The New Deal And The Guru


In the winter of 1934 and the spring of 1935, Roerich spent most of his time promoting projects like the Roerich Pact and writing of his longings for “Kansas.” He made so many speeches in North China that in January he complained of a sore throat. Newspapers in Tientsin and Peking renewed their “malice, nightmare, and slander,” but Roerich maintained, according to a report from the American legation in Peking, “a very proud attitude” and “quite a fierce appearance” as he traveled with “four White Russian guards, and some Burial guards.”

On June 24, 1935, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page article headlined JAPANESE EXPEL EXPLORERS SENT BY SEC. WALLACE. The State Department may have leaked news of Roerich’s activities in the hope of pressuring Wallace to recall him. At any rate the newspaper told of a Russian painter traveling with “armed White Russian Cossack guards” who made a conspicuous “show of American diplomatic protection,” causing “embarrassment to American diplomatic and military officials.”

Roerich wrote to Wallace that the journalistic assault was “entirely without foundation,” a product of the “whispering campaign” of the two dismissed botanists, prejudiced consular officials, and the local Japanese-controlled press, which aimed “to check the spread of American influence among the Russian population in North Manchuria.” He predicted that the months ahead would produce valuable seed collections, and he denied “any political activity on my part, or on the part of the other members of the Expedition.”

Wallace was not convinced. As he later commented, “For the first time I began to see that perhaps Roerich was getting me into a false position and through me also embarrassing the Government of the United States.” He cabled Roerich with instructions “to transfer your expedition to a safe region rich in drought resistant grasses in Suiyuan.” He also asked Horch to convey “tactfully and effectively” to the artist that the government was “exceedingly anxious” and that the expedition must devote its full attention, “both actually and apparently,” to the collection of grass seed.

The Soviet Union was also worried about Roerich. The American military attaché in Moscow reported that a reliable Russian source was referring to the Roerichs as an “armed party” that was “making its way toward the Soviet Union, ostensibly as a scientific expedition, but actually to rally former White elements and discontented Mongols.” The State Department forwarded these rumors to Wallace, and he replied that the grass-seed expedition had no intention of violating Soviet territory. Then Undersecretary of State William Phillips, who handled the correspondence from Moscow, cornered Wallace at a reception and informed him of the seriousness of the State Department’s concern. Wallace admitted that he had begun “to doubt that the Professor was such a great man after all.” That conversation, as Wallace put it later, “ended Roerich so far as I was concerned. All I wanted to do was to get him back to Nagar, India, get his credentials, and wash my hands of him completely.”


On September 16 Wallace sent Roerich orders to pack for Nagar, prepare a final report, spend no additional money, and surrender his credentials. On September 21 the Agriculture Department formally terminated the field activities of the expedition and asked the Roerichs to pay for the firearms they had borrowed. Wallace wanted no further friction between the United States and the Soviet Union. He had earlier warned the Roerichs that “Department employees must not make statements reflecting on political situations in other nations.”

The Roerich expedition failed to find plants to help the American Dust Bowl. During the first season of the expedition, the Agriculture Department received mainly herbarium and medicinal plants. During the second, shortened season the Roerichs assured the Agriculture Department that their “field work [was] progressing highly satisfactorily” and that they were doing their “utmost to secure a sufficient collection of seeds from a large number of forage grasses.” Ominously, however, their letters boasted of more than eight hundred herbariums. A comedy of errors ensued as the Roerichs attempted to send their seeds by diplomatic pouch, only to receive a strong rebuff from the State Department, which informed them that it was not in the seed-transport business. Wallace later admitted, when the Italian embassy asked for the results of the seed experiments, that “almost certainly most of the items concerned will have little or no value.”

By now Wallace’s disillusion with Roerich was complete. In September 1935 he advised Mrs. Roerich: “I desire that there be no communication, direct or indirect, by letter or otherwise between the Roerichs (father, mother, and son) on the one side and myself on the other.” In other correspondence he called his former friend a “megalomaniac” whose followers “were determined to stop at nothing in helping him to work out some extraordinary phantasy of Asiatic power.”

The Secretary of Agriculture tried to repair the damage his guru had caused. He apologized to MacMillan and Stephens and told the botanists’ former superior, Knowles Ryerson, “that your motives were of the highest.” He even tried to persuade the State Department to change the name of the Roerich Pact, and he personally wrote to the United States ambassadors from fifty-seven countries warning them about “those who continue fanatically in their policy of aggrandizing a name rather than an ideal.”