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‘When the US Invaded Russia,’ What Americans Don’t Know About WWI

While most history classes today teach American kids about how close the United States came to war with Russia during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, many neglect to tell the tale of when the United States was actually fighting on Russian soil.

It happened during World War I, when in an effort to topple the Bolshevik Revolution thousands of U.S. troops were sent to fight in Siberia. The ramifications had widespread implications for future U.S. policy and now it’s been documented in a new book by Carl Richard.

Host Rob Sachs spoke with Richard, who is also a history professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, to discuss his new book, “When the United States Invaded Russia: Woodrow Wilson’s Siberian Disaster.”

While most history classes today teach American school kids about how close the U.S. came to war with Russia during the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, many neglect to discuss the episode of when the U.S. was actually fighting on Russian soil. It happened during WWI. In an effort to topple the Bolshevik revolution, thousands of U.S. troops were sent to Siberia. The ramifications had widespread implications for future U.S. policy. That part of history has been documented by Carl Richard in his new book “When U.S. Invaded Russia: Woodrow Wilson’s Siberian Disaster”. Carl Richard is also a professor of history at the University of Louisiana.

Take us back to 1918 and why did  decide to invade Russia, in the first place?

In one of the theories, he wanted to control the Trans-Siberian railway in order to overthrow the Soviet government. And the original reason for that was to get Russia back in the WWI, because the allies were under a lot of German pressure on the Western front. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. And yet the American troops stayed in Russia for 1.5 year. And then, I think, Woodrow Wilson came up with an idea that the main threat was not the Germans, but the spread of communism.

85000 American troops sent to Siberia thought that the locals would join them?

That was their hope. Wilson was pressured for 6-7 months by Britain and France who were desperate to take the pressure off the Western front. Then about 70,000 Czechs passing through Russia and trying to get home fell into an armed dispute with the Communist government. Anti-Bolshevik government started springing up under the protection of the Czechs. So Wilson decided that there’s a chance to make Russian people rise up against the Bolsheviks, as long as intervening forces are their cousins, the Czechs.

Did the Americans successfully link up with the Czechs?

Yes, they did. They sort of made an agreement, not only with the Czechs, but also with the Japanese. The Japanese were invited by Wilson to send 12,000 and they ended up sending 72,000. And there was also an agreement between all the allies to send troops to guard a particular part of Trans-Siberian railroad so that the supplies could get to the anti-Bolshevik government.

What did the Americans encounter when they got to the Siberia?

It was chaos! They landed in Vladivostok. The communist government had been overthrown there by the Czechs. But there was very little government that replaced it. And General-in-Command William Graves was really surprised not to be met with kind of things you would have expected. He found Japanese, British, French, Italians, Chinese. And he soon found out that Japanese sent a lot more troops than they agreed to to get territory in Siberia for themselves.

Were the Americans ok with that?

No, the Americans were very upset. I think Japanese had different motives than the other allies.

How much fighting did they actually encounter in protecting this railway?

Very little. Originally, when they first landed, there was democratically-inclined government in Omsk that was dominated by the Socialist Revolutionary Party. But that government was overthrown by Admiral Kolchak. That was, I think, one of the first blows to intervention. And Kolchak army was committing a lot of atrocities. So these partisan groups started springing up. And they were not necessarily pro-Bolshevik, although some of them received aid from Bolsheviks, mostly they were just anti-Kolchak. And since the U.S. soldiers were guarding this railway so that supplies could get to Kolchak, they would often attack American troops. Also they got into fighting with two generals employed by Japanese, Semenov and Kalmikov. It was a very chaotic situation!

How did they figure the way out of this?

In the case of American withdrawal they really had no choice, because by 1919 the Kolchak government basically collapsed. The Red Army was winning victory after victory. And if the Americans had stayed, they would have to get into direct fighting with Red Army and they never really intended it. The last American troops left around April, 1920.

Was it tough to make it back to the U.S.?

It was with a relative ease, because of all the other people fleeing. Basically, you had Kolchak army fleeing, you had the allied armies fleeing. They were all fleeing east, to Vladivostok to evacuate.

You pose that this whole episode arose some particular feelings between Soviet Union and the U.S. Explain to us what it was.

Obviously, not very favorable feelings. It did create tensions. And local Siberian people became more and more pro-Bolshevik as they saw Kolchak committing those atrocities and foreign army helping it. And the irony is that it actually strengthened the Soviet government. It had the opposite effect that Wilson intended. And then there’s an effect of creating more tensions and more suspicion, when actually Lenin had a policy to make these relations closer, he wanted trade.

And maybe we see some of the early roots of the Cold War here.

I think so.

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