Thursday, October 19, 2006

Small History Lesson - The American Invasion of Russia

Russian Civil War, 1918-1920

This is a topic that likely most students of history remember, but most Americans never learned - The Russian Civil War of 1918-1920 and the Allied intervention on behalf of the White Army forces. Even fewer Americans are likely to remember that we committed almost 13,000 troops to the invasion forces and that 275 Americans lost their lives on Russia soil.

The Regiments website is a military historians dream page, with extensive detailed descriptions and dates of various wars in which the British Empire was engaged. There is information on uniforms, regiments, and formations as well.

But for our purposes today, we are interested in the Russian Civil war. The Allied Forces at the end of World War I. As Regiments discusses the causes of the civil war (which might be debatable from the Russian point of view):
Russian military reverses, heavy casualties, and economic hardship contributed to the Russian revolution which withdrew the country from the First World War, releasing German forces for an offensive against the other Allies on the Western Front. Chaos led long repressed nationalist aspirations around the perimeter of the Russian empire to declare independence. Bolshevik excesses soon began to coalesce various factions, and civil war broke out. Japan was the first to exploit Russian weakness with an apparent view to annexing the maritime provinces in the East.

The British, French, and Americans hesitantly and fitfully intervened with a four-fold goal:

1) prevent Japan from creating an empire in the East,
2) prevent massive Allied stores originally sent to the tsarist armies from falling into German and subsequently Bolshevik hands,
3) assist the White Armies in overthrowing the Bolshevik regime and bring Russia back into the war against Germany,
4) rescue the Czechoslovak Legion trapped in central Asia so that they could rejoin the war against Germany.

Allied intervention joined White armies on four fronts:

1) White Sea ports in the north,
2) Black Sea ports in the south,
3) Caspian and Caucasus region, and
4) the Far East.

The plans of some Allied politicians called for advancing with the Whites on all these fronts to link up in the centre and crush the Bolshevik regime.
To paraphrase Vizzini: They fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous ... never get involved in a land war in Asia ...

But I digress. Regiments provides a detailed chronology of the Allied forces invasion and eventual withdrawal from Russia two years later. 160 Americans were killed in action and another 168 died by other means (disease, cold, famine, STDs). All wars are chaotic - the Russian Civil War perhaps more chaotic than most, as Regiments explains:
Although the civil war fronts fluctuated wildly, the Bolsheviks gradually developed discipline, and had the advantage of defending the central Russian homeland. Opposition White forces never developed military or political cohesion, and were hampered by appearing to be the tools of foreign imperialist interests. The civil war did much to harden the Bolsheviks from a relatively democratic party into a ruthless and draconian regime, which eventually reunified much of the splintered Russian empire by force.

Allied intervention was insufficient to provide meaningful support to the Whites, and the November 1918 armistice on the Western Front removed much of the raison d'etre for intervention, namely to bring Russia back into the war against Germany and protect stores from falling into German hands. Motivated in part by fear of world communism, Allied occupation of Russian territory did much to sow the seeds of distrust which grew into a fifty-year Cold War between the Soviets and the West.


Michael Averko said...

Re: Russian Civil War

There're many repeated myths about the above referenced subject matter.

Yes, the Japanese were looking for some Russian real estate. This made them an adversary of the Whites, who sought to maintain the territorial integrity of Russia.

There was Western intervention which supported the Reds. The propaganda of John Reed, Emma Goldman and Mary Louise Bryant favored the Bolsheviks. The Germans arranged to have Lenin transported from Zurich to Petrograd. The Polish military dictator Josef Pilsudski signed a then secret deal with the Bolsheviks to not support the Whites. This was later revealed by two of Pilsudski's subordinates (Stanislau Haller and Tadeusz Kutzreba). Red Army Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky acknowledged that a Polish-White alliance could've very well defeated the Reds. Keep in mind that the Whites recognized Polish independence. This wasn't good enough for Pilsudski, who desired a Poland "from sea to sea" (Black to Baltic) encompassing historically Russian linked territory with significant concentrations of Russocentric support.

The British, American and French presence on Russian territory was to safeguard its respective foreign nationals and business interests in the Russian Empire. There was also the matter of monitoring German activity (WW I was still going on).

The three mentioned allies would only fight when attacked or caught between crossfire. There wasn't much if anything in terms of aid given to the Whites. In Britain, Lloyd George successfully defeated Winston Churchill's desire to support the Whites. As a Machiavellian British big power strategist, George saw the Bolsheviks as representing bad government in a manner much unlike what he saw with the Whites (a strong Russia, coupled with gradual reforms along the lines of a democratically managed market economy).

W. Shedd said...

Yes, as Regiments points out, the British, French, and American forces landed at Murmansk, initially with Bolshevik permission. My own understanding of the whole period and war was that it was rather sloppy, with shifting alliances and battlefronts.

ilyich said...

This actually WAS mentioned (very briefly) in my high school history class. I have always thought that this was partly to blame for subsequent Soviet paranoia (as also mentioned in the article), although I also blame the obvious mistrust created by a civil war, and the paranoia always evident in absolute power.

What I'm more curious about is a tale told by a friend in college, who claimed that his own grandfather (a minor American robber-baron of some sort) helped to bankroll the Russian Revolution, in exchange for the rights to Russian/Soviet telephone operation/installation.

Sean Guillory said...

Ah the Russian Civil War. One of the most understudied episodes of Russian history. I'm researching the Komsomol's memory of the war and the effects the war had on veterans. I have psychological studies of vets with flashbacks about fighting Whites and bandits from the 1920s. One of the therapists suggested that this patient go abroad and join an underground communist movement to satisfy his fanaticism. In the 1920s these revolutionary hotheads were derided as "bratishki" because they were in constantly searching for enemies and spies. It became a problem when they started to denounce Party secretaries.

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