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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis: A Look Back

January 2003

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The author has written for this journal a number of articles on American foreign policy figures of days gone by. Here he assesses the career of a man who held two of the nation's most important ambassadorial posts, both during the 1930's, in the years leading toward the outbreak of World War II. His subject, Bill Bullitt, proved prescient about the coming of that conflict—and the one to follow.—Ed.

Sempa | William C. Bullitt: Diplomat and Prophet

On January 29, 1943, a trusted adviser and friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a lengthy, confidential memorandum about Soviet intentions, a memorandum that could have changed the course of post-World War II history had it not been ignored by the president. William Christian Bullitt, its author, was at the time a roving ambassador for FDR formally assigned to the Navy Department. He previously had served with distinction as America’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union (1933-1936) and as ambassador to France (1936-1940). Bullitt followed up the January memorandum to FDR with two similar but shorter memoranda in May and August of 1943 that were likewise ignored by the president. Roosevelt, as we know, believed that he understood and could handle Soviet dictator Josef Stalin better than Bullitt or any of his other advisers and allies (including Winston Churchill). Tragically, FDR was wrong. In one of the most momentous diplomatic failures of the twentieth century, he pursued policies, both military and political, during the Second World War that resulted in the replacement of the Nazi threat with an even greater and far more enduring Soviet geopolitical threat.

The British historian Paul Johnson has repeatedly reminded his readers that there are no inevitabilities in history. Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe and parts of East Asia was not a foregone conclusion in 1943. Military developments and political decisions would determine the structure of the post-war order. It mattered greatly where U.S. and British forces linked-up with the Soviet army at war’s end. Stalin understood this. Near the end of the war, the Soviet dictator commented to a Yugoslavian communist ally that a country’s social system would be imposed on all the lands conquered or occupied by the country’s armed forces. No one in the inner circles of the U.S. government understood or grasped that fact earlier than William Bullitt.

Bullitt was born in 1891 into a family that was considered part of Philadelphia’s aristocracy. His father, William C. Bullitt, Sr., was a successful lawyer, a state legislator, an executive of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, and the president of the Pocahontas Coal Company. His mother, Louisa, was the daughter of the successful streetcar company owner, Orville Horwitz. As a child, the future diplomat traveled to Europe each summer and became “fluent in French and German.” As a teenager, Bullitt attended a private boarding school in Philadelphia, and during the summers he stayed at an elite boy’s camp in New Hampshire called Camp Pasquaney. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1912, where he excelled at foreign languages, debating and drama. Bullitt started law school at Harvard, but dropped out soon after his father’s death in 1914.1

In June 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Bullitt accompanied his mother on a trip to Russia and Germany. When the war began, Bullitt and his mother left Germany for London where he unsuccessfully tried to become a war correspondent. Bullitt subsequently traveled to Paris in a successful effort to retrieve his grandmother’s jewels, and while there, tried to enlist in the French army, but was rejected. He returned to Philadelphia and became a reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.2 He initially covered the police beat, but soon began writing pieces on the war that appeared on the paper’s editorial page. In late 1915, he traveled again to Europe with other reporters to cover “a peace expedition sponsored by Henry Ford” that included among its members William Jennings Bryan, the former Secretary of state and three-time candidate for President, and Thomas A. Edison, the brilliant inventor.3

When Bullitt returned to the United States he married Ernesta Bowen, the sister of Catherine Drinker Bowen (who later became a famous biographer). The couple honeymooned in war-torn Europe, staying mostly in Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Bullitt used the opportunity to continue writing about the war for the Public Ledger. Bullitt interviewed German and Austro-Hungarian government officials, diplomats, army officers, industrialists and ordinary citizens.4 His dispatches from Europe demonstrated that Bullitt was, in the words of his biographers, “a dogged reporter, adept interviewer and a perceptive analyst.” Walter Lippmann, then an editor for The New Republic, called Bullitt “the sharpest of the American correspondents” covering the war.5

Bullitt’s success as a war correspondent led to his appointment in late 1916 as the Washington bureau chief for the Public Ledger. In that role Bullitt developed sources and friendships with some of President Woodrow Wilson’s most important advisers, including Edward House. Bullitt provided House with “firsthand information about European affairs,” and that, in turn, led to Bullitt’s appointment as an assistant secretary of state in December 1917.6

It was while he was in the State Department that Bullitt began to advocate U.S. recognition of the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. He subsequently opposed the sending of American troops to Archangel and Murmansk during the Russian Civil War. The Wilson administration, however, refused to recognize Lenin’s government, and sent U. S. forces to Russia primarily to guard and reclaim war supplies that had been provided to Russia’s previous government. In a letter to Edward House, Bullitt warned that the U.S. was “blunder[ing] blind[ly] to disaster in Russia,” and proposed the creation in Washington of “an organization competent to interpret Russia and the Revolution,” staffed by “men of deep wisdom and liberality.”7

When the war ended, the United States sent to Paris the American Commission to Negotiate Peace. The Commission consisted of President Wilson, Edward House, former ambassador to France, Henry White, and General Tasker Bliss. One of the Commission’s staff members was William Bullitt. While in Paris, Bullitt floated the idea of sending an American delegation to Russia to meet with representatives of Lenin’s government to discuss possible diplomatic recognition. President Wilson approved the plan, but insisted that it must be done in secret. Bullitt was chosen to head the delegation.8

Bullitt arrived in Russia on March 6, 1919, talked with Georgi Chicherin, the foreign minister, and his top assistant, Maxim Litvinov, on March 9, and five days later met with Lenin in Moscow. Bullitt’s mission accomplished nothing substantive and was repudiated by the United States when it became public.9 In truth, Bullitt was among the first Americans and Westerners to be hoodwinked by Soviet leaders, a disturbing phenomenon that would continue to occur during the next thirty years, and that has been painstakingly documented by Paul Hollander in his book, Political Pilgrims. Bullitt judged Lenin, who advocated and implemented terror at home and violent revolution abroad, to be “genial and with large humor and serenity.” “[T]he Communist Party,” he wrote, “is strong politically and morally.”10 Bullitt appealed directly to the president to consider recognizing the Bolshevik regime, but Wilson declined to do so. This was perhaps due to a report he had received from Herbert Hoover in late March 1919 which stated that the Bolsheviks “resorted to terror, bloodshed and murder to a degree long since abandoned even amongst reactionary tyrannies…. We cannot ever remotely recognize this murderous tyranny without stimulating actionist radicalism in every country in Europe and without transgressing…every national ideal of our own.”11

On May 17, 1919, Bullitt resigned from the State Department in protest over the terms of the proposed Treaty of Versailles. The treaty, he predicted, would lead to another war; a war that the United States would not be able to stay out of. He subsequently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in opposition to the Treaty and U.S. participation in the League of Nations.12

During the 1920s, Bullitt split his time between Europe and the United States. He divorced his wife, and subsequently married Louisa Bryant, the widow of John Reed, the American radical who had romanticized the Bolshevik coup in his book, Ten Days That Shook the World (Bullitt and Bryant divorced in 1930). Bullitt wrote a successful novel about the social life of Philadelphia entitled Its Not Done, and began collaborating with Sigmund Freud on a psychological study of Woodrow Wilson that was ultimately published in 1966.13 Although out of public life, Bullitt continued to associate and make friends with important European officials. Bullitt, according to David Fromkin, “was on close terms with more European statesmen than any other American of his time.”14

Bullitt returned to public life with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932. Bullitt had worked on Roosevelt’s campaign, writing speeches for, and providing advice on foreign policy to, the future president.15 After the election, but before Roosevelt took office as president, Bullitt twice traveled to Europe as a “private citizen,” at the secret request of the incoming administration.16 During one of these trips, Bullitt reported to Roosevelt with uncharacteristic misjudgment that “Hitler is finished…as a possible dictator….Hitler’s influence is waning so fast that the Government [in Germany] is no longer afraid of the growth of the Nazi movement.” Bullitt, it appears, was listening to uninformed sources within the German government, since Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany one month later.17

Although Bullitt hoped to become Ambassador to France once FDR assumed office, that job had been promised to another person, so Bullitt was appointed as a special assistant to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. One of Bullitt’s first assignments was to study the possibility of formal recognition of the Soviet Union, now led by Josef Stalin. The outstanding issues between the two governments at the time, as Bullitt recognized in an October 4, 1933, memo to the Secretary, included the activities of the Comintern and communist propaganda in the United States, the protection of civil and religious rights of Americans in Russia, and the repayment of U.S. loans made to the Russian Provisional Government that the Bolsheviks had overthrown in 1917.18 Bullitt met with several Soviet diplomats, including Foreign Minister Litvinov, to negotiate the terms of formal recognition. In a series of letters to FDR dated November 16, 1933, Litvinov agreed that in return for U.S. recognition, the Soviet Union would “refrain from interfering in any manner in the internal affairs of the United States…,” and promised to protect the religious and civil rights of Americans in the Soviet Union. The next day, the United States extended formal diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union, and William C. Bullitt was appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.19

Bullitt’s ambassadorship to the Soviet Union lasted until May 1936. He accepted the position with high expectations that U.S.-Soviet relations could greatly improve, especially due to their shared interest in halting Japanese expansion in Manchuria. In this he was destined to be disappointed. Initially, the Soviets treated Bullitt well and expressed their alleged desire for cordial relations with the United States. On December 20, 1933, Bullitt attended a lavish dinner at the Kremlin where he met with top Soviet officials, including Stalin. There was much drinking, toasts to FDR and Soviet President Kalinin, and expressions of goodwill. When they bade farewell to each other that evening, Stalin and Bullitt kissed each other on the cheek! Bullitt also traveled to Kiev, Leningrad, Yalta, Odessa, and Kharkov, where he “made polite speeches, toured factories and farms, and was warmly received.”20

By early 1934, however, Bullitt was expressing to Washington his increasing frustration with the Soviets. In one letter he noted: “We are staggering along here, not only meeting disappointments in major matters but having to endure a thousand petty vexations each month.” One such “petty vexation” involved Leningrad police detaining Bullitt and his daughter for improperly crossing a street!21 Perhaps due to this frustration, Bullitt spent much time traveling to more hospitable and friendly European countries, renewing associations with the many European diplomats he had previously befriended. He also visited Japan where he talked with the Emperor, and China, where he met three times with Chiang Kai-shek.22

In April 1935, Bullitt wrote to the president from Paris, expressing his belief that the Soviet Union would sometime in the future reach an accommodation with Germany to the detriment of France and the rest of Europe.23 Four years later, of course, in August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact that paved the way for their mutual invasion of Poland and the beginning of the Second World War.

Bullitt also kept Washington informed of the progress of Stalin’s war against his own people. In May 1935, he reported that “[t]he terror, always present, has risen to such a pitch that the least of the Muscovites, as well as the greatest, is in fear.”24 The previous month, Bullitt had reported confidential details about the murder of Sergei Kirov, the communist boss of Leningrad, and noted that the “arrest and exiling of innocent human beings in all quarters of the Soviet Union continues apace.”25

Bullitt also informed Washington, after a meeting of the Comintern, that the Soviets had broken their pledge to refrain from conducting propaganda and subversive activities against the United States. “It is …perfectly clear that to speak of ‘normal relations’ between the Soviet Union and any other country is to speak of something which does not and will not exist,” he wrote (emphasis added).26 Here, Bullitt appeared to sense that the very nature of the Soviet regime would preclude the United States from having normal diplomatic relations with Moscow.

In July 1935, Bullitt was even more pessimistic, summarizing Soviet foreign policy as follows:

War in Europe is regarded as inevitable and ultimately desirable from the Communist point of view. The Soviet Government fears war…at the present time because the Soviet Union is unprepared, and it is feared that war this year or next in Europe would grow into world war with simultaneous attacks on the Soviet Union by Germany, Poland and Japan….It is, of course, the heartiest hope of the Soviet Government that the United States will become involved in a war with Japan….[T]he aim of the Soviet Government is, and will remain, to produce world revolution. The leaders of the Soviet Union believe that the first step toward this revolution must be to strengthen the defensive and offensive power of the Soviet Union….To maintain peace for the present, to keep the nations of Europe divided, to foster enmity between Japan and the United States, and to gain the blind devotion and obedience of the Communists of all countries…is the sum of Stalin’s policy.27

In another letter to Washington that same year, Bullitt warned that “[u]nless the states of Europe stop fighting each other or the Soviet Union is defeated in war within the next fifteen years, it will be a juggernaut that will be able to sweep the continent.”28 He compared the countries of Europe (Germany and France) to the “squabbling city states of Greece” (Athens and Sparta), with Stalin’s Russia playing the role of Philip’s Macedonia, ready to take geopolitical advantage of the situation.29 In August 1935, he predicted to Secretary of State Hull that, “In this decade the Soviet Union either will be the center of attack from Europe and the Far East or will develop rapidly into one of the greatest physical forces in the world.”30

By 1936, in his last year as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Bullitt gave up all hope for establishing proper diplomatic relations with Stalin’s regime. “We should not cherish for a moment,” he wrote to Secretary of State Hull in April 1936, “the illusion that it is possible to establish really friendly relations with the Soviet Government or with any communist party or communist individuals.”31 The problem, he explained, was systemic in nature, transcending the personality of Stalin: “The problem of relations with the Government of the Soviet Union is, therefore, a subordinate part of the problem presented by communism as a militant faith determined to produce world revolution and the ‘liquidation’…of all non-believers.”32 He noted that the Soviet “secret police” was loyal to the communist regime, and the Red Army was strong.33

Bullitt still believed, however, that the United States needed to have a diplomatic presence in Moscow. The Soviet Union was one of the great powers “and its relations with Europe, China, and Japan are so important that we can not conduct our foreign relations intelligently if we do not know what is happening in Moscow.” But, he wrote, “We should neither expect too much nor despair of getting anything at all [from the Soviets].” “We should,” he further explained, “remain unimpressed in the face of expansive professions of friendliness and unperturbed in the face of slights and underhand opposition.” Our trade with them, Bullitt opined, may never be “stable or permanent.” He advised Washington against giving loans or long-term credits to the Soviets. He also warned about the potential danger of communists in the United States.34

In May 1936, Bullitt left Moscow and soon thereafter resigned his position as ambassador to the Soviet Union. Eighteen years earlier, he had advised President Wilson to establish diplomatic relations with the new Bolshevik regime and secretly met with Lenin and other top Soviet officials in an effort to reach an agreement to further that end. In 1933, with Roosevelt in the White House, Bullitt helped to pave the way for diplomatic relations between the United States and Soviet Russia. He sought to establish a sound basis for the relationship in his role as ambassador. But the brutal nature of the Soviet regime (manifested by the state-created famine in the Ukraine and surrounding areas, the Great Terror and the growth of the Soviet Gulag) and its continued activities through the Comintern to promote world revolution —these dashed Bullitt’s remaining hopes for cordial relations between the two powers and transformed him into a fervent anticommunist.

Bullitt’s tenure in Moscow, however, produced two benefits to the United States. First, his selection of George F. Kennan, Loy Henderson, and Charles “Chip” Bohlen as staff members at the embassy in Moscow launched the careers of three men who rendered effective, and sometimes brilliant, diplomatic service to their country for many years to come. Second, the harsh realities of the nature of the Soviet regime transformed William Bullitt, who would become a close confidante of FDR, into an insightful and prophetic analyst of Soviet motives and intentions.

On August 25, 1936, FDR appointed Bullitt as U.S. ambassador to France. For the next four years, Bullitt was at the very center of the European crisis that eventually led to the outbreak of the Second World War. As David Fromkin has pointed out, “though accredited only to France, [Bullitt] was acting as an American observer of the entire European scene.”35 He arrived at his new post in Paris in early October, presenting his credentials to the French President, Albert Lebrun.36 “I come to France not as a stranger,” said Bullitt, “but as one who for many years has known the magnificent achievements of French civilization.”37 Bullitt was very much at home in the French capitol. As his brother Orville later wrote, “For him it was a happy appointment to his second home. He knew the French so well and was apparently so much in their confidence that he was able to give the President the most intimate details of the thoughts and probable actions of the leading statesmen, both in office and in opposition.”38


The author is an Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and the author of the new book, Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Publishers 2002).

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