June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
On a brisk November day in Washington in 1933, two spare, tall American officials of high rank and collected demeanor emerged from under the mansards of the old State Department building to journey to Union Station and there greet a squat, rotund, grinning foreigner who in the eyes of many of their compatriots was a dangerous revolutionary. The moment itself was revolutionary, even in a sartorial sense. Protocol prescribed that when our Secretary of State and his assistants received the visiting foreign minister of another sovereign power, formal morning dress be worn. Yet on this occasion, so Under Secretary William Phillips recorded of the trip across town that he and his chief, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, undertook that day to welcome Soviet Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinow, “None of us wore top hats because [Litvinov] came as the representative of a government not yet officially recognized by the United States.”
The affable Russian, speaking excellent English and himself wearing a snap-brim felt hat, had come here to achieve exactly that recognition, and thus to restore the American-Russian relations that had been broken off in 1918 with the United States’ refusal to deal with the atheistic, debt-repudiating, proselytizing new Bolshevik regime of Lenin and Trotsky. The breach had left the world’s two potentially greatest powers, after more than a century of mutual cordiality, not speaking to each other for the next fifteen years ( see “When the Red Storm Broke,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1961). Yet now suddenly, it seemed, America’s mood had changed. On the very afternoon of his arrival, Litvinov was taken in to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt, also eager to resolve what he called “this anomalous situation.” After barely a week of discussions the United States—the one great nation still refusing to accept what Lenin had wrought —agreed to do business with his heir, Joseph Stalin.
In return, the Soviets agreed to mend some ways of theirs that had been particularly offensive to us. They promised to honor at least some of the debts Russia owed America and its citizens, to refrain from fomenting subversive agitation in our midst through their Communist International (or Comintern), and to protect the religious and other civil rights of American nationals in Russia. Ambassadors and a growing wealth of goods would be exchanged, and all or nearly all would now be well between our contrasting fellow republics.
Along this new route to reconciliation, however, traveling conditions were to be as subarctic as northern Russia itself: protracted deep freezes suddenly followed by brief, torrid summer; bright sunshine giving way to violent squalls and sudden darkness. The route, moreover, led over treacherous terrain, with every step along the way a challenge to the most surefooted and imaginative of explorer-diplomats.
Alas! Again, as during America’s most demanding previous test—the erupting Russia of the winter of 1917-18—we had painfully few men equal to the task at hand. We had floundered then in Petrograd becavtse we had been amateurish, indecisive, and entangled in cross-purposes. What had we learned during the intervening years about how to comport ourselves when returning to the land of the Great Bear? As in 1917—18, we now proceeded to send to Russia a series of emissaries of sharply contrasting backgrounds, commitments, and beliefs. Moreover, on occasion we again sent several simultaneously, thereby further blurring our “image.”
America found itself represented in Moscow first by a millionaire, William C. Bullitt, who had been greatly taken with the Soviets at the outset and ended totally at odds with them; next by a multimillionaire, Joseph E. Davies, who became greatly taken with the Soviets and remained that way for the rest of his days; later by a crusty, retired admiral, William H. Standley, who talked back firmly to the Soviets but also to President Roosevelt, and fell out with both. And these were but a few of the contrasting American visitors to face the Russian monolith.
In the Petrograd of 1917-18 our affairs had become snarled through the presence of proliferating, independent American missions—military, Red Cross, propaganda, etc.—all bypassing our ambassador and feuding with one another. In Moscow, during a second wartime, we were to enlarge upon those precedents by establishing massive lend-lease and military-aid missions also independent of our principal envoy and, moreover, headed by successive chiefs—Generals Philip R. Faymonville and John R. Deane—of wholly diverging viewpoints. The President’s personal bright star, Harry L. Hopkins, flew in briefly through the early wartime Moscow sky, as did Averell Harriman, later to return as America’s able regular ambassador. ExAmbassador Davies oddly reappeared, too, and both a would-be President, Wendell Willkie, and an itinerant Vice President, Henry Wallace, showed up. While we spoke with multiple voices, the Kremlin talked back with one.
Clearly the President was of a divided and changing mind when confronting the heirs of Marx and Lenin. He was not alone. Our whole nation was uncertain how to deal, if deal we must, with this vexing, frightening, secretive colossus. Hence we exported to Moscow during the 1930’s and the war years all our own domestic ideological differences about it—every emissary representing his own faiths or fears.
In 1933, though, when the proposal to strike up official relations with the Soviet pariahs received the new President’s attention, there was widespread agreement to this much at least: let’s give it a try. Times had changed radically since 1918—had been changing, so far as American estimation of Russia was concerned, for quite a number of years. For one thing, the Soviet regime had proved itself stable and responsible (save when it came to that matter of debts); it had emerged far enough from its seclusion to confer with the West at Geneva about disarmament and to ring general alarms about the new menace of militarist Japan. For another, the new, industrializing Russia had become a natural American market—an increasingly desirable and important one as the onset of world-wide depression shriveled every other.
Thus encouraged—and kept up to date on Russian affairs by journalists like Walter Duranty, William Henry Chamberlin, and Vincent Sheean—Americans had become increasingly fascinated by what they called the “Soviet experiment,” even while preserving varying degrees of distaste for it. No man had been more fascinated all along than the wealthy Philadelphian William C. Bullitt, who in 1919, at twenty-eight, had persuaded President Wilson to send him on an unofficial mission to the Bolsheviks to sound out possible conciliatory sentiments among them ( see “The Wasted Mission,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , April, 1961). Angered by Wilson’s abrupt dismissal of his hopeful report, Bullitt had denounced what he held to be American folly, and subsequently resumed his ardent advocacy of American-Soviet rapprochement . Intense, articulate, a polished Main Line aristocrat but also a maverick, Bullitt had at once attracted the attention of the incoming President Roosevelt—a man often drawn to such mixtures—with the result that early in 1933 he was sent to Moscow to repeat, in effect, his exploratory mission of 1919. And when this time the response brought Litvinow to Washington with powers to conclude an agreement on very broad terms, it seemed only logical to dispatch the enthusiastic Bullitt to Moscow as America’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union.
He arrived there that December, bringing with him as Third Secretary a very young Foreign Service officer named George F. Kennan (soon to be joined by another named Charles E. Bohlen), and established himself across Red Square from the Kremlin in the National Hotel, the grubby capital’s cavernous refuge for foreigners. Immediately Bullitt found himself receiving, over and beyond the respect due an envoy, the regime’s marks of favor as a special friend. Litvinow staged for him a “tremendous'' reception; and Stalin, who “until my arrival had never received any ambassador,” summoned Bullitt and assured him that “At any moment, day or night, if you wish to see me you have only to ask and I will see you at once.”
Yet the honeymoon begun so deliriously lasted only a very few months. By March, 1934, Bullitt was sending home flustered, disappointed cables about “misunderstandings” on matters ranging from Litvinow’s debt agreement (which was not being fulfilled) to Moscow’s permission for an American Embassy building to be erected there (which was now being blocked). “Oral promises of members of the Soviet government are not to be taken seriously,” the veteran proponent of closer ties sourly concluded. By October, infuriated by the Kremlin’s default on still another promisethat of curbing the activities of the Comintern within American borders—Bullitt reached the point of cabling Washington, “I think I might go so far as to intimate to Litvinow verbally that we might sever diplomatic relations if the Comintern should be allowed to get out of hand.”
The falling-out reflected underlying antagonisms between the two nations which the first genial meetings in Washington and Moscow had covered over, not resolved. It was also America’s introduction to a typical Soviet tactic: demanding a foot when given an inch. Having received the accolade of recognition, the Kremlin now wanted speedy American credits and support of its drive for “collective-security” pacts against the rising threats of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan; America, on the other hand, insisted on settlement of at least some of Russia’s debts to us before there could be talk of going further (and collective security was something that our still-isolationist republic especially did not wish to pursue). So a new freeze set in between the two capitals—coldest in Moscow as between Bullitt and Litvinow. The Kremlin had erred in assuming that its American friend Bullitt would be all-compliant. Bullitt had erred in assuming that the Russians, whom he had trusted, would live up to their word. Stalin’s promised “open door” slammed shut in Bullitt’s face (during a whole year, the two conferred only once), and the American who in 1933 had entered Moscow in triumph as its most favored guest quit it in 1936 in frustration as one of Soviet Russia’s most embittered critics.
The Kremlin had learned a lesson too: never again an American liberal, with all the mercurial tendencies of the breed! Far better to have from America a hardheaded, stalwart capitalist—a “class enemy” to be sure, but at least one whose reactions you could predict. So the Soviets were relieved when President Roosevelt chose as his next envoy to them the prominent corporation lawyer Joseph E. Davies, financier, politician, and sharer—through his marriage to Mrs. Marjorie Post Close Hutton, the daughter of C. W. Post of Post Toasties—in an immense fortune. Yet Moscow was due for some surprises at Davies’ hand. So was America.
A handsome, gregarious figure of many-sided accomplishment and charm, Davies had early begun moving in leading Democratic circles. He had turned down President Wilson’s offer of the ambassadorship to czarist Russia in 1913, but later served Wilson as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and as economic adviser at the Versailles peace conference. A close friend and political backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt since Wilsonian days, he was going forth now to Moscow as the President’s immediate confidant (with the result, as Secretary of State Hull was to complain, that Davies, like Bullitt before him, frequently communicated with Roosevelt directly, “over my head”).
All this was impressive. But what seemed to impress the Soviets most of all was the regal state in which Ambassador and Mrs. Davies commenced their expedition to darkest Moscow. Thirty trunks, fifty smaller pieces of luggage, and six personal servants accompanied them. (“We are going to live in Moscow very quietly, very simply,” explained Davies; ” ‘When in Rome,’ you know …”) Mistrusting Soviet produce, they also took along some two thousand pints of frozen American cream (Birds Eye process, owned by Mrs. Davies’ General Foods), together with twenty-five freezers in which to store it. “Contrary to popular belief,” said a Soviet spokesman in New York, “there are cows in Russia.”
Half a year later, when supplies ran low, Mrs. Davies was to order another two thousand pints, along with two tons of frozen meats, fruits, and vegetables from home. Yet Soviet leaders, far from being affronted by this swollen self-indulgence amid Russia’s lean times, were fascinated by it. Coming from below, they had tasted enough of power to like to indulge themselves, too—and the most Lucullan table to be seen in Moscow since the revolution now beckoned them. It soon appeared that the master of Spasso House (the stately mansion of a czarist grandee acquired as the American Embassy) was surprisingly hospitable to their minds as well.
The paunchy Litvinow, restored to amiability now that the demanding Bullitt was gone and this expansive capitalist was here, flattered Davies by telling him (as Davies promptly reported to Washington) that “I had acquired more information and knowledge of Russia in the three months I was here than any other ambassador had obtained in two years.” He then went on to ask the new ambassador’s general impressions. “I told him briefly that I was very much impressed with what they were doing, with the strength of their leadership, the difficulties they were overcoming; that I felt they were presently sincerely devoted to peace …” Meanwhile the colorful Mrs. Davies, to the astonishment of the British ambassador (“I have been here seven years and haven’t been able to get so much as a toe in their house!”), was invited to lunch at the country dacha of Mme. Molotov, the Premier’s consort.
It was a new thaw, evidently—passing at once into balmy summer. Then what, amid all this sweetness and light, was a secret, nocturnal Soviet agent doing in the attic of Spasso House? We come to the incident of Second Secretary Kennan and the night the Davies’ cream turned sour. It is recounted by Charles W. Thayer, a young Philadelphia!! who had become the assistant to the gifted, Russian-speaking Kennan-Bohlen team that often had to pull ambassadorial chestnuts out of the fire.
As Thayer tells it in Bears in the Caviar , they had discovered that a Soviet spy was in the process of “bugging” Mr. Davies’ office with a microphone run down from the attic. After several fruitless nights of vigil up there to try to observe him, they retired to more comfortable quarters below, leaving a net of cross-wire alarms to alert them at his next visit. But when the intruder returned, he got away in the nightafter knocking out the entire Spasso House electrical system. Two days later, Ambassador Davies’ butler reported to Thayer: “Two of the deep-freezes seem to have failed to get back into action after we reconnected the current.”
“What was in them?”
“The frozen cream, and it’s passed all saving.”
There were indeed several hundred pints of wellpublicized Davies cream rotting in the basement, and there was only one way of getting rid of them so as not to damage the Davies prestige. Since all regular Embassy employees were under close Soviet surveillance, the only thing for Thayer to do was to round up some Russian workmen to help him quietly dump a truckload of the stuff in a deserted pine forest.
There were more hazards facing Davies than espionage and sour cream. As Kennan was to point out in a searching memorandum, “The Position of an American Ambassador in Moscow,” there was Soviet evasion, double talk, secrecy, dilatoriness, and a tactic of isolating the American envoy and his staff from all but the most superficial contacts with Russians. But greatest of all (though Kennan did not bring this up) was the danger of impressionable and gullible thinking on the part of the envoy himself—and of this, Davies is one of diplomacy’s classic exhibits.
In setting out, as he tells us in Mission to Moscow (the best-selling memoir that was to be made into one of the most debated movies of the war years), his verbal instructions from the President were to seek to persuade the Soviets to break the debt and trade impasse, meanwhile assuming a posture of “dignified friendliness” qualified by “definite reserve.” Reserve, however, flew out the window at his first meeting with Soviet President Kalinin. “A fine type,” Davies called him, “a kind, good man.” But this was nothing compared to the Ambassador’s enthusiasm on meeting Stalin himself: “His brown eye is exceedingly kindly and gentle. A child would like to sit in his lap and a dog would sidle up to him. … Throughout [the interview] he joked and laughed at times. He has a sly humor.”
Yet there was little to laugh about during Davies’ first year in Moscow. For his arrival there coincided with the start of the second and greatest of the series of “purge” trials that bewildered the world and bitterly divided those until then inclined to befriend the “Soviet experiment.” A long procession of hitherto highranking Communist ministers, intellectuals, ideologues, and generals were quickly tried for counterrevolutionary conspiracy and duly led off to execution. Were the trials a frame-up? Had the accused been tortured in some mysterious fashion, and was this Stalin’s Oriental way of disposing of his rivals?
Many observers of the macabre spectacle were torn by doubt, but Davies, watching from one of the best diplomatic seats in the Soviet Supreme Court as the “Old Bolshevik” editor Karl Radek and nearly a score of others went under, seemed untroubled. He wrote home that he accepted at face value Public Prosecutor Andrei Vishinsky’s thesis of a dark terrorist plot and blandly concluded after the prisoners had been condemned: “The purge … cleansed the country and rid it of treason.” This view he also maintained when visiting London. Dining in company with Winston Churchill, Davies was chagrined to find that it did not go down well there, “so violent is the prejudice. … I gave the facts as interpreted from the Soviet viewpoint.”
An American ambassador handing out in London the “facts” as interpreted by Stalin: What next?
Early in 1938 President Roosevelt realized that his man in Moscow was a liability—for all his popularity there, he still had not achieved that debt settlement- and withdrew him to the safer post of Brussels. Litvinow threw Davies a great farewell dinner, and the amiable visitor left trailing such pronouncements as “I do not think that the world is in any real danger from communism for many years to come,” and, later, “It is not [the Soviets'] intent to seek to project communism in the United States.”
The Soviet Union was, however, embarking on a course that would once more lead to a freeze in RussoAmerican relations. For fully three years we would again be barely on speaking terms; for many months on end—particularly those of the Munich crisis, the height of Western humiliation and distress—we were to be without an ambassador in Moscow at all.
For while the Soviets had been clamoring for joint opposition to Hitler, Mussolini, the aggressive Japanese, and then Franco, America (like its old European partners, Britain and France) had avoided doing anything effective about it—a fact that had enormously increased Communist prestige among all those aroused to resistance. Roosevelt in the fall of 1937 had tried to reverse America’s position by his historic “quarantinethe-aggressors” speech, but when he was unable to prevail, it next became the turn of the Soviets to reverse their own: by the next summer they were threatening to retreat into isolation unless we came out of ours, and by the spring of 1939, in the aftermath of Munich, they did precisely that, furthermore denouncing the Western allies as “warmongers” just when these at last were arming against the general danger.
In August came Russia’s second turnabout—alliance with the former enemy, in the pact that helped unleash Hitler’s forces and win for Russia a share of Poland. This was followed by Russia’s “dreadful rape of Finland,” as Roosevelt termed it, which led us to place an embargo on many exports to this latest aggressor, while at home sentiment was rising in favor of aiding embattled France and Britain. In Moscow an appropriately chilly Foreign Service professional, Ambassador Laurence A. Steinhardt, represented us, engaged largely in delivering messages of protest over such incidents as the Soviet detention of the American freighter City of Flint .
Then on June 22, 1941, Hitler performed his fateful turnabout: he invaded Russia with 175 divisions. Overnight the whole configuration of affairs changed again: the Western “warmongers” of yesterday became in Russia’s eyes partners in her “Great Patriotic War,” while a hitherto lonely Britain and a defensive America set out to build with Russia the Grand Alliance. In barely a month, the President’s personal adviser, Harry L. Hopkins, was on the Moscow scene with an introduction from Roosevelt asking Stalin to treat Hopkins with “the identical confidence you would feel if you were talking directly to me.” Cordially welcomed at the Kremlin, he declared to Stalin “the determination of the President and our government to extend all possible aid to the Soviet Union at the earliest possible time.”
It was characteristic of Roosevelt under pressure that he conveyed this vital message not through his regular ambassador on the ground or through a visit by Secretary of State Hull (with whom his own relations had become distant) but by a special emissary. Hopkins, for his part, hastened to point out to Stalin that his mission was “not a diplomatic: one” in the usual sense. In title, Hopkins was Roosevelt’s administrator of lend lease. In fart, he was his Colonel House and closest friend; and the skill of this extraordinary expediter, sensitive yet durable, often ill and nerveracked yet searching and thorough, was never greater than during the crucial sessions—lasting only two days —in which he won the inscrutable Stalin’s confidence, gained from him a complete picture of Soviet military strengths and weaknesses, placed Soviet-American relations upon an entirely new footing, and did all this so circumspectly as to draw from the sidetracked Hull and Steinhardt no audible murmur of criticism. As Hopkins’ biographer, Robert E. Sherwood, remarks: “This was indeed the turning point in the wartime relations of Britain and the United States with the Soviet Union.”
It also marked a point from which there was to be no turning back. Stalin, whose armies were reeling under German impact across the Ukraine toward Moscow, needed immediately great supplies of guns and aircraft metal. Many expert Western observers on and around the scene were pessimistic; why, asked Major Ivan Yeaton, the American military attaché at Moscow, lend aid to a doomed cause? Yet when Hopkins reported to Roosevelt, “I feel ever so confident about this front … There is unbounded determination to win,” his word tilted the scales. Within a few days, at their seaborne conference in Newfoundland’s Argentia Bay at which the Atlantic Charter was framed, Roosevelt and Churchill determined to rush all possible equipment to Stalin even at some risk to their own arsenals, and to send at once a joint supply mission to explore his needs. This was the occasion that brought Averell Harriman for the first time to Moscow, along with England’s Lord Beaverbrook. Two weeks after they arrived, German spearheads had pushed to within thirty miles of the capital, government offices were being evacuated to Kuibyshev in the rear, and Major Yeaton was reporting that the end of Russian resistance might not be far away.
Yet while Americans were concentrating on first things first—to help Russia stave off defeat—Stalin was already thinking far ahead to the shape that Europe should take after the victory. Here was the great misstep on our road to Yalta: not only did Western leaders seem to fail to realize how large the Soviets might loom in the event of victory, but they refused to discuss the future with Stalin at a time advantageous to themselves, when he was so hard-pressed and weak. Thus it happened that soon after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt, though aware of Soviet territorial demands in Poland and the Baltic area, specifically asked Stalin to omit such questions from the treaty of alliance then being negotiated. The absence of territorial discussion now left the new alliance a one-way street—we were giving the Russians more and more aid against Hitler’s onslaught, without pressing them to surrender some of their aspirations in return.
How much aid—and when? How soon are you going to open a “second front” to relieve us? When are you going to recognize our just claims in eastern Europe? These were the constant calls from Moscow, and each brought new East-West collisions. Only a few months after Hopkins’ warm reception at the Kremlin, the visiting Harriman was given a brusque one: Stalin showed impatience at the slowness of Western aid and warmed only when Harriman promised him five thousand jeeps. The President, aware how tough a customer we were dealing with, now thought we had better send him as resident ambassador a markedly tough personality of our own, and so Stalin got a battleship admiral.
The President had a particular fondness for the Navy and its proven leaders—and William H. Standley had served him outstandingly as Chief of Naval Operations. A square-jawed, sharp-spoken quarter-deck disciplinarian with forty-five years in the service, Standley had no experience of Russia except for a brief ceremonial visit to Vladivostok in 1896 as a midshipman. But upon retirement he had become one of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters in the long domestic battle for aid to the Allies before Pearl Harbor; such a man might serve with insight and muscle.
His first reaction to Stalin differed noticeably from that of Davies. Standley found the Soviet dictator “a cocky, healthy-looking individual, with swarthy complexion and an Oriental cast of countenance …” A man of stalwart build himself, Standley carried chips on both broad shoulders: he was easily offended when Stalin kept him waiting or when Washington failed to brief him fully or when visiting firemen from home intruded. He wanted to run his Embassy as a “taut ship” in perilous waters with himself in sole command —a logical aspiration, but quixotic in view of the Rooseveltian way of conducting wartime affairs abroad. Messages passed directly between Roosevelt and Stalin, “leapfrogging over my tophatted head,” Standley complained; summit conferences were arranged and second-front commitments entered into without his being the wiser; and Hopkins’ and Harriman’s lend-lease man on the spot, Colonel (later Brigadier General) Faymonville, pursued his own quite independent course. The old admiral finally exploded when two further visiting emissaries, Wendell Willkie and the familiar Joe Davies, arrived on the scene with powers to go over his head to the Kremlin.
Willkie, the President’s 1940 electoral opponent who had subsequently been enlisted into the bipartisan war effort, touched down in Moscow during his globe-girdling “One World” tour in the fall of 1942. He delivered himself of statements declaring America’s unqualified friendship for Soviet Russia, and after closeting himself alone with Stalin went so far as to remark to Standley that some of the things he had learned there were too secret for even the ambassador to know. As if this were not galling enough, Willkie made a point of telling the world that Soviet Russia had been misrepresented in the United States and that he wished to “put over a more favorable picture” of it. “Many among the democracies fear and mistrust Soviet Russia …” he wrote. “Such fear is weakness …” He issued in Moscow a call, echoing Stalin’s, for the early opening of a second front.
“Mr. Willkie, I have been very patient,” Standley finally exploded. “Now I feel it my duty to remind you that there is only one United States representative in the Soviet Union, and I, the American Ambassador, am that representative.”
But Standley’s patience was to be tried even more by the brief return engagement of Davies, who arrived the following spring on a io,ooo-mile round trip from Washington—in a special plane, with a crew of nine plus his personal staff and physician—simply to deliver a letter from Roosevelt to Stalin proposing a top-level meeting. It was a message that conceivably could have been delivered to the Kremlin by Standley himself from his office four blocks away. Welcomed at the airport by Soviet dignitaries as a returning hero, Davies insisted on delivering his letter alone. He had also brought along an advance print of the Warner Brothers movie made from his Mission to Moscow (Stalin was flatteringly portrayed by Manart Kippen, Davies by Walter Huston), which he prevailed upon the dictator to show after dinner in the Kremlin projection room. Stalin was visibly bored by it, and diplomatic guests went up in arms over its obvious distortions of the history of the purge trials and acceptance of the Soviet line on them. Next, Davies met the American press corps, and on hearing its complaints that the Soviets were failing to show appreciation for American aid, tongue-lashed the correspondents and accused them of “non-co-operation.” “His lack of knowledge regarding Russia,” wrote Quentin Reynolds, “shocked us all.”
The reason behind the Willkie-Davies visits was that the President had lost confidence in his newest ambassador, while Standley had taken to grumbling about the President. Standley felt himself alone in a hostile environment and at odds with Washington, which he felt was playing the game on Stalin’s terms. Our policy, he snorted, was only “Do not antagonize the Russians, give them everything they want, for, after all, they are killing Germans …”
Increasingly suspicious, Standley fell out particularly with General Faymonville, the gifted, Russianspeaking Regular Army officer who was managing lend-lease from an office down the corridor, and whose predictions as to the staying power of the Red Army when others had given up hope in it had been amply borne out. Feeling that Faymonville was working too closely and enthusiastically with the Russians, Standley made direct representations to Roosevelt and Hopkins that the general be placed under Standley’s orders. He got him reduced in size and then banished—though at the cost of any remaining White House good will toward himself.∗
∗A personal recollection: While at the Office of War Information in 1942, in charge of broadcasts to Germany, I was assigned by Robert E. Sherwood to go to Moscow on a mission arising from an offer made by Foreign Minister Vishinsky—that of my speaking nightly from there to eastern-front Germans in the name of the Voice of America. At that time, when American troops had not yet come to grips with Germans, it seemed a promising idea to convey in this fashion the message of Allied unity, and Vishinsky had promised that, apart from sheer military censorship, what I said over the Moscow radio would be subjected to no surveillance whatsoever. After I had waited several months with packed suitcases for travel orders, though, the mission was finally vetoed by Ambassador Standley on the ground that this, too, might lead to too-close collaboration with the Russians.
Standley had the ill fortune to represent us in Moscow during our hardest times there. During 1942 and most of 1943 the promised American aid never lived up to expectations, due first to enormous convoy losses and then to our own build-up for the second front that Stalin had demanded. But the Soviet chieftain kept upbraiding us for our delays in respect to both. When Allied armies streaked across Sicily and landed on the Italian mainland, though, the Bear warmed once more; and when in October, 1943, Standley having been retired to the shades, Secretary Hull arrived in Moscow for a four-power foreign ministers’ conference accompanied by a new ambassador (Harriman) and a new military-aid chief (General Deane), Stalin was genial. With enormous forces now building up for OVERLORD (the Anglo-American descent upon Normandy) and supplies flowing to Russia over several seas, broad pledges of mutual aid and confidence were exchanged. Harriman was particularly elated when, in a daring mood, he proposed a toast at the Kremlin to the day “when we would be fighting together against the Japs,” and Molotov suddenly responded: “Why not- gladly— the time will come .”
Yet Harriman was not so elated as to lose perspective. A shrewd observer and Presidential trouble shooter, he had known all the ups and downs of American-Soviet relations, and the reassuring atmosphere of the Moscow foreign ministers’ conference had not concealed from him its lack of real achievement.
Now the final stage of the road led via Teheran and Moscow to Yalta—conferences marked by increasing inter-Allied warmth as the outlines of military victory became clearer, although the ultimate political consequences remained hidden in the veil. It was as if the civil plenipotentiaries, having failed to lay a basis of searching diplomacy with each other at the start, had come to feel that the soldiers would resolve their problems for them by providing a smashing triumph that would leave everyone happy—if exhausted. Stalin was enormously impressed by the prospects of OVERLORD. Churchill was equally impressed by the avenging progress of the Red armies and supported Stalin’s claim for territory to protect Russia from future German invasions, even though this meant shifting Poland several hundred miles westward. Roosevelt, though he said he wanted no part of the Polish wrangle—not until after the 1944 elections, in any case—was inclined to support the Anglo-Soviet understanding reached on this point during the summit meeting at Teheran at the end of 1943.
Harriman, though a devoted admirer of Roosevelt and a believer in mobility in dealing with the Soviets, was not quite so sure. Shouldn’t we, he asked, try to awaken them to the fact that we expected them to give as well as receive? In this he was supported by his top military-aid man, General Deane, a newcomer constituted very differently from his predecessor, General Faymonville. Deane demanded detailed information from the Soviets as to just what they were doing with supplies, even as Harriman kept requiring of them more specific knowledge of their political plans as Hitler’s legions fell back. But then came the great convergence of Anglo-American armies upon Germany, (simultaneously with the Soviet armies’ even greater one); the knowledge that the Soviets would join our hard-won march against Japan; and a profound feeling that amid so many mutual sacrifices made and joint victories won, the problems remaining between us—the fate of eastern Europe, the control of Germany, the level of reparations, the structure of the Balkans, the ratio of representation in the new United Nations —could be amicably resolved.
This was the immense agenda that faced the Big Three chiefs of government when they met at Yalta in the Crimea in February, 1945, for a week of breathless negotiating and climactic banqueting that would give new shape to the world. Time was short at Yalta- too short; the chieftains had to hurry home to direct the closing scenes of the military drama in Europe and stage its last act in Asia. Moreover, Roosevelt and Hopkins were both ailing; the new Secretary of State who accompanied them, Edward R. Stettinius, was inexperienced; and our standing representation in Russia itself had been so assorted and at times discredited that the President found himself with little in the way of a concerted body of first-hand experience there on which to draw. In our massive delegation at the Livadia Palace, the effective “Russian experts” were just two—the overburdened Harriman and young “Chip” Bohlen, serving as interpreter.
Many settlements, or what passed for settlements, were reached. The westward shift of Poland was confirmed; pledges as to the self-determination of liberated peoples were renewed; the Soviet Union, about to enter the war against Japan, was recognized as a major power in the Pacific, with legitimate aspirations there. The Soviets, in turn, recognized America’s particular interest in succoring the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, gave ground on some points concerning joint occupation of Germany, and seemed willing to forego crushing reparations if it could obtain American reconstruction aid. The debate over seating at the United Nations also resulted in what both sides then regarded a fair draw; and such was Yalta’s resulting mood that Prime Minister Churchill spoke in exalted terms of “the glories of future possibilities … before us,” while Harry Hopkins reported a deep sense of accomplishment there. “We really believed in our hearts,” Hopkins said, “that this was the dawn of the new day we had all been praying for … We were absolutely certain that we had won the first great victory of the peace.”
Perhaps, then, all—or almost all—would be well at last. Yet it was not to be so; and bitter blame has been heaped upon the Yalta Conference, as if it were the author of all our woes with Russia since. Yet perhaps it was culpable not so much for what it did as for what it did not do. Yalta left more matters unresolved than settled. In its headlong haste to catch up with the facts of military success, it was a political convocation that came too late. Moreover, it was one to which the warring partners came as unequals in the sense that they harbored very different political intentions, clothe them as they might. All spoke of liberation, but to the Soviets this meant also annexation of the liberated. On the other hand, the Western allies had no ulterior territorial motives: true, the British were willing to bargain with the Russians over spheres of influence so as to preserve their own, but the United States had no thought—and, it was agreed by all sides at home, no need—of aggrandizement at all.
America’s position all along had been to avoid making postwar commitments until the war itself was nearly won. As late as October, 1944, Roosevelt had cabled Harriman (then sitting in on the ChurchillStalin meetings at Moscow that prefaced Yalta), “It is important that I retain complete freedom of action after this conference is over.” Yet the area of such freedom was narrowing fast as Red armies swarmed over southeastern and central Europe, pushing borders westward on their own. The most that could now be done about displaced Poland was an ambiguous formula calling for “reorganization” of the provisional Warsaw regime—by which the West meant a new government based on democratic elections, while Moscow meant one firmly attached to itself. The West asked for free ballot boxes all over eastern Europe; Moscow promised, but at the same time began converting once-free nations into satellites.
The ailing President, returning homeward across calm seas aboard the U.S.S. Quincy in the trust that Yalta’s promise of freedom and equity would be fulfilled, was not to be spared disillusionment in the few weeks of life remaining to him. A mere fortnight later, Ambassador Harriman in Moscow was protesting sharply against Soviet moves to make defeated Rumania a captive state, and the West flatly refused to recognize the puppet regime set up there. More trouble was in store for our ambassador when an inter-Allied commission began to work out Yalta’s indecisive plan for Poland. On April 2, after wrangling sessions in which Molotov had become more and more intransigent, Harriman reported flatly, “No agreement was reached on any point.” Stalin himself, on the wire to Roosevelt, concurred. Harriman, for his part, was now reaching the point of recommending to Washington that further aid to Russia be suspended until Moscow ceased violating Yalta agreements. Then Stalin, suspicious because he had not been made party to the parleys between surrendering German commanders and advancing Anglo-American troops in Italy, cabled Roosevelt to charge deception and trickery. Roosevelt, aroused to the core, expressed “bitter resentment” at such “vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.” This and Stalin’s reply were the last communications that passed between the two most powerful leaders of what had briefly been a common cause.
So the bright day dimmed even when the sun seemed to stand high. Roosevelt died, and Harriman in Moscow was alone in the gathering darkness. Once again, the modern world’s two titans, so different in their ways and make-up, so subject to alternating currents of mutual attraction and repulsion, drew apart. We had been by turns cordial friends over great distances (never more so than during our own Revolution and the Napoleonic wars), far-removed yet mutually amenable expansionists through the later nineteenth century, uneasy allies in two world wars, and profound ideological antagonists in the aftermath of each. Yet we had never, despite all our differences, become declared enemies on the battlefield; in fact, we were the only two great powers to have preserved peace—or what passed for it—with one another during all this long span of modern time. We did not speak one another’s language; perhaps in the deepest sense we never quite would. Yet some recognition of the madness of ever making war upon one another in the name of our two immense and kindred humanities on opposite sides of the globe seemed to have been borne in upon us both. Will the time now come when, if nuclear war is unimaginable and the sheer absence of war not enough, we may proceed with firmer skill to the building of peace?