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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
As Thayer tells it in Bears in the Caviar , they had discovered that a Soviet spy was in the process of “bugging” Mr. Davies’ office with a microphone run down from the attic. After several fruitless nights of vigil up there to try to observe him, they retired to more comfortable quarters below, leaving a net of cross-wire alarms to alert them at his next visit. But when the intruder returned, he got away in the nightafter knocking out the entire Spasso House electrical system. Two days later, Ambassador Davies’ butler reported to Thayer: “Two of the deep-freezes seem to have failed to get back into action after we reconnected the current.”
“What was in them?”
“The frozen cream, and it’s passed all saving.”
There were indeed several hundred pints of wellpublicized Davies cream rotting in the basement, and there was only one way of getting rid of them so as not to damage the Davies prestige. Since all regular Embassy employees were under close Soviet surveillance, the only thing for Thayer to do was to round up some Russian workmen to help him quietly dump a truckload of the stuff in a deserted pine forest.
There were more hazards facing Davies than espionage and sour cream. As Kennan was to point out in a searching memorandum, “The Position of an American Ambassador in Moscow,” there was Soviet evasion, double talk, secrecy, dilatoriness, and a tactic of isolating the American envoy and his staff from all but the most superficial contacts with Russians. But greatest of all (though Kennan did not bring this up) was the danger of impressionable and gullible thinking on the part of the envoy himself—and of this, Davies is one of diplomacy’s classic exhibits.
In setting out, as he tells us in Mission to Moscow (the best-selling memoir that was to be made into one of the most debated movies of the war years), his verbal instructions from the President were to seek to persuade the Soviets to break the debt and trade impasse, meanwhile assuming a posture of “dignified friendliness” qualified by “definite reserve.” Reserve, however, flew out the window at his first meeting with Soviet President Kalinin. “A fine type,” Davies called him, “a kind, good man.” But this was nothing compared to the Ambassador’s enthusiasm on meeting Stalin himself: “His brown eye is exceedingly kindly and gentle. A child would like to sit in his lap and a dog would sidle up to him. … Throughout [the interview] he joked and laughed at times. He has a sly humor.”
Yet there was little to laugh about during Davies’ first year in Moscow. For his arrival there coincided with the start of the second and greatest of the series of “purge” trials that bewildered the world and bitterly divided those until then inclined to befriend the “Soviet experiment.” A long procession of hitherto highranking Communist ministers, intellectuals, ideologues, and generals were quickly tried for counterrevolutionary conspiracy and duly led off to execution. Were the trials a frame-up? Had the accused been tortured in some mysterious fashion, and was this Stalin’s Oriental way of disposing of his rivals?
Many observers of the macabre spectacle were torn by doubt, but Davies, watching from one of the best diplomatic seats in the Soviet Supreme Court as the “Old Bolshevik” editor Karl Radek and nearly a score of others went under, seemed untroubled. He wrote home that he accepted at face value Public Prosecutor Andrei Vishinsky’s thesis of a dark terrorist plot and blandly concluded after the prisoners had been condemned: “The purge … cleansed the country and rid it of treason.” This view he also maintained when visiting London. Dining in company with Winston Churchill, Davies was chagrined to find that it did not go down well there, “so violent is the prejudice. … I gave the facts as interpreted from the Soviet viewpoint.”
An American ambassador handing out in London the “facts” as interpreted by Stalin: What next?
Early in 1938 President Roosevelt realized that his man in Moscow was a liability—for all his popularity there, he still had not achieved that debt settlement- and withdrew him to the safer post of Brussels. Litvinow threw Davies a great farewell dinner, and the amiable visitor left trailing such pronouncements as “I do not think that the world is in any real danger from communism for many years to come,” and, later, “It is not [the Soviets'] intent to seek to project communism in the United States.”
The Soviet Union was, however, embarking on a course that would once more lead to a freeze in RussoAmerican relations. For fully three years we would again be barely on speaking terms; for many months on end—particularly those of the Munich crisis, the height of Western humiliation and distress—we were to be without an ambassador in Moscow at all.
For while the Soviets had been clamoring for joint opposition to Hitler, Mussolini, the aggressive Japanese, and then Franco, America (like its old European partners, Britain and France) had avoided doing anything effective about it—a fact that had enormously increased Communist prestige among all those aroused to resistance. Roosevelt in the fall of 1937 had tried to reverse America’s position by his historic “quarantinethe-aggressors” speech, but when he was unable to prevail, it next became the turn of the Soviets to reverse their own: by the next summer they were threatening to retreat into isolation unless we came out of ours, and by the spring of 1939, in the aftermath of Munich, they did precisely that, furthermore denouncing the Western allies as “warmongers” just when these at last were arming against the general danger.