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When The Red Storm Broke
To a Russia in revolution, America sent rival groups of amateur diplomats. The calamitous results of their indecision still afflict us
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
In the early days ot November, 1917, a wiry, abbreviated man bearing on his face the expression of a determined ferret and in his pocket an important commission from President Woodrow Wilson, stopped off in London at the Savoy Hotel, then noisy with officers on leave from the western front and a banjo band straight from Dixie. He soon heard disconcerting news. “Vague word of a strange new Russian disturbance called Bolshevik” (so he was to recall in his memoirs) had begun to permeate London. “Petrograd became silent. Accounts from points outside Russia were murky and contradictory. The American Embassy was no better informed than others.”
Among the least informed was the traveler himself, which was somewhat ironic, since he was momentarily on his way direct to Petrograd as a supposed expert on information, propaganda, and counterintclligence. The October Revolution was fought and won before Edgar Sisson, the special Petrograd representative of President Wilson’s wartime Committee on Public information, ever got wind of it.
Sisson, a minor and now forgotten actor who briefly blundered onto center stage in an erupting world, is interesting historically only as a symbol. He stands, so to speak, for the shortcomings of American diplomacy at one catastrophic moment. And further, he represents what could be called the Great Russo-American Reversal of 1917–18, which brought to an end our century-old friendly relations with a czarist empire remote from our interests but hitherto benevolent to our own republican growth. \Vhcn social upheaval toppled the Autocrat of all the Russias in early 1917, the United States believed that the old relations would continue as before, but the events of late 1917 doomed these simple hopes. When Red Russia threatened to leave the war against the Kaiser’s Germany just after we had gotten into it, and next threatened to substitute for that war of nations a war of classes—to be fomented even inside America as well—the sudden reversal reached its climax. A few shattering months led to a total breakdown of communications between Russia and America, to the point where the two hitherto cordial peoples and governments on opposite sides of the globe grew so riddled with mutual fears and suspicion as to become all but incomprehensible to one another. From this situation, as everyone knows, we have never really recovered; the few intervals of rapprochement over the years have all turned out to be false dawns, and we still live under the sign of that darkness which descended between the two contrasting world powers in the bitter winter of 1917–18.
Did it have to happen—or happen as it did? Historians keep sitting the evidence, each through his own sieve. All agree that revolutionary Russia provided the challenge; what remains at issue is the shrewdness, the imagination, and the wisdom of America’s response. In its upheaval, the far-off empire that we had so long looked upon as the legendary haven of the ikon and the muzhik suddenly swung into America’s ken with a spectacle of total disorder and social threat. The shock was great, and a surprised and inexperienced America responded to it with its own spectacle of confusion and disorder, presented first of all right on the ground of Petrograd.
For it was there, even before the guns went oft and snows and machine-gun nests clogged the wintry streets, that our troubles with the new Russia began. The United States, a newcomer to great-power politics, had been content to choose, as the great majority of its emissaries, rank amateurs—in the form of deserving campaign contributors, political pensioners, and an occasional hungry intellectual seeking a paid-for existence overseas. When Russia erupted in such a violent and confusing way, we did not greatly change our manner of selecting diplomats; we simply sent more of them. The result was that America descended upon Petrograd with such a cloud of assorted troubleshooters, visiting firemen, adventurers, and idealists as had never before been seen in the relations between civilized states—each of them independent of the next, and all of them amateur. Therewith began a new stage of American diplomacy under threat of crisis—that of mass deployment abroad designed to conceal by sheer numbers underlying cross-purposes and indecision at home.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the succeeding generation, was to prove himself a past master of this tactic of sending out multiple and often mutually contradictory emissaries, and then letting the pieces fall where they might; but President Wilson, fresh in the exercise of American world power, was the pioneer. Perhaps never before had one nation dispatched to another in times of the latter’s travail such a mixed company of the unskilled and innocent, with so little knowledge and preparation for what lay ahead. Nor had so many American diplomats ever gone forth with such lack of concerted purpose. Ridden with rivalries and cross-purposes that added to the general misunderstandings now arising between the United States and Russia, these multiple envoys were no match for the monolithic Lenin and Trotsky, who knew precisely what they wanted; and the end result of a winter’s tortuous efforts in Petrograd was the breakdown of relations that had existed between the two countries for over a century.