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The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations

Eugene Trani, President, Virginia Commonwealth University, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center

Date & Time

Dec. 16, 2002
10:00am – 11:00am ET


In a recent lecture at the Kennan Institute, Eugene Trani discussed Woodrow Wilson's first Cold War strategy to "quarantine" the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. Trani stated that it is possible to "draw a direct line from Wilson's quarantine, to Kennan's containment and on to the collapse of the U.S.S.R." Trani and Professor Don Davis of Illinois State University have recently published The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations. Trani explained that his examination of Wilson's policies covered four topics: first, Wilson's inadequate background and preparation for dealing with Russia; second, his difficulty in selecting an ambassador; third, Wilson's lost opportunity in preserving the Provisional government; and finally, his evolving awareness and remedy for the growing threat of Bolshevism.

According to Trani, Wilson's background and preparations for dealing with Russia were limited. Trani noted that both as a professor at Princeton and as governor of New Jersey, Wilson spoke out against Russian autocracy and its policy towards Jews. Trani further explained that Wilson referred to Russia's autocratic government as "abnormal" and entitled one of his speeches as "The Case Against Russia." Trani noted that Wilson's statements angered many Russian officials, including George P. Bakhmetev, then Russian ambassador to the U.S., who referred to Wilson as a "dangerous radical with fantastic ideas."

Trani contended, "Wilson's presidential fumblings towards Russia constituted the sixteen months it took for him to nominate his first ambassador to St. Petersburg." Trani explained that due to a scandal, Wilson's first nominee, Henry M. Pindell, was forced to resign. He noted that Wilson's next choice, George Mayre, began his position in July 1914, but Wilson fired him due to incompetence in January 1916. Finally, Wilson drafted David Francis, the former Mayor of St. Louis, to head the U.S. delegation. According to Trani, although he was unprepared for his position as Ambassador, Francis was successful in getting Wilson to "recognize the Provisional government before anyone else did."

Trani's third topic examined Wilson's "lost opportunity" to preserve the Provisional government. According to Trani, Wilson failed to support the Provisional government because "he followed a policy of no fight, no loan." Trani explained that the Provisional government's viability could not be accurately tested because its allies, namely the United States, "failed to contribute financial, technical, and military aid in a timely manner."

Finally, Trani discussed Wilson's growing awareness of Bolshevism's threat toward the United States. He noted that Wilson was unwilling to recognize the Bolshevik regime, instead choosing to appeal to the Russian people. This appeal "constituted Point Six of Wilson's great Fourteen Points speech—a guarantee by the Allies of fair play in Russia or his famous ‘acid test' policy." Trani explained that Wilson initially went along with his advisors' view to "wait-and-see" if Bolshevism would fail. However, Wilson soon became more outspoken calling the Bolsheviks "selfish, ruthless and pitiless." Even after his debilitating stroke Wilson refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime, stating, "The existing regime in Russia is based upon every negation of every principle upon which it is possible to base harmonious and trustful relations."

Trani concluded by saying that Wilson's ideas had a substantial impact on U.S. Cold War policies. He contended that "by 1920 Wilson emerged as the world's first cold warrior, armed with a sophisticated strategy for the defense of western civilization against communist totalitarianism—a strategy which in 1991 triumphed."


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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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