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Alternative Accounts of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: a history of the US-Russia relations, part III

Cont’d from part II


Once it became clear that the Bolshevik Revolution was irreversible—the West having to resign itself to challenging the emergent Russian Empire on ideological grounds alone since military intervention was no longer an option—formation of the Soviet Union was the next monumental step in the saga of the unfolding East-West relations.[1]  

It was a multi-stage process. First, the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR was signed on December 30, 1922, by the Russian SFSR (Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), the Transcaucasian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic), and the Belorussian SSR, and then approved by the First All-Union Congress of Soviets.[2] Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs joined the federation in 1925, Tajik SSR in 1929, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Georgian, Azerbaijan, and Armenian SSRs in 1936, and Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Moldavian SSRs in 1940—by which time, there were 15 republics within the USSR.[3] [4]


The East-West relations, in particular, the relations between the US and the USSR, which go back to 1809, entered another phase. “On December 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson instructed all American diplomatic representatives in Russia to refrain from any direct communication with representatives of the Bolshevik Government. [And] although diplomatic relations were never formally severed, the United States refused to recognize or have any formal relations with the Bolshevik/Soviet governments until November 16, 1933.” [5] Indeed, November 16, 1933, is a turning point in what was to become forever contentious relations between the two powers, interspersed as they may have been by brief interludes of cooperation or détente.[6]  


Why 1933?

There’s no question that the 1929 Wall Street crash, followed by the Great Depression, was a catalyst. And so was the March 3, 1933 inauguration of FDR,[7] considering his predecessors’ (John Calvin Coolidge Jr. and Herbert Clark Hoover) inability to deal with the nation’s mounting foreign and domestic problems. 

Indeed, almost immediately upon taking office, however, President Roosevelt moved to establish formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. His reasons for so doing were complex, but the decision was based on several primary factors. Roosevelt hoped that recognition of the Soviet Union would serve U.S. strategic interests by limiting Japanese expansionism in Asia, and he believed that full diplomatic recognition would serve American commercial interests in the Soviet Union, a matter of some concern to an Administration grappling with the effects of the Great Depression. [Besides,] the United States was the only major power that continued to withhold official diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union. [8]  


The hopes were high.

By 1933, old fears of Communist threats had faded, and the American business community and newspaper editors were calling for diplomatic recognition. The business community was eager for large-scale trade with the Soviet Union. [In return,] the US government hoped for some repayment on the old tsarist debts, and a promise not to support subversive movements inside the U.S.[9]

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the initiative, with the assistance of his close friend and advisor Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and Russian expert William Bullitt, bypassing the State Department.”[10] He took no chances, however.

First, he commissioned a survey of public opinion, which at the time meant asking 1100 newspaper editors; 63 percent favored recognition of the USSR and 27 percent were opposed. Next, he met with Catholic leaders to overcome their objections. And only then he invited Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov to Washington for a series of high-level meetings in November 1933.[11]

Litvinov and Roosevelt agreed on issues of religious freedom for Americans working in the Soviet Union. The USSR promised not to interfere in internal American affairs, and to ensure that no organization in the USSR was working to hurt the U.S. or overthrow its government by force. Both sides agreed to postpone the debt question to a later date. Roosevelt thereupon announced an agreement on the resumption of normal relations [12]


Things didn’t go, however, as planned.

There was no progress on the debt issue and little additional trade. Historians Justus D. Doenecke and Mark A. Stoler note that “both nations were soon disillusioned by the accord.” Many American businessmen expected a bonus in terms of large-scale trade, but it never materialized. [13]

Roosevelt named William Bullitt as ambassador from 1933 to 1936. Bullitt arrived in Moscow with high hopes for Soviet–American relations, but his view of the Soviet leadership soured on closer inspection. By the end of his tenure, Bullitt was openly hostile to the Soviet government. He remained an outspoken anti-communist for the rest of his life. [14] [15]

Come 1939, on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe, the US-Russia relations were in limbo.


In the following installment, we’ll trace the US-USSR relations through World War II and the ensuing Cold War, until USSR’s dissolution.

  1. À propos of the policy of containment, see “Alternative Accounts of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, part I,” endnote #8, and I’m citing the relevant passage: “The idea [of containment] was to create several new states to serve as a barrier between communist Russia and the West. This desire for a strong exclusion zone around Russia can be seen in France’s support of newly independent Poland in its efforts to expand its borders into Russia.”
  2. The Transcaucasian SFSR, traditionally known as the “Transcaucasian Republics”—viz. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia–each separated from Russia by the Caucasus Mountains, was one of the founding members of the USSR. It was dissolved, however, in 1936, at which time the three republics that comprised it have rejoined the Soviet Union as bona fide republics. (See this Wikipedia entry.) Also, see Ukrainian SSR and “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic,” both Wiki entries.
  3. See, for example, (i) Georgy Manaev’s September 13, 2020 article, “How was the USSR formed?” and “The complete list of Soviet republics,” both in Russia Beyond; (ii) “Republics in the Soviet Union” in Wikipedia; “Former Soviet Union (USSR) Countries” in World Atlas; (iii) “Formation of the USSR: Declaration of Union and Treaty of Union, December 30, 1922” in Seventeen Moments In Soviet History; and (iv) Michael Laxer’s December 30, 2021 article, “USSR formed, December 30, 1922: A look at its founding congress and decades of progress,” in The Left Chapter. Articles (iii) and (iv) are of particular relevance in that they spell out the founding charter and Congress–analogously perhaps to the signing of our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
  4. Georgy Manaev’s article in (i) is also of note for highlighting the Lenin-Stalin disagreement about the future look of the new federation, and I cite: “Joseph Stalin’s initial idea was to simply merge all other republics into the Russian Federative Socialist Soviet Republic with a centralized government and one legislation for all. [Well,] Lenin opposed the idea of a centralized state, calling it anti-democratic. He suggested that the independent republics unite on equal rights, keeping their respective governments. Sources say Lenin was indeed projecting for an even wider USSR that would have many countries in Europe and Asia.” In short, “Lenin wanted to create the USSR as the basis for the future unity of all Socialist countries in a World Socialist Soviet Republic. At least that’s what the Constitution of the USSR (January 31, 1924) stated. But in the end, Stalin’s plan to make the USSR a centralized authoritarian state prevailed.”
  5. See “U.S. Relations With Russia,” September 3, 2021 factsheet published by The U.S. Department of State.
  6. For example, see (i) “Roosevelt establishes diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, Nov. 16, 1933,” a November 16, 2018 article by Andres Glass in Politico (reprinted in U.S.-Ukraine Business Council) (ii) a November 16, 2013 entry, “United States and Soviet Union establish diplomatic relations 80 years ago this hour (1933)” in RetroNewser; and (iii) “Recognition of the Soviet Union, 1933” in Office Of The Historian, originally published in Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations. And a milestone it was!
  7.  “Roosevelt was the last President inaugurated on March 4. The Twentieth Amendment changed presidential inaugurations to January 20, from 1937 onward.” See Franklin D. Roosevelt, note #d, a Wikipedia entry.
  8. See “Why did the United States diplomatically recognize the Soviet Union in 1933” in
  9. See “Soviet Union-United States relations,” subsection 2.5, a Wiki entry.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. For additional reading, see Office of the Historian for Bullitt’s dispatch to the acting Secretary of State upon his arrival in Moscow. Also, see the same source for “Foreign Relations of the United States, The Soviet Union, 1933–1939.”

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