- Historic Sites
From World War To Cold War
In an exchange of letters, a man who had an immeasurable impact on how the great struggle of our times was waged looks back on how it began
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
The effect produced in Washington by this elaborate pedagogical effort was nothing short of sensational.
Twenty-one years later you wrote: “The effect produced in Washington by this elaborate pedagogical effort [that ironic phrase was meant to emphasize your own criticism, in retrospect, of some of the rhetoric in it] was nothing less than sensational. It was one that changed my career and my life in very basic ways. If none of my previous literary efforts had seemed to evoke even the faintest tinkle from the bell at which they were aimed, this one, to my astonishment, struck it squarely and set it vibrating with a resonance that was not to die down for many months. It was one of those moments when official Washington, whose states of receptivity or the opposite are determined by subjective emotional currents as intricately embedded in the subconscious as those of the most complicated of Sigmund Freud’s erstwhile patients, was ready to receive a given message. . . . Six months earlier this message probably would have been received in the Department of State with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval. . . . Six months later, it would probably have sounded redundant, a sort of preaching to the convinced. This was true despite the fact that the realities which it described were ones that had existed, substantially unchanged, for about a decade, and would continue to exist for more than a half-decade longer. All this only goes to show that more important than the observable nature of external reality, when it comes to the determination of Washington’s view of the world, is the subjective state of readiness on the part of Washington officialdom to recognize this or that feature of it.”
Almost fifty years after these events, and more than a quarter-century after you wrote the above passage, do you still think that it was “subjective emotional currents” that “determined” that reception at that time? Were there not some political calculations, including calculations of what goes under the inchoate category of “public opinion” at work too?
In thinking about your question, I have a hard time distinguishing between my own opinions and those of the governmental establishment in Washington and of the public at large; but I shall give you, for whatever they are worth, my impressions of the states of mind that prevailed in all those quarters.
So far as my own opinion is concerned (and this was probably the least important of the three), you will agree, I think, that this was fairly adequately described in my Memoirs , particularly if there be taken into account not only later recollections but also the papers, at that time highly confidential, that I wrote from the embassy in Moscow between 1944 and 1946. The one of these papers that has received the least attention from historians but was actually basic to the understanding of the later ones was the first of them, written in September 1944 and entitled “Russia—Seven Years Later.” My purpose in writing this paper, while only gently brought forward in the content of it, was to express the shock I experienced upon returning to service in Russia after an interruption of some seven years. The shock was occasioned by the realization that the Soviet regime with which I found us to be dealing in 1944, and from which we had come to hope for so much understanding for our aims in the war against Germany, was still indistinguishable from the one that had opposed in every way our policies of the pre-war period, that had entered into the cynical nonaggression pact with the Germans in 1939, and that had shown itself capable of abominable cruelties, little short of genocide, in the treatment of large portions of the population from the areas of Poland and the Baltic states it had taken under its control.
I entered upon my work as Averell Harriman’s deputy in Moscow in 1944, in other words, painfully aware that a massive misunderstanding was already establishing itself in the minds of American governmental leaders on the subject of the character of the regime with which they were dealing in Moscow, and that this, if not corrected, portended serious disillusionment and unpleasantness at some time in the near future.
Mr. Harriman had looked to me only to administer the staff and the routine day-to-day operations of the American Embassy in Moscow, in order to relieve him of the necessity of occupying himself with anything else than matters of highest wartime policy, and he did not expect from me, nor did he, I suspect, particularly welcome, any expressions of my own views on problems of wartime policy. But I continued, as gently as I could (for anything beyond this might have produced highly negative and self-defeating reactions on his part), to remind him that the regime we were dealing with in Moscow was one whose aims for the postwar world were far different from our own. Seeing things this way, I naturally deplored the many manifestations of our professed high admiration for the Soviet leadership and of our belief that if we could only play up handsomely enough to Stalin’s supposed tender sensibilities, we would find that leadership to be grateful partners in the approach to the problems of the post-hostilities period.