Soviet-USA relations: 1917-20

 Russia leaves the war: Soviet-American relations

Book review by Fred Lane

Kennan, G.F. (1956) Soviet-American relations, 1917-1920: Volume 1, Russia leaves the war. Princeton University Press: Princeton. Paperback version (available used from US$3, Barnes and Noble) 544 pp including index, maps and photos.

This old learned treatise smacks of bygone-era literary devices but it is well worth a re-read in this post-Cold War period. The second chapter includes character analyses in florid Dickensian “best of times and worst of times” style, but this might well be apt because USA Secretary of State Lansing correctly predicted a Bolshevik “Terror” exceeding that of the French Revolution (p 156). Set in the 1917 to 1920 period, but chiefly between November 1917 and March 1918, this Volume 1 describes how the Russian Bolsheviks and the hard- line USA capitalists drew their respective lines in the sand.

Volume 2, not reviewed here, describes some of the immediate aftermath, like the rag-tag military interventions by British, American, Czechoslovak, Japanese and other armed forces that ranged widely from Murmansk to Siberia.

George Kennan is eminently qualified to discuss these events. He was an American Foreign Service Officer for 27 years, a specialist in Russian affairs and an ambassador to the USSR in 1952. After his retirement in 1953, he joined Princeton University, becoming a Professor in the Institute for Advanced Study. This book won a Pulitzer Prize for History.

The Americans supported the February 1917 revolution and its Kerensky Provisional Government through rapid formal recognition and substantial loan allocations. President Wilson praised the revolution when he asked Congress to declare war against Germany on 2 April. However, the November 1917 revolution, instigated by a tiny Bolshevik splinter group, caught nearly everyone by surprise. It threw the professional diplomatic corps and their masters into a virtual catatonic shock.

On the one hand, Americans applauded the end of an autocracy in early 1917, just as they had rid themselves of their British overlords in 1776. On the other hand, they were grossly affronted by the Bolsheviks taking democracy too far later that year, for instance by declaring a unilateral “no reparations, no annexations” armistice in the middle of a major war that America had just entered, never mind the reign of terror.

The American ambassador’s job in 1917 was not easy. Petrograd (St Petersburg/Leningrad), Moscow and other major Russian cities were awash in 1917 with American special interest groups, including the Red Cross and the YMCA. They perhaps had little to do other than to get in each other’s way, meddle in official matters and pretend they had special links to the President or some other senior American bureaucrat. For instance, the American Red Cross Commission, initially under Frank G. Billings, William Boyce Thompson and Raymond Robins, arrived with a host of doctors and nurses holding US Army commissions (“40 officers but no privates”), yet the Russians had surplus medical personnel. They were tolerated because they brought scarce medical supplies with them.

Daily contact

Robins maintained almost daily contact with Trotsky, initially without his ambassador’s knowledge, during critical periods when embassy channels were deliberately closed awaiting “head office” decisions. Similarly, the Stevens Railway Mission “was accepted only for the sake of the railway supplies which, it was hoped, would come with it.” Finally, the “most pretentious of all”, the special goodwill Root Mission “… had little effect other than to burden with a series of onerous social engagements the harried ministers of the Provisional Government, already involved in a life-and-death battle against the forces of disintegration” (p.21).

Governor David R FrancisAgainst this background, the American embassy, under a recently-appointed elderly ex-Middle West businessman, Governor David R. Francis (left), operated very much in the shadow of the elegant French, British and other Petrograd embassies with their grand retinues and intimate contacts at all the higher levels of Russian society. The cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking, poker-playing American ambassador contrasted strongly with the polished multi-lingual professional diplomats of his major allies. He also ran foul of intra-embassy intrigues and at a busy time even had to fight a recall conspiracy initiated by self-styled “Presidential representative” Edgar Sisson, a fast-talking dilettante facilitator attached to the Root Mission.

The architect of much of this turmoil was Petrograd-based Bolshevik Foreign Minister Leon Trotsky, who pushed forward an armistice with Germany and neutralised international efforts to influence outcomes adverse to his cause. Under the guise of “open diplomacy”, he selectively published top-secret treaties, contradictory confidential statements made by foreign nations and even blatant forgeries.

Craftily seeming to accede to a strongly expressed American wish to hold German troops on the Russian Front, instead of releasing them to fight Americans in France, Trotsky inserted a clause into the armistice agreement that halted German troop transfers “which had not already been ordered or begun” at the time of signing the treaty. Germany ensured all troop transfer orders were written well before any pen hit the Armistice paper. Picking his targets carefully, Trotsky displayed a fine sense of diplomatic manipulation by marginalising the opposition and ultimately defeating the Allies’ diplomats in detail on all major points, including eventual official recognition for his government.

International intrigues Britain, France, America and Germany all jostled for influence with the numerous anti-Bolshevik factions, particularly in Murmansk, the Caucasus and Romania, but “Washington’s decisions (were) based on information which was almost invariably ill-founded and out-of-date; in these circumstances, the United States Government contrived to restrict itself to limited and discreet commitments,” Kennan grudgingly admits (p.190).

Murder, thuggery, forgery and intimidation characterised the Bolsheviks’ grab for power, especially around the time of the Petrograd Constituent Assembly in February 1918. They used armed sailors, ostensibly as protective sentries, to intimidate delegates. Only Germany had the courage and power to confront them, as they did after the failure of the first Brest-Litovsk armistice talks, about the same time. Trotsky’s bullying “no war, no peace” gambit got the reward it deserved, as Germany simply snapped up more Russian territory, thank you.

Leadership theories

Sociological “society-makes-the-leader” sophistry theories find little support here. Without overtly addressing the issue, time and again Kennan shows how strong and ruthless individuals shaped history and influenced social structures for generations. The comparatively weak or vacillating found themselves dead or steamrollered. Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro would agree. This is yet another example of how political power really grows out of the barrel of a gun and the ruthlessness of the gun-holder.