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The New Deal And The Guru
How Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture sent an eccentric Russian mystic on a sensitive mission to Asia and thereby created diplomatic havoc, personal humiliation, and embarrassment for the administration
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
Other interested parties placed considerably less faith in Roerich. The State Department expressed grave reservations about the whole expedition because the explorers would be traveling in a hotbed of international tension and intrigue. They would necessarily make contacts with the government of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, which the United States refused to recognize. Stanley K. Hornbeck, chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs, pointed out to Wallace that the Roerichs were not American citizens but White Russians who carried French passports. The Agriculture Secretary, however, expressed confidence that the Roerichs would handle the delicate matter of Manchukuo gracefully. When Ryerson expressed fear for the safety of MacMillan and Stephens, Wallace asked the younger Roerich to “ask the Guru to use his powers to give them confidence and joy” so that they would return home “singing [his] praises.”
Unfortunately, MacMillan and Stephens found it difficult to admire a man who avoided them at every juncture. The guru and his son left the United States well before the two botanists. Roerich saw his journey to Asia as a grand opportunity to establish a separate state in Siberia. MacMillan and Stephens, who were interested only in drought-resistant grasses, were to be abandoned and discredited. Horch, Roerich’s financier, later stated that the goal of establishing a new Siberian state became an “obsession” with the Russian. References to Siberia, code-named Kansas, frequently surfaced in Roerich’s highly cryptic correspondence. He wrote at one point, “I think all the time about Kansas.”
In May 1934 the Roerichs arrived in Tokyo, where they sought to ingratiate themselves with Japanese authorities. After meeting with Minister of War Senjuro Hayashi, Nicholas Roerich publicly hailed him as “a great man” and “a leader of great ability.” Despite the U.S. refusal to recognize the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, the Roerichs called on the legation of Manchukuo in Tokyo. They stayed in Tokyo long enough to make headlines but scurried out of the city before the arrival of MacMillan and Stephens. On June 1 the two botanists reached Tokyo and were greeted with instructions to pick up their visas at the Manchukuo legation. They wisely chose instead to deal with the American consulate. The consul general, Arthur Garrels, only learned then that the Roerichs were employees of the Agriculture Department, and he complained to Secretary of State Hull that their activities had been “embarrassing to the Embassy, the Consulate General, and the American Government.”
Seemingly oblivious of diplomatic repercussions, the Roerichs journeyed on to Manchuria, where they presented Emperor Pu Yi of Manchukuo with the Banner of Peace, “First Class.” In the city of Harbin, where his brother and thousands of other White Russians had taken refuge, Roerich began a vigorous publicity campaign. MacMillan sent one of Roerich’s self-promoting handbills back home to his superior and compared it to a circular for “a circus or a chain grocery store.”
Wallace proved to be Roerich’s guardian angel. He later admitted that the artist so “hypnotized” him that he felt he was above reproach. Roerich complained repeatedly about late-arriving paychecks and the disrespect of the botanists. He suggested that Wallace should “put them in their place.” Wallace intervened when the General Accounting Office (GAO) questioned Roerich’s reimbursement vouchers: Roerich had asked the GAO to pay for items that included his housecoat, trousers, stockings, and a rolling pin.
Wallace also intervened to protect Roerich from the hostile Japanese press. The presence in politically sensitive Manchukuo of a publicity-seeking Russian never appealed to the Japanese, and soon after the expedition arrived in Harbin, the local newspapers launched a systematic attack against their new visitors. Articles associated Roerich with Freemasonry, Buddhism, anti-Communist and anti-Fascist organizations, and a scheme to establish a separate state in Siberia. Roerich wrote home, “We are battling with the dark forces but as always are moving valiantly forward.”
Frances Grant carried the troubling news to the Secretary of Agriculture, who immediately arranged to see the Japanese ambassador to the United States, bypassing the State Department. Asking for a personal favor, Wallace received assurances that the journalistic assault on Roerich would soon end. Wallace had already avoided diplomatic channels by writing directly to Chinese diplomats and American consular officers in Tokyo and Harbin, introducing Roerich and explaining the expedition. The State Department was becoming very nervous.
Roerich’s influence, however, extended beyond the cabinet and into the Oval Office. President Roosevelt was impressed with an article by the artist entitled “The Deserts Shall Bloom Again” and twice asked Wallace to invite Roerich to spend an evening with the President when the search for drought-resistant grasses ended.