When, in the year 1917, Russian society was overtaken by the most tremendous and far-reaching upheaval it had ever known, American opinion-makers were poorly prepared to understand either the meaning or the implications of this event.
This was partly because there was little understanding in the United States of that day for Russian history or for the nature of the political society in which these events were taking place. Russian studies had been developed in North America only on the tiniest and most rudimentary of scales. Knowledge of Russia rested on the tales of the occasional traveler or on the reports of press correspondents, very few of whom were qualified to see deeply into the great political and social stirrings that tormented the life of Russia in those final decades of Tsardom. The traditional antipathy of Americans for the Tsarist autocracy was understandable enough; but it was seldom balanced by any realistic examination of the nature of the possible alternatives. And in the final years before World War I, governmental and journalistic opinion in the United States had tended to be preempted by the problem of the treatment of Jews within the Russian Empire, to the detriment of the attention given to other and even deeper aspects of the slow crisis in which Russian society was then embraced.
This was the situation as of 1914. But as the First World War ran its course, and particularly in the year 1917, there came to be imposed upon this general shallowness of understanding a far more serious source of confusion: and that was America's own involvement in the war. If it be conceded that one of the most stubbornly ingrained characteristics of American democracy has been its inability to accept and experience military involvement without becoming seriously disoriented by it and without permitting it to distort judgment on other questions of policy, then it must be said that never did this weakness reveal itself more sharply and fatefully than in American outlooks on Russia during the
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