Recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 by FDR

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What led to the decision to recognize the Soviet Union in 1933?

The decision to recognize the Soviet Union in 1933 reflected an attempt to balance to the irreconcilable between the United States and Russia: conflicting national interests and ideologies—a response perhaps analogous to defining the rationale for change in the nineteenth century as the industrial revolution and the railroad. As the global depression grew, factions within the United States (for consensus did not exist within the government or among corporate and business interests), viewed recognition as a means of helping the American economy through stabilizing trade relations with the Soviet Union. On the political front, Japan had begun aggressive expansion throughout Asia. To many Americans and Russians, diplomatic recognition appeared as a viable response to the growing threat of Japanese hegemony to Russia’s border.

According to John Lewis Gaddis, in Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: an interpretive history, (New York: Wiley, 1978) the Russian Revolution and rise of Bolshevism laid the groundwork for polarities that would govern US-Soviet relationships for subsequent decades—polarities frequently defined by mutual misconceptions and inconsistencies and driven by internal national pressures, the personalities of national leaders and irreconcilable ideologies. The post-World War I period through the time of recognition certainly outlined, to a great extent, the themes that would officially come to be identified as the Cold War. (leeannghajar)


At the end of World War I, American generally extended diplomatic recognition to any government that controlled a state and carried out its international obligations—regardless of whether the ideology of that government corresponded to American precepts and practices.

In 1913, however, President Woodrow Wilson set a precedent for nonrecognition based upon ideological differences when he refused to recognize the Huerta government that had taken control in Mexico through revolution and force of arms. In 1920, he further eroded the standard with failure to recognize the Bolshevik government in Russia. In part, Wilson claimed that the Bolsheviks did not represent the Russian people, and indeed, the measure of Bolshevik control was unclear as other factions within Russia strove for power and control in the wake of the Revolution. Virulent anti-Bolshevik ideology motivated Wilson and the United States as well—a virulence that would be manifest in the reactionary red scare in America in 1919-1920 and subsequent repressive anti-communist measures. Anticommunism became an embedded cultural phenomenon.

Ideological hostility unfolded with soap operatic complexity. In brief, in 1914, Russia had attacked Germany on the Eastern Front, saving France from defeat; yet in the course of action against Germany, Russia’s losses became overwhelming. “In 1917 it had finally cracked under the strain and, in eight months, had gone from autocracy to liberal democracy to a revolutionary dictatorship under a tiny extreme faction of Russian socialists, the Bolsheviks, whom most people, including the Russians themselves, had never heard of.” (Margaret McMillan. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2001) The Allies sent troops to protect disintegrating empire, but the Bolsheviks established a separate peace with the Germany with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. As the Paris Peace Conference began, allied troops—including 14,000 Americans—remained on Russian soil. The question for each allied nation became whether to remain and intervene in Russia’s turmoil—but on which side, that of the Bolsheviks or their opponents—or whether to withdraw and leave Russia to its own internal affairs.

When the Paris Peace Conference opened on January 18, 1919, how to deal with Russia was among the issues facing the Big Four—Britain, France, Italy and the United States. Answers were unclear, and the importance of defining policies toward the new Russia occupied an amorphous niche among postwar diplomatic priorities. Herbert Hoover termed the problem of what to do with Russia as “the Banquo’s ghost sitting at every Council table.” (Gaddis, 77) The Wilson administration and the European powers became governments in search of a policy, and in the end, the Big Four could not agree, even within their own delegations.

Russian confiscation of American property and its failure to pay its wartime debts remained paramount issues deterring American recognition. At the same time, in the post-World War I era, national interest and the global order left little choice politically, economically or diplomatically but for the United States and the Soviet Union to establish some form of cooperative relationship. Here began what John Lewis Gaddis identifies as the tension between ideology and national interest. Wilson and Lenin, the United States and Russia, could brook no ideological compromises; each sought to establish its own system as the new world order. National interest, however, required pragmatic accommodation.

Economic Pragmatism

Throughout the 1920s, and throughout four presidencies, Washington lifted overseas trade and investment opportunities for American business in Russia. Russia became a major American market, and by 1930, American exports to Russia exceeded in value those of every other country and American businesses relied on this export market. According to most authors, this commercial and economic relationship strongly influenced formal recognition.

During the first Soviet Five Year Plan, 1929-1933, Americans provided concessions, technical assistance and trade with the Soviet Union; that is, American companies consulted, shared patents and personnel to assist in the economic development of Russia. . By the mid-1920s, American business and industry supplied more than 25 percent of all of Russia’s imports—a figure which declined as the depression increased. In 1929, more than 2,000 American industrial and agricultural experts, engineers and mechanics worked in the Soviet Union. During the 1930s, hundreds of Soviet students and engineers studied in America and returned to the Soviet Union

Two strong groups polarized the recognition debate: an anti-Soviet, anti-trade group within Congress and the business community and an equally vociferous pro-trade group of politicians, industrialists and exporters who urged the government to remove financial and commercial restrictions and to recognize Russia so that commercial treaties could be negotiated. Pro-traders saw increased trade with Russia as an aid to the economy. Ideological concerns seemed to dominate the antitrading stance. Russia’s first Five Year Plan was yielding some successes. As the Depression continued to ravage America communist success appeared as an indictment of American democracy and capitalism. Certainly there were shades of disagreement inside each broader faction—those favoring commercial treaties did not always favor recognition, for example, but only greater opportunity to deal with Russia.

Joan Hoff-Wilson, Ideology and Economics: US Relations with the Soviet Union, 1918-1933 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1974), discusses the dichotomy between business and government during this period. She places Cold War historiography in two distinct camps: liberal realists and radical revisionists. The liberal realists—George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau—were concerned with the general lack of appreciation of diplomatic theory, an incompetence to make good judgments. Radical revisionists—William Appleman Williams—revived an economic critique of diplomacy, based on the conviction that Washington knew exactly what had to be done abroad to serve the interests of the liberal corporate state at home—in other words, political economy directs foreign policy. (138) Ideology and Economics is an effort to bridge the two extremes.

She offers a very detailed account of the interaction of various business interests with governmental agencies and individuals in the pre-recognition phase. . "In diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1933, the United States never reached a balanced or coordinated political and economic foreign policy because the reaction against bolshevism prevailed in the State and Commerce departments, even though U.S. businessmen participated in a relatively steady increase in trade with the Soviets after 1923." (viii)

Hoff-Wilson points out that the new political and economic order that began in the 1880s gave rise to specialized trade associations and more governmental agencies; however it was a "never the twain shall meet" situation in the 1920s. Despite their vested interests, she claims that business and industry--even with the backing of trade groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Bankers Association and the Chamber of Commerce had little to no impact on the decision to recognize the Soviet Union. She identifies part of that reason as the institutionalization of anti-communism that evolved with the increased organization, reorganization, and bureaucratization of government. Anticommunism became an immutable question of faith within that bureaucracy.

Roosevelt’s recognition policy was almost aberrational, according to Hoff-Wilson, because the anticommunist stance of the government bureaucracy had become a question of immutable faith. When Roosevelt moved outside traditional diplomatic channels to negotiate recognition, but government agencies leaped into the breach after recognition, and “traditional, institutionalized, anti-communist ideology prevailed once more. (130) Her facts are better than her theory, however, that argues that economics had little effect on recognition of the Soviet Union. The value in her book may lie mostly with he discussion of the conflict, agreement, and competition within business and industry, among prominent individuals such as Henry Ford and Armand Hammer, and the role of representative organizations.

Why did recognition not help relations between the two nations?

According to John Lewis Gaddis, it is essential to see foreign policy decisions in the twentieth century as evolving from shifts in the locus of power—most specifically, the global hegemony of Europe declined; a power vacuum ensued, and Russia and the United States moved simultaneously to fill that vacuum and to secure and protect their own political, geographic, and economic security. They moved from opposite platforms.

Recognition did not solve this polarity nor did it improve the veil of false impressions, misconceptions and assumptions between the two about each others internal affairs, culture and society. Trade did not improve and diplomatic relationships retained the tension between self-interest, ambivalence, and ideological conflict. Relationships between the Soviet Union and America were the results of the personalities and interaction between leadership as well. Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership style contributed to lack of progress, according to Thomas Maddux, writing in Years of Estrangement: American Relations with the Soviet Union, 1933-1941 (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1980). Roosevelt never completely understood “the role of ideology in Soviet policy and too quickly brushed aside fears about Soviet designs on Eastern Europe” (159) He also failed to listen to his own diplomats who cautioned him to work out firm agreements on points of difference during discussions over recognition. Instead, Roosevelt bypassed diplomatic channels to engage in personal diplomacy, aided by his own close advisors, and the resulting agreement left areas of ambivalence in the resolution of issues critically important to America.

According to one Roosevelt biographer, Frankl Friedel, both countries ignored the agreements or misconstrued them according to their purposes (176). (Franklin D. Roosevelt: a Rendezvous with Destiny. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1990) Agreements concerning debt repayment, Russian sponsorship of organizations dedicated to overthrowing America, religious freedom for Americans in the Soviet Union— all faded by 1934, even as the Japanese threat to Russia began to disappear. Roosevelt moved into a period of benign indifference to the reality of events in Russia during the latter part of the 1930s—an indifference that almost cost him the resignations of key advisory personnel including the iconic George Kennan—perhaps America’s foremost Russian specialist from the turn of the century through the Cold War era and among those who continued to handle Russian relations on a daily basis.

Both Gaddis and Friedel emphasize the importance of American public opinion as an influence during this time. We remained an isolationist country, occupied with the critical economic concerns of the Depression. Roosevelt emphasized the national interest—in fact, during his early presidency, domestic economic concerns always outweighed international concerns; his foreign policy work focused, of necessity, on negotiations designed to develop international security as European upheaval threatened

Because the foreign office of the Soviet Union, in charge of negotiating the agreements, did not actually dictate policy, the fact that the recognition agreement with the Soviet Union did not contain airtight terminology would have provided, at best, a legal advantage, “to be able to point to firm agreements being ignored or violated.” (Friedel, 177) The greatest benefit was perhaps that recognition enabled the United States to field a diplomatic presence in Moscow that could gather information and grow in experience that would prove invaluable during World War II and subsequent decades.

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