Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Encouraged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Edward Davies’s Mission to Moscow helped shape American public opinion toward a more favorable view of the Soviet Union at a critical juncture in the war. Cold War analysts would dismiss the author as a naïve idealist duped by Stalin.

Summary of Event

Mission to Moscow appeared in bookstores at the end of October, 1941. In it, Joseph Edward Davies, the United States’ ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938, presented an account of relations between the two countries in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was encouraged to publish the book by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who granted Davies permission to include previously classified diplomatic correspondence in a deliberate attempt to shape American public opinion toward a more favorable view of the Soviet Union at a critical juncture in the war. Mission to Moscow (Davies) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda Propaganda;United States [kw]Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Mission to Moscow (Oct., 1941) [kw]Mission to Moscow, Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in (Oct., 1941) [kw]Moscow in Mission to Moscow, Davies Reflects on His Post to (Oct., 1941) Mission to Moscow (Davies) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda Propaganda;United States [g]North America;Oct., 1941: Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Mission to Moscow[00320] [g]United States;Oct., 1941: Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Mission to Moscow[00320] [c]Publishing and journalism;Oct., 1941: Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Mission to Moscow[00320] [c]Political science;Oct., 1941: Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Mission to Moscow[00320] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct., 1941: Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Mission to Moscow[00320] [c]World War II;Oct., 1941: Davies Reflects on His Post to Moscow in Mission to Moscow[00320] Davies, Joseph Edward Litvinov, Maksim Maksimovich Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Soviet Union[Soviet Union] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin,Joseph;American perception of

At the time of publication, Nazi forces had already penetrated deep into Russia World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign , and many Western observers predicted a German victory. Davies and Roosevelt were among a minority who believed that the Soviets were capable of rallying but that they required the unequivocal support of the United States, coupled with immediate, substantial aid. Both men also recognized that a Soviet defeat in Europe would encourage Japanese aggression in the Pacific.

Since 1937, the Soviet Union and Japan had been fighting a low-level war along the border between Siberia and Japanese-occupied Manchuria Soviet-Japanese relations Japanese-Soviet relations[Japanese Soviet relations] . The Soviet military presence in the North Pacific discouraged Japanese designs on Alaska. If there was any doubt in Americans’ minds about where their national interest lay, the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, would dispel it. Cooperation with the Soviet Union appeared essential to America’s survival. Consequently, any efforts that helped to bring about that cooperation appeared in the most favorable light.

In a sense, Mission to Moscow represented a continuation of the policies that prompted Davies’ appointment as ambassador in 1936. The United States formally recognized the Soviet Union in 1933 U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];pre-World War II diplomacy[preWorld War 02 diplomacy] , but the reestablishment of commercial relations between the two nations proceeded slowly. Seasoned members of the Diplomatic Corps, not least the staff of the Moscow embassy, found Roosevelt’s appointment of Davies disconcerting.

A personal friend of Roosevelt who had served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Woodrow Wilson, Davies had no training or experience in international diplomacy. His marriage to the breakfast-food heiress Marjorie Post Hutton had enabled him to live an opulent lifestyle seemingly incompatible with the philosophy of, much less actual conditions in, Communist Russia. His overwhelming optimism and disposition to look for the best in every person and situation likewise appeared to be a poor fit for a tense situation in which the other side had a history of non-cooperation and failure to adhere to agreements. Possibly, Roosevelt appointed Davies knowing that a more experienced and pragmatic diplomat might offend the Soviets and would balk at making concessions without which relations between the two countries could not progress.

Mission to Moscow sold more than 400,000 copies in its first year of publication, making it a best seller. Few purchasers read it cover to cover, as the main points were available in reviews and summaries, and the actual text—with the exception of a few anecdotes—was dull, repetitious, and diffuse. Most of the book is a chronological potpourri of excerpts from Davies’ diary, interspersed with diplomatic correspondence, selected and edited to create the impression that the United States and the Soviet Union were natural allies. Efforts of American and Soviet diplomats to prevent the debacle of the Munich Agreement (1938)—in which Germany was allowed to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia—figured prominently, while the British were portrayed as unreasonable and lacking in foresight. The 1939 nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, in contrast, was depicted as a necessity that lack of Western backing had forced upon the Soviets.

Davies devoted a considerable portion of the book to internal conditions in the Soviet Union in 1936-1938. He sought to dispel any notion that disastrous economic policies and state terrorism had crippled that country’s defense systems or that its regime was so far removed from rationality in government that no justification existed for defending it, even against Nazi Germany. He toured showcase collective farms, industries, and social institutions, making no attempt to determine how representative they were, and accepted official explanations for those problems that no amount of orchestration could conceal.

Davies’ account of the 1937 Moscow show trials Moscow show trials (1937) of prominent Communist Party Communist Party, Soviet;show trials officials drew particularly harsh criticism from postwar commentators such as George F. Kennan Kennan, George F. . Davies had accepted the analysis of Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov, who argued that since no one could be induced to confess to a capital crime except by severe physical torture and since the trials’ defendants gave no evidence of such torture in the courtroom, their confessions must be substantially true. This analysis led Davies to believe that there had been a widespread and dangerous Trotskyite conspiracy in the Red Army and the Communist Party. He praised Joseph Stalin for having thwarted it.

Two decades later, at the height the Cold War, with “de-Stalinization” Destalinization in full swing in the Soviet Union, official opinion would swing to the opposite pole, dismissing the conspiracy as purely the product of Stalin’s paranoia and ascribing the Soviet Union’s poor initial response to German aggression entirely to decimation of the Red Army during the purges. Were today’s historians to reassess this episode, Davies’ observations—which are by no means as superficial and naïve as Kennan claims—would be a valuable original source.

In late April, 1943, Warner Bros. released the film version of Mission to Moscow, Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Misson to Moscow Mission to Moscow (Curtiz) directed by Michael Curtiz Curtiz, Michael under Davies’ supervision. More frankly propagandistic than the book, the film overstated Davies’ role, portrayed U.S. foreign policy as more foresighted and less isolationist than it really was, idealized the Russian people, and depicted Stalin as a wise and benevolent leader. The film concluded with a pitch for the United Nations. Popular and influential when it first appeared, Mission to Moscow disappeared into the archives following the war. During the McCarthy era, its screenwriter, Howard Koch Koch, Howard , was blacklisted Blacklisting, Hollywood McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];blacklisting as a Communist Party sympathizer.

Significance

The propaganda campaign in which both the book and the film version of Mission to Moscow played a prominent role unquestionably helped sway American popular opinion in favor of the Soviet Union as an ally. This in turn translated into substantial material aid Foreign aid, U.S.;Soviet wartime support . Cold War-era histories from both sides downplay the role this aid played in defeating Nazi Germany. Soviet sources dismiss such aid as trivial compared with the tremendous sacrifices the Russian people made in the Great Patriotic War. American accounts credit German blunders and Russian weather with a greater role than Soviet military resistance in the German defeat on the eastern front. It became popular to view Stalin as a cynical schemer who used American aid and American goodwill to establish communist hegemony in Eastern Europe. According to this construction of events, cooperation with the Soviet Union was never necessary, and those who favored it were foolish or worse.

Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, several historians have challenged Kennan’s stereotype of Davies as an unrealistic optimist who played into Stalin’s hands. The complete body of his correspondence, especially after the Potsdam Conference of 1945, reveals that he chose to overlook a great deal in the interests of furthering cooperation. An objective assessment of the extent to which that cooperation served both nations during the war has yet to be written. Any such analysis would take into account the critical role American supplies played in sustaining the Soviet Union during the rapid turnaround in the winter of 1942-1943, the overwhelming military defeat the Soviets inflicted on Germany, and a conflict in the North Pacific that never escalated, because the Soviet Union resisted Japanese incursions in 1937-1939. Mission to Moscow (Davies) U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];World War II[World War 02] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda Propaganda;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ditzen, Eleanor Davies Tydings. My Golden Spoon: Memoirs of a Capital Lady. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1997. Memoir of Davies’ daughter that includes accounts both of her father’s career as ambassador and of her own political experiences during the same period, when she was married to a U.S. senator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennan, George F. Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. The classic Cold War-era account of the same diplomatic negotiations described in Mission to Moscow, written by a former official of the Moscow embassy and adviser to presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacLean, Elizabeth Kimball. Joseph E. Davies: Envoy to the Soviets. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992. A detailed and generally sympathetic biography reassessing Davies’ career in the light of post-Cold War developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Troianovskii, Oleg A. Cherez Gody i Rasstoianiia: Istoriia Odnoi Semi (across years and distances: the history of a family). Moscow: Vagrius, 1997. Account of Alexander Troianovskii, Soviet ambassador to the United States, 1933-1939, written by his son, also a diplomat. In Russian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulan, Adam. Understanding the Cold War: A Historian’s Personal Reflections. Charlottesville, Va.: Leopolis Press, 2000. Traces the historiography of Soviet-American relations from an academic perspective; considers Mission to Moscow “a remarkably silly book.”

World War II: European Theater

Germany Invades Russia

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe

Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech

Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool

McCarthy Hearings

Death of Stalin

Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime

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