When the US Embraced the Wrong Russians

Edging closer to joining the fighting in WWI, the US also tried to unriddle what was happening in Russia. Then came the revolution, which the US hailed, until it didn’t.


From the day German soldiers first marched into Belgium, Theodore Roosevelt and his allies had been arguing that this was a war between democracy and despotism. This was the showdown that would determine the course of history. There had always been one big flaw in that argument: Russia. The czar was even more autocratic than the kaiser. The subjugation of Poles, Armenians, and especially Jews was what Russia had come to stand for in the American imagination, certainly far worse than Germany’s treatment of its own minority communities. Since the turn of the century one of the great migrations of history had taken place, as more than 2 million people, Jews and others, fled Russian persecution and Russian backwardness and found a haven in the New World.

The Outlook, a magazine so closely associated with Roosevelt that he kept an office at its New York headquarters, acknowledged the problem. Russia had spearheaded the drive against democracy in Europe in the 19th century. It was impossible for “lovers of freedom” to forget that, the magazine editorialized. “It has been impossible for them to ignore her pogroms, her Siberian exile system, her police espionage and censorship, her corrupt officialdom, her war on Japan, her inefficiency in government, her despotism … And when the war broke out and Russia was found on the side of France and England, some of those who had distrusted her extended their distrust to include her allies. If this is, as has been claimed, a war between autocracy and democracy, how is it, they asked, that among those who are supposed to be fighting for democracy is to be found this land of the Czar?”

From time to time, someone would describe Nicholas, accurately enough, as a mild-mannered man, modest in his comportment, dedicated to his country. But that didn’t make him a democrat.

William M. Sloane, a prominent historian at Columbia University who had been accused in the press of being pro-German, argued that in fact he was anti-Russian. The danger in the war, as he saw it, would be the implications of a Russian victory. “It has been very hard, with Russia in alliance with England and France, to feel that the whole of Eastern and Southeastern Europe was to be handed over to the Russian sort of government.”

Russia, he argued, was intolerant of diversity, hobbled by the “rascality” of its bureaucracy, held back by the doctrines of the Orthodox Church, which occupied a paramount place in the life of the country. One of the consequences was a complete absence of the idea of citizenship; the Russian people, he said, had shown that they were unwilling to care for themselves or to assume the duties and responsibilities that true citizenship requires. (Critics make precisely the same arguments today.)

“It is this fear of Russification that has made our sympathies in this country so divided,” he said. “Nine-tenths of our so-called pro-Germans have been anti-Russians only.”

Others, of course, were drawn to Russia. Put politics aside: This was the land of Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov. The great Siberian taiga fired the imagination; so, too, the icons and incense of the dark holy churches. But Russians had another hold on the American imagination, as well. These were people who conquered a wilderness that spanned a continent, largely untouched by European pretensions and sophistication. Russian and American pioneers had the log cabin in common, adapted in both cases from the Swedes. Russia had the natural resources that would ensure a brilliant future. Americans saw a kinship—but at the same time romanticized a distant and exotic country of which they had no true understanding. The United States could seem so rational and materialistic and humdrum—Russia was of a different, soulful order. America had no Tolstoy among its writers. It had no Kandinsky or Akhmatova, either, though these were names unknown to virtually every American in 1917.

For Wilson, who all along had had no desire to get entangled in Europe’s conflict, Russia was a stumbling block. He wanted a better world to arise from the ashes of the war, and he wanted America to help form that better world, but how could that happen if Russia won a victory by force of arms on the Eastern Front? That was one reason he pushed the Peace Without Victory idea in January. The czar’s government had been peddling the idea of creating an “independent” Poland, to appeal to Americans, but Wilson and his unofficial adviser, Colonel Edward House, saw it as a ploy to seize Danzig from the Germans and thus establish an ice-free port for Russian use.

House also worried about Russia’s reliability. Might Nicholas seek a separate peace with the Germans? Over the winter, the czar had installed a thoroughly repressive cabinet of ministers, notably including Alexander Protopopov, who was in charge of the police. On January 12, House was in Washington conferring with Wilson about the war in Europe but left the White House for a luncheon where he sat next to Jules Jusserand, the engaging and popular French ambassador. They talked about Russia. “I again expressed the opinion that Russia was the danger point for the Allies, and to this he agreed. The recent changes in the Government there have alarmed him. It has now gone from reactionary to liberal and from liberal back to extreme reactionary, showing how unstable conditions in that country are.”

A few days later, back in New York, House met again with Sir William Wiseman, the savvy if unofficial British representative to the administration. “One of the interesting things Wiseman told me was that Great Britain would probably try to force Russia into a constitutional monarchy when peace was made. He thought this could be done by declaring that the Western democracies would not be willing to give a warm seaport [Russia had been promised control of Constantinople] or other concessions to a government which was not responsible to the people. That it could be dangerous to democracy to take any other course. I thought the United States’ active cooperation could be counted upon in this direction.”

House was concerned, at the same time, that in the event of an Allied military victory, czarist Russia might then go to war with Britain over the spoils.

Or would a defeated Russia be even more dangerous? Wiseman thought Wilson had failed to understand that threat. Even as the first paving stone was about to go through the first shop window in Petrograd, on March 11, he was writing about the Americans: “It is not realized that Russia is struggling for domestic freedom at the same time that she is fighting a foreign war; that the success of the Germans would mean the success of the reactionary movement in Russia.” In other words, this was a war for democracy—for democracy in Russia. It was not, perhaps, the most convincing argument.

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Then came the revolution. In a few short days, ending with the czar’s abdication on March 15, it upended all this thinking. It was virtually over before anyone in Washington or London knew of it. It totally changed the calculus. Never mind that no one had elected the new leaders of the Provisional Government: Clearly they were democrats and Russia had become, overnight, a democracy. That’s what Americans, all the way up to the White House, were telling themselves. The war had been a clash of interests, a futile, stupid, extravagantly destructive struggle, especially on the Eastern Front. In a twinkling, Russia’s February Revolution had ennobled it. Now this war had a higher calling. Prominent Americans—Wilson would not have been among their number—recalled how the war to save the Union in 1861 had become a war of emancipation by 1865. It was transformed into a more profound struggle, a better one. It was touched with grace—and this was potentially the same. Out of deep suffering and bloodshed would arise a finer civilization. All the world’s democracies had now aligned in a single cause—to smash tyranny. All the world’s democracies, that is, except for one—the United States. The cause was glorious and unstoppable. If Russia—even Russia—could become a democracy, Germany itself couldn’t be far behind. Americans had been hearing and reading that they should go to war over the demise of a handful of clapped-out steamships, or because of intrigue south of the border; now the argument was simpler, and grander. The ultimate triumph of democracy demanded action.

Two days after the czar abdicated, Colonel House wrote Wilson from New York, urging immediate recognition of the new Russian government by the United States. He wasn’t swept up by the emotion of the revolution, and he was still wary of getting into the war, but he had some advice. “I think this country should aid in every way the advancement of democracy in Russia for it will end the peril which a possible alliance between Germany, Russia, and Japan might hold for us,” he wrote.

“You will come out of this war as its central figure, and largely because you stand easily to the fore as the great liberal of modern times.” Wilson, House assured him, had already “accelerated democracy throughout the world, and I am not too sure that the present outcome in Russia is not due largely to your influence.”

Robert Lansing, the secretary of state, had been the hawk in Wilson’s cabinet for some time, trying to push the president toward entry into the war. That Wilson didn’t care for Lansing, and didn’t value his advice, was a problem, but the nation’s top diplomat tried to shake it off and persevere regardless. On March 19 he tried again to argue for war.

“It would encourage and strengthen the new democratic government of Russia, which we ought to encourage and with which we ought to sympathize. If we delay, conditions may change and the opportune moment when our friendship would be useful may be lost. I believe that the Russian Government founded on its hatred of absolutism and therefore of the German Government would be materially benefitted by feeling that this Republic was arrayed against the same enemy of liberalism.”

On March 25, a “mass meeting to celebrate the success of the Russian revolution,” drew 1,500 people to the Manhattan Opera House on West 34th Street. A telegram from Prince Georgy Lvov, the head of the new Provisional Government, was read out: “We ask our American friends to rejoice with us in a free and happy Russia.”

Roosevelt wasn’t there, but he sent a message: “I rejoice from my soul that Russia, the hereditary friend of this country, has ranged herself on the side of orderly liberty, of enlightened freedom, and for the full performance of duty by free nations throughout the world … This wonderful change in Russia marches with and is part of the mighty and, I believe, irresistible movement of the whole world to substitute democracy for autocracy in human government and to build up the structure of justice and liberty, of right and duty and service from the bottom instead of accepting them from human superiors. No earthly power can reverse or stop that movement … Russia must go on. She will go on, and the hopes and prayers of all liberty-loving people of America will go with her.”

Headlines reflected the excitement that Americans felt. On March 19, the Evening Ledger in Philadelphia proclaimed:

Russia Frees Jews; Ancient Pale Smashed

Great Rejoicing Reigns as Age-Long

Persecution Ends

“Petrograd is astir with enthusiasm,” the front-page article began. Newspapers and other publications found experts to explain what it all meant; most of them discerned a natural democratic tendency in Russian culture, which may have come as a surprise to many.

“I should like to say very emphatically that I was deeply impressed by the character of the Russian people and by the tremendous growth of democracy among them,” a missionary named Fred Haggard, just returned from Russia, told a New York Times reporter. “It is a stupendous spectacle to see 160,000,000 people, most of whom are thoroughgoing democrats, under the domination of a Government that is not in the least disposed that way.

“It is impossible to think of Russia, with her vast millions of people, with common language, ideas and ideals, and her unlimited resources and awakening democracy, and imagine for a moment that she is not going to become a great power in the world. And not an evil power either. The future of Russia is bright.”

George Kennan, who had traveled through Siberia in 1885 and written the seminal book Siberia and the Exile System declared the revolution “the complete triumph of democracy” and “an almost unmixed blessing” to the welfare of the entire world. (A cousin of Kennan’s, who was named for him, became one of America’s premier diplomats, devoting most of his long career to Russian affairs. He wrote the famous “Long Telegram” of 1947 arguing for a policy of containment against the Soviet Union. In 1917 he was 13 years old.) Preceding his article in The Outlook was an unsigned editorial that congratulated the Russians for throwing out the “Prussianism” of the czarist system. “The Jews and the Poles the world over need no longer fear lest a victory of the free peoples of France and England may lead to a disaster for those Jews and Poles within Russia who are seeking to be free,” it said. “The people of the United States, in particular, will find at this crisis, when they are on the brink of war with Germany, a new cause for thankfulness that circumstance, indeed their very destiny, is placing them side by side with the free peoples of Europe—the people of Italy, and France, and England, and now Russia.”

On March 20, 10,000 people squeezed into the old Madison Square Garden for an event organized by the Jewish Socialist Federation of America. A thousand more stood on the sidewalks outside. The throng “shouted themselves hoarse cheering for the new government of Russia.” A large band played both “The Marseillaise” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and each provoked loud cheers. One of the speakers, a Socialist named Joseph Cannon, said the “house of Rockefeller and the house of Morgan will fall as has the house of Romanov.” (Cannon had run unsuccessfully for the Senate from New York in 1916. He was not to be confused with “Uncle Joe” Cannon of Illinois, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives.)

That same week, the editor of the American Hebrew, Herman Bernstein, said that the great Russian Empire, “fettered and tortured, kept in darkness and in bondage, has suddenly been set free … The wild orgies and debauchery of the forces of darkness are ended. The spirit of democracy is awakening, the spirit of justice may follow. The spirit of America is spreading abroad.” Rabbi Stephen Wise told a reporter that “a war started as a conspiracy of kings against the people will end in a triumph of the people.”

Oscar Straus, who had been America’s first Jewish cabinet member when he served as Roosevelt’s secretary of commerce and labor, predicted that the “magnificent uprising” in Russia would ensure a shift toward nearly unanimous support for the Allies among American Jews. David Philipson, a leading Reform rabbi in Cincinnati, said that the revolution would mean the end of Zionism, since Zionism was the product of the anti-Semitism of the old czarist regime.

More than 12,000 people jammed the old Madison Square Garden on the night of March 22. Many more were turned away. A group called the Junior Patriots of America assembled a Boy Scout troop and a company of the Junior Naval Reserve on Fifth Avenue. They were told at first that no minors were allowed in, but then the committee that organized the rally relented, and the boys, led by a band, marched across the park and into the Garden, where they took seats in the upper gallery. Down on the floor, John Philip Sousa’s band played patriotic songs while the exuberant throngs pushed in, cheering and jostling and arguing over seats. Thousands were carrying American flags.

Elihu Root, a Nobel peace prize laureate, warned that America would be at the mercy of Germany if the Allies were defeated. What would stop Germany from establishing a naval base in the Caribbean to block the Panama Canal, he asked. And once Germany had a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, he warned, there would be no defending against it. Far better, he declared, to fight the enemy over there, than to fight them at home.

“All history teaches us that the rich and defenseless peoples, the people who are too luxurious, too fond of their comfort, their prosperity, their wealth, their ease, to make sacrifice for their liberty, surely fall a prey to the aggressor,” he warned. “Every American, every true American heart should respond with joy, amid its sorrow, to the feeling that if we enter this war to do our part toward bringing about the victory that is so important to us, we shall be fighting over again the battle of the American democracy. The democracy of England, the democracy of France, and now, God be praised, the great democracy of Russia.”

Suddenly came a shout from the audience: “Lie!” one man yelled. “We want peace!” called out another. While the crowd looked on, men in olive khaki uniforms, wearing yellow armbands and swinging nightsticks, subdued the hecklers and tossed them out. The uniformed men were from a new organization, called the Home Defense League, established in conjunction with the New York police. There were 500 HDL volunteers prowling the Garden that night, looking for trouble.

The Provisional Government vowed to pursue the war against Germany with new determination, and few doubts were heard in the American press or halls of government. This reflected a long-standing habit of American journalists and diplomats stationed in Russia: They talked mostly to those cultivated Russians who were at ease conversing with foreigners. In other words, their sources of information tended (and still tend) to be well-educated urban liberals, cosmopolitans, who don’t always have the best sense of true Russian feeling. (I was often guilty of this myself in my years as a correspondent in Moscow.) So The Outlook, for instance, could write that the Russians would now turn to the task of beating the Germans “with renewed confidence and vigor.”

On March 16, the day after Nicholas abdicated, Lansing passed on to Wilson a telegram from a Russia expert at the University of Chicago. The aim of the revolution, it said, is “to create conditions that will make it possible for Russia to bring into force all her strength.” It will mean, therefore, “more effective prosecution of war and war until victory.”

In New York, hours after word came that the czar had stepped down, a reporter stopped by St. Mark’s Place and the offices of Novy Mir to see what “Leo” Trotsky, the professional revolutionary, made of the events. Trotsky said the committee that was to become the Provisional Government did not represent the interests or aims of the revolutionaries. It would probably be replaced soon by “men who would be more sure to carry forward the democratization of Russia.”

Trotsky told the reporter that “the cause of the revolution was the unrest of the mass of the people who were tired of war, and that the real object of the revolutionists was to end the war not only in Russia but throughout Europe.” He said, though, that Russia would not make a separate peace with Germany. “They do not favor Germany, they do not wish to see Germany win,” Trotsky said. “But they are tired of war and they wish to stop fighting.”

Ambassador David Francis met informally with the new foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, on March 18. He left the conversation convinced that the “right-thinking, sincere and determined Russians” now running the country “would prosecute the war fearlessly regardless of its cost in blood and treasure.” That evening he sent a cable to Washington asking permission to extend U.S. recognition to the new government. If the United States acted quickly, it would be the first nation to do so, which would “have a stupendous moral effect.”

The next day Francis called, again informally, on the new war minister, Alexander Guchkov. The weary and nervous Russian told him that American recognition would be enormously helpful to the Provisional Government, which was under constant pressure from the newly organized workers’ and soldiers’ council, known as the Petrograd Soviet. Guchkov asked how quickly it could happen. Three or four days at the earliest, Francis replied. “With much agitation he expressed doubt as to whether the provisional government could survive until that time.”

It did, though, and on March 22, with the all-clear from Washington, Francis set off in his sleigh, driven by a coachman in full livery, for the Mariinsky Palace, where the Provisional Government had taken up quarters. Behind him, in another sleigh, were the counselor, the four secretaries, various civilian attachés—all in formal diplomatic attire—and the military and naval attachés, each in full dress uniform. As anachronistic as the military outfits were—the officers would have looked as though they had stepped out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta—Francis wanted this to be an impressive and formal ceremony. The Russian ministers, in rumpled business suits, were pleased to welcome them. The United States was the first nation to recognize the new government, and thus, in American eyes, the United States made itself the first and most significant ally of the new Russian democracy.

On the evening of April 2, Wilson went to the Capitol for a special session of the new incoming Congress. After invoking the Russian revolution, he said the time had come to “make the world safe for democracy.” That brought a delayed, but then rousing, cheer. The United States, he said, must now join the war against Germany in order to play its destined role as the architect of a better world. Over the next few days the war resolution sparked heated debate, but in the end passed both the Senate and House easily. Just six senators cast “no” votes, as did 50 members of the House, including the first woman elected to Congress, the Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana.

Wilson appointed a commission to travel to Russia to find out how America could help. Its members were dismayed to find themselves in a country that was in the act of collapse. The army was demobilizing itself, as one old diplomat put it. Many thousands of soldiers were simply walking away from the front. The economy was broken down. Distrust of the government was rampant. In November, Bolsheviks staged a coup, and that was the end of Russia’s democratic experiment.

Democracy didn’t fare well at home, either. One of the first moves by Congress after the declaration of war was the sweeping Espionage Act of 1917; critics of the war, and of the newly instituted draft, were thrown in jail. In 1919 U.S. troops landed in Murmansk, and fought half-heartedly against the Soviets. The leaders of the USSR—and their successors—never forgot that. It contributed to Moscow’s prevailing narrative: that Russia is under constant pressure from hostile Western powers, which seek to intervene in order to impose their own system upon it; and that the leader of those powers, more often than not, is the United States.

Adapted from March 1917: On The Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund. Copyright © 2017 Will Englund. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Pulitzer, Polk, and Overseas Press Club Award–winning journalist Will Englund was a recent Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post and has spent a total of 12 years reporting from Russia. He now lives in Baltimore, Maryland.