Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, June 23, 2024

President Wilson Confronts the New Russia

Woodrow Wilson and His War Cabinet

By Christopher T. McMaster, University of Canterbury
Originally Published in Inquires, 2014, Vol. 6

On 15 August 1918, American Doughboys landed in Siberia to begin one of the more contentious episodes in U.S.-Soviet relations. The 8,000 troops of the American Expeditionary Force were to remain for more than 18 months, playing a rather forgotten role in the Russian Civil War. Historians have since tried to understand the motives behind President Woodrow Wilson's decision to dispatch U.S. troops to the region. Wilson, as usual, never plainly stated his intentions but cloaked them instead in the eloquent rhetoric that became his hallmark.

Several explanations of Wilson's actions have since emerged. Two interpretations see intervention as part of the Allied war effort, with the president portrayed as believing claims that the Bolsheviks were actually German agents, or as acting in a way to steer his allies into supporting Russian "liberal nationalism" against the threats of both Russian Bolshevism and German militarism. A third interpretation, offered by the former diplomat George Kennan, explains the dispatch of troops ultimately as an effort to rescue the beleaguered "Czech Legion," which had just captured the port of Vladivostok (the future base of operations for Allied intervention) and who were at the time of the U.S. landing eagerly pursuing the Red Guard into the Siberian wilderness.

Perhaps the most pervasive interpretation, however, places the onus for U.S. troops in Siberia onto the emerging empire of Japan. By sending troops to Siberia at a time when Allied intervention appeared inevitable, the president had hoped to restrain Japanese expansion and thereby preserve the "Open Door" in the Far East. The Japanese responded to Wilson's action by sending ten times the number of troops called for by the U.S. president, and proceeded to establish themselves at strategic locations along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The historian John White saw the U.S. military expedition as "a forceful reminder of the American desire" to prevent further Japanese expansion. An expeditionary force that was outnumbered ten to one, vastly out-gunned in artillery, and suffering an 8,000-mile supply line stretching across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco may have appeared more as a reminder of Wilson's difficult position. The fact that American troops worked with the Japanese (despite the mutual and often violent dislike) in achieving a common objective has never been addressed adequately by White or any other historian researching the 6 July 1918 decision to intervene.

Waiting in Siberia: White Forces

The actual military record of the American Expeditionary Force is extremely useful in understanding Wilson's decision and can be seen as supporting yet another interpretation. To William Appleman Williams, the president was decidedly anti-Bolshevik and the primary purpose for intervention was to counter the revolution. "Intervention as a consciously anti-Bolshevik operation was decided upon by American leaders within five weeks of the day Lenin and Trotsky took power." There were no illusions about the threat posed by the Bolsheviks. They were social revolutionaries, as U.S. leaders acknowledged, albeit in private. Their view of socialism and Bolshevism was accordingly accompanied by antagonistic policies, firstly through recognition of counterrevolutionary leaders. 

Other measures included funding of British and French sponsored campaigns against the Bolsheviks, channeling aid to the White armies forming in Siberia and South Russia, unofficial participation in blockades designed to starve out Communist held regions (and manipulating relief programs to the same end) and clandestinely using the Russian Embassy in Washington's resources to further support counter revolutionary efforts. In the reality of war in Siberia and within the limitations of domestic politics, the AEF was used as another measure in the campaign to topple the government in Moscow. Rather than the culmination of American policy in Russia, the dispatch of the American Expeditionary Force was a natural extension.

Wilson's pragmatic wait-and-see policy allowed him (and his expeditionary force) to exit Siberia when all hope of successful counterrevolution had vanished. Rather than idealistic or misguided, Wilson's Siberian policy allowed the president to cautiously play the situation with a minimum political and military cost.

The Port of Vladivostok Would Make an
Intervention Feasible

Throughout the winter and spring of 1918 Wilson, watched a succession of White leaders emerge to fight the Bolsheviks. The policy of supporting "reputable and sound elements of order" (the chief euphemism for anti-Bolshevik forces) continued in its many forms. The president was extremely cautious, however, in making any definite military commitment. He was not willing to back any horse until there was definite winner. That such a sure thing never arose during the entire period of intervention was a feature of the civil war that Wilson was to adapt to. It is clear that the president had good reasons for his caution and worked within numerous constraints. The war in Europe took precedent in any military planning. Any "line of action through Russia" against Germany was, furthermore, discounted by the Army War College. The issue, the College concluded, "will be settled on the Western Front."

Domestically, Wilson had his priorities. Always with an eye on the postwar settlement in Europe, he could not afford to alienate the Republican-controlled Congress with a dubious Russian policy. It was the Republicans, after all, who had the final say over his plans for a "new world order" represented by a League of Nations. The president had to be flexible in policy implementation despite being inflexible and deterministic in policy objectives. Any military option, if required, would therefore have to support counterrevolution whilst simultaneously appearing impartial and not bring a storm of indignation at home. The official reasons for U.S. intervention, as announced in an aide-mémoire of 17 July 1918, would, for a time, fulfill those criteria.

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