Russia and the US didn’t have much contact in the 19th Century. A rumor had once circulated insisting presidential candidate, John Quincy Adams had procured American virgins for the Russian Czar when a young diplomat. Not true, but there it is.
Still the political tyranny of Russia was widely understood in America. Lincoln condemned the racism and intolerance stateside, remarking that Russia’s oppression was, at least, less hypocritical. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward later negotiated a purchase for Alaska with Russia. Seward’s Ice Box, 1867 newspapers scoffed.
Some sixty years later, during World War One, revolutionaries deposed the Czar, and later murdered him, and his family. The US shipped Doughboys to France, and dispatched American forces to Archangel, to aid the White Russians in defeating the Bolsheviks. The Whites failed.
In the newly founded USSR, Vladimir Lenin formed the Comintern with the express aim of exporting Communism worldwide, prompting the first American Red Scare.
Then came Depression and World War Two. Josef Stalin, a ruthless despot, struck a nonaggression deal with Hitler, splitting Poland as a buffer. Neither trusted the other, and in 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. End of alliance.
After Pearl Harbor the Russians found themselves allied to Britain and the US. Stalin didn’t trust Washington, and Washington didn’t trust Stalin. Not only had the Russians cut and run during WWI, but recently had signed this treaty with Hitler.
Before the Second World War ended, Stalin signaled his intentions by spreading the Red Army throughout Eastern Europe. Western allies relented and allowed Soviets forces first into Berlin, where Communists held that sector until 1989.
The second Red Scare hit America hard. Stalin’s operatives managed to lift atomic and hydrogen bomb intelligence. The Berlin Wall was built, and the entire Soviet Sphere of Influence made for an intense Cold War. Conflicts popped up in America, and around the world. Sputnik, the U2 incident, the Rosenbergs execution, Joe McCarthy hearings, duck and cover drills, and the black list ruining countless careers. Proxy wars cast a real chill over the free world.
Some of America’s greatest Cold Warriors included President Eisenhower, JFK, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. These Chief Executives understood that any agreements with the Kremlin required verification. Our Soviet rivals were seasoned operatives, and no ally of the west.
So where does this story leave us? Clearly the Kremlin is no friend. Spy networks, election hackers, and embedded operatives are perpetual threats, that is for sure. Maria Butina, the little red groupie of the NRA, for one. So, when an American President smiles and pays court to Vladimir Putin the proof is clear.
The Russian government is patient, and that patience has paid off. Putin’s masterpiece? He elevated a Russian asset to the White House, and convinced GOP voters to look the other way.
Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both available on Kindle.