April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
The stately Hotel Grillon on the Place de la Concorde was a scene of frenzied activity in the early months of 1919. It was filled with 1,300 Americans who had come to Paris for the peace conference that would end the First World War. The corridors swarmed with ethnologists, geographers, economists, interpreters, army officers, reporters, and ambassadors. On occasion, President Wilson, the first American President to cross the Atlantic while in office, could be seen hurrying to keep an appointment with his top advisers.
Out of this confusion was to emerge the first postwar American effort to make contact witli Soviet Russia—a mission that matched in its extemporized haste the ignorance and vagueness of United States policy toward the Bolsheviks ( see “When the Red Storm Broke,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1961). At its head would be placed a young and little-known State Department aide, long on enthusiasm but short on experience, to whose intense dismay this attempt at communicating with the emergent Communist colossus was to end in misunderstanding, bitterness, and ruptured diplomatic relations. His name was William C. Bullitt—the same man, ironically enough, who was fourteen years later to pick up the threads where they had been broken, and return to Moscow as our first ambassador to the Communist regime.
The excitement and haste that prevailed in the Hotel Grillon—and elsewhere in Paris as well in 1919—was understandable: the world was being made over. New countries were being created and old empires dissolved. A society of nations was being founded. Colonies were changing hands. Boundaries were being redrawn. “The history of the world,” President Wilson told the opening session of the peace conference, ”… will now be crowned by the achievements of this Conference.” The lights burned late at the Grillon.
Elsewhere in Europe all was turmoil. After four years of total war the nations of the continent were in a state of political collapse, and no one could tell with certainty what new structures would emerge from the rubble. A major source of uncertainty was the year-old Soviet regime in Moscow—the regime that had made a separate peace with imperial Germany and that was, therefore, not invited to the peace conference. This abrasive newcomer to the world scene was throwing off sparks which, many thought, were likely to ignite Europe. In January, 1919, there was a Communist-inspired revolt in Germany. And in March a successful revolution placed the Russian-trained Béla Kun at the head of a Hungarian Soviet. “Paris cannot be understood without Moscow,” the chief of the press bureau of the American commission later wrote. “Without ever being represented at Paris at all, the Bolsheviki and Bolshevism were powerful elements at every turn. Russia played a more vital part at Paris than Prussia! For the Prussian idea had been utterly defeated while the Russian idea was still rising in power.”
Sailing to France on the U.S.S. George Washington on December 4, 1918, Wilson had outlined the task facing the American Commission to Negotiate the Peace. As recorded by one of his auditors, Wilson said, “The poison of Bolshevism was accepted readily by the world because ‘it is a protest against the way in which the world has worked .’ It was to be our business at the Peace Conference to fight for a new order.…” But the Red serpent had already entered Wilson’s Garden of Eden. In building a new order, what was to be done with it? Welcome it? Tame it? Crush it? One thing was certain: one could not safely ienore it.
On Sunday afternoon, January 12, igig, the Council of Ten which was to guide the peace conference gathered for the first time in the ornate office of French Foreign Minister Stéphen Pichon at the Quai d’Orsay. The Russian problem was raised at once. Though the guns were now silent on the Marne, war was in progress between the Soviet regime in Moscow and the White armies based in Siberia, at Archangel and Murmansk, in the Don region and the Ukraine. It would be absurd, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, pointed out, for the Allies to “separate and announce that they had made perpetual peace when Siberia, which formed about half Asia, and Russia, which formed about half Europe, were still at war.”
Even if they had wanted to, the Allies could not ignore the Russian situation, because thousands of Allied soldiers had been sent in prior to the German armistice, in the hope of averting a total collapse of the eastern front. ( See “Where Ignorant Armies Clashed by Night,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December, 1958.) These soldiers soon found themselves buttressing the White armies. Unless there was a cease-fire in Russia they could not be readily extricated.
In the United States and Britain the popular demand to bring the hoys home was growing in volume and could not he ignored. Yet a British proposal that the Whites and Reds be invited to suspend hostilities in Russia and send representatives to Paris was widely denounced. “The French Government,” M. Pichon announced to the press, ”… will make no contract with crime.” And Joseph Tumulty, Wilson’s press secretary, wired from the United States that the suggestion that “the Russian Bolshevik be invited to send peace delegates to Paris … is denounced here as amazing.” The French could not forget that the Soviets had’ made a separate peace with Germany, deserting France in the hour of her peril. And America, however eager to get the boys home, didn’t care to talk about it with the perpetrators of the Red Terror who had, it was said, nationalized women!
Lloyd George explained that he was not proposing that the Red and While regimes be given official recognition, but rather that they be summoned to Paris “somewhat in the way that the Roman Empire summoned chiefs of outlying tributary states to render an account of their actions.” The French remained obdurate; they would listen to representatives of the White regimes who were already in Paris, but not to any Bolshevik representatives. Wilson supported Lloyd George. The White governments, led as they were by former cxarist officers, represented the ancien rßgime . Moreover, Wilson said, “there was certainly a latent force behind Bolshevism which attracted as much sympathy as its more brutal aspects caused general disgust.” Since further Allied military intervention in Russia was impractical, the Reds and Whites must be encouraged to reach a settlement.
The French were unmoved. In order to meet their objections, Wilson on January 21 proposed that the various Russian factions be asked to send representatives, not to Paris, but to some more remote place where the danger of Bolshevik contagion would be less. Since the Bolsheviks were representing the Allies as sup|)ortcrs of reaction, Wilson argued, the Allies should “show that they are ready to hear the representatives of any organized group in Russia, provided they are willing and ready to come to one place, to put all their cards on the table, and see if they could not come to an understanding.”
The French premier, Clemenceau, was still opposed to conversations with the Bolsheviks “in principle” because “we would be raising them to our level by saying that they were worthy of entering into conversation with us.” He reluctantly agreed to Wilson’s proposal, however, and the following day a proclamation was sent out from Paris inviting the parties involved to a meeting on Prinkipo Island in the Turkish Sea of Marmara not later than February iß. The French, though they had capitulated at the conference table, had not given up; their Foreign Office promptly advised the White governments to reject the invitation. The Unified Governments of Siberia, Archangel, and Southern Russia soon announced that “an exchange of ideas … with the participation of the Bolsheviks” was out of the question.
In this state of affairs, the Russian question was reviewed by the Council of Ten on February 14. Wilson was leaving Paris that very night for Washington, to argue for the League. Winston Churchill, who was sitting in for Lloyd George, pressed vigorously for largescale armed intervention. (The Prime Minister was in total disagreement with his somewhat irrepressible junior.) Wilson rejected intervention as worthless. “What the Allies had in mind,” he said, “was the establishment of peace in Russia as an element of the world’s peace.” Jn view of the collapse of the Prinkipo proposal, Wilson declared that he would be content “that informal American representatives should meet representatives of the Bolsheviks.” What was wanted “was not a rapprochement with the Bolsheviks, but clear information.” Precisely what Wilson had in mind never became entirely clear. Immediately after his conversation with Churchill on February 14, he departed uom Paris, leaving Colonel Edward M. House in command of the American peace commission.
Reports from an American agent in Stockholm had indicated that the Soviets were eager for conciliation and purported to be well disposed toward the proposed League of Nations. Reports from the Villa Majestic in Paris, where the British peace commission was encamped, indicated that the British were “prepared to meet at Prinkipo, or anywhere else, the Soviet Government’s representatives, even if no other Russian representatives should accept the recent Peace Conference invitation.” in the light of these developments, Colonel House acted swiftly. Within twentyfour hours after Wilson’s departure, he was discussing with Secretary of State Robert Lansing the possibility of sending William Bullitt, one of the younger members of the American peace commission, to Moscow.
During the next few days House and Bullitt discussed the peace terms which would be acceptable to the United States. House indicated that the armistice on all Russian fronts, the withdrawal of Allied troops, and the re-establishment of economic relations would form an acceptable basis for a Russian settlement. Bullitt also called upon Philip Kerr, Lloyd George’s private secretary (later to become Lord Lothian, British Ambassador to the United States). In Kerr’s opinion it was possible to resume normal relations with Soviet Russia on substantially the same terms as House had proposed.
In view of the hostility of the press and the French toward anything that suggested possible recognition of the Soviet regime, it was decided that Bullitt’s mission should be kept confidential. On February 18, his credentials were signed by the Secretary of State: they directed him to “proceed to Russia for the purpose of studying conditions, political and economic, therein, for the benefit of the American commissioners plenipotentiary to negotiate peace. …” Bullitt was to be accompanied by his secretary, R. E. Lynch, and by W. W. Pettit, a captain in American Military Intelligence traveling in mufti.
At the last minute Bullitt asked Lincoln Steftcns to join his party. Steffens was an outspoken admirer of the Soviets and readily agreed to go. Jn lyicj the once popular muckraking journalist was considered a dangerous man. Xo major American newspaper or magazine would carry his work, and he was “covering” the peace conference on his own.
On February 22 Bullitt’s party left Paris for London. That evening Steilens wrote a friend: ”… I am here only in transit: going somewhere else. 1 can’t say where … I feel as if I were going to see a good play at a good theater.’ The next day a British naval vessel was to carry them across the North Sea. They would proceed across Scandinavia and enter Russia via Finland. It was a long, cold route to Russia, but in the winter of 1919 it was the only route; America was officially still at war with central Europe.
It was a strange affair, America’s first diplomatic mission to Soviet Russia, dispatched with much haste and little thought. When it was over, no one except Bullitt would be quite sure why it had been sent. Bullilt later said: I was instructed to go in and bring back as quickly as possible a definite statement of exactly the terms the Soviet Government was ready to accept. The idea in the minds of the British and the American delegation were [sic] that if the Allies made another proposal it should be a proposal which we would know in advance would be accepted, so that there would be no chance of another Prinkipos pro posai miscarrying.
But Bullitt’s credentials merely said that he was to study “conditions, political and economic.” Nor was it entirely clear whether Colonel House and Philip Kerr had spoken with authority in formulating the American and British terms with which Bullitt had been furnished.
The personnel of the mission also presented a somewhat odd picture. Bullitt himself was twenty-eight years old. Years later Janet Planner—“Genêt” of the New Yorker —was to describe him thus: “Headstrong, spoiled, spectacular, something of a nabob, and a good showman, he has complicated ambitions which are a compound of his devotion to his own notions of idealism, his interest in his career, and his faith in the ultimate fate of the human race.”
The son of a wealthy Philadelphia family, he had traveled much, been graduated from Yale, and spent a year at the Harvard Law School. With the outbreak of war in Europe (he was traveling in czarist Russia at the time), he became a reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger; when the United States entered the war he joined the State Department to prepare reports on developments within the Central Powers. His job in Paris had been to brief each of the American commissioners, including the President, for twenty minutes each morning on current affairs. (When Bullitt couldn’t make the rounds, the future Secretary of State, Christian Hcrter, was his understudy.) Colonel House knew Bullitt to be keenly interested in the Russian revolution and international socialism in general.
Thinking back on the trip to Russia years later, Lincoln Steffens recalled that “Bullitt had brought along his secretary Lynch, apparently to play with. On trains and boats they skylarked, wrestling and tumbling like a couple of bear cubs all along the Arctic Circle. A pretty noisy secret mission we were, but Bullitt knew just what he was about; nobody could sus%)ect us of secrecy or importance; and at formal moments and in emergencies the head of our mission was all there with the form, the authority, and the—audacity.”
On the evening of March 8, the party arrived in Petrograd. The Soviet officials who met the Americans were at first under the impression that the older and more famous Stefîens was the head of the mission. They were soon disabused. Indeed, there was some uncertainty as to whether they should deal with the mission at all. Soviet Foreign Minister Grigoi i Chicherin decided, however, that Bullitt was worthy of being brought to Moscow to see Lenin.
Bullitt and Steffens, together with Chicherin and Maxim Litvinov, arrived in Moscow on March 11. It was a cold and hungry city. For the next few days Bullitt and Steffens lived largely on the canned goods they had brought with them in mail pouches—supplemented by black bread and caviar which alone seemed to be in plentiful domestic supply. Even so, Russian officials had a way of coming by their rooms at meal times.
“When I called on Lenin at the Kremlin,” Bullitt later reported, “i had to wait a few minutes until a delegation of peasants left his room. They had heard in their village that Comrade Lenin was hungry. And they had come hundreds of miles carrying 800 poods [or, incredibly enough, 14½ tons— Ed. ] of bread as the gift of the village to Lenin. … Lenin is the only leader who receives such gifts. And he turns them into the common fund.”
“Face to face,” Bullitt noted, “Lenin is a very striking man—straightforward and direct, but also genial and with a large humor and serenity.” He also noted that “the hold which Lenin has gained on the imagination of the Russian people makes his position almost that of a dictator.”
After four days of negotiations in Moscow, Bullitt was given a statement of terms which the Soviet government would accept as the basis for a conference if they were proposed by the Allies before April 10. The terms were essentially the same as those suggested by House and Kcrr. The most striking element in the proposal was that the Soviet government purported to be willing to leave the White governments in control of the territory they then occupied. This meant that the Bolsheviks would give up (at least for the time being) claim to the whole of Siberia, the Urals, the Caucasus, the Archangel and Murmansk areas, Finland, the Baltic states, a portion of White Russia, and most of the Ukraine. Soviet Russia was to be limited to a radius of some five hundred miles around Moscow.
Satisfied that he had gotten what he had been sent to get, Bullitt left Russia in a rush. From Helsinki he cabled a preliminary report to Paris. On receiving it, House expressed eagerness that the proposals be put in writing (which they were) and wished to wire congratulations to Bullitt. Lansing and others were dubious. One of the proposed terms was that Russians have full right of entry into other countries; some feared this was an invitation to propaganda and subversion.
Bullitt himself got back to Paris on March 25, and that evening he went to see House. Both men knew that it would take a struggle to put over what amounted to a de facto recognition of Soviet Russia, but both seem to have thought that it was the only intelligent course. Bullitt filed a final report which was sent on to Wilson. The Soviet regime, it said, had come to stay; and the peace conference should make proposals similar to the ones which the Soviet government had indicated it was ready to accept. Steffens submitted a report to much the same effect. He made it clear that, in his view, the revolution in Russia was over. “The present Russian Government,” Steffens wrote, “is the most autocratic government I have ever seen.” In a world that still tended to equate Bolshevism with anarchy and instability, Bullitt and Steffens were providing needed information.
The day following Bullitt’s return, he and House set out to put over the plan. Bullitt conferred at length with the American peace commissioners. House attempted to deal with the President, who had by this time returned to Paris. But Wilson did not wish to take up the Russian question at the moment. He had, he said, a “one track mind,” and it was preoccupied with other matters. The Council of Four was now meeting daily in secret sessions; a crisis over the terms of the treaty with Germany was rapidly approaching. To make things worse, Wilson was at this time increasingly unwell.
Unable to get an appointment for Bullitt with Wilson, House made arrangements for him to meet with Lloyd George and other British statesmen. Bullitt had breakfast with the Prime Minister on March 27. To Bullitt, he seemed greatly impressed with the necessity of making peace with the Soviet government, but worried about public opinion in England. An editorial in the London Daily Mail had attacked any attempt to accredit “an evil thing known as Bolshevism.” Lloyd George showed the editorial to Bullitt and asked: “As long as the British press is doing this kind of thing how can you expect me to be sensible about Russia?” Questioned in the House of Commons some three weeks later about rumors that diplomatic approaches had been made to the Soviets, Lloyd George replied: “We have had no approaches at all … I think I know what my right honorable friend refers to. There was some suggestion that a young American had come back from Russia with a communication. It is not for me to judge the value of this communication, but if the President of the United States had attached any value to it he would have brought it before the conference, and he certainly did not.”
Wilson, indeed, never brought Bullitt’s report before the conference; quite the contrary, when he turned his “one track mind” to the Russian question he ordered that the report be suppressed and kept secret. The newspapermen were left clutching at rumors. Though many projects tended to suffer a lingering death at the Hotel Grillon, Bullitt’s succumbed swiftly: for all practical purposes it was dead and abandoned within forty-eight hours after Bullitt’s return to Paris. It was replaced by a plan to supply Russia with food upon the conditions that all hostilities cease and that the Russian railroads be placed under the supervision of a relief commission. Early in May, the Soviet government turned the offer down, protesting that the true objectives of the plan were not humanitarian but political, and demanding instead full-fledged peace negotiations. That demand was to be ignored by the United States for fourteen years.
Why Wilson disregarded the Bullitt report is the mystery within the fantasy. Perhaps only a mind reader could tell with confidence what the increasingly secretive President was thinking. Bullitt himself has suggested at least two theories. On the one hand he has said that his report was abandoned because, at the moment of his return to Paris, the White armies had made substantial advances, and it was hoped that the Soviet government might soon be destroyed by force of arms. But Wilson did not share that hope. Trying to stop Bolshevism with an army, he said on March 27, was like using a broom to stop the sea. Somewhat petulantly, Bullitt has also suggested that when Wilson found out that Bullitt had gone first to see Lloyd George, he took it as a personal affront and refused to see Bullitt out of sheer pique.
A somewhat more substantial explanation of Wilson’s behavior can be suggested. From the very start of the conference it had been recognized that there were really only three possible policies toward Russia. First, an all-out effort to crush the still-weak Soviet regime by force of arms. Churchill advocated this, but Wilson would not hear of it; even if the American public would accept further military activity (which it would not), the idea was repugnant to Wilson personally. He had been reluctant enough to go to war against the Kaiser; he could not attack a regime which at least purported to be a manifestation of popular will and a revolt against despotism.
In 1917 Wilson had looked with the warmest sympathy upon the March revolution in Russia. Coming as it did only weeks before America’s entry into the war, it had removed “the one objection to affirming that the European war was a war between Democracy and Absolutism …”—or so the Secretary of State had advised. America had been the first country to recognize the Provisional government led so briefly by Alexander Kerensky. It was hard now for Wilson to believe that what had once seemed so promising a beginning had passed irretrievably from the scene. In any event, the President felt that a peace conference which was, uniquely, to rest upon the collective will of mankind could not start out by crushing the Russian revolution.
A second alternative was the cordon sanitaire —encircling Soviet Russia with hostile countries in order to contain the Bolshevik plague. Clemenceau strongly urged this, but Wilson again demurred. Cordon sanitaire was a euphemism for a holy alliance and the re-creation of a balance of power, and that, Wilson thought, had been a major cause of the World War. America, he had said, would join no alliance that was not an alliance of all countries.
The third alternative—urged by Bullitt and, occasionally, Lloyd George—was to recognize the Soviet regime as a de facto government. Still Wilson could not go along. He had long believed that recognition should be extended only to regimes which bore the hallmarks of constitutional legitimacy. The Bolsheviks had not only seized power by force, they had forcefully disbanded the popularly elected Constituent Assembly. Moreover, it was difficult to see how a regime dedicated to world revolution could be “a fit partner for a league of honor.” The very language of Soviet diplomacy, even when suing for peace and conciliation, seemed calculated to antagonize and exacerbate. Wilson described it as “studiously insulting.” Weak and disorganized though Soviet Russia was, her ministers addressed the West in terms of hostility and contempt. On October 24, 1918, for example, Foreign Minister Chicherin had written the President: … Even though your Government has not yet been replaced by a Council of People’s Commissars and your post is not yet taken by Eugene Debs, whom you have imprisoned … just as we have concluded peace with the imperialist government of Germany, with Emperor Wilhelm at its head, whom you, Mr. President, hold in no greater esteem than we … hold you, we finally propose to you, Mr. President, that you take up with your Allies the following questions and give us precise and business-like replies: Do the Governments of the United States, England, and France intend to cease demanding the blood of the Russian people … if the Russian people will agree to pay them a ransom …? If so, just what tribute do [you] demand …?
This letter, and others in the same vein, hardly served to suggest that Soviet Russia was eager to become a law-abiding, self-restrained, coequal member of the society of nations. True, Wilson told a reporter that “if I thought that … any clause or phrase [of the League Covenant] forbade to any peoples the sacred right of revolution, I would tear up the Covenant with my own hands.” But the President really hoped that by reforming the world the League would outflank world revolution.
Unwilling to acknowledge that Soviet autocracy had become part of the scheme of things, Wilson was waiting for some sign of change, some sign that the revolution was settling down into tractable, constitutional, parliamentary patterns. He was willing to encourage such a change. “I visualize it like this,” he told William Wiseman in October, 1918. “A lot of impossible folk, fighting among themselves. You cannot do business with them, so you shut them off up in a room and lock the door and tell them that when they have settled matters among themselves you will unlock the door and do business.”
This of course had been the idea behind the Prinkipo proposal. If all the factions could be gotten together and persuaded to lay their cards on the table, they might contrive to constitutionalize themselves. One can see in Wilson’s mind a picture of Bolsheviks and Monarchists sitting opposite each other in long rows like so many Whigs and Tories—with Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists somewhere in the back benches. And a Lenin somehow transmuted into the leader of the loyal majority Wilson would gladly deal with—however radical the man’s economics might be.
Nor was this view, in retrospect so naïve, an aberration peculiar to Wilson. The best informed among his advisers suggested much the same view. Shortly before the armistice, Walter Lippmann and Frank Cobb advised that “the Peace Conference might well send a message asking for the creation of a government sufficiently representative to speak for [the Russian] territories.” Persuaded, as were most Americans in 1919, that parliamentary, constitutional democracy was the wave of the future, Wilson was prepared to wait if need be for things to settle down. In May he said that he no longer regretted not having a Russian policy; under present conditions it was impossible to define one.
But William C. Bullitt was a young man, and impatient. He was bitterly disappointed with the abandonment of his project, and when in May he saw the text of the Treaty of Versailles, he gave up in despair. On May 17 he submitted his resignation to the Secretary of State. He submitted, too, a stinging letter to the President, in which he said that the grounds had been laid for another century of war. “Russia, ‘the acid test of good will,’ for me as for you, has not even been understood …” he wrote. “I am sorry that you did not fight our fight to the finish and that you had so little faith in the millions of men, like myself, in every nation who had faith in you.” And with a keen sense of the dramatic, he told the press that he was going to lie on the sands of the Riviera and watch the world go to hell.
On June 28, the peace treaty was signed at Versailles, and the men at the Hotel Grillon packed their bags. Six months after it opened, the peace conference had adjourned, the Allies separating with the announcement that they had made perpetual peace. Siberia and Russia were still at war.
Bullitt had not quite made his peace. From Paris he retired not to the Riviera but to the Maine woods, from whence he was summoned in August by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Appearing before the committee on Friday morning. September 12, he was not a reluctant witness; “he simply turned state’s evidence,” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge later said. To the amazement and delight of the senators and the acute embarrassment of his former colleagues and superiors, Bullitt told the full story of his “secret” trip to Moscow; he described his breakfast with Lloyd George, the terms that House and Kerr had given him, his conversations with Chicherin and Lenin, and Wilson’s decision to suppress his report. Having polished off his Russian mission, Bullitt went on to report that all of Wilson’s chief advisers had privately expressed their disapproval of the Treaty of Versailles. He brought laughter to the lips of the senators when he quoted Lansing as saying that the Senate would vote against the treaty if only the could understand it.
Wilson was in the midst of his great tour of the West, speaking for the treaty, when the news of Bullitt’s testimony reached him. Two weeks later he suffered the stroke that ended the tour. When Wilson recovered, he accepted Lansing’s resignation; the Bullitt affair had been a climactic skirmish in the long battle between the President and his Secretary of State.
In November, as if to expunge an ugly memory, two of the former American peace commissioner at Paris wrote the secretary general of the American Commission to Negotiate the Peace that they could find no record “official or otherwise” which authorized the credentials that Bullitt had been given in February. “We, the undersigned,” they concluded, “desire now to make of record in the archives of the American Peace Delegation the fact that at no time was the mission of Mr. Bullitt discussed—much less acred upon—in our presence, either at any meeting of the American Delegation or elsewhere…”
Thus was concluded the fantasy which had degun as America’s first diplomatic contact with Soviet Russia. The Soviet had purported to be willing to forswear the bulk of the historically Russian territories. The Allies had said, in effect, that they had not heard about it. The situation was anomalous, if not comical. It was, of course, only the first act. (The second contained an element of poetic justice: In 1933 William Bullitt went to Moscow once again, this time as the first American Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. He stayed until 1936, by which time the Stalin purges were getting under way.) Yet for all its absurdity, the Bullitt mission posed the dilemma that in the ensuing four decades has gradually become the major theme of world diplomacy:
Could the democracies afford to do business with Soviet Russia?
Could they afford not to?