That forgotten, pointless Russian intervention

These days, we sort of take for granted that the U.S. military will intervene just about anywhere in the world on just about any pretext politicians can dream up. But that wasn’t always the case. And, in fact, Midwesterners especially were extremely leery of getting involved in foreign entanglements to which they couldn’t see a direct benefit for the country.

The May issue of Military History magazine carried a fine example of that: The U.S. intervention in Russia at the end of World War I. In an unsuccessful effort to keep pressure on Germany from the East, the Allies sent an expeditionary force into Russia. President Woodrow Wilson’s grudging agreement to participate ended up pitting U.S. doughboys and British tommies against both sides in the vicious and bloody Russian civil war.

Doughboys from the 339th U.S. Infantry Regiment take ship for Archangle in 1918 during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.

Doughboys from the 339th U.S. Infantry Regiment take ship for Arkhangelsk in 1918 during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. They were withdrawn before their brothers-in-arms serving in Siberia were finally brought home in 1920. (photo courtesy of Charles G. Thomas, Army Sustainment, March-April 2012)

The first U.S. troops arrived at Murmansk in the late summer of 1918 and were welcomed by the Murmansk Soviet and the local Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, plus the Allied British and French troops already there. The troops’ mission was to secure the main rail line in the area in order to allow the orphan Czechoslovak Legion to open a new Eastern Front against the Germans and Finns. It didn’t take long for the wheels to come off the effort and political infighting to break out among the allies. And then with Armistice Day come and gone, first a British unit refused to fight, pointing out that by that time—February 1919—World War I was over. A French battalion followed their lead, as did a U.S. Army company in mid-March. The U.S. troops complained that the war was over, the Germans had been defeated, and the actions they were being ordered to undertake were in contravention of their own government’s stated policies. By June, President Wilson had decided it really was a bad idea, and U.S. troops were ordered withdrawn from Arkhangelsk after suffering 235 dead in the police action.

Seated in the center is Maj. Gen. William S. Graves, commanding general of the Allied Expeditionary Force - Siberia, surrounded by his staff. The photo was snapped at Vladivostok, Siberia on Nov. 23, 1918. (Courtesy National Archives)

Seated in the center is Maj. Gen. William S. Graves, commanding general of the Allied Expeditionary Force – Siberia, surrounded by his staff. The photo was snapped at Vladivostok, Siberia on Nov. 23, 1918. (Courtesy National Archives)

Meanwhile, 8,000 additional U.S. troops had been shipped to Vladivostok, Siberia during the summer and fall of 1918 with the mission of a) not taking sides in the increasingly violent civil war and b) aiding the well-traveled Czechoslovak Legion by protecting railroads leading east from the port. Not only did the doughboys have to contend with White Russian and Red Army fighters, but also with their putative allies, including 70,000 Imperial Japanese troops who were out for plunder and conquest. The U.S. troops came to despise the Japanese troops as much as their Red and White Russian antagonists.

The author of the Military History piece, Anthony Brandt, noted that the intervention failed on multiple levels, and further managed to leave behind lasting antagonism between the U.S. and the brand new Soviet government. Letter-writers in the most recent issue of the magazine criticized Brandt’s take, suggesting that if the U.S. had simply committed more troops it would have been possible to have kept the Bolsheviks from consolidating power.

Japanese Imperial Marines stand at attention (left) as U.S. Army troops march through Vladastok during the nation's intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918. The Japanese proved a continual thorn in the side of U.S. troops. All U.S. troops were withdrawn two years later after the inconclusive and unpopular intervention ended. (National Archives photo)

Japanese Imperial Marines stand at attention (left) as U.S. Army troops march through Vladivostok in 1918 during the nation’s intervention in the Russian Civil War. The Japanese proved a continual thorn in the side of U.S. troops. All U.S. troops were withdrawn two years later after the inconclusive and unpopular intervention ended. (National Archives photo)

However, that completely ignores the mood of the U.S. electorate in the summer of 1919—intervention simply did not have any constituency. People wanted the troops home, and wanted them home immediately. The Midwest wasn’t 100-percent sold on fighting Germany in the first place; the whole idea of fighting Russians after the war was over was considered pointless, not to mention absurd.

Here in the Fox Valley, that feeling was evidenced in spades. Hugh R. Marshall, the editor of the Kendall County Record, complained in a short editorial in the paper’s July 2, 1919 edition that: “The hope that our soldiers will all be out of Europe soon must be abandoned. Secretary of War [Newton] Baker has issued a special appeal to young men to enlist in the army for service in Europe and bleak Siberia. How long, oh Lord! how long, will it be until our ‘democratic’ president steps out of the role of Czar long enough to let his ‘subjects’ know why he is keeping our soldiers in Siberia. Do we owe that country anything?”

By late August, parents of Illinois soldiers serving in Siberia had had enough. They wanted their sons home and back on the farms and behind business counters where they belonged, and they took their case right to the source.

As Marshall reported in the Record’s Aug. 27, 1919 edition: “Having no hope that President Wilson will act favorably upon their appeal to bring their boys home from Siberia, Illinois mothers and fathers have taken their case direct to the House foreign affairs committee. Chairman of the committee Porter says ‘there is absolutely no justification in law’ for sending our troops to Siberia, and that ‘the time has come to challenge this extraordinary use of the army.’

Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, depending on your viewpoint—Wilson never saw fit to lay out his reasoning for sending troops to Siberia before he was felled by a massive stroke in October 1919. It seems he didn’t even bother to tell his own political allies what his goal was supposed to be.

Without Wilson to support the mission, U.S. withdrawal from Siberia began in early 1920, with the last troops leaving Vladivostok on April 1. With the mission wrapped up, Baker apparently finally felt free to comment, calling the intervention “nonsense from the beginning.” Gen. Peyton C. March, Army Chief of Staff, agreed, dubbing it “a complete failure.”

You’ve got to give Baker and March credit, though. Unlike today’s political and military leaders, they weren’t afraid to call a failure a failure. Compare their comments with the mealy-mouthed rationalizations of the spectacular military and political failures the U.S. engineered in Iraq and Afghanistan we get from our leaders these days, and it almost makes one long for the good old days of 1920.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

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