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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 the chance to end the imperialistic squabbles that had caused it. However, the surrender of Germany and its allies in November 1918 did not bring peace to Europe. Civil war continued in Russia, where the czarist armies, aided by Britain and France, sought to crush the new Bolshevik regime. The Allies had even sent their own troops to Russia earlier in 1918, first to Archangel and Murmansk in the Arctic and then to Soviet ports in the Far East. When Wilson decided to join the ill-conceived and ultimately futile Allied intervention, Bullitt, who had argued against it, told Colonel House he was “sick at heart because I feel that we are about to make one of the most tragic blunders in the history of mankind.” His goal was to contain, not strangle, the revolution. “Economic disorganization and famine were the parents of Bolshevism,” he counseled, noting that if Central Europe were “allowed to dissolve into economic chaos and to starve, no leaders on earth [could] prevent the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat with attendant pillage and murder.”1

Two great issues faced the Allied statesmen in Paris: the fate of Germany and the future of the revolution that threatened to spread beyond Russia into Central Europe. To get a better understanding of the situation inside Russia, and to ascertain whether a peace settlement with the Bolsheviks might be possible, House decided to send a low-level team to Moscow. Bullitt, at age twenty-eight, was the ideal choice to head such a mission: he was smart, imaginative, and junior enough to be repudiated if the mission proved politically embarrassing.

In February 1919 Bullitt set off, taking with him the radical journalist Lincoln Steffens and two military aides. After traveling for nineteen days by ship, train, and sleigh, they arrived in the Soviet capital. Despite widespread misery and even starvation—a result of the continuing civil war and the Allied blockade—Bullitt was excited by what he saw. “We have seen the future and it works!” the authors report him saying to Steffens in a phrase usually associated with Steffens.

Soviet officials greeted Bullitt as one entrusted with the power to negotiate an agreement. Going beyond his instructions merely to gather information, he asked Lenin to lay out his terms. The Soviet leader, desperate to end the Allied-backed civil war, made an extraordinary proposal. The Russians promised that all de facto governments would remain in control of the territories they occupied pending a peace conference. This meant that the Bolsheviks would give up, at least temporarily, all of the Urals. Siberia, the Caucasus, Finland, the Baltic states, part of White Russia, and most of the Ukraine. In return, Allied troops would be withdrawn and aid to the Whites ended. The Soviets would recognize responsibility for czarist debts. However imperfect, this offer was, in the words of George F. Kennan, who later served as Bullitt’s deputy in the Moscow embassy, the “most favorable opportunity yet extended, or ever to be extended, to the Western powers for extracting themselves with some measure of good grace from the profitless involvements of the military intervention in Russia and for the creation of an acceptable relationship to the Soviet regime.” 2

Bullitt was thrilled by what he had achieved. “You must do your utmost for it,” he cabled House from Helsinki en route back to Paris, “for if you had seen the things I have seen during the past week and talked with the men I have talked with, I know that you would not rest until you had put through this peace.” But just as he had exceeded his instructions by negotiating, so had Bullitt gravely overestimated the willingness of the Allied leaders to come to terms with a revolutionary Russia. Wilson, occupied with fending off the Allies who sought to indulge themselves at Germany’s expense, refused to see him. Colonel House, whom Wilson was already beginning to distrust, was unable to intercede.3

Spurned by Wilson, Bullitt appealed to Lloyd George, who had originally approved the trip. But the prime minister’s resolve was shaken by the latest news reports predicting once again the imminent collapse of the Bolsheviks, and by a renewed attack upon his liberal coalition by militant Tories opposed to any deal with Communist revolutionaries. After a breakfast meeting with Bullitt he found it prudent to wash his hands of the mission, and later in Parliament pretended that he knew nothing about it. This duplicity left Bullitt with a contempt for British officials, and even for Britain, that he never lost.

A disheartened Bullitt sent a brash letter to Wilson telling him that the efforts by European conservatives to restore the old order were playing into the hands of the revolutionaries.

For the past year the peoples of Europe have been seeking a better way to live for the common good of all. They have found no guidance in Paris…. The peoples turn towards Moscow; but the impulses which drive them are remote from theoretic communism…. Six months ago all the peoples of Europe expected you to fulfill their hopes. They believe now that you cannot. They turn, therefore, to Lenin.4

Bullitt was not a revolutionary, despite his excitement over what he had seen in Russia. He was a liberal who believed that reform offered the only alternative to a violent revolution. Wilson had deceived him on two counts. The President had refused even to consider Lenin’s peace offer. And at Paris he had caved in to the Allies. Under pressure from Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando, he had allowed Germany to be stripped of its overseas colonies, forbidden from joining with Austria, and saddled with crushing indemnities. The Polish Corridor cut off East Prussia, the new state of Czechoslovakia was given lands where three million Germans lived, Italy grabbed South Tyrol, and Japan was allowed to seize the Shantung peninsula with its 36 million Chinese.

A disillusioned and angry Bullitt felt he had no choice but to resign, and he did so dramatically. In an emotional letter he accused Wilson of betraying his own ideals. “If you had made your fight in the open instead of behind closed doors, you would have carried with you the public opinion of the world, which was yours; you would have been able to resist the pressure and might have established the ‘new international order’…of which you used to speak,” he wrote. “I am sorry you did not fight our fight to the finish.”

On his return to the United States Bullitt took his revenge for the shabby treatment he had received and for Wilson’s compromises in Paris. He gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the secret discussions of the American delegation at Paris, revealing that even the delegates themselves were unhappy with the Versailles treaty. Secretary of State Lansing, he told the senators, had privately admitted that he considered the League of Nations “entirely useless” and had said that “if the Senate could understand what this treaty means, and if the American people could really understand, it would unquestionably be defeated.”

While the treaty was probably doomed anyway—a result of a minority’s intense opposition and Wilson’s refusal to accept any amendments—Bullitt’s testimony shook the administration. He was denounced as a Bolshevik and a cad. But to the treaty’s critics he had been courageous. “Billy Bullitt blurted out everything to the scandal of the Tories and the delight of the Republicans,” Walter Lippmann reported to Bernard Berenson in Italy. “When there is an almost universal conspiracy to lie and smother the truth, I suppose someone has to violate the decencies.”5

Whether or not Bullitt’s indiscretion buried the treaty, it ruined his prospects for a government career. Although he could have returned to journalism, he seems to have lost his sense of direction and his enthusiasm for any kind of public life. He bought a farm in the Berkshires, edited movie scripts in New York for a while, rented a house on the Bosporus, joined a group of American expatriates in Paris, and moved restlessly back and forth across the Atlantic. Along the way he had managed to write a novel—a spoof of Philadelphia society he entitled It’s Not Done—which none of the literary expatriates took seriously, but which turned out to be a success, selling more than 150,000 copies over twenty-four printings.

His personal life was as unsettled as his professional one. In 1921 his wife of five years, Ernesta Drinker, from a prominent Philadelphia family, left him, claiming neglect. Two years later he married the radical journalist Louise Bryant, the widow of John Reed. One can, if inclined, see this marriage as what Bryant’s biographer terms his “posthumous idealization” of the revolutionary martyr. However, it is also easy to see the appeal of the bohemian Bryant, with her radical friends and famous lovers, to a man who felt betrayed by the conventional social order. Bryant brought something new to his life, but she was not a force he could easily live with. He became morose, she took up drinking, and in 1929 he filed for divorce, winning custody of their six-year-old daughter, Anne. In 1936 a pathetic and wasted Bryant died in Paris. Bullitt never married again, although he is reported to have had affairs with such women as the newspaper heiress Eleanor (“Cissy”) Patterson, FDR’s private secretary “Missy” LeHand, and Wallis Simpson, before she became Duchess of Windsor.

It was probably the aimlessness of his life and the anxiety over his marriage that led Bullitt in 1925 toward psychoanalysis. Typically he reached for the top, and sought out the master himself. With his combination of charm and brashness, he succeeded in establishing a personal relationship with Freud, and even moved to Vienna for a time after his divorce. Almost certainly he went through an analysis—although he always denied it.

During this period one of the more peculiar collaborations in the annals of Freudianism was launched. Bullitt, who was at loose ends intellectually, decided to exorcise the demons of Versailles by writing a book about the negotiators at the conference. Freud, who was fascinated with statesmen, was particularly interested in Woodrow Wilson, and, according to Bullitt, offered to collaborate on that part of the book. The part soon became the whole, and the eventual result was a full-length book entitled Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study (Houghton Mifflin, 1966).

Bullitt claims that the study was a true collaboration: he and Freud rewriting each other’s work “until the whole became an amalgam for which we were both responsible.” While it is impossible to know who wrote what, the style reflects Bullitt’s unforgiving anger rather than Freud’s magisterial elegance. There is a great deal of jargon about libido, which strongly flows, and ego, which powerfully inhibits, but very little compassion or even objectivity. Wilson is described as being unduly attached to his father (“he could not imagine any more perfect man”), whom he identified with God, sublimating the resentment he felt toward this powerful figure by a feminine passivity. The political consequences of this unresolved Oedipal struggle were, it is argued, that Wilson, needing “direct submission to a masculine opponent,” surrendered to the vengeful Allies at the Paris peace conference.

It is hard not to see in this beyond-the-grave psychoanalysis an attempt, at least on Bullitt’s part, to settle old scores. Some of Bullitt’s own anxieties seem to have been transferred to Wilson. The book resounds with unresolved problems of masculinity. Wilson, we are told, “never had a fist fight in his life,” lay awake the night before a critical showdown meeting in Paris “facing the fear of a masculine fight,” and persistently “shrank from the consequences of wielding his masculine weapons.” After his first wife died the President soon married again because “he could not do without a woman on whose breast he could rest.”6

Even though this study seems coarse in its use of Freudian concepts, and certainly mostly written by Bullitt, it is nonetheless a fascinating and revealing work. The argument that Wilson’s repressed hostility toward his father haunted him in his relations with other men who became father surrogates does help to some degree to explain his self-defeating rigidity in situations such as his fight with the Princeton alumni who opposed his plans for the Princeton graduate school and his behavior over the Paris peace treaty. One can also see why Wilson’s idealization of younger assistants—who stood in relation to him as he did to his own father—turned to hatred whenever they opposed his wishes.

The treatment of Wilson also reveals much about Bullitt. The concern over the feminization of the will and the reluctance to use “masculine weapons” expressed an anxiety that had surfaced earlier. Similarly, the accusation that Wilson chose father surrogates whom he idealized and then had to slay casts light on Bullitt’s own emotional attachments to people and causes, and then his bitter disappointments in them. Full of spite and a venomous energy, the book puts both of its subjects—Wilson and Bullitt—under a merciless light.7

One of the many curious things about this book is that it was not published until 1966, even though most of it was written between 1930 and 1932, and Freud died in 1939. Bullitt attributed this to a disagreement over a final draft, and then a decision to wait until Mrs. Wilson had died in order to spare her any unpleasantness. A more persuasive explanation is that in 1932, when the draft was completed, Bullitt was preparing to reenter the government with Franklin Roosevelt’s election, and thought it impolitic to bring out a book attacking the last Democratic president. And in 1938, when Freud presumably agreed on the final draft, Bullitt was in a politically sensitive position as American ambassador to France. Indeed, it was then that he was able to help Freud get out of Nazified Vienna and to safety in England. A well-known photograph shows Freud in the Gare Saint-Lazare flanked by two former patients: Princess Marie Bonaparte and an elegant, homburg-clad, glove-carrying Bullitt.

With the election of 1932 Bullitt ended his long exile. He ingratiated himself with Franklin Roosevelt—who found him intelligent and witty—and was the obvious choice to become ambassador when FDR established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. In late November 1933 Bullitt set off for Moscow, stopping off in Paris to pick up as interpreter and aide a young diplomat, George F. Kennan. With his natural ebullience, his love of parties and games, and his eagerness to make things happen, Bullitt turned the new embassy into a center of activity. He gave lavish parties of a kind the Soviets had never before seen and taught Red Army officers to play polo. Shortly after arriving, he met Stalin, whom he found affable and like a “wiry Gypsy with roots and emotions beyond my experience,” Premier V.M. Molotov, who emanated “great poise, kindliness and intelligence,” and a host of high Soviet officials who could not be “persuaded to waste their time with the ordinary conventional diplomatist,” he assured FDR, but were eager to see “anyone who had first-rate intelligence and dimension as a human being.”

Bullitt arrived in Moscow full of hopes and enthusiasm, eager to impress Soviet leaders with America’s good will and make up for the opportunity lost in 1919. But Stalin was not Lenin, and Soviet officials trusted Bullitt no more than they did any other foreigner, or one another. By late 1934 a new round of purges began. Bullitt grew frustrated and ultimately furious with the Soviets over relatively minor issues like repayment of czarist debts, the location of a new American embassy building, and support for the American Communist party. He accused Soviet officials, and particularly Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, of double-crossing and betraying him. Characteristically, he interpreted each disagreement as a personal affront. He soon came to believe, as his deputy Kennan later wrote, approvingly, that Stalin and his underlings were “ruthless political operators, secretive and conspiratorial in method, cynical and untrustworthy, ideologically committed against the West, unresponsive to good will and generous gestures on the part of others.”8

While such a suspicious view may have been justified, the emotional way in which Bullitt reacted to frustration vitiated his usefulness. As Charles Bohlen, who served under him at the embassy later wrote, the wrangle over the czarist debt, which Bullitt saw as a cynical repudiation by the Soviets of a solemn agreement, could as easily be seen as the result of a “carelessly drafted document” that each side interpreted in its own way. Bohlen saw the ambassador’s growing antagonism toward the Soviet regime as rooted in his earlier romanticism about the Revolution in his idealistic phase. “He was accurate in his prognostications and analysis of Soviet misbehavior,” Bohlen recalled. “What he could be faulted for was his reacting with violence, prejudice, and unreason.”9

His disillusion, which began not long after his arrival, soon hardened into sharp enmity. In the early summer of 1935, he wrote a Washington colleague that “unless the states of Europe stop fighting each other or the Soviet Union is defeated in war within the next fifteen years, it will be a juggernaut that will be able to sweep the continent.” On a visit to Berlin he told startled Nazi officials that Japan would be justified in seizing parts of Siberia. By the spring of 1936 Bullitt declared that he could remain in the Soviet Union no longer—although while ambassador he had spent fifteen of his thirty months out of the country. On the eve of his departure he declared that “communism is a militant faith determined to produce world revolution and the ‘liquidation’ of all non-believers.” He was replaced by the wealthy lawyer and FDR campaign contributor Joseph E. Davies.10

Despite his failure in Moscow, Bullitt remained close to Roosevelt. They corresponded regularly, which is to say that Bullitt bombarded FDR with advice on policy, promotions, appointments, and protestations of undying love and admiration, while Roosevelt responded with jocular evasiveness. In the fall of 1936 he was given the Paris embassy. In many ways Bullitt seemed a logical choice. He spoke French (as well as German) fluently, was well connected in French political and social life, and so admired French culture that his hosts naturally considered him a person of superior taste and judgment. He soon established close, even intimate, attachments to key French officials, and kept Washington informed on events in the government. “Bullitt practically sleeps with the French cabinet,” interior secretary Harold Ickes noted in his diary. Bullitt did not consider that such proximity might compromise his objectivity, and proudly reported to FDR that the French premier “phoned to ask me if I would accept the vacant post of French ambassador to the United States.”

Bullitt came to Paris at a critical moment. Hitler’s march into the Rhineland, his military aid to the fascist revolt in Spain, his demand that all lands inhabited by those of German ancestry be restored to the Reich, and the militarization of the country—all presented a sharp dilemma to the British and French. Should they try to avoid war by making concessions, or should they form a coalition to contain the militant Reich? Such a coalition would be effective only if Russia joined. Yet alliance with the Soviets was anathema to many European conservatives, and to Bullitt the worst alternative. Moscow sought to foment war in Europe to advance Communism, he told Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and advised that American diplomats in Europe should “use all opportunities…to encourage reconciliation between France and Germany.” Indicating that he was speaking for the American government, he tried to persuade Premier Léon Blum to reach a reconciliation with Berlin and told Blum’s successor, Camille Chautemps, that the US would support France if it handed over the Cameroons to Germany.

The Russians, he reported to Roosevelt in November 1937, were completely out of the picture, the British were prepared to let Hitler dominate Central Europe, and the French seemed to be leaning toward a deal with Germany. Bullitt favored a policy of “constructive” appeasement. “To give up the Russian Alliance and admit that Germany, having lost the war, has won the final victory and will be henceforth the dominant factor in Europe would be…today regarded as the part of wisdom by the vast majority of the people of France who think about international affairs,” he advised. “…The only way that I can see that the growth of German strength, which I regard as inevitable, can be used for constructive…purposes is by a general effort to make the giving of these concessions to Germany a part of a general plan of unification for Europe.”

Bullitt’s efforts to prod the French into cooperation with Nazi Germany went considerably beyond his instructions from Washington, and put him sharply at odds with the American ambassador in Berlin, William Dodd. A former history professor, Dodd had been in Germany since 1933 and made no effort to conceal his contempt for the Nazis. Unlike Bullitt, he did not think Hitler could be bought off with concessions, or that German aggression could be confined to the east. Bullitt detested Dodd, complaining to FDR that he was not objective because “he hates the Nazis too much,” and urged his replacement with someone who could “be of some assistance in bringing France and Germany together.”

Dodd, unlike Bullitt, was deeply disturbed by what was happening to the Jews, and in 1935 wrote in his diary: “I expect Jews to be put into prison and maltreated if not killed.”11 The absence of any comment on Bullitt’s part about Nazi persecution of the Jews is striking. This is particularly so since he himself was half-Jewish although brought up as an Episcopalian. His mother, Louisa, was the daughter of Maria Gross and Orville Horwitz, and the granddaughter of Dr. Samuel Gross, the distinguished Philadelphia surgeon who was the subject of the well-known painting by Thomas Eakins. While it is likely that Bullitt did not feel in any way Jewish, there were those who considered him so, and he no doubt experienced the pervasive anti-Semitism of the day. Ernest Hemingway, for example, in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald at the time Bullitt’s successful novel was published, referred to him sarcastically as “a big Jew from Yale and fellow novel writer.” But then Bullitt himself was not above such prejudices. Writing a State Department colleague from Moscow, he ascribed his troubles to the Foreign Office press secretary, Konstantin Umansky, a “wretched little kike,…an astonishingly loathsome Jew, capable of any baseness.”

Hitler’s territorial demands on Prague in the spring of 1938 reinforced Bullitt’s conviction that Paris had to come to terms with Berlin. If France should come to the aid of Czechoslovakia, he told Roosevelt, “the slaughter of the entire younger generation of France would be certain, and every city in France could be leveled to the ground by German planes.” Bullitt’s vision of an invincible Luftwaffe was no doubt influenced by Charles Lindbergh, a leading American isolationist who had been decorated by Goering. His pessimism reflected the attitude of those French politicians who preferred Hitler to Blum, and mirrored that of US ambassador Joseph Kennedy in London, who favored an Anglo-American entente to keep England out of the war.12

Since he feared the French would carry out their pledge to come to the aid of Czechoslovakia “as a matter of honor,” he urged FDR to call for a peace conference at the Hague and impress upon the Germans that “a war in Europe today can end only in the establishment of Bolshevism from one end of the Continent to the other.” Any deal would involve a plebiscite in Czechoslovakia that would probably result in the incorporation of the Sudetenland into Germany: “You would be accused…of selling out a small nation in order to produce another Hitler triumph,” he acknowledged. “I should not hesitate to take that brick on my head and I don’t think you should either if, thereby, you could avoid a general European war.”13

FDR resisted this advice, and in the summer of 1938 Bullitt reported to Hull that the “Czechs prefer to see their nation succumb in a conflagration which will destroy all Europe, rather than make the large concessions which alone would satisfy Hitler.” At Munich in September the British and the French forced the Czechs to make those concessions. The Czech state was amputated, with Germany seizing Sudetenland while Poland and Hungary obtained other Czech territories soon thereafter. Initially Bullitt hailed the Munich accords. But then as the full meaning of the diplomatic disaster became apparent, he did another of his remarkable about-faces and urged full-scale American military support for France against Germany. By March 1939, Hitler seized what remained of Czechoslovakia, and Bullitt had become a committed belligerent. “Nothing remains but to develop as much armed force as possible,” he cabled Washington following the invasion.

Although he was now intent on stopping Hitler—unlike Joseph Kennedy in London, who continued to preach appeasement—his intense anti-Soviet feeling reinforced those in Paris and London who opposed the one thing that might have hurt Nazi Germany: an Anglo-French alliance with Moscow. While he grudgingly told Daladier, who was cautiously exploring cooperation with the Russians, that “no stone should be left unturned even though one might expect to find vermin under it,” he did little to encourage it.

Whether Soviet Russia could have been enlisted on the side of the democracies to check Hitler is one of history’s great unknowables. Bohlen believed that Stalin never trusted Britain and France enough to do so, noting that their “vacillation on Hitler and pressure on Czechoslovakia added fuel to those doubts, as did widely expressed hopes in London and Paris that the Soviet Union and Germany would bleed each other white in a war.” Bullitt, according to his brother, was distressed because the British were so casual in responding to Moscow’s formal offer on April 16, 1939, for a three-power alliance with France and England.14

The Russians, receiving no serious sign of interest (it was not until mid-July that the British and French sent negotiators to Moscow—a low-level team that did not include their foreign ministers), sacked foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, who favored an alliance with the West, and replaced him with V.M. Molotov. On August 23 they stunned the world by signing a nonagression pact with Nazi Germany. A week later Hitler invaded Poland; the Soviets then took over a part of Poland, and occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. After their attack on Finland on November 30, Bullitt successfully conspired with Daladier to have them expelled from the League of Nations, even though Roosevelt and Hull were wary of pushing Russia and Germany closer together.

The German invasions in May 1940, and the fall of France a few weeks later, were for Bullitt a personal tragedy. When the government fled Paris, Bullitt insisted on remaining. Telling the State Department that he had “never run away from anything however painful and dangerous,” he became for a few weeks provisional mayor of Paris, and then followed the government into unoccupied France. This bold gesture was considered theatrical by Cordell Hull, who later argued that had Bullitt stayed with the government he might have been able to persuade the French to fight on in North Africa instead of surrendering.

However, Bullitt seems to have believed he was saving the French from something worse than a Nazi invasion. In an excited telegram to Roosevelt on May 28 he urged that a US cruiser be sent to Bordeaux with submachine guns and ammunition to prevent Paris from falling into the hands of “a communistic mob which would burn, pillage and murder everyone decent who might remain in the City.” The murderous mob, needless to say, never materialized, nor did the guns, but the German army did.15

On his return to Washington, Bullitt expected to be given a high government post, and had even staked out his claim before leaving France. “I have no compunctions about saying that when [Navy secretary Charles] Edison goes out on the 24th of June, I want to come in on the 25th,” he told Roosevelt. But in that critical autumn of 1940, running for an unprecedented third term, and with the tide of isolation strong, FDR was wary of appointing such a controversial and outspoken interventionist. Instead he chose two Republicans. Nor did he offer Bullitt the post in London vacated by Kennedy. A relieved FDR had, as the authors suggest, “wangled his way out of a predicament: he had disposed of two opinionated and outspoken ambassadors…either of whom could have undermined his subtle strategy of preparing for war while running for reelection when antiwar sentiments prevailed.” Bullitt became increasingly nervous as the major post he sought continued to elude him. In 1942 he was offered the embassy in Australia, which he considered insulting, and instead negotiated a spot for himself as an assistant to the secretary of the Navy with unspecified duties. “I know you will do a grand job for the Navy,” FDR wrote him, relieved to have the Bullitt problem resolved.

From his unstable perch in the Navy department Bullitt continued to offer advice. A series of reports in late 1942 and 1943 are particularly interesting in their prediction of the course of political events in Europe unless policies were changed. He warned against assuming Soviet good will, and urged FDR to secure, before it was too late, a specific renunciation by Moscow of control or annexation of its neighbors. The US, he suggested, should threaten to pull out of the European war and concentrate on the Pacific to force Russia’s hand. He also urged serious consideration of an Allied attack against Germany through the Balkans rather than across the Channel. This, of course, was also Churchill’s strategy. Only a “united democratic Europe,” he insisted, could prevent “the flow of Red amoeba” across the continent, its division into rival spheres of influence, and the virtual inevitability of another war.

Kennan later described Bullitt’s warning as “unique in the insights it brought to the logic of wartime developments,” and one that “deserves a place among the major historical documents of the time.” Bullitt’s warnings that Stalin had not become a democrat, that the Soviets would try to set up complaisant governments in the territories they occupied, and that the best hope for peace was a balance of power between an integrated Europe (with a disarmed Germany and Italy) and the Soviet Union were prescient and powerfully argued. Unlike many anticommunists, including the editors of Time and Life, he had not become sentimental about Stalin because of the wartime alliance. But while he foresaw the conflict that would erupt over Eastern Europe, he was recommending an impractical and dangerous policy that could have backfired by provoking a second Soviet–German pact or by opening the door to a Soviet push to the Atlantic.

Having let the Russians carry the brunt of the war against Nazi Germany for two years, London and Washington were in a poor position to dictate terms to Moscow. When the Allies in the late 1930s refused to pursue seriously the possibility of an alliance with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany, in part because of Bullitt’s actions—and then delayed a cross-Channel landing until the summer of 1944, they made Soviet control of Eastern Europe virtually inevitable. The bill that was paid at Yalta in 1945 was presented at Munich in 1938. Walter Lippmann summed it up succinctly. “What we were faced with at Yalta was how to make good our principles in territories that Stalin held. Stalin had the power to act, we had only the power to argue…. The West paid the political price for having failed to deter Hitler in the 1930s, for having failed to unite and to rearm against him.” 16

Roosevelt believed that peace in the postwar world would depend on a recognition that the Soviet Union had become a major actor. This meant cooperation among the great powers. Unlike Bullitt and the Soviet experts who had served in the Moscow embassy, he did not see Soviet policy as dictated by revolutionary fervor, but rather by traditional security and balance of power considerations. His plan for a consortium of the great powers and a recognition of spheres of influence rested on an acknowledgement of political realities. Rather than accept Bullitt’s assumption of unending conflict, he wanted to find a way of narrowing discord and constraining the ambitions of the Soviets by bringing them into a wider structure of great power cooperation. While he ultimately failed, the confrontationist course proposed by Bullitt posed considerably greater dangers than FDR’s efforts at cooperation.17

Bullitt’s memos went unheeded, and his access to the White House remained minimal, but less for political than for other reasons. This sudden reversal of his fortunes—from favored adviser to purgatory in a matter of months—was caused by his effort to force the President to fire a trusted deputy whose job Bullitt coveted. Drawing on Bullitt’s memos published by his brother Orville in 197218 and on their own research, the authors reconstruct Bullitt’s attacks on the patrician undersecretary of state, Sumner Welles. Not only was Welles FDR’s favored emissary, but a part of his social world: he had gone to the same schools as the President, Groton and Harvard; his mother and Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother had been best friends, and as a boy in 1905 he had been a page in the wedding of Franklin and Eleanor.

But Welles was vulnerable. Cordell Hull disliked him because his links to the President made him too independent. The State Department hierarchy, according to Martin Weil, resented him because he had, at FDR’s request, transferred some of the more anti-Soviet foreign service officers from sensitive posts.19 Further, it was rumored that Welles was homosexual, and in 1940 had propositioned a sleeping-car porter on a southern train. The story was hushed up, as such private peccadillos generally are in Washington. But Bullitt saw in Welles’s vulnerability a way to get his job. From connections with the railway company he obtained documentation of the incident and an affidavit from the porter. In April 1941 he went to FDR and made a thinly veiled threat to go public with the information unless Welles was fired. The undersecretary was, he charged, a “menace to the country” and “worse than a murderer.”

Roosevelt refused to dismiss Welles, but the rumors now spread, and by 1943 reports reached him that Bullitt had turned material on Welles over to Cissy Patterson, publisher of the anti-administration Washington Times-Herald. Finally FDR accepted Welles’s resignation but he never forgave Bullitt. “He said Bill ought to go to hell for that,” Vice-President Henry Wallace later said. But Bullitt’s machinations did him little good. He became non grata to the administration, and even the Army would not have him. “Sumner Welles was dropped, but they also dropped Bill,” Clare Boothe Luce recalled. “The news went around that he was the kind of guy who brought up that kind of story.” Finally General de Gaulle offered him a commission in the French army, where he spent the final year of the war.

Even the death of Roosevelt in 1945 did not restore Bullitt to political favor, and still unable to get a government job, he returned to his old career of journalism. He wrote a book, entitled The Great Globe Itself, in which he denounced FDR, as he had earlier denounced Wilson, for failing to use American wartime power to achieve an American peace. In this book, and in articles for Life and other magazines, he repeated his warnings about the evils of communism, although now the cold war provided him with a more receptive audience. In response to the Communist-led independence struggle in Indochina he wrote in 1947 that “the worst disaster which could befall…the civilized world would be…to surrender to Ho Chi Minh.” Having joined the ad hoc group of Chiang Kaishek supporters that was known as the “China lobby,” he bought a cottage in Taiwan next to Chiang’s vacation home, and argued for the “liberation of mainland China.” “If China falls into the hands of Stalin, all Asia, including Japan, sooner or later will fall into his hands,” he warned. “The independence of the United States will not live a generation longer than the independence of China.”

Bullitt hated communism at least as much as he hated Woodrow Wilson. Yet unlike some he was not able to make a career of it. In his last years he wandered aimlessly from his farm in the Berkshires, to Taiwan, to an apartment in Paris, turned out occasional articles denouncing Soviet perfidy, and picked fights with his few remaining friends. He broke with Chiang Kai-shek over an incident involving a houseboy, and with De Gaulle over France’s decision to recognize the Communist government in China. Increasingly isolated and embittered, he indulged himself in what the authors describe as his “propensity for forsaking friends.” In late 1966, shortly after his book on Freud was published, he entered the American Hospital in Paris suffering from leukemia and died there on February 15, 1967, at the age of seventy-six. His body was flown to Philadelphia and the funeral was attended by his family and a few dignitaries, including James Farley and Richard Nixon.

It was a sad ending to a life of promise and considerable achievement, but one which never seemed to have brought Bullitt fulfillment. He always seemed to be struggling against challenges he feared would overwhelm him, yet the most threatening were of his own making. With his sharp intelligence, charm, and formidable energies, he was one of the more interesting political personalities of his generation. But like an overloaded electronic circuit, he destructively turned his energies on himself. Of all the ironies in his life, perhaps the greatest is that a man consumed with the belief that others had betrayed his trust should in the end be undone because of his own betrayal of another man.

Bullitt’s complex and emotional personality, his tendency to personalize issues, infused his approach to politics. At a critical moment, when the Soviet Union might have been drawn into an alliance to contain Hitler’s aggression, he worked against such an effort and contributed to the defeat and occupation of the country he most wanted to save. Even before the end of World War II he was instrumental in creating a consensus on Soviet aggressiveness that inhibited Roosevelt’s plan for containing Russia through great-power cooperation. He was rightly horrified by Stalin’s atrocities, but, like some of his deputies in the Moscow embassy, less troubled by Hitler’s. Bullitt viewed the Soviet Union (though interestingly not Nazi Germany) as a state whose ideology compelled it to foreign aggression. He was unable to separate the ideology, indeed the rhetoric, of Soviet communism from traditional Russian imperialism, and this contributed to the confusion between the two that has troubled American foreign policy to this day. Foreign affairs were, “to his imaginative mind,” as FDR’s aide Raymond Moley once said, “full of lights and shadows, plots and counterplots, villains and a few heroes.”

Whether or not Bullitt was as close to greatness as the title of this book suggests, the authors have revealed the ambiguities of his character and reconstructed his eventful life with skill and fairness. They make their improbable subject credible, while maintaining a sense of proportion not typical of him. Their work has some errors of fact and attribution which more careful checking would have caught, and its usefulness to scholars is reduced by sloppiness about references and a failure to provide citations for a number of quotations and assertions. (At one point, for example, Lenin is said to have seized power in Petrograd during the same month the war ended, instead of a year earlier. They also have Ambassador Dodd declining to meet with a right-wing French publisher sent by Bullitt, when Dodd in his diaries says the meeting took place.) More importantly, Bullitt’s complex personality eludes them. We never understand, for example, why his marriages failed, why he hated so passionately, why he could be so charmingly effervescent and yet so embittered, and why he was so self-defeating. There is a mystery about Bullitt that remains.

Yet their vignettes offer clues, and perhaps none is more telling than an incident in 1908 that they recount when the seventeen-year-old William Bullitt lost the tennis championship of his summer camp to a boy two years younger. The challenger, according to the camp annual, “had the good sense to spare himself and keep his opponent busy on the sidelines, while Bullitt wore himself down by unnecessary activity and the violence of his game.” It was the story of his life.

Letters

'Friend & Lover' February 2, 1989

Erikson's Second Thoughts March 16, 1989

  1. 1

    Bullitt’s report of November 2, 1918, quoted in Arno J. Mayer. Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918–1919 (Knopf, 1967), pp. 65–66. Mayer’s masterly study, which the authors of this book do not seem to have consulted, deals extensively with Bullitt’s role and his mission to Russia. 

  2. 2

    George F. Kennan, Memoirs: 1925–1950 (Little Brown, 1967), p. 80. 

  3. 3

    House’s diary is illuminating on the mission, as on virtually every other issue in the Wilson administration: 

  4. 4

    Arno Mayer, Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking, p. 570. 

  5. 5

    Lippmann–Berenson in Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Little Brown, 1980), p. 163. In a letter to Nancy Astor, Bullitt attempted to explain his behavior: 

  6. 6

    Throughout his life Bullitt was concerned with asserting his courage and questioning that of others. Women seemed particularly threatening to masculine qualities of strength and self-reliance. For example, the authors report him writing in his Philadelphia paper, just two weeks before his marriage to Ernesta Drinker in 1916, that heavyweight fighter Jess Willard “has never come into contact with those things ‘which tend to effeminate the spirit’…. Neither drink nor women will ever touch Willard. Jess Willard is more than champion of the world—he is a man.” 

  7. 7

    Critics had a field day chastizing Bullitt for maligning Wilson and blackening Freud’s good name. A.J.P. Taylor was representative in calling it “a disgrace as a scientific exercise,” Erik Erikson assured New York Review readers that Freud could have written “almost nothing of what is now presented in print,” and derided the “totally unFreudian bias which causes the ‘facts’ reported consistently to disintegrate into a petty denigration of the man under study” (The New York Review, February 9, 1967). 

  8. 8

    George F. Kennan in For the President, Personal and Secret: Correspondence Between Franklin D. Roosevelt and William C. Bullitt, Orville H. Bullitt, ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 1972), p. vii. 

  9. 9

    Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History: 1929–1969 (Norton, 1973), pp. 32 and 36. This is an engaging and perceptive memoir by a careful observer. 

  10. 10

    Davies was resented by the younger diplomats in the embassy because he ignored them and presumably took a naive view of the Soviets. Ridiculed by Kennan and Bohlen in their memoirs, he suffers from a bad reputation, though perhaps undeservedly so. He saw his role not as arguing with Stalin but winning his confidence, and he shared FDR’s low opinion of professional diplomats. However, the late Loy W. Henderson, who served under Davies in Moscow and was much respected within the Foreign Service, has written in his highly useful memoirs that in the course of his reporting Davies “did not hesitate at times to present forthrightly the unpleasant aspects of the Soviet Union in strong language.” See George W. Baer, ed., A Question of Trust: The Origins of US-Soviet Diplomatic Relations, The Memoirs of Loy W. Henderson (Hoover Institution Press, 1986), p. 415. 

  11. 11

    William E. Dodd, Jr., and Martha Dodd, eds., Ambassador Dodd’s Diary: 1933–1938 (Harcourt Brace, 1941), p. 249. Dodd’s account of his years in Berlin offer a fascinating glimpse into the workings of American diplomacy and the Nazi regime. He was scathing about American firms that offered technology to Nazi Germany. He also thought it noteworthy that John Foster Dulles, whose law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, was heavily involved in Germany and which represented Franco’s Spain in a lawsuit against the US, told him during a 1936 visit to Berlin that his sister Eleanor Dulles—later a US State Department official—”is an enthusiastic Hitlerite, and anxious to show me the German attitude for peace.” For Dulles’s Nazi clients see A Law Unto Itself: The Untold Story of the Law Firm of Sullivan and Cromwell by Nancy Lisager and Frank Lipsius (Morrow, 1988). 

  12. 12

    An interesting account can be found in William W. Kaufmann, “Two American Ambassadors: Bullitt and Kennedy” in The Diplomats: 1919–1939, Gordon Craig and Felix Gilbert, eds. (Princeton University Press, 1953). 

  13. 13

    Bullitt–FDR, May 20, 1938, in O. Bullitt, For the President, p. 263; also see Lloyd Gardner, Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in American Foreign Policy, 1941–1949 (Quadrangle, 1970), p. 21. 

  14. 14

    Bohlen, Witness to History, pp. 60, 76, 84; O. Bullitt, For the President, p. 340. 

  15. 15

    Re the Communists: O. Bullitt, For the President, pp. 432, 434; Bullitt’s report to Washington on the French government in exile is revealing in its acknowledgement of the moral collapse of French leadership: 

  16. 16

    Steel, Walter Lippmann, p. 416. 

  17. 17

    For a recent spirited, indeed agitated, revisionist attack on FDR’s foreign policy see Frederick W. Marks III, Wind Over Sand: The Diplomacy of Franklin Roosevelt (University of Georgia Press, 1988), p. 462. 

  18. 18

    O. Bullitt, For the President, pp. 512–518. 

  19. 19

    Martin Weil, A Pretty Good Club: The Founding Fathers of the US Foreign Service (Norton, 1978), pp. 134–141.