Bread Upon The Waters

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It was a cold January day on Capitol Hill. In the chamber of the House of Representatives, however, the oratory alone was nearly enough to fend off the winter chill, for the topic under debate was American relations with Russia.

“Can we have friendship,” cried a gentleman from West Virginia, “between tyranny and liberty; between Asiatic despotism and modern civilization? … There is no friendship and there can be no friendship between such opposing forces. I hope the hour will come when we can clasp the Russian hand in honest and cordial friendship, but that day should not come until the Tartar has mended his ways; until Poland is free; until persecution for opinion’s and religion’s sake shall have ceased, and until constitutional government shall prevail from the Baltic to Bering Sea.”

This effusion, which with very little editing might have served many a congressman almost any time between the Communist revolution of 1917 and Khrushchev’s disruption of last spring’s summit conference, was actually delivered on January 6, 1892. It represented one vociferous faction in a discussion of whether the government of the United States should appropriate $100,000 to aid several million Russian peasants along the Volga River who were facing the prospect of starvation in a famine which had already assumed terrifying proportions.

In addition to newspaper accounts of the failure of the Russian harvest in the fall of 1891, petitions from agitated constituents had alerted Congress to the disaster, and fo the sympathetic response quickly awakened in many parts of the nation. It had been a bountiful year for America: granaries were overflowing, and ebullient plans were taking shape lor the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which was to celebrate four hundred years of American progress. The widespread reaction to Russia’s need was epitomized for Congress in one petition that called for special attention, since it came from Cassius Marcellns Clay, United States minister to Russia during most of the Civil War.

Clay, whose staunch loyalty to his native Kentucky had been balanced by firm abolitionist beliefs and service as a Union general, was perfectly clear both on American obligations to Russia, and on how they should be fulfilled. He reminded Congress that the Russian dynasty and people had “from the earliest times been on the most friendly terms with this nation,” and that Russia gave America moral support in days of great trouble—he was thinking, no doubt, of the visit of the Czar’s fleet in 1863—“not that she loved the North more than the South (for she did not), but because she loved the nation more than both.” ‣ He went on to say, on the basis of his experience, that “the Russian people are the most hospitable and humane on earth,” and that both civilization and Chrisxianity demanded sympathy and aid. Not content with this diagnosis, he gave a very particular prescription for the remedy Russia needed:

‣ Clay’s belief was quite popularly accepted in America for many years. But as Marshall B. Davidson showed in the June, 1960, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE . the visit was in reality “a secret diplomatic maneuver inspired … by Russia’s own problems on the Continent.”