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The Hill in History


Root’s mission impossible

One hundred years ago, Russia endured a tumultuous year of war and revolutions. Fighting on two fronts against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire in World War I had all but destroyed the Russian army. More than once, its infantry charged with pitchforks instead of guns. Soldiers suffered from inadequate food and clothing. Russian society was so disgusted with Tsar Nicholas II’s government that the press attacked Tsarevna Alexandra as a German spy and a whore in the thrall of the manipulative mystic monk Grigory Rasputin.

In December 1916, a group of aristocrats murdered Rasputin, but Nicholas did not take the hint. Early the next year, a mass uprising forced the tsar to abdicate. In the aftermath, a group of government ministers formed a provisional government to keep the empire together and continue wartime obligations to its allies, which included the United States as a new force on the Western Front. Simultaneously, the socialist political parties organized an alternative government called the Soviet (Council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. For nine months, the two governments coexisted uneasily, each representing a very different part of the Russian population.

On June 3, 1917, Elihu Root, Class of 1864, arrived at the city of Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast, having sailed from Seattle. President Woodrow Wilson had appointed him head of a special mission to the Russian provisional government following Root’s distinguished career as secretary of war and secretary of state under the previous McKinley and Roosevelt administrations. The mission’s goals were to assure Russia of U.S. support for its new democracy and, more importantly, to encourage Russia to continue fighting Germany and Austria-Hungary from the east. Jewish organizations in New York, many of whose members had family in Russia, also pleaded with Root to inquire about the welfare of Russian Jews. 

Root was 73 years old and a reluctant traveler. He had severe doubts about the mission’s success, but felt duty-bound to go. His wife, Clara Frances, made sure that he traveled as comfortably as possible, sending him off with 250 cigars, a large box of novels, two cases of whisky, and 200 gallons of Poland water.

The American mission rode by train for 10 days from Vladivostok to Petrograd, traveling in high style as guests on the former tsar’s personal train and dining in the very car where Nicholas II had abdicated the throne only three months before. Once in Petrograd, Root was impressed by the chaotic and passionate public square, writing to Clara Frances: “There is really no governing power but moral suasion and the entire people seem to be talking at once — making up for lost time.”

The reality of the special mission was even more dismal than Root had feared. Provisional government officials knew little about the U.S. except that it was a potential source of money, and German propaganda was very effective in convincing Russian soldiers that their best bet was to desert, go home, and seize farmland from the hated former serf owners. Root pleaded with Wilson to fund a vigorous American counterpropaganda campaign, but the president brushed him off. The one Russian leader who had direct knowledge of the U.S. was Leon Trotsky, who had been in New York when the tsar abdicated, but Root never met any of the socialist leadership.

Root traveled to the front to meet with General Alexei Brusilov at Mogilev and spent a few days in Moscow. Whether he made any inquiries about the Jewish community there is unknown. He made speeches to enthusiastic crowds via a translator. By July 9, the mission was back on the train to Vladivostok, having accomplished nothing and learned little about the forces driving Russia toward a second revolution. Root later learned that Wilson never even read his dispatches from Russia.

— Shoshana Keller, professor of history


Source: Jessup, Philip C. Elihu Root, Vol. II. Dodd Mead & Co., 1938, pp. 353-367.

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Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Magazine
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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