Pragmatism in Early Soviet Foreign Policy

Paper for the conference of The Historical Society

Boston, June 2000

By Michael Jabara Carley©

University of Akron







It is all up hill to re-examine Soviet foreign policy, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. "We now know," someone said, about Soviet foreign policy, we have the story, we do not need to trouble ourselves any more about it. We know who the good guys were, and the bad guys too. You must have heard these lines before, but let me give you a few examples for the pre-World War II period.

For instance, we do not have to re-examine the Soviet role in starting the Second World War. We know it was Stalin--evil, bloody, purging--the left-wing dictator whose hands dripped with the blood of millions of victims of communism, who betrayed the wooing, well-intentioned western democracies. Stalin courted Hitler, the right wing dictator, to make an anti-western, anti-democratic pact, and it led to the beginning of World War II. Hitler invaded innocent Poland, and Stalin, no better than his German dictator interlocutor, took his fork and knife to feast at Hitler's table, taking his share of Polish territory and making his share of victims. After such evil conduct, how could the west have any constructive dealings with Stalin or the Soviet Union? As Robert Buzzanco put it last year in a now well known essay, this kind of reasoning justified United States post-war, cold war policy. Of course, Buzzanco's paper was much maligned on the listserv H-Diplo, but then consider the source. Naturally, cold war reasoning required that western public opinion be led to forget about the tremendous, indispensable Soviet contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany. Dead soldiers and civilians and devastated cities do not count for much in post-war equations of power and certainly did not in 1945.

And other early Soviet policies and positions have been incorrectly assessed, or cold war historians have analysed them through cold war glasses. Take, for example, the late, distinguished Adam Ulam. He said that Soviet foreign policy was largely Comintern policy: there were Soviet-German relations and there was Comintern policy in China. Actually Soviet foreign policy was far more sophisticated and complex than this portrayal of it. These Soviet policies are becoming more familiar to specialists because of the partial opening of Soviet archives in Russia. I should mention here the work of Sabine Dullin, Gabriel Gorodetsky, Jon Jacobson, Timothy O'Connor, Geoffrey Roberts, T. J. Uldricks, among others.

My question is: are western "cold war" assessments of early Soviet policy still tenable? Obviously, these assessments were good enough for the cold war politician, but should they be good enough for the historian? I think not. "What a complicated thing history can be", Geoffrey Roberts recently said. I believe it was A. J. P. Taylor who observed that Stalin was evil, but Soviet foreign policy was not. Just to be clear: Soviet policy was not sublime, noble, or disinterested either. It was largely rational and pragmatic, as the title of my paper suggests. And the West did not fail to recognize Soviet pragmatism, it failed to match it.

A fresh examination of Soviet foreign policy in the period before the Second World War repays the effort. Let's start at the beginning: the October revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power. The Russian army was collapsing, and the Bolsheviks made public declarations calling for peace and world socialist revolution. In March 1918 the Soviet government concluded the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Russia's former allies, France, Britain, the United States, notably, took a dim view of the Brest-Litovsk peace. Nor did they like the annulation of the Russian state debt, the confiscation of private property held by foreign nationals, and so on. In early 1918 some people in the French, British, and American governments suggested that the Allies should help the Bolsheviks against Germany because they (the Bolsheviks) were the only force in Russia capable of putting up further resistance to the enemy. And these were not all eccentrics on the fringes of power: British prime minister David Lloyd George and French General Ferdinand Foch contemplated such ideas. The Russian anti-Bolsheviks were pro-German; they said, or they were done in and represented nothing. The idea of cooperating with Soviet Russia floated, briefly. But the trial balloon was burst by those who saw the Bolsheviks as dangerous revolutionaries who must be crushed before the bacillus of social revolution spread into Europe.

And there were some Bolsheviks who willing to contemplate limited cooperation with the west against Germany. You remember Lenin's famous quotation: "cast my vote for taking guns and potatoes from the Anglo-French bandits", or words to that effect. Here was the first begrudging, begrudged Soviet pragmatism toward the west.

My point here is that a pattern developed early in the western-Soviet relationship. Dual policy it was called in Soviet Russia, and what is less known, in the west too. There were politicians, civil servants, and businessmen in the west--in France, Britain, the United States, for example-who saw commercial and strategic advantages in improving relations with Soviet Russia, then the Soviet Union. In France strategic questions mattered because the French feared German revanche. Édouard Herriot, the French Radical leader, went to Soviet Russia in 1922 and said so to G. V. Chicherin, the Soviet foreign commissar. Britain had the English Channel, and the United States, the Atlantic Ocean to protect their citizens against a revanchist Germany. But France did not. Before the war Tsarist Russia was France's most important ally. Herriot and others wanted to improve relations with Soviet Russia to re-establish a balance of power in Europe. And traders wanted better relations too in order to do business in what looked like an important emerging post-war market. They put pressure on the Allied governments to end the strangling maritime blockade around Soviet Russia and to allow trade and credit for trade with the Bolsheviks.

And on the Soviet side too there were pragmatists, a good many of them. The Communist International, the Comintern, was established in 1919 to spread world socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks were internationalists, but even here they were pragmatists of a sort for the Comintern was the only way to fight back against the Allied military intervention in Soviet Russia. In 1919 Soviet Russia could not attack the west by force of arms, but they could with revolutionary propaganda. The propaganda was dangerous, and the interventionists feared it. The Comintern, while attempting to spread revolution, was also an instrument of self-defence.

The civil war petered out in 1921. Soviet Russia was ruined by war, civil war, and Allied blockade. The Soviet government had to rebuild, and the Bolsheviks recognized that they must buy and borrow in the west to build their socialist society. Here was an irony worth noting: the Bolsheviks needed capitalist goods--needles, shoes, locomotives, machine tools--to rebuild. And they had to borrow the capitalist's money to trade. Russian socialism needed western capitalism. The Bolsheviks learned quickly. Lenin called it peaceful coexistence. Bolsheviks became good businessmen. Who would have thought so? The Narkomindel, the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, and the Commissariat for External Trade, became the bastions of Soviet pragmatism. Lenin, Chicherin, Maksim M. Litvinov, L. B. Krasin, Kh. G. Rakovskii, and perhaps even Stalin were among its most important proponents.

But the Comintern continued to foment revolution even though the foreign intervention and civil war had ended. Even though the prospects of world revolution were nil, it was hard to abandon the instruments of world revolution. Bolshevik traders and pragmatists accused Bolshevik revolutionaries of sucking ideas from their thumbs. The revolutionaries accused the Narkomindel of floundering in the ooze of opportunism. The west hoped Stalin, the "moderate", would triumph over Trotskii, the permanent revolutionary. Imagine Stalin, the "moderate". Stalin was not so moderate as the west hoped, nor Trotskii so revolutionary.

In any event Bolshevik traders and pragmatists began to talk to and trade with their counterparts in the west. And trade increased, though it was not without difficulties. In fact, in many cases it was guerrilla war: western businessmen often sold shoddy merchandise at high prices. When credit was available, it was dear. As long as you do not accept our rules for doing business, said these entrepreneurs of the west, we will cheat you, deny you cheap credit, and take you for every penny. Playing by western rules meant indemnifying foreign nationals holding property in Russia before the revolution and recognizing and paying off the tsarist bonds held by the billions in the west. Bolshevik traders learned fast, exasperating their western interlocutors who thought they did not play fair, though what's fair in business? Lenin's exhortation "learn to trade" might be roughly translated as gull them twice as much. The anti-communist ideologues and their Comintern counterparts did not like this business pragmatism. Ironically, western ideologues were more successful than their Soviet counter-parts in blocking better relations.

In the United States it was people now long forgotten or nearly so, who pressed for better relations: for example, businessman Meyer Bloomfield, governor of Indiana, J. P. Goodrich, senators Smith W. Brookhart, William E. Borah, Joseph Irvin France. They tried to move the United States toward trade and political relations with Soviet Russia in the early 1920s. The State Department considered these advocates to "have swallowed the Bolo bait, hook and sinker". Suckers and dupes, they were, so opined the State Department. The United States did not recognize the Soviet Union until 1933.

The Soviet government had better luck in Europe. The "weak-kneed", "spineless" French started to flirt with Soviet representatives in 1922 and 1923. Herriot, politicians Paul Painlevé and Anatole de Monzie, the future Italophile appeaser, were the most important advocates of better relations. The French president Alexandre Millerand and the premier Raymond Poincaré were not interested, but elections were coming in 1924 and Franco-Soviet relations were an election issue.

In Britain, the Tories were itching to pick a fight with the Bolsheviks, and the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon actually did in 1923. The Foreign Office, the Home Office, and the India Office were bastions of anti-communism. On the other hand, traders like Arthur G. Marshall and the Labour party wanted better relations with the Soviet Union. Trade was the main motivator. After elections in late 1923 Labour formed a minority government early in the new year (1924), and recognized de jure the Soviet Union. The Tories came back to power later that year in an election marked by the scandal of the so-called Zinoviev letter, a forgery it turns out, which the Soviet government claimed all along.

As Anglo-Soviet relations were deteriorating, Franco-Soviet relations improved when a centre-left coalition led by Herriot won national elections in the spring of 1924. Herriot formed a government which recognized the Soviet Union in late October 1924. But the split continued in France between pragmatists and ideologues, as it did elsewhere. The ideologues held the upper hand.

In 1926 the United States rejected an offer of negotiations from Krasin, who was an important Soviet advocate of better relations with the west. More than a debt settlement was involved, said the secretary of state (Frank B. Kellogg): it's "a question of principle." " We cannot recognize a régime whose very foundation principle is ultimately to bring about the overthrow of every foreign government by revolution…" (October 1926).

Revolution was brewing in China, and the Soviet government, or rather the Comintern lent a hand. Britain had vital trade interests in China, and British notables in Hong Kong, among others, were calling for military action. Things were so hot in London that Austen Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, had to calm down his senior officials and clerks who were spoiling for a fight with the Soviet Union. Someone said that the Chinese revolution was a proxy war between Britain and the Soviet Union. I think this was true.

Litvinov joked about the fact that the Narkomindel had nothing to do with the Comintern, nor did it want to. This was quite true, but all important matters of policy (and many unimportant ones too) ended up in the Politburo, the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union, so that Narkomindel disavowals while true technically, expressed the wish, not the reality. And the Politburo was apparently willing to sacrifice relations with Britain to pursue its support of the Chinese revolution. It did sacrifice them, but the Chinese revolution failed. Britain broke off diplomatic relations in the spring of 1927, and British civil servants threatened to deny government contracts to British firms who continued to trade with the Soviet Union.

While Soviet relations with Britain deteriorated, the Soviet government still hoped to improve their relations with France. Soviet policy was motivated by the desire to be on acceptable terms with at least one of the western great powers (apart from Germany), so that they would not form an anti-Soviet bloc. In 1926-1927 a Franco-Soviet conference took place to resolve economic and political issues. The Soviet government offered what were probably the most extensive concessions on the tsarist foreign debt that it ever made during the inter-war years. Sixty million gold francs per annum for sixty years in exchange for trade credits. They asked for $250 millions over three years, but finally lowered this figure to $120 millions.

In a most interesting story, which I will publish in Europe-Asia Studies in the autumn of this year, the French government rejected what it considered to be a serious and acceptable Soviet offer. What was the main reason for the French rejection of Soviet proposals? The answer is simple: internal politics and anti-communism. National elections were to take place in the spring of 1928, and the centre-right government of Poincaré ran an anti-communist campaign to discredit and split the French left. Hence, the Poincaré government could not conclude an important economic agreement with the Soviet Union which would favour the electoral chances of the left. It may come as a surprise, but anti-communism in the 1920s was hot and virulent. In 1926-27 anti-communism was white hot in Britain and France. In an interesting twist, however, de Monzie, the chief French negotiator, defied instructions from Premier Poincaré to stop negotiations. Instead, Monzie sought a debts-credits agreement with his Soviet interlocutor Rakovskii in the summer of 1927. His plan was to present Poincaré with a fait accompli forcing the Poincaré government to accept an agreement or risk alienating French bondholders and losing the 1928 elections.

In a story we are only now coming to understand, thanks to the opening of Soviet archives, a Byzantine struggle took place inside the French government between Monzie who had little power and Poincaré who had a great deal. Could Monzie finesse a Soviet agreement in spite of Poincaré's adamant opposition? As it turned out, he could not, but that he tried makes an intriguing story. In the end, the Poincaré government decided to expel the chief Soviet negotiator, Rakovskii, to kill once and for all the Franco-Soviet negotiations. On 4 September 1927 an inspired right-wing press campaign began in Paris intended to drive the Soviet polpred out of his embassy and to rupture relations with the Soviet Union. Diplomatic relations continued, though barely, and Rakovskii was recalled. Here was a case where the Soviet government made important concessions rejected by France in an early cold war atmosphere of red-baiting electoral politics.

These circumstances poisoned Franco-Soviet relations for the next five years. And Chicherin, who for a long time, had tolerated setback after setback in pursuing better relations with the west, finally lost patience. There were limits even for Chicherin. In the early months of 1928 Chicherin had several serious confrontations with the French ambassador Jean Herbette. In April they had a dangerous argument. Herbette had the temerity to criticize the Soviet press for its harsh treatment of France and to accuse the Soviet Union of making military preparations against its neighbours. Chicherin tried to keep his composure, but failed. "I expressed my indignation...," he said, "France is armed to the teeth..." and we are only providing for our own defence. Herbette accused the Soviet Union of planning aggression; Chicherin replied that the Soviet government planned only to defend itself. "But if you don't like that," Chicherin added, "may I refer you to what the Spartan Leonidas said to the Persians [at Thermopyles] when they demanded his arms. 'Come take them,' he said." "I was struck," Herbette later reported sanctimoniously, "by the intensity of [Chicherin's] anger."

Franco-Soviet relations remained strained until 1932, but Anglo-Soviet relations improved briefly in 1929 when a new minority Labour government returned to power and renewed relations with the Soviet Union. Anglo-Soviet debt negotiations dragged on until 1932, but led nowhere. The Soviet Union had commenced its first five year plan in 1928. The failure of trade and credit negotiations in the west, the failed Chinese revolution, and the Soviet war scare in 1927, contributed to the Soviet Union's decision to build an industrial infrastructure on its own. It made the Soviet government less interested in concluding debts-credit agreements in the west.

In Britain the early cold war atmosphere continued in spite of the Labour minority government. Indeed, Tory red-baiting in the House of Commons impeded pursuit of a trade agreement. I imagine, wrote one Foreign Office official, that if the [British] anti-communist press called "a truce in the long range bombardment of Moscow… [h]alf their 'copy' would go…" (January 1930). A new foreign secretary, Sir John Simon, heard this observation from Foreign Office officials: "It is one of the unfortunate legacies of the War that Anglo-Soviet relations have become a subject of the most acute internal political controversy… From being a pre-war enigma Russia has become a post-war obsession… a matter of party strife at most of the post-war appeals to the British electorate. So long as one section of opinion, even if a small one, hitches its wagon to the Soviet star, and another longs for nothing so much as the star's eclipse, the task of reducing Anglo-Soviet relations to normal remains hopeless" (November 1931).

In the 1920s trade was the main motivator of western-Soviet rapprochement. In the 1930s it was security. In the 1920s German revanche was merely a French cauchemar; in the 1930s it became a Soviet koshmar as well. Hitler came to power in 1933, and Nazi Germany rearmed at break neck speed. France became interested in better relations with the Soviet Union, and Herriot, again, led a government which signed a Franco- Soviet non-aggression pact (in late 1932). Economic relations also improved and by 1934 the French government was willing to talk about a Franco-Soviet mutual assistance pact. A conservative French politician, Louis Barthou, conducted negotiations with foreign commissar Litvinov and he seemed interested in closer relations.

Litvinov promoted "collective security", which meant in effect formation of a broad based Soviet alliance with France and Britain to deter Nazi aggression or defeat it, if deterrence failed. But Barthou was assassinated in October 1934, and he was succeeded by Pierre Laval, who immediately put the brakes on negotiations. Laval preferred a settlement with Nazi Germany, and was a strong anti-communist who feared the spread of communist revolution into the middle of Europe. He said so openly.

Note the date: October 1934. Laval eventually signed a mutual assistance pact with Stalin in Moscow in May 1935, but only because the dead Barthou's inertia carried negotiations forward and because Hitler left Laval no choice. Laval made promises about military staff talks and French war supplies for the Red Army, but the French government did not keep Laval's promises.

As these events unfolded in France, the British government--surprisingly, you may think--began to show a greater interest in a Soviet rapprochement. This movement was pushed by a civil servant, not a politician, Sir Robert Vansittart, the influential Foreign Office permanent under-secretary. He aimed for security against Nazi Germany, and he used trade and credits as a means of strengthening the political rapprochement. Vansittart had the help of the Tory renegade and former die-hard, Winston Churchill, who started seeing the Soviet ambassador I. M. Maiskii in 1935. Churchill became in effect Maiskii's advisor, supporting the formation of a grand alliance. In March 1935 Anthony Eden, then Lord Privy Seal, went to Moscow to meet Stalin in a much publicized meeting. Both Litvinov and Stalin gave strong signs of interest in closer relations. So what happened? Eden became foreign secretary in December 1935, and immediately put a stop to the rapprochement, which was dead by February 1936.

Note the date, February 1936. Again the reasons were ideological: fear of war, communism, and revolution. Eden and his colleagues made no effort to hide them. This was at a time by the way when British military estimates of the Red Army were positive and improving.

The date was February 1936, before the Popular Front elections in the spring of that year, before the Spanish civil war broke out in the summer, and way before the Stalinist purges of the Soviet high command in 1937. The blood purges of old Bolsheviks also began in earnest in the summer of 1936, but the French and the British governments did not care a pin about old Bolsheviks, with a few exceptions.

The last chance for western-Soviet rapprochement came in 1939. It failed too. I will not go into detail about these negotiations, which you can read in my book 1939. But the appeasers, the Munich-makers, Chamberlain, Bonnet, and others, dragged their feet. They still feared a Soviet alliance, and communist revolution in the event of war.

Many of the historian-critics of Soviet foreign policy, as I suggested at the beginning, hold that Stalin preferred an alliance with Nazi Germany from the very beginning. Collective security was merely a front. What the Soviet government did was not important; what really counted was what Stalin thought in the deepest recesses of his mind. Litvinov was Stalin's dupe. He was the smiling whorehouse piano player, but the man who called the tunes was upstairs and out of sight. Soviet foreign policy was Comintern policy; it pursued world revolution and sought to dupe the west in helping to make it. How could the west ally with bloody, duplicitous Stalin, the purger, or with the government founded by Lenin, the "mass murderer" and destroyer of "fledgling Russian democracy", and so on.

There is a straightforward reply to these kinds of arguments which are intended to defend the Anglo-French failure to pursue better relations with the Soviet Union and to attack the legitimacy of Soviet willingness to pursue a pragmatic policy of collective security with the west. The reply is that the evidence does not support what are essentially cold war political arguments and convictions. "It ain't so," say the ideologues.  But constant repetition of these arguments, and impugning the reliability of mounting evidence to the contrary will not make them more credible.  And yet you have to hand it the old guard of ideologues and émigrés: evidence has no impact on them, no matter how much is assembled against them.  Really you have to respect the ideologues for that: they know what they believe and what they're going to say.  "And don't bother me with evidence!"

The fact is that when the French or British rejected Soviet overtures in the 1920s or the 1930s, it was not because of the Stalinist purges, which had not occurred yet. Or, because Lenin was "a mass murderer". This latter bit is a post Soviet Union argument anyway. In 1934-36 Anglo-French rejection of Soviet collective security was not because the Red Army was weak and useless, because Anglo-French generals observed the growing strength of Soviet military power. No, the evidence shows that the main motivation for Anglo-French rejection of Soviet pragmatism was anti-communism and fear of the war-revolution nexus, that is, that war would lead to the spread of socialist revolution. In the 1920s it was to teach the Bolsheviks a lesson, that they would have to play by western rules if they wanted trade, credit, and tolerable relations. Western rules meant recognition of debts, compensation to property owners, and in effect renunciation of the October Revolution. What I am proposing--even though the going is uphill--is that the popular and orthodox image of the Soviet ideologue threatening murder and revolution, and the moderate, reasonable west defending itself against communist aggression does not hold up in this story of diplomacy in the interwar years. The reality was more complicated and rather different than the west's cold war stereotypes.

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Note on Sources:

Research for this paper is based on unpublished sources in British, French, Russian, and United States archives. My most recent publications are: 1939: The Alliance that Never Was and the Coming of World War II Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 1999, 352pp. & London: Stratus, 2000, and "Episodes from the Early Cold War: Franco-Soviet Relations, 1917-1927", Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 52, nº 7 (November 2000), pp. 1275-1305.