The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations

The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations

The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations

The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations


In The First Cold War, Donald E. Davis and Eugene P. Trani review the Wilson administration's attitudes toward Russia before, during, and after the Bolshevik seizure of power. They argue that before the Russian Revolution, Woodrow Wilson had little understanding of Russia and made poor appointments that cost the United States Russian goodwill. Wilson later reversed those negative impressions by being the first to recognize Russia's Provisional Government, resulting in positive U.S. -- Russian relations until Lenin gained power in 1917.

Wilson at first seemed unsure whether to recognize or repudiate Lenin and the Bolsheviks. His vacillation finally ended in a firm repudiation when he opted for a diplomatic quarantine having almost all of the ingredients of the later Cold War. Davis and Trani argue that Wilson deserves mild criticism for his early indecision and inability to form a coherent policy toward what would become the Soviet Union. But they believe Wilson rightly came to the conclusion that until the regime became more moderate, it was useless for America to engage it diplomatically.

The authors see in Wilson's approach the foundations for the "first Cold War" -- meaning not simply a refusal to recognize the Soviet Union, but a strong belief that its influence was harmful and would spread if not contained or quarantined. Wilson's Soviet policy in essence lasted until Roosevelt extended diplomatic recognition in the 1930s. But The First Cold War suggests that Wilson's impact extended beyond Roosevelt to Truman, showing that the policies of Wilson and Truman closely resemble each other with the exception of an arms race. Wilson's intellectual reputation lent credibility to U.S.Cold War policy from Truman to Reagan, and the reader can draw a direct connection from Wilson to the collapse of the USSR. Wilsonians were the first Cold War warriors, and in the era of President Woodrow Wilson, the first C


n this book we contend that President Woodrow Wilson's administration initiated a “cold war” that lasted from 1917 to 1933. This set a precedent for the Cold War, 1946 to 1991. Wilson reached this stance during a period of policy experimentation with Soviet Russia from November 7, 1917, to August 9, 1920. He first publicly enunciated his version of a cold war doctrine during a speaking tour of the western United States in the fall of 1919. He made that doctrine official policy in the Colby Note, issued August 9, 1920, by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. The Colby Note, with some amendments introduced during the administration of President Warren G. Harding, remained the basis of American relations with Soviet Russia until November 16, 1933. At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt normalized relations by recognizing Soviet Russia.

We analyze our thesis, what we call the “first cold war, 1917—1933, ” in a chronological narrative. The Introduction discusses America's unpreparedness for dealing with Russia in 1913 when Woodrow Wilson became president. Chapters 1 and 2 show the tentative steps President Wilson took in appointing a permanent ambassador to Imperial Russia. He lacked faith in his third and final appointment, David R. Francis. Wilson's uncertainty about Russia and Ambassador Francis, further complicated by the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II on March 15, 1917, led him to policy-making by committee: appointing the Root Mission and the Stevens Railway Commission in the spring of 1917, after America entered World War I, to solve the Russian riddle. Wilson lost an opportunity to save Russian democracy because of his committees' and ambassador's confusing advice and his own tentativeness.

Chapters 3 through 5 examine various alternative policies, clandestine or public, confronting President Wilson in his effort to deal with the Bolshevik Revolution of November 7, 1917. He first selected a watch-and-wait policy, hoping that Soviet power would be quickly overthrown and that the Provisional Government would prevail. He steadfastly refused to recognize Lenin's government, which threatened to take Russia out of World War I. Instead, he adopted a propaganda initiative aimed at convincing Lenin to . . .

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