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The Strange Case of William Bullitt

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

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

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.

  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:

    Bullitt got back tonight from Russia…. Russia, according to him, is orderly but starving, and if relations are not opened with the outside world, anarchy will be prevalent…. Most of the Allies, I regret to chronicle, would just as soon have the people starve as not. They were willing to allow the people of the Central Empires to starve, and they are just as willing to have Russia go the same way. It is fear that will bring about a Russian settlement, not pity. Most of the world seems to have lost its sense of compassion.

    Quoted in Arno Mayer, Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking, p. 471.

    It is, of course, impossible to know what effect acceptance of Lenin’s terms might have had on relations between Russia and the West. Beatrice Farnsworth, in her study, William C. Bullitt and the Soviet Union (Indiana University Press, 1967) suggests that “if Russia from the beginning had been allowed to join the Western nations she might well have modified her Communist program if only out of necessity.”

  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:

    I knew well that if I did give a full account of the Russian business I should be hated bitterly by three-fourths of the persons who had called themselves my friends…. I knew also that, if I skimmed [over the truth], my testimony would have no effect whatsoever in helping to end the murder by starvation and disease of the millions of Russians, who were being killed by the blockade—conducted by your government and assented to by mine…. I believe the blockade will be lifted and that peace will be made with Russia a little sooner because I let go the whole truth to the Senate. Therefore, the dowagers and diplomats who are mewing for my blood do not disturb me.

    See Farnsworth, William C. Bullitt and the Soviet Union, p. 68.

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