The Resurrection of World War II Lend-Lease Records on the USSR: A Story in Seven Parts

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Among the records of the Foreign Economic Administration (RG 169) in the National Archives are microfilms of the files of the USSR Branch of that agency.  The records constitute the primary policy and subject files on World War II Lend-Lease to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  The story of how that microfilm came to be in the National Archives is a convoluted tale worthy of telling.

Part I. On March 11, 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act.  The law authorized the President to provide assistance to any country the President deemed vital to the interests of the United States.  To administer the act, the Division of Defense Aid Reports was established within the Office for Emergency Management in May 1941.  Initially, most Lend-Lease aid went to Great Britain.  Shortly after Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized extending Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union.  In October 1941, the Office of Lend-Lease Administration (OLLA) was established within the Office for Emergency Management to administer Lend-Lease.  Its main function was to ensure that countries authorized to receive Lend-Lease materials, services, and data receive them at the time and place where they would contribute most to the defeat of the Axis.  Within OLLA, the Division of Soviet Supply handled those parts of the program that involved aid to the USSR. 

In September 1943, the handling of government activities relating to foreign economic affairs, including Lend-Lease, was overhauled.  The Foreign Economic Administration (FEA) was established to unify and consolidate the administration of government activities relating to foreign economic affairs.  Transferred to FEA were the Office of Lend Lease Administration, the Office of Economic Warfare, the Office of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation Operations, certain functions of the Office of Foreign Economic Coordination, the War Food Administration, and certain functions of the Commodity Credit Corporation.  Within the new FEA, the USSR Branch within the Bureau of Areas carried out activities relating to the USSR.  FEA was abolished in September 1945. Its functions were divided among five agencies, with the Department of State inheriting the functions and records relating to Lend-Lease activities.

Part II:  Formal negotiations between the U.S. and USSR to settle the Lend-Lease account began in 1947.  The two countries could not agree on an acceptable figure for compensation even though the United States dropped its claim from $1.3 billion to $800 million and the Soviet Union upped its offer from $170 million to $240 million.  Negotiations were, therefore, suspended in late 1951, and in early 1952, the U.S. decided not to move forward on the issue. 

During his 1959 visit to the United States, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to resume negotiations as part of an effort to improve relations between the two countries.  Negotiations reopened in January 1960.  Noted American diplomat and Soviet expert Charles E. (“Chip”) Bohlen served as lead U.S. negotiator.  The process quickly collapsed as the USSR insisted that the negotiations include issues the U.S. saw as unrelated to Lend-Lease matters and that could not be settled without Congressional action.  U.S. policymakers determined that continuing the negotiations would not lead to agreement and might even worsen the bilateral relationship and so ended the process.  The last meeting took place on January 27, 1960.[i]

Part III:  Negotiations with the USSR on Lend-Lease reopened in August 1971 and the two countries announced a final agreement in October 1972.  Those negotiations and the agreement were part of a larger package of agreements and arrangements that facilitated trade and normalized commercial relations between the U.S. and the USSR during the era of detente.[ii]    

Part IV:  When FEA was abolished in September 1945, its records were transferred either to the National Archives or to the successor agencies.  Subsequently, over the years, those agencies transferred additional records to the National Archives or sent them for storage in the Federal Records Centers (operated by the National Archives and Records Service [NARS], predecessor to the National Archives and Records Administration [NARA]) pending settlement of accounts.  In particular, the Department of State retained legal custody of virtually all the records of the USSR Branch for use in negotiating a settlement with the USSR.  After the negotiations ended with the 1972 agreement, the Department notified NARS that disposition of the records could proceed.  As a result of miscommunication between the two agencies, in 1975, NARS destroyed all the Lend-Lease records in the FRCs, including all records of the FEA USSR Branch that had been retained.  That included the primary policy and subject files.  Sadly, before the records were destroyed, less than a handful of scholars had access to any of the files.[iii] 

Part V: The author’s first exposure to detailed records on Lend-Lease to the USSR came early in his career at the National Archives when he worked in what was then known as the Diplomatic Branch.  He was assigned the project of preparing selected records of the Department of State for microfilming as National Archives Microfilm Publication T1250: Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union, 1940-44.  Those records included a file category that contained significant documentation about U.S. Lend-Lease to the USSR.  Many documents in that file, however, had been charged out before the records came to the National Archives and never returned to their proper location.  As part of the preparation of the records for microfilming, the National Archives informed the Department of this and requested return of the documents.  The majority of the charged-out documents were returned and included in their proper location in the microfilm publication.  The author’s work on the microfilm publication and the recovery of the missing documents led to an interest in other Lend-Lease records during which he learned about the mistaken destruction of the FEA’s USSR records. 

The author’s interest in the Lend-Lease files continued after he joined NARA’s records appraisal staff later in his career.  In that position he was in a better position to study the issue and collect copies of documentation relating to the Lend-Lease records that had been in the FRCs and the destruction of those files and become familiar with the universe of files that had been destroyed.

Part VI:  Jump ahead to September 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks on the United States.  In the aftermath, agencies revamped their emergency relocation programs begun during the Cold War.  Those programs generally included a vital records component in which copies of selected records were stored offsite in case the originals were destroyed in a nuclear attack.  After the September 11 attacks, the Department of State reexamined its emergency relocation activities.  Among other things, the Department looked into the vital records held at an off site location, some of which had been sent out in the 1960s or earlier.  Instead of allowing destruction of the old files at the site, the leadership of the Department’s Records Service Center directed that the materials be sent there for review and disposition.  The author was asked to assist with that task since he was the appraisal archivist responsible for the Department of State.  During the review, the author located several boxes containing numerous rolls of unidentified microfilm (35mm and 16mm) and a small amount of hardcopy files that seemed to be unrelated to the other vital records among the files.  After further study and review of the pertinent documentation, the author was dumbfounded (and excited) to realize that the microfilm consisted of a copy of many of the USSR Branch files that had been destroyed, including the most important policy and subject records.

Part VII:  Recognizing the significance of the find, the author instituted the process to formally appraise the microfilm so that the important files would be sent to the National Archives for preservation.  As called for by the disposition schedule, the records were transferred to the National Archives, later declassified by the National Declassification Center, and then archivally arranged and described.  By the time the records were ready for processing and description, the author had joined the Research Services staff and was able to handle those actions himself.[iv]

[i] See: U.S.-USSR Lend Lease Settlement Committee, General Records, 1945-1961 (NAID 22344686), Entry P-8, RG 353: Records of Interdepartmental and Intradepartmental Committees (State Department).

[ii] See: Records Relating to the U.S.-USSR Lend-Lease Settlement, 1941-1972 (NAID 26309375), Entry P-568, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[iii] See, for example, George C. Herring, Aid to Russia 1941-1946: Strategy, Diplomacy, the Origins of the Cold War (New York, Columbia University Press, 1973).

[iv] See: USSR Lend-Lease Basic Files, 1941-1945 (NAID 6863607), Entry P-52; USSR Lend-Lease Subject Files, 1941-1945 (NAID 140107013), Entry P-53; and Mission to Moscow Files, 1941-1945 (NAID 140107014), Entry P-54; all in RG 169: Records of the Foreign Economic Administration.