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William Christian Bullitt, Jr.
William Christian Bullitt, Jr.

William Christian Bullitt Jr. (January 25, 1891 – February 15, 1967) was an American diplomat, journalist, and novelist. He is known for his special mission to negotiate with Lenin on behalf of the Paris Peace Conference, often recalled as a missed opportunity to normalize relations with the Bolsheviks.[3] He was also the first US ambassador to the Soviet Union and the US ambassador to France during World War II. In his youth, he was considered a radical, but he later became an outspoken anticommunist.[4]

Early years

Bullitt was born to a prominent Philadelphia family, the son of Louisa Gross (Horwitz) [5] and William Christian Bullitt Sr. His grandfather was John Christian Bullitt, founder of the law firm today known as Drinker Biddle & Reath.[6] He graduated from Yale University in 1912, after having been voted "most brilliant" in his class. He briefly attended Harvard Law School but dropped out on the death of his father in 1914. At Yale, he was a member of Scroll and Key.

He married socialite Aimee Ernesta Drinker (1892-1981) in 1916. She gave birth to a son in 1917, who died two days later. They divorced in 1923. In 1924 he married Louise Bryant, journalist author of Six Red Months in Russia and widow of radical journalist John Reed. Bullitt divorced Bryant in 1930 and took custody of their daughter after he discovered Bryant's affair with English sculptor Gwen Le Gallienne. The Bullitts' daughter, Anne Moen Bullitt, was born in February 1924, eight weeks after their marriage. Anne Bullitt never had children. In 1967, she married her fourth husband, U.S. Senator Daniel Brewster.

William Bullitt became a foreign correspondent in Europe and later a novelist. In 1926, he published It's Not Done, a satirical novel that lampooned the dying aristocracy of Chesterbridge (Philadelphia) and its life revolving around Rittenhouse Square.[7] The New York Times described the work as "a novel of ideas, whose limitation is that it is a volley, a propaganda novel, directed against a single institution, the American aristocratic ideal, and whose defect is that the smoke does not quite clear away so that one can accurately count the corpses."[8]

Diplomatic career

Working for President Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Bullitt was a strong supporter of legalistic internationalism, which was later known as Wilsonian.

Prior to the negotiation of the Versailles Treaty, Bullitt, along with journalist Lincoln Steffens and Swedish communist Karl Kilbom, undertook a special mission to Soviet Russia to negotiate diplomatic relations between the US and the Bolshevik regime.[9] It was authorized by Wilson advisor Edward House. On March 14, Bullitt received a Soviet proposal that demanded that the Allies agree to a peace summit on the Russian Civil War, which they had been participating in. The proposed terms for discussion at the conference included the lifting of the Allied blockade on the country, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Russia, disarmament of the warring Russian factions, and a commitment by the Bolshevik government to honor Russia’s financial obligations to the Allies (the second time in writing that the Soviets promised to honor the Tsarist debt.)[10][11]

The Allied leaders rejected these terms however, apparently convinced that the White forces would be victorious.[12] Prime Minister Lloyd George had given early support to the Bullitt Commission, but refused to make its findings known to the public. George told Bullitt this was due to pressure from Winston Churchill, who was an ardent anti-communist.[13]

Having failed to convince the leadership to support the establishment of relations with the Bolshevik government, Bullitt resigned from Wilson's staff.[9] He later returned to the United States and testified in the Senate against the Treaty of Versailles. He also had his report of his Russian trip placed into the record.[14] Margaret MacMillan describes both Bullitt and Steffens as "useful idiots" who were swindled by Lenin into Western abandonment of the White Russian factions.[15] Most historians, however, consider Lenin's peace offer to be a genuine effort to end a war that threatened his regime.[16][17][18] Stephen M. Walt called it a "lost opportunity" for the Allies to obtain better terms from the Soviets than they ultimately did.[19]

President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Bullitt the first US ambassador to the Soviet Union, a post that he held from 1933 to 1936. At the time of his appointment, Bullitt was known as a liberal and thought by some to be something of a radical. The Soviets welcomed him as an old friend because of his diplomatic efforts at the Paris Peace Conference. Though Bullitt arrived in the Soviet Union with high hopes for Soviet–American relations, his view of the Soviet leadership soured on closer inspection. By the end of his tenure, he was openly hostile to the Soviet government. He would remain an outspoken anticommunist for the rest of his life.[20] Bullitt was recalled after US journalist Donald Day disclosed that he had been involved in illegal exchange of and trading with Torgsin rubles.[21]

During that period, he was briefly engaged to Roosevelt's personal secretary, Missy LeHand. However, she broke off the engagement after a trip to Moscow during which she reportedly discovered him to be having an affair with Olga Lepeshinskaya, a ballet dancer.[22][23]

On April 24, 1935, he hosted a Spring Festival at Spaso House, his official residence. He instructed his staff to create an event that would surpass every other embassy party in Moscow's history. The decorations included a forest of ten young birch trees in the chandelier room; a dining room table covered with Finnish tulips; a lawn made of chicory grown on wet felt; an aviary made from fishnet filled with pheasants, parakeets, and one hundred zebra finches, on loan from the Moscow Zoo; and a menagerie of several mountain goats, a dozen white roosters, and a baby bear.[24]

The four hundred guests included Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov and the Defense Commissar Marshal Kliment Voroshilov; Communist Party luminaries Nikolai Bukharin, Lazar Kaganovich, and Karl Radek; Soviet Marshals Alexander Yegorov, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, and Semyon Budyonny; and the writer Mikhail Bulgakov. The festival lasted until the early hours of the morning. The bear became drunk on champagne given to him by Radek, and in the early morning hours, the zebra finches escaped from the aviary and perched below the ceilings around the house.[25] Bulgakov described the party as "The Spring Ball of the Full Moon" in his novel The Master and Margarita.[26] On October 29, 2010, Ambassador John Beyrle recreated Bullitt's ball with his own Enchanted Ball, dedicated to Bullitt and Bulgakov.[27]

Bullitt was posted to France in October 1936 as ambassador. Fluent in French and an ardent francophile, Bullitt became established in Paris society.[28] He rented a château at Chantilly and owned at least 18,000 bottles of French wine.[28] As a close friend of Roosevelt, with whom he had daily telephone conversations, Bullitt was widely regarded as Roosevelt's personal envoy to France and so was much courted by French politicians.[28] Bullitt was especially close to Léon Blum and Édouard Daladier and had cordial but not friendly relations with Georges Bonnet.[29][30] Historians have criticized Bullitt for being too influenced by the last person to whom he spoke and for including too much gossip in his dispatches to Washington.[31]

On September 4, 1938, in the midst of the great crisis in Europe that was to culminate in the Munich Agreement, during the unveiling of a plaque in France honoring Franco-American friendship, Bullitt stated, "France and the United States were united in war and peace."[32] That led to much speculation in the press that if war broke out over Czechoslovakia, the United States would join the war on the Allied side.[32] On September 9, 1938, however, Roosevelt denied any such intention, saying it was "110% wrong that the United States would join a stop Hitler bloc".[32]

In 1939, Prime Minister Daladier informed him that French intelligence knew that Alger Hiss in the United States Department of State was working for Soviet intelligence. Bullitt passed the information along to Hiss's superior at the State Department.[33]

After the German invasion of France in 1940, Bullitt fell out with Roosevelt. Bullitt insisted on remaining in Paris as the only ambassador of a major nation left when the Germans marched in on 14 June 1940. That angered Roosevelt, who believed Bullitt should have followed the French government to Bordeaux to look after US interests. Once thought of as a potential cabinet member, he now found his career blocked.

In the late 1930s, the US State Department was divided by rivalry between Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary Sumner Welles, who was Roosevelt's favorite. Bullitt, who disliked Welles, was allied with Hull and Department Counselor R. Walton Moore.[34]

In September 1940, Welles, while drunk, made homosexual propositions to a pair of railroad porters. Bullitt learned of the incident through Moore, who, at his death, passed affidavits sworn by the propositioned porters to Bullitt.[34] Bullitt used that information to campaign for Welles's resignation. Roosevelt long resisted taking any action against Welles. Elliot Roosevelt later wrote that his father believed that Bullitt had bribed the porters to make overtures to Welles to entrap him.[34]

On April 23, 1941, Bullitt confronted the President with his evidence, but Roosevelt refused to yield to Bullitt's demands and dismissed him from any further significant duties with the State Department. At one point, he suggested to Hull that Bullitt should be appointed Ambassador to Liberia, one of the worst postings in the Foreign Service.[34] In 1942, Bullitt pushed the story to Vice President Henry A. Wallace and to Secretary Hull. Roosevelt told Wallace that Bullitt ought to "burn in hell" for what he was saying about Welles. In early 1943, Hull began to demand Welles' removal. Bullitt now informed Senator Owen Brewster, a Republican, a strong opponent of Roosevelt. Brewster threatened a senatorial inquiry. The potential scandal finally forced Roosevelt to act, and on September 30, 1943, Welles resigned. Roosevelt remained very angry with Bullitt and refused to give him any government post.[34]

Post-diplomatic career

Denied a commission in the US Armed Forces by Roosevelt, Bullitt joined the Free French Forces. Roosevelt suggested to Bullitt that he should run for Mayor of Philadelphia as a Democrat in 1943, but Roosevelt secretly told the Democratic leaders there, "Cut his throat."[34] Bullitt was defeated.[35]

Between 1941 and 1945, Bullitt wrote volumes of stories and social commentary on the dangers of fascism and communism. In the postwar years he became a militant anticommunist. At the same time he also believed that the extension of the 1919 Bullitt Commission and negotiations with Lenin would have been constructive.[36]

In the August 24, 1954, issue of Look, in his article "Should We Support an Attack on Red China?", he proposed an immediate attack on Communist China and asserted that the United States should "reply to the next Communist aggression by dropping bombs on the Soviet Union."[37]

Bullitt died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France on February 15, 1967 and is buried in Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.[38]

Co-author with Freud

Bullitt was psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud in Vienna in the 1920s. The patient and the analyst became such good friends that they decided to write a book together, a psycho-biographical study of Woodrow Wilson. This was quite exceptional, as Freud very rarely co-operated with other authors. The book was not published until 1967. When it was, many psychoanalysts doubted that Freud had had much to do with it though Freud was in fact an active co-author. The book received an almost unanimously hostile reception. Historian A. J. P. Taylor called it a "disgrace" and asked: "How did anyone ever manage to take Freud seriously?"[39]

Freud and Bullitt's view of Wilson was that of a naive American politician whose foreign policy ideas were driven by religious fanaticism. Bullitt had been dismissed by Wilson late in the battle for the League of Nations, and Bullitt never forgave the slight. It is not clear how much of the book was really written by Bullitt, as he was skilled in several languages while Freud wrote only in German and had died by the time it was published. Several references attributed to Freud are uniquely American, such as his introduction in which he compared Wilson's naiveté to Christian Science.



  • Foreign policy The Bullitt Mission to Russia (New York: Huebsch, 1919) The Great Globe Itself (New York: Scribner's, 1946)
  • Biography Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1967), with Sigmund Freud
  • Novel It's Not Done (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926)


  • "How We Won the War and Lost the Peace" Part I, Life (August 30, 1948)
  • "How We Won the War and Lost the Peace" Part II, Life (September 6, 1948)

See also

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