- Historic Sites
Yanks In Siberia
SENT ON A HOPELESSLY VAGUE ASSIGNMENT BY WOODROW WILSON, AMERICAN SOLDIERS FOUND THEMSELVES IN THE MIDDLE OF A FEROCIOUS SQUABBLE AMONG BOLSHEVIKS, COSSACKS, CZECHS, JAPANESE, AND OTHERS
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
During mid-August, 1918, American forces began landing at Vladivostok, the capital of the Soviet Maritime Territory, in one of the more curious side shows of the First World War. From Moscow it appeared that the United States had joined other western nations and Japan in supporting the White counterrevolution, which just then was making dangerous headway against the Red armies, and on August 30, in a speech before a throng of factory workers, Lenin denounced the United States as a fake democracy standing for the “enslavement of millions of workers.”
From a Washington hazed over with Wilsonian rhetoric about self-determination the perspective was quite different. President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t bent on smashing the revolution but, he said, on aiding a force of over forty thousand Czechoslovak soldiers, formerly a unit of the Russian army and now supposedly heading for Vladivostok along the TransSiberian railroad, thence to embark for the western front to renew the fight against Germany.
Early in 1918 it was proposed in the Supreme War Council at Versailles that Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States send forces to Russia to re-establish an eastern front against Germany, the new Soviet government having negotiated a separate peace and opted out of the war. The intervention was to be in two widely separated areas, both theoretically propitious to Allied aims: at Murmansk and Archangel in north Russia and at Vladivostok on the Pacific. The Far Eastern intervention proceeded despite warnings that the project would chiefly benefit Japan in its ambitions to expand on the Asian mainland, that Siberia already was a political and military maelstrom in which the various Bolshevik partisan bands, the Russian counterrevolutionary forces soon to be headed by Admiral Kolchak, Cossack regiments turned to brigandage, and a pan-Mongol movement led by a demented Baltic baron all were trying to fill the vacuum caused by the fall of the Romanoffs and the present weakness of the Soviet central government.
Siberia, as viewed from the War Department in Washington, seemed a good place to avoid as far as United States military involvement was concerned. The general staff believed the country had taxed itself to the utmost in sending an expeditionary force to France and had little moral energy or physical reserves to expend on adventures on the other side of the globe.
Only a vague historical memory now, without any great battles or garlanding of sensational headlines, the American intervention in Russia would loom larger in the ensuing half century. In north Russia it resulted in military action that justified a complaint by Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 that “American soldiers went to our soil … to help the White Guard combat the new revolution.” [See “Where Ignorant Armies Clashed by Night,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , December, 1958.] In Siberia it marked the first serious American interference in an Asian land war and was, as John Paton Davies, Jr., recently wrote, the “precursor of Washington’s excursions of 1945-49 into the Chinese civil war and, more recently, the civil wars of Indo-China.”
But President Wilson, for a complex of reasons that were not altogether clear, created the Siberian Expeditionary Force ( S.E.F. ) as an act of Presidential will. In falling in with the Anglo-French proposals for the venture he seemed (particularly to Lenin) to be disregarding his own Fourteen Points and his assurance that Russia would have an “unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity” to develop in any way she chose.
Late in June, 1918, Wilson was moved toward taking the step when news was received from western Siberia that the Czech legion had been attacked by the Red Guards and would have to fight its way eastward along the Trans-Siberian. That, as British Prime Minister Lloyd George later said, was the “determining factor” in the intervention, but President Wilson had discovered another reason in the stockpile of approximately one billion dollars’ worth of supplies that the United States had sent to Vladivostok to be used by the prerevolutionary Russian armies against the Germans. An expeditionary force could supposedly reclaim those huge supply dumps before they were seized by either the Red or White partisans—or by the Japanese.
On July 6 Wilson announced to his cabinet that he intended to send an expeditionary force to Siberia. Tapping out an aide-mémoire on his own typewriter on July 17, the President formulated the terms on which such a force would operate. The separated Czech detachments would be assisted in linking up and then “get into successful cooperation with their Slavic kinsmen,” by which the President meant the Russians, but which kind of Russians—the Reds, the Whites, the Cossack freebooters who were ravaging Siberia—he didn’t specify. He also ordered the dispatch of a Noah’s ark of civilian helpers including the Y.M.C.A. and the Red Cross, trade experts, agronomists, and labor advisers to work on reviving the Siberian economy.