Why did the United States diplomatically recognize the Soviet Union in 1933?
On November 16, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt ended almost 16 years of American non-recognition of the Soviet Union following a series of negotiations in Washington, D.C. with the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov.
United States breaks off relations with Russia in 1917
On December 6, 1917, the U.S. Government broke off diplomatic relations with Russia, shortly after the Bolshevik Party seized power from the Tsarist regime after the “October Revolution.” President Woodrow Wilson decided to withhold recognition at that time because the new Bolshevik government had refused to honor prior debts to the United States incurred by the Tsarist government, ignored pre-existing treaty agreements with other nations, and seized American property in Russia following the October Revolution.
The Bolsheviks had also concluded a separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, ending Russian involvement in World War I. Despite extensive commercial links between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the 1920s, Wilson’s successors upheld his policy of not recognizing the Soviet Union.
FDR pushes to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union
Almost immediately upon taking office, however, President Roosevelt moved to establish formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. His reasons for doing so were complex, but the decision was based on several primary factors. Roosevelt hoped that recognition of the Soviet Union would serve U.S. strategic interests by limiting Japanese expansionism in Asia, and he believed that full diplomatic recognition would serve American commercial interests in the Soviet Union, a matter of some concern to an Administration grappling with the effects of the Great Depression. Finally, the United States was the only major power that continued to withhold official diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union.
President Roosevelt decided to approach the Soviets in October 1933 through two personal intermediaries: Henry Morgenthau (then head of the Farm Credit Administration and Acting Secretary of the Treasury) and William C. Bullitt (a former diplomat who, as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of State, was informally serving as one of Roosevelt’s chief foreign policy advisers). The two approached Boris Shvirsky, the Soviet Union’s unofficial representative in Washington, with an unsigned letter from Roosevelt to the Soviet Union’s official head of state, Chairman of the Central Executive Committee, Mikhail Kalinin. The letter intimated that the U.S. Government would be willing to negotiate the terms for recognizing the Soviet Union, and requested that Kalinin dispatch an emissary to Washington. In response, Commissar for Foreign Affairs Litvinov journeyed to Washington in November 1933 in order to begin talks.
Roosevelt's efforts to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union was fundamentally different than previous diplomatic agreements. Instead of looking to draft a treaty that would be ratified by the Senate, Roosevelt sought to forge an informal agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and Litinov exchanged a series of letters that gradually outlined the terms of the agreement.
Talks frustrated by Soviet debt owed to US
Initially, the talks made little headway due to several outstanding issues: the unpaid debt owed by the Soviet Union to the United States, the restriction of religious freedoms and legal rights of U.S. citizens living in the Soviet Union, and Soviet involvement in Communist subversion and propaganda within the United States. Following a series of one-on-one negotiations known as the “Roosevelt-Litvinov Conversations,” however, Litvinov and the President worked out a “gentleman’s agreement” on November 15, 1933, that overcame the major obstacles blocking recognition.
According to the terms of the Roosevelt-Litvinov agreements, the Soviets pledged to participate in future talks to settle their outstanding financial debt to the United States. Four days earlier, after another private meeting with Litvinov, Roosevelt also managed to secure guarantees that the Soviet Government would refrain from interfering in American domestic affairs (i.e. aiding the American Communist Party), and would grant certain religious and legal rights for U.S. citizens living in the Soviet Union. Following the conclusion of these agreements, President Roosevelt appointed William C. Bullitt as the first U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, the cooperative spirit embodied in the Roosevelt-Litvinov agreements proved to be short-lived. Shortly after his arrival in Moscow in December 1933, Bullitt became disillusioned with the Soviets as an agreement on the issue of debt repayment failed to materialize. Moreover, evidence emerged that the Soviet Government had violated its pledge not to interfere in American domestic affairs. Finally, the killing of the Leningrad Communist Party boss, Sergey Kirov, launched the first of the “Great Purges” that led to the death or imprisonment of millions of Soviet citizens as the Stalinist regime liquidated any potential critics of the government. The wide scope and public nature of the purges horrified both American diplomatic personnel stationed in the Soviet Union and the world at large.
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact weakened US/Soviet relations
In the hope of improving relations, President Roosevelt dispatched businessman Joseph E. Daviesto Moscow as Bullitt’s replacement in 1936. While Davies managed to reestablish amicable relations with the Soviet leadership, his dismissive attitude concerning the purges alienated other American diplomats. Moreover, Davies faced unprecedented new challenges as a result of the worsening political situation in Europe. U.S.-Soviet relations reached their nadir in August 1939, when the Soviets signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany after the British and French rejected Soviet offers to establish a military alliance against Germany. Not until the German invasion of the Soviet Union began in June 1941 would the United States and the Soviet Union once again find a way to make common cause on any meaningful issue.
Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were always been problematic and this was true after the USSR was founded. Despite strong commercial ties during the 1920s, relations did re-open until FDR to formalize US/USSR relations. Even after formalization, the Soviet Union was never particularly vested in adhering to terms of the 1933 agreement. Ultimately, the US and the USSR would maintain a wary alliance during World War II to counter the German threat.
2. Republished from Office of the Historian, United States Department of State, Article: Recognition of the Soviet Union, 1933