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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 945


This is the grave of William Bullitt.

Born in 1891 to a rich Philadelphia elite family, Bullitt had all the breaks. He went to the right schools and then straight onto Yale, graduating in 1912. He briefly attended Harvard Law but dropped out after his father died. He was a bit of a socialite with a radical streak for his time, at least as a young man. His first marriage, to a rich socialite, was a disaster and they divorced. His second marriage was to Louise Bryant, the widow of the radical journalist John Reed and quite a radical herself. That marriage was also terrible and they divorced after having a child (he got custody, she drank herself to death) but you get the circles he ran in. He also wrote a well-received novel in 1926 titled It’s Not Done, a satire about the decline of the Gilded Age Philadelphia elite. Oh yeah, he also became good friends with Sigmund Freud and they co-wrote that biography of Woodrow Wilson which is supposed to be really terrible.

Bullitt became something of an international affairs expert in an era when Americans didn’t really know anything about these issues. He was part of Wilson’s team at Versailles because Wilson’s right-hand man Edward House was Bullitt’s mentor. Even though he was a young guy, his leftist credentials made him important to Wilson. He was part of a three man team, along with Lincoln Steffens and the Swedish communist Karl Kilborn, to visit the Soviet Union and see if there was some way the U.S. could come to terms to Lenin. The Soviets were certainly amenable to this–if the West stopped supporting the Whites in the Russian Civil War. Evidently high on their own supply, Wilson and the other western capitalist governments rejected this, thinking the Whites would win if the war went on long enough. Whoops. Bullitt was a big supporter of Wilson’s ideas in theory, but as presented at Versailles, he was pretty angry, as he was over the rejection of the Soviet peace deal. He realized that Wilson wasn’t really that serious about self-determination, especially for people outside of Europe and that the treaty really just reinforced colonialism with more international cooperation before. So at this time, Bullitt was a legitimate leftist that was part of Wilson’s team. Or he was until he resigned after he saw the terms of Versailles.

Bullitt went to Los Angeles for awhile after he left the State Department and got a job at Paramount Pictures. He then met Bryant, who had returned from the Soviet Union after John Reed’s death. They moved to Turkey, lived in a fancy villa, and finished his novel.

In 1933, the U.S. finally decided to recognize the Soviet Union. Bullitt was the obvious first choice as the first American ambassador to the USSR. He served in that role until 1936. This put him on the front lines as Stalin consolidated his now considerable power. Bullitt was horrified by what he saw. The Soviets were initially quite happy with Bullitt’s arrival. But those relations soured real fast, although he also became known for throwing epic parties of the kind only a super rich American playing around overseas could throw, including one where he and the Soviet leaders got a bear drunk on champagne. He only left the office though when an American journalist discovered that he was engaging in illegal ruble trading. But he was still a valuable American diplomat and so Roosevelt assigned him to Paris as Ambassador to France. He became very close to French leadership, to the point that many believed he was unduly influenced by them. He called fairly openly for the U.S. to support France in case of greater German expansionism, which forced a very annoyed FDR to publicly rebuke him. Finally, Roosevelt fired him in 1940 when he determined to stay in Paris after the Nazi invasion instead of going with the French to Bourdeaux like a good ambassador was supposed to do as his job was to represent American interests, not be on the front lines of history or hang out in his favorite city.

Bullitt was now out of fashion in the Democratic Party. He was the kind of liberal elite for which there was significant room in the Roosevelt administration advancement and many speculated Bullitt would end up in the Cabinet. But not now that he had angered the boss. To make it even worse, Bullitt hated Sumner Welles, who FDR loved, and sided with Cordell Hull in the civil war in the State Department. Bullitt told Roosevelt that Welles was a homosexual and presented him evidence of Welles propositioning men. But FDR didn’t really care about that. In fact, Roosevelt told Henry Wallace that Bullitt should “burn in hell” for his attacks on Welles. Finally, Bullitt leaked the information to the Republican senator and hater of internationalism Owen Brewster, who threatened to go public with a big investigation. Roosevelt forced Welles out at this point because he real had no choice. But he really hated Bullitt by this time and the president wouldn’t let Bullitt join the military as a commissioned officer.

Roosevelt had slyly told Bullitt to run for mayor of Philadelphia and then called the Democratic machine leaders of the city and told them to “cut his throat.” Bullitt, uh, did not win that election. Now completely isolated by FDR, Bullitt went to France to join the French Free Forces. But Bullitt was also the kind of one-time leftist who Stalin completely turned into a raving warmonger with any and all things communist. Although he still defended his 1919 entreaties with Lenin, he called for aggressive military action against any communist nation. This of course gained him an endless audience as the 40s turned into the 50s. He had left the Democratic Party for the Republicans in 1948, at the vanguard of the former leftists become rabid redbaiters. In 1954, for instance, he called for a direct military invasion of China to overthrow Mao and reinstall Chiang Kai-Shek. Never mind that this was insane. Also, since he, like so many elite foreign policy figures during these years, believed that all communism was coming out of Moscow, that the next time a nation had a communist revolution, we should nuke Moscow. OK.

Bullitt spent the last years of his life in France, dying in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1967, at the age of 76.

William Bullitt is buried in Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other people mentioned in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Louise Bryant is buried in France, so you should send me there. Plus Edith Wharton is in the same cemetery. But since you all are probably being cheap bastards, Edward House is in Houston and Owen Brewster is in Dexter, Maine. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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