Let us raise a Smirnoff martini to the memory of Raymond Robins, whose diplomacy in the early 20th century paved the way to recognition of the Bolshevik regime in Russia and the importation of Russian vodka in this country.
It was not exactly the end result Robins wanted. He was a passionate advocate of Prohibition, but also an advocate of Bolshevik recognition, which put him astride the issues in the presidential election of 1932.
My friend James Lutzweiler of Jamestown, North Carolina , has uncovered the story of Robins, who lived in the Tampa Bay area of Florida but ducked into the mountains of Western North Carolina to avoid a conflict between his two passions.
Robins was a sometime Congregational preacher who was a prominent voice in 1932 in the fight for preserving Prohibition in the United States.
He also advocated American recognition of the Bolshevik regime that had taken control of Russia subsequent to the revolution of 1917.
The presidential election of 1932 pitted the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
That election presented Robins with a dilemma. Hoover, his friend and fellow mineralogist, wanted to keep Prohibition in place. Roosevelt wanted to repeal the amendment and bring back booze. But Roosevelt was in favor of recognizing the communist regime in Russia, and Hoover was adamantly opposed.
How did Robins deal with this dilemma?
Lutzweiler, in a paper he has submitted to the North Carolina Historical Review, theorizes that Robins faked amnesia and ducked into Whittier, N. C. , an unincorporated town near Bryson City, deep in the Great Smokies. While staying in a boarding house there, he confided that, although he would vote for Hoover, Roosevelt’s election was inevitable.
Robins’ antipathy for booze probably resulted from his religious affiliation. His opposition to prohibition may have been softened slightly by a taste of mountain dew (the real stuff) offered him by the son of his boarding-house keeper. According to Lutzweiler, Robins took one swallow and exclaimed, “I swear!”
His attitude toward Bolshevism apparently arose not from any sympathy toward communist ideology but from a recognition that the Bolsheviks were clearly in the saddle in Russia, that they were likely to stay there for the foreseeable future, and that the United States should get what benefits it could from them. It was similar to the reasoning that led Richard Nixon, a generation later, to open communications with the communist regime in China.
Robins knew the Bolsheviks first-hand. President Woodrow Wilson had sent him to Russia in 1917 in the guise of a Red Cross representative there to perform humanitarian services. In reality, his assignment was to keep Russia in the World War as an enemy of Germany. After he failed in that task, he became America’s unofficial ambassador to the victorious Bolsheviks.
Having become a close acquaintance of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, he tried to persuade Wilson that it was in America’s best interests to recognize their regime and take advantage of commercial opportunities in Russia.
The idealistic Wilson refused to listen, and throughout the administrations of Wilson, Harding and Hoover, the Bolsheviks were regarded as bad guys unworthy of recognition.
The sober Hoover, a former secretary of commerce, thought the political consequences of recognition would outweigh the commercial benefits.
Robins was a prominent lecturer in 1932, advocating the election of Hoover and the continuation of Prohibition.
Then, a few weeks before the election, he dropped out of sight, and the nation wondered where he was.
His whereabouts was discovered when the weekly newspaper “Grit” published a picture of him and a story about his disappearance.
A 13-year-old boy in Whittier recognized him, and Robins returned to the limelight.
His explanation for his disappearance was “amnesia. ”But while he was supposedly in the grips of forgetfulness, he managed to subscribe to his hometown newspaper in Brookeville, Fla.
Lutzweiler suggests that Robins had concluded that both Hoover and prohibition were dead politically and decided to make peace with reality. During his disappearance, he quoted with approval a statement by another disillusioned Hoover supporter: “Hoover is a dead mackerel on the political shore, shining and stinking in the pale moonlight that precedes his complete eclipse, leaving simply a memory of a bad smell. ”
After recovering from his “amnesia,” Robins returned to Russia, where he had an hour-long luncheon meeting with dictator Josef Stalin on May 13, 1933. He returned to the United States in July and began lecturing on the need to recognize communist Russia. On Oct. 13, he met with Roosevelt for nearly an hour.
A month later, the United States recognized the Moscow regime, and Robins was one of two speakers at a banquet celebrating the event. In a letter to his sister, he wrote that “Wall Street, by its most wealthy members, stood at attention while the band played ‘the Internationale,’” anthem of the communist movement,
On Dec. 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment to the constitution, thus signing Prohibition’s death certificate.
In Paris, Rudolph P. Kunett, who had moved from Russia to New York at the beginning of Prohibition, acquired the right to manufacture and sell Russia’s Smirnoff vodka in the United States.
A thirsty nation applauded.
Though the United States and Soviet Russia were to be locked in a grim struggle that threatened civilization with nuclear oblivion, the 1933 recognition paid off for America and Europe during World War II. In that conflict, the Russians absorbed the brunt of German military might, giving Britain and the United States time to gear up for their assault on “Fortress Europe. ”And during the Soviets’ desperate fight to stem the Nazi thrust, the United States provided the communist regime with the tools to fight back.
And as a side benefit, both countries were able to toast victory with Smirnoff.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson. Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@aol. com or visit his website at www. wadesdixieco. com.