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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
The falling-out reflected underlying antagonisms between the two nations which the first genial meetings in Washington and Moscow had covered over, not resolved. It was also America’s introduction to a typical Soviet tactic: demanding a foot when given an inch. Having received the accolade of recognition, the Kremlin now wanted speedy American credits and support of its drive for “collective-security” pacts against the rising threats of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan; America, on the other hand, insisted on settlement of at least some of Russia’s debts to us before there could be talk of going further (and collective security was something that our still-isolationist republic especially did not wish to pursue). So a new freeze set in between the two capitals—coldest in Moscow as between Bullitt and Litvinow. The Kremlin had erred in assuming that its American friend Bullitt would be all-compliant. Bullitt had erred in assuming that the Russians, whom he had trusted, would live up to their word. Stalin’s promised “open door” slammed shut in Bullitt’s face (during a whole year, the two conferred only once), and the American who in 1933 had entered Moscow in triumph as its most favored guest quit it in 1936 in frustration as one of Soviet Russia’s most embittered critics.
The Kremlin had learned a lesson too: never again an American liberal, with all the mercurial tendencies of the breed! Far better to have from America a hardheaded, stalwart capitalist—a “class enemy” to be sure, but at least one whose reactions you could predict. So the Soviets were relieved when President Roosevelt chose as his next envoy to them the prominent corporation lawyer Joseph E. Davies, financier, politician, and sharer—through his marriage to Mrs. Marjorie Post Close Hutton, the daughter of C. W. Post of Post Toasties—in an immense fortune. Yet Moscow was due for some surprises at Davies’ hand. So was America.
A handsome, gregarious figure of many-sided accomplishment and charm, Davies had early begun moving in leading Democratic circles. He had turned down President Wilson’s offer of the ambassadorship to czarist Russia in 1913, but later served Wilson as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and as economic adviser at the Versailles peace conference. A close friend and political backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt since Wilsonian days, he was going forth now to Moscow as the President’s immediate confidant (with the result, as Secretary of State Hull was to complain, that Davies, like Bullitt before him, frequently communicated with Roosevelt directly, “over my head”).
All this was impressive. But what seemed to impress the Soviets most of all was the regal state in which Ambassador and Mrs. Davies commenced their expedition to darkest Moscow. Thirty trunks, fifty smaller pieces of luggage, and six personal servants accompanied them. (“We are going to live in Moscow very quietly, very simply,” explained Davies; ” ‘When in Rome,’ you know …”) Mistrusting Soviet produce, they also took along some two thousand pints of frozen American cream (Birds Eye process, owned by Mrs. Davies’ General Foods), together with twenty-five freezers in which to store it. “Contrary to popular belief,” said a Soviet spokesman in New York, “there are cows in Russia.”
Half a year later, when supplies ran low, Mrs. Davies was to order another two thousand pints, along with two tons of frozen meats, fruits, and vegetables from home. Yet Soviet leaders, far from being affronted by this swollen self-indulgence amid Russia’s lean times, were fascinated by it. Coming from below, they had tasted enough of power to like to indulge themselves, too—and the most Lucullan table to be seen in Moscow since the revolution now beckoned them. It soon appeared that the master of Spasso House (the stately mansion of a czarist grandee acquired as the American Embassy) was surprisingly hospitable to their minds as well.
The paunchy Litvinow, restored to amiability now that the demanding Bullitt was gone and this expansive capitalist was here, flattered Davies by telling him (as Davies promptly reported to Washington) that “I had acquired more information and knowledge of Russia in the three months I was here than any other ambassador had obtained in two years.” He then went on to ask the new ambassador’s general impressions. “I told him briefly that I was very much impressed with what they were doing, with the strength of their leadership, the difficulties they were overcoming; that I felt they were presently sincerely devoted to peace …” Meanwhile the colorful Mrs. Davies, to the astonishment of the British ambassador (“I have been here seven years and haven’t been able to get so much as a toe in their house!”), was invited to lunch at the country dacha of Mme. Molotov, the Premier’s consort.
It was a new thaw, evidently—passing at once into balmy summer. Then what, amid all this sweetness and light, was a secret, nocturnal Soviet agent doing in the attic of Spasso House? We come to the incident of Second Secretary Kennan and the night the Davies’ cream turned sour. It is recounted by Charles W. Thayer, a young Philadelphia!! who had become the assistant to the gifted, Russian-speaking Kennan-Bohlen team that often had to pull ambassadorial chestnuts out of the fire.