Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
Noted journalist Robert C. Toth died on December 12, 2022. He was 93 years old. Toth was a reporter and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He covered many important stories and won many awards for his work, including the George Polk Award (1977), which honors excellence in print and broadcast journalism, for his reporting in Moscow, and the Edward Weintal Prize (1986), awarded for distinguished reporting on foreign policy and diplomacy, for his work on CIA operations in Central America.
His obituaries note that in 1977, he became the story. In June of that year, Toth was a few days short of the end of a three-year tour in Moscow as the correspondent of the Los Angeles Times. On June 11, after receiving an envelope supposedly containing secret documents, he was detained by Soviet officials and accused of being a spy. The story is revealed in the records of the Department of State.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow informed the Department of Toth’s arrest in the following telegram. The arrest may have been presaged by a May 18 report from the embassy on Soviet press attacks on U.S. journalists and others who were said to “incite” refuseniks. (1977MOSCOW06930)
The embassy quickly followed up with this analysis:
Within hours, the Department directed the embassy to “protest Toth detention at first suitable opportunity.” It also authorized the embassy to inform the local press community. (1977STATE135730)
The embassy delivered the protest on June 14, as described in this telegram:
The embassy described its efforts to deliver the protest as well as the Soviet response shortly thereafter:
The embassy also wrote that it had informed the local press corps, characterizing Soviet actions “as part of a persistent effort by Soviet authorities to harass and intimidate American correspondents in the exercise of their profession” in a manner inconsistent with the Helsinki Accords. In the same telegram, the embassy reported that the KGB had summoned Toth and that the U.S. consular official who accompanied him was not permitted to be present during the interrogation. (1977MOSCOW08474)
Toth underwent interrogation on June 14 and June 15. The embassy reported on the June 14 session in this telegram:
As all this was unfolding, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was away from Washington on official travel. In his absence, Acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher spoke with Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin about the matter. The Department reported to the embassy in Moscow as follows:
Toth’s interrogation continued on June 15, one session in the morning and one in the afternoon. The embassy reported on those in the following two telegrams:
The Department expressed its concerns about the results of the interrogation in this telegram:
At a reception at Spaso House (the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow) on June 15, U.S. ambassador Malcolm Toon raised the issue of the Toth matter with a Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs official. He informed the Department that he “advised MFA to pay close attention to White House statements regarding Toth, and to realize that US is seriously concerned over Soviet treatment of US correspondent” and that he “urged Soviets to drop case and allow Toth to depart USSR.” (1977MOSCOW08626)
As quickly as it started, the incident ended. On June 16, the embassy reported that Toth had received a telephone call from one of his interrogators and was informed “that there would be no further interrogation of him and that he was free to do whatever he wished.” (1977MOSCOW08605)
To ensure that there was no misunderstanding, the embassy confirmed with Soviet officials that Toth was free to leave the USSR and informed him of that upon receipt of confirmation. (1977MOSCOW08627)
Even though the case was ostensibly closed, as the following telegram explains, the embassy still planned to deliver another protest to Soviet officials. The Department approved. (1977STATE140465)
At the same time, the embassy sent the following analysis of the affair:
Embassy staff had a last meeting with the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs at which the two sides agreed to disagree:
Toth departed from Moscow on the evening of June 17. Besides embassy officials, several Soviet refuseniks and fellow correspondents from CBS, UPI, the New York Times, and Newsweek saw him off. At the airport, a reporter for the Soviet news agency TASS asked Toth for an interview. In response to a question about Soviet justice, Toth replied “that he did not feel his questioning had been justified since he had no secrets to hide.” He also noted that he liked Russians and would like to visit the Soviet Union again “as a tourist.” (1977MOSCOW08763)
While short-lived, the Toth matter was not unimportant. It took place early in the presidency of Jimmy Carter when the new administration and the Soviets were still feeling each other out and it touched on matters, such as human rights and press freedom, that were important to the new president. An indication of its importance is that while Secretary of State Vance was travelling overseas on official business, the matter received space in the briefing telegrams sent to keep him abreast of significant matters. (1977STATE137669, 1977STATE138392, 1977STATE138854, 1977STATE139278, and 1977STATE140202)
Furthermore, the U.S. representative to NATO believed that the incident was important enough to brief the other members of the alliance about it. (1977NATO05673, 1977MOSCOW08881, 1977STATE147708)
The Soviets put their spin on the Toth matter in articles by TASS and in the Literaturnaya Gazeta painting him as a spy. The embassy sent reports on those two publications. (1977MOSCOW10009, 1977MOSCOW12628)
Sources: All documents come from the Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-1979/Electronic Telegrams (NAID 654098), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, accessible through the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) site. All referenced telegrams can be viewed online from the “Diplomatic Records” page using the message reference number (e.g. – 1977STATE138854) as the search term.