While prepping for my US Since 1945 course this week, I stumbled across a number of references to Harry Truman’s apparent conviction that “Peter the Great’s Will” — one of the great forgeries in modern European history — was genuine. “The Testament,” as it has often been known, allegedly contained Peter’s dying wishes for the future of Russia. Because the document was likely forged by any one of several parties hostile to Russian interests around the late 1790s or early 1800s (about 75 years after Peter committed himself to full-time daisy-pushing), the document is plump with expansionist rhetoric. For example:
5. We must take away as much territory as possible from Sweden, and sedulously contrive that they attack us first, so as to give us a pretext for their subjugation. With this object in view, we must keep Sweden in opposition to Denmark and Denmark to Sweden, and sedulously foster their mutual jealousies . . . .
8. We must keep steadily extending our frontiers northward along the Baltic and southwards along the shores of the Black Sea.
9. We must progress as much as possible in the direction of Constantinople and India. He who can once get the possession of these points is the real ruler of the world. With this in view we must provoke constant quarrels at the one time with Turkey, at another with Persia. We must . . . degrees make ourselves master of that sea, as well as the Baltic, which is a doubly important element in the success of our plan. We must hasten the downfall of Persia, push on to the Persian Gulf, if possible re-establish the ancient commercialities with the Levant through Syria, and force our way into the Indies, which are the storehouses of the world. Once there, we can dispense with English gold . . . .
13. When Sweden is ours, Persia vanquished, Poland subjugated, Turkey conquered, when our armies are united and the Euxine and the Baltic in the possession of ships, then we must make separate and secret overtures, first to the court of Versailles and then to that of Vienna, to share with them the domination of the world. If either of them accepts our propositions, which is certain to happen if their ambitions and self-interest are properly worked upon, we must make use of one to annihilate the other; this done, we have only to destroy the remaining one by finding a pretext for a quarrel, the issue of which cannot be doubtful, as Russia will then be in the absolute possession of the East and the best part of Europe.
It’s not hard to imagine why this document would find new life in the early years of the Cold War. What’s harder to comprehend is how Truman could run around — as he apparently did — telling people that they needed to read the will of Peter the Great to understand the source of the “fixed ideas” held by the Soviets. The document had been recognized by scholars as a blatant forgery at least a century earlier, but Clark Clifford apparently slipped Truman a copy of the text sometime in mid- to late-1946 without consulting any of the Soviet experts in the administration — any of whom could have set the record straight after choking back their laughter.
As far as I can tell, Truman never referred to the document in public, and he might ultimately have been set straight in 1948 after writing a letter — again, recommending Peter’s alleged will — to Granville Clark, the guy who had authored the Selective Service Act in 1940. Clark apparently checked around, discovered that the Testament was a crock, and promptly wrote a letter to Sen. Robert Taft, Truman’s Republican nemesis at the time. In that letter, Clark seems to have expressed some concern that Truman was an idiot.
In a roundabout way, all of this made me wonder what the clowns in George Bush’s orbit have been telling him about Iraq, Iran, and god knows who else for the past seven years.