May 26, 2009
Yesterday I visited the White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan, where I watched a brand new documentary film about the little-known Polar Bear Expedition (also known as the North Russia Campaign), in which 5500 American soldiers battled Soviet Bolshevik troops through a long arctic winter just after World War I.
Many of the veterans of this campaign are buried next to the memorial sculpture. Here's how it looked yesterday:
"The American Expedition to North Russia in 1918-1919 has been oddly neglected by professional historians, with the result that most US citizens, including even the best educated and well-read, have been unaware of its existence. Partly, this has been because it got underway in the closing weeks of the Great War (now officially called World War I), and like a side show at a circus where they are already striking the tent, it drew little attention.I can certainly understand why it would have been neglected by government historians, and I can also see why liberal historians and even conservative historians might not like it. It was a completely half-assed invasion. The American troops were not given full backing by their country, and they were sent in by a president who was rapidly losing his mental faculties, and uncertain about his purpose in sending them in. They were hugely outnumbered by the Bolsheviks, undersupplied, commanded by British officers they hated, and while they did the best they could in arctic conditions, eventually they were simply withdrawn, giving up the territory they had bled and died for. I can't imagine anything more disheartening for the soldiers, or for the American people to read about. Sure, the Detroit Free Press covered it at the time, but as the troops were drawn largely from Michigan (by bureaucrats who condescendingly thought that they would "adapt" to life in the arctic), what might have otherwise been a national scandal was successfully buried as local news. The rest of the country was basking in the glory of victory while these men were freezing and dying, and the story would have made the United States (and the sainted Woodrow Wilson) look bad.
By the time of World War II, our alliance with Stalin would have transformed what might have been a temporary historical coverup into a longterm one. It's bad practice to play up a previous war against a current ally (and it wouldn't have done to let the American people know that the Communists killed American soldiers in World War I), so the less said the better. Plus, the invasion was a thankless, unsuccessful task, and Americans are victory-oriented people.
Even during the Cold War period, I don't think talking about this sad chapter in the war (well, post-war, as the war was over) would have served the interests of the government, or the anti-Communist cause, as it would have been evidence that the U.S. had previously engaged the Communists, and failed. People also might ask why we were on the side of the deposed czar. Better not to learn from certain mistakes, eh?
Nor would talking about this campaign have suited leftists and pro-Soviet types, who loved to say that there had never been any quarrels between the peace-loving Soviet people and America. Let people know that Americans had been in there before, and war against Russia becomes less "unthinkable."
However, during the Cold War, teaching Russian children about the American intervention seems to have served the purposes of the Soviets:
No such story for American schoolchildren, though!
From a centrist but generally patriotic standpoint, the disorganized, ill-managed, post-World War I anti-Soviet campaign is unsettling, as it complicates historical analysis and makes the country look flaky. For starters, what war was this? World War I? Not really, for the invasion started in September, 1918, the war ended on November 11, 1918, but the troops stayed until June. That's a nine month campaign, seven months of which occurred after the war. Why weren't the troops supported and backed by the government? Why were they withdrawn? America was not supposed to have acted this way until the Vietnam era of "limited war" had been officially launched.
As it is, there is considerable disagreement among the few historians who have examined the anti-Bolshevik campaign as to what Woodrow Wilson's reasoning was:
Some historians maintain that Wilson's actions were motivated by desires to topple the Bolsheviks. "...Wilson and others hoped to bring down the fledgling Bolshevik government, fearful it would spread revolution around the world."  George Kennan, however, discounts this motive , emphasizing that the three American battalions in Northern Russia were under British command, thereby obligated to follow British and French policy which was, at least as openly stated, to protect Allied supplies and possibly reopen the eastern front. Kennan cites the story of Maxim Litvinov's 1933 visit to Washington, DC, during which he was shown documentation relevant to the US Siberian intervention. Litvinov's public letter, following his examination of the documents, waived any Russian claims with regard to US intervention.It sounds like a classic muddle. Nonetheless, some Wilson scholars argue that Wilson was the "first Cold Warrior."
Really? If he was, no one knew about it. It's an unknown chapter in the Cold War. (As well as an unlearned early lesson against waging "limited war" for unclear goals.)
Something else the public also didn't know about would have been shocking news had it been reported -- the fact that their president's health was terrible, and he suffered a series of strokes -- notably one that incapacitated him in 1919 for for the latter part of his term. Whether he was clear-headed from a medical standpoint when he launched the Russian campaign, by his own admission he had had no confidence in his own judgment:
In late 1918, as the war in northern Russia unfolded, President Wilson regretted his decision to commit American troops to Russia. He concluded, this "is a matter of the most complex and difficult sort, and I have at no time felt confident in my own judgement about it." By then it was too late.So, for a variety of reasons, Wilson's muddle -- our little mini-Cold war against the fledgling Soviet Union -- was swept under the rug. I'd read in general terms about "American interventionism," but I did not know about the Detroit Polar Bears until yesterday, and I was very moved by the memorial sculpture, their graves, and their families, who packed the cemetery hall to watch the film.
What is agreed upon by all is the incredible bravery of these men, despite their knowledge that the original war over, their campaign (and the "cause") was doomed, and their sense that they were being forgotten. What drives men to fight valiantly under such circumstances? Duty? Loyalty to country? Fighting to stay alive? Fighting to keep their buddies alive? Whatever the reason or combinations of reasons may be, they deserve our undying gratitude.
posted by Eric on 05.26.09 at 09:40 AM
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