- 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
Graves quickly realized that he had been pitchforked into a situation completely different from the Washington view of what was happening in Siberia. A complex and confusing struggle for power had developed. The Japanese aimed to keep the various contenders at one another’s throats while attaining dominance over as much of northeastern Asia as possible. The French and British military missions were busily promoting the White counterrevolution. The Czechs were settling down in garrisons along the TransSiberian and showing no great disposition to return to Europe. Various Cossack desperadoes, most of them subsidized by the Japanese, were carving out bandit empires and occasionally riding out against the growing number of Bolshevik partisan bands. Further to the west, at Irkutsk, Admiral Kolchak had been installed as titular head of a White regime that claimed the right to administer the Siberian provinces.
The American commander knew there was going to be interallied friction the moment he presented himself to General Otani, who announced that he was not only commanding the Japanese forces but was “commander-in-chief of the Allied armies.” Graves politely declined to regard Otani as his superior. He had already decided that the only way to stay out of trouble was to maintain a posture of absolute neutrality—no military adventures such as urged by his allies (not only the Japanese but the French and British), no intrigues to promote one political faction or the other.
During his first few days in Siberia Graves learned that the supposedly helpless Czechs had established a “capital” in Irkutsk and were proposing to govern large sections of Siberia under a self-supplied mandate and with Anglo-French encouragement to engage in a war against the Soviet forces along the Volga far to the west. Intelligence officers informed Graves there were twenty-four separate “governments” claiming sovereignty over Siberia, with nothing in common but enmity for the Bolshevik regime in Moscow. Shortly before his arrival a plebiscite had been held in Vladivostok with the majority voting, to the embarrassment of the Allies and the various factions they supported, for the Bolsheviks. That vote apparently was an expression of resentment against the old czarist officials who were, as Graves observed, “reaping their revenge on Russians who had dared to act contrary to their beliefs.”
United States headquarters were established in a building formerly occupied by a German trading firm, and Graves made an inspection tour of the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian to determine where American troops would be garrisoned. The luckier doughboys occupied a former czarist barracks in Vladivostok, but most were assigned to guarding bridges and depots along the Trans-Siberian and living in boxcars with the wheels removed. Their privations in the fortybelow winter temperatures were merely a footnote to the general Siberian agony.
Back home their plight, and the dangerous exposure of American interests in the Siberian intervention, were attracting little attention except among liberal intellectuals fascinated by the possibilities of the Russian revolution. National attention was riveted on the climactic battles in northern France and the ensuing armistice. Walter Lippmann as editor of the New Republic did warn the President that he should stick to his original position of “no interference in Russia’s internal affairs.” The Nation and other liberal journals, joined in that warning, and Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote to a friend that Wilson “should be judged by what he was and did prior to August 4th, 1918, the date of the paper justifying the attack on Russia. That was the first of his acts which was unlike him; and I am sure the beginning of the sad end.”
Although American and Soviet soldiers were indeed killing one another in north Russia, in Siberia, there was no “attack on Russia.” An intervention, yes, but otherwise the Americans there presented themselves as peace-keepers and held aloof from the political struggle. General Graves favored neither the Reds nor the Whites. His troops, he told allied officers who tried to pressure him into joining the campaign against the Bolshevik partisan bands, would venture no farther west than Lake Baikal and take part in no “crusade” against Bolshevism.
Certainly from the American viewpoint the anti-Bolshevik Russians were the best propaganda anyone could have devised for Bolshevism. General Gregori Semenov, the commander of an “independent” force based on Chita and largely operating from armored trains, presented himself at United States headquarters. A former Cossack colonel, Semenov was an Asiatic Russian with broad cheekbones, tigerish yellow eyes, and a carefully combed Napoleonic forelock. Early in 1918 he had captured the Soviet garrison at Manchuli and sent its members, beaten half to death, to the nearest Red headquarters; since then his methods had been less for-bearing. “A murderer, robber and a most dissolute scoundrel” was Graves’s opinion.