Wilson – Truman’s Forerunner
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It is commonly believed that the Cold War between the U.S. and
the Soviet Union began in the mid-1940s. Professor of History at
the University of Illinois Donald Davis and President of the
University of Virginia Eugene Trani have arrived at a surprise
conclusion – the Cold War started much earlier.

When in 1913 Woodrow Wilson became President, America, the
authors hold, was not ready for a constructive dialog with Russia.
Contacts between the two countries were sporadic. In the United
States, the prevailing mood was that a despotic regime was in power
in Russia. Up to the 1917 Revolution, American officials, including
the President, had only a vague idea of the real developments in

Wilson’s efforts to organize U.S. diplomacy in Russia boiled
down to a mere search for a worthy candidate to fill the vacant
post of U.S. Ambassador to Russia. The final choice was a failure –
the former Governor of Missouri, David Francis, “was more a
spectator than a mover” (p. 16). The authors also criticize the
President himself for his hesitations and inability to work out an
adequate policy to respond to rapid developments in Russia. Right
after the February Revolution, Washington was the first to
recognize the legitimacy of the Provisional Government in Russia.
But instead of supporting the initiatives undertaken by the new
democratic Cabinet, Wilson marked time – he set up two ad hoc
commissions to probe into the situation in Russia. Their efforts
yielded no fruit, however, and Washington had lost the opportunity
to render real assistance to Russia’s Provisional Government. Davis
and Trani call the period between March and November 1917 a period
of lost opportunities in U.S.-Russian relations. In their opinion,
all this eventually led to tragic results.

Analyzing U.S.-Soviet relations after the October 1917
Revolution, Davis and Trani note that the U.S. Government could
have chosen one of the following three lines of behavior: to assume
a wait-and-see stand and make no concrete moves; to enter into
negotiations with the Bolsheviks and persuade them to continue the
war; or to pursue a firm non-recognition policy in respect of the
new regime in Russia. Hoping for a quick collapse of the Bolshevik
regime, Wilson opted for Ambassador Francis’ choice – wait and

In late 1917 and early 1918 the question of whether to continue
the war, or not, dominated relations between the United States and
Bolshevik Russia. President Wilson was against recognizing a regime
that was seeking to withdraw Russia from World War I. The U.S.
Administration took a series of steps to try to convince Lenin’s
Government not to halt hostilities. Having failed, Wilson started
pinning hopes on a victory of the counterrevolutionary forces in
Russia or on formation of an anti-Bolshevik government that would
be ready to continue war. But Wilson’s hopes never came true – the
Bolshevik Government stayed in power and the attempts to prevent
Russia from withdrawing from the war failed.

Defining the causes of the U.S. armed intervention in Soviet
Russia in mid-1918, the authors note that Wilson was against any
interference in Russia’s internal affairs. U.S. troops landed in
Russia’s North and Siberia under British and French pressure. The
aim of the American intervention was to restore the Eastern Front,
protect the property of the United States and its allies in Russia,
stabilize the “democratic regimes” where it existed and transport
the Czech Legion to France. But only the latter was successful, the
authors stress.

Analyzing Wilson’s actions to resolve the “Russian problem”
during the Paris Peace Conference in spring 1919, the scholars
point to the President’s initiatives aimed at halting hostilities
and normalizing the situation in Russia. Initially, Wilson made a
proposal to hold talks between the Bolsheviks and the
anti-Bolshevik governments of Kolchak, Denikin and some others on
the Prince Islands under Entente mediation. Only the Bolsheviks
accepted the proposal. But the flop of the peace talks initiative
did not stop Wilson – he sent an American envoy, William Bullitt,
on a special mission to Moscow. Bullitt met with Bolshevik leaders
but they failed to come to any agreement. The authors explain the
fiasco of Wilson’s peace initiatives by the fact that the alignment
of forces in Russia had by then radically changed in favor of the
Bolsheviks. By 1920, Davis and Trani write, Wilson did not have any
illusion that the Bolshevik regime could be reformed. The Entente
powers had fully realized the logic of developments in Russia and
started curtailing the intervention and evacuating their troops.
The Unites States was no exception. When the troops of Admiral
Kolchak — Washington’s last hope — were routed and the
Admiral was shot by his executioners, the Wilson Administration’s
illusions about restoring democratic government in Russia vanished
completely. As a result, America had taken the course of refusing
to recognize Soviet power under any circumstances. It was against
this scenario that, on August 9, 1920, a note by State Secretary
Bainbridge Colby was issued; and that note, in the authors’ view,
was the starting point of the “First Cold War”. A diplomatic
quarantine was actually imposed on Bolshevik Russia and political
technologies that would later become inalienable attributes of the
Cold War were put in motion.

But the U.S. refusal to recognize the Soviet Union
diplomatically is not the only reason for calling the
American-Russian relations of that period the “First Cold War”.
Wilson’s and his associates’ firm belief that a spreading Bolshevik
influence posed a danger, and Washington’s desire to contain the
Bolshevik ideas within the boundaries of one country pointed to a
major cooling in American-Russian relations. It is quite safe to
say that a confrontation between two systems with different
economic, social and political setups began.

Subsequent Republican administrations followed the course of
isolating the Soviet Union. It was as late as 1933 that President
Roosevelt finally recognized the Soviet Union. The authors are
inclined to believe that Wilson’s “Soviet policy” had a powerful
impact on the shaping of the Truman Administration’s course.

Drawing an analogy between the American-Soviet relations of the
1920s and those of the second half of the 20th century, the authors
do not take into account the specifics of the international
situation and Russia’s home affairs. When the Versailles system of
international relations was taking shape in the early 1920s, the
world was multi-polar and Soviet Russia’s leaders adhered to an
extreme radical idea – the idea of world revolution. But after
World War II a bipolar model of international relations had formed
and both superpowers started pursuing imperial foreign policies,
rivaling for spheres of world influence. Correspondingly, in the
1920s Wilson merely sought to isolate Bolshevik Russia, whereas in
the late 1940s President Truman launched a struggle against the
Soviet Union for world hegemony. It is different end goals that
comprise a major distinction between Davis’ and Trani’s “First Cold
War” and the commonly known Cold War.

Despite its minor drawbacks, Davis’ and Trani’s book will
undoubtedly evoke a lively reader response and will find a
prominent place among publications dealing with the dramatic events
of the first decades of the 20th century.