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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
The ataman flogged his own Cossacks in wholesale lots when they rebelled at his liquidation program. Early in 1919 seven hundred of his troopers deserted en masse, about three hundred fleeing into the countryside and three hundred and ninety-eight of them marching in a body to the headquarters of the ayth Infantry in Khabarovsk, where they begged for sanctuary, which was given to them. The Japanese demanded that the deserters be returned to “little father Kalmikov” for paternal correction, but Graves refused and several weeks later released them to go where they pleased.
Aside from demoralization and the threat of political infection of one kind or another, the Americans in Siberia were prey to epidemics raging in a land where the drinking water came from surface wells. The S.E.F.’S chief surgeon reported to Washington that hundreds had been stricken by “plague, typhus, relapsing fever, typhoid fever, scarlet fever and malignant sore throat.”
With each passing month General Graves became more acquainted with the truth of Oscar Wilde’s epigram about the pleasures of feasting with panthers: “the danger was half the excitement.” The anti-Bolshevik front, he was convinced, was terrorizing the Siberian peasantry in hopes of provoking resistance and thereby “justify calling for more Allied troops to put down the Bolsheviks.” The appointment of the old czarist General Ivanoff-Rinoff to organize White forces in the eastern provinces of Amur, Primorskaya, Sakhalin, and Kamchatka seemed an attempt to reimpose czarism without the czar, thereby “delaying the settlement of the Russian question by the Russian people,” as Graves put it. General Ivanoff-RinofFs brutal procedures convinced him that Semenov and Kalmikov were not atypical representatives of the White cause. In March, 1919, American intelligence learned that Ivanoff-Rinoff’s troops had dispatched a press gang to the village of Gordyekva. The younger men of the village fled into the forest rather than be forcibly recruited, and ten of the elders were tortured and killed in reprisal. Graves sent one of his staff to investigate. The officer found that the survivors in Gordyekva had armed themselves with old hunting rifles and were prepared to fight to the end if the Ivanoff-Rinoff troops ever reappeared. “General,” the officer told Graves on his return to headquarters, “never send me on another expedition like this. I came within an ace of pulling off my uniform, joining those poor people, and helping them as best I could.”
Such atrocities the Americans attributed not only to the predictable savagery of a civil war but to the encouragement of the Japanese paymasters. The more trouble the Japanese could foment through their hirelings and the longer the outcome of the Red-White struggle could be delayed, the easier it would be for Imperial Japan to move into the Russian coastal provinces and northern Manchuria. Bolshevik partisans evidently came to the same conclusion as United States intelligence and began ambushing Japanese patrols around Khabarovsk. In February, 1919, two Japanese infantry companies and a battery of field artillery—about four hundred men in all—were attacked by the Bolshevik guerillas. Only three escaped with their lives. The Japanese liaison officer begged Graves to send a company of United States infantry, but the latter refused with the statement that he would need proof the Japanese had been attacked by partisans rather than Siberian peasants fighting in selfdefense. The more violent antiCommunist newspapers in the United States reprinted charges in the Japanese press that Graves had acquiesced in the slaughter of his ally’s troops. “Why,” Graves effectively replied, “didn’t the Japanese send their own troops to the assistance of their men? They had an entire division in Khabarovsk and vicinity, while the Americans had but two battalions.”
Graves’s resistance to the idea of committing American troops to a shooting war with the Bolsheviks was causing concern among some elements in the State Department and likeminded foreign ministries, but his superior, General March, cabled from Washington, “I am going to stand by you until hell freezes over.” The army stood firm against involvement even as the State Department was sending its ambassador to Tokyo, Roland S. Morris, over to Vladivostok to investigate the possibility of American participation in driving the Reds back over the Urals.
Despite all the contrary advice from S.E.F. headquarters the United States in mid-igig decided to support the Kolchak regime in Irkutsk logistically if not, immediately, with military action. A shipment of arms and ammunition was ordered sent from Vladivostok to rearm Kolchak’s forces, and a Kolchak emissary appeared at Graves’s headquarters with a million dollars in gold to pay for the supplies. The American commander feared, however, that most of the shipment would fall into the hands of Semenov, Kalmikov, and other Japanese-subsidized freebooters and allow them to increase their operations against his scattered garrisons. He halted the transaction on his own initiative, explaining in a cable to Washington, “The Cossacks, under the leadership of Kalmikov, are threatening to commence action against Americans. This action is supported by Semenov and I believe instigated by Japan. These Cossacks have armored cars which our present arms will not pierce.” He then requested “one battalion three-inch or mountain artillery be sent to report to me.”