Skip to main content

America And Russia, Americans And Russians

June 2024
18min read

The Cold War was an anomaly: more often than not the world’s two greatest states have lived together in uneasy amity. And what now?

Exactly two hundred years after George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States and three hundred years after Peter the Great’s ascent to the Russian throne, a new chapter opened in the history of the relations of the two greatest states of the world.

The United States and Russia never fought a war. Twice in the twentieth century they were allies. Their governments and the structure of their societies have been very ,different, yet there are similarities in the character of the two countries. The relationships of the two states and of their peoples have often been interesting, rather than dramatic—the reason for this being the great geographic distance separating them (except in the Arctic), a dominant fact even now.

For more than a century Russia’s main rival was often Great Britain. The clever Czarina Catherine the Great favored the cause of American independence against Britain (she also made John Paul Jones a rear admiral in the Russian navy, where he served against the Turks—the kind of oddity that has so often punctuated American-Russian relations). The counterpart of John Paul Jones, who was a native Scotsman choosing to fight on the American side against his own countrymen, was the Connecticut-born John Ledyard, who spent the years of the American War of Independence in the service of Great Britain, indeed aboard the ships of the famous explorer James Cook. Ledyard was the first American attracted by the prospect of crossing the icy Bering Sea narrows from Siberia to Alaska. He did not quite make it, but he came close enough to evoke the interest of Thomas Jefferson.

In any event, at that time the few settlements in Alaska and on the northwestern rim of the great Pacific Ocean, reaching down to San Francisco, were Russian, not American. The United States (and Great Britain) were fortunate in that the rulers of Russia, in faraway St. Petersburg, seldom had a strong interest in sea power, including the making of a seaborne Russian empire in the Pacific (whose eastern rim the Russians had reached more than a century before the first Americans debouched in the West). In that great global region of the Pacific the relations between Americans and Russians have almost always been friendly—even during the worst years of the so-called Cold War.


Against George Washington’s wishes, and against his exhortation to the American people in his Farewell Address, the new American ship of state was badly buffeted by the waves of the last great Atlantic world war between Britain and France, of which the “Second War of American Independence” was but a part. In 1812 John Quincy Adams was the American minister to Russia. His friend Benjamin Rush wrote to him from Philadelphia: “The year 1812 will, I hope, be immortal in the history of the world for having given the first check to the overgrown power and tyranny of Britain and France. Russia and the United States may now be hailed as the deliverers of the human race.” Adams was wiser and more circumspect. Although the United States was a de facto ally of Napoleon against Britain, Adams welcomed and saw the immense significance of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia (just as many Americans, 130 years later, recognized the immense significance of Hitler’s defeat before Moscow). John Quincy Adams did, in 1823, interpret the Monroe Doctrine (of which he was the author) to the Russian minister in Washington to the effect that the United States “would contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent,” but Adams never thought that the destiny of the United States should be that of a “deliverer of the human race.” His phrase in 1821—that we are friends of liberty everywhere “but we do not go abroad in search for monsters to destroy”—should be engraved over the mantel of the Oval Office to remind every President.

Whether this wisdom of a great American statesman evoked a deep resonance within American popular sentiment is arguable. What remains certain is that the relations of the United States and Russia during the nineteenth century were seldom hostile, and for the most part satisfactory. Americans were, at times, justifiably exercised by the Russian subjugation of Poland, by the cruelties of Russian penal practices, by forced exile to Siberia, by the mistreatment of Jews, by the very image of an autocratic and unconstitutional government ruled by a czar; but there were statesmen enough in America to understand, too, that there were no real conflicts between the vital interests of the Russian and American states. The statesmen in St. Petersburg also thought that, but their estimation of their relationship with the United States was part of their larger calculations. While it is an interesting coincidence that Czar Alexander H’s abolition of serfdom in Russia was decreed at almost the same time (1861) as was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863), it is even more telling that during the Civil War Russia was sympathetic to the North (in 1863 a Russian fleet paid a friendship visit to New York, an occasion for riotous celebrations). It is certainly telling—and surely consequential—that St. Petersburg was willing to sell Alaska to Washington in 1867 for a pittance ($7.2 million). The Russians’ reasoning was simple. They wanted to embroil the United States with Britain, which during the Civil War had been considering supporting the South and which in the 186Os seemed to be engaged in a race with the Americans toward British Columbia and the southern panhandle of Alaska.

Theodore Roosevelt, too, was statesman enough to rise above the tides of American popular sentiment. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and 1905, that sentiment, including much of the press, seemed to relish the stunning Japanese triumphs, “the gallant little Jap” pummeling the Russian Bear. Yet when Roosevelt accepted the chairmanship of the peace conference at Portsmouth, the Japanese were disappointed to find that he was not inclined to give them all that they wanted. He struck a kind of balance; he understood that in view of the rising naval and colonial power of the Japanese in the western Pacific it was not in the American interest to see the Russian presence there reduced to nothing.

In 1917, for the first time in their history, the United States and Russia became military allies, in a world war, against the prospect of a German domination of Europe. Events within Russia in March 1917 had played an important part in Woodrow Wilson’s decision to go to Congress a few weeks later to request a declaration of war against Germany. A revolution in Petrograd (St. Petersburg had been renamed in 1914) had forced the czar to abdicate. Wilson (who knew very little about Russia) thought that this was a tremendous contribution to the purity of the cause of a war waged for democracy: the Allied ranks would no longer be compromised by a czarist regime among them. Wilson thought—and said—that the democratic Russian Revolution of March 1917 was one of the greatest events in the history of mankind, comparable to 1776 in America. He was wrong. The Russian liberal regime collapsed in less than eight months. Its leaders were incompetent; chaos and disorder erupted all over Russia; discipline in the army evaporated; the war against Germany was unpopular. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were more determined. They took over the city of Petrograd (after the leaders of the government had abandoned it to them); they made peace with the Germans, for their hands were full of a developing civil war in Russia, which they eventually won, less on the battlefield than because their opponents, dependent on diminishing Allied support, gave up the fight one by one.


Wilson was stunned and shocked. He attributed these catastrophic events to a giant conspiracy, abetted by the Germans. He—in this he was not alone—did not see the real meaning of these events: Russia’s withdrawal from the war; Russia’s withdrawal from Europe. Like Lenin’s, Wilson’s view of the world was ideological rather than historical and geographic. The Progressive professor-President became the bitterest opponent of the Bolsheviks. One result of this was the attempt at American military intervention in the Russian civil war. It was short-lived and marginal; there was practically no fighting between American soldiers and the Red Army; it was marked by the temporary presence of a handful of American troops in a few ports on the Arctic and the Far Eastern rim of the great Russian Empire. By late 1920 this odd episode was over. What was not over was the powerful popular attraction of anticommunism: the tendency to attribute most of the evils of the world, all of the dangers to democracy and to American national interests, to a world conspiracy organized in and emanating from Moscow.

Like Lenin’s, Wilson’s view of the world was ideological rather than historical. The Progressive professor became a bitter enemy of Bolshevism.

One of its consequences was the American refusal, alone among the great powers of the world, to recognize—that is, to maintain diplomatic relations with—the new government of the Russian Empire, now called the Soviet Union. In reality this did not make much difference. Trade and other relations between the two vast countries went on in the 1920s. In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union. By then few people in the United States were opposed to that. In Moscow too, Lenin, who had been a revolutionary and not a statesman, was succeeded by Stalin, who was the opposite. He was willing to sign all kinds of meaningless paper declarations in the recognition treaty, especially because around that time he feared a Japanese move against the Soviet Union and saw the United States as a potential ally. That soon passed; the primary problem, for both powers, would become Germany, not Japan. But the unscrupulous and unsavory behavior of Stalin’s government—even before Stalin in 1939 chose to sign a virtual alliance with that apostle of anticommunism Adolf Hitler—soured American-Russian relations. An example of this was William C. Bullitt, one of the most brilliant American diplomats in this century, whom Roosevelt appointed as the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union and who had gone off to his post with extraordinary energy and enthusiasm; two years later he wished to be posted elsewhere, so bitterly disappointed had he become with Stalin and his regime.

In the long run none of this mattered. In 1941 Hitler attacked Russia. That was what mattered. The United States and Russia became instant allies again. Their troublesome alliance did not survive World War II, as it had not survived World War I, but there was a great difference now. In 1918 the Western Allies, including the United States, could win World War I even after Russia dropped out. In World War II, without Russia they could not have conquered Hitler’s Third Reich. Eventually enormous amounts of American materiel were funneled to Russia during the war (by an odd coincidence lend-lease to Russia cost nearly the same—$11 billion—as the Marshall Plan, aimed to build up Western Europe after the war). Still, the fact remains that on D-day there were four German divisions struggling against the Russians in the east for each one facing the Allies in France. There was even more to that. By early 1945—at the time of the often debated Yalta Conference—the entire American military and naval establishment, including later vocal anticommunists such as General MacArthur, was praising the Red Army to the skies. One of their main reasons was to expedite an eventual Russian attack on Japan. (The Japanese had not joined the Germans in going to war with Russia in 1941; they had chosen instead to war with the United States and Britain, for reasons known only to themselves.) At Yalta Stalin promised Roosevelt that he would attack Japan three months after V-E day in Europe. He was as good as his word—for reasons of his own, of course. They were the reconquest of Russian lands and bases in the Far East that the czars had lost to Japan in 1905 (a Russian defeat that Lenin had welcomed at the time).

By 1920 the odd episode of Americans fighting in Russia was over; what was not over was the powerful popular attraction of anticommunism.

By then—August 1945—the first signs of the coming Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union were accumulating. They had less to do with the Far East than with Europe—particularly with Eastern Europe. Entire libraries have been written about the origins and the development of the Cold War, including books by this writer. I will sum up my view as briefly as I can. In essence it conforms with the views of Winston Churchill, who—as early as 1940—saw things clearly. There were only two alternatives: either all of Europe dominated by Germany or the eastern part of Europe dominated by Russia—and half of Europe (especially the western half) was better than none. Moreover, as Churchill told de Gaulle in 1944, that division, in the long run, would not last: the Russians would not be able to digest Eastern Europe (that is what happened). In any event, at the end of the war, when the Anglo-American presence in Europe would become very strong, a limit must be set to the Russian sphere of their interest. Very few Americans, including President Roosevelt, saw this quite in that way.

They wanted the Russian-American wartime alliance to prevail; they put undue hopes in the United Nations, that American-made international instrument that Stalin consented to join. They did not devote much attention to Eastern Europe, where they hoped that Stalin (in addition to a few, relatively minor territorial gains) would be satisfied with the establishment of pro-Russian, though not necessarily communist, governments in that Russian sphere of interest. That was not the case. Stalin thought that his sphere of interest could not be secure unless it consisted of satellite governments composed by people who were wholly subservient to him. Otherwise the Americans, who were now the greatest world power, holding the monopoly of the atom bomb, would be able to challenge and reduce his predominance in Eastern Europe, including East Germany. That was not really what the United States wanted, but Stalin’s suspicions governed him.


The Cold War grew from the congealing reaction to the Soviets’ repellent brutalities in Eastern Europe and East Germany, including the fear that the Russians were now making ready to advance beyond the Iron Curtain, to foment and foist communism on Western and Southern European countries. The result was the American policy of containment and the beginning of the Cold War, which was under way by 1947. The recognition that the United States was the only power on the globe that could—and should—contain a further Russian, or communist, expansion was both timely and proper. The concomitant belief that the Russians were willing, or even able, to risk a third world war with the United States for the sake of conquering more territories for communism was not. The wartime illusions about Stalin and the Soviet Union had contributed to the bitterness of the disappointment of Americans and to the rapid change from American-Russian alliance and friendship to confrontation and enmity. The no less illusory attribution to communism of most of the existing evils in the world, the inability to distinguish between communist propaganda and Russian state interests, and the elevation of anticommunism as if it were not only an ingredient but the essential element of American patriotism were no less damaging in the long run.


The Cold War was an anomaly, a forty-year chapter in the history of American-Russian relations, a consequence of the Second World War, in the shadows of which all of us were living, until very recently. It ended in 1989, with the retreat of the Russians from Eastern Europe and with the end of the division of Germany.

Yet in many ways the essential condition of the Cold War—the division of Europe between Americans and Russians—began to fade much earlier. A crucial day in the long history of Europe, of Germany, and of RussianAmerican relations was a Wednesday, April 25, 1945, when the triumphant advancing American and Russian armies met at Torgau on the banks of the Elbe River amid the wreckage of spring and war. Among the soldiers of the 58th Russian Guards Division there were some whose home was Vladivostok, who arrived in the center of Europe from the shores of the western Pacific. Among the soldiers of the U.S. 69th Division there were some whose home was San Francisco: they too had been sent to conquer halfway around the world. They met in the middle of Germany and in the middle of European history: Torgau on the Elbe is about midway between Wittenberg, where Luther’s fire of great revolutions had started, and Leipzig, where Napoleon’s course of great victories had ended. The American and Russian soldiers drank and celebrated together into the night. If that was the peak hour of American-Russian comradeship in arms, it was also the high-water mark of the Russian-American tide flooding Europe.

It would not last. Ten years later, in the midst of the Cold War, the disengagement of the United States and the Soviet Union began: they agreed on their mutual evacuation of Austria. The Russians were already gone from Yugoslavia and Finland. There were crises in American-Russian relations to come, about the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 or about those missiles in Cuba in 1962, for example, but it was evident (at least to some of us) that the United States was no more willing to risk a war with Russia over Hungary than were the Russians willing to risk a war with the United States over Cuba. Slowly, gradually—albeit periodically interrupted by crude reassertions of their predominance—Russian (and also communist) influence was weakening and retreating throughout Eastern Europe and the Far East, until in the late 1980s that extraordinary Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev thought it best to write off those liabilities—principally for the sake of improving Russia’s relations with the United States. Meanwhile, the American presence in Western Europe has been declining too, all superficial impressions to the contrary notwithstanding. A new chapter has opened now in Russian-American relations, and it is by no means impossible—especially in the Far East—that Russians and Americans, if threatened by certain combinations of other powers, may one day become allies again.

The problem is, however, what does “Russia” and what do “Russians” now mean. The recent coup attempt and the consequent ending of the communist period in the long history of Russia may have been dramatic and inspiring, but it amounts to little or nothing when measured against the much greater phenomenon: the retreat and dissolution of much of the traditional Russian Empire itself, of which the “Soviet Union” was but a cover name, by now as antiquated and meaningless as the Holy Roman Empire. (Keep in mind, too, that while the Holy Roman Empire lasted almost nine hundred years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics lasted but seventy.) It is to the credit of President Bush and his Secretary of State that they seem to recognize how the dissolution of a great empire may present new and unforeseeable problems not only to their inhabitants but to the world at large and to the United States in particular. They ought to keep in mind also what Bismarck was reputed to have said on one occasion: that Russia is never as strong, or as weak, as it might seem.

I am asking my readers to consider that all of the foregoing concerned, almost exclusively, the relations of two great states—which is apposite since, at least for the last five hundred years, the relations and the struggles of states have been the predominant factors in the history of the globe. Predominant , but not exclusive —certainly not in the history of the United States, which is the history of a people as much as that of a state, of the governed as well as of their government. So something must be said about the relations of the American and Russian peoples: of their mutual perceptions, of their reciprocal images of each other.

Americans and Russians, sent to conquer halfway around the world, met in the middle of Germany and in the middle of European history.

One of the reasons (if not the main reason) why the Cold War between America and Russia never became a real war is that their peoples have never felt a traditional hostility to each other. An element in this has been the great geographic distance between them; another that—unlike, say, animosities between Germans and Poles, Serbs and Croats, British and Irish—the masses of Americans and Russians had no historical reasons to resent each other. Indeed, there have been many episodes when Americans and Russians discovered that they, strangely or not so strangely, had many things in common. There are many phenomena that illustrate this. On the Russian side the extraordinary friendliness and attraction (uncontaminated by cultural snobbery, as sometimes is the case with Western Europeans) for the United States, their belief in the superior nature of American civilization and technology (very evident even under the rule of Lenin), their intellectuals’ avid interest in certain American writers (alas, not always the best ones, manifest in the huge Russian readership of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway), and—perhaps—the old linguistic condition whereby, unlike most Europeans, Russians and Ukrainians find it easier to speak English with an American accent than with an English one. On the American side we find the extraordinary assimilation of intellectuals, scholars, and artists born in Russia, the swiftness of their contributions to American arts, ranging from first-generation immigrants of the Nabokov or Balanchine kind to second-generation artists such as a George Gershwin; the impact of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (alas, often at the expense of other, better Russian writers) on the American intelligentsia; the generous American efforts aiding Russia at the time of incipient famine, as in 1921, the worst time of the Lenin years; and the frequent eagerness with which Americans have been willing to assist in the building of a modern Russia, as in the case of numerous American railroad planners and other industrialists throughout the nineteenth century. (I will mention but one example. Through forty years during the nineteenth century William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado, argued for The Cosmopolitan Railway Compacting and Fusing Together All the World’s Continents , the title of his 1890 book—a railroad that would connect western America with eastern Siberia through the Bering Strait, linking up with the then still nonexistent Trans-Siberian Railway, leading westward to Europe. Gilpin argued that consequently not only would Denver be “the center of the world” but, more important, this American-Russian railroad would be “the link in the great center of progress” through which the great peoples of the globe would be connected.)

That was American practical idealism in one of its typical forms. Political idealism, and its subsequent winter of discontent, have at times led to misinformation and to misleading images of the two peoples—as, for example, in Life magazine’s Picture of the Week in 1942, when a full-page photograph of Lenin was printed with the caption “This Was Perhaps the Greatest Man of the Century”; ten years later the editorial pages of Life were preaching a crusade against communism and Russia. During the twentieth century another element complicating American-Russian relations was the increasing influence of ethnic groups advocating this or that American policy toward Russia as well as attempting to influence the perception of Russia by Americans. As early as 1905 the czar’s relatively liberal foreign minister, Count Witte, felt compelled to travel to the United States in order to assuage the anti-Russian sentiments of the press and of other people, caused by their memories of the often crude mistreatment of Jews and others by the czar’s government. Conversely, after the overthrow of the czar and for decades thereafter, many Americans, especially intellectuals (and not just immigrants from Russia or their descendants), nurtured and propagated false and unwarranted illusions about the humane nature of the communist regime in Russia—ideological preferences that, among other things, resulted in the limited but not inconsiderable influence of communists and their sympathizers in American intellectual commerce and at times even in a few places in Washington. Eventually, because of their realization—often lamentably slow—of the brutal (and often anti-Semitic) record of Soviet governments, some of these former sympathizers became extreme anticommunists and anti-Russians, agitating against any improvement of American-Russian relations. The decision of American administrations to include “human rights” on their diplomatic agenda has not always been productive in that regard.

Will Americans rejoice in the humiliation of the once great Russian state? I doubt it; neither American idealism nor American generosity is extinct.

As in the relations of the two states, so in the relations of the two peoples a new phase has now come about, with consequences that are incalculable. Will the American people rejoice in the humiliation of the once-great Russian state? I doubt it; neither American idealism nor American generosity is extinct—to wit, the early and almost instantaneous positive American reaction to Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms. Will American governments feel compelled, in part because of ethnic pressures, in part because of the dubious principle of “national self-determination,” to recognize the independent sovereignty of portions of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s new nationalist republics that contain millions of ethnie Russians and that were never even remotely “independent” or “sovereign” in the past? To see a vast portion of the globe torn by protracted civil wars cannot be in the interest of the United States—not of its government and not of its people either.


In this respect it may behoove us to turn once more to the past—to the beginning of a now-closed chapter of it—and contemplate its then two principal personages, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. For a short time, near and after the end of World War I, they seemed not only to preside over two of the greatest powers of the globe but also to incarnate the two major ideas of the century, one standing for global democracy, the other for international communism. The two men died thirteen days apart, in 1924, but years before their deaths they were broken men, and not only physically; Wilson, for one, had been repudiated by the majority of his countrymen. Yet—for such is the irony of history—the ideas of this pale Presbyterian professor-President turned out to be more revolutionary than those of the halfTatar Bolshevik radical from the middle Volga region. Wilson’s propagation of the idea of self-determination helped bring about the destruction of entire empires in 1918, and now, seventy-odd years later, that idea is about to destroy not only some of the very states created by Wilson—Yugoslavia and perhaps even Czechoslovakia, for instance—but possibly the Russian Empire itself. That is still an open question, as indeed is Wilson’s place in American history (although he has been admired not only by liberals but by Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan), while Lenin’s embalmed body will soon be removed from his mausoleum in Red Square, surely for good. Thus not only Wilson’s reputation but his ideas seem to have triumphed over Lenin’s. But that semblance is false. The ideas, indeed the personalities, of these ephemeral protagonists of the early twentieth century belonged to the nineteenth. Lenin believed that history was nothing but the warfare of classes, and that the Bolshevik revolution would soon be repeated all over Europe. It did not happen. Wilson believed that World War I was a democratic crusade culminating in a League of Nations, the war to end all wars; it led to World War II instead. Both men’s views of the world were outdated, and wrong. To think that the United States could—or should—make the world safe for democracy (or, more precisely, that American democracy could make the world safe) was—and remains—a shortsighted and self-serving idea, as was that of international communism.

One hundred years before 1917 Napoleon, at St. Helena, mused about the prospect of Russia and the United States replacing France and Britain as the greatest powers in the world. Others, seeing the expansion of the United States and Russia into vast empty spaces, inhabited, if at all, by primitive tribes, saw the same prospect. Alexis de Tocqueville, after his visit to the United States, concluded the first volume of his Democracy in America with a sudden speculation about America and Russia: “There are at the present time [1835] two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend toward the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and while the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

“All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the acts of growth.… The principal instrument of [the Anglo-American] is freedom; of the [Russian], servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

These words of this great visionary were not only prophetic but especially apposite during the Cold War. But they no longer are. I am not alluding only to the present movement in Russia from political servitude to democracy. That may, or may not, last. I am alluding to the fact that the territorial expansion of the American and of the Russian empires is now over. New tides of barbarian invaders, internal and/or external, as well as new kinds of servitude, imposed by technology and bureaucracy, may threaten both, but that is another story, the problem of the future, of the twentyfirst century.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.