THE question of the recognition of the Soviet Government of Russia by the United States is one of the most vital international problems confronting the American people. The discussion of this problem should be based upon a sound appraisal of the principles involved and a clear understanding of the purposes and results of the recognition of one government by another. In the public discussion of this question there has been a great deal of loose thought and speech.

There seems to be a widespread impression that when the United States Government recognizes a new government in another country it is actuated primarily by motives of good will, and that the result of recognition is to fasten upon the new government the seal of approval of the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. Usually the primary motive of a government in recognizing the government of another state is self-interest. It simply seeks to establish relations which will enable it to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens and to promote their interests, and reciprocally to establish a basis for dealing with the other country and its citizens. The recognition of a newly established government by the United States Government does not remotely carry with it the implication that the aims and practices of the new government meet with our approval or inspire our admiration.

Our government was the first of the Great Powers to support the de facto theory of recognition as contrasted with the legitimacy theory. The American State Department has consistently adhered to the de facto theory for more than a century, except for occasional departures by Secretary Seward due to the exigencies of the Civil War and by other Secretaries of State in connection with the recognition of revolutionary governments in Latin America in the exercise of the somewhat paternal responsibilities imposed upon our government by the Monroe Doctrine. The theory and practice of our State Department were admirably summarized in a memorandum of Mr. A. A. Adee, Assistant Secretary of State, on March 28, 1913, as follows:

It will, I think, simplify the matter to keep in mind the distinction between the recognition necessary to the conduct of international business between two countries and the recognition of the form of government professed by a foreign country.

In the former case, ever since the American Revolution, entrance upon diplomatic intercourse with foreign states has been de facto, dependent upon the existence of three conditions of fact: The control of the administrative machinery of the state; the general acquiescence of its people; and the ability and willingness of their government to discharge international and conventional obligations. The form of government has not been a conditional factor in such recognition; in other words, the de jure element of legitimacy of title has been left aside, probably because liable to involve dynastic or constitutional questions hardly within our competency to adjudicate, especially so when the organic form of government has been changed, as by revolution, from a monarchy to a commonwealth or vice versa. The general practice in such cases has been to satisfy ourselves that the change was effective and to enter into relation with the authority in de facto possession.[i]

Our government has frequently established cordial diplomatic relations with governments that were notoriously autocratic and vicious. Usually the sole test that our government seeks to apply is whether the new government is sufficiently entrenched in power effectively to govern within its own borders and to perform its international obligations. After that test has been met, our government in the recognition of governments in the eastern hemisphere does not usually concern itself with the morals or motives of the government seeking recognition.

If we bear these principles in mind, a brief review of the attitude of our government toward the recognition of the Soviet Government as compared with the policy pursued by other governments will go far to explain the present popular misapprehension in this country regarding the consequences of recognition of Soviet Russia.

The Soviet Revolution occurred in November 1917, a year before the armistice that ended the European War. During that year and for some time thereafter, certain of the Allied and Associated Powers acting in concert with White armies were engaged in hostilities against Soviet Russia. Those hostilities did not end until early in 1920. At first the Allied Powers were disposed to boycott the Soviet Government. This was the natural result of the irritation caused by Russia's desertion of the cause of the Allies at a critical period of the war, of the aversion felt in capitalistic countries for the principles and practices of the Soviet Revolutionary Government and of the widespread doubt regarding its permanence.

As soon as it became apparent that the Soviet Government was the sole constituted authority in Russia and was likely to remain in power indefinitely, the principal European governments, recognizing the practical necessity of having dealings with Russia, began opening diplomatic relations. Estonia and Finland, having the greatest need of relations with their powerful neighbor, extended de jure recognition before the end of 1920. Poland followed in 1921 and Germany in 1922.

In the spring of 1922 occurred the Genoa Conference, instigated by Lloyd George, in the course of which the statesmen of Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and Germany met with Soviet statesmen in an effort to work out a formula under which Russia might be admitted to the European family of nations. This conference failed, but while it was in progress the representatives of Germany and Russia negotiated the Rapallo Agreement, which practically wiped the slate clean as between the two nations and confirmed the recognition of the Soviet Government by Germany which had already been granted by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Great Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Norway and Greece recognized the Soviet Republic in 1924, and by 1927 all the governments of Europe except Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, Portugal, Holland and Belgium had extended de jure recognition. France expelled the Soviet representative in 1927, but his successor was appointed shortly thereafter. Great Britain withdrew its Ambassador to Russia the same year, but resumed diplomatic relations in 1929, upon the advent of the present Labor Government.

There can be no doubt that these European nations, in recognizing the Soviet Government, were actuated primarily by considerations of self-interest. It was natural that Estonia, Finland, Persia and Poland -- all of which border on Russia -- should be among the first to establish diplomatic relations. Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan established relations as soon as economic conditions in Russia showed signs of becoming sufficiently stable to justify the hope of commercial intercourse with the rest of the world on a substantial scale. It certainly did not occur to any of the European governments that in recognizing the Soviet Government they were placing the stamp of their approval on the methods used in establishing its power or on the policies it was pursuing in the exercise of that power.

Uninfluenced by the policy pursued by European governments, the United States Government has consistently pursued the policy of non-recognition. The first official statement of that policy was contained in a note which Secretary of State Colby addressed to the Italian Ambassador on October 10, 1920. Mr. Colby, while referring to the communistic doctrines and practices of the Soviet Government which were at variance with those of other civilized nations, emphasized as the principal ground of his policy of non-recognition what was clearly the soundest ground. It was that the Soviet Government by its own declarations could not be trusted to carry out its international obligations. He said:

The responsible leaders of the régime have frequently and openly boasted that they are willing to sign agreements and undertakings with foreign Powers while not having the slightest intention of observing such undertakings or carrying out such agreements. This attitude of disregard of obligations voluntarily entered into, they base upon the theory that no compact or agreement made with a non-Bolshevist government can have any moral force for them. They have not only avowed this as a doctrine, but they have amplified it in practice.

In a note transmitted to the American Consul at Reval on March 25, 1921, Secretary Hughes announced that relations would not be opened with Soviet Russia until convincing provision had been made for: 1, the safety of life; 2, the recognition of firm guarantees of private property; 3, the sanctity of contracts; and 4, the rights of free labor. In a letter to Samuel Gompers dated July 19, 1923, Secretary Hughes at greater length reiterated the same requisites of recognition, emphasizing the Soviet Government's "persistent attempts to subvert the institutions of democracy as maintained in this country."

In his message to Congress of December 6, 1923, President Coolidge somewhat liberalized the government's attitude toward trade by American nationals with Russia; but he added:

Our government does not propose, however, to enter into relations with another régime which refuses to recognize the sanctity of international obligations. I do not propose to barter away for the privilege of trade any of the cherished rights of humanity. I do not propose to make merchandise of any American principles. These rights and principles must go wherever the sanctions of our government go.

But while the favor of America is not for sale, I am willing to make very large concessions for the purpose of rescuing the people of Russia. Already encouraging evidences of returning to the ancient ways of society can be detected. But more are needed. Whenever there appears any disposition to compensate our citizens who were despoiled, and to recognize that debt contracted with our government, not by the Czar, but by the newly formed Republic of Russia; whenever the active spirit of enmity to our institutions is abated; whenever there appear works meet for repentence, our country ought to be the first to go to the economic and moral rescue of Russia.

Mr. Chicherin, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, thought, or professed to think, that he discovered an encouraging note in this pronouncement and promptly sent President Coolidge a despatch in which he expressed the Soviet Government's readiness to discuss with the United States Government all of the problems mentioned in the President's message, these negotiations to be based on "the principle of mutual non-intervention in internal affairs," and added that:

As to the questions of claims mentioned in your message, the Soviet Government is fully prepared to do all in its power, so far as the dignity and interests of its country permit, to bring about the desired end of renewal of friendship with the United States of America.

President Coolidge referred the Chicherin note to Secretary Hughes, who promptly made public the following statement:

There would seem to be at this time no reason for negotiations. The American Government, as the President said in his message to the Congress, is not proposing to barter away its principles. If the Soviet authorities are ready to restore the confiscated property of American citizens or make effective compensation, they can do so. If the Soviet authorities are ready to repeal their decrees repudiating Russia's obligations to this country and appropriately recognize them, they can do so. It requires no conference or negotiations to accomplish these results, which can and should be achieved at Moscow as evidence of good faith. The American Government has not incurred liabilities to Russia or repudiated obligations. Most serious is the continued propaganda to overthrow the institutions of this country. This Government can enter into no negotiations until these efforts directed from Moscow are abandoned.

In the light of subsequent events it is perhaps to be regretted that the Soviet offer of an attempt to negotiate a basis for recognition was not accepted, although it should be remembered that at that time none of the Great Powers except Germany had recognized the Soviet Government, and the failure of the Genoa Conference of the previous year was still fresh in the memory of statesmen.

The official utterances of the President and Secretary of State were sympathetically received by American public opinion, already aroused to distrust of the communistic régime in Russia and all its works. The note thus given to public discussion of American recognition of Soviet Russia goes far to account for the popular impression that recognition might involve a surrender of "cherished rights of humanity" or of "American principles."

Let us now turn the discussion to the sound utilitarian basis where it belongs. It must be recognized that the United States Government cannot be expected to enter into diplomatic relations with the Soviet Government except upon reasonable conditions. From the pronouncements of the State Department it is apparent that the "works meet for repentance" reasonably to be expected of the Soviet Government as a condition of recognition include satisfactory assurances upon the following questions: 1, recognition of the sanctity of international engagements; 2, the return of, or adequate compensation for, the property of American nationals confiscated by the Soviet Government after the revolution in 1917; 3, recognition of the debts contracted with our government and our nationals by the Kerensky Government; and 4, the cessation of subversive activities directed from Moscow against our institutions.

The soundness of the first of these conditions no one will question, for it is axiomatic that no government is entitled to recognition by other governments unless it is willing and able to perform its international obligations. It is probable that the Soviet Government would accept that condition without debate, for in spite of declarations to the contrary by Lenin and other communist leaders, the Soviet Government has repeatedly professed a determination to perform its own obligations, even in its dealings with nations of the capitalistic world.

The second and third conditions present more serious difficulties. The abolition of private property and the transfer to the state of all property except purely personal belongings lies at the very foundation of the entire Soviet economic and political structure. The Soviet authorities profess to see no reason in principle why an exception in the application of that doctrine should be made in favor of foreigners. While the condition laid down by our State Department is confined to property owned by, and debts owing to, our government and our nationals, any concession made to Americans would doubtless have to be extended to other nations. Indeed, the Rapallo Agreement, which provides for the mutual cancellation of debts and claims as between Russia and Germany, expressly provides that in case the Soviet Government should at any time recognize claims held by nationals of other nations, the same recognition must be granted to German nationals. There is a similar agreement with Japan.

Another complication involved in the discussion of foreign claims against Russia is the insistence of the Soviet Government upon the simultaneous consideration of Russia's claims against certain of the Allied and Associated Powers, doubtless including the United States, for damages resulting from their support of the various campaigns waged against the Soviet Government by White armies during the three years following the outbreak of the Soviet Revolution. The contention of the Russian Government is that the support by foreign governments of counter-revolutionary warfare resulted in claims by Russia against those governments similar to the claims that were sustained by the Geneva award in favor of the United States against Great Britain for the depredations to American shipping caused by the Alabama and other privateers fitted out in British ports during our Civil War. This is no place for a discussion of the validity of the Russian counterclaims. It is enough to say that they are not so frivolous that they can be dismissed without consideration. Professor Schuman, of the University of Chicago, in his book "American Policy toward Russia since 1917," after a review of the facts and the law, reaches the conclusion that these counter-claims are valid in substantial amounts. However this may be, it is difficult to see how the United States can refuse at least to give its reasons for not recognizing them.

The aggregate amount of the American claims against Russia has never been ascertained. It is estimated that at their face value they may amount to as much as $750,000,000. Still more uncertain is the amount of Russia's claims against the United States. At the Genoa Conference, the Soviet representative submitted fantastic claims against the Allied Governments, far in excess of their aggregate claims against Russia. If they are ever admitted in principle, the Russian claims against the Allied and Associated Governments that supported the White armies will involve not only the determination of their aggregate amount but also their apportionment between the Allied nations and the United States, whose part in supporting the White armies in Russia was different from that of Great Britain and France. The United States might even escape liability entirely.

Enough has been said to show that it would be impossible to reach an agreement upon the reciprocal claims between the American and Soviet Governments without an extended inquiry. Even if there be ground for hope that an agreement might ultimately be reached, is it wise diplomacy to insist upon a definitive agreement as a condition of recognition? Would it not be wiser to pursue the course that was adopted by the United States Government in dealing with somewhat similar problems in its relations with the present revolutionary government in Mexico, which had assumed an attitude toward American property rights not dissimilar in principle to that of the Soviet Government? Instead of insisting upon a definitive settlement of the American claims as a condition of recognition, the United States Government sent a diplomatic mission to Mexico to ascertain by negotiation with the Mexican Government whether there could be found a promising basis for the ultimate recognition and determination of those claims. Upon receiving a satisfactory report from its mission, the American Government entered into diplomatic relations with the revolutionary government in Mexico and after prolonged negotiations the American Ambassador brought about a settlement of most of the questions at issue between the two nations. Would not a similar course in dealing with the Soviet Government be more likely to be effective than our continued insistence on unconditional recognition of the American claims as a prerequisite to recognition?

The fourth condition, that the Soviet Government shall give satisfactory assurance of the cessation of subversive activities against our institutions, may prove the most difficult of all. The Soviet Government insists that neither it nor any of its agents in this country has engaged in subversive activities within our borders directed against our institutions. This may be literally true. It seems highly improbable that the Russian Government trading companies and their affiliated organizations have committed the fruitless folly of participating in subversive activities within our borders. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the Russian Communist Party and the Third International have been and are likely to continue to be active in communistic propaganda all over the world. It is hard to accept the distinction that the Soviet spokesmen draw between the Soviet Government on the one hand and the Communist Party and the Third International on the other, inasmuch as in the last analysis the Soviet Government and the Third International are both creatures of the central organization of the Communist Party. Stalin, although holding no office in the Soviet Government, is the dominating figure in the Communist Party. One day he speaks for the Soviet Government as the exponent of the doctrines of his party, and the next he may openly support the plans of the Third International looking toward world revolution. He would doubtless say that the Soviet Government is no more responsible for the activities of the Third International and the Communist Party than our government is for the activities of the Republican Party or the Methodist Board of Foreign Missions. The obvious answer to this attempted parallel is that the Communist Party is the only recognized political party in Russia and the Soviet Government is its creature.

Considering that the communist leaders are devoted to communism with all the fervor of religious zealots, it is probably too much to expect, whatever may be their professions, that they will surrender the right of the Third International to continue communistic propaganda. In the face of the present open un-friendliness of our government and the American nation toward the Soviet Government, it would not be surprising if under existing conditions the leaders of the Communist Party felt justified in going the limit in their subversive propaganda in this country, provided the official Russian agents within our borders held aloof. On the other hand, in spite of the bad record of the Soviet Government in carrying out its promises to other governments to refrain from propaganda, it may well be that, when recognition has removed the principal cause of irritation in Russia against the United States, the communist leaders will deem it to their interest to terminate their subversive activities in this country, which they must have found by experience to be futile in promoting the cause of communism within our borders.

On the assumption that the question of our recognition of the Soviet Government is to be dealt with primarily on the basis of our self-interest, it may be asked what advantage would recognition bring to us. The reverse of the question is more easily answered. How does the United States profit by the government's policy of non-recognition ? To many the obvious answer would be that we preserve our self-respect by not recognizing a government whose principles and practices are so abhorrent to us and so widely at variance with those on which our civilization is based. But as already pointed out, our self-respect is not involved, as recognition does not remotely involve approval of Soviet principles and methods. In the first years following the Soviet Revolution in 1917 the principal Allied nations of Europe and the United States by withholding recognition undoubtedly intended to discredit and weaken the Soviet Government in the hope that it would soon fall and be succeeded by some form of government based on principles more in harmony with those which actuate the other governments of the civilized world. That quite legitimate gesture failed. It certainly has ceased to be of value to the United States now that most other governments have adopted the policy of recognition. It may be said that it is against the interests of our government to encourage a government professing principles which, if they triumph, would be subversive of our social and political institutions. It is a question whether the attitude of our government in respect of recognition would have an appreciable influence on the ultimate fate of the Soviet Government. Our government is so fully committed to the policy of non-interference with the internal affairs of European nations that it would not be influenced by the factor which, for a time, undoubtedly influenced European governments, that by the policy of non-recognition they preserved their freedom to support counter-revolutionary movements in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet Government and bring about the substitution in its stead of one with which enlightened governments could more effectively coöperate.

The obvious advantages of a policy of recognition are those upon which the whole system of diplomatic relations between civilized nations is based. Our government would be in a position through its diplomatic representatives to protect the life, liberty and property of Americans visiting, or sojourning in, Russia, of whom there are already several thousand annually, who are now dependent upon the good offices of the diplomatic representatives of other governments. Our government would be able by the usual diplomatic methods to encourage and protect American trade with Russia. There is much force in the view that when in 1923 our government by presidential proclamation encouraged American merchants and manufacturers to engage in trade with Russia it owed our citizens the duty of protecting this trade by the usual diplomatic machinery. Only by the establishment of diplomatic relations can outstanding differences between the United States and Russia, such as those in relation to dumping and convict labor, be dealt with adequately. With an Ambassador at Moscow and consuls in the principal trading centers of Russia our government would be able to assemble reliable information for the guidance of our merchants, manufacturers and bankers, who are now dependent upon the casual and often prejudiced reports of unofficial observers.

Finally, it seems a great pity that the United States should be the only one of the Great Powers which has deliberately excluded itself from exercising any influence through the usual diplomatic channels in the development of the institutions of the most populous nation in Europe, whose return to economic, social and political stability is essential for the peace and prosperity of the civilized world.

An attempt by the United States to negotiate a satisfactory basis for the recognition of the Soviet Government of Russia would be full of difficulties, and diplomatic relations, if established, might prove hard to maintain, for the Soviet statesmen have not shown an aptitude for coöperation. But is not the stake sufficient to make the attempt worth while?

[i] "Foreign Relations of the United States," 1913, p. 100.

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  • PAUL D. CRAV ATH, of the law firm of Cravath, de Gersdorff, Swaine and Wood; member of the "House Mission" in 1917, and adviser to the Inter-Allied War Council on War Purchases and Finance, 1918
  • More By Paul D. Cravath