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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
“Face to face,” Bullitt noted, “Lenin is a very striking man—straightforward and direct, but also genial and with a large humor and serenity.” He also noted that “the hold which Lenin has gained on the imagination of the Russian people makes his position almost that of a dictator.”
After four days of negotiations in Moscow, Bullitt was given a statement of terms which the Soviet government would accept as the basis for a conference if they were proposed by the Allies before April 10. The terms were essentially the same as those suggested by House and Kcrr. The most striking element in the proposal was that the Soviet government purported to be willing to leave the White governments in control of the territory they then occupied. This meant that the Bolsheviks would give up (at least for the time being) claim to the whole of Siberia, the Urals, the Caucasus, the Archangel and Murmansk areas, Finland, the Baltic states, a portion of White Russia, and most of the Ukraine. Soviet Russia was to be limited to a radius of some five hundred miles around Moscow.
Satisfied that he had gotten what he had been sent to get, Bullitt left Russia in a rush. From Helsinki he cabled a preliminary report to Paris. On receiving it, House expressed eagerness that the proposals be put in writing (which they were) and wished to wire congratulations to Bullitt. Lansing and others were dubious. One of the proposed terms was that Russians have full right of entry into other countries; some feared this was an invitation to propaganda and subversion.
Bullitt himself got back to Paris on March 25, and that evening he went to see House. Both men knew that it would take a struggle to put over what amounted to a de facto recognition of Soviet Russia, but both seem to have thought that it was the only intelligent course. Bullitt filed a final report which was sent on to Wilson. The Soviet regime, it said, had come to stay; and the peace conference should make proposals similar to the ones which the Soviet government had indicated it was ready to accept. Steffens submitted a report to much the same effect. He made it clear that, in his view, the revolution in Russia was over. “The present Russian Government,” Steffens wrote, “is the most autocratic government I have ever seen.” In a world that still tended to equate Bolshevism with anarchy and instability, Bullitt and Steffens were providing needed information.
The day following Bullitt’s return, he and House set out to put over the plan. Bullitt conferred at length with the American peace commissioners. House attempted to deal with the President, who had by this time returned to Paris. But Wilson did not wish to take up the Russian question at the moment. He had, he said, a “one track mind,” and it was preoccupied with other matters. The Council of Four was now meeting daily in secret sessions; a crisis over the terms of the treaty with Germany was rapidly approaching. To make things worse, Wilson was at this time increasingly unwell.
Unable to get an appointment for Bullitt with Wilson, House made arrangements for him to meet with Lloyd George and other British statesmen. Bullitt had breakfast with the Prime Minister on March 27. To Bullitt, he seemed greatly impressed with the necessity of making peace with the Soviet government, but worried about public opinion in England. An editorial in the London Daily Mail had attacked any attempt to accredit “an evil thing known as Bolshevism.” Lloyd George showed the editorial to Bullitt and asked: “As long as the British press is doing this kind of thing how can you expect me to be sensible about Russia?” Questioned in the House of Commons some three weeks later about rumors that diplomatic approaches had been made to the Soviets, Lloyd George replied: “We have had no approaches at all … I think I know what my right honorable friend refers to. There was some suggestion that a young American had come back from Russia with a communication. It is not for me to judge the value of this communication, but if the President of the United States had attached any value to it he would have brought it before the conference, and he certainly did not.”
Wilson, indeed, never brought Bullitt’s report before the conference; quite the contrary, when he turned his “one track mind” to the Russian question he ordered that the report be suppressed and kept secret. The newspapermen were left clutching at rumors. Though many projects tended to suffer a lingering death at the Hotel Grillon, Bullitt’s succumbed swiftly: for all practical purposes it was dead and abandoned within forty-eight hours after Bullitt’s return to Paris. It was replaced by a plan to supply Russia with food upon the conditions that all hostilities cease and that the Russian railroads be placed under the supervision of a relief commission. Early in May, the Soviet government turned the offer down, protesting that the true objectives of the plan were not humanitarian but political, and demanding instead full-fledged peace negotiations. That demand was to be ignored by the United States for fourteen years.