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MEANINGLESS GESTURE

When the United States Invaded Russia

1918

You will never hear about it in the United States, but be assured anytime you discuss relations between the two countries with a Russian, the American army’s invasion of Russia will come up. Yep, that is correct, the time that the United States really did invade Russia. We landed, occupied a major city, and stayed for months. The entire fiasco started in 1918 during the last months of World War I.

In 1917, the new Bolshevik government basically surrendered to Germany and dropped out of the war. This upset the Allies as it potentially freed about seventy divisions of German troops that could be moved to the Western Front. President Woodrow Wilson decided that he needed to do something about this, preferably replacing the Bolsheviks with someone who would rejoin the war effort. Things were very unstable in all of Russia with the White Army fighting the Red and private armies fighting everyone. So it was decided to send a military force to Russia.

The expedition would consist of 9,000 soldiers commanded by a rather confused and soon frustrated Major General William Graves. General Graves’ previous position had been protecting San Francisco from German attack. This was not a job that prepared him for the task, but his appointment was convenient as the ships would sail from that city. Normally, sending thousands of troops halfway across the world involves meticulous planning and detailed orders. What Graves got was a short note. Vague and without specific orders, the note listed goals like “overthrow the Russian government” and instructions to avoid conflict when possible. Graves’ final orders came from the secretary of war, given in a Kansas train station and consisting of only “God bless you and goodbye.” With that, Graves rode to San Francisco, gathered up 9,000 men, most of whom had been garrison troops, and with virtually no heavy artillery sailed for Russia.

The purported excuse for the United States sending in the army was that they were there to assist in the evacuation of 30,000 anti-German Czech soldiers who had become unemployed when Russia dropped out of the war. They were known as the Czech Legion and were Austrian deserters who had been willing to fight against Germany and Austria for Russia. The men of the Legion were known to be making their way along the Trans-Siberian railway west toward its terminus at the city of Vladivostok on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

When General Graves and the doughboys arrived in Vladivostok, they discovered that there were just over a thousand British and another thousand French soldiers already there for the same purpose. There were also nearby about 72,000 Japanese soldiers who weren’t even faking a good reason. They were admittedly on the peninsula for the purpose of grabbing large tracts of Siberia for Japan. Japan in World War I was allied to Britain, France, and the United States. Also among the many groups running around with lots of guns was a Cossack army of more than 15,000 horsemen and a fluctuating number of other White Russian troops of widely varying quality.

The Czech Legion was there as well, but it hardly needed anyone’s help. The legion was not only firmly in control of the city of Vladivostok itself, but it had units occupying most of the stations and cities that the Trans-Siberian Railroad passed through. They were effectively running and maintaining the railroad and protecting it from everyone else. Made up of highly competent and well-armed veterans, no one wanted to antagonize the Czechs. This arrangement suited everyone as it meant the trains kept running and remained effectively neutral. However, it did enrage Trotsky, who issued an unenforceable order for the legion to surrender its weapons. The few times Red units had attacked the Czech Legion, they had suffered heavy losses and accomplished nothing. Once the legion had moved west along the railroad, there was little Moscow could do to them. So the last thing the Czechs wanted was help from the Americans. They had things completely under control and even provided the police who patrolled Vladivostok.

That all rather begged the question of what 9,000 American soldiers were doing in a city 5,000 miles from Moscow. To get any farther away from the capital while still being in Russia, the Americans would have had to have been treading water in the Pacific. Worse yet, the Yanks were under vague orders to overthrow the Bolshevik government, but the Bolsheviks didn’t control any territory within a thousand miles of them. But it was just as well since they weren’t supposed to shoot at anyone while overthrowing the government of a nation spanning nine time zones with a population of more than 20 million. So for months, Graves and his troopers did nothing. Well, they actually did a lot, but it all involved bars and brothels.

Eventually, some U.S. troops did assist in patrolling some of the railroad line and even had a few tense scenes with the local Cossack warlords. Finally, months after World War I had ended, the Czech Legion all gathered in Vladivostok and boarded ships sent by the French to transport them home. This left Graves and his Americans in charge of the city. But with the war over, their secret mission of regime change was meaningless. But the Americans hung on until they had been there for more than a year. Finally in November 1919, following the example of the British and French, Graves and his invasion force boarded boats and returned to the States. Casualties had been 137 dead in action, mostly from Cossack snipers and outright bandits, and 216 from other causes. These included accidents, illness, and a range of sexually transmitted diseases.

There never was a clear purpose to sending over thousands of doughboys and even less of a reason for keeping them in Russia for more than a year after the Great War had ended. All that Graves’ expedition accomplished was to enrich Vladivostok’s red-light district and antagonize the Bolsheviks by rubbing in their faces that they could do nothing about the foreign occupation of their largest Pacific port. What the expedition did accomplish was to cement a permanent distrust of all Western governments toward communist ideology.

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