Toward the end of 1918, infantry from the U.S. Army’s 85th Division occupied Arkhangelsk, a city in North Russia on the shore of the White Sea. They had come with other Allied troops to rescue the stranded Czechoslovakian Legion, forty thousand soldiers abandoned after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Although Josef Stalin—at that time the Commissar of Foreign Nationalities for the newly formed Soviet Russian Republic—had agreed to the evacuation, he also had demands about how it should be done, including the legionnaires’ unconditional disarmament.
Instead, the Czechs decided to stockpile weapons as they withdrew. Before long, for a variety of reasons, the ceasefire collapsed, and the Czech legionnaires began a violent, almost hallucinogenic campaign to smash through Soviet defenses on their way to the Pacific Ocean. They demolished trainyards and captured cities. They destroyed bridges, commandeered armored locomotives, and inflicted devastating losses on the Red Guard.
Every military action carried them farther from Arkhangelsk. When the Americans—nicknamed the Polar Bears—finally arrived, they discovered no one to rescue and no real mission beyond skirmishing with Bolshevik sympathizers. In Europe, the Great War was ending; in North Russia, though, a strange, confused campaign had just begun.
Meanwhile, from his station 5,297 kilometers away in Eastern Siberia, Colonel C. H. Morrow started hearing rumors about massacres against civilian targets. These atrocities endangered the stability of the region, and, fearing a disintegration of the peace he was supposed to keep, Morrow dispatched a team of investigators to determine the degree of the violence. A lieutenant from the 27th Infantry confirmed his suspicions: “A dozen corpses with their hands cut off were lying heaped in a pile half destroyed,” and their bodies were covered in saber wounds, although the men had in fact died from asphyxiation, because the cadavers had also been burned alive.
Just a few months before, at the beginning of August, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of war had summoned Major-General William S. Graves to Kansas City with new, secret orders. Instead of France, General Graves—along with Colonel Morrow and 9,012 other American soldiers—would travel from San Francisco to Siberia, and would disembark in Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai, the last stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. There, on the shores of the Golden Horn Bay, they would join an impressive coalition under the command of the French, including 107 Vietnamese, 826 British, 1,400 Italian, and 70,000 Japanese troops.
Reportedly, as he handed over the sealed envelope, the secretary of war also gave General Graves some advice: “Watch your step. You will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite.”
If he was joking, it’s unlikely that the major-general appreciated it; the fifty-three-year-old Texan was as humorless as his name suggests. During the Pacific crossing, Graves studied the president’s memorandum about the intervention, and fixated on the president’s instruction to stay out of Russia’s political affairs. He held fast to that directive, even when it seemed to contradict the Allied mission, which was to prop up a so-called “White” government as a challenge to the “Red” government installed by the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution.
In the case of the brutal attacks against residents, Colonel Morrow’s men eventually discovered that Japanese soldiers and their puppet warlords, Cossacks, were dispensing frontier justice against suspected Communists. After the collapse of the Imperial Russian government, Britain and France had argued, through their representatives on the Supreme War Council, for an Allied force that would stabilize Russia, and, in doing so, open a new Eastern Front. The Polar Bears at Arkhangelsk, General Graves and his men, and the Czech legionnaires were all part of that plan.
The Japanese, however, had a conflicting purpose. They only wanted Siberia’s resources: oil, coal, timber, minerals, and territory. To secure these things, they needed to keep Siberia in disarray until they could establish a foothold for the Empire.
The Japanese commander in the Far East—Lieutenant-General Otani Kikuso—spoke English, wore a monocle and a uniform with silver buttons, and claimed to have, as a cadet, escorted Ulysses S. Grant during the president’s 1879 tour of Japan. In late August, just before the Americans’ arrival, he posted an order saying he was “entrusted unanimously by the Allied Powers with the command of their armies,” something General Graves and the other commanders would never allow. But General Otani’s endgame wasn’t about control over the Allied forces. Instead, his directive was a gambit to force the Allied powers apart, because he knew they wouldn’t unite if they were forced to do so under a flag emblazoned with the Rising Sun.
While the Allies were distracted and divided, the Japanese pursued their true goal of imperialism. The Cossacks—many of them elite mercenaries formerly under the control of the Tsarist autocracy—provided a convenient tool for the Japanese. One of the Cossacks responsible for the attacks, an ataman named Grigory Semyonov, traveled the Siberian countryside in a concrete-reinforced train known as the Destroyer. Particularly merciless, Ataman Semyonov gradually lost control of his men, who plundered, murdered, and raped noncombatants. In surviving pictures, Semyonov looks almost comical in an oversized furry hat and handlebar mustache, but his expression is cold and ruthless. Eventually, after the Japanese withdrawal, the Red Army forced him to flee to Nagasaki in exile. After a brief stint in the U.S., where he was accused of assault against veterans of the Russian Expeditionary Corps, he returned to China, where the Soviets caught him during their 1945 invasion of Manchuria and sentenced him to death by hanging.
Eventually, America withdrew from Russian soil. Most judged the adventure a failure. General Graves bore the brunt of the blame even as the press, politicians, and historians rationalized the outcome. The public—and even some officials in the State Department—charged that he had mismanaged the military campaign in Siberia. Although he had kept to the spirit of President Wilson’s orders by not interfering in Russia’s political affairs, jingoists charged that he’d missed an opportunity to crush Bolshevism, perhaps on purpose because he harbored a secret, misguided sympathy. The FBI began to monitor him as a possible subversive. He died in 1940 at his home in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, at the age of seventy-five.
Some historians have claimed that the intervention was the first encounter in what would become the Cold War. Sentiments on both sides seem to support this. For example, in 1959, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev echoed an idea put forth the year before by George F. Kennan, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union: “We remember the grim days when American soldiers went to our soil headed by their generals to help our White Guard combat the new revolution. All the capitalist countries in Europe and America marched upon our country … never have any of our soldiers been on American soil.”
In the end, the Russian Expeditionary Force was a failure by any objective measure. By the time American troops came home in 1920, almost two years after the Germans had formally surrendered, 424 Americans had died between the two expeditionary forces. Some died from direct conflict, but many died from all manner of misfortune like accidents and exposure. It wasn’t the first time America had intervened in another country’s affairs, and it would be far from the last: in the following decades, Harry Truman would send troops to Korea, Lyndon Johnson would send troops to Vietnam, and George W. Bush would send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. But as Richard Goldhurst wrote in his book The Midnight War, “the American intervention in Russia was the first intervention in which the United States could not even pretend it had accomplished what it set out to do.”
Ben Pfeiffer is a writer and editor living just outside Kansas City. You can find him online at www.