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America And Russia: Part Viii The Wasted Mission
Against a background of postwar turmoil, a 28-year-old State Department aide was sent to negotiate with the Bolshevik leaders. His rebuff by Wilson caused a national uproar
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
The stately Hotel Grillon on the Place de la Concorde was a scene of frenzied activity in the early months of 1919. It was filled with 1,300 Americans who had come to Paris for the peace conference that would end the First World War. The corridors swarmed with ethnologists, geographers, economists, interpreters, army officers, reporters, and ambassadors. On occasion, President Wilson, the first American President to cross the Atlantic while in office, could be seen hurrying to keep an appointment with his top advisers.
Out of this confusion was to emerge the first postwar American effort to make contact witli Soviet Russia—a mission that matched in its extemporized haste the ignorance and vagueness of United States policy toward the Bolsheviks ( see “When the Red Storm Broke,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1961). At its head would be placed a young and little-known State Department aide, long on enthusiasm but short on experience, to whose intense dismay this attempt at communicating with the emergent Communist colossus was to end in misunderstanding, bitterness, and ruptured diplomatic relations. His name was William C. Bullitt—the same man, ironically enough, who was fourteen years later to pick up the threads where they had been broken, and return to Moscow as our first ambassador to the Communist regime.
The excitement and haste that prevailed in the Hotel Grillon—and elsewhere in Paris as well in 1919—was understandable: the world was being made over. New countries were being created and old empires dissolved. A society of nations was being founded. Colonies were changing hands. Boundaries were being redrawn. “The history of the world,” President Wilson told the opening session of the peace conference, ”… will now be crowned by the achievements of this Conference.” The lights burned late at the Grillon.
Elsewhere in Europe all was turmoil. After four years of total war the nations of the continent were in a state of political collapse, and no one could tell with certainty what new structures would emerge from the rubble. A major source of uncertainty was the year-old Soviet regime in Moscow—the regime that had made a separate peace with imperial Germany and that was, therefore, not invited to the peace conference. This abrasive newcomer to the world scene was throwing off sparks which, many thought, were likely to ignite Europe. In January, 1919, there was a Communist-inspired revolt in Germany. And in March a successful revolution placed the Russian-trained Béla Kun at the head of a Hungarian Soviet. “Paris cannot be understood without Moscow,” the chief of the press bureau of the American commission later wrote. “Without ever being represented at Paris at all, the Bolsheviki and Bolshevism were powerful elements at every turn. Russia played a more vital part at Paris than Prussia! For the Prussian idea had been utterly defeated while the Russian idea was still rising in power.”
Sailing to France on the U.S.S. George Washington on December 4, 1918, Wilson had outlined the task facing the American Commission to Negotiate the Peace. As recorded by one of his auditors, Wilson said, “The poison of Bolshevism was accepted readily by the world because ‘it is a protest against the way in which the world has worked .’ It was to be our business at the Peace Conference to fight for a new order.…” But the Red serpent had already entered Wilson’s Garden of Eden. In building a new order, what was to be done with it? Welcome it? Tame it? Crush it? One thing was certain: one could not safely ienore it.
On Sunday afternoon, January 12, igig, the Council of Ten which was to guide the peace conference gathered for the first time in the ornate office of French Foreign Minister Stéphen Pichon at the Quai d’Orsay. The Russian problem was raised at once. Though the guns were now silent on the Marne, war was in progress between the Soviet regime in Moscow and the White armies based in Siberia, at Archangel and Murmansk, in the Don region and the Ukraine. It would be absurd, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, pointed out, for the Allies to “separate and announce that they had made perpetual peace when Siberia, which formed about half Asia, and Russia, which formed about half Europe, were still at war.”
Even if they had wanted to, the Allies could not ignore the Russian situation, because thousands of Allied soldiers had been sent in prior to the German armistice, in the hope of averting a total collapse of the eastern front. ( See “Where Ignorant Armies Clashed by Night,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December, 1958.) These soldiers soon found themselves buttressing the White armies. Unless there was a cease-fire in Russia they could not be readily extricated.