The First Cold Warrior; Wilson Shaped a Century of U.S.-Soviet relations.(OPED)

Article excerpt


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. …