- Historic Sites
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
For a while Harbin proved a safe sanctuary for Roerich. The friendship of Wallace and Roosevelt protected him from the “dark forces,” and there was time for self-aggrandizement, manuscript revision, and the acquisition of what MacMillan called “servants and Cossack soldiers.” Roerich launched an attack on “evil wishers or ignoramuses,” among them MacMillan, Stephens, and the State Department. An open breach with the State Department’s Division of Far Eastern Affairs finally developed when Roerich courted the Manchukuo authorities, to the scorn of the Japanese-controlled press. One distressed State Department official complained that Roerich had placed the United States in an “embarrassing if not ludicrous position” and said that it was time for Secretary of State Hull to ask Wallace to “recall the two Roerichs or announce their definite disassociation from the expedition.”
On July 18 MacMillan and Stephens finally reached Harbin. They had brought with them much of the expedition’s equipment, including a quantity of ammunition and firearms that troubled the wary Japanese officials, and were well behind schedule. MacMillan could not locate Roerich’s Harbin address. He was able to obtain a department-store phone number, but the clerk who answered said Roerich was unavailable. MacMillan sensed that he and Stephens were “definitely under suspicion and [were] being watched.” As Roerich continued to avoid the two botanists, an utterly frustrated MacMillan wrote: “Papa Roerich rates a Cossack guard at his door at all hours, armed. It makes a great show. What tripe!”
George Roerich became an intermediary between his father and the botanists, and it soon became apparent that there would be two separate expeditions. MacMillan believed Roerich’s “plan of movement would be entirely ruinous to our work.” After an exchange of equipment the grass seed search divided. Back in Washington Ryerson grew increasingly disenchanted with Roerich and, like the State Department, suggested that Wallace recall him.
Throughout the first year of the expedition, Wallace’s faith in Nicholas Roerich never wavered. Roerich’s letters to Wallace told a sad tale of two insubordinate botanists who failed to follow instructions, refused to contact their chief, and then demanded to work separately. Roerich wrote threateningly to friends in New York: “Recently we laughed a great deal about hearing a curious story how a certain person when he began slandering on my account at once got scalded by hot waters.”
Soviet officials thought the artist was leading an armed party to foment revolution.
Wallace accepted Roerich’s account of events. He recalled MacMillan and Stephens “for insubordination and failure to carry out instructions” and then castigated Ryerson for siding with his employees: “The rumors which you mentioned concerning Professor Roerich are not only ridiculous but extremely malicious, and indicate ignorance of his outstanding achievements.” Wallace transferred Ryerson to the Division of Subtropical Horticulture.
Roerich meanwhile neglected the official purpose of his mission. Most of the plant specimens he sent back to Washington were not drought-resistant grasses but “curative herbs.” The scientists at the Department of Agriculture bleakly concluded, “Practically nothing has come out of this plant material which is worth anything.” At the same time, the American consulate general in Harbin reported that Roerich’s difficulties with Manchukuo officials stemmed from his wanting “permission to import arms and ammunition and to pitch tents and establish an armed camp in the interior.” It appeared that the expedition “had for its object other things than mere agricultural work.”
By October 1934 Wallace had relieved MacMillan, Stephens, and Ryerson and appointed Dr. E. N. Bressman, a scientific adviser in the Department of Agriculture, to assist the expedition from Washington. Wallace apologized to Roerich for the behavior of the two botanists and assured him that “you have my complete confidence and approval for all your actions in regard to the expedition.” The Agriculture Secretary expressed his continued conviction that Roerich’s work would “help decidedly in making eventually possible greater human happiness in the western plains area.”
The Roerichs left Harbin in November 1934 for North China. They used government funds to purchase trucks, motorcars, and tents. When they asked the 15th United States Army Infantry unit in Tientsin for rifles, revolvers, and ammunition, the officer in charge balked until Wallace, at George Roerich’s request, intervened. On December 1 Wallace wrote the Secretary of War asking that the Roerichs, as officials of the Department of Agriculture, “promptly” be given the arms because they “are now planning to travel in the Gobi region where, because of unsettled conditions, they will require weapons and ammunition for their personal protection.” The Roerichs continued on, well armed and accompanied by a “guard of White Russian Cossacks,” according to one witness. They were leading a most unusual botanical expedition.