Max Shachtman

Ambassador Davies’ War Mission

The New Revelations of Ex-Ambassador Davies

(February 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 1, February 1942, pp. 9–13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan (December 2012).

Mr. Roosevelt’s problem is not altogether enviable or easy to resolve. He has to convince the far-from-convinced masses that he is leading a war for freedom and democracy. At the same time, he has to convince the doubtful and hostile elements among his conservative and reactionary supporters that the alliance with Stalin is nothing to be disturbed about. In a way, the President is more concerned with the latter aspect of the problem than with the former. There is an almost inexhaustible supply of labor lieutenants of imperialism pounding away faithfully at the job of whitewashing the alliance with Stalin in the eyes of the professional leaders of the middle classes and some of the spokesmen of reaction in this country. It is not an easy job; it requires a minimum of scruples and self-respect, which is not much of a problem nowadays – and a maximum of skill and authoritativeness, which is something of a problem.

Whom to assign the job? Surveying the possible candidates ourselves, we cannot say that Roosevelt made a bad choice in picking his former ambassador to Russia, Joseph E. Davies. After reading his Mission to Moscow [1], it is clear that he met all the requirements listed above. He was given a task to perform, a political assignment not less important than his original appointment as ambassador to Moscow. He has acquitted himself of his assignment as well as any man could, given the handicaps. As his book goes from better-seller to best-seller, the author has a right to feel gratified by the “bit” he is doing to keep the war going.

The elements we have referred to have taught or have been taught the following notions about Russia – some true, some false, all held by some and some held by all:

  1. Russia has a revolutionary Bolshevik government in which the workers rule and benefit;
  2. Russia is a terrible totalitarian dictatorship in which nobody but a tiny group of oligarchs enjoys any rights;
  3. Russia is trying to spread world revolution and communism by means of the Communist International;
  4. The Moscow trials and the purges were a monstrous travesty on justice;
  5. Stalin is a despot with not less arbitrary power than Hitler, and Russia is not different from Germany;
  6. Russia is where atheists run riot and when religion is officially condemned and persecuted;
  7. Stalin’s alliance with Hitler was treacherous; so were the invasions of Russia’s neighbors; and Stalin may turn from the “democracies” and rejoin Hitler.

“With Human Nature as It Is!”

With opinions such as these fairly widespread in the country, the alliance with Stalin does not set well on the stomach, at least on some stomachs; in any case, these opinions are exploited against Mr. Roosevelt. The aim of Mr. Davies’ book is to change these opinions. No small task. No unimportant task, as is shown by the almost official Administration endorsement given the book in the advertised encomiums from Sumner Welles, who officially authorized the use of State Department archives, which are often quoted in the book, and from the President himself.

The first thing Mr. Davies must present to the audience at which he is aiming is his credentials, his authority to speak on the subject in hand. To do this, he finds it necessary to emphasize that he never entertained any radical ideas and that he didn’t become contaminated with any as a result of his residence in Moscow. He was once a follower of Woodrow Wilson, and in recent times of Roosevelt and the New Deal. But don’t get the wrong idea about him: “As I stated to Mr. Stalin, President Kalinin and the others of the Soviet leaders, I am definitely not a communist. I am called a capitalist. I am proud of the designation ...” And again, as if he had just been converted by Max Eastman, he is “equally firmly convinced that communism, as such, cannot work on this earth, with human nature as it is ...” And again: “I explained that I had always made is clear to the members of the Soviet government that I was a capitalist ...” And again and yet again, until even the dullest reader begins to get the point.

Having made this most important point clear, Mr. Davies is ready to go to work. He sets forth, first, that while he still remains a capitalist, the Stalin regime has pretty well wiped out all traces of communism in Russia. “At the present rate at which differentiation and increases in compensation are growing, it will be but a very short time before there will be very marked class distinctions based upon property. Human nature,” concludes this dispatch to the State Department from the disciple of the noted thinker, Max Eastman, “is functioning here even as always.”

On March 17, 1937, he happily sends Cordell Hull, “strictly confidentially,” the following intelligence: “The idea of a ‘classless’ society has been and is being destroyed in practice. The government itself is a bureaucracy with all the indicia of class, to wit: special privileges, higher standards of living, and the like.” To “Dear Steve” Early, who is evidently interested in the subject, he writes: “These commissars certainly treat themselves well.” To “Dear Pat” Harrison, the famous social scientist from Mississippi, he passes on the information that “there is no question but what human nature is working here the same old way. There are many indications of it. The bureaucracy all live very well and many have their country houses, or dachas in the country.” And his very last word is this: “The Russia of Lenin and Trotsky – the Russia of the Bolshevik Revolution – no longer exists. Through gradual, stern and often cruel evolution that government has developed into what is now a system of state socialism operating on capitalistic principles and steadily and irresistibly swinging to the right. Concessions had to be made to human nature” – this man seems to be positively obsessed with the point! – “in order to make the experiment work.”

One can almost hear the first sigh of relief from the Union League Club reader: Maybe they don’t have capitalism there yet, but at least the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky – the Russia of the Bolshevik Revolution – no longer exists; and that’s what’s important.

The Comintern – Lenin and Trotsky’s Russia

But what about this world revolution business, and the subversive Communist International? Mr. Davies has a most reassuring answer on this score, too, and it’s as honest as a dollar. To the Secretary of State in Washington: “The idea of the world proletariat and revolution has been set aside and replaced with the idea of a nationalistic Russia.” Citing, in his diary, the Belgian Minister, De Tellier: “Stalin, he thinks, is a practical realist who is a nationalist, not an internationalist like Trotsky. Stalin, in his opinion, would ‘ditch’ the Comintern in a minute if he were assured of peace. He holds on to it as a military defensive agency.” To Stephen Early: “The French Ambassador has said to me that the Comintern (the agency for the international revolution idea) is resorted to by Stalin, not because of desire, but purely as a military and strategic necessity. Stalin, he maintains, wishes to prove socialism in Russia first, as a successful object lesson to the world. Trotsky advocates world revolution, without which, he maintains, there can be no successful communism.” The Comintern, then, does indeed exist, but it is merely a technical adjunct of Stalin’s foreign policy; a means of blackmailing an opponent; and, hints Davies, even we might utilize its services in those countries which are the enemies of Russia – and of ourselves. As for its being a world revolutionary movement, that’s so much poppycock. “The Russia of Lenin and Trotsky – the Russia of the the Bolshevik Revolution – no longer exists.”

Trotsky: that brings up the question of the trials and the purges. Here Davies digs his brush down into the thickest part of the whitewash pail and lays on a coat with one stroke that other men would hesitate to build up with ten. “All of these trials, purges and liquidations, which seemed so violent at the time and shocked the world, are now quite dearly [!] a part of a vigorous and determined effort of the Stalin government to protect itself from not only revolution from within but from attack from without. They went to work thoroughly to clean up and clean out all treasonable elements within the country. All doubts were resolved in favor of the government. There were no fifth columnists in Russia in 1941 – they had shot them. The purges had cleansed the country and rid it of treason.”

For these hundreds words alone, the Stalinists are ready to forgive or overlook or forget anything else that Davies may say in this book. Yet, in their way, these words are as monstrous, as conscienceless, as calculated as the Kremlin frame-ups themselves. In order to apologize for the war policy of his political boss, Roosevelt, he makes himself the attorney for a band of cold-blooded cut-throats who were responsible for the most gruesome political massacre in history. Just the kind of job a Wilsonian liberal would undertake to do!

A Corporation Lawyer on the Moscow Trials

What makes Mr. Davies an authoritative voice on the Moscow trials? We understand that he has a reputation as a corporation and banking lawyer; he was present at some of the trial sessions in Moscow, accompanied by an interpreter; he has evidently glanced through some of the published versions of the court records; he has talked to the heads of the Soviet government, i.e., to the executioners, and to other foreign diplomats in Moscow. However, we know – even a moderately intelligent child can see this from reading the book – that the author pursues a very deliberate political aim, and that aim most certainly does not include depicting Roosevelt’s Kremlin allies as frame-up artists and judicial assassins. We have no reason to believe, moreover, that Mr. Davies has much more than a newspaper knowledge of the nature, origin, problems and course of the Russian Revolution, of the men who guided it and the men who destroyed it, even though this superficial knowledge is buttressed at many points by the former ambassador’s emphatically avowed capitalistic predilections and instincts. That he is aware of such commonplace truths as “the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky no longer exists,” does not mark him out from a million others, and the archives and library of the State Department must be full of documents on the subject of Russia far more thoroughgoing and important, even if written by obscure – but at least studious – people.

What, then, gives him the right to speak so authoritatively, so categorically – “all doubts were resolved in favor of the government” – about the trials? Nothing, unless impudence, unless ignorance, unless the command to do a dirty job, give a man such a right.

An Unfortunate Preface

“There were no fifth columnists in Russia in 1941 – they had shot them.” Davies has the effrontery to vouch for the guilt of the murdered Soviet leaders even in the case of the Red Army officers, about whose “trial” there is not even a document faintly resembling the heavily-edited and patched-up stenogram that was given out of the “public” trials – no document except the statement issued by the combined accuser-judge-executioner. “The Bukharin trial six months later,” he adds in a footnote to a report he wrote at the time Tukhachevsky and associates were shot, “developed evidence which, if true, more than justified this action,” that is, the shooting of the “generals.” What evidence? In not one of the trials was there a single piece of material evidence introduced that could in any way be interpreted as proof of the conspiracy charged by Stalin-Vyshinsky – not a single piece! Doesn’t Davies know this fact? He can’t help knowing it.

Or perhaps the “confessions” are what Davies means by “evidence.” But the “confessions” are a monumental mockery of the prosecution; they are shot full of the most preposterous contradictions. Yet, even if the reasonableness of the “confessions” was to be granted, how does Davies explain them? Surely, they are not the most ordinary sort of thing in the legal career of the ex-ambassador. Were the accused brought to confess by confrontation with overwhelming evidence of their guilt, as almost invariably happens in a genuine case of this kind? Then why wasn’t any of this evidence produced? Or perhaps the GPU inquisitors appealed to the conscience of the accused and thus broke down their resistance to confession? If this is so, how explain that the inquisitors in charge of revealing the “Fascist-Trotskyist plot” were themselves later revealed as two of the most important cogs in the same plot, namely, Yagoda and Yezhov, successive heads of the GPU?

But what’s the point of going into all this! If Davies doesn’t know all the details of the truth about the Moscow trials and purges, he knows them well enough. Does he really believe, for example, that Trotsky and Rakovsky and Zinoviev and Bukharin and Rykov and Pyatakov and Tukhachevsky and Gamarnik and thousands upon thousands of others were in league with Hitler and Hirohito to assassinate Stalin and his associates, to overthrow the government, to restore capitalism, and grant whole chunks of the USSR to Berlin and Tokyo? Of course not. To him, Trotsky and the people in the trials whom he would probably call Trotskyists were not the real counter-revolutionists in Russia – and that, after all, is the very nub of the charges in the trials and in the purges – but rather the revolutionists who remained faithful to what Davies and Co. really abhor, the Bolshevik Revolution. The counter-revolutionists, those who put an end to “the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky,” are in the Stalin camp; and Davies knows it and says it, not once but a dozen times. When he writes of the liquidation of the opposition to Stalin he says that “human nature asserted itself here again as in the French Revolution, only the tempo here was slower.” Again: “... The prosecution has made a strong case establishing the existence of widespread Trotsky conspiracy to destroy the present government. It is the French Revolution over again.”

What is this talk about the “French Revolution over again” and, elsewhere about “the revolution devours its children”? Davies simply assumes that everyone knows what he means, and in a way he is right. The French Revolution over again means that the revolutionists – the men of “the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky, of the Bolshevik Revolution” – fell at the hands of the counter-revolutionists as incorruptible Robespierre and the Jacobins’ fell at the hands of the Thermidorians! And that is a process that emphatically does not meet with aversion in Mr. Davies. “Trotsky was then and is now the ardent proponent of the idea that the world revolution was foremost,” he reported to Cordell Hull almost immediately upon his arrival in Moscow. And when it comes to world revolution and its proponents, Mr. Davies is all for human nature taking its course. And where human nature doesn’t work fast enough, it’s handy to have A. Mitchell Palmer around, or Francis Biddle and Edgar Hoover; or, in Russia, Stalin and the GPU.

What the Treason Actually Consisted Of

But the treason – what about that? Mr. Davies explains, and his comments (he is writing about the purge of the Red Army) are remarkably lucid, even penetrating! “It would have been quite natural,” he says of Tukhachevsky and the others, to resent the imposition of an espionage system over them; to have “criticized political bureaucratic control of industry when it handicapped the Army”; and “it is possible that they continued to voice such opposition” even after the party (i.e., Stalin) decrees on the subject. Correct; and all objective, intelligent analysis indicates that this grumbling and criticism and lack of complete servility to Stalin and his whims constituted the beginning and end of the “crimes” of the Red Army men.

However [continues Davies], if after the 17th of May, when political control over Che army was established as a result of a party decision, the opposition on the part of these officers continued, even though it were simply through discussions among themselves, their action would be treasonable and a felony under Bolshevik rules of behavior. It is a fundamental of party government that once a party action is established by the vote of the majority, any further opposition thereto constitutes treason.

There is the sum and substance of the treason of Stalin’s victims – they continued to criticize or oppose Stalin after he had ordered them to shut up. And since, according to the ukazes (if Czar Joseph, which Davies jokingly calls the “Bolshevik rules of behavior,” it is treason even to whisper against His Majesty, many of the accused in the trials were undoubtedly guilty of treason “against the state.” After this piece of apologetics for jurisprudence under a despotism, it can be said: What Mr. Davies ever earned as a corporation lawyer, he undobtedly deserved; but as a democrat, yes, even a bourgeois democrat, he is a downright impostor.

They were shot down, as Vyshinsky put it, like dogs, these last thousands of representatives of a noble generation of revolutionists, shot down because they weren’t considered intellectually convinced serfs of Stalin; because in their secret hearts they knew that Stalin’s rule meant all kinds of disaster; because, perhaps, they sometimes whispered to each other that Stalin was ruining the country with his course. Because of this extremely restrained form of opposition – if it can be called opposition of any kind – they were framed up, publicly humiliated and dishonored, and then shot down. Then the arch-assassin turns around and makes a reactionary imperialist alliance with the very Hitler whose agents he claimed to have tried and shot. And Mr. Davies, a democrat and the ambassador of a democrat, turns incoherent with praise of it all. To whitewash the slaughter of the peoples it is necessary to whitewash an ally whose blood-crimes stink in the nostrils not only of honest socialists, but of honest men everywhere

“Revolutionary” Silhouettes by a Bourgeois

What Mr. Davies does to perform the task assigned him once he gets through with the trials is in the nature ot anticlimax. But it is part of the task and it should be noted.

Stalin a brutal despot? Not at all. The fact is he is a much misunderstood man; and so are most of the other Soviet leaders. All you have to do is get to know these people and you find that they’re just simple home folks like us, main difference being they speak Russian.

Take Vyshinsky. You might think from the way he conducted the trials that he was just the kind of man to lead a drunken lynch mob, especially if it outnumbered possible resistance by fifty to one. But no; he “is a man of about 60 and is much like Homer Cummings: calm, dispassionate, intellectual, and able and wise. He conducted the treason trial in a manner that won my respect and admiration as a lawyer.” (We’re willing to bet Davies thought Prosecutor Katzman did a superb job against Sacco and Vanzetti.)

Or Molotov. “An exceptional man with great mental capacity and wisdom.” Molotov must have been extremely fond of Davies and decided to reveal his great mental capacity and wisdom at a private showing, for nobody else in the world ever noticed it. Walter Duranty, for example, in his latest book on Russia, admits that Lenin was flabbergasted at Stalin’s proposal to add Molotov to the Central Committee and said: “If you want my opinion, the best filing-clerk in Moscow.” Duranty, more delicate than Lenin, says Molotov “never was a genius, but can always be relied on” – which is, God knows, not less than true. Anyone familiar with the personnel of the Bolshevik Party knows that Molotov was known for years to every one of his associates by no other name than “Lead-Bottom,” only it sounded and was a lot more salty in the original Russian and was meant to describe his intellectual, not his physical, characteristics. But Davies, with uncanny insight, finds him exceptional, and of great mental capacity and wisdom!

Or Voroshilov. “He impressed me immensely ... has great dignity and a military personality that is most effective. Moreover, I think he is a man of intellectual power that grasps the elementals of a situation that sweeps the non-essentials aside.” Tukhachevsky, on the other hand, “did not impress me very much”! Tukhachevsky, to whose brilliant abilities at the age of 26 in the Russo-Polish war even Pilsudski paid tribute, who rose steadily in rank out of sheer ability, who was the father of the motorization and mechanization of the Red Army, who was universally regarded as a strategist of high caliber, who had the respect of virtually the entire officers corps – didn’t impress Davies much; after all, Tukhachevsky turned out to be a traitor, or so Voroshilov said. But Voroshilov, notoriously mediocre, enjoying no prestige whatsoever among the qualified officers of the Army, pretty much a time-serving hack of Stalin’s who had to be junked in the Finnish war and had to be junked as soon as the Hitler drive got under way, who never uttered an idea of his own and couldn’t repeat someone else’s coherently – he impresses Davies a lot – no, immensely! – and, one-two-three, reveals the most impressive and sweeping virtues. After all, he too is a war ally, and who among our allies has yet failed to show “intellectual power that grasps the elementals of a situation that sweeps the non-essentials aside”?

The New Stalin

As for Stalin, the biggest misconceptions of all exist about him. “If you can picture a personality that is exactly opposite to what the most rabid anti-Stalinist anywhere could conceive,” Davies writes his daughter after his first meeting with The Presence, “then you might picture this man.” The slush gets so thick you can make balls out of it. “His brown eye is exceedingly kindly and gentle. A child would like to sit in his lap and a dog would sidle up to him ... He has a sly humor. He has a very great mentality.” And again: “I was honored by meeting the man who had been built for the practical benefit of common men ... He gave me the impression of being sincerely modest.” What a stomach Mr. Davies’ pen must have! What a stomach Davies must expect his reader to have!

Then comes religion. Considering what Davies has to work with, he makes the bravest possible case. Yaroslavsky’s indecent buffoonery, which passes under Stalinism for the socialistic or scientific struggle against superstition, goes unmentioned, of course. All Davies can squeeze out of Yaroslavsky’s obscene posturings is that his “Militant Atheists” have lost half their members in four years. Then there’s the fact that Stalin’s wife is buried in hallowed ground, in the Monastery of the New Virgins; whatever can be made out of that is made. Then Davies intervened for a Catholic priest in Moscow and he reports that he got a break from the Kremlin authorities. Then there’s the story of the question put to Kalinin about the numerous icons on the wall of his mother’s house: “Kalinin replied that he didn’t think they did him any harm ... and he didn’t ‘mind’ them. This indicates that Soviet official anti-religious sentiment may be only ‘skin-deep.’ I saw several indications of this character. It is pretty hard to kill the faith which came at the mother’s knee.” It isn’t much. He might have made out a far better case for religion in Russia if he had gone into the details of the compulsory worship of Stalin as the official state creed and church of the bureaucracy.

Much Ado on Religion

On Russia and Germany, Davies is not so much learned as enthusiastic. To impose the Christian religion upon Nazism would be impossible. They are utterly antithetical. That is the difference – “the communistic Soviet state could function with the Christian religion in its basic purpose to serve the brotherhood of man. It would be impossible for the Nazi state to do so.” If Davies means by “communistic Soviet state” the reactionary society of Stalinism, he’s talking so much flub-dub. As ultra-totalitarian regimes, neither Hitler’s state nor Stalin’s can tolerate the potential rivalry or claims for temporal recognition of any organized religious institution, or risk for long their existence as possible hearths of social opposition. At the same time, both regimes, by fostering poverty and misery for the masses, feed the streams that make for the resurgence of priestcraft, superstition, ultramundane consolations. A society of true socialist abundance and freedom will not think of suppressing the right to religious liberty; and at the same time it will remove the whole social basis and intellectual atmosphere which make possible – inevitable – the flowering of organized superstition and institutional mumbo-jumbo. But Mr. Davies made a brave effort, and perhaps he should not be begrudged the very, very few fish he will hook with his apologetics on this point.

Finally, there is the war itself, and the role of Stalin in it. Mr. Davies skips over the fragile subject of the Hitler-Stalin pact with a gracefulness and lightness of touch that belie his age, humming something in an undertone so that you have to strain yourself to hear what he is saying. It seems that the Stalinist final explanation of the Pact was substantially right, after all. It was just Stalin’s astute way of working to crush Hitler. Fact is, he was preparing against him all the while; his whole policy was the “collective security” bloc with England and France against Germany. But Chamberlain and Bonnet sabotaged the bloc; tried to play Hitler off against Russia (this part is true enough, of course); and finally drove Stalin into the alliance with Hitler.

However that may be, it is all water over the dam now and the important point is that we’re allies in the common struggle for democracy. Russia under Stalin is an invaluable partner in the fight: tremendous industrial reserves and capacity; tremendous physical reserves for an army; and no threat of communism emanating from Moscow. It is we who must be careful, emphasizes Mr. Davies, and conduct ourselves in such a way that we don’t force Stalin back into Hitler’s arms.

Preposterous as Mr. Davies’ warning may have sounded five years ago, it is serious today. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that right now at least the life of Anglo-American imperialism, in any case the extent of its lease on life, depends to a tremendous extent on the war of its Kremlin ally. Of all times, this is not the time to offend the Stalinist bureaucracy; on the contrary, it is its favor that must be courted. Lest this be considered overdrawn, it is only necessary to picture the consternation in the camp of Roosevelt and Churchill – and for good cause – if Stalin should suddenly announce a new change of front.

Two Contradictions and Two Questions

Mr. Davies’ book thus performs a double task: the gratification of the insatiable vanity of the Kremlin autocracy, on the one hand, and more importantly, the justification, in the eyes of the Doubting Thomases, of Roosevelt’s alliance with that autocracy in the war. As we said at the outset, it is no small task, and the 646 pages occupied by the writings of Mr. Davies are not too many when the difficulty of the job is understood. Yet, in all these pages, we miss one point: there isn’t even a hint that such a point might legitimately exist and require treatment. Yet, while it remains untreated by Davies, it nevertheless does exist. Namely:

If, through these confidential reports and letters to the State Department from the special ambassador to Moscow, people like Hull and Welles and Roosevelt (and surely also their more intimate colleagues) were informed of all the illuminating truths now publicly divulged by Davies, why didn’t they act throughout the first period of the war in accordance with this information? Were they too stupid to understand, or was it a case of their attaching no weight to the views of the President’s ambassador?

For example: if they were so reliably informed (we are assuming that all of Mr. Davies’ dispatches did arrive ...) about the truth concerning the Moscow trials, is it conceivable that they would allow the vast majority of America’s newspapers to persist in their error of condemning the Stalin regime? More important because more recent: if they were so reliably informed of the truth concerning the Hitler-Stalin pact, and of the invasions of the Baltic and Balkan countries and of Finland, and of the invincibility of the Red Army and the inexhaustibility of Russian production, why, during that whole period, did Roosevelt and Hull, and those who speak like them and for them, denounce the Stalin regime, denounce its actions, its strategy, its tactics, its plans, it explanations, its apologies and everything connected with it? How explain their hostile, contemptuous attitude, in such sharp contrast to the attitude expressed in the reports and communications of the man Roosevelt described as exercising “a happy faculty in evaluating events at hand and determining with singular accuracy their probable effect on future developments”?

In view of the position taken by the “Statesmen of the Republic,” of what they said and did, is it permissible to conclude that Mr. Davies’ reports and opinions, so sensationally presented to the public today, so ardently praised on all hands, were not taken seriously by the very persons for whom they were written? And further, that when the unexpected did happen, when Hitler broke the alliance and Stalin and Roosevelt and Churchill somewhat bewilderedly found themselves in partnership, that Mr. Davies was commissioned to mix together everything he could lay hands on in order to make the unlooked-for union with Stalin appear more palatable in the eyes of Roosevelt’s not entirely reliable supporters?


1. Mission to Moscow, by Joseph E. Davies. 640 pp. Simon & Schuster. $8.00.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 23 December 2014