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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 times past America had sent to Russia both some very good envoys and some very bad ones, the range extending all the way from the masterly John Quincy Adams and the scholarly Andrew D. White to the alcoholic John Randolph, the notoriously corrupt Simon Cameron, and that boisterous showman from border Kentucky, Cassius M. Clay, who in President Lincoln’s day liked to sport his pearl-handled bowie knife at the Czar’s court, in this ill-assorted gallery, David R. Francis was not as outrageous as some who had preceded him; he was simply quaint and totally miscast for his job. A mayor of St. Louis back in the rough-and-tumble 1880’s, and then governor of Missouri, he looked like a period piece out of those days, with his white mane, high stand-up collar, and thick gold watch chain; his tastes ran to long evenings of poker, and during the ten days that shook the world, he sometimes seemed to be concerned chiefly with maintaining his supply of bourbon and cigars. In the delicious portrait George F. Kennan paints of him in Russia Leaves the War, the author suspects that the legend of Francis’ “portable cuspidor, with its clanking, foot-operated lid may have been apocryphal,” but recounts the Ambassador’s custom of accompanying his diplomatic dinners with records played on a squeaky gramophone behind a screen, with his Negro butler and confidant “interrupting the service at table from time to time to crank it,” all to the astonishment of the guests.
Elderly as he was, the amiable grain dealer sent out by the Calvinist Woodrow Wilson was not too old to indulge his tastes in another direction—which resulted in one of the more grotesque indiscretions in the chronicles of American diplomacy. While the eyes of the world were focused apprehensively on the progress of Lenin’s uprising, cables hurried between Washington and Petrograd on the subject of the American ambassador’s relationship with a certain Mme. Matilda cle Cram. This handsome lady had sought out Francis’ acquaintance aboard ship while he was on his way without his family to his post, and subsequently became a constant visitor of his at the Embassy. It was understood that she was giving him French lessons. All might have been well, in the worldly environment of continental diplomacy, save that Mme. de Cram, the wife of a Russian officer, was strongly suspected by Russian authorities of being a German agent. She was also on the secret suspect list of the Inter-Allied Passport Agency. General Judson, who was particularly concerned about her proximity to coded messages and code books when in the Ambassador’s private presence, finally confronted Francis with the stories going round about her—only to be told to mind his own business. Then someone at the Embassy directly informed the State Department, which took the extraordinary step of requesting Francis to discontinue his relationship with Mme. de Cram. To this Francis replied crustily that the lady in question hadn’t visited him for quite some time. A second exchange took place; then the department, realizing that to remove Francis, a deserving Democrat, might produce a scandal, sent him a mollifying cable welcoming his information that Mme. de Cram’s visits had ceased. End of episode—and whether she was in fact what she was suspected of being has never been substantiated.
While these intramural exchanges were going on, Lenin and Trotsky had entered upon somewhat more significant ones with the German high command at Brest-Litovsk. It was midwinter; they sought a separate peace and were about to dissolve the multiparty Constituent Assembly at Petrograd in order to establish a complete Bolshevik dictatorship over Russia. The Ambassador, however, who had rarely ventured out of his Embassy during the explosive days of November, made no personal contact with either of the new Russian chiefs. In this he was acting on instructions from Washington on December 6 to refrain from such contact—instructions which, however, were in effect just Francis talking to Francis, since they had been drafted in response to his own cabled advice, the burden of which over many months had been that he saw no point in talking with the Bolsheviks. They were a minority agitational group, he explained, and evidently not here to stay.
As time off from poker and Mme. de Cram allowed, Francis had kept informing the President and Secretary of State Robert Lansing of his satisfaction with the way matters in Russia were proceeding under Kerensky. Thus on May 31, 1917: “Kerensky is still continuing his inspection of the front, and is met everywhere with the greatest enthusiasm.” “Enthusiasm,” however, had been hardly the right word with which to describe the state of mind of Russia’s sullen conscripts, then on the verge of throwing down their guns. Meanwhile the Ambassador’s private, conservative predilections had run much deeper; soon after Kerensky took power in March of 1917, Francis had written one of his chief deputies, Consul General Maddin Summers at Moscow (a Foreign Service professional who held high prestige in Francis’ eyes because of his marriage into a highly connected czarist family), “I am much pleased to hear that the President of the [new] Ministry, [Prince] Lvov, is a first cousin of your motherin-law and that other members of the Ministry are connected with your family.... I have been of the opinion that it would be unwise to attempt to establish a republican form of government in Russia just now, but if such men as these are put at the helm, it is possible they may be able to steer through the breakers…”