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Loy W. Henderson Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
Loy W. Henderson



Career in the US Department of State, 1922-60. Among many assignments served as Director, Near Eastern and African Affairs, 1946-48; Ambassador to India, 1948-51; and Ambassador to Iran, 1951-55.

Washington, D.C.
June 14, 1973 | July 5, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview .

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened January, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Loy W. Henderson

Washington, DC
June 14, 1973
Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, it’s hard to know where to begin in an interview with you, because you’ve had a most distinguished career, with the Soviet Union, particularly.

HENDERSON: Well, I worked eighteen years on Eastern Europe.

MCKINZIE: Yes. It’s difficult, don’t you think to start talking about the Truman era, as April l945. You have to sort of consider the events of the war.

HENDERSON: Would you like then for me to tell you about my position and whereabouts at the time of the death of President Roosevelt and what my initial


feelings were with regard to the Vice President who was succeeding him?

MCKINZIE: Yes, indeed, I would. But we might go back a little bit, if that is agreeable and talk about your experiences in dealing with the Soviets since our relations with the Soviet Union became one of Mr. Truman’s first problems.

HENDERSON: Well, my introduction to matters pertaining to Eastern Europe took place in the early part of 1919 when as a member of the American Red Cross Commission attached to the Interallied Commission for the Repatriation of Prisoners of War with headquarters in Berlin, I acted as an inspector of prison camps in Germany. There were several hundred thousand Russian prisoners in these camps awaiting repatriation, and the problems connected with their repatriation were complex and numerous. There were arguments both in Paris and Berlin with regard to decisions relating to their


repatriation. On the one hand, there was a fear that if they should be sent back to Russia, they would be drafted into the Soviet Army and thus strengthen the Soviet forces who were fighting the Poles. On the other hand, there was the feeling that since they had been fighting as Allies of the West they, like other Allied prisoners, should have the right to return home.

In April 1920, a sub-commission was sent to Lithuania in order to try to find out first hand what the situation was at the German-Soviet front, and what the possibilities were of repatriation through the lines held by the Germans. Under arrangements effected following the Armistice the German armies were charged to remain temporarily in Lithuania in order to hold back the Soviets. This sub-commission was composed of members of the Interallied Commission in Berlin. It was headed by a British major; and its other members consisted of a United States medical officer, a French captain,


an Italian captain, a German officer acting in a liaison capacity, and myself. After consultation with the German commanders and the members of the newly formed Lithuanian Government in Kovno (later Kaunas), we were taken to the front lines where for the first time I came into contact with the Soviet military. Our sub-commission returned to Berlin with assurances that the returning Russian prisoners would be allowed to pass through the lines and go to their homes.

Following my return to Berlin I was assigned to Marienberg, on the borders of East and West Prussia to be in charge of the last stage in Germany of the repatriation. Large stores of army rations were placed in warehouses in Marienberg and as the train loads of prisoners came through on the way to the German-Soviet front each prisoner was given a bag of rations for use in going through the lines. Several U.S. Army non-commissioned officers were assigned to me and two of them would go on each train to the front and then return for the


next train. This kind of repatriation lasted only a month or so. When the Poles pushed back the Russians so that a Polish-Soviet front replaced the German-Soviet front, the Poles would not permit the Russians to return through their lines. Our work in Marienberg thus came to an end.

In the latter part of August 1919, I was sent by the American Red Cross to Riga to talk with representatives there of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, regarding the practicability of and need for an American Red Cross Commission to Western Russia and the Baltic States. I returned to Berlin in September to report to Colonel Ryan, my Chief in the Red Cross, that the governments of those little nations desired very much such a mission and would give it their hearty cooperation.

I then accompanied Colonel Ryan to Paris where this Commission, of which I became a


member, was organized with him as the head. I spent the next six months with that Commission, serving in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. I shall not go into detail here regarding my adventures and experiences during this period, but I learned a great deal while there about that part of the world and about Soviet attitudes and policies.

In April 1920, I was assigned to Berlin as Chief of the American Red Cross office there and remained in that capacity until the latter part of 1921, when I returned to the United States and began to study for the Foreign Service examinations. It had been my original intention to be a lawyer. While I was in law school, however, I failed to get into the armed forces because of a partially stiff right arm, the result of a childhood break. Determined to do my part in the First World War, I went to Europe in the latter part of 1918 with the American Red Cross. During my years in the Red Cross I had met many members of our Foreign


Service. I liked them and became interested in the Service. I took the examinations in January 1922 and entered the Service several months later.

My first post in the Foreign Service was Dublin, Ireland, where I served as Vice Consul. After two years and several months in Ireland, I returned to the United States on home leave. While in Washington, I met by accident Evan E. Young, the Chief of the Eastern European Division of the Department, whom I had known when he was United States Commissioner to the Baltic States. Since there was a vacancy in his Division he asked me, in view of my experience in the area, if I would be willing to take it. When I agreed, he arranged for my transfer. I took over my first post in the Department in that Division in January 1925 and for the next eighteen years I worked on matters pertaining to Eastern Europe in the Department, in the Baltic States, or in the Soviet Union.


MCKINZIE: When you first went into the Foreign Service, had you expected that eventually you would be in Eastern Europe?

HENDERSON: Well, my interests were very much in Eastern and Central Europe. It was my desire, however, to have a variety of experiences, and therefore, I did not request an Eastern European assignment when I entered the Service. I refused to name an area of preference since I thought it would be better for the Department to decide what my first post should be.

MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, I’ve talked to a number of people who contend that you are the teacher of a great number of diplomats in dealing with the Soviet Union, that your experience was early, and that your perception was deep. I’m speaking in particular of Charles Bohlen, Elbridge Durbrow . . .

HENDERSON: Oh, you’ve talked to them.


MCKINZIE: Well, I haven’t talked to Mr. Bohlen yet, but I have talked to Elbridge Durbrow and a number of other people who have been in the Soviet service. Are there outstanding events in those years between the experience in Riga and the Second World War, seminal events which helped you to form your ideas about how one had to cope with the Marxist government of the Soviet Union?

HENDERSON: It would be difficult for me to give what I would consider a satisfactory answer to that question without going into considerable detail. When I first arrived in Berlin in the early part of 1919 and during the subsequent periods when I was in Germany I saw the efforts of the Communists under Soviet guidance to take over the country. Great mobs of Communists or Communist sympathizers under the leadership of so-called "Spartacists" would go into the streets and sometimes for hours pillage, kill, and burn. The Spartacists were highly trained Communist cadres who were in close


communion with Moscow. In Germany and the three Baltic States the Communists were looking for weak spots in which to make trouble, to weaken the governments in power, and to strengthen the world Communist movement.

In the latter part of 1919 I opened an American Red Cross office in Kaunas, Lithuania. The Communists resented our presence and did their best to interfere with our work. They even fired on members of my staff at times. On one evening as I was entering my residence a bullet hit the lintel of the door only a few inches from my head. One of my successors were attacked and wounded, but fortunately even after being shot was able to defend himself from his attackers.

During my many conversations with the Russian prisoners of war in Germany, with refugees pouring into the Baltic States from Russia, and with journalists and other foreign visitors returning from Russia I received


impressions that were lasting. In looking over a report that I wrote to the Red Cross when I returned from my first visit to Lithuania in April 1919, I found that I had stated that the Lithuanians were desperately in need of aid and had urged that the American Red Cross try to help them. I had added that such aid might help them to combat Communist aggression in the area. You can see, therefore, that even at that time I had already formed some ideas with regard to Communists and their activities in Eastern Europe.

MCKINZIE: Would you care to comment, sir, on Franklin Roosevelt and his views about the Soviet Union? He evidently had a very optimistic attitude about the future, and I’ve read some of the dispatches from the Second World War in which you were taking a more cautious view.

HENDERSON: Well, President Roosevelt’s views seemed to vary from time to time. Sometimes when the


Russians seemed almost contemptuous of him and of his feelings, he would become annoyed and be sharply critical of them. In general, however, he seemed to be confident that with his charming personality and his ability to persuade, he would be able to influence them to such an extent as to gain their cooperation.

Although he rarely issued personal statements critical of Soviet policies or specific actions, he was privately unhappy and at times even angered at Soviet attitudes during the period beginning with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of August 1939 and the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. During this period oral instructions from the White House filtered down to us in the operational level of the Department to exercise firmness in dealing with the Soviet authorities in all matters relating to the protection and promotion of our national interests and the interests of American citizens. He personally,


for instance, approved our adoption of a so-called "tit-for-tat policy" recommended by Ambassador Steinhardt in Moscow in dealing with minor problems in our day to day relations with the Soviet Union. That policy was in essence that if Soviet officials would take a stiff unyielding position with respect to certain of our problems we would take a similar position with some of their problems and in doing so would let them know that if they were prepared to be courteous and helpful in connection with our problems we were prepared to treat their problems in a similar spirit.

President Roosevelt was indignant at the manner in which the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States and personally approved the condemnatory statement issued by Under Secretary Welles on the subject. The President, himself, issued statements critical of the Soviet aggression agains