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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
Just how directly the Sisson message influenced President Wilson remains a matter of dispute. Five days later, however, there emerged from the White House the famous statement known to history as the “Fourteen Points,” calling for many of the same principles in international settlement that Trotsky had aired to Robins. Sisson described its reception in Petrograd:
This time Lenin was back and we [i.e. , Sisson, Robins, and Gumberg, with a copy of the translation in hand] were able to get direct to him. It did not take one minute to convince him that the full message should go to Trotsky [who was then again at Brest-Litovsk] by direct wire. He grabbed the copy and sprinted for the telegraph office himself.... It was the first time either Robins or myself had met Lenin … Lenin, in appearance, might be the bourgeois mayor of a French town—short, sparsely bearded, a bronze man in hair and whiskers, small, shrewd eyes, round of face, smiling and genial when he desires to be. And this time he did. But he is the Wildest of the Wild Men of Russia … He welcomed the message … but he did not let us forget for a moment that he regarded it as coming not from a fellow thinker but from a just and tolerant class opponent.
Yet, while Wilson’s Fourteen Points declaration momentarily re-inspirited the Bolsheviks in their idea of resistance, it was not followed up by any move of American recognition or aid, and thus did not affect the grim negotiations for Russian surrender and dismemberment now being resumed at Brest-Litovsk. (The Bolsheviks, for their part, had done their perverse best to reduce any chances of such aid by appropriating two million rubles for the use of their agents to foment world revolution—and publicizing this fact.) Trotsky, who reviled both the Germans and the Allies and who had no effective forces in hand to fight either, save through the deployment of ideas and slogans, hit upon the startling formula in the snows of Brest-Litovsk, “No peace and no war”—meaning that Russia was taking itself entirely out of the international community, refusing to fight, negotiate, or settle. Observers throughout the world were nonplused—none more so than our own in Russia. Sisson, falling out with Robins, said he was sure now that Lenin and Trotsky were playing Germany’s game, and he managed to acquire a stack of secret papers that in his opinion proved it. Robins, on the other hand, kept hoping that as Germany heightened its demands and backed them up with a march on Petrograd, a new fighting spirit among the Russians could yet be kindled—if only we recognized and aided their new chieftains. But his military ally, General Judson, had in the meantime been called home and shelved for “interfering” too much; and Ambassador Francis observed the final day of January, 1918, by breaking out a new stock of bourbon.
The Kaiser’s hordes approached the capital, meeting no resistance. The Allied embassies burned their papers and fled to Vologda, a mud-ridden junction town on the railroad line to Archangel. On March 5 Robins had an extraordinary meeting with Lenin and Trotsky, then wavering between surrender and renewed resistance, and the three together drafted an inquiry to the United States government asking what kind of aid might be forthcoming if the Soviets refused to ratify the Brest-Litovsk treaty and resumed fighting. Nine days later Lenin confronted Robins again, just before entering the chamber of his All-Russian Congress of Workmen’s, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies for the debate on the treaty. “Have you heard from your Government?” he asked.
“No, I’ve not heard yet.”
“Has Lockhart heard from London?”
“Not yet,” said Robins, and added, “Couldn’t you prolong the debate?”
“The debate must take its course.”
Two days later, a final confrontation at the Congress: once more Lenin asked Robins whether a reply had come from Washington. There had been none. Lenin turned away: “I shall now speak for the peace. It will be ratified.”