Skip to main content

Review by James Schumaker

Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis by Harper Barnes, Southern Illinois University Press; 1st edition (2001); paperback edition (2010), ISBN-13: 978-1883982171, 528 pp., $22.49

Harper Barnes’s detailed and highly readable biography of David Rowland Francis is a welcome revision to the conventional wisdom on America’s last Ambassador to Tsarist Russia.  Francis, a self-made millionaire, the “Boy Mayor of St. Louis,” Governor of Missouri, President Cleveland’s Secretary of Interior, and perhaps most importantly, the organizer of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and America’s first Olympic Games, is a revered figure in Missouri history.  His international reputation was tarnished, however, by his tenure, late in life, as Woodrow Wilson’s Ambassador to Russia. 

Francis served in Petrograd during one of the most confusing and critical periods in Russian history.  As an outsider from America with quaint ideas about the virtues of democracy, Francis came in for almost universal criticism from his diplomatic contemporaries and was trashed in succeeding years by many historians of the period.  He was typically described as out of his depth, too old and infirm for the job, and clueless about the revolutionary currents that were swirling around him. 

Most accounts of Francis’s Ambassadorship were derived initially from the memoirs of R.H. Bruce Lockhart, Britain’s unofficial envoy to the Bolsheviks.  Lockhart, who first met Francis in Petrograd in 1918, noted with typical British sarcasm, “Old Francis does not know a Left Social Revolutionary from a potato.”  This label stuck, and for years afterward, historians would characterize Francis as “not too wide-awake” (Herman Hagedorn), “one of the accidents of Missouri politics” (David Loth) and “Babbitry personified” (Robert Warth).  One Red Cross contemporary was perhaps the most scathing in his criticism, describing Francis as “a stuffed shirt, a dumb head who never found out what the whole thing was about.  He leaned on everybody, keenly enjoying his authority, while spies slipped in and out under his nose and diplomats made a monkey of him.” 

This perception of Francis persisted into the 1980’s, despite the very balanced portrayal given by George Kennan in his masterful history of the period, Russia Leaves the War, published in 1956.  With the end of the Cold War, however, and the end of the Soviet Union itself, a fresh look was taken at the historical record, and Francis’s reputation gradually improved.  This culminated in Harper Barnes’s biography, Standing on a Volcano.

Sifting exhaustively through the documents of the period, Barnes has reconstructed an entirely different picture of Francis’s Ambassadorship.  Francis was assuredly out of his depth at first.  But even though he was in his sixties (not his eighties, as Lockhart thought) he was an extraordinarily energetic leader and a quick study.  His voluminous reporting during the period of the revolution shows that he was actually quite well informed about the political currents prevailing in Petrograd.  In addition, he took physical risks to get this information that would likely impress our current crop of “Warrior Ambassadors.” 

The Wilson Administration wanted to promote democracy in Russia, viewing this as a way of keeping a prostrate ally in the war against Germany.  Francis faithfully represented this policy as effectively as anyone could, although it became increasingly clear that Russia would neither be democratic nor return to the field of battle.  At first, Francis shared many of the Wilson Administration’s illusions about Russia, but later he was ahead of most diplomats in Petrograd, and his own betters in Washington, in arguing for significant policy changes.  During the period of revolutionary ferment in 1917, he argued early on in favor of engagement with the Bolsheviks, in order to influence their behavior and gauge their intentions.  Following the October Revolution, and self-imposed diplomatic exile in Vologda, he argued, perhaps quixotically, for a much more muscular intervention by the Allies in order to overthrow the Bolsheviks.  Francis’s policy recommendations were initially resisted by Wilson and his advisors, but when they were eventually acted on, it was usually in a distracted and half-hearted manner.  For America, Russia was still very far away and of peripheral concern.  In particular, the political will never existed for a “Russian adventure” that might have strangled the Bolshevik Revolution in its crib.

Francis’s poor reputation among historians and diplomatic colleagues stemmed from several factors.  A political appointee, he did not know Russian, and initially lacked an understanding of the political situation.  Self-assured and typically Midwestern, Francis did not possess the courtly manners viewed as necessary by the glitterati in Petrograd, who tended to look down on him.  An exponent of democracy, his relations with the Tsar were neutral at best (he viewed the Tsar as fundamentally unaware of the situation in Russia, noting in his memoirs that Nicholas was a “complacent monarch” who had “no idea that he was standing on a volcano”).  Francis also used poor judgment in establishing a too-close relationship with his French tutor, a certain Madame de Cramm, who was suspected, but never proven to be, a German agent.  In his last year in Russia, when in exile in Vologda, he also suffered from many debilitating illnesses that sapped his energy and prevented him from conducting himself as actively as before.

Francis also found himself in a nest of vipers.  His diplomatic colleagues in Petrograd viewed him as a hick from St. Louis, even though he proved to be more in the loop than most of his contemporaries.  Perhaps most importantly, Francis’s authority as Ambassador was continually usurped by a whole series of special envoys, including William Boyce Thompson and Raymond Robins of the Red Cross, Arthur Bullard and Edgar Sisson of the Committee on Public Information, and numerous representatives of the Elihu Root and the Stevens Railway missions.  All of these envoys pursued their own foreign policy agendas without reference to Francis, and many were his bitter opponents.  The failure of the Wilson Administration to forge a unified foreign policy towards Russia, and its toleration — even encouragement — of these disparate foreign policy elements is a familiar theme which students of modern diplomacy will find all too familiar.

After the October Revolution, Francis was also maligned by the growing gaggle of fellow travelers and homegrown communist sympathizers, most notably John Reed, the author of Ten Days that Shook the World.  Reed was an unabashed admirer of Lenin and an unashamed agitator against his own country’s interests, so much so that People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Georgiy Chicherin even suggested that Reed be appointed as the Soviet Consul in New York.  He and Francis were not friends, to put it mildly. 

Finally, Francis did not help his own cause when, in 1921, he published his own memoir of the period, Russia from the American Embassy.  Although favorably reviewed by the New York Times, it has not impressed most readers, including me, who have found it to be a bit disjointed, and more a collection of letters and dispatches than a coherent narrative.End.

James F. Schumaker is a retired Foreign Service Officer.  A Soviet specialist, he served three tours of duty in Moscow, two in Kyiv, and one each in Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg and Minsk, as well as a tour in Soviet-occupied Kabul.  In the mid-1980’s, he also served as Deputy Principal Officer in Leningrad, working just down the street from the site of David Francis’s chancery in revolutionary Petrograd.  Growing up in St. Louis, Jim was a classmate of David Francis’s great grandson, David Rowland Francis IV.

Comments are closed.