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The Wilson administration’s war on Russian Bolshevism

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By Jeremy Kuzmarov

Return to U.S. participation in WWI
Did we declare war upon Russia
when we took a hand in the game
I know that we hopped onto Prussia
And Austria got the same.
But still I have no recollection
Of breaking with Russia, I swear
And cannot help making objection,
To having our boys over there
What quarrel have we with that nation?
Just how did it tread on our toes?  
— “What About Bringing Them Home,” poem by Michigander George Smith, 1919.[1]
“Why are you fighting us American?  We are all brothers.  We are all working men.  You American boys are shedding your blood away up here in Russia and I ask you for what reason?  My friends, and comrades, you should be back home for the war with Germany is over and you have no war with us.  The co-workers of the world are uniting against capitalism why are you being kept here, can you answer that question?  No.  We don’t want to fight you.  But we do want to fight the capitalists and your officers are capitalists.”
— Bolshevik orator in forests near Kadish in northern Russia, January 1919, site of a major battle.[2]

“The Time You Sent Troops to Quell the Revolution”

Soldiers and sailors from many countries, including the U.S., parade in front of the Allied Headquarters Building, Vladivostok, Russia, Sept. 1918 (National Archives photo)

The United States invasion of Russia remains a hidden dimension of U.S. policy in the Great War, marking the beginning of a long Cold War.  In August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice, the Wilson administration sent several platoons of U.S. soldiers into Russia to aid in the overthrow of the new Bolshevik government, which had come to power in the October Revolution of 1917.  The operation was carried out alongside British, French, Canadian and Japanese forces in support of White Army counter-revolutionaries whose generals were implicated in wide-scale atrocities, including pogroms against Jews.  This “Midnight War” was carried out illegally, without the consent of Congress.  The Commanding General in Siberia, William S. Graves thought that his mission was to protect a delegation of Czech troops and the Trans-Siberian railway and to serve as a mediator.  He was disappointed to learn that in fact the United States was enmeshed in another country’s civil war and came to oppose the whole operation.  In his memoirs, he expressed “doubt if history will record in the past century a more flagrant case of flouting the well-known and approved practice in states in their international relations, and using instead of the accepted principles of international law, the principle of might makes right.”[3]

The National World War I museum in Kansas City has only a tiny backroom display devoted to the U.S. intervention in Russia.  The display claims that American soldiers in Archangel “found themselves fighting the Bolshevik Red Guards as well as the anti-bolshevists,” which is inaccurate.  A separate discussion of Siberia claims that U.S. soldiers performed guard duty and protected the railways from Bolshevik forces and that they “followed Wilson’s policy of non-aggression closely, only fighting small-scale but fierce actions when provoked, resulting in 170 American dead.”[4]  These comments do not properly capture the nature of the war, with no mention at all of the legion of atrocities that were committed or General Graves’ dissent.

In his classic two-volume history of the Cold War, Denna Frank Fleming wrote:

For the American people, the cosmic tragedy of the intervention in Russia does not exist, or it was an unimportant incident, long forgotten.  But for the Soviet people and their leaders the period was a time of endless killing, of looting and raping, of plague and famine, of measureless suffering for scores of millions – an experience burned into the very soul of the nation, not to be forgotten for many generations if ever.  Also, for many years, the harsh Soviet regimentation could all be justified by fear that the Capitalist power would be back to finish the job.  It is not strange that in an address in New York, September 17, 1959, Premier Khrushchev should remind us of the interventions, “the time you sent the troops to quell the revolution,” as he put it.[5]

These comments suggest that the U.S. invasion carried out at the end of World War I helped poison U.S.-Russian/Soviet relations and contributed significantly to the outbreak of Cold War hostilities.  It is thus another manifestation of the folly of American intervention in the Great War, since without a U.S. troop presence in Europe, the invasion of Russia would have been impossible.

U.S. intervention in Russia

The Bolshevik drive to nationalize industry and seize foreign assets was ideologically and economically anathema to the United States, which in 1917 held investments of over $658.9 million in the country, up from $26.5 million in 1913.  Historian William Appleman Williams noted that almost all products of American industry were sold in Russia.  Baldwin locomotives and U.S. Steel made the Trans-Siberian railway and Chinese eastern railways “in all [their] essentials.”  The House of J. P. Morgan had given “great impetus to the rise of direct investments” after helping set up the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce in 1916.  International Harvester, which controlled the Russian market for agricultural machinery, even requested through the U.S. ambassador for the intervention of the Tsarist government to break a strike.  On the eve of the revolution, Dean E. F Gray of the Harvard Business School considered “Russia an inviting field for American business enterprise,” which the Bolshevik takeover threatened.[6]
The Russian revolution unfolded in two phases. In February 1917, the Tsar was overthrown and Aleksander Kerensky established a liberal provisional revolutionary government.  It was deeply unpopular because Kerensky kept Russian forces fighting in the Great War on the side of the Allies when they had begun to mutiny, and refused to meet the demand for land and wealth redistribution.  Following a counter-revolutionary putsch by Lavr Kornilov, whom the New York Times heralded as “the strong man who would deliver Russia from her tribulations,” the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace in November 1917 led by Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, who envisioned the creation of a classless utopian society.[7]
Horrified by the Bolsheviks, American liberals, as Christopher Lasch detailed in The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (1962), were enthusiastic about Kerensky’s bourgeois revolution because it removed a symbol of Russia’s political backwardness and chief stumbling block to America’s effective participation in the Great War on the side of the Allies. The February revolution, Lasch notes, “purified the allied cause,” enabling its supporters to conceive of it better without reservations as a “conflict between the principle of democracy and the principle of autocracy,” as The Springfield Republic declared.[8]
To keep Russia in the war, the Wilson administration extended tens of millions in credits for armaments and military supplies to Kerensky’s government, with J.P. Morgan also raising money in direct support of his cause.  The influential diplomat George Kennan Sr., author of an exposé of the Tsarist criminal justice system that depicted Russia in the darkest of possible light, lost patience with Kerensky because of his unwillingness to undertake a thorough purge of the opposition.  Kennan hoped for the emergence of a “strong man” who would forcibly suppress every trace of radicalism in Russia.  He lamented the Bolsheviks’ strong urge for peace, fearing they would use their popularity in ending the war to proceed with their “crazy plan” for “turning Russia upside down with the proletariat on top.”[9]
Secretary of State Robert Lansing, a corporate lawyer married to the daughter of Secretary of State John Foster (making him the uncle of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles) was similarly skeptical of Kerensky, not because he was “incompetent, inefficient and worthless,” as British General Alfred Knox considered him, or failed to “reach down roots into the life of Russia,” as Raymond Robins, director of a Red Cross mission, recognized, but because he “compromised too much with the radical element of the revolution.”  Like Kennan Sr., Lansing considered Bolshevism a “despotism of ignorance” that is born of the mob, a menace that could trigger social unrest “throughout the world.”  Lansing asked rhetorically, “because wealth unavoidably gravitates toward men who are intellectually superior and more ready to grasp opportunities than their fellows, is that a reason for taking it away from them or for forcing them to divide with the improvident, the mentally inferior and the indolent?”[10]
Lansing’s viewpoint reflected an ingrained class prejudice among America’s foreign policy elite driving conservative, anti-radical policies.  Charles S. Crane, another influential adviser to President Wilson who later urged FDR to support Nazi Germany as a “bulwark of Christian culture,” spoke of the “futility of revolution as a means of progressing and the fearful disaster that may overtake a state and all of its citizens if it does not progress in orderly fashion.”[11]

Parents and friends of U.S. soldiers sent to Russia circulated a petition in early 1919 declaring that the U.S. expedition could not be justified on military or humanitarian grounds (Bentley Historical Library, Univ. of Michigan)

The Wilson administration initially justified sending troops from the European theatre of the First World War into Russia as an extension of the war against Germany.  Edgar Sisson, the Petrograd representative of the Committee on Public Information, a propaganda agency set up to promote U.S. involvement in the war, produced a series of 68 documents purporting to prove that Lenin and Trotsky were German agents.  Later, however, these were proven to have been a fabrication.  When the U.S. Senate issued a resolution on June 23, 1919, requesting Wilson to inform them of the reasons for sending U.S. troops to and maintaining them in Siberia, Wilson responded that the purpose was to “save Czech armies which were threatened with destruction by hostile armies” protect the Trans-Siberian railway, and to “steady any efforts of the Russians self- defense” and promote “law and order.”[12]  Wilson, as we now know, was lying as he was covertly supporting White generals while U.S. soldiers were involved in counter-revolutionary operations.[13]

When the Bolsheviks withdrew from the war, the military campaigns continued with backing from prominent intellectuals, moderate labor leaders like Samuel Gompers who considered the Bolsheviks to have “used every means to throttle freedom by joining Germany in its efforts to enslave the world,” and business executives like R.D. McCarter, president of Westinghouse and an associate of future president Herbert Hoover who considered armed intervention “absolutely necessary… as a prerequisite for building grain elevators…refrigerator plants and cars…railway improvements and new railways.”[14]
Raymond Robins, chairman of the Progressive Party Convention in 1916, became a dissenting voice urging accommodation alongside William Boyce Thompson, the head of a Red Cross mission who argued that the Bolsheviks “expressed sentiments that are common to ninety percent of the population of Russia.”  State Department envoys William Bullitt and William Buckler reported to President Wilson the Soviets’ willingness to compromise on foreign debt and protection of existing enterprise and to offer amnesty to Whites (counterrevolutionaries) and cease foreign propaganda if peace were to be secured.  Recognizing that “revolutions never go backward,” Robins proposed an economic program designed to tie the Soviet economy to that of the U.S., persuading Lenin to exempt the International Harvester Company, Singer Sewing Machine Company, and Westinghouse Brake Company from his nationalization decree.  For these efforts, he was recalled and shadowed by agents of the new Federal Bureau of Investigation, a victim of the mounting anticommunist hysteria of the first Red Scare.[15]
Robins nevertheless influenced congressional anti-imperialists like Senators William Borah (R-ID), Robert LaFollette (R-WI), and Hiram Johnson (R-CA).  Johnson wondered whether in attempting to destroy Bolshevism, the Wilson administration was bent on putting “the Romanovs [back] on the throne?  Do we seek a dictator for this starved land?” he asked.  “I warn you of the policy, which God forbid this nation should ever enter upon, of endeavoring to impose by military force upon the various peoples of the earth the kind of government we desire for them and they do not desire for themselves.”[16]
At one point, President Wilson had acknowledged that the October revolution was a “desperate attempt on the part of the dispossessed to share in the bounty of industrial civilization” and that the Russian people had grown impatient with the slow pace of reform, though he fretted about the revolutionary effort to “make the ignorant and incapable mass dominant in the world.”  The only remedy for “class despotism in Petrograd,” as Wilson and Lansing saw it, was for a “strong commanding personality to arise … and gather a disciplined military force [capable of] restoring order and maintaining a new government.”[17]

The White counterrevolution

Great hope in fulfilling this role was placed with the Admiral Aleksandr Vasilevich Kolchak, a famed Arctic explorer and commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet who was known for a rash temper that often led him “beyond the limits of the law.”  James Landfield of the State Department was among those “greatly heartened” by the November 1918 coup Kolchak launched, with British backing, in Omsk, Siberia, believing that at last real military power might emerge in Russia that could “restore orderly existence.”[18]  Wilds P. Richardson, commander in Northern Russia, claimed that “the Russian mind generally speaking [was] several hundred years behind the mind of Western Europe and the United States in the matter of free or democratic government and that [it would] take some generations to develop it.”[19]
Declaring himself “Supreme Ruler of Russia,” Kolchak received thousands of machine guns, hand grenades, and explosives from the allied stock.  His cause was championed by, among others, Winston Churchill, the New York Times, the U.S. Consul General in Irkutsk, and J.P. Morgan.[20]  The Omsk group, however, represented the “minority and ancient imperialists who were obstinately impervious to the new Russia flaming in revolution against age long abuses and tyrannies,” as a lieutenant in the 339th Infantry put it.  According to Gen. Graves, “Kolchak did not possess sufficient strength to exercise sovereign powers without the support of foreign troops.”[21]  His generals included a Baron (Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg) who claimed to be a descendent of Attila the Hun.[22]
The American ambassador to Japan, Rowland Morris, reported that all over Siberia under Kolchak’s rule, there was an “orgy of arrests without charges; of executions without even the pretense of a trial; and of confiscations without the color of authority.  Panic and fear has seized everyone.  Men support each other and live in constant terror that some spy or enemy will cry ‘Bolshevik’ and condemn them to instant death.”  Among those killed were former members of the constituent assembly, and railroad workers who had struck for higher wages.  In Ekaterinburg, where the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and his family, Kolchak allowed Cossacks to massacre at least two thousand Jews, part of a larger wave of pogroms.[23]
Unconcerned about these atrocities, President Wilson set up a “little war board” to expedite arms shipments to Admiral Kolchak.  He provided an estimated $50 million in military support through Kerensky’s former ambassador to the United States, Boris Bakhmetev, who controlled over $200 million in assets.  Since he was using the Russian embassy as a channel for aid, Wilson did not have to request funds from Congress, and could keep it hidden from the press and the American people.  Historian Robert Maddox wrote that “by conserving and augmenting the embassy’s resources, the Wilson administration established what amounted to an independent treasury for use in Russia … [which was] immune from prying congressman.  The ambassador of the Russian people had now become the quartermaster for the Kolchak regime.”[24]  In short, the “Midnight War” was waged by executive power – setting an early precedent for today’s imperial presidency.
To keep the Bolsheviks at bay, the State Department established an intelligence apparatus, headed by an American businessman of Greek-Russian extraction, Xenophon Kalamitiano, which infiltrated Soviet controlled territory and promoted anti-Bolshevik propaganda.  Under Herbert Hoover, the head of the American Relief Administration (ARA), who had liquidated his business holdings in Russia just before the revolution, humanitarian aid was positioned to assist the anti-Bolshevik cause.[25]
The intervention in Russia was formative in the development of covert action.  Two major figures in the history of American intelligence, “Wild” Bill Donovan, a Wall Street lawyer and future director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and John Foster Dulles, whose brother Allen later headed the Central Intelligence Agency, served as military intelligence officers, with Donovan undertaking undisclosed missions in Siberia.  He concluded that the “time for intervention had past [as] we were a year too late,” though “we [could] prevent a shooting war [next time] if we take the initiative to win the subversive war.”[26]
One of Donovan’s colleagues, Major David P. Barrows, who went on to become president of the University of California, cultivated close relations with a Manchurian detachment headed by Cossack Ataman Gregori Semonoff, who, according to Barrows, “was capable of great severity” towards the Bolsheviks, whom he had “devoted his life to destroying.”[27]  A decorated veteran of the Tsarist and Kerensky armies nicknamed “the Destroyer,” Semonoff allegedly set up “killing stations,” boasting that he could not sleep at night if he did not kill somebody that day.  In Trans-Baikal, according to Graves, his men shot the men, women, and children of an entire village as if they were hunting rabbits.  U.S. Army intelligence estimated that Semonoff was responsible for 30,000 executions in one year, which earned him promotion by Kolchak to the rank of Major General.[28]
Another Kolchak deputy, Ataman Ivan Kalmykoff, roamed the Amur territory robbing, burning, raping, and executing hundreds of Russian peasants without trial, including two Red Cross representatives and sixteen Austrian musicians who allegedly housed a Bolshevik one night.  Lt. Colonel Robert Eichelberger said Kalmykoff’s “actions would have been considered shameful in the middle ages.”[29]  Gen. Graves referred to Kalmykoff as a “notorious murderer” and “the worst scoundrel” he had ever seen.  He compared him unfavorably with Semonoff since he “murdered with his own hands,” while Semonoff “ordered others to kill.”[30]  Third on the brutality scale was General S. N Rozanoff, who would execute the male population and burn down villages that resisted Kolchak incursions.[31]

Major General William Graves (center) and staff In Russia, circa 1918 (National Archives photo)

Congressional hearings in early 1919 ignored the White terror, which Gen. Graves predicted would “be remembered by, and recounted to, the Russian people for [the next] fifty years.”  Instead, the Congressional hearings depicted “Soviet Russia as a kind of bedlam inhabited by abject slaves completely at the mercy of an organization of homicidal maniacs [the Bolsheviks] whose purpose was to destroy all traces of civilization and carry the nation back to barbarism,” as historian Frederik Schuman summarized.  Drawing on these hearings, the press became filled with screaming headlines, claiming the Bolsheviks had even nationalized women.  Graves, however, wrote in his memoirs that he was “well on the side of safety” in saying that “the anti-Bolsheviks killed 100 people in Eastern Siberia to every one killed by the Bolsheviks.”[32]

A Texan with experience fighting in the Philippines and with the Pershing mission in Mexico, Graves had gone into Siberia believing his mission was to uphold Soviet Russia’s neutrality and protect the Trans-Siberian railway.  He became disheartened at how America’s allies applied the word “Bolshevik” to “most of the Russian people,” including peasants opposed to the Kolchak coup who were “kicked, beaten and murdered in cold blood by the thousands.”  This damaged the prestige of the “foreigner intervening” while serving as a “great handicap to the faction the foreigner was trying to assist.”[33]  Turning against the war, Graves was hounded by the Bureau of Investigation as a security risk when he came back.  According to historian Benson Bobrick, “in the whole sad debacle, he may have been the only honorable man.”[34]
Graves had conducted an investigation which found that Kolchak would force young men into the army and if any resisted, would send troops into their village to torture men beyond military age through methods like cutting out their finger nails, knocking out their teeth or breaking their legs and then murder them.[35]  Ralph Albertson, the YMCA Secretary with the Army in Archangel said that wide-scale executions by Kolchak’s forces created “Bolsheviks right and left…. When night after night, the firing squad took out its batches of victims, it mattered not that no civilians were permitted on the streets as thousands of listening ears [could] hear the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns, and every victim had friends who were rapidly made enemies of the military intervention.”[36]
Albertson wrote that, while he had heard many stories of alleged Bolshevik atrocities that told of rape, torture and the murder of priests, the only Bolshevik atrocity about which he had any authentic information through the entire expedition was “the mutilation of the bodies of some of our men who had been killed in the early days of Ust-Padenga [where an entire U.S. platoon was wiped out].”  American prisoners of war were well treated and released with the exception of two men who died in a Soviet hospital.  Sgt. Glenn Leitzell described how he was allowed to walk around the nearest city dressed in Russian overcoats and fur caps and encouraged to attend a club where he was “harangued in English on Marxist doctrine and the evils of capitalism” and then rewarded with plates of hot soups and horsemeat steak.”[37]

Allied atrocities

Referring to them as “John bolo” or “bolos,” a euphemism for wild men, American and British troops pioneered the use of nerve gases designed to incapacitate and demoralize the Red Army, and, according to Albertson, “fixed all the devil traps we could think of for them when we evacuated villages.”  He noted that we “shot more than thirty prisoners in our determination to punish these murderers.  And when we caught the Commissioner of Borok, a Sargent tells me, we left his body in the street, stripped with sixteen bayonet wounds.”[38]

A U.S. lieutenant mans a machine gun in northern Russia (photo by John Wilson, Bentley Historical Library)

According to Lt. John Cuhady, American soldiers let loose their firepower upon the “massed Bolsheviks, felling them like cattle in a slaughter pen.”  On the day of the World War I armistice, Toulgas on the Northern Dvina river where Leon Trotsky led the Bolshevik defense was turned into a “smoking, dirty smudge upon the plain,” as Capt. Joel Moore, Lt. Harry Meade and Lt. Lewis H. Jahns described it in an eyewitness account.

Given three hours to vacate, the authors describe a “pitiful sight” in which the inhabitants of Toulgas turned “out of the dwellings where most had spent their whole simple, not unhappy lives, their meagre possessions scattered awry on the grounds.”  With their houses engulfed by roaring flames, “the women sat upon hand-fashioned crates wherein were all their most prized household goods, and abandoned themselves to a paroxysm of weeping despair, while the children shrieked stridently, victim of all the realistic horrors that only childhood can conjure.”  Sad as the situation was, the authors wrote, when “we thought of the brave chaps whose lives had been taken from those flaming homes, for our casualties had been very heavy, nearly one hundred men killed and wounded, we stifled our compassion and looked on the blazing scene as a jubilant bonfire.”[39]
Such dehumanization in war and desire for revenge would go on to spawn the ‘atrocity producing environment” that characterized the War in Vietnam and other Cold War conflicts.[40]  Moore, Meade and Jahns’ history spotlights the “enormous” and “terrific” Red Army losses under bursts of “murderous” shelling and “dreadful trench mortars” that could shower the enemy at eight hundred yards with a “new kind of hell.”  The British contingent had many First World War vets who had been gassed or wounded and were prone to “homicidal excesses” along with the Japanese.[41]  A Canadian platoon from rural Saskatchewan included “unpremeditated murderers who had learned well the nice lessons of war and looked upon killing as the climax of a day’s adventure.”  They committed gratuitous acts with Americans such as closing a school for the storage of whiskey, and threw peasants out of their homes, looted personal property, stole rubles from dead Bolsheviks, and ransacked churches.[42]
British General Edmund Ironside said he was “overpowered by the smell” upon visiting the Archangel prison; suspected Bolsheviks were crowded into dank cells sometimes sixty to a room, with the windows sealed and baths closed.[43]  Ralph Albertson concluded that the “spoliation of scores of Russian villages and thousands of little farms and the utter disorganization of the life and industry of a great section of the country with the attendant wanderings and sufferings of thousands of peasant folk who had lost everything but life, was but the natural and necessary results of an especially weak and unsuccessful military operation such as this one was.”[44]
In Southern Soviet Russia, the British deployed tanks and bombed enemy transport vehicles, bridges, towns, and villages; for the first time, they deployed gas bombs that caused respiratory illnesses (one victim had his eyes and mouth turn yellow and then died).  The British were supporting viciously anti-Semitic Whites under the command of General Anton Denikin.  Winston Churchill, then a minister in Lloyd George’s government, urged Denikin to prevent the massacre of Jews in “liberated” districts not out of concern for the Jews but because they were powerful in England and could impinge on his political career.  He stated in 1953 that the day would yet come when “it will be recognized… throughout the civilized world that the strangling of bolshevism at birth would have been an untold blessing to the human race.”[45]
Historian John T. Smith reports on the bombing of Grozny on February 5, 1919, with incendiaries that ignited a large fire.  He later discusses the RAF’s bombing of Tsaritsyn (Stalingrad) on the Volga, which had been defended by a Soviet committee led by the future dictator Joseph Stalin and Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Deputy Supreme Commander during the Second World War.  Allegedly a DH9 airplane dropped a huge missile on a building where eighty Soviet commissars were meeting, all of whom were killed.[46]  Such incidents would remain seared in the minds of Soviet leaders, shaping a deep distrust for the West as the Cold War developed.
Coming mostly from Michigan (“Detroit’s Own”) and rural Wisconsin, American soldiers had to fight in frigid temperatures (40 below zero) without proper clothing or boots and against a motivated and disciplined enemy that adopted effective camouflages in the snow.  Over four hundred “doughboys” died, hundreds more were wounded, and one committed suicide.  The Americans were disdainful mostly of Soviet society and culture.  They considered Soviet Russia a “great international dump” and “land of infernal order…and national smell.”  One wrote that he would “rather be quartered in hell.”[47]
Tommy Thompson told a reporter in the 1950s that he remembered Siberia as a cold and dirty place where he did not know who to trust.[48]  Lt. Col. Charles Payne referred to Archangel as “the most god forsaken hole on Earth. People are filthy and seemed starved to death.”  Capt. Joel Moore stated that “every peasant could be a Bolshevik. Who knew?  In fact, we had reason to believe that many of them were Bolshevik in sympathy.”[49]  Lt. Montgomery Rice pointed out that the Bolsheviks were “inspired men even if their rifles were foul with rust, their clothing worn to rags, their bodies sour with filth, or their cheeks sunken from malnutrition.”  Silver Parrish who had worked in the Ohio coal mines and as a dye setter in Detroit, wrote in his diary that he could not understand why the Americans were “fighting men of Russia plucked from their own coal mines and factories…. The majority of the people here are in sympathy with the Bolos and I don’t blame them.”[50]
Fighting with U.S. munitions captured from the Tsar’s armies, the Bolsheviks adopted guerrilla methods centered on disrupting the local infrastructure and cultivating popular support in villages, from which guerrillas could carry out ambushes and sneak attacks on invading forces at night.[51]  According to Moore, the bolsheviks were assisted by “a system of espionage of which we could never hope to cope.”[52]
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” sung by U.S. troops, adapted to the Russian conflict, made a joke of the quagmire:  “We came from Vladivostok, to catch the Bolshevik.  We chased them o’er the mountains and we chased them through the creek.  We chased them every Sunday and we chased them through the week.  But we couldn’t catch a gosh darn one.”  The song continued:  “The bullets, may whistle, the cannons may roar, don’t want to go to the trenches no more.  Take me over the sea, where the Bolsheviks can’t get me.  Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.”[53]    

Another poem “In Russia’s Fields” was modeled after the famous First World War poem “Flanders Field.” It read:

In Russia’s fields, no poppies grow, There are no crosses row on row, To mark the places where we lie, No larks so grayly singing fly, As in the fields of Flanders…We are the dead.  Not long ago, we fought beside you in the snow, and gave our lives, and here we lie, though scarcely knowing reason why, like those who died in Flanders.”[54]

At least fifty American soldiers deserted, including Anton Karachun, a coal miner originally from Minsk who had emigrated to the U.S. and took up a post with the Red Army in Sunchon.[55]  A Judge Advocate General report cited by Albertson specified that an unusually large number American soldiers were convicted by court-martial of having been guilty of self-inflicted wounds.  Private Bill Henkelman, who painted car bodies at Detroit’s American auto trimming company before being drafted into the army, was court-martialed and charged with treason after issuing an ultimatum to his regimental commander for withdrawal.  At his trial, he ripped open his shirt to show lice, dirt and that he was half-starved, and stated to the brass “none of you have lice or go hungry.”[56]

Lieutenant John Cudahy of the 339th regiment noted:  “war shears from a people much that is gross in nature, as the merciless test of war exposes naked, virtues and weaknesses alike.  But the American war with Russia had no idealism.  It was not a war at all.  It was a freebooter’s excursion, depraved and lawless.  A felonious undertaking for it had not the sanction of the American people.”[57]

The Grand Rapids Herald reported on the U.S. mutiny, April 12, 1919 (Bentley Historical Library)

In February 1919, the British 13th Yorkshire regiment under a Colonel Lavoi refused orders to fight, which inspired mutiny in in a French company in Archangel.  On March 30th, Company I in the 339th American infantry followed suit in refusing orders – asserting they had accomplished their mission defeating Germany and were now “interfering in the affairs of the Russian people with whom we have no quarrel.” A truce directed to the Bolsheviks read:  “We are combating you and fighting you only to stay alive. We support your desire to give up the crown and throw the tsarism down to the ground and we are ready to help you because its good for the working people.”[58]

Colonel George Stewart allegedly told his men in response to the rebellion that he had “never been supplied with an answer as to why they were there himself, but that the Reds were trying to push them into the Black Sea and that they were hence fighting for their lives.”[59]  Though apparently satisfying, these remarks ran counter to the lies of the Wilson administration that the U.S. was only in Soviet Russia for defensive purposes and to safeguard war material and property.
Peter Kropotkin, the celebrated Russian writer, told a British labor delegation that progressive elements in the “civilized nations” should “bring an end to support given to the adversaries of the revolution” and refuse to continue playing the “shameful role to which England, Prussia, Austria and Russia sank during the Russian revolution.”  Kropotkin was an anarchist opposed to the Soviets undermining worker and peasant councils that initially supported the revolution, but he noted that “all armed intervention by a foreign power necessarily results in an increase in the dictatorial tendencies of the rulers…. [T]he natural evils of state communism have been multiplied tenfold under the pretext that the distress of our existence is due to the intervention of foreigners.”[60]
In the U.S., critics of the intervention were prosecuted under Alien and Sedition Acts passed under the Wilson administration that made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the U.S. form of government, constitution, military or naval force or flag.”  Radical journalist John Reed and New York State Assemblyman Abraham Shiplacoff (the “Jewish Eugene V. Debs”), who said American troops were perceived by Russians as “hired murderers, the Hessians,” were among those jailed.  Others targeted were six Socialist-anarchist activists—Jacob Abrams, Jacob Schwartz, Hyman Rosansky, Samuel Lipman, Mollie Steimer, and Hyman Lachowsky—who were beaten, imprisoned, and deported for distributing antiwar leaflets condemning Wilson’s hypocrisy and urging strikes in munitions plants.  The Supreme Court upheld the ruling supporting their deportation.[61]  Their case shows how intervention in Soviet Russia not only helped sow conflict abroad, but also resulted in the suppression of domestic civil liberties in a pattern that would extend through the Cold War.

Selective memory

It is ironic that we in the United States have always been led to fear a Russian invasion when Americans were in fact the original invaders – something the Russians have never forgotten.  In May 1972 on a visit to the Soviet Union promoting détente, President Richard Nixon boasted to his hosts about having never fought one another in a war, a line repeated by Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union address.  A New York Times poll the next year found that only 14 percent of Americans said they were aware that in 1918 the U.S. had landed troops in northern and eastern Soviet Russia, a figure probably even lower today.[62]
James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong found that none of twelve high school history textbooks he surveyed mentioned the “Midnight War.”  In two cases, the U.S. troop presence in Russia was mentioned but as part of U.S. strategy in the First World War and not as an effort to roll-back the Russian revolution.[63]

Deeper public awareness of history in the United States might force us to rethink the direction of our policies and the current slide towards renewed confrontation with Russia, and could enable us to see the world from its perspective, potentially opening possibilities for engagement.  During the Second World War conferences, Stalin is said to have referred to the Wilson administration’s intervention.[64]  His policies were not consequently based on paranoia, but a real security threat.  George F. Kennan, the father of the containment doctrine, was one of the few policy-makers to acknowledge the importance of the “Midnight War,” though after he had been removed from any position of power.  In 1960, Kennan wrote:

Until I read the accounts of what transpired during these episodes, I never fully realized the reasons for the contempt and resentment borne by the early Bolsheviki towards the Western powers.  Never surely have countries contrived to show themselves so much at their worst as did the allies in Russia from 1917-1920.  Among other things, their efforts served everywhere to compromise the enemies of the Bolsheviki and to strengthen the communists themselves [thus] aiding the Bolsheviks progress to power. Wilson said, “I cannot but feel that bolshevism would have burned out long ago if let alone.”[65]

These latter comments remain debatable; however, it is clear that after sending troops to quell the revolution, Soviets would never again trust the U.S., predominantly for good reason.  The intervention in Russia overall was another disastrous policy implemented by the liberal standard-bearer that lay bare once again the illusion that war could be “molded” and “controlled” to achieve a liberal purpose.

Cite this article:

Bibliography:  Kuzmarov, Jeremy.  “The Wilson Administration’s War on Russian Bolshevism.”  United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2018,
Footnotes or endnotes:  Jeremy Kuzmarov, “The Wilson Administration’s War on Russian Bolshevism,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2018,


[1] In Godfrey J. Anderson, A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks: A War Memoir, edited and with an introduction by Gordon L. Olson (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2010), 180-181.

[2] Harry J. Costello, Why Did We Go to Russia? (Detroit, MI: Harry J. Costello Publishing, 1920), 39.

[3] William S. Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure 1918-1920 (New York: Peter Smith, 1941), 348.  Haiti is another good example of the strong trampling the weak under the rubric of Wilsonian idealism.  See Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1971).

[4] National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

[5] D. F. Fleming, “The Western Intervention in the Soviet Union, 1918-1920,” New World Review, Fall 1967; D. F. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins, 1917-1960, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1960); William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1998), 8.

[6] William Appleman Williams, American Russian Relations 1781-1947 (New York: Rinehart., 1952), 52, 83, 84, 85.

[7] See John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, with an introduction by Granville Hicks (New York: New American Library, 1967); New York Times quoted in Christopher Lasch, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 54.

[8] Lasch, The American Liberals, 28, 29.

[9] Williams, American Russian Relations, 85; Richard Goldhurst, The Midnight War: The American Intervention in Russia, 1918-1920 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1978), 114.  For Kennan’s views on Russia, see David C. Engerman, Modernization from the Other Shore: American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 74.

[10] Lasch, The American Liberals, 130; Williams, 93. Lansing was staunchly pro-imperialist, believing it was “utterly untenable to hold that either Ireland or India should break away from the British empire.”

[11] Lasch, The American Liberals, 131.

[12] “Message of the U.S. President of the United States in Response to a Resolution of the Senate agreed to June 23, 1919 – Inform the Senate of the Reasons for Sending U.S. soldiers to and maintain them in Siberia,” White House, July 22, 1919, M917, Military Intelligence Division, Roll 1, RG 395, American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia, National Archives, College Park Maryland.

[13] Summary of the Staff of the Commander-in chief of the Russian Allied Armies Operating Against the Bolsheviks, October 27, 1918, RG 395, U.S. Army Overseas Operations, Historical Files of the Expeditionary Forces in Siberia, 1918-1920, M917, National Archives, College Park Maryland.

[14] Williams, American Russian Relations, 85, 150; Evans Clark, Facts and Fabrications About Soviet Russia (New York: The Rand School of Social Sciences, 1920), 21, 22, quoting Gompers and a letter of notables supporting military intervention.

[15] Williams, American Russian Relations, 98, 123; Carl J. Richard, When the United States Invaded Russia: Woodrow Wilson’s Siberian Disaster (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012); David Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 98, 99.

[16] Richard, When the United States Invaded Russia, 67.

[17] Williams, American Russian Relations, 116.

[18] Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, “A Test of the News” New Republic, August 4, 1920, 19, 20; Williams, American Russian Relations, 116; Lasch, The American Liberals, 160; George Stewart, The White Armies of Russia: A Chronicle of Counter-Revolution and Allied Intervention (New York: The McMillan Company, 1933), 241-242.

[19] “The Report of General Wilds P. Richardson,” in Detroit’s Polar Bears: The American Russian Expeditionary Forces, 1918-1919 (Frankenmuth, MI: Polar Bear Publishing Company, 1985), 12-13.  Richardson compared the Russian mind to the “Oriental mind” which explained “why Russians are discontented with the democracy they find in the United States.”

[20] Williams, American Russian Relations, 171; Clifford Kinvig, Churchill’s Crusade: The British Invasion of Russia, 1918-1920 (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

[21] John Cudahy, Archangel: The American War with Russia (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1924), 64; Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, xxi.  Arthur Bullard of the State Department advised Colonel House that Kolchak was “surrounded and dependent on the support of reactionary elements” whose principle of government was the “reconquest of former grafts.”

[22] Stewart, The White Armies, 301.

[23] Goldhurst, The Midnight War, 153; Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, 227, 236, 265-266; Stewart, The White Armies, 180; Col. John Hall, With the Die Hards in Siberia (London: 1920). Exemplifying his anti-Semitism, Kolchak claimed 60 liaison officers and translators with the American embassy were Jews and had influenced American policy.

[24] Goldhurst, The Midnight War, 192-195; Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism, 70, 71; Robert J. Maddox, The Unknown war with Russia: Wilson’s Siberian Intervention (San Rafel, CA: Presidio Press, 1977), 83. The “little” war board was headed by Bernard Baruch of the War Industries Board, Vance C. McCormack, head of the War Trade Board, and Edward N. Hurley, chairman of the U.S. Shipping board.

[25] David Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 108, 114, 231-232.  Hoover was Chairman of the Board and Joint Manager of a Zinc Corporation in Russia. See Gerry Docherty and Jim McGregor, Prolonging the Agony: How the Anglo-American Establishment Deliberately Extended World War I by Three and a Half Years (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2018).

[26] Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism, 127.  Capt. John A. Gade, a naval intelligence officer who proposed the blueprint for the OSS, went on a secret mission to organize anti-Bolshevik governments in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

[27] Gibson Bell-Smith, “Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks: The U.S. Army in Russia, 1918-1920,” Prologue Magazine, National Archives, 34, 4, Winter 2002,

[28] Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, 241, 246; Richard, When the United States Invaded Russia, 89-94; Goldhurst, The Midnight War, 80; Jamie Bisher, White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian (New York: Routledge, 2006). After the war, Semonoff took refuge in Manchuria where he became a kingpin of in one of the century’s most diabolical criminal enterprises, the extortion, prostitution and narcotics syndicate run by Japanese intelligence and the Kwantung army, which paved the way for the Japanese invasion and enslavement of Manchuria.

[29] Richard, When the United States Invaded Russia, 91; Bisher, White Terror, 100, 101. At one point, Kalmykoff, who earned the nickname “Ataboy kill ‘em off” bombed a schoolhouse, leaving a member of the U.S. 27th regiment to carry what was left of the schoolchildren away in a coffee sack to bury them. Stewart, The White Armies, 314. Historian D. W Fleming referred to the white reign of terror as among the worst mass killings the world had ever seen, eclipsed only later by the Nazi holocaust.

[30] Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, 90.

[31] Ibid., 214-215; Goldhurst, The Midnight War, 237.

[32] Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, 108; Clark, 16. Some of the headlines included: “Red Agitators from the city potent in Russia—Atrocities to Young Girls”; “Describe horrors Under Red Rule – R.E. Simmons and W.W. Welsh Tell Senators of Brutalities of Bolsheviki – Strip Women in the Streets”; “People of every class except the scum subject to violence by mob”; “Senators hear Breshkovskaya ‘grandmother of the revolution’ sure Lenin and Trotsky are German agents – sees Russia in utter ruin – Moscow looted by Reds.”  Hearings were held in the House of Representatives, Committee on Military Affairs, American Troops in Siberia, Hearings on H Con. Res. 30 Making Rules to Return All American Soldiers from Countries with Which We Are at Peace,” 66th Congress, 1st session, 1919 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919).

[33] Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, xiii, 101.

[34] Robert L. Willett, Russian Sideshow: America’s Undeclared War, 1918-1920 (Washington, D.C.: Potomoc Books, 2003), 268; Benson Bobrick, East of the Sun: The Conquest and Settlement of Siberia (London: Heinemann, 1992), 398.

[35] Guy Murchie Jr. “AEF’s Strange Adventure,” The Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1939, 4 in World War I Museum Archive, Kansas City Missouri, Russia collection. After the war, Kolchak tried to escape with $300 million of the Imperial Treasury and Gold, though was captured by the Bolsheviks and executed.

[36] Ralph Albertson, Fighting Without a War: An Account of Military Intervention in North Russia (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920), 71.

[37] E.M Halliday, The Ignorant Armies, foreword by S.L.A. Marshall (New York: Award Books, 1964), 159. The book was reprinted as When Hell Froze Over (New York: I Books, 2000, reprint 1958).

[38] Albertson, Fighting Without a War, 85-88; Goldhurst, The Midnight War, 94, 225. The term bolos foreshadowed the use of the term gooks in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

[39] Capt. Joel H. Moore, Lieut. Harry H. Mead, Lieut. Lewis E. Jahns, The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki: Campaigning in North Russia 1918-1919 (Nashville: The Battery Press, 2003, orig. 1920), 109; Cuhady, 142, 153. Silver Parrish wrote that he took sixteen enemy prisoners and killed two, then his men “burned the village [Toulgas] and my heart ached to have the women fall down at my feet and grab my legs to kiss my hand and beg me not to do it. But orders are orders—and I was in command of the fifteen men who went across that field so I done my duties.” Willett, Russian Sideshow, 86.

[40] The term atrocity producing environment is used by Robert Jay Lifton in Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans Neither Victims nor Executioners (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), a case that has parallels to Russia as the U.S. was in both cases fighting popularly backed revolutionary forces and backing an unpopular regime or force dependent on foreign aid.

[41] Moore, Mead, Jahns, The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki, 40, 58, 108, 128; Dennis Gordon, Quartered in Hell: The Story of the American North Russia Expeditionary Force 1918-1919 (Missoula, MT: The Doughboy Historical Society, 1982), 67-68; Sylvian G. Kindall, American Soldiers in Siberia (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1945), 11.

[42] Cudahy, Archangel, 52; Albertson, Fighting Without a War, 85-88.

[43] Halliday, The Ignorant Armies, 203.

[44] Albertson, Fighting Without a War, 85-88.

[45] Perry Moore, Stamping out the Virus: Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War 1918-1920 (Altgen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2002), 101; Kinvig, 226, 232, Halliday, The Ignorant Armies, 284.

[46] John T. Smith, Gone to Russia to Fight: The RAF in South Russia 1918-1920 (Gloucestershire, UK: Amberley, 2010), 51, 97, 107; Miles Hudson, Intervention in Russia, 1918-1920: A Cautionary Tale (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Press, 2004), 143.

[47] “The Creation of Russia,” in Gordon, Quartered in Hell, 302.

[48] “Recalls Massacre in Siberia,” Kansas City Star, undated, World War I Museum Archive, Kansas City MO, George Jensen Papers.

[49] Detroit’s Own Polar Bears, 78; and Michael Phillips, “The One Time American Troops Fought Russians Was at the End of World War I,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2018.

[50] Willett, Russian Sideshow, 212; Norman Saul, War and Revolution: The United States and Russia, 1917-1921 (University Press of Kansas, 2001), 315; Halliday, The Ignorant Armies, 13, 43; and Phillips, “The One Time American Troops Fought Russians Was at the End of World War I.”

[51] Goldhurst, The Midnight War, 213.

[52] Detroit’s Own Polar Bears, 78.

[53] Maddox, The Unknown war with Russia, 102-103; and Phillips, “The One Time American Troops Fought Russians Was at the End of World War I.”

[54] Moore, Mead. Jarns, The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki, 298; Gordon, Quartered in Hell, 304.

[55] Willett, Russian Sideshow, 203.

[56] Albertson, Fighting Without a War, 45; Willett, Russian Sideshow, 122.

[57] Cudahy, Archangel, 29, 30.  A graduate of Harvard and University of Wisconsin law school, Cudahy was scion of a wealthy meat packing family and a Democrat disillusioned with the war.  Later he served as ambassador to Poland, Ireland, Belgium, and Luxemburg where he continued to express antiwar views.

[58] Phillips, “The One Time American Troops Fought Russians Was at the End of World War I.”

[59] Willett, Russian Sideshow, 45, 46; Costello, Why Did We Go to Russia? 76-79; Gordon, Quartered in Hell, 178, 216.

[60] Kropotkin quoted in Moore, Mead, Jahns, The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki, 247-248.  Kropotkin further worried about the development of a “bitter sentiment [in Russia] with respect to the Western nations…that will be utilized some day in future conflicts.”

[61] Richard Polenberg, Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech (New York: Viking Press, 1987); Zosa Szajkowski, “Double Jeopardy—The Abrams Case of 1919,” American Jewish Archives, April 1971.  Jacob Schwartz died from an ailment exacerbated by his treatment by police, which he likened “to the Spanish Inquisition and the blackest page of man’s brutality to man.”  Schwartz in a letter claimed the police stopped at nothing – “from tearing hair to pulling the tongue; from black jacks to the leg of a chair was used on us because we would not speak.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes offered an eloquent dissent against the Supreme Court ruling supported by Louis Brandeis on grounds of the right to free speech.  He would not weigh in on whether military intervention was actually legal, and dissent against it hence justified.

[62] Fighting the Bolsheviks: The Russian War Memoir of Private 1st Class Donald E. Carey, U.S. Army, 1918-1919, ed. Neil Carey (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), x; Foglesong, 7.

[63] James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: Touchstone Books, 2007), 16; National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.

[64] Maddox, The Unknown war with Russia, 138.

[65] George F. Kennan, Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin (Boston: Little & Brown, 1960), 117; Linda Killen, The Russia Bureau: A Case Study in Wilsonian Diplomacy (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), 130; Richard, When the United States Invaded Russia, 174.