When The Red Storm Broke

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When Robins drove to the Smolny Institute in mid-November for his first meeting with Trotsky, he was still convinced, as were most of the other Americans in Petrograd, that the Commissar was in effect a German agent, bent on creating total upheaval in the Allied camp and on delivering a shattered Russia into the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. When he came away, he had reversed his opinion. Trostky, he later said, with the emotionalism typical of him, was indeed a ”… son of a bitch, but the greatest Jew since Jesus Christ. If the German General Staff bought Trotsky, they bought a lemon.”

“I won Trotsky,” Robins recalled, “by putting my case absolutely on the square. By not hiding anything.” He told Trotsky that he was there because he wanted to deal with those in power, that he wanted to maintain Red Cross activities in Russia, that he wanted to keep Russia in the war, and that he wanted to know plainly whether the Bolsheviks’ sympathies were on the side of Germany or not. Trotsky, evidently astonished by this forthright approach, convinced his visitor that he was as anxious as Robins himself to keep vital war supplies out of the hands of the oncoming German legions, and on the spot worked out an arrangement with him to safeguard some essential stocks.

Soon after, though, Trotsky began commuting between the Smolny and the wintry waste of occupied Brest-Litovsk, in search of a separate peace with Germany—negotiations that, in Allied eyes, were an infamous betrayal. Could anything be salvaged from the wreckage? Robins still hoped so. It was now January, 1918, and there was no time to lose. At any moment the Germans, if sure of victory on their eastern front, might begin mounting a fresh onslaught in the west.

“We have started peace negotiations with the Germans,” Trotsky told Robins flatly. “We have asked the Allies to join us in starting peace negotiations for the whole world, on a democratic basis—no forcible annexations, no punitive indemnities, and a full acceptance of the principle of the self-determination of all peoples. The Allies have refused to accept our invitation. We still hope, of course, to compel them.”

The Progressive gazed at the Commissar. “How?”

“By stirring up comrades in France and in England and in America to upset the policy of their governments by asserting their own revolutionary socialist will.... Germany will want a peace with annexations. But we have these raw materials. Germany needs them. If we can keep them away from Germany we have an argument in reserve, a big argument, perhaps a winning argument.”

“I begin to see,” said Robins.

The long-haired, bespectacled revolutionist ground on. “I want to keep them away, but you know our difficulties at the front. The front is in chaos. Send your officers, American officers, Allied officers, any officers you please. I will give them full authority to enforce the embargo against goods into Germany all along our whole front.”

Which was it, then: were these new Russian masters sworn enemies of ours or still, despite all differences, potential allies against German domination? General Judson, after quiet talks on his own at the Smolny, agreed with Robins: by recognizing them and showing them sympathy, we could keep Russia in the war and influence it in victory. (Back home, Thompson was saying to anyone who would listen, “Let’s make them our Bolsheviks.”) Ambassador Francis, on the other hand, after one brief moment of illumination in which he too agreed that we might do well to recognize the new rulers in order to revive Russia’s role in the war, returned to regarding them as foes beyond the pale; and in late December he encouraged his consul general at Moscow, the aristocratically connected Maddin Summers, to send an emissary to make contact with the counterrevolutionary White Russians gathering in the northern provinces—a move sure to bring about further enmity once the Soviets learned of it.

Very briefly, at the end of the year, a pale sun of possible Russo-American reconciliation rose over the wintry Neva. The Germans’ territorial demands on Russia proved so outrageous that negotiations at Brest-Litovsk came near breaking down. On December 31, agog with excitement at the thought that Bolshevik Russia might yet resume the fight against Germany, Robins rushed to the Smolny to confront Trotsky. Then Trotsky asked him point-blank: What support could America give to Soviet Russia if it turned down the Germans’ terms and thus re-entered the war? This, until the events of World War II, was perhaps the most formidable question asked of America in a crucial time—and Trotsky had to ask it of a man whom Francis described as a “wild Indian,” and who could of course give him no authoritative answer.

One answer from the very summit did come, though, stimulated in part by another man on the spot: Edgar Sisson. Aware with Robins of the parlous state of American relations with Russia, Sisson on January 3 cabled his chief at the Committee on Public Information in Washington, George Creel, to propose that the President issue a statement on American war aims as against those of Germany, with particular reference to the latter’s as revealed at Brest-Litovsk, “to … open up our opportunities for publicity and helpfulness” in Russia.