- Historic Sites
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
Clearly the President was of a divided and changing mind when confronting the heirs of Marx and Lenin. He was not alone. Our whole nation was uncertain how to deal, if deal we must, with this vexing, frightening, secretive colossus. Hence we exported to Moscow during the 1930’s and the war years all our own domestic ideological differences about it—every emissary representing his own faiths or fears.
In 1933, though, when the proposal to strike up official relations with the Soviet pariahs received the new President’s attention, there was widespread agreement to this much at least: let’s give it a try. Times had changed radically since 1918—had been changing, so far as American estimation of Russia was concerned, for quite a number of years. For one thing, the Soviet regime had proved itself stable and responsible (save when it came to that matter of debts); it had emerged far enough from its seclusion to confer with the West at Geneva about disarmament and to ring general alarms about the new menace of militarist Japan. For another, the new, industrializing Russia had become a natural American market—an increasingly desirable and important one as the onset of world-wide depression shriveled every other.
Thus encouraged—and kept up to date on Russian affairs by journalists like Walter Duranty, William Henry Chamberlin, and Vincent Sheean—Americans had become increasingly fascinated by what they called the “Soviet experiment,” even while preserving varying degrees of distaste for it. No man had been more fascinated all along than the wealthy Philadelphian William C. Bullitt, who in 1919, at twenty-eight, had persuaded President Wilson to send him on an unofficial mission to the Bolsheviks to sound out possible conciliatory sentiments among them ( see “The Wasted Mission,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , April, 1961). Angered by Wilson’s abrupt dismissal of his hopeful report, Bullitt had denounced what he held to be American folly, and subsequently resumed his ardent advocacy of American-Soviet rapprochement . Intense, articulate, a polished Main Line aristocrat but also a maverick, Bullitt had at once attracted the attention of the incoming President Roosevelt—a man often drawn to such mixtures—with the result that early in 1933 he was sent to Moscow to repeat, in effect, his exploratory mission of 1919. And when this time the response brought Litvinow to Washington with powers to conclude an agreement on very broad terms, it seemed only logical to dispatch the enthusiastic Bullitt to Moscow as America’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union.
He arrived there that December, bringing with him as Third Secretary a very young Foreign Service officer named George F. Kennan (soon to be joined by another named Charles E. Bohlen), and established himself across Red Square from the Kremlin in the National Hotel, the grubby capital’s cavernous refuge for foreigners. Immediately Bullitt found himself receiving, over and beyond the respect due an envoy, the regime’s marks of favor as a special friend. Litvinow staged for him a “tremendous'' reception; and Stalin, who “until my arrival had never received any ambassador,” summoned Bullitt and assured him that “At any moment, day or night, if you wish to see me you have only to ask and I will see you at once.”
Yet the honeymoon begun so deliriously lasted only a very few months. By March, 1934, Bullitt was sending home flustered, disappointed cables about “misunderstandings” on matters ranging from Litvinow’s debt agreement (which was not being fulfilled) to Moscow’s permission for an American Embassy building to be erected there (which was now being blocked). “Oral promises of members of the Soviet government are not to be taken seriously,” the veteran proponent of closer ties sourly concluded. By October, infuriated by the Kremlin’s default on still another promisethat of curbing the activities of the Comintern within American borders—Bullitt reached the point of cabling Washington, “I think I might go so far as to intimate to Litvinow verbally that we might sever diplomatic relations if the Comintern should be allowed to get out of hand.”