When Foreign Adventures Go Bad: The Case of America's Intervention in Russia During World War I

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Mr. Willett is the author of a recent book, RUSSIAN SIDESHOW: AMERICA’S UNDECLARED WAR 1918-1920, and a number of other published works dealing with the Intervention and America’s Civil War. A retired banker, he lives in Merritt Island, Florida.

In July 1918 World War I continued on the Western Front, with American doughboys now in the trenches.. The Russian Czar had abdicated, been arrested and executed; the Russians had abandoned the Eastern Front and withdrawn from the war; the Soviet Revolution was in full swing and civil war raged across the land.

Into this turmoil President Woodrow Wilson, bowing to the request of his Allied friends, agreed to send American troops to Russia. The 339 th Infantry Regiment, 1 st Battalion 310 th Engineers, and various support units, arrived in September 1918 in Archangel, Russia. The American Expeditionary Force North Russia (AEFNR) was to prove a dismal failure in every sense, and should be an object lesson in the pitfalls of intervening in the internal affairs of other nations.

President Woodrow Wilson had been pressured by France and Britain to join them in trying to encourage the Russians to rejoin the war and to protect North Russian ports from German invasion. There were other issues, too, as Wilson struggled with divided American advisors. The State Department was openly supportive of joining the effort, but the War Department was adamant that no troops could be spared from the fighting in France. It was with these views that the President began his Aide Memoir, a document that was the basis for the American Intervention in Russia. He wrote: “The American Government, therefore, very respectfully requested its Associates to accept its deliberate judgment that it should not dissipate its force by attempting important operations elsewhere.” However, in the same document this logic was reversed, using this rationale for sending troops to Russia:

  • to protect Czech soldiers of the Czech Legion transiting Siberia and under periodic local attacks
  • to guard war materials sent to Russia for use against Germany
  • to render assistance to Russians as the Russians themselves required that assistance
  • to provide humanitarian assistance to needy Russians

This was Wilson’s justification for sending two forces to Russia, one to North Russia the other to Siberia. These lofty goals were, in every sense, impossible to achieve, and only two short months after Americans entered Russia, Germany capitulated. At this point the reasons for our intervention began a “mission creep.” [a term coined by Lt. Cmdr C.J. Cwiklinski in a study for the Naval War College titled America’s Role in the Allied Intervention in Northern Russia and Siberia (1918-1920) Case Studies of Mission Creep and Coalition Failure.] Unfortunately, President Wilson never revised his original document to define why we should stay on in Russia after the Armistice.

In his Memoir he cautioned “. . . it [the U.S. proposal] proposes to ask all associated in this course of action to unite in assuring the people of Russia in the most public and solemn manner that none of the governments uniting in action either in Siberia or in northern Russia contemplates any interference of any kind with the political sovereignty of Russia, any intervention in her internal affairs, or any impairment of her territorial integrity either now or hereafter, but that each of the associated powers has the single object of affording such aid as shall be acceptable, to the Russian people in their endeavor to regain control of their own affairs, their own territory, and their own destiny.” One of the tough questions was “ which Russian people?”

The AEFNR joined other Allies already in Archangel, a sub-Arctic port on the Dvina River, connecting to the White Sea. The 5,500 Americans were led by Lieutenant Colonel George Stewart, whose orders were to report to the British Allied Commander, Major General F. C. Poole, an arrogant veteran of colonial wars, whose job was to defuse the growing Soviet presence in North Russia.

Although Wilson’s vague orders to the expedition stressed the non-interference in Russian internal affairs, the command structure allowed General Poole to send two of the three battalions of American infantry to each of the six fighting fronts of his command. Within days the Americans suffered their first fatalities. Their casualties would continue until the regiment was withdrawn in June 1919, suffering through the bitter cold of sub-Arctic Russia, under oftentimes patronizing leadership, having no real understanding of their role. The expedition was a fiasco, but the doughboys fought valiantly against the fledging Soviet forces. The failure of the Allied coalition began with the mutiny of the French forces, which was followed by mutinies of loyal Russian units, then even the British Tommies had had enough and rebelled against their assignments. By the time the White Sea thawed enough for ships to dock and take off the battered ground troops, the Soviet units had managed to rout the Allies, yet never seemed anxious to drive them into the sea. In summary, it was a humiliating evacuation, leaving a populace in chaos, wishing fervently the Allies had never come.

A Russian professor in North Russia, Vladislav Goldin, recently wrote, “From our point of view, without the Allied Intervention the anti-Bolshevik struggle in the north could hardly have taken the form of civil war.”

In North Russia the cost in American lives did not seem severe: 235 men died from a variety of causes. Russian civilian casualties, however, were in the thousands as Bolshevik forces wreaked their vengeance after the Allies withdrew. Sadly twenty-nine Americans were never located and lie, forever young, in that cold and hostile land just below the Arctic Circle.

Siberia was a vastly different story. As soon as U.S. commander Major General William S. Graves arrived, he announced to Japanese General Otani, appointed leader of all Allied troops, that our troops would not be led by any but American officers. Graves was a very stiff and formal man, who concentrated on only one portion of Wilson’s directive: for better or for worse, he was to avoid interference in Russian internal affairs. In following this course, Graves managed to alienate all who were involved in Siberia. Japan, as part of the anti-Soviet forces and the largest provider of troops, inflicted a number of atrocities on the Russian people. Under the U.S. policy, American officers and men could only watch in horror as their ally ran wild.

The Allies assignment was guarding the Trans Siberian Railroad, which was controlled by the Whites. This infuriated the Reds, while the Whites detested Americans for their refusal to stop both Allied outrages and Red raiders.

Since there were few skirmishes, combat casualties were light. Conditions were far better than those of North Russia, with barracks, cities, and facilities that were almost acceptable to the men. Drawbacks were weather, bitter cold, boredom, and a long tour of duty. The Siberian troops remained until mid-1920, when political pressure and the futility of the mission allowed for withdrawal. Faithful to their mission, they stayed until the Czechs were finally able to depart. By the time the Americans left, the Russians distrusted them, the Japanese hated them, and the British were frustrated by them. Only the Czechs remained friendly to them. The Czech Legion was a capable military unit, plagued not as much by the Reds, as by the politics of the day.

What were the results of an eighteen-month effort that cost the lives of 400 American men?

The West, in actively fighting against the new Soviet government, soured relations which never improved.

President Wilson lost support of Congress and the public because of a war that seemed pointless, and he lost support for participating in the League of Nations.

Although it had been Allied pressure that persuaded Wilson to enter Russia, Allied relations suffered by the failure of the intervention, with Japanese relations becoming particularly hostile.

After the Armistice, the Allies had no clear-cut purpose. The Great War had been won and Russia’s help was no longer needed, so no one could establish a mission for a post-war Russian involvement. The changed conditions left the nation and its fighting units confused and unhappy.

These long term results, hostile Soviet relations and loss of League status, resulting from the reasonably minor event were significant.

The expeditions failed for several reasons:

  1. There was no clear understanding of the mission, which caused “mission creep.”
  2. There were no published rules of engagement, nor clear explanations of who or when to fight.
  3. There was no agreement between non-governmental units, Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., etc, military units and government agencies
  4. It was not possible to stay neutral when other Allies were fighting and our troops were being attacked.
  5. There was lack of understanding of the history, culture and will of the Russian people
  6. It was impossible to deal with all parties equally. North Russia was different than Siberia

Many American and Allied interventions have occurred since 1920, but successful interventions are scarce. Interfering in internal affairs of other nations brings on a risk of misunderstanding unless the interventions are clear in their goals for the present and the future. It may be that some of the reasons above are present in today’s involvement, which should cause concern for the U.S.

By not joining us in Iraq, is it possible that our Allies in the Russian intervention learned lessons which have escaped us?

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Rowan Arthur Berkeley - 7/28/2004

Anthony Sutton has some interesting information about the pro-Bolshevik influences upon Lloyd George's government and the involvement of a range of financial (Morgan Guaranty) and munitions (Basil Zaharoff) interests in the Bolshevik success, which may help to explain the token nature of the western military intervention in September 1918. Sutton's entire book is online at the following URL (which belongs to a far right theonomical group and features also a Birchist tract attacking Dispensationalist 'Rapture' beliefs):

William R. Clay - 6/16/2004

While Mr. Willett may not have enjoyed a career as a professional within the field of history, none-the-less, his article should be required reading of those who profess to be experts on our current Iraq crisis. As to Mr. Polner’s vouching for the commentary, I will have to accept this on face value. Sorry, we cannot be authorities in every field of historic knowledge, and I am certainly weak on this particular sector of the world. What I am sure of is that military intervention in another state’s internal affairs is fraught with pitfalls. Mr. Willett makes this perfectly clear in his six-point summation of why the Russian involvement was not a success.

I will not, as Mr. Willett also refrained from, apply this directly to our current intervention in Iraq. I will leave the presentation of point-by-point similarities to others. However, what deeply concerns me about America’s current foreign foray is that we now are well past the 400 dead Americans registered in the Russian action, and there appears to be no end in sight to this carnage. I personally desire a clear and concise (not one in the same at all) explanation of precisely the why, what, and how of our involvement in Iraq. I doubt it will come anytime soon.

Murray xavier Polner - 6/16/2004

BRAVO! (My Columbia University Russioan Institute dissertation was on the Czech Legion and everything the author writes concurs with my findings.