An estimated 4,500 Americans were sent to Russia to fight against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. But historian David Foglesong says these soldiers didn’t even know why they were there.
MALE SPEAKER: It was on 18 November that the snow came. In the morning, we woke to window ledges heaped white and snowflakes falling so whirling thick that it was impossible to see 10 feet ahead. The mud was gone. In a twinkling, the gloomy city became white, dazzling. In spite of revolution, all Russia plunging dizzily into the unknown and terrible future, joy swept the city with the coming of the snow.
BRIAN: That was an excerpt from Ten Days that Shook the World. John Reed died in Moscow in 1920 of typhus. He was a few days shy of his 33rd birthday.
NATHAN: Ben Whisenhunt is a historian at the College of DuPage. He is the co-editor of a forthcoming book series that highlights firsthand American accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution.
JOANNE: We were just talking about journalist John Reed. While he cheered on the overthrow of Russia’s provisional government, President Woodrow Wilson most certainly did not. To understand why, we have to go back to the spring of 1917.
BRIAN: Six weeks after Czar Nicholas II abdicated, President Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to enter World War I. President Wilson argued that the United States entry into the European war would make the world safe for democracy. And he pointed to the brand-new Russian democracy to bolster his argument.
DAVID FOGLESONG: The overthrow of the autocracy allowed Wilson to say that there were wonderful things happening in Russia. The naive Russian people in all of their majesty and might have risen up and overthrown the autocracy.
BRIAN: This is historian David Foglesong.
DAVID FOGLESONG: These czarist government, long as it stood– three centuries– long as it stood, was not really Russian. And those who know Russia best know that Russia has always been democratic at heart.
NATHAN: Or so President Wilson chose to believe. He was relieved when Russia’s provisional government continued to fight Germany in the war’s crucial Eastern Front.
JOANNE: The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were staunchly opposed to Russia’s involvement in the war. Lenin denounced it as a war for imperialism and profit. One of the first things he did after seizing power was to withdraw from the war and negotiate a separate peace with Germany. Wilson was outraged and refused to recognize Russia’s new revolutionary government.
DAVID FOGLESONG: Part of the reasoning there was that, oh, the Bolsheviks are just a handful of conspirators. They have no social base. They’re going to be overthrown soon. They’re going to be out of government. Therefore, why should we establish diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks? Instead, we’ll maintain our faith in a Russia that we want to see, a democratic Russia that is going to stay in the First World War.
JOANNE: The Wilson administration continued to support the provisional government, even after it had been overthrown. In 1918, Russia descended into a prolonged and bloody civil war. As World War I ground on, a number of countries, including Britain, France, and Japan, sent troops to support anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia.
BRIAN: Britain and France pressured the United States to do the same. They wanted American boots on the ground.
DAVID FOGLESONG: Finally, by June 1918, seven months more after the Bolshevik seizure of power, he finally agreed to send American forces into North Russia. A group of about 4,500 Americans from the Great Lakes region, they were called Detroit’s Own, the 339th Infantry Regiment.
BRIAN: How did they decide to pick people from Detroit? Just that it was cold?
DAVID FOGLESONG: Well, part of the reasoning seems to have been that there was a strong Slavic immigrant population in the Great Lakes region, in Detroit in particular, lots of Polish-Americans. And there was a sort of idea that, well, Poles, Czechs, Russians, they’re all Slavs. They would get along with one another better.
Yeah, it’s maybe not well-founded, but you know, it also applies to the expedition into Siberia, a completely separate expedition, where the idea was we would be in support of a Czechoslovakian legion that was there in Siberia. And the Czechs also would have a more brotherly relationship with the Russians, and that that would then facilitate a positive response to foreign intervention.
BRIAN: The operation, known as the Polar Bear Expedition, was a state secret. The soldiers didn’t even know that they were being sent to fight the Bolsheviks.
DAVID FOGLESONG: The Doughboys who were in the 339th Infantry Regiment thought they were going to France, to fight the Germans. In fact, they were on the Atlantic, on their way to France, when their ship was redirected. And they were outfitted in different gear, including different rifles, winter boots, to go up to the Arctic Circle, to the White Sea, and then enter Archangel.
BRIAN: Right. So since it was June or July, they must’ve been wondering about those Arctic boots to go to Paris.
DAVID FOGLESONG: Yeah. Well, yeah, one of the big tragedies is that they never really got a very clear explanation of why they were being diverted and being sent into northern Russia. And that contributed to severe problems in morale, especially after the First World War ended in November 1918. And they’re asking themselves, what are we doing here? We’re facing actual combat, not against Germans, but against a Red Army, against Bolsheviks.
And no one has given us a very clear, candid explanation of what we’re doing here. And part of the reason for that is that Wilson was reluctant to be fully honest and candid, either with the American people or with the United States Congress, about what he was attempting to do.
BRIAN: President Wilson hoped that the Americans’ involvement in Russia would be limited. The US soldiers were placed under British command.
DAVID FOGLESONG: American forces wound up being sent into combat up to about 200 miles south from Arkhangelsk, along the river and along the railroad lines leading down toward Moscow.
BRIAN: And just to be clear, they were fighting along with British troops?
DAVID FOGLESONG: British, French, some Russians, so-called White Russian, anti-Bolshevik forces who were mobilized there. Yes.
BRIAN: And did they take casualties? Did they engage with the Red Army?
DAVID FOGLESONG: Yes, there was direct combat in the winter of 1918, 1919. And hundreds of members of the 339th Infantry Regiment were killed and wounded, some 500 total casualties in the campaign.
BRIAN: Perhaps we should point the finger at Congress. Were they asleep at the switch? Did they not know what was going on? Or did they just choose to look the other way?
DAVID FOGLESONG: Well, during the war against Germany, I think many members of Congress were reluctant to raise critical questions, because of the patriotic, wartime environment, in which the Wilson administration criminalized all kinds of dissent. So in that context, I think many members of Congress who may have had questions kept them to themselves until the war against Germany ended.
And then, December 1918, January 1919, members of Congress began to speak out. Foremost among them was Senator Hiram Johnson, a Republican from California, who demanded to know, what were American soldiers doing? Not only the Polar Bears in northern Russia, but also the other forces, actually a larger group in eastern Siberia.
And Johnson was responding in part to letters and questions arising from the mothers, fathers, brothers, wives of these soldiers who were serving there, who also had no clear idea why their sons and daughters and husbands were off in Russia after the ending of the First World War.
BRIAN: What kind of answers did they get from the Wilson administration?
DAVID FOGLESONG: I think the basic answer from the Wilson administration is, we were cooperating with the British and the French, and we had to maintain that cooperation. However, the pressure was intense enough in January and February of 1919 that the Wilson administration did decide by June 1919 to pull the American forces out from northern Russia.
BRIAN: And you believe that was directly in response to pressure from parents, families, congressional pressure, like Senator Johnson?
DAVID FOGLESONG: I do think it had a significant effect. In eastern Siberia, it didn’t have a significant effect, because the soldiers there in eastern Siberia wound up staying until April 1920. But part of the reason for that is that in eastern Siberia, they weren’t fighting directly against the Red Army.
BRIAN: Not that many Americans know about this episode. I wonder how many people in the Soviet Union knew about this.
DAVID FOGLESONG: Everyone in the Soviet Union knew about this, because this became a central part of Soviet propaganda about the history of Soviet relations with the West. When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to the United States in 1959, he made a point in Hollywood of reminding Americans that your forces intervened on the side of the White Guards in the Russian Civil War, whereas we have never put forces on your soil.
So this is a central theme of Soviet propaganda, from the 1920s all the way through the Cold War. The foreign intervention in the Russian Civil War, being surrounded by hostile forces all around the periphery, that had a huge impact on Soviet perceptions and the notion that Russia, Soviet Russia, was a besieged fortress in a hostile, capitalist, imperialist world.
BRIAN: Yeah, the verb that springs to mind is encircled.
DAVID FOGLESONG: Yes, encircled, surrounded. They expected hostility from the capitalist world, but you know, before the fall of the czar, many leading Bolshevik leaders had been in the United States. And they knew that the United States had a democratic political structure. They thought of the United States as different from the other imperialist powers and didn’t expect the United States to be as hostile as it proved to be.
Especially it’s surprising because the United States refused to recognize the Soviet government all the way until 1933, long after the British and the French and the Italians and the Germans established diplomatic relations with the Soviets. So this was surprising to the Bolsheviks, the extent of American ideological antipathy to Bolshevism.
BRIAN: Are there any legacies domestically in the United States? Do we learn any lessons? Do we take away anything from this adventurism, if you will?
DAVID FOGLESONG: So in the United States, the big legacy with regard to undeclared war is that there are some key figures who are at the junior level in the United States government in 1917, 1918, 1919. Two men who would play an important role in the Cold War, that is John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State in the 1950s, Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence in the 1950s.
Both of them observed that the Wilson administration did not have a free hand in how it wanted to intervene in the Russian Civil War, that it was necessary for it to intervene in more indirect and secretive ways, could not simply send in massive military forces because of concerns about public and congressional opinion.
And so therefore, Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles realized that the United States as a democracy needed to have covert methods of intervention. And that’s a lesson that they would carry with them when they have their later, more prominent political careers in the 1950s.
JOANNE: David Foglesong is a professor of history at Rutgers University. He’s author of America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism– US Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917 to 1920.