Nearly forgotten

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:


Not much is known about this sad chapter in World War One's aftermath. Historians don't seem comfortable with it:

"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.

"Besides that, there was the confusion and obscurity surrounding it with regard to its purpose, especially in Washington and among the American troops who were involved: they literally had no idea what they were being sent to do. Even President Woodrow Wilson, as will be seen, was in a spin of uncertainty as to whether he should or should not authorize the expedition, and the British leadership (for it was to be an Allied operation, including British and French soldiers, but with the British officers in all the top command positions) offered little clarification.

"Without further enlightenment, five thousand American doughboys found themselves, early in September of 1918, after a long, slow trip from England through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, disembarking at the Russian port of Archangel - and more than half of them no sooner ashore than they were, with astonishment, packed off to "the front" to fight "the Bolos" - which was to say units of the Soviet Red Army. The operation thus turned out to be, willy-nilly and right from the start, an invasion of Soviet territory."

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:

The American contingent, the North Russian Expeditionary Force, was a force of 5,500 men from Fort Custer in Battle Creek. Of course, it didn't work. And just as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson worried would happen, it cast a long shadow over U.S.-Russian relations ever since.

"When Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev came here, Richard Nixon made a statement about the U.S. never being at war with the U.S.S.R.," Crownover said. "Kruschev corrected him. They were teaching their schoolchildren that story."

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." [1] George Kennan, however, discounts this motive [2], 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.

Page Smith's analysis [3] concludes that, "Americans would be withdrawn if there were and indication that they were being used against the Bolsheviks." Russian historian David MacKenzie [4] cites war necessity as one reason for intervention: "President Woodrow Wilson allowed US participation in the Allied expeditions to north Russian ports in the summer of 1918 only after the Allied command insisted it was the sole way to win World War I."

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


Thanks for posting that. I had heard of it but had completely forgotten. Appropriate for Memorial Day. Bless them.

Bill   ·  May 26, 2009 1:45 PM

Enough about Wilson and his insights. If he thought the intervention was a bad idea then he did it anyway.

And at any point he could have aborted and the US troops would have left.

Of course those Generals said it was a good idea. They had excess men and the naval forces to deploy them. So anything that might even remotely bother the Germans was to be considered.

At Archangel the Germans were not likely to be hurt. But who could be sure? Maybe it would dissuade the Reds from selling supplies to the Germans? Maybe the Reds would collapse and Russia reenter the war? In truth the West knew zero about the internal situation in Russia at that time.

So when politicians send troops don't blame the Generals.

This military foray seems to have preceded Wilson's decline in health. But he may not have been totally able throughout 1918.

I always thought of Wilson as a strong candidate for Worst Meddler Of All Time. Even while he was well he was full of BS about how others should live and conduct their affairs.

After his first stroke he certainly should have been removed. There was little or no legal provision for doing so. Too bad.

Any sensible wife would have just forged his letter of resignation. And everyone would have been better off.

K   ·  May 26, 2009 2:36 PM

Nice, Eric.

dr kill   ·  May 26, 2009 6:04 PM

I am familiar with this expedition. It was done mostly at the behest of the British. The TV series "Riely Ace of Spies" covered it tangentially. It is a good overview of British intentions though.

M. Simon   ·  May 26, 2009 7:10 PM

Then you have the Vladivostock intervention. American forces were sent to that Russian port in part to force the withdrawal of Japanese forces from the Russian Far East, and to assist in the evacuation of units of the Czech Legion. Some trace the start of the Japanese animosity against the United States that led to Pearl Harbor to that action.

Alan Kellogg   ·  May 26, 2009 11:58 PM

Alan: That can be cited as the start of the Japanese animosity. I suppose.

But I guess the Japanese were sore about the wrongs done by Korea, China, The French in IndoChina, the British in numerous colonies, and the Dutch in Indonesia too.

Not to mention their treatment of the native peoples in those colonies who somehow also offended them.

Hirohito was the luckiest man of his century. After letting his militarists run wild for decades, after millions were dead, and his country disastrously defeated, he ended his days peacefully studying marine life.

Never reproached, never missed a meal or a nights sleep, never expressed one iota of concern for his people or any others.

Not a care in the world.

K   ·  May 27, 2009 12:34 AM

Nice post.

Steven Malcom Anderson's secret lesbian admirer   ·  May 30, 2009 9:35 AM

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