Joseph E. Davies (1876–1958) was the United States' second ambassador to the Soviet Union during the 1930s, a time when that communist power was ruled by brutal dictator Josef Stalin. Davies became controversial for casting the Soviet government in a positive light, glossing over its atrocities, and promoting U.S.-Soviet cooperation.
Acorporate attorney by profession, Joseph E. Davies was active in the Democratic Party and a valued advisor on trade and economics to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from 1912 to 1915. Due to his political connections, Davies was tapped in the mid-1930s by President Franklin Roosevelt to assess the Soviet government's readiness for war, which was then looming in Europe. Roosevelt was also considering the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) as a possible partnership with the United States and wanted an assessment of its new ruler, Josef Stalin. A loyal supporter of Roosevelt, Davies apparently took the president's optimistic view to heart, overlooking reports of genocide and repression under Stalin's regime, and taking at face value Stalin's promises of a fair and democratic future. He remained convinced of his conclusions in spite of all evidence to the contrary, even producing a Hollywood movie intended to sway U.S. public opinion in Stalin's favor.
Joseph Edward Davies was born the only son of Edward and Rachel Davies, on November 29, 1876. His father was the youngest of eight brothers who had emigrated from Wales, settling in Indiana and prospering as blacksmiths and merchants in the Conestoga wagon trade. Edward Davies had been a bachelor nearing middle age when he fell in love with Rachel, an ordained Welsh preacher. Davies was born in Watertown, Wisconsin, a pleasant town boasting treelined streets, churches, and thriving businesses. He attended the local elementary school, played baseball on the local team, and was instilled with Christian values by his mother, who stressed honesty and simplicity. As Elizabeth Kimball MacLean suggested in her Joseph E. Davies: Envoy to the Soviets, Davies's straightforward and trusting attitude may have stemmed from his mother's influence.
John Davies, a well-to-do uncle, stepped in to help with Joseph Davies's upbringing. A mentor as well as a father figure, the elder Davies emphasized the importance of making the most of one's abilities and urged Joseph to get an education and grasp the opportunities available to him. The boy took that advice to heart, following it through high school, where he was valedictorian of the 1894 graduating class, and law school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he was president of his class. After his career as a successful attorney and advisor to heads of state, Davies would return to Watertown later in life to establish scholarships for similarly hardworking youths locally and in surrounding communities.
Meanwhile, as a newly graduated attorney, Davies returned to Watertown and opened a private law practice. He established himself quickly and married strategically: his new wife, Mary Emlen Knight (known by her middle name), was his girlfriend during college and the daughter of a leading local Democrat and U.S. Civil War hero. Davies attended the Wisconsin Democratic Convention as a delegate in 1902 and worked his way up to the party chairmanship for the state. The couple moved to Madison, where Davies became instrumental in delivering votes for future president Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
Wilson took an interest in Davies, making him head of his campaign in the West. Once he was elected president, he tasked his young protégé with heading up the Bureau of Corporations. Under Davies's guidance, this bureau would become the Federal Trade Commission, which protects consumers and sets fair corporate practices. Among other important assignments, Davies served as Wilson's economic advisor during the 1918 Peace Conference in Versailles, France, that marked the close of World War I. Between 1914 and 1918, that deadly conflict had involved the countries of Europe and the Middle East and redrew the map of the region in its wake. His experience in Versailles would help prepare Davies for his later diplomatic roles.
Davies made several useful friends while working in the Wilson administration, most importantly the young Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two were golfing buddies and, with their wives, attended social functions including dancing classes sponsored by President Wilson for members of his administration. This social connection would lead to Davies's most important and controversial work in later decades.
After an unsuccessful Senate run, Davies opened a law practice in Washington, DC. He represented politicians, labor leaders, and minority groups and specialized in anti-trust law, which curtailed corporate efforts to stifle competition by buying up other corporations, among other tactics. He also famously defended stockholders in the Ford Motor Company from a suit in which the federal government came after them for $30 million in back taxes. Over three years spent litigating the case, Davies proved that not only did the shareholders not owe taxes but that the U.S. government owed them a refund.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Davies's reputation and wealth grew; he and his wife owned an elegant house and were embraced by the elite Washington social scene. With the election of friend Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency in 1933, opportunities to join the Democratic administration could not be far off and Davies hoped for a diplomatic posting abroad. Meanwhile, in 1935, Davies's wife Emlen divorced him and he quickly remarried, this time to Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the General Foods fortune. The divorce created quite a scandal in Washington society: Emlen Davies was one of Washington's great ladies, and Marjorie Post was a divorcée and a Democratic activist from New York City. Happily remarried but unhappy to be the subject of gossip, Davies kept an eye out for potential ambassadorships in Europe. Paris, his first choice, had just been taken by the returning ambassador to the Soviet Union.
The U.S.S.R. included Russia as well as several smaller states that, formerly independent, were now subsidiary to the central Moscow-based government. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the tsar and the ruling Romanov family were overthrown, and a provisional socialist government installed. That government was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks, a communist faction led by Vladimir Lenin, who brought several neighboring republics under the Soviet banner in 1917. After Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle had ensued and Communist Party leader Stalin stepped to the fore. Rather than continue the Marxist-inspired ideals envisioned by the 1917 revolutionaries and their successors, Stalin had created an authoritarian, centralized regime that answered to him personally. Those who disagreed or were viewed as a threat were now killed or exiled to snowy Siberian gulags, or prison camps. Ultimately, Stalin was credited with the death of over 34 million people.
Viewing diplomatic relations with the outside world as necessary due to the rise of a militant Nazi Germany, the Soviet government allowed foreign embassies to have a presence in Moscow. The United States was a new world power, and an ally Stalin wanted to cultivate in the case of war. Such was the state of affairs in 1936 when Davies arrived in Moscow to assess the readiness of the Soviet government, army, and industrial sector for war and to get a sense of their relationship with Germany.
During his time as ambassador, Davies saw himself as a fair and objective observer. He kept copious notes on his interactions and observations as well as copies of all his written correspondence. He sent reports periodically to Roosevelt, sharing his view that there was potential for a future relationship between the United States and the U.S.S.R. The embassy staff, many of whom were veteran diplomats, differed with him in their opinion of the Soviet government. Although they shared numerous reports of the purges and disappearances of both Russians and foreigners under Stalin's regime, Davies focused on what Soviet government contacts were telling him and showing him.
The tension between Davies and the career diplomats posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow increased as he attended the trial of several Bolsheviks accused of espionage and treason. These prisoners were the last of several groups of dissenters from the communist old guard to be tried and summarily convicted. Most were members of Lenin's Bolshevik government: intellectuals and functionaries who did not support the Stalinist agenda. Western diplomats and journalists saw the trials as a sham and just another purge. Davies's hosts framed it as a necessary step in establishing a stable communist state, explaining that the defendants were traitors who would undermine the new government, possibly collude with the Nazis, and cause dangerous chaos. Davies was persuaded to their point and wrote to Roosevelt that the trials were necessary, if unpleasant. State department veterans were for the most part appalled.
To further win Davies's confidence, he, his new wife, and his daughter were invited to visit the Russian heartland in trips arranged and conducted by Soviet government contacts. They enjoyed the experience, collecting valuable art treasures and taking photographs. As the months went by, the ambassador's dispatches to President Roosevelt continued along the lines the president had hoped: Communism would be no threat to the free world, and a beneficial alliance was in the offing. In 1938, Davies finished his assignment and returned to the United States, certain that he had followed the ideals of ambassadorship by being pragmatic, frank, open, and inviting of friendship.
During his next role under the Roosevelt administration, a dual posting as ambassador to Belgium and minister to Luxembourg during 1938–39, Davies reviewed his notes from his Soviet mission with an eye for publication. With the start of hostilities in 1939—World War II was beginning—he and his family were recalled to the United States; meeting with President Roosevelt, he reaffirmed his impressions of Stalin and the potential for an alliance. However, public opinion was strongly opposed to any alliance with the Soviet Union. With Roosevelt's encouragement, Davies painstakingly collated and edited his notes, dispatches, letters, telegrams, and State Department reports for publication as the book Mission to Moscow.
Making the case for a U.S.–U.S.S.R. alliance, Mission to Moscow sold over 700,000 copies internationally and a producer from Warner Brothers Studios approached Davies about adapting it as a motion picture. Davies (and no doubt President Roosevelt as well) was delighted: a major film might convince the U.S. public, as well as the Soviet leadership, that alliance would be beneficial. Davies insisted on total control of the film and would not allow anti-Soviet sentiment in the screenplay. The first script of Mission to Moscow was thrown out and a new writer was hired. As filming progressed, Davies flew out to Hollywood, arrived on the film set, and fought with the producers, threatening to confiscate the film unless certain scenes were redone to his specifications.
By the time Mission to Moscow was released in 1942, the U.S. troops were on the ground in Europe. When it flopped at the box office and was widely panned as blatant political propaganda, the producers went public with their frustrations over the filming. President Roosevelt was apparently unfazed; in 1943 he sent Davies back to Russia as a secret envoy, carrying a letter to Stalin (as well as a copy of the movie). Roosevelt hoped to meet with Stalin, one on one, with only an interpreter and note-taker present. In his letter to Stalin, he suggested Fairbanks, Alaska, as a good location.
U.S. and British delegations were bugged by the Soviet secret service, and Stalin and his analysts were well prepared for each days's meetings. Even had they known, Roosevelt and Davies might not have cared about the Soviets' eavesdropping; as Davies's character is informed that he has been wiretapped in the film Mission to Moscow, he exclaims that he does not care, for he has nothing to hide.
Davies continued to be a resource in U.S.-Soviet relations after World War II, as Roosevelt's successor, President Harry S. Truman, continued negotiations with the U.S.S.R. The world balance of power had now shifted, making the United States and the Soviet Union the dominant superpowers. Davies continued to be a pragmatic advisor, although he was slightly warier where U.S.-Soviet relations were concerned. He counseled Truman correctly that the Soviets would not invade Western Europe, and that by respecting their sphere of influence and understanding their defensive needs, peace could be maintained.
During the 1950s, the postwar period shifted to a cold war wherein the world was unsettled by the tensions and machinations between the two great powers and their allies. Davies returned to Washington, DC, where he served in several advisory roles during the Truman administration and wrote about international relations. He donated his papers to the Library of Congress and was honored by awards from the United States and other countries in which he had served. Davies died at home in Washington, DC, on May 9, 1958, after a long illness.
MacLean, Elizabeth Kimball, Joseph E. Davies: Envoy to the Soviets, Praeger, 1992.
Wisconsin Magazine of History, summer, 1994, pp. 309–310.
Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol47no1/article02.html (April 14, 2007), Gary Kern “How ‘Uncle Joe’ Bugged FDR: The Lessons of History.”
Watertown History online, http://www.watertownhistory.org/articles/Davies,%20Joseph.htm (September 2, 2017), “Joseph E. Davies.”□