Memorandum of Conversation

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Memorandum of Conversation

24 August 1948


Participants: Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. D. V Sandifer, Mr. James Simsarian, Mr. Gilbert Stewart

Subject: Review of General Assembly Position Papers with Mrs. Roosevelt

This is a report of that portion of the conversation with Mrs. Roosevelt relating to the position papers for the third session of the General Assembly. The papers for Committees 2 and 3 were reviewed with her in considerable detail and part of the papers for Committee 1 only briefly.1 Mrs. Roosevelt had comments of moment with respect to the following:

1. Draft International Declaration of Human Rights

When she was first informed that the Department thinking on this subject is that the draft Declaration should be approved at this session of the General Assembly she expressed her continued concern that such a move might prejudice the completion of the draft International Covenant on Human Rights.2 Ambassador Austin came into the room to greet Mrs. Roosevelt, and remained for a few minutes to participate in the discussion on this subject. He said that he was not familiar with the question but his offhand judgment would be to press for action at this session. He felt that world opinion demands the approval of the Declaration at this time and that to postpone its approval would be a great disappointment to people throughout the world. Furthermore he felt that there would be considerable misunderstanding if the United States were to take the position that the approval of the Declaration be postponed even though our motives might be commendable ones. Mrs. Roosevelt agreed at the conclusion of this discussion that the United States should support and urge the adoption of the Declaration at the third session of the General Assembly as its first step in the Human Rights program.3 As pointed out in the Department's position paper it would be made clear in the General Assembly that the Declaration forms only part of the International Bill of Human Rights being prepared by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and that the completion of the Covenant on Human rights is essential.

2. Chilean Case on the Soviet Wives of Foreign Nationals

Mrs. Roosevelt agreed that the United States should take the initiative in presenting to the attention of the General Assembly relevant data concerning the refusal of the USSR to permit Soviet spouses of American citizens to leave the Soviet Union. She agreed that the Delegation should point out the inhuman character of this treatment of Soviet wives of foreign nationals. She mentioned that she has had some correspondence with Gromyko concerning the Soviet wives of a number of GIs who have asked her to intervene on their behalf; she intends to bring this correspondence with her for possible reading in the General Assembly.4

3. Freedom of Information Conventions

Mrs. Roosevelt expressed considerable concern with the inconsistency of the proposed United Kingdom convention on freedom of information with the United States position with respect to the draft International Covenant on Human Rights. She thought that a careful educational job must be done at the General Assembly on this subject delegation by delegation in order that there will be a full appreciation of the undesirability of approving the provisions of the United Kingdom convention which undertakes to list specific limitations to the right to freedom of information.

It was agreed that discussion should be held as soon as possible with the United Kingdom to urge it to withdraw its convention from the General Assembly until after the draft International Covenant has been fully considered at the next session of the Commission on Human Rights. It was recognized that such discussions with the United Kingdom should very likely be held at a high level. If the United Kingdom is unwilling to withdraw the convention the United States Delegation should press for the referral of the United Kingdom convention to the Commission on Human Rights for its consideration in connection with the drafting of the Covenant at its next session in 1949 in order that a preliminary approval of the United Kingdom convention would not prejudice the United States position with respect to the Covenant. Mrs. Roosevelt felt that it might be much too difficult to educate all the delegations at the General Assembly concerning the undesirability of specific limitations without first thoroughly working this matter out in the Commission on Human Rights in connection with the Covenant.5

4. Presidency of General Assembly

Mr. Sandifer reported to her that the three persons being considered for the Presidency of the General Assembly are Arce (Argentina), Evatt (Australia) and Bech (Luxembourg). Mrs. Roosevelt said that she would prefer Bech and that her second choice would be Evatt. Mr. Sandifer asked Mrs. Roosevelt if she thought that Madame Pandit (India) would be a satisfactory president of the General Assembly. He said the possibility had been mentioned of the desirability of supporting India for the presidency, if it should be willing to accept this in lieu of a place on the Security Council or the Economic and Social Council. Mrs. Roosevelt thought that Madame Pandit would be a satisfactory president and that the United States might support her for that position if India would be willing to withdraw its candidacy for a seat on the Security Council or the Economic and Social Council.6

6. Racial Discrimination

Mrs. Roosevelt said that the NAACP intends to send Walter White to Paris as an observer and that he has asked to see her before leaving for Paris. She agreed to inform the Department of any information she receives from Mr. White relating to the possibility of the question of racial discrimination being raised in the General Assembly.7


1. ER most likely examined earlier drafts of the State Department position papers on the Draft Convention on Freedom of Information; Protest by Chile Concerning Refusal of U.S.S.R. to Allow Soviet Daughter-in-Law of Former Chilean Ambassador to Leave Soviet Union and Refusal of U.S.S.R. to Allow Soviet Wives of Foreign Nationals to Leave Soviet Union; Draft International Declaration of Human Rights; and Discrimination Against Negroes in the United States.

In the Draft Convention on Freedom of Information the department argued that it was "highly desirable that agreement be reached with the UK in order to avoid an open split. At the same time, every effort should be made to arrive at a text as satisfactory as possible, especially because of the connection between this convention and the Covenant on Human Rights." Addressing ER's earlier concerns about the "undesirability" of approving the provisions of the UK convention that sought to list specific limitations to the right to freedom of information, the State Department recommended the delegation "substitute a general limitations clause for the list of specific limitations in Article 2."

Concerning the Chilean case on the Soviet wives of foreign nationals the State Department insisted that the US delegation should "take the initiative in presenting to the attention of the General Assembly … the inhuman character of this treatment," but did not want the delegation to vote for "any resolution which by its language states that the U.S.S.R. violated international law or the provisions of the Charter or any other agreement by refusing to permit the Soviet daughter-in-law of the former Chilean Ambassador to leave the Soviet Union or by refusing to permit the Soviet wives of other foreign nationals to leave the Soviet Union."

With reference to the Draft International Declaration of Human Rights, the department requested that the US delegation secure approval of the draft by the General Assembly "without change." If, however, it proved impossible to secure the approval of the declaration without "substantial" change, the department recommended the delegation "support and vote for the Declaration as amended unless it contains seriously objectionable features."

In case the Soviet Union charged the United States with discrimination against African Americans, the State Department recommended the US delegation respond by pointing out that "while the United States is not perfect, it is undertaking to meet the problem of discrimination in this country and that conditions are decidedly improving year by year." The department also suggested the delegation point out that "basic human rights and freedoms are being increasingly denied in the Soviet Union and that the issue of discrimination naturally is not in as sharp a focus in a country (such as the USSR) where the masses of people are being denied so many of the basic human rights and freedoms such as the freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, a government subject to the will of the governed, etc." (Draft Convention on Freedom of Information, 8 September 1948, [SD/A/C.3/97], RG84, NARA II; Protest by Chile Concerning Refusal of U.S.S.R. to Allow Soviet Daughter-in-Law of Former Chilean Ambassador to Leave Soviet Union and Refusal of U.S.S.R. to Allow Soviet Wives of Foreign Nationals to Leave Soviet Union, 26 August 1948, [SD/A/C.3/72], RG84, NARA II; Draft International Declaration of Human Rights, 20 August 1948 [SD/A/C.3/65], RG84, NARA II; Discrimination Against Negroes in the United States, 26 August 1948, [SD/A/C.3/69] and 30 August 1948, [SD/A/C.3/76], RG84, NARA II).

2. In a separate memorandum summarizing the discussion at this meeting, Gilbert Stewart explained that ER feared pushing for the adoption of the declaration at the upcoming session of the General Assembly would result in "a let down when people begin to realize it is not an enforceable treaty." She also worried that "momentum may be lost in the drive to complete the Covenant" (Gilbert Stewart to Warren Austin, 25 August 1948, RG84, NARA II).

3. Stewart wrote that, by the end of the conversation, ER accepted Sandifer's argument that approving the declaration at this time "might be a stimulus to the drive for a Covenant rather than a retarding factor." He convinced ER that it was "wiser to take advantage of the momentum now generated behind the Declaration lest delay now should cause failure to produce both a Declaration and a Covenant" (Gilbert Stewart to Warren Austin, 25 August 1948, RG84, NARA II).

4. The head of the Chilean delegation to the UN, Hernán Santa Cruz, asked that the General Assembly debate the USSR's practice of prohibiting the emigration of Soviet wives of foreigners at its third session to be held in Paris in the fall of 1948. The State Department had protested the Soviet practice already. In May 1947, the department asked the Soviet embassy to grant exit visas to the 250 Soviet wives of American citizens and they never received a response. Now that the General Assembly considered addressing the issue, Andrei Gromyko wrote a letter to Secretary-General Trygve Lie claiming that discussion of the matter would be "interference … in matters which are within the internal jurisdiction of state," and therefore a violation of the UN Charter. Despite Gromyko's protest, the General Assembly did debate the matter, and ER spoke in favor of censuring the USSR. On April 25, 1949, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that condemned the Soviet policy of refusing to allow the wives of foreigners to leave the country as a violation of "fundamental human rights, traditional diplomatic practices and other principles of the Charter" ("Chile asks U.N. to Study Soviet Ban on Wives' Exit," NYT, 29 May 1948, 3; "U.S. Prods Russia on American Wives," NYT, 5 December 1947, 1; "Soviet in U.N. Protest on Charge on Wives," NYT, 25 June 1948, 14; "U.N. Finds Russians Violating Charter by Curb on Wives," NYT, 26 April 1949, 1; "Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly During Its Third Session," United Nations,, accessed 24 March 2006).

5. From March 23 to April 21, 1948, the UN held an International Conference on Freedom of Information in Geneva, Switzerland. The 600 delegates who represented more than fifty nations approved three draft conventions and several resolutions dealing with freedom of information. Although the United States agreed with the UK on most issues at the conference, the American delegation abstained from the vote approving the UK's Draft Convention on Freedom of Information because it included a clause that allowed governments to take legal action against those responsible for the "systematic diffusion of deliberately false and distorted reports which undermine friendly relations between people and states." By October 1949, when the convention came before the General Assembly, the British abandoned their draft, agreeing with the United States that the convention might actually do more to restrict the free flow of information than to promote it. At that session, ER called for postponement of discussion on the convention, arguing that the UN's efforts would be better directed at finishing a covenant on human rights—a treaty that would include protections for freedom of information—than continuing the debate on the UK's draft convention which had produced "deep disagreement" ("Free Press Parley Opens with Clash," NYT, 24 March 1948, 13; "Press Conference Votes More Curbs," NYT, 13 April 1948, 10; Kenneth Campbell, "Free Press Drafts Adopted at Geneva," NYT, 22 April 1948, 3; "Information Pact Is Shelved By U.N.," NYT, 21 October 1949, 2).

6. José Arce (1881–1968) of Argentina served as president of the second special session of the General Assembly, which convened in April and May 1948, to handle the Palestine question. He hoped to retain his position as president during the General Assembly's third regular session. By the time delegates arrived in Paris in September 1948, Arce was no longer eligible for the post as only the ranking member of a delegation may hold the office and Argentina chose to send Arce's superior, foreign minister Juan Atilio Bramuglia (1903–1962) to the third session. On September 21, Australian foreign minister Herbert Vere Evatt (1894–1965) became the new General Assembly president with the votes of thirty-one member nations, including the United States, to Bramuglia's twenty. Joseph Bech (1887–1975), the chairman of the Political and Security (First) Committee of the General Assembly in 1947, and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900–1990), the sister of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and head of India's UN delegation, were not on the General Assembly's presidential ballot in 1948. Pandit was later elected president during the eighth session of the General Assembly, which met in 1953, making her the first female to hold that position ("Dr. Jose Arce, 86, Diplomat, Is Dead," NYT, 20 July 1968, 20; "Evatt Leads in U.N. to Head Assembly," NYT, 19 September 1948, 54; "Juan Bramuglia, Peron Aide, Dead," NYT, 5 September 1962, 38; "Evatt Heads U.N. Assembly," NYT, 22 September 1948, 1; "Herbert Evatt of Australia Dies," NYT, 2 November 1965, 33; "Joseph Bech, Statesman, Dead," 10 March 1975, 32; "Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, Politician and Nehru's Sister, Is Dead at 90," NYT, 2 December 1990, 53).

7. At the invitation of the State Department, White planned to attend the meeting of the General Assembly in Paris as a consultant to the US delegation. ER agreed to meet with White at her apartment in New York City on September 1, 1948. Neither White nor ER kept a written record of their conversation. Chester Williams, public liaison officer for the US Mission to the UN, however, reported in a memorandum of conversation dated September 9 on his recent discussion with White about bringing the issue of racial discrimination before the General Assembly. White, Williams wrote,

pointed out that this matter was formulated personally by Dr. DuBois; that it is his pet project; that because of his personal prestige and age he is given a good deal of latitude to perform as a lone-wolf; that he takes advantage of this position and fails to consult with committees or boards of directors, knowing that they would be reluctant to criticize him on the substance of the proposal after he had given it public airing.

Mr. White pointed out, however, that he had no intention of pressing for the matter to be brought up at the General Assembly, although he thought Dr. DuBois might personally try to insinuate it through the Liberian Delegation. He doubted that he would attempt to get any of the Eastern satellites of the Soviet Union to carry the ball. He said that for his part he is much more concerned with the positive work of the Human Rights Commission and the Declaration on the Human Rights. He planned to talk to Mrs. Roosevelt about these matters before sailing.

He also pointed out that his Board wanted him to go rather than DuBois because of DuBois tendency to act on his own initiative with[out] consultation.

Williams sent a copy of this confidential memorandum to ER. White had further opportunities to discuss issues of importance to the NAACP with ER and other members of the US delegation when he joined them on board the SS America for the voyage to Europe. For more on the NAACP petition, Du Bois's efforts to bring it before the UN, and his disagreement with White over the issue, see Document 365 (Walter White to ER, 18 August 1948, AERP; ER to Walter White, 23 August 1948, AERP; Walter White to ER, 27 August 1948, AERP; Chester S. Williams, Memorandum Conversation, 9 September 1948, RG84, NARA II; Lewis, 534; Janken, 309-10).

On the Kosenkina Controversy and the Dean of Canterbury

Irving H. Flamm, former president of the Chicago Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and contributing columnist for the English-language monthly Soviet Russia Today, repeatedly wrote ER objecting to her characterization of the Soviet Union as "an aggressor nation."1 Conceding that "the Russians are sometimes difficult, sullen, oversensitive and occasionally crude," Flamm nevertheless thought their behavior "ought to be charged up to a fear phobia [attributable to] the after-effects of bitter experiences." He then asked if "maybe we deserve some of the blame" and challenged ER to realize that "it is high time to unwind all this before it really leads to a suicidal war neither side can win."2

August 25 he drew particular attention to two recent State Department actions that generated sensational press: its refusal to issue a visa to the Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, the dean of Canterbury, in reaction to his membership in the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship3 and its response to Soviet teacher Oksana Stepanova Kosenkina's desperate plea for asylum.4 The American press "puffed up" Kosenkina's resistance to deportation "far beyond its real importance." After all, he wrote:

To political refugees in displaced person camps, we offer little hope of admission no matter how fine their characters may be. But when a couple of Russian teachers, impressed with our broader freedoms and especially our higher living standards, show a willingness to remain here, immigration barriers are forgotten, our press gives the story daily headlines, ready to push us into a war in defense of our right to keep them here.

He then concluded by asking ER to "use her influence with the State Department to reverse its recent decision barring the Dean of Canterbury," arguing that the department's ruling "is against our tradition of free speech."

ER quickly responded.

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