Saturday, April 17, 2021

Vartan Gregorian, RIP

 Today's newspapers carry obituaries of Vartan Gregorian, who in the course of a long career was provost of the University of Pennsylvania, president and chief director of the New York Public Library, president of Brown University, and president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Gregorian was born into an Armenian family in the north of Iran. He left Iran at the age of fifteen for an Armenian school in Beirut, then studied at Stanford, where he earned his degrees.

Gregorian is said to have rescued the New York Public Library from bad condition, through skillful direction and energetic fundraising. He would not have been available for the job had he been appointed, as he had reason to think he would, as president of the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2003, he wrote an engaging memoir, The Road to Home: My Life and Times. This is another memoir that I lent out and never got back, so I can't check my memory. But the portion before his arrival at the library was fascinating for its picture of childhood and education in Iran and Lebanon, then the world of the American academy and academic politics. The portion dealing with the library included a lot of important and celebrated names: I suppose that this was only fair, since the owners of those names helped build back the finances of the library.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Dennis Donoghue, RIP

Mostly I remember Dennis Donoghue for his memoir Warrenpoint.  Some years ago, I loaned my copy to a co-worker. She has since retired and left town, and probably took the book with her. I'm not really out of pocket, having bought it from the dollar carts at the Strand. Still, I now and then find myself wishing to re-read or quote Warrenpoint.

 By profession, Donoghue was a teacher and critic. At some point, I had a copy of England, Their England, and I might have had a copy of a book on American literature. But it is Warrenpoint that I remember, and wish I had on my shelves. It gives an interesting picture of his childhood and youth in Northern Ireland, where his father, a Catholic, was a sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The reflections on reading and learning are what I remember it best for, though.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021


The latest public dump of personal data comes from Facebook. This morning, I saw that someone had put up a site "Have I been Facebooked", and I visited to check my cell phone number. The query gave me my first and last initials, though no hint for gender or date of birth. "Have I been Facebooked" seems to have received a cease-and-desist, but "Have I Been Pwned" (HIBP) has the phone numbers loaded in, including mine. (HIBP is cagey, though, and does not offer initials etc.)

Now, I have not signed into Facebook more than a handful of times, and those involved setting up the account. Many years ago, a young man told us that it was creepy when people our age (parents of teenagers) were on Facebook. By now, I gather it is a boomer colony and the trend-setting young have moved on. Still, I don't want to use it, and never have. I signed up only to test the use of its authorization protocol for some web applications that we had. Once I learned that the web application did not just then support the use of Facebook authentication, I forgot Facebook.

But Facebook didn't forget me. My account was one of 500 million accounts to have data spilled. The good news, I guess, is that the data did not include an email address or password. Still, I wonder whether junk phone calls will start to ask for me by name.

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Concomitants of a Printing-House

 Today I opened The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, by chance to the entry for October 14, 1772, and found

He asked me whether he had mentioned, in any of the papers of the Rambler, the description in Virgil of the entrance into Hell, with an application to the press; 'for,' said he, 'I do not much remember them'. I told him, 'No.' Upon which he repeated it:

Vestibulum ante ipsum, primisque in faucibus orci,
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae;
Pallentesque habitant Morbi, tristisque Senectus,
Et Metus, et malesuada Fames, et turpis Egestas,
Terribiles visu formae; Lethumque, Laborque.

'Now,' said he, 'almost all these apply exactly to an authour; all these are the concomitants of a printing-house.' I proposed to him to dictate an essay on it, and offered to write it. He said, he would not do it then, but perhaps would write one at some future period.

A footnote gives Dryden's translation of the verses (Aeneid VI, lines 273-277):

Just in the gate, and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful cares, and sullen sorrows dwell;
And pale diseases, and repining age;
Want, fear, and famine's unresisted rage;
Here toils and death, and death's half-brother, sleep,
Forms terrible to view, their sentry keep.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Ten Words

 Some time ago, I discovered ten words that work nicely to make persons hang up when they call to sell me warranties, lower my interest rates, or warn me that my social security number is being used from fraud, etc.: "Is there a number I can call you back at?" Some years ago, I found that "What company do you represent, and in what state is it incorporated?" shortened calls nicely.

 In something like five years of asking for a call-back number, I think that I've hit one naive fellow who actually did give me his employer's number. Unfortunately, I lost it before I could find someone to complain to.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Larry McMurtry, RIP

Today's papers carry obituaries of Larry McMurtry, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and bookseller. I have read a couple of McMurtry's novels, a couple of his books of essays, a couple of memoirs. But I probably spent more hours browsing the shelves of Booked Up than I have spent in reading his books.

He was a good novelist, generally a good writer, and a good bookseller. I wish he hadn't taken Booked Up to Archer City, Texas, but really I don't see how he could have managed Washington rents much longer. A smaller used bookstore a few blocks away moved out to Bethesda about then, and closed a few years later: the proprietor's website said that he was tired of gambling his retirement money in a game with losing odds. I wonder how profitable Booked Up was in Archer City.

 I suppose that the best way to remember him is to acquire and read his books. Many of them are in print, or you could buy them used or rare.

Sunday, March 21, 2021


In the second of The Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes wrote

I shall nevertheless make every effort to conform precisely to the plan commenced yesterday and put aside every belief in which I could imagine the least doubt, just as though I knew that it was absolutely false. And I shall continue in this manner until I have found something certain, or at least, if I can do nothing else, until I have learned with certainty that there is nothing certain in this world.

Charles Saunders Peirce was not convinced:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things that it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial scepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs that in form he has given up. It is is, therefore, as useless a preliminary as going to the North Pole would be in order to get to Constantinople by coming down regularly upon a meridian. A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.

 ("Some Consequences of the Four Incapacities") Not that Peirce disregarded the uses of doubt:

The Critical Common-Sensist will be further distinguished from the old Scotch philosopher [Thomas Reid, or those of his school] by the great value he attaches to doubt, provided only that it be the weighty and noble metal itself, and not counterfeit nor paper substitute. He is not content to ask himself whether he does doubt, but he invents a plan for attaining to doubt, elaborates it in detail, and then puts it into practice, although this may involve a solid month of hard work; and it is only after having gone through such an examination that he will pronounce a belief to be indubitable. Moreover, he fully acknowledges that even then it may be that some of his indubitable beliefs may be proved false.

 ("Issues of Pragmaticism")


Thursday, March 18, 2021

Willows, Poplars, Aspens

According to the translation of Psalm 137 preferred by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jews in Babylonian exile hung up the harps on aspens. This surprised me. The Septuagint, the Vulgate, and King James Version all say that it was on willows. The Jerusalem Bible says poplars; the Revised Standard Version says willows but footnotes that with "or poplars".

The National Audubon society says that willows and poplars are two genera of the willow family. The American aspens are in the genera Populus (Latin for poplar). In the notes to his edition of The Odyssey, W.B. Stanford says of Book VIII, line 106

'Like the leaves of a tall poplar-tree': the comparison is between the continuous motion of the lightly hung leaves (probably of the aspen, Populus tremula) and the busy hands of the women [busy at weaving and spinning]....

So there is warrant for taking what are called poplars to be aspens. But then The Odyssey's word is αἴγειρος, poplar, and the Septuagint's is ἰτέα, willow.

 I suppose that my surprise on Sunday derived from the supposition that the aspen is a tree of the mountains. My first recollection of them is on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a much cooler and drier area than Babylonia.  And all aspens do seem to prefer cooler climates.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Shari, Chelsea, and the Bot

 We seldom get a telephone call worth answering on our land line. Most of them are faked to have our area code, sometimes our exchange. I pick them up less in expectation of a useful message than to keep them from going to the answering machine, which will then beep until somebody goes to hear and clear messages.

Automatic dialing machines, whether for anticipated dialing with live operators or for recorded messages, are programmed to hang up if one does not speak within some seconds of picking up. (I think the term is "voice energy detected"). This makes it sensible to pick up and just say nothing. If a friend, or a simply a person who has entered your number is calling, that person will probably say something--"Hello?"--after a few seconds of silence. An automatic dialler will drop the call, for there are thousands more to make.

Some of those with recorded messages economize by starting the message at once. One that I hear a couple of times a week runs

Hi, yeah, this is Shari, and I'm a senior executive with our

 Sometimes Shari goes on to "mortgage team" before disconnecting. Less frequently, I hear

 Hi, this is Chelsea. I'm in sales with

 I forget with what: something automotive, I think.

It is my impression that there is a also a Carly, but I haven't heard from her lately.

Then, and this seems to reach my cell phone more, there is

Hello. I am an AI bot, and...

 I suppose that the AI bot will speak its message through without hanging up, though I have never verified this; it goes on well past the point where Shari or Chelsea would have disconnected. It speaks to the prestige of artificial intelligence that someone should have recorded the message so. There may be some sophisticated programming behind the message, but it sounds to me as if it is coming from an interactive voice-response (IVR) system, such has been around for a long time.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Good Sense

 The first discourse of Descartes's Discourse on Method begins

Good sense is mankind's most equitably divided endowment, for everyone thinks that he is so abundantly provided with it that even those with the most insatiable appetites and most difficult to please in other ways do not usually want more than they have of this. As it is not likely that everyone is mistaken, this evidence shows that the ability to judge correctly, and to distinguish the true from the false--which is really meant by good sense or reason--is the same by innate nature in all men, and that differences of opinion are not due to differences in intelligence, but merely to the fact that we use different approaches and consider different things.

I remember my surprise on first reading this, something over forty-five years ago, and my admiration for the argument, combined with a feeling that something was wrong with it. This was long before anyone talked about the Dunning-Kruger effect. And really the Dunning-Kruger effect does not address Descartes's point as it affects the Discourse, for thoroughly intelligent persons of, before, and since his time have come to conclusions far different from his.

My old copy of The Discourse on Method and Meditations was lost in some move long ago, and I have just bought a used copy. The last time before yesterday that I saw the first sentence in print was in some Oracle documentation, in the days when one got a shelf's worth of printed manuals along with the software. The manual must have been Oracle Database Concepts, I think. Now all Oracle documentation is on-line, which for most purposes is much handier. But the pithy quotations at the beginning of chapters are no longer there.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Down to Half Street

 Our car's inspection sticker expired on February 26. Early yesterday I drove to Half Street SW, for what I expected to be a quick and pro-forma check. It was not quite what I expected.

For one thing, I expected to make the usual turn from Independence Avenue onto Washington Avenue. But it turns out that the intersection is about a half block inside the Capitol security perimeter. I turned down 2nd Street, found no way east, and backtracked to 4th Street. The chain-link fences along 2nd looked unusually high, perhaps 10 feet, though I may have misjudged them because I was seated. A couple of men in military uniforms were walking down on the other side of the fence, probably National Guardsmen.

For another, the car failed inspection with a couple of unresponsive sensors. The inspector advised me to Google "drive cycle", a manner of driving that may help awaken the sensors on a car that has been long parked. (It had not been parked that long.) The internet, of course, had plenty of advice about drive cycles, and for once the advice offered did not differ wildly. My brother offered a version that was similar, but specified starting with an almost empty tank of gas. But the owner's manual offers a recipe that does not require leaving the curb. Better still, it offers a way to see whether the sensors are responding. I'll see about this on Wednesday, when it will be warmer.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Weather

 A year or a few ago, I described the then weather in Washington, DC, in an email to an Angeleno friend by saying that it could have been scheduled by the Los Angeles Tourism Bureau. I have since reused the quip, appropriately modified, for an acquaintance who has moved to Phoenix . But who would would use an account of her local weather to cheer me up?

My brother sends me updates on Michigan weather. It can be very cold there, so that even heavy gloves leave the fingers cold after enough time outdoors. There can be a great deal of snow, so that shoveling becomes exhausting, or the snow blower (when practical) runs low on charge. But we grew up together in northern Ohio and in Colorado, and he knows that I don't really mind cold weather and snow.

My brother-in-law lives in the Willamette valley, where it rains more or less all the time for about a third of the year. He could perk me up any time during those months by saying that it had been raining for weeks and the needles of the trees were growing moss. But he doesn't care for that weather, either and so ordinarily gets into an RV and drives to Arizona as soon as the Christmas tree is down.

I suppose that a friend from the states along the Gulf of Mexico could raise my morale with bulletins of the temperature and humidity from May through September. The heat and humidity of Washington, DC, can be impressive to some, though I tolerate them well enough. But New Orleans outside in June I could not enjoy, and no doubt the same would be true for St. Petersburg, Biloxi, Mobile, and Houston.


Friday, February 12, 2021

Not At All Disturbed

 The New York Times informs us that the French are concerned that American notions around race and gender are affecting the quality of thought in the French universities. I find myself not at all disturbed by the news. The jargon of French structuralism has colonized American English to the point that some government entities no longer solicit bids for "demolition" but for "deconstruction". A fair proportion of the liberal arts faculties think and write in terms worked out in the Paris during the third quarter of the last century. We Americans know something about foreign influences.

Is this a case of Foucault's pendulum swinging back?

Thursday, February 11, 2021

House Floats

 A fortnight ago, neighbors told me that the planned to make a "house float". They said that this is something people are doing in New Orleans this year. The pandemic does not allow for Mardi Gras parades with elaborately decorated floats, so people are doing up their houses in the elaborate fashion of such floats. I asked whether they would throw me beads when I walked by, but then our conversation was interrupted.

 Sure enough, their house was decorated this week, with a banner announcing the "Krew d'Eatay" and showing vegetables that I suppose might go into crudités. There were strings of pennants, and a cardboard cutout of a leaping cat. Then the snow and rain came on. The banner, pennants, and cat are put away, I hope to return.


Monday, January 25, 2021

Close Reading

 In a letter of January 4, 1950 to Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh wrote of Robert Gathorne-Hardy's book Logan Pearsall Smith that

The only way modern books are readable is by reading them between the lines. I see so many unconscious and conscious dishonesties in the book which is two books put together -- the Boswell and an apologia for his treatment of the final heir.

In the essay "Flashbacks", collected in At Century's Ending: Selections 1983-1984, George Kennan describes his duties in Riga during 1932:

I know the Russian language, and I, with two or three others, go thoroughly and systematically through the Soviet newspapers and magazines, reporting to our government on what they reveal of life in the Soviet Union. It is through these thousands of pages of small-type, poor-quality newsprint that I am obliged to form my first picture of the great Communist country that lies so near at hand and extends so far away to the east. I, like my colleagues, am appalled at the propaganda that pervades every page of this official Soviet literature--at the unabashed use of obvious falsehood, at the hypocrisy, and above all, at the savage intolerance shown toward everything that is not Soviet. ... And I am surprised to find how easy it is, if one looks carefully and thoughtfully, to perceive what does lie beneath these gray and brittle pages, and to realize that the meaning of the propaganda is not in the literal text but in the subtle changes that  occur in it from day to day--changes that every sophisticated Russian knows how to decipher and to interpret, as we ourselves, in time, learn to do.

 In "The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Descriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys describes the method that made Father Lazlo Ladany's weekly China News Analysis "infuriatingly indispensable" (infuriating not to Leys, but to many of its western readers, who wished to think better of the People's Republic):

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skilfully effected, should yield a certain amount of plain facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver's Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta.    

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Johnsons

 Last year, I read Janet Lewis's novel The Invasions and enjoyed it. I had set it aside, and was not thinking about it, when I noticed in Journey to America, a collection of De Tocqueville's journals edited by J.P. Mayer, a passage of August 6, 1831, from the Sault Ste. Marie:

The Johnson family (conversation forgotten) at the camp of the Indian traders.

Now, the family of The Invasions spelled their name "Johnston". It is true that names are often misspelled, and that Tocqueville had difficulties with English orthography. Yet Johnson is not an uncommon name, and there could easily have been other Johnsons or Johnstons then living near the Sault.

If Tocqueville did speak with William Henry Johnston's family, it is curious that he did not record the conversation and make more of it, given the interest his journals show in the relations of the races. A family with a Bishop of Belfast as great-uncle, and a notable chief of the Ojibways as grandfather should have been worth recording. Sam Houston's brief marriage to the granddaughter of a Cherokee chief is mentioned in another notebook--but then perhaps Tocqueville had more time to talk with Houston.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Allow Us to Explain

I regularly read explanations of American politics--of America in general--from persons not resident here, and not apparently well acquainted with American conditions. It is only fair to say that I read explanations of the same quality from native-born Americans with half a century of residence, but somehow not a lot of acquaintance with the US outside their neighborhoods. Still, it is curious to read explanations of the Georgia election returns from persons I suspect of not knowing Athens from Atlanta.

 Over the last several months, as I have read some of these explanations, I have thought of a passage from Scoop:

Upstairs in his room, Mr. Wenlock Jakes was spending his afternoon at work on his forthcoming book Under the Ermine. It was to be a survey of the undercurrents of English political and social life. I shall never forget, he typed, the evening of King Edward's abdication. I was dining at the Savoy Grill as the guest of Silas Shock of the New York Guardian. His guests were well chosen, six of the most influential men and women in England; men and women such as only exist in England, who are seldom in the news but who control the strings of the national pulse. On my left was Mrs. Hogbaum the wife of the famous publisher; on the other side was Prudence Blank, who has been described to me as "the Mary Selena Wilmark of Britain"; opposite was John Titmuss whose desk at the News Chronicle holds more secrets of state than any ambassadors . . . big business was represented by John Nought, agent of the Credential Assurance Co. . . . I at once raised the question of the hour. Not one of that brilliant company expressed any opinion. There, in a nutshell, you have England, her greatness--and her littleness.

(The true fans of Waugh will remember that a bit later on Wenlock Jakes let us in on the Archbishop of Canterbury's control of Imperial Chemicals.)

I do not complain. In fact, it flatters my patriotic vanity to see the world explain America so tirelessly. Yet I think many of the explainers could do with a bit more information.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021


 A headline in today's Washington Post says "Demand snarls vaccine effort." The text of the story suggests to me that it is lack of supply and difficulty in organizing distribution that are impeding the effort. I'll leave it to the economists to decide this one. In the meantime, the District of Columbia has vaccinated 5.8% of its residents, Maryland 4%, Virginia 3.4%.

Monday, January 18, 2021


 On Saturday morning, the District of Columbia website accepted registrations to be vaccinated. One had to live in certain wards and to be 65 or over, or qualify by kind of employment. There was some glitch early on, so that one could pass though the forms, then find no sites offering vaccination. Eventually this was resolved, and we arranged to be vaccinated about 1:30 today at the Giant Foods at 7th and O Sts. NW. We found street parking on O, walked in, and fairly quickly filled out the forms.

Nearly everyone getting the vaccination was 65 or over, often enough well over, but there were a few men in their 30s or 40s. One sat until sent to a pharmacist's table, where the pharmacist reviewed documents, offered a caution or two, swabbed the shoulder, and then injected the Moderna vaccine. The pharmacist then gave one a card for the next appointment, in four weeks. We were asked to stay in the waiting area for fifteen minutes or so, in case there was some kind of reaction. There was not.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Cancel Culture?

In John Jay Chapman's essay "Emerson", he writes

"I know no country," says Tocqueville, who was here in 1831, "in which there is so little independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America." Tocqueville recurs to the point again and again. He cannot disguise his surprise at it, and it tinged his whole philosophy and his book. The timidity of the Americans of this era was a thing which intelligent foreigners could not understand. Miss Martineau wrote in her Autobiography: "It was not till months afterwards that I was told that there were two reasons why I was not invited there [Chelsea] as elsewhere. One reason was that I had avowed, in reply to urgent questions, that I was disappointed in an oration of Mr. Everett's; and another was that I had publicly condemned the institution of slavery. I hope the Boston people have outgrown the childishness of sulking at opinions not in either case volunteered, but obtained by pressure. But really, the subservience to opinion at that time seemed a sort of mania."

(Martineau was in the United States not long after Tocqueville.) He goes on to quote Wendell Phillips:

The general judgment is that the freest possible government produces the freest possible men and women, the most individual, the least servile to the judgment of others. But a moment's reflection will show any man that this is an unreasonable expectation, and that, on the contrary, entire equality and freedom in political forms almost invariably tend to make the individual subside into the mass and lose his identity in the general whole. Suppose we stood in England to-night. There is the nobility, and here is the church. There is the trading class, and here is the literary. A broad gulf separates the four; and provided a member of either can conciliate his own section, he can afford in a very large measure to despise the opinions of the other three. He has to some extent a refuge and a breakwater against the tyranny of what we call public opinion. But in a country like ours, of absolute democratic equality, public opinion is not only omnipotent, it is omnipresent. There is no refuge from its tyranny, there is no hiding from its reach; and the result is that if you take the old Greek lantern and go about to seek among a hundred, you will find not one single American who has not, or who does not fancy at least that he has, something to gain or lose in his ambition, his social life, or his business, from the good opinion and the votes of those around him. And the consequence is that instead of being a mass of individuals, each one fearlessly blurting out his own convictions, as a nation, compared to other nations, we are a mass of cowards. More than all other people, we are afraid of each other. 

In the article "The Fixation of Belief", published as part of the series "Illustrations of the Logic of Science", Charles Saunders Peirce wrote in 1877 that

The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind, and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give its thorough approval. Following the method of authority is the path of peace. Certain nonconformities are permitted; certain others (considered unsafe) are forbidden. These are different in different countries and in different ages; but, wherever you are, let it be known that you seriously hold a tabooed belief, and you may be perfectly sure of being treated with a cruelty less brutal but more refined than hunting you like a wolf.

 It is fair to say that since Wendell Phillips wrote, the United States has grown so that there are many segments of society that care little for opinions of certain other segments. Still, each segment has its own bounds for what one can say. This is not surprising, not at all new. What is perhaps new is the eagerness to proclaim oneself a martyr to the cause of free expression. But the prestige of victimhood has been with us for a while.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Russia Leaves the War

 I remarked last month on the oddity of a book reviewer suggesting that America's intervention at Murmansk and Archangel was unknown, basing my argument on George F. Kennan's The Decision to Intervene. About New Years, I took from the shelves its predecessor volume Russia Leaves the War. I had mistakenly thought that I had already read this book. 

 I'm glad that I now have. The book gives a very readable account of America's relation to Russia from the time of the overthrow of the Provisional Government on November 3, 1917 through the Soviet ratification of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in mid-March 1918. It makes a good deal clearer some of the personalities one encounters in the The Decision to Intervene. It also revisits themes that recur in American history, some of which Kennan has taken up elsewhere.

For example, there is the habit of appointing the politically connected as ambassadors. Sometimes this works out splendidly, as when one sends a John Quincy Adams to St. Petersburg. For the most part, it seems to be inefficient, sending to an important country someone who knows nothing about that country, commonly not the rudiments of its language. (I doubt J.Q. Adams knew much Russian; but as Tolstoy says, the Russian aristocracy of that day was more comfortable in French than in Russian.) David Francis, a sometime governor of Missouri and generally an estimable man, was not really suited to represent the United States in St. Petersburg in 1916.

There is the tendency of a president to suppose that he can address the people of a foreign country directly, and achieve results beyond what he would be dealing with its government. Wilson may have been given to this more than most presidents. It did not work well with Russia, where those who counted were the Bolshevik leadership and in principle opposed to Wilson's government.

There is the habit of working through unofficial envoys. To be fair, this is not solely an American weakness, for one reads in The Decision to Intervene that the the French government sent Henri Bergson to the US to work on President Wilson. But perhaps the French were trying to imitate our amateur ways. (It is not clear from the book that Bergson and Wilson ever met. Nor can I imagine what they would have discussed, had they met. They were both academics, but nothing in Wilson's background that I have heard of suggested an interest in speculative thought.)

During the period covered by The Decision to Intervene, the United States dabbled in influencing the Russian government by means of

  • The Root Commission, a delegation of prominent men led by Elihu Root, sometime Secretary of State and Secretary of War
  • The Red Cross
  • The Office of Public Information

The US also sent the Stevens Railway Mission, though this spent most of the period covered in Yokohama, making it to Harbin in March 1918.

Between its reluctance to recognize the Bolshevik government and its need to communicate with it, the US ended up using Raymond Robins, an official of the Red Cross, as its unofficial liaison. Robins was an intelligent and patriotic man, but out of his depth in assessing the situation. It is unlikely that anyone more qualified at assessment would have done better under the circumstances, though.

The two volumes of Soviet-American Relations 1917-1920 make for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, Princeton University Press has them available only through print-on-demand, at about $70 per volume. They are not hard to find used, though, for nearer $10.