By Oscar Silva-Valladares
The year 2017 marks not only 100 years since the victory of the Russian Revolution but also, and perhaps more importantly (at least for those who believe that the fall of the Soviet Union took away the historical meaning of the October 1917 events), 100 years of failure and lost opportunities concerning America’s Russian foreign policy.
Besides a few disputes and some apprehension and mistrust (for instance, when America strongly condemned Tsarist Russia’s harsh treatment of political prisoners in Siberia and its Jewish population), American-Russian relations until 1917 had been fundamentally friendly. In the early 1800s, Russia acknowledged America’s strategic interest in becoming the sole power in North America while it focused on its own imperial goals along the Amur River. Russia gracefully acknowledged its no-win position in Alaska and decided to sell it to America rather than accelerate an otherwise inevitable military conflict. More significantly, Russia saw in the U.S. an emerging power capable of helping counteract Japan’s ambitions in Manchuria, as well as the not less important aims of Britain and France. Russia’s foreign policy toward Japan during the last Tsarist period did not change with the Soviets triumph, as Lenin became anxious to side with America to contain and hopefully defeat Japan’s growing expansionism.
While America’s decisive opposition to the Revolution from early days is well known, it is less evident how U.S. government policy-makers spurned the better intentions of a few U.S. political actors (such as Raymond Robins and Senator William Borah) who, despite their equal aversion to Bolshevism, nevertheless saw the emergence of the Soviet state as a unique opportunity to foster cooperation between both nations through mutually beneficial economic exchange. In 1917, the U.S. had a golden opportunity to play a long-term influential role in Russia, but repeatedly ignored the Bolsheviks’ friendly overtures (which, of course, were motivated by the dire domestic situation in the aftermath of the Revolution). There are numerous examples of Russia’s conciliatory moves, including its receptivity (suggested by Robins and agreed by Trotsky) to press Germany to commit not to move its Eastern front troops to the West (a critical matter for the Allies during the last part of World War I), as key condition to achieve peace in Brest-Litovsk. More dramatically, Lenin agreed to exclude prominent U.S. companies (Westinghouse, International Harvester, and Singer) from Soviet nationalization laws affecting industry.
The shock from the Russian Revolution prompted the U.S. and its entente allies to contain or, even better, to attempt the liquidation of Soviet power. There was a comprehensible fear that the Revolution would spread to Western Europe and even to the U.S. as President Woodrow Wilson candidly admitted. However, while the Bolshevik leaders were stridently preaching world revolution, America failed to understand that the Soviets’ primary objective was just to survive. The communists’ goal was never compromised, even at the height of revolutionary enthusiasm during Russia’s unsuccessful invasion of Poland in 1920.
Anti-Russian US policies somehow lessened during the years following the Revolution, particularly at the time of the Great Depression. During those days, the sporadic economic exchange between both nations jumped to significant levels, but eventually Russia’s growing economic importance and its potential for American credit and further exports was sacrificed to fear.
The absence of Soviet delegates during the Versailles peace discussions at the end of World War I, as they were not invited by the Allies (with U.S. acquiescence), prevented a comprehensive and long-lasting peace framework in the world. With good reason, some historians place this absence among one of the factors that led to World War II. America’s deaf ears to Russia’s pleas against Japan’s and, later on, Germany’s militarism should also be added to this ominous list.
In 2017, Russophobia is back. American foreign policy is led mainly by a firm perception of Russia as a land-grabbing country. Russia’s appeals for further cooperation to fight international terrorism and even to partner diplomatically in North Korea (challenges not less significant today than what Japan and Nazi Germany meant to the world in the 30s) are being ignored. Nobody expects Russia to be congratulated if in fact it attempted to manipulate the most recent American presidential elections, but perhaps such alleged behavior should be put in the context of America’s numerous attempts to overthrow the Bolsheviks, including its material support to the Russian Civil War rebels. The U.S., for instance, heavily supported Admiral Kolchak, a reactionary leader unlikely to have represented America’s avowed democratic ideals. America’s aggressive aims were ultimately defeated by cold facts: growing U.S. weariness to further armed intervention and the lack of support in inner Russia for the counter-revolution ultimately caused the pullout of the American occupation troops in Siberia.
America’s current policies sadly follow a recurrent old pattern. As in 1917, there is a lack of understanding of deep social forces driving world events. American foreign policy never saw through the causes of the Russian Revolution, its real impact nor its long-term prospects of survival. American policy-makers were initially convinced that the Revolution would last weeks or, at most, a few months. Initial reactions at that time tell a lot about American leaders’ perception of the Revolution and even of democracy. ‘A power grab by an ignorant mob’ and ‘the Russian workers and peasants do not understand their place in society,’ were common expressions from leading politicians.
Trying to explain the deeper reasons for America’s policy in Russia is a matter different from highlighting a few historical comparisons. On the latter, some would argue that there is nothing to learn from history as, arguably, events never repeat themselves. While this may be the case, if there is a reason why history is relevant it’s because, ultimately, decision-making seems to be deeply driven by human nature. From this point of view and, as long as our basic biological traits do not change, there is no much difference between 1917 and 2017.