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The Road To Yalta
A dozen arduous years lay between our recognition of the Soviets and the conference in Crimea; then the friendship so briefly rekindled flickered out again
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
On a brisk November day in Washington in 1933, two spare, tall American officials of high rank and collected demeanor emerged from under the mansards of the old State Department building to journey to Union Station and there greet a squat, rotund, grinning foreigner who in the eyes of many of their compatriots was a dangerous revolutionary. The moment itself was revolutionary, even in a sartorial sense. Protocol prescribed that when our Secretary of State and his assistants received the visiting foreign minister of another sovereign power, formal morning dress be worn. Yet on this occasion, so Under Secretary William Phillips recorded of the trip across town that he and his chief, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, undertook that day to welcome Soviet Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinow, “None of us wore top hats because [Litvinov] came as the representative of a government not yet officially recognized by the United States.”
The affable Russian, speaking excellent English and himself wearing a snap-brim felt hat, had come here to achieve exactly that recognition, and thus to restore the American-Russian relations that had been broken off in 1918 with the United States’ refusal to deal with the atheistic, debt-repudiating, proselytizing new Bolshevik regime of Lenin and Trotsky. The breach had left the world’s two potentially greatest powers, after more than a century of mutual cordiality, not speaking to each other for the next fifteen years ( see “When the Red Storm Broke,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1961). Yet now suddenly, it seemed, America’s mood had changed. On the very afternoon of his arrival, Litvinov was taken in to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt, also eager to resolve what he called “this anomalous situation.” After barely a week of discussions the United States—the one great nation still refusing to accept what Lenin had wrought —agreed to do business with his heir, Joseph Stalin.
In return, the Soviets agreed to mend some ways of theirs that had been particularly offensive to us. They promised to honor at least some of the debts Russia owed America and its citizens, to refrain from fomenting subversive agitation in our midst through their Communist International (or Comintern), and to protect the religious and other civil rights of American nationals in Russia. Ambassadors and a growing wealth of goods would be exchanged, and all or nearly all would now be well between our contrasting fellow republics.
Along this new route to reconciliation, however, traveling conditions were to be as subarctic as northern Russia itself: protracted deep freezes suddenly followed by brief, torrid summer; bright sunshine giving way to violent squalls and sudden darkness. The route, moreover, led over treacherous terrain, with every step along the way a challenge to the most surefooted and imaginative of explorer-diplomats.
Alas! Again, as during America’s most demanding previous test—the erupting Russia of the winter of 1917-18—we had painfully few men equal to the task at hand. We had floundered then in Petrograd becavtse we had been amateurish, indecisive, and entangled in cross-purposes. What had we learned during the intervening years about how to comport ourselves when returning to the land of the Great Bear? As in 1917—18, we now proceeded to send to Russia a series of emissaries of sharply contrasting backgrounds, commitments, and beliefs. Moreover, on occasion we again sent several simultaneously, thereby further blurring our “image.”
America found itself represented in Moscow first by a millionaire, William C. Bullitt, who had been greatly taken with the Soviets at the outset and ended totally at odds with them; next by a multimillionaire, Joseph E. Davies, who became greatly taken with the Soviets and remained that way for the rest of his days; later by a crusty, retired admiral, William H. Standley, who talked back firmly to the Soviets but also to President Roosevelt, and fell out with both. And these were but a few of the contrasting American visitors to face the Russian monolith.
In the Petrograd of 1917-18 our affairs had become snarled through the presence of proliferating, independent American missions—military, Red Cross, propaganda, etc.—all bypassing our ambassador and feuding with one another. In Moscow, during a second wartime, we were to enlarge upon those precedents by establishing massive lend-lease and military-aid missions also independent of our principal envoy and, moreover, headed by successive chiefs—Generals Philip R. Faymonville and John R. Deane—of wholly diverging viewpoints. The President’s personal bright star, Harry L. Hopkins, flew in briefly through the early wartime Moscow sky, as did Averell Harriman, later to return as America’s able regular ambassador. ExAmbassador Davies oddly reappeared, too, and both a would-be President, Wendell Willkie, and an itinerant Vice President, Henry Wallace, showed up. While we spoke with multiple voices, the Kremlin talked back with one.