American Troops in Russia: The True Record

During his recent residence in England, GEORGE KENNAN, our former ambassador to Russia, found himself obliged on sacral occasions to explain to European audiences the reasons for the American participation in the Allied intervention in Russia in 1918-1920. The following article represents the result of recent researches into an episode that was long surrounded by confusion and obscurity.


IF WE reflect today on the psychological background of the great conflict of outlook and aspiration between the United States and the ruling party of the Soviet Union, we see that whereas the bitterness of feeling among Americans relates mainly to things the Soviet government has done since the final phases of World War II, Soviet grievances against the United States have a longer historical background and include the behavior of the United States government around the time of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and in the years immediately following those events. The Allied military intervention of the years 1918 to 1920, in particular, continues to occupy a prominent position in Soviet memory. It has recently been the subject of a number of works by Soviet historians. It has been repeatedly mentioned, just within the past year, in the statements of leading Soviet personalities. And the dominant theme of all this material has been one of bitter reproach to the United States, as having been a leading instigator and participant in the intervention and as having acted, throughout this episode, from motives which were unworthy in themselves and hostile to the interests of the Russian people.

A clear and authoritative view of the Soviet attitude toward the Allied intervention was presented in the autumn of 1957 in the Theses published by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in connection with the forty-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. These Theses dwelt at length on the intervention and described it as consisting of “military campaigns against our country.” Nothing was said to suggest that these expeditions might have been directed to any other purpose. The world war was not mentioned.

When the Bolsheviki assumed power in Petrograd in November, 1917, this event caused great concern in the Allied capitals. The leadership of the Bolshevik Parly was known to consist of men who not only professed deepest disapproval and contempt for the ideals of the Western governments and peoples but who also publicly denounced the Allied cause in the war as an unworthy and imperialistic one, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities on terms that meant the abandonment of the stated Western war aims, and made it clear that they were resolved to make peace with the Germans. Within a month of their advent to power they moved to put this resolution into effect by entering into negotiations with the Germans. Coming as it did shortly after the military collapse on the Italian front, and with the German offensive of the following spring already looming ahead, the defection of Russia was a grievous and even heart-rending blow to the Allied cause.

One can have one’s own view, in the light of history, as to the soundness of Allied war aims, and hence of Allied reasons for wishing to continue the war, in late 1917. But one cannot judge the people of the past by contemporary insights. It was idle to expect the Western governments and peoples to be anything other than deeply worried by the impending departure of Russia from the ranks of the Allied powers, with the prospects that some two million German soldiers might be transferred front the eastern to the western front and that the great physical resources of Russia might then become available to the German war machine.

In these circumstances, it was natural that Allied statesmen and military leaders should have thought of a possible Allied military action in Russia for the purpose of restoring an eastern front against Germany.

WE MUST remember that the Allies did not regard themselves, in the winter of 1917-1918, as being under any obligation to respect the decision of the Soviet government to take Russia out of the war. They did not regard that government as representative of Russian public opinion. They were aware that it had not been elected to office. The Soviet authorities, furthermore, did not at that time control all the territory of the former Russian Empire; there were regions controlled by elements which still professed loyalty to the Allied cause.

In the winter of 1917-1918, the United States was not yet taking a prominent part in the war and was not participating in the military decisions that governed the Allied war effort. It was primarily the French and British military planners who were interested in the possibility of restoring an eastern front. But France and Britain could spare no troops for this purpose. Therefore they turned to America and to Japan for possible sources of manpower and supply for such a military effort.

In the case of Japan, this suggestion raised very delicate problems. Japan was formally a member of the Allied coalition, though it had taken little active part in the war. The political turmoil in European Russia had now thrown Siberia into a state of chaos and weakness. Japan could scarcely be expected to pass up so favorable an opportunity to improve its situation in Manchuria and Eastern Siberia at Russia’s expense and thus to rectify the injustice it considered itself to have suffered in the outcome of the Russian-Japanese War.

So long as Russia had been an ally of the Western powers, the Western governments could not have encouraged any attempt by Japan to profit from Russia’s weakness. But now that Russia was out of the war, now that the seats of power in Petrograd and Moscow had been seized by a political faction hostile to the Allied cause, now that the alternative to Japanese penetration of Russia seemed to many people to be German penetration, the question arose as to whether Japan should not be encouraged to enter Siberia, either in conjunction with other Allied forces or as a mandatory agent for the Allies as a whole. Perhaps — or so it seemed to the French and British military planners - perhaps Japanese forces might even be able to penetrate as far as European Russia and to make enough trouble for the Germans there to cause them to retain at least a substantial portion of their troops on the eastern front.

Throughout the winter of 1917-1918, while the Soviet and German negotiators haggled at Brest-Litovsk over the terms of the separate peace between Germany and Russia, the French and British repeatedly approached the United States government with suggestions along these lines. The American response was consistently negative. Neither President Wilson nor his Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, nor his intimate unofficial adviser, Colonel House, could see any merit in these proposals.

Secretary of State Lansing favored a policy of complete abstention from any interference in Russia. “ ‘Do nothing’ should be our policy,” he said to the President in December, 1917, “until the black period of terrorism comes to an end.” “This government,” he said in January, 1918, “must continue for the present a silent witness of the internal confusion which prevails in Russia.”

Colonel House similarly warned the President against any action in Russia. To treat Russia as an enemy would, he said, be sure to throw it into the lap of Germany.

That Wilson shared these views of his advisers is clear beyond question. His position was reflected in a number of official statements of the United States government in the winter and spring of 1918, all of which had his official approval and some of which he drafted personally.

A fair example of these was a communication to the Japanese government, of January 20, 1918, which stated:

the common interests of all the powers at war with Germany demand from them an attitude of sympathy with the Russian people . . . any movement looking towards the occupation of Russian territory would at once be construed as one hostile to Russia and would be likely to unite all factions in Russia against us.

The events of February and March, 1918 - the reopening in February of hostilities against Russia by the Germans as a means of bringing pressure in the negotiations, the final signature of the Russian-German peace treaty on March 3. its ratification on March 16, and the opening of the great German offensive on the western front five days later - these events caused the heaviest sort of pressure to be brought on Wilson to change his stand and to sanction an intervention in Siberia by the Japanese. Since the Japanese themselves were not yet ready to take any action independently, and refused to act as mandatory for the Allies generally unless the United States joined in making the request, everything appeared to hang on Wilson’s decision.

Despite these pressures, the President remained adamant throughout the winter and spring of the year. The wisdom of intervention, he said in a communication to the Allied governments on March 5, seemed to the United States government to be most questionable. If any action were to be taken by the Japanese, he assumed it would be accompanied by a declaration to the effect that they were acting “as an ally of Russia, in Russia’s interest, and with the sole view of holding it safe against Germany.” But even with such a declaration, he thought the action would be misinterpreted, that

a hot resentment would be generated in Russia itself, and that the whole action might play into the hands of the enemies of Russia, and particularly of the enemies of the Russian Revolution, for which the Government of the United States entertains the greatest sympathy, in spite of all the unhappiness and misfortune which has for the time being sprung out of it.

IN THE absence of Wilson’s approval the Japanese continued, for the moment, to abstain from action. In April, 1918, in the face of the new German offensive in the west, the French and British military planners conceived a somewhat more elaborate scheme for intervention in Russia. This scheme envisaged Allied landings both at Vladivostok and at the northern ports of European Russia. At Vladivostok it would be the Japanese who would bear the main burden; at Murmansk and Archangel a mixed Allied force, in which the Americans would play a prominent part. The expeditions at these widely separated points would combine with local anti-Bolshevik forces loyal to the Allied cause, would advance toward each other, and would eventually link up, thus creating a solid Allied front from Siberia to the upper Volga region and forcing the Germans to reconstitute their military position in the east.

This was a wholly impractical plan. There was, as American statesmen repeatedly pointed out, no reason at any time to believe that the Japanese were interested in any objectives further west than Irkutsk or that they could be prevailed upon to send their troops beyond the Trans-Baikal area. The anti-Bolshevik Russians with whom it was proposed to collaborate were far too weak to play anything resembling the role assigned to them in this scheme.

It was obvious at the time that Wilson would never have given his approval to such a plan, and the idea was apparently never made known to him in its entirety. Nevertheless, the French and British military planners did not wait for American approval before going ahead to implement the project to the extent they were able.

Insofar as Siberia was concerned, they could, for the moment, do no more than continue and intensify the pressure on Wilson to agree to a Japanese intervention, and this they did to the best of their ability throughout May and June. But with respect to the northern ports, they proceeded to take action at once. Allied warships had already been stationed at Murmansk for many months; the local Soviet there had adopted an attitude friendly to the Allies; and a few British marines had been landed in March with the full consent of the local authorities. Now, in May, the British sent to Murmansk such few soldiers as they were able to spare, under the command of a general who was supposed eventually to command the entire northern expedition. Since this force was wholly inadequate to the purpose in question, the British approached the United States government with the request that an American contingent also be made available for service at the North Russian ports.

Nothing was said to Wilson, on this occasion, about the plan for penetrating into the interior and linking up with the Siberian intervention. The plan was put to him as merely an arrangement for the defense of the northern ports, particularly Murmansk, against the Germans. He was told that there was danger of the Murmansk Railways being attacked by anti-Communist Finns who were supposed to be under German influence and that the Germans might seize Murmansk and develop the port as a submarine base if the Allies did not take preventative action.

We can see today that these fears were greatly exaggerated. But they were sincerely entertained, at the time, by both British and American representatives in Russia.

In addition, Wilson was given to understand that American troops were needed in the Russian North to protect great quantities of Allied war supplies, said to have accumulated in the ports of that region before the October Revolution. Actually. the overwhelming portion of the stores had already been seized and hauled off to the interior bv the Bolsheviki, but neither the British government nor Wilson appears to have been aware of these facts.

Despite all the arguments in favor of intervention, Wilson remained at all times skeptical of the merits of this proposed expedition. But he observed, finally, to his Secretary of War that he felt obliged to do it anyhow because the British and French were pressing it on his attention so hard and he had refused so many of their requests that they were beginning to feel that he was not a good associate, much less a good ally. Opposition was made harder for him by the pro-Allied attitude of the local Soviet at Murmansk and by reports from Allied representatives in Russia that the Soviet government was not really so averse as it pretended to be to the idea of an Allied landing in the North,

Wilson therefore finally replied to the British government, in June, 1918. that while he had no enthusiasm for the scheme, he would abide in this instance by the opinion of Marshal Foch, the Allied commander in chief on the western front. If Foch really thought the requested American battalions would be of more use in Murmansk than in France, they would be sent. Foch, at British urging, confirmed to the President in writing that he approved the diversion of this force. The American units were therefore turned over to the British in England in July and placed under British command, to be used in the Russian North as the British might see fit. This was the origin of America’s participation in the northern intervention.

MEANWHILE, the situation in Siberia had been drastically altered by the outbreak at the end of May of the conflict between the Czechoslovak Corps and the Bolsheviki. This Czech force was made up largely of men who had been taken prisoner or had deserted from the Austro-Hungarian Army and who were desirous of fighting on the Allied side. In the spring of 1918, the Czech Corps was attempting to make its way from European Russia to the western front via Vladivostok. In April and May, it was strung out in trainloads along the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way from the Ukraine to Vladivostok. As a result of the breakdown of the old Russian Army, the Czech Corps was now probably the strongest single armed force in Russia.

On May 26, hostilities broke out between the Czechs and the Soviet authorities along the route. This uprising of the Czechs was not, as has been frequently alleged, the result of Allied instigation, it was a product of the frictions and misunderstandings occasioned by the effort of the Czechs to move across Siberia in the chaotic conditions then existing, and especially of the incidents which occurred when the Czechs encountered parties of Austrian or Hungarian war prisoners who were, after the conclusion of the Brest-Litovsk peace, due for repatriation and were trying to make their way along the railway in the opposite direction.

Not only were the French and British not responsible for the Czech uprising, but the uprising actually came as a setback to the Allied military planners, who had hoped to use a portion of the Czech Corps in the northern ports and had just made arrangements with the Soviet authorities to have this portion of the corps routed to the Russian North. The outbreak of the conflict between the Czechs and the Bolshcviki made this impossible, and the failure of the Czechs ever to arrive at Archangel had a good deal to do with the eventual failure of the northern expedition.

As a result of their uprising, the Czechs were successful in seizing, within a few days, most of the Trans-Siberian Railway from the Volga to Irkutsk. Another body of some eighteen thousand Czechs had by this time arrived at Vladivostok, but there were, at the time of the uprising, no Czech trains in the area between Vladivostok and Irkutsk. This territory thus remained initially in Soviet hands.

The Czechs in Vladivostok were now concerned to re-establish contact with their compatriots in Central and Western Siberia and to ensure the security of the passage of the main body of the corps to the Pacific. To this end, they seized Vladivostok at the end of June and mounted an operation westward to clear the railway toward Irkutsk. Finding themselves opposed by Communist forces in the neighborhood of Vladivostok, they appealed to the Allied governments, and particularly to the Japanese and United States governments, for military support. In doing so, they contrived to convey to official Washington the impression that the opposition with which they found themselves faced was provided not by Russian Communists but by German and Austrian prisoners of war who had been rearmed by the Bolsheviki and who now threatened to seize Siberia on behalf of the Central Powers.

Again, this was a very distorted impression. We know today that very few of the war prisoners in Siberia - two or three thousand at the most out of some eight hundred thousand - were armed by the Bolsheviki. These were all prisoners who had accepted the Communist orientation. They were mostly Hungarians. There were scarcely any Germans among them. Neither the German nor the Austrian government had had anything to do with the rearming of these men; both governments had in fact opposed it vigorously. But the myth of Siberia’s being about to be seized by Germany through the agency of the war prisoners was diligently propagated by all those Allied officials, particularly the French, who wanted intervention; and the Czechs, who were now very anxious for American support, did not hesitate to avail themselves, sincerely or otherwise, of the same suggestion.

To Wilson, this apparent plight of the Czechs presented a wholly new situation. Here was an Allied force, apparently fighting to keep Siberia out of German hands, and it needed American support. Wilson had extremely friendly feelings for the Czechs, as he did for the other Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. And he had, like many other Americans, a sentimental prejudice in favor of little Countries. Little countries, he thought, were good; big countries (aside from his own) were bad. Thus the plight of the Czechs as he understood it appealed to him, and he thought he saw in it at long last a possibility for putting an end to the pressures of the British and French for action in Siberia without associating himself with their political schemes, of which he was deeply suspicious. He therefore arrived, on July 6, 1918, at his final decision. The text of it, as recorded in a confidential cabinet document, is now available. Wilson wrote every word of it himself.

In this memorandum, the President once again dismissed emphatically the whole idea of attempting to restore an eastern front against Germany by an action through Siberia. With this he would have nothing to do. But he did see justification for helping the Czechoslovaks at Vladivostok to establish contact with their compatriots further west. He was prepared, he said, to send seven thousand American soldiers, provided that the Japanese would put up a similar force, to guard the line of communication of the Vladivostok Czechs as they advanced westward along the Trans-Siberian Railway to make contact with their comrades at Irkutsk.

Wilson’s decision has often been portrayed as part of a general Allied decision for intervention in Siberia. Actually, it was not this at all. It was in no way responsive to what the British and French had been urging on him, and he did not regard it as being so. He did not consider the action he was authorizing to be intervention against the Bolsheviki, and in communicating his decision to the other Allied governments he condemned the very idea of intervention in the roundest of terms. The British were furious with him over the whole affair; they regarded his decision as a unilateral one, not in any way responsive to their request, and in answer to it they proceeded to act on their own, with a view to realizing the plans they had conceived.

The Japanese, who were thrown into a great crisis of decision by Wilson’s proposal, also proceeded after some hesitation to take what was virtually unilateral action, although they tried to present it as a response to Wilson’s initiative. They sent to Siberia an expedition far greater than anything Wilson had proposed, and in conjunction with this they seized Northern Manchuria, an act which the United States government greatly deplored. At one moment, Wilson was inclined to withdraw from the entire undertaking, but it was too late. He realized that to withdraw would be to give the Japanese a free hand in Siberia and to forfeit all possibility of exercising any restraining influence on them by maintaining the semblance of Allied collaboration. The American force was therefore sent, as proposed.

So MUCH for the origins of the American action in Russia. Now a word about the course it took. It is necessary to distinguish these two things quite sharply, for in both instances — North Russia and Siberia - the President’s decision was taken against an inaccurate pattern of information, partly out of date, partly erroneous: and in neither case did the actual course of events resemble in any way what he had hoped would be the result of his decision.

The three battalions destined for service in the Russian North were turned over to the British in England in midsummer of 1918. Their fate was now in British hands. They were young recruits, mostly of Polish-American origin, from Michigan and Wisconsin. They had had very little training, no combat experience, and no political indoctrination whatsoever. I do not believe that one out of a hundred of them had the faintest idea why they were being sent to North Russia or against whom they were supposed to be acting. Equipped with British uniforms and Russian rifles, they were loaded onto troopships and dispatched northward at the end of August. The Spanish influenza broke out on board all three vessels. Medical supplies were not available. Both men and crews were decimated.

The British, meanwhile, without awaiting the arrival of the Americans, had landed at Archangel with a small, inadequate force, consisting mainly of some six hundred British and one French colonial battalion. The Archangel Soviet, in contrast to that of Murmansk, was not friendly to the Allies, and the bloodless entry of the Allied force was made possible only by a putsch carried out in the city by anti-Communist elements on the eve of the arrival of the Allied expedition. But the Bolsheviki mounted resistance on the outskirts of the city, and the British soon found themselves hard pressed even to maintain a perimeter some hundred kilometers from the center of the place. The American units, which were originally assigned to Murmansk, were therefore hastily rerouted to Archangel, where they arrived on September 4. Of those who were healthy, the majority were packed off the same evening for the front. By the next day, they found themselves deep in the swamps and forests of Northern Russia, under fire for the first time in their lives, and facing an adversary of whose identity they had no clear idea.

In the ensuing weeks and months, things developed in a highly unfavorable and unexpected way in the area held by the Allies around Archangel. The anti-Communist Russians within the Allied perimeter fell into two main categories: the Social Revolutionaries and the conservative former officers. These two factions loathed each other as violently as they did the Bolsheviki, and agreed on nothing. Their squabbles, superimposed on a complete lack of unity and of political understanding among the Allied representatives themselves, disgusted and antagonized the local population. It proved impossible to recruit any sizable and reliable Russian armed force. With the few foreign troops he had at his disposal, the British commander was able to do no more than to hold on to his perimeter around the city. The early descent of the arctic winter pinned the troops to their defensive positions, and any deep advance into the interior became out of the question.

In Siberia, things were no better. There, too, the Americans arrived in September. The junction of the Vladivostok Czechs with those on the western reaches of the Trans-Siberian Railway had, ironically enough, been effected on the day prior to the arrival of the main body of the Americans. The Czechs, furthermore, had decided, under Allied encouragement, not to try to make their way out of Russia through Vladivostok but rather to remain in Siberia and to fight the Bolsheviki in the area of the Urals. But the Japanese were now in Siberia, with ten times the number of troops Wilson had envisaged. No one wanted to leave the held entirely to them.

The Americans therefore settled down to guarding sections of the Amur Railway thousands of miles from any place where fighting was going on in the Russian civil war. It does not appear that any of these American forces ever fired a shot in regular combat against any unit of the Red Army during the year and a half of their stay in Siberia. There was one advance contingent of the Americans who, before the arrival of the American general, allowed themselves to be taken under Japanese command and were thus included, though not on the firing line, among the forces used in one small battle between the Japanese and the Czechs on the one hand and the Communists on the other. The American commander, General Graves, who arrived a few days later, put a stop to this use of his men. Graves was a line soldier with an ironclad sense of duty. He took very seriously the President’s injunction that he was not to get mixed up in Russian politics. He was extremely unpopular with the Allied representatives in Siberia, precisely for his firm refusal to participate in any action against the Bolsheviki or against any other Russian faction as such, and there were even charges from the British and French side that he was pro-Bolshevik.

ONLY a few weeks after the arrival of these American units in North Russia and Siberia World War I came to an end. This rendered unsubstantial the main military objectives for which the expeditions had been dispatched and raised the question of what should be done with them. In view of the fact that the situation in Russia was certain to be one of the first subjects for discussion among the senior Allied statesmen at the forthcoming Paris Peace Conference, no action was taken regarding the Allied forces in Russia in the initial weeks following the armistice.

At Paris, the whole question of Russia and the intervention was repeatedly discussed by the senior Allied figures. Wilson came to the conference convinced that the Allied intervention in Russia was a mistake and a failure. The Allied forces there, he said at one of the sessions of the Council of Ten in February, 1919, were doing no good. They did not know for whom or for what they were fighting. They were not assisting any promising common effort to establish order. They ought to be removed at once.

This remained his opinion throughout, and as soon as it became clear that the Peace Conference could find no useful action to take in the Russian problem as a whole, the British government was advised that the United States government desired that the American forces in North Russia should leave at the earliest opportunity. This could not be before late spring or early summer, owing to the ice conditions in the approaches to Archangel. Also, the United States government had no inclination to pull the troops out so abruptly as to cause military embarrassment to those Allied forces with whom they had been associated. They actually left Northern Russia in June and July, 1919, which was just about as soon as their departure could be decently arranged.

In the nine or ten months of their service on Russian soil, these Americans had taken no part in any actions other than ones of a defensive nature. Even this they had done under British command, and in the execution of a scheme which their President had never understood or sanctioned. They were a small force, three or foui thousand men in all. Their withdrawal had nothing to do with any defeat in battle.

In Siberia, the situation of the American force was complicated by the fact that during the winter of 1919, before and during the Paris Peace Conference, the French and British succeeded in bringing about the establishment in Central and Western Siberia of an anti-Bolshevik authority under Admiral Kolchak. The Americans, who had nothing to do with this development, found themselves in effect guarding Kolchak’s line of communication, or at least a small portion of it. far from the front. As the Peace Conference neared its end. reports were received in Paris that the Kolchak forces were doing well in their struggle against the Bolsheviki, and heavy pressure was brought to bear on Wilson, both by the British and by subordinates in his own American establishment, to give recognition and support to the Kolchak cause. Wilson authorized an investigation of Kolchak’s situation, and pending the outcome of this investigation, he delayed the removal of the American force in Eastern Siberia. The investigation was not completed until late summer. It revealed that Kolchak was not doing well at all; he was doing so badly, in fact, that nothing short of a rescue expedition in the number of fifty thousand Allied troops could save him. Anything of this sort was out of the question.

By the time this report was received in Washington, Wilson was already embarked on his tragic speaking tour, trying to assure American ratification of the peace treaty and membership in the League of Nations, In the course of this tour he suffered a stroke, and he was never able fully to resume his control of American policy.

With Kolchak’s defeat in the late autumn of 1919, it became clear that the American force could no longer be left in Siberia without danger of its becoming seriously embroiled in the Russian civil war. The decision to withdraw it was therefore taken, in the early winter of 1920, and the troops were removed as soon as this could be physically arranged, which was in April.

In 1933, when negotiations were undertaken between the United States and the Soviet Union looking toward a resumption of diplomatic relations. the Soviet negotiator, Litvinov, arrived in Washington prepared to advance a major claim against the United States government for damages allegedly done by the Americans in the course of the Siberian intervention. He was then permitted by the United States government to sec certain of the materials in the American archives dealing with this subject. After examining these materials and communicating with his government, Litvinov addressed a letter to President Roosevelt formally renouncing, on behalf of the Soviet government, any claim for damages arising out of the American expedition in Siberia. The matter has never, to my knowledge, been officially raised since that time, though the Communist propaganda machine has worked the issue for all it was worth.

Viewed in their entirety, the American expeditions to North Russia and Siberia appear today as pathetic and ill-conceived ventures, to which Woodrow Wilson — poorly informed, harried with wartime burdens, and torn between his own instincts and his feeling of obligation to his Allies - was brought against his own better judgment. He did his best at all times to keep the American action from assuming the form of an interference in Russian internal affairs, and there is no suggestion more preposterous than that he was animated in these decisions by hostility toward the Russian people or by a desire to overthrow the Soviet regime with American forces. In both cases, his original decision was closely linked with America’s wartime concerns. Had there been no great European war in progress, neither expedition would ever have been dispatched.

That the expeditions were regrettable - that it would have been better, from the standpoint of American interests, had they never been sent — seems hardly open to doubt. That they reflected imperialistic motives and constituted a serious injury to the Russian people is a figment of the imagination of Soviet propagandists, useful to their political purpose but not to the development of historical truth.