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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
This of course had been the idea behind the Prinkipo proposal. If all the factions could be gotten together and persuaded to lay their cards on the table, they might contrive to constitutionalize themselves. One can see in Wilson’s mind a picture of Bolsheviks and Monarchists sitting opposite each other in long rows like so many Whigs and Tories—with Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists somewhere in the back benches. And a Lenin somehow transmuted into the leader of the loyal majority Wilson would gladly deal with—however radical the man’s economics might be.
Nor was this view, in retrospect so naïve, an aberration peculiar to Wilson. The best informed among his advisers suggested much the same view. Shortly before the armistice, Walter Lippmann and Frank Cobb advised that “the Peace Conference might well send a message asking for the creation of a government sufficiently representative to speak for [the Russian] territories.” Persuaded, as were most Americans in 1919, that parliamentary, constitutional democracy was the wave of the future, Wilson was prepared to wait if need be for things to settle down. In May he said that he no longer regretted not having a Russian policy; under present conditions it was impossible to define one.
But William C. Bullitt was a young man, and impatient. He was bitterly disappointed with the abandonment of his project, and when in May he saw the text of the Treaty of Versailles, he gave up in despair. On May 17 he submitted his resignation to the Secretary of State. He submitted, too, a stinging letter to the President, in which he said that the grounds had been laid for another century of war. “Russia, ‘the acid test of good will,’ for me as for you, has not even been understood …” he wrote. “I am sorry that you did not fight our fight to the finish and that you had so little faith in the millions of men, like myself, in every nation who had faith in you.” And with a keen sense of the dramatic, he told the press that he was going to lie on the sands of the Riviera and watch the world go to hell.
On June 28, the peace treaty was signed at Versailles, and the men at the Hotel Grillon packed their bags. Six months after it opened, the peace conference had adjourned, the Allies separating with the announcement that they had made perpetual peace. Siberia and Russia were still at war.
Bullitt had not quite made his peace. From Paris he retired not to the Riviera but to the Maine woods, from whence he was summoned in August by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Appearing before the committee on Friday morning. September 12, he was not a reluctant witness; “he simply turned state’s evidence,” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge later said. To the amazement and delight of the senators and the acute embarrassment of his former colleagues and superiors, Bullitt told the full story of his “secret” trip to Moscow; he described his breakfast with Lloyd George, the terms that House and Kerr had given him, his conversations with Chicherin and Lenin, and Wilson’s decision to suppress his report. Having polished off his Russian mission, Bullitt went on to report that all of Wilson’s chief advisers had privately expressed their disapproval of the Treaty of Versailles. He brought laughter to the lips of the senators when he quoted Lansing as saying that the Senate would vote against the treaty if only the could understand it.
Wilson was in the midst of his great tour of the West, speaking for the treaty, when the news of Bullitt’s testimony reached him. Two weeks later he suffered the stroke that ended the tour. When Wilson recovered, he accepted Lansing’s resignation; the Bullitt affair had been a climactic skirmish in the long battle between the President and his Secretary of State.
In November, as if to expunge an ugly memory, two of the former American peace commissioner at Paris wrote the secretary general of the American Commission to Negotiate the Peace that they could find no record “official or otherwise” which authorized the credentials that Bullitt had been given in February. “We, the undersigned,” they concluded, “desire now to make of record in the archives of the American Peace Delegation the fact that at no time was the mission of Mr. Bullitt discussed—much less acred upon—in our presence, either at any meeting of the American Delegation or elsewhere…”
Thus was concluded the fantasy which had degun as America’s first diplomatic contact with Soviet Russia. The Soviet had purported to be willing to forswear the bulk of the historically Russian territories. The Allies had said, in effect, that they had not heard about it. The situation was anomalous, if not comical. It was, of course, only the first act. (The second contained an element of poetic justice: In 1933 William Bullitt went to Moscow once again, this time as the first American Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. He stayed until 1936, by which time the Stalin purges were getting under way.) Yet for all its absurdity, the Bullitt mission posed the dilemma that in the ensuing four decades has gradually become the major theme of world diplomacy:
Could the democracies afford to do business with Soviet Russia?
Could they afford not to?