- Historic Sites
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
Why Wilson disregarded the Bullitt report is the mystery within the fantasy. Perhaps only a mind reader could tell with confidence what the increasingly secretive President was thinking. Bullitt himself has suggested at least two theories. On the one hand he has said that his report was abandoned because, at the moment of his return to Paris, the White armies had made substantial advances, and it was hoped that the Soviet government might soon be destroyed by force of arms. But Wilson did not share that hope. Trying to stop Bolshevism with an army, he said on March 27, was like using a broom to stop the sea. Somewhat petulantly, Bullitt has also suggested that when Wilson found out that Bullitt had gone first to see Lloyd George, he took it as a personal affront and refused to see Bullitt out of sheer pique.
A somewhat more substantial explanation of Wilson’s behavior can be suggested. From the very start of the conference it had been recognized that there were really only three possible policies toward Russia. First, an all-out effort to crush the still-weak Soviet regime by force of arms. Churchill advocated this, but Wilson would not hear of it; even if the American public would accept further military activity (which it would not), the idea was repugnant to Wilson personally. He had been reluctant enough to go to war against the Kaiser; he could not attack a regime which at least purported to be a manifestation of popular will and a revolt against despotism.
In 1917 Wilson had looked with the warmest sympathy upon the March revolution in Russia. Coming as it did only weeks before America’s entry into the war, it had removed “the one objection to affirming that the European war was a war between Democracy and Absolutism …”—or so the Secretary of State had advised. America had been the first country to recognize the Provisional government led so briefly by Alexander Kerensky. It was hard now for Wilson to believe that what had once seemed so promising a beginning had passed irretrievably from the scene. In any event, the President felt that a peace conference which was, uniquely, to rest upon the collective will of mankind could not start out by crushing the Russian revolution.
A second alternative was the cordon sanitaire —encircling Soviet Russia with hostile countries in order to contain the Bolshevik plague. Clemenceau strongly urged this, but Wilson again demurred. Cordon sanitaire was a euphemism for a holy alliance and the re-creation of a balance of power, and that, Wilson thought, had been a major cause of the World War. America, he had said, would join no alliance that was not an alliance of all countries.
The third alternative—urged by Bullitt and, occasionally, Lloyd George—was to recognize the Soviet regime as a de facto government. Still Wilson could not go along. He had long believed that recognition should be extended only to regimes which bore the hallmarks of constitutional legitimacy. The Bolsheviks had not only seized power by force, they had forcefully disbanded the popularly elected Constituent Assembly. Moreover, it was difficult to see how a regime dedicated to world revolution could be “a fit partner for a league of honor.” The very language of Soviet diplomacy, even when suing for peace and conciliation, seemed calculated to antagonize and exacerbate. Wilson described it as “studiously insulting.” Weak and disorganized though Soviet Russia was, her ministers addressed the West in terms of hostility and contempt. On October 24, 1918, for example, Foreign Minister Chicherin had written the President: … Even though your Government has not yet been replaced by a Council of People’s Commissars and your post is not yet taken by Eugene Debs, whom you have imprisoned … just as we have concluded peace with the imperialist government of Germany, with Emperor Wilhelm at its head, whom you, Mr. President, hold in no greater esteem than we … hold you, we finally propose to you, Mr. President, that you take up with your Allies the following questions and give us precise and business-like replies: Do the Governments of the United States, England, and France intend to cease demanding the blood of the Russian people … if the Russian people will agree to pay them a ransom …? If so, just what tribute do [you] demand …?
This letter, and others in the same vein, hardly served to suggest that Soviet Russia was eager to become a law-abiding, self-restrained, coequal member of the society of nations. True, Wilson told a reporter that “if I thought that … any clause or phrase [of the League Covenant] forbade to any peoples the sacred right of revolution, I would tear up the Covenant with my own hands.” But the President really hoped that by reforming the world the League would outflank world revolution.
Unwilling to acknowledge that Soviet autocracy had become part of the scheme of things, Wilson was waiting for some sign of change, some sign that the revolution was settling down into tractable, constitutional, parliamentary patterns. He was willing to encourage such a change. “I visualize it like this,” he told William Wiseman in October, 1918. “A lot of impossible folk, fighting among themselves. You cannot do business with them, so you shut them off up in a room and lock the door and tell them that when they have settled matters among themselves you will unlock the door and do business.”