WASHINGTON: President Trump wants to improve U.S.relations with Russia, which is a good thing. But it can only be done if we have a clear understanding of Moscow’s goals. But only if the President understands the U.S.’s history of misunderstanding Russia.
When the president expressed skepticism about the consensus within the U.S. Intelligence community that Russia meddled in our 2016 presidential election, he cast doubt upon whether or not he has such an understanding.
His statements in Helsinki concerned his political supporters as well as his adversaries. Editorially, The Washington Times, a strong Trump supporter, declared:
“The most depressing thing about Donald Trump’s astonishing cuddle-up with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki is that it reveals how small the president’s mastery of history and power politics. Like Barack Obama before him, Mr. Trump understands only himself and his imagined personal grandeur and the trajectory of the universe as it spins around his head. Why waste time learning how the world works, when he already knows how the universe responds to him.”
Leading Republicans, usually hesitant to speak out, also indicate that Vladimir Putin was no friend.
“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, says:
“The Russians are not our friends, and I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community.”
In the face of this response, the president backtracked and said that he did, indeed, believe the U.S. Intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s intervention in our election. But, even then, he suggested “other people” might also have been involved.
Reports of Iran planning massive cyber attacks on private companies and infrastructure in the U.S. and Europe were released on Friday.
What the President really believes is impossible to know.
One can distrust the intelligence community, as Mr. Trump seems to, and still recognize Vladimir Putin as a tyrant. French intelligence can tell him how he intervened in the French election on behalf of far-right, anti-NATO and anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen. British intelligence can tell explain Russian interference in the Brexit campaign. Russian agents have used chemical weapons to poison four people in Britain.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea, are naked acts of aggression.
Fears are that is now preparing to interfere with our 2018 election. The Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, says
“The warning lights are blinking red again.”
A conservative Republican member of Congress and formerly an intelligence official, Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) argues that the president, by failing to criticize Russia’s meddling in our election in Helsinki, “actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign.” He notes that,
“Many Americans have forgotten that Russia is our adversary, not our ally, and the reasons for today’s tensions go back much longer than the 2016 elections. For more than a decade, Russia has meddled in elections around the world, supported dictators and invaded sovereign nations, all to the detriment of U.S. interests. Mitt Romney had it right in 2012 when he told President Barack Obama that Russia was ‘without question our No. 1 political foe.'”
When it comes to completely misunderstanding Russian goals in the world, we have been there before. As Stalin murdered millions and extended his control across Europe, many Americans, and others in the West, intellectuals, clergymen, journalists and politicians, defended Communism and denied the reality of what was happening.
Russian history of inhumanity
In 1944. Vice President Henry Wallace and Owen Lattimore, professor at Johns Hopkins University, visited Magadan in the Kolyma region of the Soviet Far East, one of the most notorious places of detention and forced labor. Throughout their visit, they remained unaware of having been in the midst of a complex of slave labor camps.
“At Magadan, I met Ivan Feodorovich Nikishev, a Russian director of Daistroi (the Far Northern Construction Trust), which is a combination of Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Hudson Bay Company. On display in his office were samples of ore-bearing rocks in this region.”
Wallace, who later ran for president on a third party ticket, continued:
“Nikishev waxed enthusiastic and Goglidze (an aide) commented jestingly, ‘He runs everything around here, With Dalstroi’s resources at his command, he is a millionaire.’
‘We had to dig hard to get this place going,’ said Nikishev. ‘Twelve years ago the first settlers arrived and put up eight prefabricated houses. Today Magadan has 40,000 inhabitants, and all are well housed.'” (Henry Wallace, “Soviet Asia Mission”)
Wallace recalled having been taken in Magadan to “an extraordinary exhibit of paintings in embroidery, made by a group of local women who gathered regularly during the severe winter to study needlework.”
They, too, were prisoners.
As to the Soviet NKVD troops assigned to his party, Wallace wrote,
“In traveling through Siberia we were accompanied by ‘old soldiers’ with blue tops on their caps. Everybody treated them with great respect. They are members of the NKVD, I became very fond of their leader, Mikhail Cheremisejiv, who had also been with the Willkie party.”
Americans intellectual naivety about Communism
The exuberance about Stalin and Communism among some Americans is interesting to recall.
The Quaker leader H.T. Hodgkin said that,
“As we look at Russia’s great experiment in brotherhood, it may seem to us some dim perception of Jesus’ way, all unbeknown, is inspiring it.”
Concerning the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture, author Upton Sinclair wrote:
“They drove rich peasants off the land and sent them wholesale to work in lumber camps and on railroads. Maybe it cost a million lives, maybe it cost five million, but you cannot think intelligently about it unless you ask yourself how many millions it might have cost if the changes had not been made.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, the black intellectual leader, thought that,
“He (Stalin) asked for neither adulation nor vengeance. He was reasonable and conciliatory.”
Journalist I.F. Stone hailed Stalin’s constitution of 1936:
“There is only one party, but the introduction of the secret ballot offers the workers and peasants a weapon against bureaucratic and inefficient officials and their policies.”
The U.S. Communist Party’s official publication, The Daily Worker, reports in its April 28, 1938 issue that,
“Nearly 150 prominent American artists, writers, composers and Broadway figures yesterday issued a statement in support of the verdict of the recent Moscow trials of the Trotskyite-Bukharinite traitors.”
The statement, signed by the 150, declared that the trials have
“By sheer weight of evidence established a clear presumption of the guilt of the defendants…the preservation of progressive democracy” in our own country makes it necessary for Democrats and progressives to support Stalin’s policy of blood purges.”
Among the signatories were some of America’s literary elite: Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Granville Hicks.
Clergymen were particularly naive about Communism.
As a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate during the Cold War, I worked on organizing a series of hearings for the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, about religious persecution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The World Council of Churches criticized the hearings and denied that such persecution existed.
One of its members was the Russian Orthodox Church, which was under the control of the Communist regime.
Consider Hewlett Johnson, the dean of Canterbury, who was a regular visitor to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign. He saw Communism as more consistent with Christian principles than the democratic system in England. He said that in the Soviet Union,
“…cooperation replaces competitive chaos and a plan succeeds the riot of disorder. The development of human potentialities of each individual received fullest opportunity and encouragement. Russia is the most moral land I know.”
Russia – no longer Stalin’s Soviet Union.
But Vladimir Putin, who spent most of his life under that system and served it as a KGB officer, seems intent on restoring the Russian power Stalin spread so widely. He would like to reincorporate Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. To do so, and to thwart the independence of Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and other former areas of Soviet control, he is working to weaken NATO and the EU.
President Trump, on his recent European trip, was critical of NATO and called the EU “a foe,” while not challenging Putin in Helsinki
We have misunderstood Moscow in the past, at our peril. It is important that we do not do so again.