By April Elizabeth Curtis
Sixty-six years ago this week, the Bulgarian Government declared Donald R. Heath, U.S. Minister in Bulgaria, persona non grata. This declaration led to the only diplomatic split between the U.S. and a Soviet satellite country during the Cold War. Although the nine-year split is widely absent from history books, it is an important example of early American Cold War policy and a concerning instance that could have led to the severance of American relations with all satellite countries.
The road that led to Minister Heath’s persona non grata status includes the most popular of early Cold War methods—the show trial. On November 30, 1949 the Bulgarian government published accusations against Traicho Kostov, former General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Minister Heath, among others, was accused of plotting with Kostov to undermine Bulgaria with help from Josip Broz Tito. Like most show trials, the accusations were false. However, the allegations in this trial were made even more ludicrous by the fact Heath and Kostov had never met, nor did they share a common language and thus could not have had a conversation without a translator to witness.
In addition to the drama of the Kostov Show Trial, a Bulgarian employee at the American Legation, Mikhail Shipkov, was secretly hiding from the Bulgarian police in the attic of the Legation from August 23, 1949 until sometime in February 1950. Shipkov worked at the Legation as a translator and on August 20, 1949 he was arrested and interrogated for 32 hours. He was tortured until he confessed to spying for both the British and American missions. Once released, Shipkov returned to the Legation, wrote an affidavit claiming his confession was false, handed it to Minister Heath and then refused to leave the building.
While Shipkov hid in the attic, the U.S. Department of State tried to balance concern for Shipkov’s safety with trying to rectify its crumbling relations with Bulgaria. The day after the Bulgarian government declared Heath persona non grata, the Department of State sent a note to the Bulgarian Chargé in Washington, Dr. Peter Voutov, threatening that if the Bulgarian government did not retract Heath’s persona non grata status America would break diplomatic relations. After weeks of waiting for a reply and receiving none, Heath finally severed relations on February 20, 1950 claiming the lack of response was proof Bulgaria did not want to continue relations with America. Evidence from the archives suggests that U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson waited a month after Heath was declared persona non grata before severing relations out of concern for Shipkov. Only once Shipkov had attempted escaping from Bulgaria did the U.S. finally break relations.
It took nine years for the two countries to finally reinstate diplomatic ties. The Bulgarians reached out first in 1953 and began to send messages they were interested in restarting relations with America. However, relations were only restored in 1959 because of American hesitation. While the Department of State was in favor of reinstating relations, it could not convince the American Congress during the height of McCarthyism. In addition, Bulgaria was a low priority for the United States, and because the British were handing intelligence reports on Bulgaria over to America, the Department of State was in no rush to restore relations.
History should remember this episode because America used Bulgaria as a testing ground for its policies towards the communist world. Bulgaria was viewed as the best testing ground only because the risks were low. Therefore, it could be argued that Bulgaria was important in the Cold War arena simply for the fact that it was not important. The Bulgarian test case proved to be a learning experience for the Department of State, as they soon realized America benefited more from diplomatic contact with communist countries than from symbolic gestures.
April Elizabeth Curtis recently graduated from the London School of Economics with a MSc in History of International Relations. She wrote her dissertation on the Bulgarian-American diplomatic split, which can be found here. She is currently an intern at EastWest Institute.