Roads Not Taken: An Intellectual Biography of William C. Bullitt
By Alexander Etkind
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 264 pages, $30)
Just before his death in 1967, the American diplomat William C. Bullitt published a scathing book on Woodrow Wilson that he co-authored with Sigmund Freud.
The two famous men, so different in temperament and background, had become friends in the 1920s, and Bullitt had played a key role in getting Freud out of Vienna and thus saving him from the Nazis when Germany took over Austria on the eve of World War II. They worked on the book in the early 1930s and then agreed to put it in a drawer for reasons that Alexander Etkind, history professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, speculates had to do with Bullitt wanting a job in the incoming Democratic administration.
Etkind’s Roads Not Taken is a fine book, and it ought to have attracted more attention when it came out several years ago because it demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, how strong the impulse is in U.S. foreign policy to make the world right, and how this not infrequently produces misguided policies. With regard to the Russians, it is a tale of high hopes followed by bitter disappointment.
Surely Franklin D. Roosevelt might have had second thoughts about nominating to a high position someone who wrote that a former president was so fixated on his stern Calvinist father as to consider him God, putting himself in the role of Christ. On the other hand, FDR had a famously mischievous streak, and he knew and liked Bullitt, who, like him, came from the upper-middle-class set that Edith Wharton chronicled in her novels. Be that as it may, the study in psychohistory was set aside.
Someone once remarked that people get the governments they deserve. Wilson was in his grave long before Hitler and Stalin came to power.
Bullitt, born in Philadelphia in 1891, attended Yale and Harvard, dropping out of law school in favor of journalism. He sent well-received dispatches from Germany before the U.S. entered the war that caught the attention of Edward “Colonel” House, the rich Texan who was Wilson’s gray eminence and whose progressive policy ideas the young Bullitt shared. Appointed to a high State Department position, the young reporter-turned-diplomat served on the U.S. delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. He was sent to Moscow with the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens to see if a deal might be cut with the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks had pulled out of the war after their coup in 1917; they were losing the ensuing civil war against the White armies that wanted to bring back the czar or, at least, the constitutional liberals whom Lenin and his gang had overthrown. By early 1919, the Whites had them cornered in an enclave around Moscow and, supplied by the Allies, were on the cusp of what we might call regime change to reverse regime change. Lenin liked the terms Bullitt offered, which would divide Russia among the warring parties.
Bullitt was delighted; he was an early example of radical chic who counted the fellow traveling John Reed among his friends. Apart from sympathizing with the socialist ideals Lenin claimed to represent, he thought the deal would moderate the Bolsheviks’ goal of taking over the Russian empire and exporting their revolution westward.
Moreover, it was in synch with Wilson’s peace plan, the 14 Points. “The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations,” the Sixth Point stated, “will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.”
Wilson rejected the deal Bullitt brought back from Moscow; in fact, he would not even meet with his young envoy. He was breaking with everyone, including Colonel House, because he had his mind set on gutting the 14 Points, which the Anglo-French disdained, in order to get the League of Nations included in the Treaty of Versailles. Once the league was in place, with U.S. participation, the rest of the world-saving agenda would follow, Wilson believed. A Democrat, he favored segregation and imposed limitations on non-white federal employees.
Disgusted, Bullitt wrote an angry resignation letter, released it to the press, and went home to testify that the treaty was not in U.S. interests before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Republican Henry Cabot Lodge. Wilson spent the last active months of his life debating Lodge, who would have signed on to the proviso that the Senate retain “advise and consent” power over any request by the league to use armed might to enforce its peace-making resolutions. The “greatest Presbyterian of the age,” as Mattie Ross thought him, suffered a stroke while campaigning for his dream of making the world safe for democracy following this war that he had said would end all wars.
Bullitt never forgave him.
Hence the book with Freud. Its argument was that the world had missed an opportunity for permanent peace, and it was the fault of Woodrow Wilson. The thesis was met with mixed reviews. Such eminent and not-exactly-disinterested observers as Anna Freud, Erick Erickson, and Robert Coles claimed Bullitt had falsified Freud’s ideas. Actually, there is documentary evidence among the Freud papers that the great man drafted the most controversial passages and that Bullitt, in agreement with them, made no substantive alterations.
Barbara Tuchman, whose narrative histories remain widely popular, took a less polemical stance, writing in the Atlantic that the book might well be an interesting psychological study of hubris, but as history it did not pass. This sharp insight, regardless of whether you agree that Wilson was mad, is sensible. It goes to the heart not only of Bullitt’s own hubris but also, to the degree that he represents a certain recurring type among American high officials, of the chronic error of American foreign policy.
This error consists of the typical American sin of overweening expectations. Morning in America and endless opportunity works — in America, because we are a successful free society. But it does not follow that we can export our dream. On the contrary, it shows why everybody keeps trying to come here, while over there no regime ever takes our advice.
The “roads not taken” are indeed a recurring motif in Bullitt’s life, but Etkind acknowledges they might have been roads to nowhere.
This is something that even Etkind, whose book is engaging and at times altogether fascinating, views with some ambivalence. Although as a Russian-born liberal he is well positioned to separate our ever-youthful ideals from the rest of the world’s cynicism, he regrets that the roads Bullitt proposed were not chosen by others in the position to take them. David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau thought the 14 Points were for the birds; they fully intended to punish Germany and maintain their nations’ empires, peace on earth and self-determination be damned.
The Versailles Treaty was not bound to have dire consequences, though Bullitt and, more famously, John Maynard Keynes proclaimed it would. There is a broad consensus among historians that the punitive peace contributed to German resentments, paving the way for the Nazis and the resumption of world war. Keeping the Bolsheviks out of the league, in this view, made them more radical and provided a path for Stalin’s rise.
But you can say just as well that, on the contrary, Versailles was not sufficiently hard on Germany, and, by concluding their business while abandoning the Whites, the Allies let the Bolsheviks snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We will never know, but someone once remarked that people get the governments they deserve. Wilson was in his grave long before Hitler and Stalin came to power.
Etkind hints at this without elaborating; the “roads not taken” are indeed a recurring motif in Bullitt’s life, but he acknowledges they might have been roads to nowhere. Bullitt married a girl from his own upper-crust Philadelphia set — the same that Bill Tilden belonged to — but that did not work out. He married Louise Bryant out of loyalty to, or perhaps identification with, John Reed, which did not work out well either. He spent the rest of his life a very eligible and charming bachelor, and perhaps — there is little hard evidence — a serial playboy.
He also liked Stalin before he came to fear him. Despite the failed mission of 1919, Bullitt had a deserved reputation as a well-connected Europeanist, familiar with intellectuals and writers as well as public figures. He wrote a successful novel in the ’20s and kept his lines open. FDR knew him and sent him to Moscow when he decided to recognize the Soviet Union.
Ambassador Bullitt took along George F. Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen, two of the most-promising foreign-policy men of the rising generation. They shared, in varying degrees, his hopes of getting along with Stalin and realizing the unfinished Wilsonian aim of bringing the Soviet Union into the “society of nations.”
Instead, they soon found themselves stalked by Stalinist thugs; they packed revolvers and rarely ventured out of the embassy. To his horror, Bullitt watched old friends from 1919 — the Old Bolsheviks — accused of serving British imperialism. They all, Bullitt first among them, became anti-communists.
Transferred to Paris, where he kept a famous wine cellar, Bullitt knew war was coming and urged FDR — and the French politicians, among whom he was so well liked that they called him a “minister without portfolio” — to rearm. His advice was taken much too late. When the Hitler–Stalin pact was broken and Russia was in the war on the Allied side, Bullitt counseled against trusting Stalin with a blank check, but his replacement in Moscow was the fellow traveling Joseph Davies, whose advice to “give them [the Soviets] everything they need” FDR took.
Bullitt by then had disobeyed Roosevelt’s direct order to leave Paris ahead of the German advance, telegraphing back that no ambassador should leave his post. Roosevelt admired his friend’s courage but soured on him and refused him the cabinet position — State or War — he asked for. Instead, he tried to enlist in the Army, and, when he was turned down, he went to Algiers to join the Free French. As an aide to the already-legendary Jean de Lattre, he fought his way to the Rhine and came home with honors.
He remained a liberal on many domestic issues, pursuing a vendetta against his old State Department rival Sumner Welles, who was forced to resign during the Truman administration on the basis of sex-mania allegations. Whether this pleased Bullitt is not known, but he wrote for popular magazines in favor of nuking China and Russia. Eventually the book on Wilson was published, and then he died.
Alexander Etkins’ study of William Bullitt is uncannily pertinent. Published in 2017 when the administration on the way out was blaming its failure to “reset” U.S.–Soviet relations on the incoming one’s alleged ties to the very same regime it had sought to appease, Bullitt’s intellectual — and diplomatic — career might have served as an object lesson that, where Russia is concerned, in the immortal verse of Sir Mick Jagger, “you can’t always get what you want.”
Does This Signal Greater Danger Ahead?
Odesa’s Catherine the Great Monument and the Legacy of the Russian World