Modern history



ON JANUARY 18, 1919, the Peace Conference officially opened. Clemenceau made sure that the opening took place on the anniversary of the coronation in 1871 of Wilhelm I as kaiser of the new Germany. To the delegates assembled in the sumptuous Salle d’Horloge at the Quai d’Orsay, President Poincaré spoke of the wickedness of their enemies, the great sacrifices of the Allies and the hopes for a lasting peace. “You hold in your hands,” he told them, “the future of the world.” As they walked out, Balfour turned to Clemenceau and apologized for his top hat. “I was told,” he said, “that it was obligatory to wear one.” “So,” replied Clemenceau, in his bowler, “was I.”1

Observers noticed some absences: the Greek prime minister, Venizelos, annoyed that Serbia had more delegates than his own country; Borden, the Canadian prime minister, offended that the prime minister of little Newfoundland had been given precedence; and the Japanese, who had not yet arrived. But the most striking absence of all was that of Russia.

An Ally in 1914, Russia had probably saved France from defeat when it attacked Germany on the Eastern Front. For three years, Russia had battled the Central Powers, inflicting huge losses but absorbing even more. In 1917 it had finally cracked under the strain and, in eight months, had gone from autocracy to liberal democracy to a revolutionary dictatorship under a tiny extreme faction of Russian socialists, the Bolsheviks, whom most people, including the Russians themselves, had never heard of. As Russia collapsed, it spun off parts of a great empire: the Baltic states, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Daghestan. The Allies had sent in troops in a vain attempt to bolster their disintegrating ally against the Germans, but at the start of 1918 the Bolsheviks made peace with Germany. The Allied soldiers remained on Russian soil, but to do what? Topple the Bolsheviks and their Soviet regime? Support their heterogeneous opponents, the royalists, liberals, anarchists, disillusioned socialists, nationalists of various sorts?

In Paris it was not easy to tell what was happening in the east or who was on which side. Stories drifted westward of a social order turned upside down, civil wars, nationalist uprisings, a cycle of atrocities, retribution and more atrocities: the last tsar and his family murdered and their bodies thrown down a well; the mutilated body of a British naval attaché lying unburied on a St. Petersburg street. Russian soldiers had shot their officers, and sailors had commandeered their ships. Across the huge Russian countryside, peasants, driven by an ancient hunger for land, were killing their landlords. In the cities, teenagers swaggered with guns and the poor crept out of their slums to occupy the great mansions. It was hard to tell how much was true (most of it was) because Russia had become an unknown land. The new regime was under a virtual blockade. The powers had cut off trade with the Bolsheviks and had withdrawn their diplomats by the summer of 1918. Almost all foreign newspaper correspondents had gone by the start of 1919. The land routes were cut by fighting. Telegrams took days or weeks, if they got through at all. By the time the Peace Conference assembled, the only sure conduit for messages was through Stockholm, where the Bolsheviks had a representative. During the conference, the peacemakers knew as much about Russia as they did about the far side of the moon.2 As Lloyd George put it: “We were, in fact, never dealing with ascertained, or perhaps, even ascertainable facts. Russia was a jungle in which no one could say what was within a few yards of him.”3 His shaky grasp of geography did not help him; he thought Kharkov (a city in the Ukraine) was the name of a Russian general.

Legally, perhaps, there was no need to invite Russian representatives. That was Clemenceau’s view: Russia had betrayed the Allied cause, leaving France to the mercy of the Germans.4 The Bolshevik leader, Lenin, at once a realist and a fanatic, had given away land and resources to Germany at Brest-Litovsk (today Brest in Poland) in return for peace so that he could conserve the vital spark from which the Marxist millennium would come. Germany gained access to the materials it so desperately needed and the chance to switch hundreds of thousands of its troops to the Western Front. Lenin’s action, certainly for Clemenceau, released the Allies from all their promises to Russia, including the promise of access to the vital straits leading from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

On the other hand, Russia was technically still an Ally and still at war with Germany. After all, the Germans had been obliged to renounce the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the peace treaty they had signed with Russia, when they made their own armistice in November 1918. In any case, Russia’s absence was inconvenient. “In the discussions,” wrote a young British adviser in his diary, “everything inevitably leads up to Russia. Then there is a discursive discussion; it is agreed that the point at issue cannot be determined until the general policy towards Russia has been settled; having agreed to this, instead of settling it, they pass on to some other subject.”5 Finland, the emerging Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Poland, Rumania, Turkey and Persia all came up at the Peace Conference, but their borders could not finally be set until the future shape and status of Russia were clear.

The issue of Russia came up repeatedly during the Peace Conference. Baker, later an apologist for Wilson, claimed that Russia and the fear of Bolshevism shaped the peace. “Russia,” he cried, “played a more vital part at Paris than Prussia!” This, like much of what he has to say, is nonsense. The peacemakers were far more concerned with making peace with a still intact Germany and with getting Europe back onto a peacetime footing. They worried about Russia just as they worried about social unrest closer to home, but they did not necessarily see the two as sides of the same coin. Destroying the Bolsheviks in Russia would not magically remove the causes of unrest elsewhere. German workers and soldiers seized power because the kaiser’s regime was discredited and bankrupt. Austria-Hungary collapsed because it could no longer keep itself afloat and its nationalities down. The Russian Revolution sometimes provided encouragement—and a vocabulary. “Bolshevism is having its day,” wrote Borden in his diary, but he was talking about labor unrest, not revolution. “Bolshevism” (or its fellow, “communism”) was a convenient shorthand in 1919. As Bliss, Wilson’s military adviser, said, “If we replaced it by the word ‘revolutionary,’ perhaps that would be clearer.”6

Of course, the peacemakers were concerned about the spread of revolutionary ideas, but not necessarily Russian ones. The survivors of the Great War were weary and anxious. Apparently solid structures, empires, their civil services and their armies, had melted away and in many parts of Europe it was not clear what was to take their place. Europe had been a place of unsatisfied longings before the war—of socialists hoping for a better world, of labor for better conditions, of nationalists for their own homes—and those longings emerged again with greater force because in the fluid world of 1919 it was possible to dream of great change—or have nightmares about the collapse of order. The Portuguese president was assassinated. Later in 1919, in Paris, a madman would try to kill Clemenceau. In Bavaria and Hungary, communist governments took power, for a few days in Munich, but much longer in Budapest. In Berlin in January, and Vienna in June, communists tried, unsuccessfully, to do the same. Not everything could be blamed on the Russian Bolsheviks.

Many, and not just those on the left, refused to panic. Over lunch in the Hôtel Majestic one day, a Canadian delegate, Oliver Mowat Biggar, chatted cheerfully with a group that included Philip Kerr, Lloyd George’s personal assistant. “The feeling of all of us was that money had too much to say in the world—selfish money that is. The logical conclusion is communism, and we shall no doubt all arrive there in a quarter of a century or so.” In the meantime, as Biggar wrote to his wife in Canada, he was having a wonderful time: Saturday evening dances at the Majestic, Faust and Madame Butterfly at the Opéra, the music halls where he was struck, he told her, by the beauty of the prostitutes. The French, he noted, certainly had different standards from Canadians. In one comic opera, the lead actress “had nothing on above the hips except a few chains and in the other nothing on either above or below except ribbons and shoes. As a dancer she was dismal.” When his wife suggested that she come immediately from Canada to join him, Biggar had serious reservations. Of course, he wanted to see her but even now the flats in Paris were terribly expensive, and they had appalling bathrooms. And he had been told, by a senior politician, that revolution was about to sweep across Germany and possibly into France. There would be serious shortages of food and fuel. The lights would go out, the taps would run dry. “You must, however, make up your own mind to discomfort with, very remotely, danger.” Mrs. Biggar remained in Canada.7

Bolshevism had its uses. When Rumania claimed the Russian province of Bessarabia or Poland advanced into the Ukraine, it was to stop Bolshevism. Italy’s delegates warned of revolution at home if they did not get most of the Dalmatian coast. The peacemakers used it as a threat to each other. Germany, said Lloyd George and Wilson, would go Bolshevik if they imposed too harsh a peace.

Western reactions to the new regime in Russia itself were deeply divided. Lack of information did not, of course, prevent people from having strong views. If anything, it made it easier. Both left and right projected their own fears and hopes into the black hole in the east. The radical American journalist Lincoln Steffens, who unusually actually got to Russia in 1919, crafted his famous “I have seen the future and it works” on the journey out. Nothing he witnessed in Russia changed his mind. On the right, every horror story was credited. The British government published reports, allegedly from eyewitnesses, claiming that the Bolsheviks had nationalized women and set them up in “commissariats of free love.” Churches had been turned into brothels. Special gangs of Chinese executioners had been imported to work their ancient Oriental skills on the Bolsheviks’ victims.8

Churchill, Britain’s secretary of state for war during the Peace Conference, was one of the few to grasp that Lenin’s Bolshevism was something new on the political scene, that beneath the Marxist rhetoric was a highly disciplined, highly centralized party grasping at every lever of power it could secure. Motivated by the distant goal of a perfect world, it did not care what methods it used. “The essence of Bolshevism as opposed to many other forms of visionary political thought,” Churchill asserted, “is that it can only be propagated and maintained by violence.” Lenin and his colleagues were prepared to destroy whatever stood in the way of that vision, whether the institutions of Russian society or the Russians themselves. “Of all tyrannies in history,” Churchill told an audience in London, “the Bolshevik tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, the most degrading.” Lloyd George was unkind about Churchill’s motives: “His ducal blood revolted against the wholesale elimination of Grand Dukes in Russia.” Others, and they included many of his colleagues and the British public, wrote Churchill off as erratic and unreliable. The shadow of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign still hung over him, and his florid language sounded hysterical. “Civilisation,” he said in an election speech in November 1918, “is being completely extinguished over gigantic areas, while Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins of cities and the corpses of their victims.” After one outburst in cabinet Balfour told him coolly, “I admire the exaggerated way you tell the truth.”9

While most Western liberals in 1919 were inclined to give the Bolsheviks the benefit of the doubt, the revolutionists’ seizure of power from a democratically elected assembly, their murders—most notoriously of the tsar and his family—and their repudiation of Russia’s foreign debts shocked public opinion. (The French were particularly irritated by the debt issue because a great many among the middle classes had bought Russian government bonds.) But, as good liberals reminded themselves, both the United States and France were the products of revolution. Wilson initially thought that Bolshevism was about curbing the power of big business and big government to provide greater freedom for the individual. His personal doctor, Grayson, noted that Wilson found much to approve of in the Bolshevik program: “Of course, he declared, their campaign of murder, confiscation and complete disregard for law, merits the utmost condemnation. However, some of their doctrines have been developed entirely through the pressures of the capitalists, who have disregarded the rights of the workers everywhere, and he warned all of his colleagues that if the Bolsheviks should become sane and agree to a policy of law and order they would soon spread all over Europe, overturning existing governments.” Progressive thinkers such as himself and Wilson, said Lloyd George, thought that the old order—“inept, profligate and tyrannical”—deserved what it had got: “it had been guilty of exactions and oppressions which were accountable for the ferocity displayed by the Revolutionaries.” There was still something, too, in Lloyd George of the bold young solicitor in north Wales who had taken on the powerful local interests. “The trouble with the P.M.,” Curzon complained to Balfour, “is that he is a bit of a Bolshevist himself. One feels that he sees Trotsky as the only congenial figure on the international scene.”10

The Russian Bolsheviks would, many believed, eventually settle down and become bourgeois. If Bolshevik ideas were permeating Western societies, it was because people were fed up. Remove the causes of Bolshevism, both Wilson and Lloyd George argued, and you would take away its oxygen. Farmers without land, workers without jobs, ordinary men and women without hope, all were fodder for visionaries promising the earth. There was a dangerous gulf, said Wilson, even in his own country, between capital and labor. “Seeds need soil, and the Bolshevik seeds found the soil already prepared for them.” They could defeat Bolshevism, he assured the American experts on the voyage to Paris, by building a new order. Lloyd George, too, was inclined to be optimistic. “Don’t you think Bolshevism will die out of itself?” he asked a British journalist. “Europe is very strong. It can resist it.”11

Lloyd George would have preferred to include Russia in the Peace Conference. As he told Clemenceau at their meeting in London in December 1918, they could not proceed as if the country did not exist. He had, he said, great sympathy for the Russian people. “Their troops had fought without arms or munitions; they had been outrageously betrayed by their Government, and it was little to be wondered at if, in their bitterness, the Russian people had rebelled against the Alliance.” Russia was a huge country, stretching from Europe to Asia, with almost 200 million people. If the nations with claims on Russian territory were to be allowed to come to Paris, then surely the Russians themselves deserved the right to be heard. That might mean inviting the Bolsheviks. He did not like them, Lloyd George told the Supreme Council, but could they refuse to recognize them? “To say that we ourselves should pick the representatives of a great people was contrary to every principle for which we had fought.” The British government had made the same mistake after the French Revolution, when it had backed the émigré aristocrats. “This,” Lloyd George said dramatically, “led them into a war which lasted about twenty-five years.”12

His arguments did not go down well with Clemenceau, who loathed the Bolsheviks, partly because he saw them as tools of the Germans and partly because he abhorred their methods. For Clemenceau revolution was sublime when it was the one of 1789, despicable when it fell into the hands of the Jacobins, with their Robespierres and Lenins, who used the guillotine and the noose to create perfection. He had lived through the mob violence and the bloody suppression of the radical Commune of Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. From that moment on he had broken with the extreme left. In 1919 he, like the other Allied leaders, also had to heed his own public opinion. If the Bolsheviks sent representatives to Paris, he told Balfour in a private interview, the extreme radicals would be encouraged and the middle classes would panic. There would be rioting in the streets, which his government would have to put down with force. That would not be a good atmosphere for the Peace Conference. If his allies insisted on going ahead with such an invitation, Clemenceau warned, he would be obliged to resign.13

And did the Bolsheviks speak for all the Russian people? They controlled only the core Russian lands, along with the great cities of St. Petersburg (soon to become Leningrad) and Moscow. They faced rival governments: that of the White Russians, as they were commonly known, in the south, under General Anton Denikin, one of the better tsarist generals, and another in Siberia under Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. In Paris itself, Russian exiles, from conservatives to radicals, had formed the Russian Political Conference to speak for all non-Bolshevik Russians. Sergei Sazonov, who had been a foreign minister under the tsar, found himself working with Boris Savinkov, a famous terrorist. Sleek, fashionably dressed, a gardenia in his buttonhole, Savinkov was much admired in Paris. Lloyd George, who always liked efficiency, said: “His assassinations had always been skilfully arranged and had been a complete success.”14 Unfortunately, the Russian Political Conference got only grudging support from the rival governments of Denikin and Kolchak (which also spent much time trying to outmaneuver each other) and none at all from the Bolsheviks.

On January 16, Lloyd George brought the whole question of Russia before the Supreme Council. It seemed to him that they had three choices: first, to destroy Russian Bolshevism; second, to insulate the outside world from it; or third, to invite the Russians, Bolsheviks included, to meet the peacemakers. They had already taken steps towards the first two options: there were Allied soldiers on Russian soil, and the Allies had a blockade on Russia. Neither of these appeared to be working. He himself therefore preferred the last option. In fact, they could do the Russians a good turn by persuading the different factions to talk to each other and try to work out a truce. It was, he said privately, what the Romans had done when they sent for the barbarians and told them to behave.15

The peacemakers did not find it easy to make up their minds. There were objections to each course of action. Intervention to overthrow the Bolsheviks was risky and expensive; isolating Russia would hurt the Russian people; and bringing Bolshevik representatives to Paris or anywhere else in the West ran the risk of giving them a chance to spread their message, to say nothing of infuriating the conservatives. Wilson supported Lloyd George. The French and Italian foreign ministers, Pichon and Sonnino, demurred. At the least, suggested Pichon, they should listen to the French and Danish ambassadors, who had just returned from Russia. The two duly appeared, with alarming tales of the Red Terror, which Lloyd George cavalierly dismissed as exaggerations.16The Supreme Council found itself unable to come to any decision.

Throughout the Peace Conference, Allied policy toward Russia remained inconsistent and incoherent, not firm enough to overthrow the Bolsheviks but sufficiently hostile to convince them, with unfortunate consequences, that the Western powers were their implacable enemies. Churchill, who begged repeatedly for a clear policy line from his own government, was bitter in his memoirs about Allied indecision. “Were they at war with Soviet Russia? Certainly not; but they shot Soviet Russians at sight. They stood as invaders on Russian soil. They armed the enemies of the Soviet Government. They blockaded its ports, and sunk its battleships. They earnestly desired and schemed its downfall. But war— shocking! Interference—shame!” 17

Churchill, of course, was for intervention. So was Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the senior French soldier and Allied commander-in-chief. And so were Tory members of Parliament in London and embittered French investors. Against them were ranged an equally vociferous group: the unions in solidarity with a working-class movement, humanitarians of various stripes, and the pragmatists who, with the popular London Daily Express, simply said, “We are sorry for the Russians, but they must fight it out among themselves.”18

That tended to be Wilson’s view. “I believe in letting them work out their own salvation,” he told a British diplomat in Washington just before the end of the war, “even though they wallow in anarchy for a while. I visualize it like this: A lot of impossible folk fighting among themselves. You cannot do business with them, so you shut them all up in a room and lock the door and tell them that when they have settled matters among themselves you will unlock the door and do business.” Wilson assumed that the shape of the room would remain much the same. He did not contemplate, as the British sometimes did, the breakup of the Russian empire. Self-determination, as he saw it, meant the Russian peoples running their own huge country. The only exception he made, on the basis of the same principle, was for Russia’s Polish territory, which he felt should be part of a restored Poland. Curiously, he did not see Ukrainian nationalism in the same light (possibly because his great Republican opponent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge favored an independent Ukraine) and he staunchly resisted Allied recognition of the Baltic states. Otherwise his policy toward Russia was largely negative: nonintervention and nonrecognition. The sixth of his Fourteen Points called for the evacuation of Russian territory by foreign armies (he had the Japanese in mind, in particular) so that the Russian people could work out the institutions that best suited them. When the Russians had sorted out who was governing them (he hoped that it would not be the Bolsheviks), the United States would extend recognition. This, Wilson liked to point out, was what the United States had done in the Mexican civil war.19

The trouble was that the Allies had already intervened. In the spring of 1918, British troops had landed at the northern ports of Archangel and Murmansk, and the Japanese had seized Vladivostok on the Pacific and spread westward into Siberia to keep the Germans from getting their hands on Russian raw materials such as grain and oil, as well as on ports, railways and munitions. To keep an eye on the Japanese (and perhaps on the British) and to protect a legion of Czechs who had got themselves stuck in Siberia from Russian prisoner-of-war camps, the Americans had reluctantly landed their own troops. (“I have been sweating blood,” Wilson complained to House that summer, “over the question of what is right and feasible to do in Russia. . . . It goes to pieces like quicksilver under my touch.”) The British then prevailed on the Canadians to supply a force to balance the Americans and the Japanese. Down in the south another British force moved into the oil-rich mountains of the Caucasus. When, at the end of the war, Britain decided not only to keep its troops in place but to offer support to anti-Bolshevik White Russians, it was quite clear that an intervention that had started out against the Germans had slipped into something quite different.20

The defeated Germany, on Allied instructions, started to pull its troops out of the Ukraine and the Baltic states. The Allies struggled to fill the vacuum. By the end of 1918, there were over 180,000 foreign troops on Russian soil and several White Russian armies receiving Allied money and Allied guns. People were starting to talk about a crusade against Bolshevism. But there was strong opposition to any more military adventures. The slogan from the left, “Hands Off Russia,” was gaining in popularity. If they were not careful, Lloyd George told his cabinet, they would spread Bolshevism simply by trying to put it down. The prospect of being sent to Russia was hugely unpopular among British and American soldiers. The Canadians, who had been supplying troops for the Siberian expedition and for Murmansk, wanted to pull out by the summer; there was “great anxiety” over the issue in Canada, Borden told his colleagues in the British empire delegation.21

The French, who talked a strong line on intervention, could actually do very little. They did not have the manpower or the resources. Under an agreement with Britain, France was in theory responsible for the southern Ukraine and the Crimea, and Britain for the Caucasus and central Asia. (What that meant, beyond supporting local anti-Bolshevik forces, was never clearly spelled out.) But only a handful of French soldiers had arrived in Russia before the end of the war. The French general in the Near East, Louis Franchet d’Esperey, complained bitterly, “I do not have enough forces to settle into this country, all the more so since it would not appeal to our men to experience Russia in winter when all their comrades are resting.” His warnings were unwisely ignored.

The French government moved a mixed force, with French, Greek and Polish troops, to the Black Sea port of Odessa. The expedition promptly found itself fighting a heterogeneous collection of enemies, from Bolsheviks to Ukrainian nationalists to anarchists. Morale plummeted during the long winter of 1918–19 and the Bolsheviks found easy pickings when they sent in French speakers to work on the troops. As one French officer reported, “not one French soldier who saved his head at Verdun and the fields of the Marne will consent to losing it on the fields of Russia.” In April 1919, the French authorities abruptly gave up what was becoming a debacle and hastily pulled out, abandoning Odessa and its people to the Bolsheviks. Civilians lined the waterfront, vainly begging the French to take them with them. A smaller French expedition left the Crimean port of Sebastopol in somewhat better order, taking with it some 40,000 Russians, including the mother of the murdered tsar. Two weeks later the French Black Sea fleet mutinied. 22

Although France remained vociferous in opposing the Bolsheviks and their ways, it played no further part in the Allied intervention. Foch came up with a series of increasingly improbable plans to march into Russia with armies variously made up of Poles, Finns, Czechoslovaks, Rumanians, Greeks and even the Russian prisoners of war still in Germany, all of which came to nothing, partly because his cast of extras mostly refused the parts assigned them, but also because of strong opposition from the British and the Americans. 23

French policy became by default the second of the options Lloyd George had outlined: to isolate Bolshevism within Russia. At the Peace Conference and in subsequent years, France did its best to build up states around Russia such as Poland to form, in the old medieval phrase, a cordon sanitaire around the carriers of the plague. This had the advantage, even more important to the French, of providing counterweights to Germany and a barrier in the unlikely event that Germany and Russia should try to join forces. Foch and Churchill were among the few in Paris who took that possibility seriously. Churchill warned about a future combination of a Bolshevik Russia with a nationalist Germany and Japan. “In the ultimate result we could contemplate a predatory confederation stretching from the Rhine to Yokohama menacing the vital interests of the British Empire in India and elsewhere, menacing indeed the future of the world.”24

“We should continue to keep an eye on them,” a weary Clemenceau said of the Bolsheviks to Lloyd George at the end of 1919, “surrounding them, as it were, by a barbed wire entanglement, and spending no money.” Money was always a problem in 1919. Lloyd George tried to dampen Churchill’s enthusiasm for intervention by reporting a conversation with the chancellor of the exchequer, Austen Chamberlain: “We cannot afford the burden. Chamberlain says we can barely make both ends meet on a peace basis, even at the present crushing rate of taxation.” The British spent perhaps £100 million on their Russian adventure; the French under half that amount. “How much will France give?” asked Lloyd George when the question of expanding military intervention came up in February 1919. “I am sure she cannot afford to pay; I am sure we cannot. Will America bear the expense? Pin them down to the cost of any scheme before sanctioning it.” 25

Much of the aid to the White Russians was being wasted through inefficiency and corruption. Petty officials behind the lines took the uniforms intended for the soldiers; their wives and daughters wore British nurses’ skirts. While Denikin’s trucks and tanks seized up in the cold, antifreeze was sold in the bars. Although the Bolsheviks were later able to paint a propaganda picture of world capitalism in all its might arrayed against their revolution, in fact Allied help did very little to stave off White defeat.26

The Allied intervention in Russia was always muddled by differing objectives and mutual suspicions. The Americans were officially against intervention, yet they kept their troops in Siberia after the end of the war, to block Japanese designs. Where the French before 1914 had relied on a strong Russia to keep Germany in line, the British had worried about the Russian threat to India. In 1919 France would have preferred a restored White Russia, but Britain could have lived with a weak Red one. Curzon, who loathed everything the Bolsheviks stood for, was delighted that the Russians had lost control of the Caucasus; the British must, he told Churchill, be careful that Denikin, the White Russian leader in the south, did not get his hands on the area again. The British tended to be suspicious of French motives. The French government, complained Lloyd George, was unreasonably swayed by its own middle classes, who had lost their savings in Russia. “There is nothing they would like better,” he said, “than to see us pull their chestnuts out of the fire for them.”27

While the Allies dabbled fitfully with intervention in Russia, they also explored the option favored by Lloyd George: that of negotiation. On January 21, 1919, Wilson and Lloyd George suggested a compromise to the Supreme Council. The Russians would be encouraged to agree on a common position on the peace settlements for discussion with the Allies. Since the French did not want the Bolsheviks to come to Paris, why not meet them, along with other Russian representatives, somewhere nearer Russia? As long as they refused to speak to the Bolsheviks, Wilson added, the Russian people would believe Bolshevik propaganda that the Allies were their enemies. Clemenceau, supported by Sonnino, objected that the very act of speaking to the Bolsheviks would give them credibility. He was not prepared to break with his Allies over this and so, reluctantly, he would go along. Only Sonnino held out. They must, he urged, collect all the White Russians together and give them enough soldiers or at least the weapons to destroy the Bolsheviks. Lloyd George had a practical question. How many soldiers could they each provide? There was an awkward pause. None, came the answer. It was agreed to proceed with negotiations. Wilson immediately sent for a typewriter. “We conjured up visions of a beautiful American stenographer,” a British journalist recalled, but a messenger appeared with Wilson’s battered old machine, and the president sat in a corner tapping out an invitation. As Clemenceau left the room he snarled to a waiting French journalist, “Beaten!” 28

Wilson’s draft, which talked of the Allies’ sincere and unselfish desire to help the Russian people, was duly sent to the representatives of the major Russian factions, inviting them to meet on the Princes Islands— Prinkipo—in the Sea of Marmara between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The islands were a favorite picnic spot for the inhabitants of Constantinople. They had also been used by the Turkish authorities just before the war as a place to dump the city’s thousands of stray dogs; for weeks, desperate barks and yaps had echoed back across the waters.

An invitation was sent off to the Bolsheviks by shortwave radio, and Paris waited for a reply. It was difficult to gauge what the response would be. Already the Bolsheviks had established what was to become a familiar pattern of rudeness and civility, utmost hostility and grudging cooperation. Lenin believed that the Russian Revolution would set fire to Europe, then the world. Borders, flags, nationalism, the tools of a doomed capitalism for keeping the workers of the world apart, would be swept away. His first commissar for foreign affairs, the great revolutionary theorist Leon Trotsky, saw his new post as a simple one: “I will issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world and then shut up shop.” (In an unconscious parallel to Wilson’s call for open diplomacy, he had much fun rummaging through the old tsarist files and publishing, to the considerable embarrassment of the Allies, secret wartime agreements carving up, for example, the Middle East.) The only question for Lenin and Trotsky was one of tactics. If world revolution was going to happen immediately, there was no need to deal with the enemy. If there was a delay, however, it might become necessary to play off one capitalist nation against another. In 1917, the Bolsheviks assumed the first was true; by 1919, even though Lenin summoned a founding congress for a world revolutionary headquarters, the Communist International, they were starting to have doubts.29

The Soviet foreign policy, which reflected this ambivalence, did much to deepen the Allies’ suspicions. In October 1918 Georgi Chicherin, a disheveled, obsessive scholar who had just replaced Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs, sent a sarcastic note to Wilson, mocking his cherished principles. The Fourteen Points called for leaving Russia alone to work out its own fate; curious, then, that Wilson had sent troops to Siberia. The American talked of self-determination; how odd that he had not mentioned Ireland or the Philippines. He promised a League of Nations to end all war; was this some sort of joke? Everyone knew that the capitalist nations were responsible for creating wars. At that very moment, the United States and its partners in crime Britain and France were plotting to spill more Russian blood and extort more money from Russia. The only true league was one of the masses.30

Yet the Bolsheviks also struck conciliatory notes. Maxim Litvinov, Chicherin’s deputy, was smooth and agreeable. He had lived in London for several years, eking out a living as a clerk and marrying a novelist, Ivy Low, from the fringes of Bloomsbury. On Christmas Eve 1918, he sent Wilson a telegram from Stockholm. It spoke of peace on earth, of justice and humanity. The Russian people, Litvinov went on, shared Wilson’s great principles. They had been the first to cry out for self-determination and open diplomacy. All they wanted now was peace to build a better society. They were anxious to negotiate, but Allied intervention and the Allied blockade were causing terrible misery. The Bolsheviks found themselves obliged to use terror to keep the country afloat. Would not Wilson help them?

Wilson was deeply impressed. So, when he saw the telegram, was Lloyd George. An American diplomat, William Buckler, was dispatched to talk to Litvinov. Buckler’s report, which Wilson brought to the Supreme Council on January 21, was encouraging. The Soviet government, as it was now calling itself, was ready to do much for the sake of peace, whether that meant paying at least part of the repudiated foreign debts or granting new concessions to foreign enterprises. It would drop its calls for worldwide revolution; it had only been forced to use such propaganda as a way of defending itself first against Germany and more recently the Allies.31

Wilson and Lloyd George had some reason, then, to expect that the Bolsheviks would welcome the invitation to Prinkipo. The two statesmen chose their delegates: a liberal journalist and a defrocked clergyman for the United States, and for Britain a delighted Borden—“a great honour to Canada.” (He did not know that Lloyd George was having trouble finding someone to go.) They all waited. The Soviet government’s reply arrived on February 4. Not for the last time the Bolsheviks misjudged the West. They craftily, but transparently, avoided agreeing to a cease-fire, one of the preconditions laid down by the Supreme Council. They did not bother to comment on the appeal to high principles in the invitation. Clearly thinking that capitalists understood only one thing, they offered significant material concessions, such as raw materials or territory. After all, it had worked with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. Wilson was taken aback: “This answer was not only uncalled for, but might be thought insulting.” Lloyd George agreed. “We are not after their money or their concessions or their territory.”32

At the same time the other invitees, with quiet support from the French and from friends such as Churchill, were digging in their heels. The news of the Prinkipo proposal had deeply shocked the White Russians. In Paris, the exile community turned out in a huge demonstration; far away in Archangel, pictures of Wilson were hurriedly taken down. Sazonov, the former foreign minister, asked a British diplomat how the Allies could expect him to meet the people who had murdered his family.33

If the British and the Americans had put pressure on them, the White Russians would probably have caved in, but neither Wilson nor Lloyd George was prepared to do so. Prinkipo was becoming a political problem for both men. The press and some of their own colleagues were increasingly critical. Lloyd George, who depended on Conservative support for his coalition government, had already been warned by Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, and his deputy that the government might well break up over the issue. By February 8, Clemenceau, in a rare communicative mood, told Poincaré that the Prinkipo meeting was in trouble. Wilson showed no signs of wanting to respond to the Bolsheviks’ partial acceptance. Just to make sure, Clemenceau begged Balfour to delay discussion until the president left for his brief visit to the United States. By the time the White Russians sent their refusal on February 16, Wilson was at sea, Lloyd George was back in London dealing with a threatened general strike and Prinkipo was already dead.34

That left the whole question of Russia as undecided as ever. In London, Churchill was demanding that Lloyd George make a clear decision, either to intervene in force or to withdraw from Russia once and for all. Lloyd George was not prepared to do either: full-scale intervention would create trouble on his left; withdrawal would make trouble on his right. And so, as he did on other occasions at the Peace Conference, he proceeded indirectly, testing out first one approach and then another without exposing himself.

He told Churchill that any decision on Russia had to be made in Paris, with Wilson’s participation. Churchill dashed across the Channel on the morning of February 14, the day the president was due to leave for the United States. (In his memoirs, Lloyd George expressed pious horror that Churchill had “adroitly” slipped over to Paris on his own initiative.) After a hectic drive to Paris—and a crash which left his car’s windshield shattered—Churchill rushed into the Supreme Council just as Wilson was getting to his feet. The president listened courteously as Churchill pointed out that the uncertainty over Allied intentions was bad for the troops in Russia and for the White Russians. His own view was that withdrawal would be a disaster. “Such a policy would be equivalent to pulling out the linch-pin from the whole machine. There would be no further armed resistance to the Bolsheviks in Russia, and an interminable vista of violence and misery was all that remained for the whole of Russia.” Wilson, as Lloyd George must have known, refused to be drawn. Allied troops were doing no good in Russia, he admitted, but the situation was confusing.35

Churchill remained in Paris for a couple more days, trying to prod the Supreme Council into at least a clear policy; but with Wilson and Lloyd George absent this was difficult. Lloyd George, who was getting daily reports from the faithful Kerr, directed matters from a distance. “Winston is in Paris,” he told a friend cheerfully. “He wants to conduct a war against the Bolsheviks. That would cause a revolution! Our people would not permit it.”36 He sent Churchill mixed signals, hinting that Britain might supply weapons and volunteers for the White Russians but then, in the next cable, warning him against planning military action against the Bolsheviks. The War Office, Lloyd George claimed, felt that the presence of Allied soldiers in Russia was a mistake. He agreed: “Not merely is it none of our business to interfere with its internal affairs, it would be positively mischievous: it would strengthen and consolidate Bolshevik opinion.” Lloyd George made sure that Kerr gave copies of his message to other members of the British empire delegation as well as to House. From the middle of the Atlantic, Wilson sent his warning: “Greatly surprised by Churchill’s Russian suggestion,” he wired, “it would be fatal to be led further into the Russian chaos.” He need not have worried. On February 19, the day chosen to renew the discussion on Russia at the Supreme Council, Clemenceau was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt, and any decision was postponed indefinitely. Allied troops remained on Russian soil, but there was no great crusade.37

Perhaps, as Wilson was fond of suggesting, the peacemakers needed more information. Several of the younger Americans, including the radical journalist Lincoln Steffens and William Bullitt, a young Russian expert with the American delegation who was known to oppose intervention, were already suggesting a mission of inquiry. Lloyd George agreed that it might be a good idea, not least as a way of postponing an awkward decision.38

On February 17, House told Bullitt that he had been chosen to lead a small secret mission to talk to the Bolshevik leaders about what sort of conditions they might accept to make peace with the Allies. Bullitt was delighted. His job in Paris had been routine; now, as he saw it, he was moving onto center stage. A product of the privileged, insular world of the Philadelphia upper classes, he had enormous confidence in himself and his own judgment. Something of a prodigy, or so his doting mother thought, he had sailed through Yale University. His contemporaries thought him brilliant, although some also noticed that there was something cold and calculating in the way he used and discarded people. He admired Wilson and his principles tremendously, but wondered if the president was up to defending them.39

Together House and Kerr outlined a list of subjects the mission was to discuss. “Bullitt was going for information only,” House assured other American delegates. He failed to make this sufficiently clear to Bullitt himself, who maintained, even when his expedition came to grief, that he had a mandate from both House, speaking on Wilson’s behalf, and Lloyd George to negotiate conditions of peace with the Bolsheviks. Steffens, who went on the mission, concurred: “Bullitt’s instructions were to negotiate a preliminary agreement with the Russians so that the United States and Great Britain could persuade France to join them in an invitation to a parley, reasonably sure of some results.” Steffens, not for the first time, was wrong. Neither House nor Lloyd George had given up hope of some sort of settlement, but they were not about to alienate either the French or their own domestic opinion if the Bolsheviks proved recalcitrant. A small mission headed by an insignificant twenty-eight-year-old might bring back good news. It was expendable if it did not.40

Bullitt and Steffens spent a wonderful week in Moscow: accommodation in a confiscated palace, piles of caviar, nights at the opera in the tsar’s old box and during the day discussions with Lenin and Chicherin themselves. The Bolsheviks, Steffens believed, were getting rid of the causes of poverty, corruption, tyranny and war. “They were not trying to establish political democracy, legal liberty, and negotiated peace—not now. They were at present only laying the basis for these good things.” Bullitt agreed that a great work had been started in Russia. Both men were deeply impressed with Lenin. He was “straightforward and direct,” said Bullitt, “but also genial and with a large humor and serenity.” Steffens asked about the terror against the Bolsheviks’ opponents and was moved when Lenin expressed regret; he was, thought Steffens, “a liberal by instinct.” 41

By the end of the week Bullitt had, he thought, a deal. There would be a cease-fire and then concessions on both sides. The Allies would withdraw their troops, but the Bolsheviks would not insist on an end to the various White governments in Russia. (Since the terms called for an end to Allied assistance to the Whites, the Bolsheviks could afford to be generous.) It is doubtful that the Bolsheviks were negotiating in good faith; Lenin had shown with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk that he was prepared to make concessions only to buy time. Bullitt and Steffens were “useful idiots,” their mission helpful at least for propaganda.

Bullitt proudly bore his agreement, and Steffens his rosy picture of the future, back to Paris. House, as usual, was encouraging, but other members of the American delegation had their doubts. Wilson himself, by now back from the United States, was simply too distracted by the difficult negotiations over the German treaty to pay much attention. He would not make time to see Bullitt. Lloyd George, who had him to breakfast on March 28, was getting very cold feet indeed. Béla Kun’s seizure of power in Hungary the weekend before had reawakened fears about Bolshevism spreading westward. News had leaked out about Bullitt’s mission; rumors were circulating that Britain and the United States were about to recognize the Soviet government. Lloyd George’s Conservative backbenchers were watching him like a hawk; so were Northcliffe’s papers. That morning, the Daily Mail had carried a savage leading article by Henry Wickham Steed, the new editor of its sister paper The Times, who hated Lloyd George as much as Northcliffe did. The Prinkipo “intrigue” was being resurrected, thanks to the machinations of international Jewish financiers and possibly German interests. Lloyd George held the newspaper out toward Bullitt over the breakfast table. “As long as the British press is doing this kind of thing, how can you expect me to be sensible about Russia?” 42

In the next weeks, the pressure on Lloyd George grew. On April 10 more than two hundred Conservative members of Parliament signed a telegram urging him not to recognize the Soviet government. Lloyd George, who was also under attack over the German peace terms, knew when to cut his losses. When he faced the House of Commons on April 16, he said firmly that recognition had never been discussed in Paris and was out of the question. When he was asked specifically about Bullitt’s mission, he said airily, “There was a suggestion that there was some young American who had come back.” He could not say whether the young man had brought back any useful reports. 43

Bullitt was shattered. No one in Paris wanted to hear about his mission, not even the president he admired so much. His disillusionment with Wilson was complete when the terms of the German treaty came out in May. He sent an angry and hurt letter of resignation and headed for the Riviera, “to lie on the sand and watch the world go to hell.” That autumn he returned to the United States and helped to seal the fate of Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles by testifying before the Senate that he, and many others in the American delegation, disapproved of many of its clauses. He also managed to get his report on his mission to Russia into the record. In 1934, he returned to Moscow as the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union. This time the experience turned him into a fervent anticommunist.44

Lloyd George and Wilson drew back from contact with the Soviet government after this, although they continued to hope for some miraculous transformation of the Bolsheviks into good democrats. The two even toyed briefly with the idea of using food shipments to calm the Bolsheviks down, a scheme that Hoover, as head of the Allied relief administration, had been pushing. Hoover’s own views on the Bolsheviks were close to Wilson’s: that they were an understandable response to appalling conditions. They were dangerous, though, their propaganda attractive even in strong societies such as America. The Allies should let the Bolsheviks know, indirectly, that if they stopped trying to spread their revolution, Russia would receive substantial help. With time and food, the Russian people would swing away from radical ideas. To avoid any hint of Allied recognition and to forestall objections from the French, Hoover suggested using a prominent figure from a neutral country to run the whole operation.45

As it happened, he had someone in mind, “a fine, rugged character, a man of great physical and moral courage”—Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian Arctic explorer, who happened to be in Paris with the vague idea of doing something for the League of Nations. In the middle of April, the Council of Four approved Hoover’s plan. A group of neutral countries, including Nansen’s own Norway, were to collect food and medicines for Russia, which they would deliver if the Bolsheviks arranged a cease-fire with their enemies. Nansen tried to dispatch a telegram to Lenin to tell him the good news, but neither the French, who saw the scheme as a ploy by British, American, perhaps even German interests to gain concessions in Russia, nor the British, who were wary of anything that looked like recognition of the Bolsheviks, would send it. The telegram finally went from Berlin.46

The Soviet reply, drafted by Chicherin and Litvinov, came back via radio and cable on May 15. “Be extremely polite to Nansen, extremely insolent to Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau,” Lenin had instructed them. As for the scheme itself, “use it for propaganda for clearly it can serve no other useful purpose.” His colleagues followed his advice, mixing stinging attacks on the Allies with a categorical refusal to consider a cease-fire unless there was a proper peace conference. In Paris, the peacemakers shook their heads sadly and abandoned all further discussion of humanitarian relief. The episode showed yet again the bankruptcy of Allied policy toward Russia.47

There was one last glimmer of hope: that the Russians themselves might solve their dilemma. Just before the spring thaw turned Russia’s roads to mud, the White Russians managed to coordinate an attack on the Bolsheviks. From his base in eastern Siberia, the White admiral Kolchak struck along a wide front. One force moved north toward Archangel and managed to link up with a small advance guard from a beleaguered White Russian and British force. Another pushed west toward the Ural Mountains. A third went south to join up with Denikin and his armies. By mid-April Kolchak and his allies had pushed the Bolsheviks back out of 300,000 square kilometers of territory. But this was the high point of their fortunes.

The Bolsheviks possessed two crucial advantages: their unity and their location. They controlled the center of Russia, while their heterogeneous opponents were widely dispersed around the periphery. Often, none of the White Russian commanders, mutually suspicious and separated from one another by miles of often hostile country, had any idea of what the others were doing. The Bolsheviks had three times the manpower and most of Russia’s arms factories.48

On May 23, 1919, the Allies decided to extend partial recognition to Kolchak’s government. “The moment chosen,” wrote Churchill later, “was almost exactly the moment when that declaration was almost certainly too late.” A dispatch asking for assurances that democratic institutions would be introduced made its tortuous way out to Siberia and in due course a partly garbled answer came back that seemed to provide the necessary guarantees. What also came back from Russia shortly afterward were reports of defeats. By late June, Red armies had broken through Kolchak’s center and the Whites were falling back hundreds of kilometers.49

By this time, however, the Peace Conference was drawing to a close and the Germans were about to sign the Treaty of Versailles. There was no time to do anything more about Russia. A brief clause was drawn up for the treaty which simply said that any treaties made in the future between the Allies and Russia, or any parts of it, must be recognized. Another clause left open the possibility of Russia’s claiming reparations. Otherwise policy toward Russia remained as confused as it had been all along. The blockade against the Bolsheviks remained in force, but support for the Whites gradually dwindled. Britain and France abandoned Kolchak as a lost cause. (The admiral put himself under the protection of the Czech Legion, still in eastern Siberia; the Czechs handed him over to the Bolsheviks, and he was shot in February 1920.) By October 1919, Denikin was in full retreat in the south. In January 1921, with much prodding from Britain, the European Allies agreed to end military intervention and abandon their blockade. In March 1921, Britain signed a trade agreement with the Soviet government. Even Conservative businessmen, who feared they were losing an opportunity in Russia, supported it. In 1924 Britain and the Soviet Union established full diplomatic relations. France followed reluctantly. America would wait another decade, until FDR.

With hindsight, Churchill and Foch were right about the Bolsheviks and Lloyd George and Wilson were wrong. The governing party in Russia did not become like Swedish Social Democrats. Lenin had established a system of terrible and unfettered power which gave Stalin free rein for his paranoid fantasies. The Russian people, and many more beyond, paid a dreadful price for the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, while in Paris the peacemakers were brought up against the limits of their own power.

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