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America And Russia, Americans And Russians
The Cold War was an anomaly: more often than not the world’s two greatest states have lived together in uneasy amity. And what now?
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
Theodore Roosevelt, too, was statesman enough to rise above the tides of American popular sentiment. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and 1905, that sentiment, including much of the press, seemed to relish the stunning Japanese triumphs, “the gallant little Jap” pummeling the Russian Bear. Yet when Roosevelt accepted the chairmanship of the peace conference at Portsmouth, the Japanese were disappointed to find that he was not inclined to give them all that they wanted. He struck a kind of balance; he understood that in view of the rising naval and colonial power of the Japanese in the western Pacific it was not in the American interest to see the Russian presence there reduced to nothing.
In 1917, for the first time in their history, the United States and Russia became military allies, in a world war, against the prospect of a German domination of Europe. Events within Russia in March 1917 had played an important part in Woodrow Wilson’s decision to go to Congress a few weeks later to request a declaration of war against Germany. A revolution in Petrograd (St. Petersburg had been renamed in 1914) had forced the czar to abdicate. Wilson (who knew very little about Russia) thought that this was a tremendous contribution to the purity of the cause of a war waged for democracy: the Allied ranks would no longer be compromised by a czarist regime among them. Wilson thought—and said—that the democratic Russian Revolution of March 1917 was one of the greatest events in the history of mankind, comparable to 1776 in America. He was wrong. The Russian liberal regime collapsed in less than eight months. Its leaders were incompetent; chaos and disorder erupted all over Russia; discipline in the army evaporated; the war against Germany was unpopular. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were more determined. They took over the city of Petrograd (after the leaders of the government had abandoned it to them); they made peace with the Germans, for their hands were full of a developing civil war in Russia, which they eventually won, less on the battlefield than because their opponents, dependent on diminishing Allied support, gave up the fight one by one.
Wilson was stunned and shocked. He attributed these catastrophic events to a giant conspiracy, abetted by the Germans. He—in this he was not alone—did not see the real meaning of these events: Russia’s withdrawal from the war; Russia’s withdrawal from Europe. Like Lenin’s, Wilson’s view of the world was ideological rather than historical and geographic. The Progressive professor-President became the bitterest opponent of the Bolsheviks. One result of this was the attempt at American military intervention in the Russian civil war. It was short-lived and marginal; there was practically no fighting between American soldiers and the Red Army; it was marked by the temporary presence of a handful of American troops in a few ports on the Arctic and the Far Eastern rim of the great Russian Empire. By late 1920 this odd episode was over. What was not over was the powerful popular attraction of anticommunism: the tendency to attribute most of the evils of the world, all of the dangers to democracy and to American national interests, to a world conspiracy organized in and emanating from Moscow.
Like Lenin’s, Wilson’s view of the world was ideological rather than historical. The Progressive professor became a bitter enemy of Bolshevism.
One of its consequences was the American refusal, alone among the great powers of the world, to recognize—that is, to maintain diplomatic relations with—the new government of the Russian Empire, now called the Soviet Union. In reality this did not make much difference. Trade and other relations between the two vast countries went on in the 1920s. In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union. By then few people in the United States were opposed to that. In Moscow too, Lenin, who had been a revolutionary and not a statesman, was succeeded by Stalin, who was the opposite. He was willing to sign all kinds of meaningless paper declarations in the recognition treaty, especially because around that time he feared a Japanese move against the Soviet Union and saw the United States as a potential ally. That soon passed; the primary problem, for both powers, would become Germany, not Japan. But the unscrupulous and unsavory behavior of Stalin’s government—even before Stalin in 1939 chose to sign a virtual alliance with that apostle of anticommunism Adolf Hitler—soured American-Russian relations. An example of this was William C. Bullitt, one of the most brilliant American diplomats in this century, whom Roosevelt appointed as the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union and who had gone off to his post with extraordinary energy and enthusiasm; two years later he wished to be posted elsewhere, so bitterly disappointed had he become with Stalin and his regime.