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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
It seems never to have occurred to President Wilson that an envoy of such predilections might become a drawback in exploding Russia, and that he should be replaced. Instead, vaguely uneasy, Wilson had begun in the spring of 1917 to send out numbers of other missions, commissions, and individuals to strengthen Francis’ and America’s hand there—although none of these was responsible to the chief missionary on the ground.
Would Kerensky’s Russia keep Rghting the Germans? Wilson, whose lack of knowledge of that far country was as conspicuous as his command of political processes at home, had dispatched in May a nine-man fact-finding and good-will committee headed by the venerable Republican ex-Secretary of State, Elihu Root. Mr. Root’s mandate was simply to display to troubled Russia America’s “sympathy and interest,” and he was hardly an ideal choice: he had confessed before setting out that he expected to be “awfully bored” there, and after a month-long round of receptions and banquets with Provisional ministers, during which he and his fellow committeemen disdained contact with the emerging Left, he returned home to deliver a bland report saying that Russia was out of danger and could be relied on. Almost simultaneously, another American delegation descended upon Russia—also without invitation: a task force of eminent American railroad men, arriving to lend advice on how to strengthen the deposed Czar’s floundering transportation system. The prospect of American dollar aid was invigorating to Kerensky’s officials, but the presence of so many Americans at once was rather crushing to their working hours and protocol. What next?
Next came the Red Cross Commission—and a group of men with more unusual designs under the cross of Geneva had never set foot from one nation into another. William Boyce Thompson, the squat, thickset victor of many a stock-market raid and Montana mining scheme, was one of many Americans anxious in that spring of 1917 to get into the war. As his biographer, Hermann Hagedorn, recalls:
His friends were already deep in [it] as field-marshals and ambassadors. Baruch, on the Council for National Defense, was wielding dictatorial potver in the economic field.... Henry P. Davison [a partner of the House of Morgan], as head of the American Red Cross, was dramatizing the code of the Samaritan on an almost mythical scale. Thompson no longer found promotions and stock operations stimulating enough for his imagination.... The overthrow of the Czar startled and thrilled him. Russia would be the decisive factor in the war, he said. If Russia could be held firm, Germany would be defeated. If the Russian front broke—…
So Thompson approached his friend Davison, then projecting a Red Cross relief mission to Russia, to propose that he himself go along on it—not, indeed, simply to help supervise the distribution of foodstuffs and blankets, but to enlarge its scope immensely, its goal to be nothing less than to shore up the Provisional regime. Thompson, whose means were as spacious as his dreams, offered to pay all costs of the mission himself! The proposal was dazzling, and no one seems quite to have sensed the implications of letting a private relief body mix in with high politics abroad. The President, casting about for at least some way of influencing the course of affairs in Russia, gave the scheme his blessing, and before midsummer a party of some twenty experts, all decked out for the occasion in military uniforms and sporting assimilated military titles, was on its way across the Pacific to Vladivostok.
Kerensky’s people had let it be known that they did not see the need of an American Red Cross mission: their own hospitals and food supplies were adequate, thank you. Ambassador Francis also opposed it, fearing (quite rightly, as it turned out) that it would trespass on his own domain. Yet the caravan came on. Before its departure, though, Davison startled Thompson—now “Colonel” Thompson—by including on the roster a Chicago Progressive friend of Theodore Roosevelt. Having refused to let the ex-President lead an infantry division in France, the Administration was trying to appease him.
”What! Raymond Robins, that uplifter, that Roosevelt shouter!” exploded Thompson on learning of the appointment. “What the hell is he doing on this mission?”