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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.
The “strange new disturbance” of which Sisson wrote, referring to the Bolsheviks, had been making itself felt for quite some time before his arrival there, and with increasing virulence for fully seven months—in fact, ever since the Czar’s war-battered regime had collapsed in March, 1917, and given way to a Provisional government of republican reformists. But it had not as yet penetrated the consciousness of faraway Washington. Indeed, practically all America, then just entering upon its crusade against the Kaiser’s autocratic Germany, had hailed the Czar’s abdication as the removal of an autocratic incubus on our own side, and—upon receiving confident advice from our Embassy in Russia—had fully believed through the summer and into the fall of 1917 that such enlightened new leaders as Prince Lvov and Alexander Kerensky would democratize Russian institutions, rebuild fighting morale, and make of their nation a worthy partner of ours in a common cause. This was the dream; and here was one of its carriers, Sisson, chosen for his mission because of his stature as one of America’s most astute journalists (editor of the Cosmopolitan Magazine and, before that, managing editor of Collier’s), passing through London with little inkling of what had been occurring under the surface farther east and none at all as to where this was now about to lead.
On November 25, after making his way across a U-boat-infested North Sea and a wintry Scandinavia, he reached the Russian capital’s Finland Station. There he found, as he bounced in his sleigh over the icy hummocks of the Liteiny Prospekt and turned down the Furshtatskaya to the American Embassy, a city of dim-lit streets, tight-shuttered windows, and long-coated, muffled figures with rifles warming themselves before wood fires at the intersections. These were no policemen of a friendly, Provisional Kerensky; these were the Red Guards of the Petrograd Soviet of V. I. Lenin, who had arrived at the Finland Station too (but half a year earlier than Sisson) and who, while the bemused American editor was traveling, had seized the capital and then all Russia as well. Almost overnight Kerensky had been toppled by the Bolshevik Revolution of October, 1917 (November, by the Western calendar). Russia’s ill-used armies were melting away, as the slogan “Peace, Bread, and Land” resounded through their ranks; banks, businesses, church properties, great estates were being seized. Moreover, the very day after Sisson arrived in Petrograd, bearing vague and now antiquated general instructions which he summed up as meaning “To be helpful to Russia in any practical way that might develop” and “To place before Russians the American viewpoint on the waging … of the war,” Lenin’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, formally appealed to the German high command for an armistice.
When Sisson took up quarters in the Embassy building—a low, sprawling monstrosity in a once-fashionable street, whose imitation-classical friezes, swollen balustrades, misbegotten balconies, and squashed-down mansard roof embodied the worst taste of the recent Romanov past—he found it stuffed to the rafters with a small army of assorted Americans as confused and at loose ends as he, and, moreover, at loggerheads with one another.
There were four other key and contrasting men at the core of the American official colony in Petrograd: the Ambassador, David R. Francis, an elderly St. Louis grain dealer and Democratic politician; William Boyce Thompson, a multimillionaire copper magnate, promoter, and flamboyant high-liver, who headed the American Red Cross Commission to Russia; Thompson’s deputy, Raymond Robins, a fiery Chicago social reformer and Progressive party orator with Indian blood in his veins, who had made a fortune in the Alaska gold rush; and Brigadier General William V. Judson, military attaché—the only one of them who had had any previous experience of Russia or even of foreign service, having witnessed the Russo-Japanese War as a military observer. Of these, Ambassador Francis should have been, by virtue of his position, the dominant and controlling personality. That he was not—that he became in fact the very opposite—was due partly to his own shortcomings and partly to the Washington approach to appointments abroad that was both frivolous and chaotic.
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…”
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?”
With Robins, there entered upon the stage a figure who was to prove the one brilliant, although shortlived, star in a cast of many-colored American principals in Russia. For principals they all were, each man regarding himself the direct representative of the President by virtue of blessing or laying-on of hands, and thus responsible first to the White House, second to his own conscience and beliefs, and to the ambassador on the spot not at all—a situation that President Wilson did nothing to resolve. The ebullient Thompson, setting himself up in high style in Petrograd and taking over the imperial box at the Opera, reported directly to Washington and did not even show the unhappy Francis his cables; thus, when Thompson donated a million rubles’ worth of his own money to the moderate Social-Revolutionary party, Ambassador Francis learned of this startling American involvement only through the newspapers. Nor did General Judson, busily maneuvering in the revolutionary murk at the head of his own independent military mission, confide in the Ambassador; while Edgar Sisson too, a small man inflated by a sense of sovereign responsibility, was to write proudly of his mission to Petrograd, “I was not sent to work under [Francis], and was independent of him, in powers and in funds.”
In this chaos of unco-ordinated equals, the municipal reformer from Chicago was to stand out by the sheer intensity of his personality as America’s strongest man on the scene. Although submerged in memory today, Raymond Robins was in 1917 a famous figure in the liberal camp at home. His physical presence itself was commanding: broad-shouldered, deep-chested, square-jawed, with intense, searching eyes and a rasping, emotional voice that could carry away whole convention halls of reformers. He had been the Progressive party’s keynoter in 1916 and had run for the Senate. Yet there was something else in him, too—a suggestion of mystical exaltation that thrilled some followers and left others thinking him slightly unbalanced.
A “rough and ready evangelist,” Sisson called him, and something of his passionate reformist spirit now communicated itself to Russia’s far-left revolutionaries. They were not used to this: their own followers had been reared rigidly according to the gospel of St. Marx. Yet they were all still young in exercise of power, and not yet so calloused by it as to denounce every non-Marxist reformer as an enemy; and so, responding to the warmth and virility of Robins’ presence, they saw in him a bridge—perhaps the only bridge—between their erupting Russia and the capitalist West. And Robins, whose experience was also limited but whose sympathies were broad, responded in kind. As his British friend and opposite number as London’s special agent in Russia, R. H. Bruce Lockhart, was to remark, [Robins] was an Indian chief with a Bible for his tomahawk.... Yet, in spite of his sympathies for the underdog, he was a worshipper of great men … Strangely enough, Lenin was amused by the hero-worship, and of all foreigners Robins was the only man whom Lenin was always willing to see and who ever succeeded in imposing his personality on the unemotional Bolshevik leader.
So it happened that while David Francis remained closeted in the Furshtatskaya over cards, American initiative in dealing with the new rulers of Russia passed into the hands of this assimilated lieutenant colonel of the Red Cross.
All during the autumn of 1917, the unlikely combination of Thompson and Robins had worked together to succor the weakening Kerensky regime with money, foodstuffs, and propaganda placed in judiciously subsidized newspapers. But in mid-October Robins read the handwriting on Russia’s wall and called for a change in our own response. The Provisional regime was doomed amid the rising cry of “Peace, Bread, and Land,” he argued, unless Kerensky at once proceeded to distribute land to the peasants and launch other major social reforms. It should be America’s new policy to exert pressure on all Russian moderates to move in this direction, he went on, if the Bolsheviks were not to take over at any moment and pull Russia out of the war altogether. Also, Robins thought it might be a good idea at least to talk with these Bolshevik chieftains, size them up, and discover whether we could influence them at all.
Then in October-November, the second and greater revolutionary storm in Russia broke out—just as Robins had predicted it would. The multimillionaire Thompson, finding himself in full agreement with his deputy’s analysis, sped home to Washington to try to swing the Administration onto a new policy tack—only to find himself coolly rebuffed by Wilson, who was still reading David Francis’ bland cables and who now refused to let himself be jolted. Meanwhile, in Petrograd, the headstrong Colonel Robins had taken it upon himself to approach Trotsky personally—and Lenin too.
In order to reach Trotsky, the Foreign Commissar of a regime the United States declined to recognize, Robins needed an intermediary. Soon he found one in the person of Alexander Gumberg, a squat, mournful-looking, shrewd Jewish Russo-American who had emigrated to the Bronx to become manager there of the Russian-language Socialist weekly, Novy Mir, to which Trotsky had contributed during his own American exile. Now returned to his old country to be close to his Socialist friends in action, Gumberg became Robins’ personal aide—and threw open the Bolshevik leader’s doors to him.
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.
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.”
Events thus moved quickly to their denouement. The Soviets ratified. Allied troops landed at Murmansk to protect war materials shipped there in aid of Russia from the West, and then to support White Russians against the regime. In America the sentiment for like armed intervention grew: the Bolsheviks, first dismissed as dim and distant agitators, now took on the image of world-wide ogres in cahoots with the Hun. Francis, an ambassador without an embassy to perform, bestirred himself enough to order that any contacts with the Soviets by General Judson’s remaining aides cease. In May, Robins was recalled; Secretary of State Lansing cut him off brusquely, and the President refused to see him. Sisson, for his part, had already slipped quietly out of Russia with his cache of documents purporting to show that Lenin and Trotsky were in the pay of Germany, and these were to be published amid great excitement under the seal of the United States—though many experts, like Lockhart, later held them to be forgeries. In July, Francis himself packed up and left Vologda, thereby ending an American representation in Russia maintained ever since John Quincy Adams had arrived 109 years before; and in July, President Wilson agreed to American armed intervention on Russian soil ( see “Where Ignorant Armies Clashed by Night,” in the December, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE).
What had been undone on both sides was never fully to be repaired. As to the actors themselves, Robins, a lost soul, haunted the halls of Congress for a few years, trying to bring about recognition of the Soviets as a means of influencing them, and then dropped from sight. Sisson lived on to become a wizened minor propagandist in the Second World War, still buttonholing people to convince them of the authenticity of his documents. Francis, back in St. Louis with his gramophone, wrote a long book defending all he had done in Petrograd; Gumberg, a Socialist with a sure instinct for adaptation, became a highly paid executive in Wall Street; Trotsky, as everyone knows, met his end under the blow of an axe in Mexico City.