Beyond chasing anyone who seemed likely to be critical of the government, the Czar utterly ruled out any reforms in his government which might move it in the direction of a republic with freely-elected representatives. His relations with the Duma - Russia's nominal parliament with little real power - went from bad to worse, as he refused to acknowledge the Duma as having any authority, and he dissolved it. Liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of the press were unknown. Although intended to prevent the government's overthrow, the Czarist regime's oppressiveness actually gave cause to revolutionaries.
Given the Czarist regime's harshness, it was no surprise that many western observers initially hoped that the 1917 revolution would give rise to a more humane government. The rhetoric put forth by Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders sounded as if it would lead to the types of political liberties favored by Western Civilization.
But it soon became clear that the Soviet dictatorship would be no improvement over the czarist regime. By some metrics, it would be worse. The communist government of the Soviet Union murdered Russians by the millions. Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech essentially disappeared. The Russians who had been oppressed by the czarist regime soon realized that they were being maltreated with even more brutality by the communists. Western observers who had hoped for progress under the Soviet Union saw Russia dissolve into a nightmare of cruelty.
By the time western governments, including that of the United States, realized which type of ruthless government was dominating Russia, it was too late. The results of the 1917 revolution were firmly in place. Not only did the communist dictatorship - which allowed no meaningful elections, but gave elaborate pretenses of such - have a secure grip on power in the Soviet Union, but it had also installed spies inside the United States government.
Although it was clear, equally to foreign policy specialists and to the ordinary citizen, that the Soviet government was no friend either to political liberty generally or to the United States specifically, policy makers inside the State Department were under the influence of misinformation given to them by Soviet agents who had obtained influential posts inside the government.
In addition to these moles, who were in two-way communication with the KGB and other Soviet agencies in Moscow, there were also sympathizers: those who were so infatuated with communist ideology that they continued to support Lenin and Stalin even after their atrocities became public.
There was a significant number of knowing and willing agents, both in the State Department and in other offices inside the United State government. There was also a large number of sympathizers, regarded by the Soviets as intellectual dupes, who were neither employed by, nor in direct contact with, Soviet intelligence agencies, but whose activities were certainly helpful to the Stalinists.
Among the agents on the Soviet payroll were State Department officials like Alger Hiss, Julian Wadleigh, Laurence Duggan, and Noel Field. They reported to agencies like the NKVD, the GPU, and the OGPU. Among those who, having a fondness for communist ideology, helped the Soviets without being on the payroll of the Soviet intelligence agencies and without direct contact to those agencies were men like Harry Hopkins, who perhaps never released state secrets to the Soviets, but who, wittingly or unwittingly, nudged United States policy in directions favorable to the Soviet Union.
Hopkins, for example, was convinced that the United States could form a "friendship" with the Soviet Union, even as Stalin was directing his spy networks to undermine the U.S. government. Hopkins hoped that the United States could render "assistance" to the Soviet Union, encouraging such friendship, even as the Comintern, an agency of the Soviet government, plotted the overthrow of the U.S. government. Policy documents formulated under the supervision of Harry Hopkins, and transmitted by Hopkins to President Franklin Roosevelt, contained these words and ideas.
By continuously feeding such misinformation to FDR, Roosevelt's policy views were nudged into a direction which played into the hands of the Soviets. To be sure, not all of Roosevelt's advisors were keen on Russian communism, and some of them warned the president about the dangers. Historian Medford Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein write:
Seeking Soviet “friendship” and giving Moscow “every assistance” indeed summed up American policy at Teheran and Yalta, and for some while before those meetings. The most vivid expression of Roosevelt’s ideas to this effect would be quoted by William Bullitt, a longtime confidant of the President, and his first envoy to Moscow. Bullitt recounted an episode early in the war in which he suggested to FDR that American Lend-Lease aid to Russia might provide some leverage with a balky Kremlin. To this, according to Bullitt, the President responded: “I have just a hunch that Stalin doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for world democracy and peace.” (Emphasis added.) Bullitt, who had learned about Stalin the hard way in Russia, tried to dissuade the President from this view but was not successful.
The pro-Soviet advisors inside the Roosevelt administration mocked those who warned about the dangers of Stalin, even as Stalin was orchestrating a manmade famine in the Ukraine which would kill millions, and even as Stalin was preparing to team up with Hitler against the United States. The Soviet agents in the State Department ridiculed those who attempted to alert FDR to Stalin's sinister activities, scorning them as backward-looking. Any data about Soviet butchery was countered with reminders that the czarist government hadn't been that much worse.
After the 1917 revolution, a civil war between the "White Russians" and the "Red Russians" lasted from 1917 to 1923. The White Russians had hoped to dislodge the Bolsheviks, while the Red Russians were the communists who hoped to solidify their hold on power. During and after that war, which the White Russians lost, emigres from the White Russian side gave useful data to the State Department. The data from the White Russians complemented data gathered by Americans like William Bullitt on the ground in Russia.
As the ever-grimmer picture of Lenin's and Stalin's butchery and aggressions emerged, the pro-Soviet faction in the State Department worked to discredit the data offered by the White Russians.
When U.S. and Soviet diplomats met, three issues were on the table. First, the Soviet destruction of freedom of religion was extending even to visiting U.S. nationals on Russian soil. Second, the Comintern was continuing to organize subversive groups to attempt violent overthrows not only of freely-elected western governments, but also of the Chinese government. Finally, the Soviet government had confiscated and nationalized assets belonging to U.S. citizens which happened to be on Russian soil at the time of the revolution.
Although these human rights violations were flagrant and glaring, the pro-Soviet elements within the State Department still worked to steer the negotiations to the advantage of the Soviets. Historian Jean Edward Smith writes:
Because the career diplomats in the State Department - many of whom had spent the last fifteen years hobnobbing with White Russian emigres - were still imbued with nostalgia for the czarist past, Roosevelt handled the negotiations himself, first through Henry Morgenthau, then through William C. Bullitt. Morgenthau, as head of the Farm Credit Administration, dealt with the Soviet trade organization Amtorg; Bullitt with Boris Skvirsky, the senior Russian commercial representative in the United States. As a result of these covert discussions, FDR invited Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov to Washington for direct negotiations in early November. The ostensible outstanding issued involved freedom of religion for Americans in Russia and the continued agitation for world revolution mounted by the Comintern. The real sticking point was the restitution of American property seized by the Soviet government in its nationalization decree of 1919. Roosevelt and Litvinov compromised. The agreement is known as the Litvinov Assignment. The Soviet government assigned to the United States its claim to all Russian property in the United States that antedated the Revolution. The United States agreed to seize the property on behalf of the Soviet Union, thus giving effect to the Soviet nationalization decree, and use the proceeds to pay the claims of Americans whose property in Russia had been confiscated. The constitutionality of the assignment was twice challenged before the Supreme Court, but in both instances it was upheld, the "taking clause" of the Constitution not withstanding.
Two factors shaped FDR's policy: first, pro-Soviet sympathizers in the State Department directed a continual stream of misinformation to him; second, his declining health stole his resilience and stamina and predisposed him to look for easy solutions rather than strive for diplomatic gains.
The Supreme Court was willing to go along with Roosevelt's policy toward the Soviets because it already had been at the receiving end of FDR's ability to bully the court. The two challenges, 1937 and 1942, to Roosevelt's deal with the Soviets, indicated that the U.S. government would be complicit in aiding the Soviet nationalization policy in seizing property which belonged to private citizens. Assets belonging to Russian citizens - assets which happened to be on U.S. soil - were seized, thus denying the rights of those citizens. The Soviet government had stolen assets both from U.S. citizens from Russian citizens, assets which happened to be on Russian soil at the time of the revolution. FDR would use the U.S. government to complete the theft by seizing any assets on U.S. soil which happened to belong to a Russian citizen. He would use the proceeds to pay the claims of American citizens whose property on Russian soil had been stolen by the Soviet government. But he was paying them with stolen cash. The Supreme Court did not have the stamina to resist Roosevelt's action; it knew that it would be bullied into submission for contradicting the Roosevelt administration, just as it had been bullied into approving the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, after striking down its clone, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.
In the end, FDR knew better. He was savvy and cosmopolitan - he'd spent more time in Europe than many of his State Department appointees. But his illness sapped his strength, and his agreement with the Soviets was the easy way out - appeasing the Americans whose property had been confiscated by the Stalinists - and the easy way out was more appealing than insisting on a principled diplomatic stance.