Title Reviewed:
American Russian Relations, 1781-1947

Author Reviewed:
William Appleman Williams

Alfred A. Skerpan


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 225-228

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Russian Relations, 1781-1947. By William Apple-man Williams. (NewYork and Toronto: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1952, pp. 367. Bibliography and index. $3.75.)

The classic image of diplomatic relations likens them to a game of chess. Any serious historical analysis of such relations, then, like any analysis of a great game of chess, must examine on both sides every factor or piece and every move or development of force. Another, equally basic consideration in writing a diplomatic history is that objectivity is not attained by "proving" the government of one's own country to be almost always in the wrong and the ccrrrespondent government almost always in the right. In terms of both these considerations, and despite the great labor in the archives and the true contributions that it makes, Williams’ American Russian Relations falls short of being an adequate book.

Concentrating on the period between 1900 and 1940, which takes up four-fifths of the volume, Williams develops turbidly and tendentiously two key themes. The major one is that hostility to Russia and the Soviet Union governed American policy virtually throughout that period—as after— and that this hostility rose mainly from the imperialist aims of financiers and industrialists and of both Roosevelts as of Woodrow Wilson. The lesser and directly related theme is that American rivalry with Russia over Manchuria and its railways was responsible for the rise of a Japan menacing both powers. The conclusion meant to be drawn from this is that American collaboration and understanding with Russia would have served world peace.

There is, of course, something to be said for the overall thesis, provided that we ignore the fact that it takes two to make a marriage. History, least of all diplomatic history, is hardly to be presented in such simple terms. Although the author appears to have support for his theories, to give them substance he is pressed at times to utilize basically unproved statements. We can deal with only three.

He argues, first (p. 52), that between 1905 and 1912 Russia sought economic and political understanding with the United States in order to oppose Tokyo, and that when she failed she "by necessity sought some measure of safety through a series of alliances with Japan." Apart from the fact that this is not the way the Russian and other historians see it, the statement ignores obvious Russian and Japanese interests in joining secretly and otherwise to oppose Washington, and it disregards Russian and French anxiety for security in the East as crisis mounted upon crisis in Europe.

Again, American intervention in the Russian Civil Wars of 1918-20 becomes for Williams’ theses a "natural." That anti-Bolshevism and the desire to salvage investments influenced this policy is of course not to be denied. However, in treating the subject Williams not only disregards the all-important context of military operations against a Germany reaching to new heights of power, but in two respects serves scholarship badly. On one hand he makes his story of intervention turn on the Siberian theater, where he says the action "was an attempt to restrict Japan within the limits imposed by the decision to oppose the Soviets") p. 129, etc.). On the other hand, he avoids almost completely the problem of the North Russian theater. The first approach, without justification in adequate proof, consciously flies in the face of the conclusions of other serious researchers. And it blandly ignores the fact that the Soviet government dropped its claims for damages, rising out of Siberian intervention, when Litvinov was shown documents indicating that the real purpose of intervention was to check the Japanese. The other approaches makes it possible to avoid both the proniinent anti-German factors involved and a Soviet approval of earlier activities.

The third example of Williams’ use of unproved statements is the most clear-cut. In his version, American "isolationism" of the nineteen-twenties and -thirties was really an effort "to exercise dominant power within a broad framework of freedom without responsibility" and a policy characterized by "unilateral intervention to preserve or extend the overseas power of the United States" (pp. 191, 192). The term "isolationism," here, certainly needs qualification and re-definition. The two statements hardly represent the answer.

A most serious weakness, in American Russian Relations, is the author's attempt to; present Othello without Iago. He presents American conduct as governed by a weltuiwchauung inspired originally by Brooks Adams’ The Law of Civilization and Decay and executed by imperially ambitious presidents and financiers. But the Soviet weltan-chuuung, the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and world revolution, is treated in the most fleeting and negativistic terms. But the indications are that Williams is well informed of these theories. Indicative is his statement (p. 159) that the "essential tragedy of Wilson's failure lies in the fact that he realized and acknowledged that the Soviets represented a desperate attempt on the part of the dispossessed to share the bounty of industrial civilization. More, he knew they must be given access to that share if further resort to violence was to be forestalled. Yet this keen insight was first dimmed then ultimately beclouded by antagonism to the Soviets and the conscious desire to expand American influence: abroad." Also apart irom occasional sections Williams touches little on materials in Russian—a grievous shortcoming in a diplomatic history.

One must state that the work is in considerable part based on archival materials that have not been exploited sufficiently before and therefore contains much new information. The overall role of Raymond Robins in respect to American policy is shown to be more significant and meaningful than had been realized (although the author seems to err on the side of exaggeration). And the story of American economic relations with the Soviet Union in the nineteen-twenties, which has needed telling, is at last available.

As a last point, this is less a book for the college student than for the advanced student and specialist. However, it is also recommended reading for those who believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt's and Harry Truman's foreign policies were Communist-inspired and that George F. Kennan's "containment" policy is negativisitic and therefore represents appeasement. Williams conveniently cites (p. 258) a key passage frcm Rennan's famous essay: "The United States has it in its power… to promote tendencies which must continually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power."

Kent State University

Alfred A. Skerpan

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.