A Lesson of History: U.S.-Soviet Recognition and Barack Obama’s Iran Policy





Mr. Asgarov is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Maryland. The title of his dissertation was “Reporting from the frontlines of the First Cold War: American diplomatic despatches about the internal conditions in the Soviet Union, 1917-1933.”

Barack Obama’s rise to presidency has rekindled some hope for a turnaround in U.S.-Iran relations.  Already during the election campaign Obama distinguished himself from other candidates by calling for direct negotiations with leaders such as Mahmud Ahmadinejad.  Obama’s statement was met with derision by numerous experts of foreign policy who criticized the Democratic candidate for his naiveté and inexperience. Yet having won the American people’s approval at the ballot box, Obama went on to reaffirm his belief in a dialogue with the leaders of the Islamic Republic.  “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” the young American president proclaimed in his inauguration speech.

Given Iran’s significance as a regional power in the Middle East, Obama’s desire to reestablish America’s ties with Iran is understandable.  Prior to the Islamic Revolution, Iran used to be a major ally of the United States in the region.  Next to Israel and Turkey, Iran was one of the most trusted partners of Washington in the global fight against Communism.  With the eruption of a revolution and subsequent seizure of American diplomats as hostages by the revolutionary radicals, America lost a powerful friend.  Ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared America “The Great Satan,” the relations between Washington and Tehran have reached the point that can be qualified as nothing short of enmity.  Obama’s desire to end this state of affairs stems from the growing sense that via dialogue and mutual recognition, the two nations can finally bury the hatchet.  America’s heavy investment in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the bloody outbursts on the Israeli-Palestinians front, some believe, have made it all the more urgent to obtain Tehran’s cooperation for defusing tension in the Middle East.  

However, if history is a guide, current attempts to mollify the regime in Tehran will likely result in failure.  By that, I do not mean the series of efforts put forth by Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and successive other presidents who resorted to various methods to dissuade Iran from its behavior as a firebrand of the region.  Equally instructive, in this regard, is America’s recognition of the Soviet Union 16 years after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. 

Shortly after coming to power in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov to Washington where the two countries established diplomatic ties.  Having convinced himself and the rest of the country that America stood to gain a great deal from mutual relationship with the Soviet state, Roosevelt did away with the non-recognition policy of his predecessors.  Much as Obama does today, FDR believed that antagonism between America and the USSR stemmed from misunderstanding and stereotypes.  So, he set out to fix the problem by offering a hand of friendship to the nascent Communist state.  At the time of recognition, few suspected that America would spend the good half of 20th century fighting against the global menace led by the Soviet Union.

Similar to its relations with Shah’s Iran in spirit, for almost two centuries America had maintained cordial relations with the Russian Empire.  The fact that Romanov dynasty was as tyrannical as the Pahlavis in Iran, did not prevent Washington from pursuing its national interests in a mutually beneficial manner.  In some ways, the United States even regarded the Russian Empire as an indispensable ally, albeit a backward one, on an international venue beset by many dangers.  This alliance most potently exhibited itself during World War One when Americans and Russians joined the common front against the Central Powers.  However, popular riots in Petrograd wrecked the long-standing equilibrium in U.S.-Russian relations.  In March of 1917, facing revolts within the army and hungry populace, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated power to the Provisional Government.  Caught by surprise, nevertheless, the Wilson administration’s reaction to this turn of events was praiseworthy.  The American government expressed its full support for the parliamentary government in Russia and immediately recognized it.  During its seven months of existence, the Provisional Government gave Russians vast freedoms and earned its place in history as the most liberal government Russia ever knew.  Alas, the pressures of war and economic hardships proved insurmountable.  Taking advantage of discontent among the beleaguered public, a handful Bolsheviks led by a radical demagogue named Vladimir Lenin deposed the elected government by an armed coup and founded the world’s first Communist dictatorship. 

Having previously embraced the Russian democracy, Washington was appalled by such a turn of events, and withheld its recognition from the Soviet government.  In the American view, Bolsheviks’ anti-war platform threatened the security of Allied unity facing Kaiser’s Germany.  But there was also a deep concern about the radical substance of the November Revolution.  “While I have no doubt that Lenin was a German agent from the beginning,” the US ambassador David Francis would later write in his memoir, “I believe and so wired the Department [of State] that his real purpose was promotion of worldwide social revolution.”1  

Bolsheviks were not merely content in seeking “peace” and “justice” within the confines of Russia.  They were determined to undermine Western capitalist societies and convert them to their standard of governance.  Those who observed brutal Bolshevik tactics on the ground were terrified of the possibility of such an outcome.  “I am inclined to think that the American people do not fully realize what Bolshevism signifies,” American diplomat Ernest Harris wrote from his refuge in Siberia. “For fifteen months it has held European Russia in a state of terror… Bolshevism is a greater danger than the militarism, [which] at least stood for law and order while Bolshevism stands only for destruction of life and property.  Bolshevism constitutes a real world danger and should be literally stamped out.” 2 

To be sure, most American policy makers did not expect Bolshevism to survive for long.  Yet the most important factor in Wilson’s decision not to recognize the Bolshevik government stemmed from the Soviet government’s revolutionary essence and the near diametrical opposition of Bolshevik values to those espoused by the American republic.  The non-recognition policy was predicated on the principles outlined in the 1920 declaration by the U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby who held that “there cannot be any common ground upon which [the United States] can stand with a Power whose conceptions of international relations are so entirely alien to its own, so utterly  repugnant to its moral sense.” 3

The American leadership under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover did not set out to formulate their own policies toward Soviet Russia.  They merely followed the pattern set by their Democratic predecessor.  Certainly, among Republicans, hostility toward Bolsheviks was more palpable.  Having acquired his wealth in imperial Russia, Hoover was particularly resentful of the Bolshevik regime's lack of respect for political and property rights.  Nevertheless, this did not prevent Hoover from launching one of the greatest humanitarian rescue operations of the 20th century during the Volga famine of 1921-23.  The American Relief Administration led by Hoover, saved nearly 10 million Russian lives, as Lenin grudgingly allowed the American capitalists to feed his constituents.  Hoover was partially convinced that the American aid to the starving Soviet populace would produce good will among the Russians and demonstrate the superiority of the capitalist system.  But in Russia, under the brutal thumb of OGPU (predecessor of the notorious NKVD and later, the KGB) public opinion mattered very little.  The pro-American sentiments of ordinary Russians had no impact whatsoever on the policies of the Soviet regime, both foreign and domestic.  If anything, Hoover’s aid helped the Soviet government survive through October of 1929, when the American stock market crashed, sending shockwaves throughout the world markets. 

The year of Roosevelt’s election to power, 1932, was the year when the superiority of capitalism over Communism had come under debate.  William Borah, the bombastic senator from Idaho, known for his sympathies toward the Soviet regime, spoke on the Senate floor: “I am, I confess, disturbed about the unsolved problems of capitalism, and I am almost equally disturbed over the fact that the time which we ought to devote to solving these questions and to bringing about conditions which would help to solve them, is devoted to attacking some other theory and agitating against some other government.” 4  In this position Borah was seconded by numerous individuals who felt that FDR’s election had brought a wave of change to the country.

Notable among such individuals was another strong proponent of recognition, William C. Bullitt.  A son of wealthy blue-blooded New Englanders, Bullitt had a long record of sympathizing with the Soviet regime.  In fact, he was so enamored with Communism that he married the spouse of deceased American communist John Reed, Louise Bryant.  Reed was the only American to be honored with burial on footsteps of the Kremlin alongside Joseph Stalin and other Soviet dignitaries.  However, for all his enthusiasm, Bullitt’s only prior experience with the Communist state occurred during his brief visit to Moscow in 1919, when he was sent there to negotiate the terms of a ceasefire between the Reds and the Whites.  Over the years, Bullitt became convinced that the Soviets had found the path to the future and that America stood to benefit from a friendship with such a power.  Having found access to the Democratic president through his connections within the political elite, Bullitt did not have to try very hard to convince FDR of his views.  Roosevelt had come to power believing that he would recognize the Soviet regime, and in all likelihood, he found in Bullitt a kindred soul.  

Additionally, there were powerful groups within business as well as political circles who ardently pushed for recognition and believed that such a step by Washington would help increase their fortunes in the Soviet Union.  Among the most influential lobbyists for recognition were companies as such General Electric, General Motors, Ford and other powerful players in America’s entrepreneurial landscape.  Despite the absence of diplomatic relations numerous American companies conducted successful business in the Soviet Union, paid by gold currency.  These business circles were convinced that the recognition would further widen the opportunities for self-enrichment. 

It is noteworthy that in making decisions, Roosevelt mostly relied on his personal friends and contacts, rather than expert administrators.  Roosevelt often “bypassed his bureaucracies by establishing parallel organizations responsible only to the White House.” 5  In the months preceding recognition, the U.S. State Department, led by the erudite chief of the Russian and East European Division, Robert F. Kelley, opposed the measure.  Kelley stipulated three conditions under which the Soviet government could be recognized: cessation of revolutionary activities outside Russia, the reparation of debts incurred under the tsar, and guarantee of religious freedoms of Americans residing in the Soviet Union. 

Perhaps one of the most important behind the stance for non-recognition was the appalling state of affairs inside the Soviet Union.  Kelley received daily briefings about the conditions in Soviet Russia.  An overwhelming majority of the news coming out of the Communist state told of horror stories of relentless persecution and forced famines.  In the 1930’s Stalin launched a collectivization campaign that ultimately left five million Ukrainians dead in a tragedy that is now commemorated as Holodomor.  Furthermore, having spoken with representatives of other countries which had long recognized the Soviet regime, Kelley had come to realize that recognition had made business worse, not better.  Stalin’s government did not choose business partners based on political sympathies, but expediency.  In fact, the more hostile the relations were with official Washington, the more courtesy was granted to the American companies operating in Russia.

Ignoring the warnings of his professional staff, FDR went ahead and recognized the Soviet Union.  Soon afterwards, William C. Bullitt headed to Russia in the capacity of the first American ambassador to Soviet Moscow.  Bullitt was given a stellar reception by the Soviet leadership.  During his first week in Moscow, Bullitt was invited to the Kremlin when he dined and wined alongside Stalin and his cronies.  Yet as the time passed by, Bullitt began to obtain a better sense of the realities of the Soviet rule.  Like most other Western diplomats, Bullitt soon found himself isolated and often ignored, first by the Kremlin, and later by Washington.  The American radical-turned-diplomat discovered that Stalin had no intention of fulfilling his obligations under the recognition agreement.  He also came to realize that the object of his affection was a tyrannical regime led by individuals who attached little value to human life.  Bullitt was disappointed not just in the Soviet regime, but in himself for having fallen for the illusion of cooperation and progress.  Within months, Bullitt became one of the most ardent anti-Communists serving in the Roosevelt administration.  Having been transferred to Paris to continue his diplomatic service, William Bullitt became such a violent opponent of the Soviet regime that in later years he went as far as proposing an alliance with Nazi Germany against Moscow.

In his memoir U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull also concluded that recognition was a failed policy.  “We were now back almost to where we started.  We had official relations with Moscow, but they rested on no bedrock of friendship or cooperation. Try as I might, I could not establish the sound relationship I deemed so necessary not only for the two countries but also as a counterweight for peace in the scales tipping toward war,” he concluded.6  Ultimately, the recognition did not materialize any of the benefits which the proponents of the measure anticipated at the time.  The Soviets did not pay their debts, the American citizens were not granted any religious privileges in Stalin’s USSR, and the Communist propaganda in the United States did not cease.  Moreover, as many observers had predicted, the trade between the USSR and USA significantly diminished following the establishment of diplomatic relations.  The American companies were forced out of the country as the Soviet industrial machine came to life.  The assumptions leading to the recognition, which had ignored the internal dynamics of the Soviet Union, proved to be erroneous.  Instead, Washington ended up bestowing legitimacy upon the yet only existing Communist regime on the international venue without receiving much valuable in return.  In less than 20 years, America would be engaged in a deadly struggle against a foe exponentially strengthened by the subsequent turn of events. 

The lesson to be drawn from the experience with Communists is that revolutionary regimes are not and cannot be easily mollified by bold gestures and invitations to dialogue.  Not unlike Communists of Russia, the Islamists of Iran fully intend to export their revolution outside the country.  Likewise, they do not believe, and in fact, explicitly reject playing by the international rules on issues of state sovereignty.  Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s denunciation of Israel as a “rotten corpse” and its assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine reflect the founding principles of a regime that sees itself as a harbinger of Islamic dominion throughout the world.  Moreover Islamists’ stepped up repression against domestic opponents including large ethnic and religious minorities give little sign of someone who is about to unclench his fist.  The Obama administration would do well to pay attention to the ideologies of those who wield power in Iran and act accordingly.  He may be a pragmatist, but the students of Khomeini follow a set of beliefs predating Barack Obama’s campaign of “hope” and “change.”  Eagerness for dialogue cannot be a substitute for rational contemplation and cool-headed policy with regard to a regime that acts generally in consistency with its proclamations, just as the Soviets did.  Overlooking the precedents of history and Iranian regime’s troubling record in a bold rush to assuage Islamists in Tehran may do more to undermine peace than stern silence. 

1 David R. Francis, Russia from the American Embassy: April, 1916 - November, 1918 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921), 226.

2 Ernest Harris, U.S. Vice-Consul in Omsk, to Robert Lansing, U.S. Secretary of State January 22, 1919, RG 59, File  #861.00/3682.

3 Benson L. Grayson ed.,  The American Images of Russia – 1917-1977 (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978), 59

4 Ibid., 86.

5 Mary E. Glantz, FDR and the Soviet Union: The President’s Battles over Foreign Policy (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 87.

6 Cordell Hull, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1948).


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Arnold Shcherban - 3/14/2009

"The excellent advice"?
What would change to the better if the US did not recognise Soviet Union
up to and during the WWII and why would this country not only recognise but gladly provided tremendous economic, ideological and political support to many other non-constitutional and often brutal regimes around the world, but should not - to the Soviets?
You big-stick-bully-policies-mongers lost your mind a while ago...


Antoinette LaSalle - 3/9/2009

It is not certain where Obama's loyalties actually lie. Thus, the excellent advice offered in this piece may indeed fall upon deaf ears. At least with FDR, there was no doubt what team he was actually rooting for.

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