Truman's Ultimatum to Stalin on the 1946 Azerbaijan Crisis

Author: James A. Thorpe
Source: The Journal of Politics, Vol. 40, No.1, (Feb. 1978)
Published by: Cambridge University Press

The Making of a Myth:
Although it always has been clear that the United States generally supported the Iranian attempt to get Soviet troops to evacuate Azerbaijan in northern Iran by and immediately after March 2, 1946, the pre-stated withdrawal date for Allied troops in Iran,1 it has only been since 1952 that Harry S. Truman claimed that he had given Joseph Stalin an ultimatum which forced the Russian evacuation of May, 1946. It is the thesis of this paper that the ultimatum is a myth created by Truman and perpetuated by scholars. The thesis is premised upon evidence which, to the best of this writer's knowledge, has never appeared in any scholarly book. This paper will examine three aspects of the topic: the evolution of Truman's claim, contrary evidence, and scholarly perpetuation of the myth. It also will serve as a reminder and prime example of the need for scholars to maintain a critical approach to Truman despite his image of honesty.

Truman's claim to have sent an ultimatum to Stalin on the Azerbaijan affair, the first case of aggression and subversion to appear before the new United Nations,2 evolved between 1952 and 1960. Truman first asserted such an ultimatum during a presidential press and radio conference on April 24, 1952, while Stalin was still alive. The conference concerned Truman's two general points: the need to increase presidential power (specifically on presidential seizure of the steel industry), and the need to strengthen American armed forces (specifically on restoration of the favorable military posture enjoyed by the United States at the end of World War II which allowed Truman to stand up to the Russians). The most controversial aspect of the conference concerned the alleged ultimatum, a topic immediately pursued by reporters in the question and answer period. Asked if the ultimatum document could be published, Truman replied that it could not but that it was "in the record." Noting that the term "ultimatum" has a particular meaning, a reporter asked if there was a time limit in the message to Stalin. Truman said there was a specific deadline day. When asked if Stalin had given a written reply, the President replied only that Stalin had gotten out of Iran. The vagueness of his memory was illustrated when both he and his press secretary, Joseph Short, stated that they did not know offhand if the ultimatum had been sent before or after the Potsdam Conference of mid-1945.3
Truman's ultimatum claim was challenged by a member of his own staff. Two hours after the conference, a White House spokesman orally informed reporters that there had been no "ultimatum"; that the President had used the term only in a non-technical layman's sense; that the "ultimatum"was merely a note outlining the general American position on the 1946 crisis which was sent through regular diplomatic channels on March 6, 1946; and that the note had been published on March 8, 1946.4
The note, in fact sent by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to the American charge in Moscow, George F. Kennan, for delivery to Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov, reveals nothing even approaching an ultimatum. The strongest language in the note merely stated that the United States "can not remain indifferent" about the 1946 crisis and that Washington ". . . expresses the earnest hope that the Government of the Soviet Union will do its part, by withdrawing immediately all Soviet forces from the territory of Iran. . . .5 The March 6 message can hardly be considered an ultimatum.
The ultimatum claim brought reactions from both Congress and the Russians. Noting the lack of coordination between Truman and the White House staff on the ultimatum topic, Congressman Clare Hoffman proposed the creation of an "Advisory Censor," whose job it would be to check out factual material before Truman gave his speeches.6 The Russian reaction was more serious. On April 29, 1952, the official news agency Tass stated that Truman's statement "about some sort of an 'ultimatum' was an invention from beginning to end and apparently aims at intensifying the war hysteria in the United States."7
Truman did not pursue the topic during the next four years, but with the publication of his memoirs in 1956 he resumed and clarified his ultimatum claim. After discussing the note of March 6, 1946, he stated that he subsequently ". . . told Byrnes to send a blunt message to Premier Stalin. On March 24 Moscow announced that all Russian troops would be withdrawn from Iran at once."8
Although less detailed than his assertions of 1952, Truman's 1956 account constituted a second stage in the evolution of his ultimatum, a phase posing a more difficult task for the historian. Three things are of significance about the two sentence passage in Truman's memoirs. First, Truman asserted for the first time that his ultimatum was not the note of March 6, 1946. Second, he did not give the date of his ultimatum, although the context of the passage indicated that it would have been between March 6 and March 24, 1946. Third, Truman did not quote or even extensively paraphrase the ultimatum despite devoting two paragraphs to the message of March 6, 1946, a note of much less importance. Such an important document surely would have warranted more than a one sentence paraphrase.
Having identified his ultimatum as not being the message of March 6, 1946, Truman subsequently gave more details on the ultimatum, although still not identifying the date. In a 1957 article in The New York Times, he stated, "I personally saw to it that Stalin was informed that I had given orders to our military chiefs to prepare for the movement of our ground, sea, and air forces. Stalin then did what I knew he would do. He moved his troops out."9 In an April, 1959, question and answer session with students at Columbia University, which in 1960 was published under the title of Truman Speaks, the former President reiterated his claim of having told Stalin that he would send American armed forces to Iran if there were no Soviet evacuation.10 Truman later told reporters that the note was sent to W. Averell Harriman, the out going American Ambassador to Moscow, for personal delivery to Stalin.11 This last point, prompted by questioning from the press after the publication of the book, precipitated the appearance of evidence contrary to Truman's claim.

Although Truman's assertions of 1956 and 1957 had not received much attention (even The New York Times in 1960 viewed the ultimatum claim as previously undisclosed), the appearance of Truman Speaks prompted comments from Harriman and Kennan, the American representatives in Moscow during the Azerbaijan crisis. Contacted in Florida by reporters in April, 1960, Harriman stated that he could not recall the ultimatum and that he was not in Moscow at the time it was sent as he was coming back to the United States via the Far East during March, 1946. George F. Kennan was openly skeptical. Reached at Princeton, New Jersey, Kennan stated, "I was Charge d' Affaires until April or May of 1946. I don't recall anything about the note. I don't know how he could have sent it. Perhaps it was after my time."12 As noted earlier in this essay, however, the ultimatum could not have been sent before March 24, 1946. This evidence, which appeared as a minor story on page fifteen of The New York Times, apparently has never been used in any scholarly work on American-Iranian diplomatic history.
Another piece of evidence which has been neglected by scholars was published by the State Department in 1969. In an editorial note appearing in one of the Foreign Relations volumes, the Department's historical staff stated that ". . . no documentation on the sending of an ultimatum to the Soviet Union has been found in the Department files or in the files of the Department of Defense, nor have several of the highest officers of the Department in 1946 been able to affirm the sending of an ultimatum."13
The evidence against Truman's ultimatum claim appears convincing. If there was an ultimatum, certainly the top diplomatic and military leaders in Washington and the American representatives in Moscow would have remembered such an important note. Indeed, most of these men have written memoirs incorporating documents of much less importance. In a letter to this writer, Truman refused comment on evidence contrary to his ultimatum claim.14
Truman's persistent assertion of his ultimatum claim warrants analysis. Although self justifying fabrication can not be ruled out of any evaluation of his motivation, a difficult issue to prove one way or the other, one must also consider fading memory and confusion. Even in 1952 Truman had displayed fading memory, and in 1960 he viewed his 1959-60 comments as the first public disclosure of the ultimatum. Truman may have confused the alerting of American armed forces over the 1946 crisis with informing Stalin of such a move. According to the White House spokesman in 1952, three divisions in Austria were alerted, although not deployed, over the 1946 crisis,15 but there was no Truman ultimatum to Stalin threatening the use of American forces. Another possibility is that Truman "told Byrnes to send a blunt message" to Stalin, to quote his memoirs again, but that Byrnes did not do so. Byrnes, whom Truman criticized as too soft on the Russians, has not recorded such an event in his memoirs,16 and it is unlikely that Truman would have allowed such a disobedient act to go uncorrected. Although one can understand fading memory, Truman's persistent refusal either to document or retract his assertion in the face of repeated challenges and contrary evidence discloses a lack of candor and integrity.

Although the evidence against Truman's assertion is convincing, the obscure settings in which it was published caused it to escape the attention of scholars, who unknowingly perpetuated the myth. Scholarly perpetuation of the myth may be traced back to Nasrollah S. Fatemi's Oil Diplomacy: Powder Keg in Iran, which appeared in 1954. The book devoted three pages to the ultimatum. With the chapter entitled, "The Iranian Case Before the Security Council. Truman's Ultimatum to Stalin," anybody even reading the table of contents was exposed to the myth. Concerning Truman, Fatemi stated, "On March 21, he sent an ultimatum to Stalin," and that under the ultimatum's terms ". . . failure to start evacuation within a week and to complete it within six weeks would bring the United States forces back to Iran."17 Since the paragraph in which these quotes appear is not footnoted and as Truman never cited the exact date of the ultimatum, one wonders where Fatemi got his information. A clue appears on the next page, where Fatemi cites "a long interview" with Truman. Upon the basis of the interviewv, Fatemi stated that Truman "made it clear" to the Russians that if they did not evacuate Iran "American troops would be sent in to force them out."18
In 1968 the myth was further perpetuated and expanded in Michael K.Sheehan's Iran: The Impact of United States Interests and Policies 1941-1954, which devoted two full pages to the ultimatum. Noting that" . . . on March 21, 1946, the American President sent an ultimatum to Stalin,"19 Sheehan asserted that this was "the real reason" behind the Soviet evacuation decision.20 Fatemi at least had cautioned that future historians would have to assess the relative weight of the ultimatum in the Russian decision.21 Although Sheehan did not footnote his paragraphs on the ultimatum, it is significant to note that Fatemi's book is in his bibliography and that Fatemi apparently was the first to use the March 21 date for the ultimatum.
In 1972 the ultimatum myth appeared in an article by a leading writer on Iranian diplomatic history, George Lenczowski. Since Truman's 1952 news conference occurred after the appearance of Lenckowski's standard Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1948,22 the alleged ultimatum did not appear in his book. It appeared, however, in his article, "The United States' Support for Iran's Independence and Integrity, 1945-1959," which appeared in a special issue on the United States and the Middle East.23 While not using the term "ultimatum," Lenczowski quoted Truman's claim of having threatened the use of American forces to gain the Soviet evacuaion.24

The ultimatum myth needs to be corrected because it has continued to gain scholarly acceptance despite contrary evidence. The myth has even begun to appear in textbooks on American history. In the 1973 edition of The National Experience, for example, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a leading American historian, stated, concerning the 1946 crisis, "A protest from Truman finally brought a change in Soviet policy, and the troops left in May."25 Scholarly perpetuation of the myth may intensify in the future because of the favorable attention currently lavished on Truman by writers, the growing importance of the Middle East and Iran in American historiography, and the incorporation of the myth in the most important studies on American-Iranian relations during the Truman administration. The obscure statements of Harriman and Kennan and the State Department's editorial note have not thus far prevented scholarly perpetuation of the myth. Clearly, the time for scholars to recognize the ultimatum as myth is overdue. It is also an appropriate time to be reminded that, in spite of Truman's image of candor and integrity, scholars would do well to maintain a healthy amount of skepticism in their studies of the man, especially in the wake of Watergate when many people seem more interested in using him as a standard by which to judge Richard Nixon than in an examination of Truman himself. Truman's documents and memoirs are no more trustworthy than those of most presidents and politicians. Indeed, his memoirs may well turn out to be less so.

1. In the Tripartite Treaty of Alliance of January 29, 1942, Russia, Britain and Iran agreed to an Allied evacuation within six months after the end of World War II. For an Iranian view of the occupation period, see A. H. Hamzavi, Persia and the Powers: An Account of Diplomatic Relations, 1941- 1946 (London: Hutchinson, 1946).

2. See Richard Van Wagnen, The Iranian Case 1946 (New York: Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 1952). This book was published in the same year that Truman first asserted his ultimatum claim.

3. For the paraphrased text of the conference, see The New York Times (here after NYT), April 25, 1952, 4.

4. NYT, April 25, 1952, 1.

5. For the text of the note, see Department of State, Bulletin, XIV (March 17, 1946), 435-436. According to the Department, the note was sent to Kennan on March 5, 1946, delivered to Molotov on the next day, and released to the press on March7, 1946.

6. NYT, April 26, 1952, 2.

7. NYT, April 30, 1952, 8.

8. Harry S. Truman, Memoirs of Harry S. Truman: Volume Two: Years of Trial and Hope (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1956), 95.

9. NYT,August23, 1957,23.

10. Harry S. Truman, Truman Speaks (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 71.

11. NYT, April 25, 1960, 15.

12. Truman, however, had stated that the ultimatum was sent in March, 1946. Ibid.

13. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: 1946, The Near East and Africa (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1969), VII, 348.

14. Letter from Harry S. Truman to James A. Thorpe, June 24, 1971.

15. NYT, April 25, 1960, 15; NYT, April 25, 1952, 1.

16. See James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly (New York, Harper, 1947), and his All in One Lifetime (New York, Harper, 1958).

17. Nasrollah S. Fatemi, Oil Diplomacy: Powder Keg in Iran (New York: Whittier Books,1954), 305.

18. Ibid., 306.

19. Michael K. Sheehan, Iran: The Impact of United States Interests and Policies 1941-1954 (Brooklyn: Theo. Gaus' Sons, Inc., 1968), 32.

20. Ibid., 33.

21. Fatemi, Oil Diplomacy, 307.

22. George Lenczowski, Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1948: A Study of Big-Power Rivalry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1949).

23. George Lenczowski, "United States' Support for Iran's Independence and Integrity, 1945-1959," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, CDI (May, 1972), 45-55.

24. Ibid., 49.

25. J. Blum, E. Morgan,W. Rose, A. Schlesinger,Jr., K. Stampp and C. Vann Woodward, The National Experience (third edition; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973), 711. Schlesinger wrote the chapter on "The Cold War." See also The Middle East (second edition; Washington: Congressional Quarterly,1975), 3.

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