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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
In view of the hostility of the press and the French toward anything that suggested possible recognition of the Soviet regime, it was decided that Bullitt’s mission should be kept confidential. On February 18, his credentials were signed by the Secretary of State: they directed him to “proceed to Russia for the purpose of studying conditions, political and economic, therein, for the benefit of the American commissioners plenipotentiary to negotiate peace. …” Bullitt was to be accompanied by his secretary, R. E. Lynch, and by W. W. Pettit, a captain in American Military Intelligence traveling in mufti.
At the last minute Bullitt asked Lincoln Steftcns to join his party. Steffens was an outspoken admirer of the Soviets and readily agreed to go. Jn lyicj the once popular muckraking journalist was considered a dangerous man. Xo major American newspaper or magazine would carry his work, and he was “covering” the peace conference on his own.
On February 22 Bullitt’s party left Paris for London. That evening Steilens wrote a friend: ”… I am here only in transit: going somewhere else. 1 can’t say where … I feel as if I were going to see a good play at a good theater.’ The next day a British naval vessel was to carry them across the North Sea. They would proceed across Scandinavia and enter Russia via Finland. It was a long, cold route to Russia, but in the winter of 1919 it was the only route; America was officially still at war with central Europe.
It was a strange affair, America’s first diplomatic mission to Soviet Russia, dispatched with much haste and little thought. When it was over, no one except Bullitt would be quite sure why it had been sent. Bullilt later said: I was instructed to go in and bring back as quickly as possible a definite statement of exactly the terms the Soviet Government was ready to accept. The idea in the minds of the British and the American delegation were [sic] that if the Allies made another proposal it should be a proposal which we would know in advance would be accepted, so that there would be no chance of another Prinkipos pro posai miscarrying.
But Bullitt’s credentials merely said that he was to study “conditions, political and economic.” Nor was it entirely clear whether Colonel House and Philip Kerr had spoken with authority in formulating the American and British terms with which Bullitt had been furnished.
The personnel of the mission also presented a somewhat odd picture. Bullitt himself was twenty-eight years old. Years later Janet Planner—“Genêt” of the New Yorker —was to describe him thus: “Headstrong, spoiled, spectacular, something of a nabob, and a good showman, he has complicated ambitions which are a compound of his devotion to his own notions of idealism, his interest in his career, and his faith in the ultimate fate of the human race.”
The son of a wealthy Philadelphia family, he had traveled much, been graduated from Yale, and spent a year at the Harvard Law School. With the outbreak of war in Europe (he was traveling in czarist Russia at the time), he became a reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger; when the United States entered the war he joined the State Department to prepare reports on developments within the Central Powers. His job in Paris had been to brief each of the American commissioners, including the President, for twenty minutes each morning on current affairs. (When Bullitt couldn’t make the rounds, the future Secretary of State, Christian Hcrter, was his understudy.) Colonel House knew Bullitt to be keenly interested in the Russian revolution and international socialism in general.
Thinking back on the trip to Russia years later, Lincoln Steffens recalled that “Bullitt had brought along his secretary Lynch, apparently to play with. On trains and boats they skylarked, wrestling and tumbling like a couple of bear cubs all along the Arctic Circle. A pretty noisy secret mission we were, but Bullitt knew just what he was about; nobody could sus%)ect us of secrecy or importance; and at formal moments and in emergencies the head of our mission was all there with the form, the authority, and the—audacity.”
On the evening of March 8, the party arrived in Petrograd. The Soviet officials who met the Americans were at first under the impression that the older and more famous Stefîens was the head of the mission. They were soon disabused. Indeed, there was some uncertainty as to whether they should deal with the mission at all. Soviet Foreign Minister Grigoi i Chicherin decided, however, that Bullitt was worthy of being brought to Moscow to see Lenin.
Bullitt and Steffens, together with Chicherin and Maxim Litvinov, arrived in Moscow on March 11. It was a cold and hungry city. For the next few days Bullitt and Steffens lived largely on the canned goods they had brought with them in mail pouches—supplemented by black bread and caviar which alone seemed to be in plentiful domestic supply. Even so, Russian officials had a way of coming by their rooms at meal times.
“When I called on Lenin at the Kremlin,” Bullitt later reported, “i had to wait a few minutes until a delegation of peasants left his room. They had heard in their village that Comrade Lenin was hungry. And they had come hundreds of miles carrying 800 poods [or, incredibly enough, 14½ tons— Ed. ] of bread as the gift of the village to Lenin. … Lenin is the only leader who receives such gifts. And he turns them into the common fund.”