — Conversations with the Resistance," 29 September 1977, Secret, Exdis

Telegrams from embassies in the Northeast and Southeast regions of East Asia indicate a range of concerns including the post-Vietnam situation, the narcotics trade, the resistance to the Khmer Rouge, human rights, and the goals of China's leaders. Pointing to the neglect of Burma in U.S. policy, the Embassy in Rangoon noted that policymakers should not forget about a "paramount" U.S. interest, the "golden triangle, a major factor in the international narcotics traffic." The Burmese Government remained "relatively efficient" at combating the trade, although Rangoon needed to be reminded that "our main interest is in narcotics control and not in killing insurgents [tied to the trade] per se." The embassy saw human rights abuses as a problem although apparently not the worst case in the region because it found no "no systematic governmental use of torture."

A major Carter administration initiative in Northeast Asia was a proposal for withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. Confident in South Korea's growing economic and military strength, the administration believed that the withdrawals were possible and consistent with U.S. security guarantees; nevertheless, significant air force units would be retained to support South Korea's security. Several meetings in late May with a skeptical South Korea President Park Chung Hee reviewed the U.S. proposal. Also on the agenda, although not directly linked to force withdrawals, were human rights abuses by the military dictatorship, with Park arguing against the release of jailed protestors because they would "violate Korean law again."

Note : Thanks to Robert Wampler for suggesting the telegrams on South Korea.

 

Document 6: State Department telegram 163813, "Use of Nodis," 14 July 1977, Unclassified

The State Department found that too many embassies were using the "Nodis" control when they sent telegrams and advised them to use it more carefully — only for "messages of the highest sensitivity." Somewhat less sensitive messages could be sent using "Exdis" or "Limdis."

 

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