Woodrow Wilson and the American Expeditionary Force to Siberia, 1918-1920

By Christopher T. McMaster
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

Such a vague example of the President’s rhetorical flair was to become the actual orders presented to the man chosen to command the expeditionary force, Major General William Graves. “Watch your step,” Secretary of War Newton Baker warned as he handed graves the pale brown envelope containing the memoire. “You will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite”.14 By the time of his arrival in Siberia the general felt he could decipher his instructions fairly well. According to the memoire the AEF was not to become embroiled in the civil war; hence the ‘non-interference’ in Russian internal affairs outlined in the document. Implicit in his orders was aid to the Czechs, which meant, firstly, maintaining order in Vladivostok. This was achieved in the form of an International Military Police force comprising troops from twelve nations and that preformed its duties in an efficient and disciplined manner.15 Secondly, for the Czechs to consolidate their forces the railway system had to remain operable. Acceptance of this duty immediately compromised any “neutrality” sought by General Graves. The Czech Legion were in revolt against the Bolsheviks and were active partisans in the civil war. To maintain the railway system, moreover, was not just aid to the Czechs; it would benefit the counterrevolution that depended upon the railway. Graves had little illusion about the role his troops played in Siberia. “As I see this question,” he would wire Washington, “we become a party, by guarding the railroad, to the actions of this governmental class”.16 His interpretation of Wilson’s memoire was to gain the animosity of his allies, who called for more direct action, the violent response from Red Partisans, and numerous calls for his replacement in favor of a more forceful American commander. If, however, Grave were a more impulsive leader, The Chief of Staff Payton C. March later wrote, “we would have had to send 100,000 men to get them out alive”.17 Graves was instructed by March during the intervention to continue his policy until changed by the president.18 This the president, who could ill afford 100,000 men, never did.

The military intervention into Siberia can be divided into three stages. These divisions are based more on official clarifications of duties, rather than any changes in military policy. A continuity and consistency is present throughout the entire period of U.S. intervention, primarily to facilitate counterrevolution. The first stage is the period between the landing of U.S. troops and the acceptance by Washington of the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement (IARA) on February 9, 1919. The IARA imposed military control on the Siberian railways by clearly defining the respective responsibilities of the intervening forces on various sectors of the railway. For the Americans this would confirm duties already assumed and create new ones. Although obvious in whose interest the Agreement worked, it was not until July that the purpose of the AEF was officially stated. During the summer of 1919 it was openly admitted that U.S. troops were in Siberia to maintain the supply line of the white leader, Admiral Kolchak. To the troops north of Vladivostok the later was by that time an irrelevant technicality.

American troops arrived at Vladivostok to mush cheer, mostly furnished by themselves and the crew and band of the USS Brooklyn that had been stationed in the waters around Vladivostok since March.19 The Japanese commander, General Kikuzo Otani, greeted the Americans with more seriousness and urgency. By letter he advised Colonel Henry Styre, in temporary command whilst Graves was in transit, that Vladivostok was in peril of imminent invasion. The Americans were needed for the city’s defense. Unwilling to remain inactive and unable to verify Otani’s story, Styre consented to join in what was later to be known as the Ussuri Campaign.20 The several companies sent to help “defend” the city caught up with the Japanese after six days hard marching and served as rear flank to the Japanese and Czech forces who were pursuing the “Bolsheviki”21 northwards up the Trans-Siberian. The campaign culminated at Khabvorosk, 475 miles from Vladivostok, where the Stars and Stripes and the Rising Sun were raised together in a significant show of unity.

Graves’ first real examination of his troops came in October during a tour north of Vladivostok. He ordered back to Khabvorosk any troops he found west of the city that had continued to follow the Japanese in their pursuit of the Red Guard.22 Graves could “see no reason for keeping troops at any of these stations,” although a number of troops were kept at important locations between Khabvorosk and Vladivostok.23 U.S. forces elsewhere got off to a less auspicious beginning, but equally partisan in the widening civil war. The majority of the 27th an 31st Infantry Regiments (dispatched from Manila) marched east of Vladivostok to establish a tent camp at Gornastaya Valley24 The International Police Force was also created at this time under the command of a Russian born American officer, Major Samuel Ignatiev Johnson.

An additional two hundred and fifty troops were sent to the Soucha coalmines, located seventy-five miles north east of the city. The mines consisted of twelve shafts and served as the fuel supply for the entire Primorsk province and for the operation of eastern Siberian railroads.25 The Souchan mines were the fuel for intervention and counterrevolution. The Allies set about immediately to secure the continued production of its coal. One of the first acts of the Allied leaders was to re-instate the previous mine manager, recently run out of the area by mine workers. To Graves, the mines proved to be the “stormy petrel” of his entire Siberian adventure.26 Most American causalities would be suffered protecting the spur lines linking the mines with the Trans-Siberian.

The Railway Agreement of February formalized some of these winter arrangements and added others. Although finalized in February, it took an additional two months to sort out which allied force would protect each specific sector. Some five hundred and fifty US troops became responsible for the line running immediately out of Vladivostok to the town of Nikolsk-Ussuri, sixty-eight miles north. Nikolsk-Ussuri, a town of 52,000 inhabitants, served ass the juncture of the Ussuri line continuing to Khabvorosk, and the Chinese-eastern Railroad which crossed Manchuria, later to reinter Siberia. At Spasskoe, continuing north, seventeen hundred troops were responsible for the length of line leading to the town of Ussuri and the eight hundred and forty foot long bridge crossing the river Ussuri 217 miles from Vladivostok. Another nineteen hundred troops were assigned to guard a branch line from Ulgonaya to the coalmines at Souchan. Two thousand men were also stationed seventeen hundred miles west to maintain the stretch of line between Verkhe-Udinsk and Mysovaya, where the Trans-Siberian reached the network of thirty-eight tunnels linking eastern and western Siberia.27

With the railway Agreement practicably enacted, U.S. troops were immediately confronted by the dilemma of professed ‘non-interference’ while participating in counterrevolution. Graves continued to maintain his “neutrality” regardless, which in essence was to keep his expeditionary force as disentangled from the mire of civil war as long as possible. In a proclamation given to his troops to distribute in their sectors he outlined that:

The sole object and purpose of the armed forces of the United States of America...is too protect the railroad and railway property and insure the operation of passenger and freight trains through such sector without obstruction or interruption.28

The proclamation initially left the Partisan guerrillas wondering just who the ‘Amerikanski Soldat’ was. They soon made up their minds. As such order on the railroad only benefited one side, the U.S. soldiers soon became justifiable targets of the Partisans. Just as it allowed supplies to roll to counterrevolution forces in western Siberia, Allied control of the railways made White control of the east possible. White representatives in eastern Siberia used order on the railroad to either starve or attack ‘Bolshevist’ areas. “We are making this condition possible,” Graves wired Washington, “by our presence here”.29

Even before U.S. sectors were chosen, U.S. troops north of Vladivostok were preparing for “anticipated...guerrilla warfare or general revolution with the recession of winter” due to the “unsettled political and economic conditions in eastern Siberia”.30 As early as March 14, Partisans fired upon trains and “information was received that the partisans were recruiting for a vigorous spring drive against the Kolchak government”.31 By late spring U.S. forces, finally settled in their allotted sectors, became swept up in that vigorous drive. Throughout March and April attacks on rail freight, tack, and bridges increased. In May Graves decided that to properly maintain ‘order’ on the railways, U.S. troops would have to follow the attacking partisans into the surrounding countryside. The first active campaign began May 21 in the vicinity of Maihe in the Ulgonaya-Souchan sector.32 Throughout the summer of 1919 the history of the AEF in eastern Siberia is one of skirmishes, attacks, and forays into the surrounding hills and valleys. On numerous occasions American combat patrols fought in conjunction with White Russian and Japanese forces. Over two hundred U.S. soldiers were to fall in this Partisan War. Twenty-five died on the morning of June 25 near the village of Romanovka during a dawn raid on their encampment.

Washington was not deterred by news of these clashes. Indeed, during this time Wilson clearly stated whom the ‘Amerikanski Soldat’ were fighting for. Five days after the ‘Romanovka Massacre’ Secretary of State Robert Lansing ordered the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Roland Morris, to travel to Kolchak’s (provisional) capital, Omsk. His instructions were, firstly, to meet with Kolchak’s Supreme Council, though “not involving any present recognition of Kolchak, leaves us free to take a sympathetic interest in Kolchak’s organization and activities,” and secondly, “to impress upon the Japanese Government our great interest in the Siberian situation and our intention to adopt a definite policy that will include the ‘Open Door’ to a Russia free from Japanese domination”.33 When Morris finally reached Omsk he described the situation as “extremely critical”.34 On the same date Wilson pronounced to the Senate the necessity and reason for an expeditionary force in Siberia, which was maintaining order on the Siberian railways on which “the forces of Admiral Kolchak are entirely dependent”.35

By this time, however, the end of the White effort in Siberia was already in sight. Kolchak’s army was demoralized. The Czech Legion was soon to quit the fight and begin to plan (once again) their exit from Russia, and the Trans-Siberian became increasingly congested with refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army.36 To Morris, for the U.S. to properly assist Admiral Kolchak it would have to extend massive monetary and military aid to his flagging forces and reinforce the AEF by “at least 40,000 troops”.37 This Wilson simply could not afford to do, even if those measures would ensure a Kolchak victory. Wilson’s pragmatic wait-and-see policy allowed him (and his expeditionary force) to exit Siberia when all hope of successful counterrevolution had vanished. With the fall of Omsk in November this time had clearly arrived and plans for a U.S. withdrawal were laid.

Rather than idealistic or misguided, Wilson’s Siberian policy, as executed by General Graves, allowed the President to cautiously play the situation with a minimum political and military cost. Graves resisted British demands for wider action and Japanese calls for assistance while the later was suffering heavy losses against ‘Bolshevik’ forces.38 The argument put forward that Wilson decided to intervene under pressure to be a good ally is countered by the fact that U.S. actions in Siberia served to antagonize all parties involved, Russian and Allied.39 By the winter of 1919-1920 all American forces were pulled back to Vladivostok and departing Siberia. During the Civil War, however, that force served its purpose. By limiting its activities in Siberia it avoided being engulfed in the civil strife while supporting counterrevolution. Arms and supplies could continue to be shipped in land, White and Allied forces could continue to control the territory (at least around the railroad), and the Japanese could be observed and left to their own costly counterinsurgency campaign. President Wilson, in the meantime, could continue to proclaim the honorable intentions of U.S. intervention into Russian internal affairs while campaigning in Congress for a League of Nations based on self-determination.


  1. The US intervened in two areas of Russia, the north at Archangle, and in Siberia. I have concentrated solely on the Siberian Expedition as the two expeditionary forces were separate in command, distance, and in no communication with each other. It is my belief, however, that the reason for dispatching both was similar, although various other factors play a more prominent role in the decision to send troops to north Russia.
  2. Christopher Lasch, “American intervention in Siberia: A re-interpretation,” Political Science Quarterly, 77 (June, 1962): 205-223; and N. Gordon Levin, Jr., Woodrow Wilson and World Politics, (New York, 1968). Betty Miller Unterberger, ed., American Intervention in the Russian Civil War, (Lexington, MA, 1969) is a convenient summary of all five major interpretations, containing excerpts by the exponents of each.
  3. George Kennan, “American Troops in Russia,” Atlantic Monthly, 203 (January, 1959) and especially Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ, 1956).
  4. John White, The Siberian Intervention, (New York, 1950) and Betty Miller Unterberger, America’s Siberian Expedition, 1918-1920, (Durham, 1956).
  5. White, 30.
  6. William A. Williams, “American Intervention in Russia, 1917-1920,” Studies on the Left, 3 (Fall, 1963) 24-28 and 4 (Winter, 1964) 39-57; quote on (Fall, 1963) 35.
  7. See Robert Maddox, “Woodrow Wilson, the Russian Embassy and Siberian Intervention,” Pacific Historical Review, 34 (November, 1967).
  8. Williams, Studies on the Left, 3 (Winter, 1963) 25.
  9. See Maddow, op. Cit. Maddow is one the few historians examining the decision to intervene who looks past the June 6 decision to send troops and finds consistency in the actions leading up to and following the decision to intervene.
  10. Williams, op. cit., 39, and Payton march, The Nation at War, (New York, 1932), chapter 9, 113-132.
  11. Lansing to the Allied Ambassadors, July 17, 1918, Papers Relating to the Foreign relations of the United States (hereafter, FRUS), 1918, Russia, 2: 287-290.
  12. For the various agreements between the Czechs and the Bolsheviks, and the breakdown in relations between the two, see James Bunyan, Intervention, Civil War, and Communism i Russia, April-December, 1918, Documents and Meterials, (New York, 1936) 75-101. See also George Stewart, The White Armies of Russia, (New York, 1933) 96-125 for a good account of the Czechs.
  13. See the aide-memoire, (Lansing to the Allied Ambassadors), op. cit.
  14. William S. Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, (New York, 1931), 4.
  15. There has been no published account of the International Military Police force. The Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace (hereafter HI) holds several valuable collections containing useful information, notably the Faulstich, Lanquevan and Sprigg Papers.
  16. Graves, 34.
  17. March, 131.
  18. Graves, 218.
  19. Emmet A. Hoskins, “In the Service of the United States Navy, May 26, 1917-August 6, 1919: A Personal Account,” a manuscript held at HI, 16. The actual forces sent to Siberia consisted of the 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments supplemented by five thousand men of the 8th Division at Camp Freemont, Ca.
  20. H.H. Slaughter, “The American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia as Part of the Allied Intervention in 1918,” a paper delivered to the Army War College, March 29, 1934, 13-14; and United States Department of War, Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War, (Washington, 1937), 387.
  21. The consensus in primary published and unpublished accounts was that the enemies were the “Bolsheki.” See, for example, Sylvan Kindall, American Soldiers in Siberia, (New York, 1945), C.G. Fairfax Channing, Siberia’s Untouched Treasure: It’s Future Role in the World, (New York, 1923), which were the only published accounts by soldiers serving in the AEF to Siberia. See also the Grayson Papers, HI.
  22. The Red Guard pursued by the Japanese later dispersed into the surrounding countryside to wage a costly guerrilla struggle against Allied and White forces.
  23. Graves, 89-91; Carl Ackerman, Trailing the Bolsheveki: Twelve Thousand Miles with the Allies in Siberia, (New York, 1919), 186-188. Ackerman, the Times correspondent in Siberia, accompanied Graves on his October tour.
  24. “Regimental History of the 31st US Infantry Regiment,” found in Sprigg Papers, HI. See also Order of Battle, op. cit.
  25. For a colorful description of the mines see Dorothy Findlay to “My Dearest Family,” August 11 and 14, 1918, in John and Dorothy Findlay, “Letters from Vladivostok,” ed. by D. Glaton and J. Keep, Slavonic and East European Review, 45 (July, 1967), 502-506.
  26. Graves, 93.
  27. Order of Battle, op. cit., 388-389; and Military Intelligence Handbook, parts I-IV, “Siberia and Eastern Russia,” which offer descriptions and relevant information on towns, villages and strategic locations along the railways of Siberia, Grayson Papers, HI.
  28. Graves to Harris,June 26, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 507-508.
  29. Graves to Harris,June 26, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 508-509.
  30. “Regimental History of the 31st US Infantry Regiment,” Sprigg Papers, HI.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Report submitted under General Order No. 25 to Head Quarters, aef to Siberia, Vladivostok, dated September 24, 1919, listing engagements of troops north of Vladivostok, found in Faulstich Papers, HI.
  33. Lansing to Morris, June 30, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 389.
  34. Morris to Lansing, July 22, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 394 and Graves, 218-247. Morris invited Graves to accompany him to Omsk.
  35. United States Senate, Document No. 60, Sixty-sixth Congress, Second Session, “American Troops in Siberia,” (Washington, 1919).
  36. Two cables the same day from Morris to Lansing, June 22, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 395.
  37.  Morris to Lansing, August 11, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 408-410.
  38. Clerk to Lansing, May 19, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 499-500 in which a list of complaints about Graves by the British Foreign Office is conveyed to Lansing; also Lansing to Commission to negotiate peace, March 6, 1919, FRUS, Russia, 1919, 2: 474-475 for reports of Japanese losses and calls for US assistance.
  39. This argument is principally put forward by Kennan as a secondary, but important, influence on the decision to intervene.

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