The Strange Case of William Bullitt

So Close to Greatness: A Biography of William C. Bullitt

by Will Brownell and Richard N. Billings
Macmillan, 368 pp., $24.95

William Bullitt
William Bullitt; drawing by David Levine

American attitudes toward Soviet Russia since the Revolution have at times been subject to sudden and often puzzling changes. This is one of those times. Hardly more than two years ago the Soviet Union was perceived by President Reagan with the apparent approval of the American people as the focal point of evil in the modern world. Today it is considered a fellow victim of the arms race and partner in the search to escape the cold war. How long this will last, one would be foolhardy to predict. This is, after all, not the first time we have heard that the cold war is over—as though it were merely an unfortunate misunderstanding.

In the troubled history of American–Soviet relations, some have argued that we can be friends and others that we are doomed to be enemies. A few have taken both positions. William Bullitt is one of those. That is what makes the career of this now rather obscure figure in the history of the cold war so interesting. Bullitt was one of those who initially thrilled to the promise of the Soviet revolution, and then were disillusioned when it failed to live up to their expectations. He is important not because he lost his political faith, a common enough experience, but because his political beliefs had a public meaning. Through the government positions he held—personal representative of Woodrow Wilson, ambassador to both Russia and France, adviser to Franklin Roosevelt—he helped to define America’s relations with Russia. To understand the peculiarities of the cold war that began in November 1917, one can learn much from the career of William Bullitt.

Of interest to historians for the critical part he played in American relations with the Soviet Union, Bullitt was also a fascinating example of a social type. An upper-class Philadelphian, a cheerleader of the Bolshevik revolution, a rootless expatriate, a disillusioned radical, a feverish anticommunist, and ultimately an embittered outcast, he was a man whose creative energies and self-destructive impulses were in constant conflict. Such people furnish rich material for biography, and in So Close to Greatness Will Brownell and Richard N. Billings have produced an informative and highly readable study of a complex man.

Bullitt first went to Russia in 1919 as one of the bright young men in Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Less than six years out of Yale, he had already reported the European war from inside Germany, run the Washington bureau of his home-town paper, The Public Ledger, and served as assistant to Secretary of State Robert Lansing. His mentor, Colonel Edward House—the éminence grise to President Wilson—put him on the American delegation to the peace conference.

Bullitt arrived in Paris as a Wilsonian idealist with progressive sentiments. Like the President, he thought the rapacious British and French should not be allowed to impose a vindictive peace on Germany, and saw the end of the war as…

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