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Documentary Histories

Post-War: Northern Russia

Postwar: Northern Russia

     On 11 November 1918, it seemed the whole of the United States and the European Allies burst into riotous celebrations as “The Great War” finally came to an end. For the 600 men, including a U.S. Army company, in the remote Russian village of Tulgas, the joyous news that the war was over seemed like a cruel joke. They spent 11 November in a desperate fight for their lives against a vicious Bolshevik attack. With considerable understatement, one British general wrote afterwards that it was “hard for our men to realize why they, of all the great armies which had fought so well and so long, should have to go on fighting.”1Yet go on fighting they did, for the final American withdrawal from Northern Russia did not take place until the summer and fall of 1919.2The Navy’s role in these operations was more limited, and often confused, as Rear Admiral Newton A. McCully lacked clarity on how actively he was to engage with Russian Communists. Ultimately, Woodrow Wilson – and the American public – had no interest in a protracted struggle, and the Navy’s primary duty became getting the remaining American troops out of Russia and back home.

     Less than a month before the United States entered the war, Russia’s centuries-old autocratic regime collapsed. Tsar Nicolas II was deposed on 17 March 1917. Initially, the Allies viewed the Russian Revolution hopefully, with Wilson in particular believing that a liberal democratic government, one committed to human rights, might arise in the Tsars’ place. They were wrong. In November, the Bolshevik Party again toppled the interim government and seized power, triggering a civil war in Russia. The Bolsheviks took on the name “the Reds” while their various opponents – including liberal supporters of the provisional government, tsarists, and a variety of other groups – were grouped together as “the Whites.”3

     While this internal turmoil roiled Russia, the nation managed to maintain its war against Germany – for a time. The Bolsheviks had taken control of the country in no small measure thanks to a backlash among the Russian population against the hardships of war, and in any case they preferred to concentrate their resources on consolidating power. Thus, upon deposing the provisional government, the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice with Germany and began looking to negotiate a separate peace. Given their weak position militarily and need to focus on defeating the Whites, the Bolsheviks were in a poor negotiating position, and when the armistice collapsed and Germany began sweeping across Russian territory, they were forced to accept harsh terms imposed by the Germans in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was signed in March 1918.

     The withdrawal of Russia from the war came as a devastating blow to the Allies. It freed millions of German soldiers for use on the Western Front. It also left a treasure trove of military supplies shipped from the Allies to Russian ports in Archangel and Murmansk vulnerable to German seizure. Worse, there were fears the Germans might capture the entire Russian fleet and add it to their own naval forces.4

     Thus, even before the final treaty was signed, Britain began sending forces into Russia, and requested France and the United States to do likewise. Their foremost goal was protecting Allied supplies. In a sign of the confusion and contradictory goals that were to mark the entire Russian operation, the Allies were invited by the Soviet government, which hoped to continue the influx of war material (which it could then turn on its domestic enemies), yet it was also an open desire of the British to topple the Bolsheviks and support the Whites. Ideally, a new government in Russia might be willing to renew the war with Germany, but the Allies had no desire to see the Bolsheviks triumph regardless, and in a short time the expedition was unambiguously opposed to the Reds.5

     Woodrow Wilson agreed to send American forces, but he was less ambitious in his goals. “It is the clear and fixed judgment of the Government of the United States, arrived at after repeated and very searching reconsiderations of the whole situation in Russia, that military intervention there would add to the present sad confusion in Russia rather than cure it,” Wilson informed his allies, adding that “the only legitimate object for which American or allied troops can be to guard military stores which may subsequently be needed by Russian forces and to render such aid as may be acceptable to the Russians in the organization of their own self-defense.” Yet despite the seeming fixed purpose Wilson outlined here, he went on to muddy that waters. Wilson also specified that U.S. forces could “steady any efforts at self-government or self-defense which the Russians themselves may be willing to ask assistance.” Left unsaid were which Russians the Americans could aid: the existing Soviet government or its opponents, though Wilson’s sympathies were clearly not with the Bolsheviks.6

     Initially, the only American ship sent to Russia was the Olympia, along with a contingent of American soldiers stationed at Archangel and Murmansk. Despite Wilson’s intentions, both the soldiers and sailors from the Olympia engaged in combat.7Indeed, by the time the Armistice went into effect on 11 November, Archangel was under the control of the Whites, who succeeded thanks to Allied support, and whose continued occupation was dependent on that support continuing.8

     At the time of the Armistice, Rear Admiral Newton McCully was in command of American naval forces in Russia. McCully envisioned an active role for his forces in supporting the Whites, and he sent numerous requests to the Navy Department for additional ships and men.9His requests were generally granted, and he worked to follow orders as best he knew how. This was a struggle, because while the Wilson Administration claimed to be opposed to intervention in the Russian Civil War, American troops were already actively engaged with Bolshevik forces, and McCully was operating with, and to a degree taking orders from, British forces openly working to insure a victory for the Whites. McCully was generally successful in managing this murky situation, but it was difficult.10

     McCully’s force managed to avoid any serious engagement with the Reds, but the Army’s troops in northern Russia were not so lucky. In this theater, 144 Americans died in combat, and another 100 perished from disease.11Morale was poor, with most of the men struggling to see the significance of their mission, particularly after the Great War had ended. One sailor from the USS Des Moines who landed ashore and was put to work digging trenches recalled hearing Russian soldiers from opposing lines shouting through megaphones “we don’t want to shoot you,” and “what are you doing here?” He did not have an answer to the second question, and indeed recalled much later in life “twenty five years [later] I still don’t know what the hell the United States Navy was doing shouldering rifles in trenches in Russia.”12

     Congress and the American public took a similar attitude. With the war ended, the official reasons for sending troops to Russia – keeping military supplies away from the Germans, blocking German annexation of port cities, and possibly reopening the Eastern Front – were all gone. American forces remained in northern Russia for a time, in part because the thick ice in the region prevented extraction until spring, and in large part out of a sense of obligation to allies among the Whites that had been propped up thus far. Sympathy for the Whites only went so far, however, and the operation could not continue long. No matter how distasteful the Bolshevik government might be, there was simply no popular support for toppling it. Dangerously low morale among the troops there made a speedy exit even more imperative.13

     Word that the United States was planning to leave northern Russia reached the forces there via a radio broadcast in February 1919, but it was not until April that the Wilson Administration officially decided on leaving, and on 1 May Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, was so informed.14 McCully was still apparently unclear about the Navy Department’s expectations in mid-March, because his request for additional subchasers “likely to be most useful for active operations” was endorsed by Sims, yet Sims only supported it on the grounds that the chasers could be helpful in the “safe withdrawal of Army.”15The United States remained committed to withdrawal, to the annoyance of the British, who were still intent on opposing the Bolsheviks, and the final American vessel departed northern Russia on 14 September 1919.16 

     To the east, a small American naval force continued to operate in Siberia until November 1922. Its primary concern was not the Bolsheviks, but supposed allies from Japan, who eyed Siberia as a possible territorial acquisition. This operation may be counted as a modest success in that Japan did withdraw from the region, although the fact that Siberia promptly fell into the hands of the Soviet Union tempered any pleasure at the final outcome.17In the west, Britain’s decision to remain after America pulled out was short-lived. Facing the same pressures from the public at the United States, Britain began the process of leaving northern Russia in September 1919, even as the last American ship was departing. In February of the following year, the Whites suffered complete defeat by the Reds, and the entire region was fully absorbed by the Soviet Union.18

Footnote 1: Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 217-219.

Footnote 2: A separate American force was deployed far to the East, near Siberia, which also (ineffectually) opposed the Bolsheviks. This essay and accompanying document collection are focused on the mission to northern Russia based primarily around the port cities of Archangel and Murmansk. The eastern mission is also covered in Boot, Savage Wars of Peace, 205-230, and is discussed in greater detail in William R. Braisted, The United States Navy in the Pacific, 1909-1922 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1971), 341-406.

Footnote 3: Boot, Savage Wars of Peace, 206; Henry P. Beers, “U. S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia (Archangel and Murmansk), 1918-1919,” Washington DC: Navy Department Office of Records Management, 1943. Full text available online here.

Footnote 4: See: Daniels to Sims, 4 March 1918; Sims to Opnav, 12 April 1918; Sims to Benson, 30 April 1918; Twining to Daniels, 21 May 1918. Beers, “U.S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia,” 4-5.

Footnote 5: Beers, “U.S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia,” 10-11.

Footnote 6: Woodrow Wilson, “A Draft of an Aide-Memoire,” 6 July 1918, Arthur S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69 volumes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966-1994), 48:624-626; Boot, Savage Wars of Peace, 211-212.

Footnote 7: Still, Victory Without Peace, 149.

Footnote 8: Beers, “U. S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia,” 17.

Footnote 9: See: McCully to Benson, 8 February 1919 and both cables from McCully to Benson on 25 February 1919. See also, Still, Victory Without Peace, 152-153.

Footnote 10: Still, Victory Without Peace, 150-151.

Footnote 11: Boot, Savage Wars of Peace, 225.

Footnote 12: Still, Victory Without Peace, 155-156.

Footnote 13: Beers, “U.S. Navy in Northern Russia,” 45-46; Still, Victory Without Peace, 150.

Footnote 14: Beers, “U.S. Navy in Northern Russia,” 46; Benson to Knapp, 3 May 1919.

Footnote 15: See: Sims to Benson, 16 March 1919.

Footnote 16: See: Close to Benson, 7 June 1919 and Benson to Knapp, 8 June 1919. See also, Beers, “U.S. Navy in Northern Russia,” 51.

Footnote 17: Braisted, United States Navy in the Pacific, 404-406; Boot, Savage Wars of Peace, 228.

Footnote 18: Boot, Savage Wars of Peace, 225.

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