The Russians Are Tough

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"The Russians Are Tough"

Look 18 February 1947

I was leaving in the early morning by Army plane for Berlin.2 The argument on displaced persons had dragged itself out until a very late hour. When the vote was finally taken and adjournment was finally announced, I made my way over to my opponent, Mr. Vishinsky, the delegate from the U.S.S.R. I did not want to leave with bad feeling between us. I said, "I hope the day will come, sir, when you and I are on the same side of a dispute, for I admire your fighting qualities." His answer shot back: "And I, yours."3

That was February, 1946. When I saw Mr. Vishinsky again, it was October, 1946. He came to join his delegation at the second session of the United Nations General Assembly in Flushing, New York. I realized that we might again have some acrimonious discussions. But I had no personal bitterness. I have never had any personal bitterness against any of the people in any of the Eastern European group. I have had, nevertheless, to argue at some length with them because we could not agree on fundamental problems.

I have found that it takes patience and equal firmness and equal conviction to work with the Russians. One must be alert since if they cannot win success for their point of view in one way, they are still going to try to win in any other way that seems to them possible.

For example, the Eastern European group has but one interest in the International Refugee Organization set up to deal with displaced persons in Europe: the repatriation of as many of their nationals as possible.4 We, on the other hand, while agreeing that repatriation is desirable, feel there will be people who do not wish to return to their home countries. And our belief in the fundamental right of human beings to decide what they want to do must impel us to try to prevent any use of force against displaced persons. We must find the opportunity, if we possibly can, for people to carry out new plans for resettlement somewhere in the world.

I have worked over this and similar questions with the Russians at two meetings of the General Assembly of the United Nations. They are a disciplined group. They take orders and they carry them out. When they have no orders they delay—and they are masterful in finding reasons for delay. They are resourceful and I think they really have an oriental streak—which one finds in many people—which comes to the fore in their enjoyment of bargaining day after day.

When they find themselves outside their own country in international meetings or even in individual relationships, they realize they have been cut off from other nations. They are not familiar with the customs and the thinking of other peoples. This makes them somewhat insecure and, I think, leads them at times to take an exaggerated, self-assertive stand which other people may think somewhat rude. I think it is only an attempt to make the rest of the world see that they are proud of their own ways of doing things.

I always remember that my husband, after one effort to make me useful since I knew a little Italian, relegated me to sightseeing while he did the buying in old book shops in Italy. He said I had no gift for bargaining! Perhaps that is one of my weaknesses. I am impatient when, once I think the intention of a thing is clear, the details take a long time to work out. Gradually, however, I am coming to realize that the details of words and expressions are important in public documents.

I admire the Russians' tenacity, though it is slightly annoying to start at the very beginning each time you meet and cover the same ground all over again. I have come to accept this as inevitable. It means one hasn't convinced one's opponent that the argument presented was valid. It is perhaps only fair, therefore, that they should go on until they either decide it is useless to continue or one is able to convince them that the opposing stand has truth in it.

I can point to a resolution which was presented after we had finished our discussion on the International Refugee Organization charter and the vote had been taken. Some seventy-odd amendments had been presented and considered. Apparently, it was all over. Then our Yugoslav colleague presented a resolution.

In many ways that resolution tried to do the things which the Eastern European group felt essential regarding displaced persons. Its passage would have nullified many of the things accepted. Our committee voted down the first parts of the resolution, but the third paragraph had in its first line the word "screening", which represented something everybody could agree on.

I think most of our colleagues did not want to show prejudice against the Yugoslav representative. So without reading beyond the first line, they voted "yes" on this paragraph. The last few lines, however, referred back to a former paragraph which we had voted down. It was not until the vote came to the Netherlands that a "no" was heard. He gave no explanation and the "yes" continued to be voted until it came to me. I voted "no" saying, "voting 'yes' on this paragraph makes no sense." I was greeted with laughter. But when they came to read the paragraph, it could only make sense if the preceding paragraph was attached. This paragraph, however, we had voted down!

It was a triumph for our Yugoslav colleague. I hope he realized that the committee desired to show some personal friendliness to him as an individual.5

There are many factors which make working with representatives of the U.S.S.R difficult. Their background and their recent experiences force upon them fears which we do not understand. They are enormously proud to be Russians and are also proud of the advance of their country over the past 25 years.

They also labor under one great disadvantage. Communism started out as a world revolution and undoubtedly supported groups in the other nations of the world which were trying to instill communist beliefs. Leaders of communism today in Russia may or may not believe the whole world should hold the same political and economic ideas. They do realize that for the time being, they have all that they can well do in their own areas. Though they wish to influence the governments of neighboring states to insure safety from aggression, they no longer think it possible to convert the world to communism at present.

It is unlikely that the Russian leaders today would actively encourage groups to work within other non-communist nations. In fact, I think they find it embarrassing to have these groups active. It not only creates in the democracies an active desire to fight back, but extends very often to a general feeling against the U.S.S.R.

I feel sure that the representatives of the U.S.S.R. in this country have little desire to be associated with the American communist groups.6 One of the difficulties arising here is that among our own citizens we have disagreements about situations in their native lands. For instance, we have Poles who support the present government which is friendly to the U.S.S.R. We have Poles who oppose the Russians and probably would support the old regime in Poland.

There are Russians here who left Russia after the first revolution. There are some who left more recently from Ukraine or from the Baltic states. They all form groups here supporting different groups in Europe.

This makes for us a complex situation. It must make it difficult for representatives of existing governments when they come here.

These differences will eventually be resolved. It is fairly obvious that if existing governments continue to be supported by their people, the rest of the world will have to accept what those people have accepted and learn to work with those governments.

In working with the U.S.S.R., we will have to divorce our fear and dislike of the American communists, as far as possible, from our attitude as regards the representatives of the Soviet government. We will have to insist that the Soviet government give no help or comfort to a communist group within our country. I think when this is clearly established, we can work with Russia as we have with the socialist government in Great Britain. Both differ from our political and economic views, but these views are not static anywhere.

Words alone will never convince the Soviet leaders that democracy is not only as strong, but stronger than communism. I believe, however, that if we maintain as firm an attitude on our convictions as the Russians maintain on theirs, and can prove that democracy can serve the best interests of the people as a whole, we will be giving an effective demonstration to every Soviet representative coming to this country.

We know that democracy in our own country is not perfect. The Russians know that while communism has given them much more than they had under the Czar, it's still not perfect.

The question is, which group will fight more earnestly and successfully for its beliefs? We must come in contact with each other. Therefore, the battle is an individual battle to be fought by every citizen in our respective countries. The language barrier is, of course, one of the things which makes it difficult to work with the Russians. More and more they speak English. I wish I could say that more and more we speak Russian! I have always heard that because the Russian language is so difficult, the Russians learn foreign languages more easily than we do. Perhaps we ought to acknowledge that we are lazier and rely on other people learning the English language.

Talking through an interpreter never encourages friendly relations. I think we feel that it is more difficult to know the representatives of the U.S.S.R. and of the Eastern European group than it is to know someone, for instance, from France, Great Britain, Italy, or any of the South American countries.

It is true, I believe, that official representatives of the U.S.S.R. know that they cannot commit their country without agreement with the Kremlin on some special program of action. It makes them extremely careful in private conversation. We who feel we can express our opinions on every subject find a Soviet representative unsatisfactory on a personal basis. This might not be the case if we met just plain, unofficial Russians who felt they had no responsibility and could converse freely on any subject with a plain American citizen!

We undoubtedly consider the individual more important than the Russians do. Individual liberty seems to us one of the essentials of life in peacetime. We must bear this in mind when we work with the Russians; we cannot accept their proposals without careful scrutiny. We know the fundamental differences which exist between us. But I am hoping that as time goes on, the differences will be less important, that we will find more points of agreement and so think less about our points of disagreement.

On the higher levels, where questions of expansion of territory, trade and influence have to be settled, I think we have to remember our own young days as a new Republic, and that Russia is a young, virile nation. She has to be reminded that world co-operation, international ownership and activity seem more important than any one country's interests. Not an easy lesson for any of us to learn, but one that is essential to the preservation of peace.7


1. For ER's debates with Vyshinsky and Gromyko, see Document 90, Document 91, Document 152, and Document 168.

2. ER went to Germany for several days in February 1946 after the UN General Assembly meeting in London. She toured Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, and several Displaced Persons camps (MD, 15, 16, and 18 February 1946).

3. See Document 92 for a similar account of this incident, which occurred on February 12, 1946, at the close of the General Assembly meeting. For the text of their exchange, see Documents 91 and 90.

4. The Eastern group of the Communist nations represented in the UN in 1947 included the Soviet Union, Poland, Byelorussia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia. On the IRO, see the header to Document 152.

5. The Yugoslavian resolution to which ER refers (A/C.3/113) called for the dismantling of military or paramilitary organizations that Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union repeatedly charged were operating in the refugee camps and the removal of trouble makers that they claimed were discouraging repatriation by intimidating other refugees. The resolution also called for the creation of special bilateral commissions to promote closer cooperation between the countries of origin and the countries operating the camps and to help implement the first two measures. ER, in the words of the summary report of the meeting at which the Third Committee discussed the resolution, "regarded the Yugoslav proposal as a means of reopening a lengthy discussion which had been closed by the Committee's decisions." She reiterated the United States position that no military organizations existed in the camps and that refugees were not being forced by anyone to refuse repatriation (A/C.3/145). The Third Committee voted down paragraphs (a), (b), and (d) of the Yugoslavian resolution, but voted to adopt paragraph (c), although it referred back to paragraph (b), by eighteen to two with thirteen abstentions. Paragraph (c) read: "effect a careful screening of the categories of persons mentioned above and particularly, and with high priority, for those mentioned in paragraph (b) above, in order to identify all war criminals, quislings and traitors who shall be handed over to the authorities of the countries against which they have committed their crimes, regardless of the fact that they may have become stateless or have assumed a new nationality." The summary record notes: "Mrs. Roosevelt pointed out that in its new form paragraph (c) was meaningless." The committee directed Leo Mattes, the Yugoslavian delegate, to revise the paragraph, which he did. Eventually the committee adopted a modified version of that portion of the Yugoslavian resolution (Summary Record, Forty-Sixth Meeting, Third Committee, 9 December 1946, A/C.3/145, 296, 302-310, UNORGA, MWelC; Draft resolution proposed by the delegation of Yugoslavia, A/C.3/113).

6. See MD June 9, 1945 (Document 18), in which she expresses concern that the activities of the American Communist Party will disrupt good relations with the Soviet Union. In December 1946, ER wrote: "I did not find much sympathy among the Russian delegates to the UN for the American communists" (see Document 173).

7. On November 17, 1948, ER wrote to Trude Lash:

It is sad dear, but I think it will take a long time to get real understanding with the USSR government. It will be the result of long and patient work. Their government and its representatives think differently from the way we do. Even in polite conversation they see things differently. They will have to reach a higher standard of living and not be afraid to let others in and their own out before we can hope for a change (ER to Trude Lash, 17 November 1948, AERP).

Questioning the Administration's Policy on Greece

February 21, 1947, Truman wrote an open letter to Congress recommending that the $350 million appropriation requested by UNRRA as well as all subsequent requests for relief aid to war-ravaged countries be handled in a new manner:

I recommend that this relief assistance be given directly rather than through an international organization, and that our contribution be administered under United States control. International cooperation in the program and the necessary coordination of our relief activities with those of other contributors can be achieved by informal consultations with all nations concerned through the mechanism of the United Nations and otherwise.1

He addressed Congress again March 12, this time offering a proposal for direct US aid specifically to Greece and Turkey:

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.

The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred. But we cannot allow changes in the status quo in violation of the Charter of the United Nations by such methods of coercion, or by such subterfuges as political infiltration. In helping free and independent nations to maintain their freedom, the United States will be giving effect to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.2

Truman then asked Congress to appropriate $400 million for military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey and "to authorize the detail of American civilian and military personnel to Greece and Turkey, at the request of those countries, to assist in the tasks of reconstruction, and for the purpose of supervising the use of such financial and material assistance as may be furnished."

This new US policy of aiding nations directly—to help them, as Truman put it in his speech, "maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes"—became known as the "Truman Doctrine."3

As Congress deliberated on the president's proposal the following week, ER reacted to the sudden change in US foreign aid policy by attempting to reach Warren Austin, chief US delegate to the UN, to discuss the matter. Unable to reach Austin, she turned to Dean Acheson, who had testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee March 20 in favor of the Doctrine.4 Because ER insisted her questions "were of such immediate importance that she must get in touch with top policy officials at once," Acheson sent Thomas Power to respond to her questions on the US policy toward Greece.5 Power later told Austin:

I judge from the telephone call to me from Washington when I was asked to see this arrangement through that Mrs. Roosevelt made plain to Mr. Acheson her intention of resigning from the Commission on Human Rights should she not be satisfied with the reasons which lie behind the U.S. policy toward Greece … she repeated this statement to me although always speaking in terms of a searcher for knowledge who still had an open mind.6

Power detailed his meeting in the memorandum below, addressed to Austin.7

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The Russians Are Tough

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