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Restoring normal relations with Russia is good, but not the way Trump is doing it



On Oct. 10, 1933–barely seven months into his presidency–Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a personal letter to the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Kalinin.

“My dear Mr. President,” FDR began, Since the beginning of my Administration, I have contemplated the desirability of an effort to end the present abnormal relations between the hundred and twenty-five million people of the United States and the hundred and sixty million people of Russia.” As part of that effort, and depending on the result of negotiations, Roosevelt proposed to recognize the Soviet Union (the U.S. had broken diplomatic relations after the October, 1917 Russian Revolution). Roosevelt suggested “conversations” between the two countries that might lead to the full restoration of ambassadors and embassies. Indeed, a month later, Russia’s foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, arrived at the White House, where the recognition agreement was quickly signed. America and the Soviet Union thus re-established diplomatic relations.

Why was FDR intent on restoring “a happy tradition of friendship” with a country pledged to the destruction of capitalism? “His reasons were complex,” argues the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian, and included the following:

  1. Roosevelt hoped that recognition of the Soviet Union would serve U.S. strategic interests by limiting Japanese expansionism in Asia.
  2. 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.
  3. The United States was the only major power that continued to withhold official diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union.

Reason #2—“commercial interests”–may have been foremost in FDR’s mind during those dark Depression years. His friend, the immensely wealthy industrialist, Armand Hammer, who was one of the first Americans to build business ties with the Soviets—and who had Roosevelt’s ear—wrote (in his memoir, “Hammer”) that he told Roosevelt restoring relations was “of paramount importance,” and he reminded FDR of Ben Franklin’s admonition: “Trading nations seldom make war.” The Congress, too, was aware of the importance of establishing new reciprocal trade agreements with the Soviets: “Recognition of the…Soviet state, followed by development of normal trade relations, has been urged in the last year by numerous business executives,” an analysis of Senate opinion stated in February, 1933, nine months before relations were normalized.

As things turned out, the U.S. and the Soviet Union became allies in the Second World War, although immediately afterwards, mutual suspicions arose, and the ensuing Cold War lasted for nearly fifty years. American presidents over that span—Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton—never stopped meeting with their Soviet counterparts in “summits,” and hot war was avoided. But relations between the two countries never thawed, and the current diplomatic state is said to be at the lowest ebb since the 1980s.

I am as fervent an anti-Trumpist as anyone, but I give Trump a certain amount of credit for reaching out to Putin. The U.S. and Russia are the world’s two military superpowers. And, just as FDR believed the Soviets could help balance growing Japanese power in the Pacific and in Asia, so too do mutual interests between Russia and America—commercial, security and scientific—suggest that we should get along today. So I’m ready to believe that Trump’s cozying up to Putin is based on a sincere belief that friendship is a good thing. The current Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is correct when he states that Russia is an important global player and that Trump instructed him to do “the work you need to do in this relationship.”

 Still, two troubling facts remain: Trump and his family and surrogates seem to have collaborated with the Russians to steal emails and then publicize them through Wikileaks and therefore illegally tamper with the results of our election; and Trump and his family and surrogates seem to have obstructed justice in their failed (so far) attempts to thwart the FBI’s investigation (which already has led to multiple indictments and guilty pleas by Trump associates).

It would be an irony of history were Trump to be brought down by his attempt to restore positive relations with the Kremlin–the same thing FDR did 84 years ago. But then, Franklin Roosevelt took care not to break the law. Making friends with Russia—ending our present abnormal relations—would be a very good thing. But Trump went several steps beyond that. Due to his paranoia, incompetence, greed, narcissism, insecurity, penchant for secrecy, disregard for the Constitution and hatred of Hillary Clinton, he wandered into felony territory. Now, he is going to have to pay the consequences.

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