- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

During the early 20th century, Imperial Russia did little to capture the attention of the United States. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson began his presidency dedicated to domestic issues. The newly empowered Wilsonians simply did not give the creaky Russian autocracy much thought. Wilson, a former governor and president of Princeton, was a novice when it came to foreign affairs in general and knew very little of Romanoff Russia in particular. He could take comfort in the fact that the top American experts were not much better.

Most, if not all, policy advisers and diplomats were themselves ignorant of the impending Russian revolution that would change geopolitics forever. The learning curve would prove crucial and remains controversial to this day. Nevertheless, the remarkable thing, according to Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani, authors of "The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations," is that by 1920 the Wilson administration cobbled together a Russia policy that would be influential for decades.

Wilson believed in doing less rather than more when it came to Russia. He opposed the interventionists and instead sought a quarantine approach that closely resembled the containment theory of the 1950s. As his Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby explained in 1920, the United States had "no confidence, trust or respect; hence no recognition" of the new Soviet state.

Critics of the Wilson administration believe that the United States was indecisive and ineffective when it came to dealing with the Bolshevik government. Mr. Davis and Mr. Trani, utilizing at least 100 American and Russian archives, are able to paint a fuller picture. Their account of the formation of the first American policy regarding the Bolsheviks is extremely well-researched. The backbone of the book relies on the numerous exchanges between the various international officials who took great interest in the happenings in Russia.

The reader may grow weary of these cables, ones often written in diplomatic shorthand. Nevertheless the authors convert somewhat dry material into a strong, scholarly work.

While in many ways this book is sympathetic toward Wilson's Russian legacy, a great deal of bungling in Washington and the American Embassy in Petrograd cannot be denied. Nearly always, American diplomats found themselves reacting to events rather than anticipating them. Russia was virtually an unknown beast when the Wilsonians took power. Of all the colleges and universities in the United States, Harvard was the sole institution to offer Russian language classes. The Wilson administration would have to act on instinct rather than knowledge when events in Russia became critical. The result, for better or worse, formed the basis of American Cold War policy after World War II.

The United States' entry into the World War I in 1917 suddenly made its ally Russia very important. The fall of the Romanoff regime came as a shock to the ill-prepared Americans. Wilson quickly recognized the liberal-leaning provisional government, but it, too, fell. The United States and its allies were furious that the Bolshevik government that took control in November 1917 would not continue the war against the Germans. They had lost their Eastern Front and the war would be considerably lengthened. The popular wisdom was that the Bolsheviks, like their predecessors, would quickly crumble. To Wilson's disappointment, this did not occur.

Many believe the Wilsonians squandered opportunities to expunge the Bolsheviks before they became entrenched. However, as Mr. Davis and Mr. Trani persuasively point out, Wilson created a cautious policy of quarantine that remained popular in American diplomatic circles for the rest of the century. This was accomplished by managing to overcome the pitfalls of a mediocre corps of American diplomats in Russia and President Wilson's frail health caused by several severe strokes. The duplicity of the Bolsheviks, the unpredictability of various anti-Lenin opposition groups and the constant French and British demands for American intervention in Russia did nothing to simplify the situation either.

However, it is clear that "Wilson's … appreciation of Russia matured in the Cauldron of World War I." The United States could no longer afford to be ignorant of Russia. By the end of his administration, the sick Woodrow Wilson was not unenlightened in terms of foreign affairs and had the distinction of being the first cold warrior.


Matthew Fontaine was an editorial intern on the book pages this summer. He has now resumed his studies at Valparaiso University.


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