Seen through a 21st and late 20th-century prism, President Trump’s engagement with President Putin looks odd, to say the least. The Cold War dominates our thinking still: here is the de facto leader of Nato treating with the leader of the very polity whose deterrence and possible defeat is Nato’s rationale.
Taking the long view of history, however, Russo-American hostility is not the norm. For at least the first century-and-a-half of US independence, Russian-American relations were characterised by cooperation and even warmth. While most European countries were fighting wars with Russia, the US often as not played the role of conciliator.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Even in the late 1930s, at the height of Stalin’s purges, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E Davies (encouraged, by President Roosevelt), remained an apologist for the regime. His memoir, Mission to Moscow, was made into a film in 1943 for propaganda purposes: “…an expedient lie for political purposes, glossily covering up important facts with full or partial knowledge of their false presentation”, said its producer, Robert Buckner. “I knew that FDR had brainwashed him [Davies]…”
It all changed in 1945, when Stalin’s designs on post-war Europe became clear to everyone with eyes to see, and with the succession to the presidency, on Roosevelt’s death, of Harry S Truman. Truman came to Potsdam (Berlin) in July ready for a fight. After their first meeting in Washington, FDR’s secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, had written in his diary: “He [Truman] gave me the impression that he thought we had been too easy with them [the Russians].”
But geography is important. Truman was travelling east to Europe for the last of the great allied conferences, as successive presidents have done to meet Soviet leaders, and this affects perspectives. In Britain it is easy to think of America as being across the Atlantic, and Russia as being in the opposite direction. Washington, however, has an historical perspective west towards Russia, in the Asian Pacific. America and Russia used indeed to have – literally – common ground:from the early 1740s to 1867 (just two years after the end of the Civil War) there was Russkaya Amerika, Russia’s colonial possessions in North America.
The capital was Novo-Archangelsk, now Sitka, Alaska. Under the auspices of the Tsar’s Russian-American Company,there were settlements as far south as present-day California, and Hawaii. Russian Orthodox churches abounded. The Pacific Northwest was infinitely more accessible to Russia by sea than it was to the infant United States overland, whose locus still was east of the Missouri. Or indeed to British Canada, which in the first half of the 19th century did not yet span the continent (British Columbia was not colonized until the 1850s, and Yukon later still).
Anglo-American rivalry along the frontiers in the first half of the 19th century was strong, and occasionally threatened war. In the 1840s, the dispute over where the Oregon border should run almost came to blows, the British wanting the 48th parallel, and American settlers demanding President Polk annex the entire Northwest to the 54°40′ parallel: the famous cry “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!”
Washington thus saw Russia as a counterpoise to British power in the Northwest – especially as during the 1820-21 Treaty of Ghent arbitration, Russia had shown itself to be at least impartial, and perhaps even sympathetic. When a dispute arose between Britain and the US over compensation for property seized (including slaves) or destroyed during the War of 1812, which the treaty brought to an end, the US had suggested that Russia act as arbitrator. Tsar Alexander I decided that Britain had failed to meet its obligations under the treaty and should pay an indemnity, which the appointed commissioners assessed at $1,204,960 (some $15 million in today’s terms). The British government accepted the arbitration.
Russian-American relations continued to prosper. In 1832 a commercial treaty was signed giving bilateral trading rights and “most-favored-nation” status to Russia. US engineers began increasingly to advise and oversee Russian railway building, including the St Petersburg-Moscow line. And during the Crimean War (1853-56), the conflict between Russia and a coalition of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) over Russian influence in the Eastern Balkans, American surgeons and medical staff travelled to the front to treat Russian casualties. After the war, American shipyards built warships for the Russian navy to replace those lost in the fighting.
When, in 1861, on the eve of the US Civil War, Tsar Alexander II liberated the serfs from their servitude, it inspired widespread admiration in America, increasing the calls for the abolition of slavery. With war threatening, the Russian ambassador in Washington urged mediation with the seceded Southern states. When, however, this was rejected, Russia assumed an official position that supported the Union while urging reunification through mediation jointly with the French and British.
President Trump likes deals. He will know that the greatest deal in American history – with the exception perhaps of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – came in the aftermath of the Civil War .Russia offered to sell Russkaya Amerika – in effect, modern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands – to the US.Its costs and the logistical difficulties had made the territory a distinct liability, and Russia was struggling with debtaccrued during the Crimean War.
Besides, St Petersburg was looking toward Asian expansion, and with the American philosophy of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the constant prospect of Britain’s simply seizing the territory (the Hudson’s Bay Company already leased a sizeable tract of the south of present-day Alaska), it made sense for Russia to cede its largest overseas colony. The price was fixed at $7.2 million ($126 million in today’s terms), and the deal concluded in March 1867.
In the following two decades there were several high-level visits to Russia and Americas, which further enhanced the cordial relations. The Tsar’s third son, Alexis, made two extensive tours of the northern and mid-western states, and was much feted.William Tecumseh Sherman, the great Union general – second only to Ulysses S Grant – toured Russia and was received by the Tsar. And in 1878 Grant himself went there – the first former president to do so. It would be almost a hundred years before another US President travelled to Russia – Nixon in 1972.
When war erupted between Russia and Japan in 1904 over St Petersburg’s encroachment on Manchuria, President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace conference at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Ten years later, Russia and Japan found themselves on the same side in the war with Germany, and America an ally – albeit briefly.
The US did not enter the war until April 1917, and by the end of that year, following the Bolshevik Revolution – before American troops saw any significant action – the Russians surrendered. In March 1917, when the Tsar was deposed, the US had been the first foreign government to recognize the new Russian government of the moderate Alexander Kerensky.
After the second, October, revolution however, President Woodrow Wilson instructed American diplomats to withhold all recognition of the Bolshevik government, and the US ambassador returned to Washington the following month. In September 1919, the US embassy formally closed its doors, and Washington did not establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union until 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded that the US faced international economic and diplomatic challenges that needed Soviet cooperation.
It was this cautious cooperation – increasingly active and concrete during the Second World War – which came to an end in 1945 at the Potsdam Conference. Since then,Truman’s hardheaded stance towards Russia (albeit with occasional gestures of rapprochment, notably from Nixon and Carter) has been the default setting of US presidents.
Until now, that is. So perhaps Trump sees Putin as a new tsar, to deal with as 19th-century presidents did, seeing European Nato countries and Russia as essentially western and eastern sides respectively of the same non-American coin (“America First!”), just as the likes of Polk did.
Trump may even see territorial issues in the same 19th-century fashion, that everything is ‘for sale’. On the face of it, this is worrying to say the least – for the Baltic states especially, and Ukraine. But it might conceivably lead to a solution of the Crimea problem, which at present stands in the way of East-West cooperation (at least offically), and which in turn might relieve pressure on the Baltics and Ukraine.
But in this, as in most things, history does not so much provide the answers but pose the questions.