Critical Enquiry

US and Allied Wars in Russia, 1918-22

Many Americans would be surprised to learn that the USA, along with Britain, France, and Japan, fought a campaign in Russia just after the Great War (World War I). The primary objective of this action was the re-establishment of an Eastern Front following the collapse of the Russian government during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, but Allied fear of communist ambitions in other countries also played into the intervention as will be seen below. The overall campaign was named the Polar Bear Expedition, but was also known as the Northern Russian Expedition, the American North Russia Expeditionary Force - ANREF or the American Expeditionary Force North Russia - AEFNR.

These efforts are not mentioned in most history survey courses, and few texts even mention that US troops (or those of any other nation) fought against the Bolsheviks during this period. The presence of US Army units from Michigan in Vladivostok, Archangel, and other Russian locations is rarely noted although the University of Michigan maintains an archive of photographs and other primary evidence relating to the period.

Russian Prisoners

From the Louis E. Schicker collection in the University of Michigan's Polar Bear archives

Troops were sent to Russia near the close of World War I for several reasons, all of which were related to the instability of the Russian government. First, the Russian army's disastrous defeat at the hands of the Germans resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Initially his government was replaced by an interim democratic administration (the only democratic regime that has ever existed in Russia) under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky. This change in government structure caused president Woodrow Wilson to change his mind about participation in the war. He had initially refused to commit the US to an alliance with the despotic Tsarist government. Thus, US troops were mustered for action on the Western Front.

However, in October 1917 the Bolshevik revolution replaced the Kerensky government with communist rule under Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. This resulted in the withdrawl of Russian troops from the Eastern front as the new government negotiated a separate peace with Germany under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Loss of the Eastern Front placed additional pressure on Allied troops from the US, France, Britain, and other countries fighting on the Western Front. The Germans were able to move troops from Eastern borders to French battlefields, thus strengthening their hand.

The change of government also left at risk vast amounts of military materiel and armaments provided by Britain to the Kerensky government. There was concern that these supplies would be captured by the Germans or (worse) the Bolsheviks. This was unacceptable, both from a military and economic standpoint.

There was also a concern that the armaments might be used against other European powers once the newly established communist government built up the newly minted red Army's power. Western nations greatly feared Marxism, which taught that industrial powers would eventually be overthrown in "peoples' revolutions" as the "proletariat" took their rightful place. The idea of a heavily armed communist state was, as a result, extremely unpalatable to most Western governments.

The various Allies are estimated to have sent the following strength of troops to the Russian campaign (from Wikipedia):

Obviously the British and French were desperately short of troops due to commitments on the Western Front. Thus their contribution to the Eastern campaign was very small in terms of personnel. American troops were deployed in Archangel (Arkangelsk), Murmansk, and Vladivostok. Many of these troops were from units organized in Michigan, including the 339th Infantry, 310th Engineers, 337th Field Hospital, and 337th Ambulance Company. This group later adopted the name "The Polar Bear Expedition," and members referred to themselves as Polar Bears.

US Troops arrive in Archangel

American Troops Arriving at Vladivostok

US involvement in this ill-conceived expedition was short. Once the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 the Wilson government began receiving letters and petitions to bring the troops home from Siberia and other regions in which they were deployed. Most were withdrawn from Russia by mid 1919, having lost several hundred men to combat as well as sickness (including the Spanish Flu).

Video from YouTube showing US soldiers from the 339th in Russia circa 1918.


The Allied incursion generally accomplished nothing significant in terms of either foreign relations or military success. The small forces deployed to Russia were unable to break the power of the Red Army, and simply watched as the White Army (composed of anti-communist Russians) was slowly destroyed. Worse, the Allies are said to have made and then broken numerous promises of additional assistance made to Admiral Kolchak, the leader of a "government in exile" established at Omsk following the Bolshevik revolution. John Ward, who lead the British force known as "Die-Hards," states that

It is certain that Admiral Koltchak would never have gone to Siberia, nor have become the head of the constitutional movement and government of Russia, if he had not been advised and even urged to do so by the Allies. He received the most categorical promises of whole-hearted support and early Allied recognition before he agreed to take up the dangerous duty of head of the Omsk Government. Had these urgings and promises been ungrudgingly performed a Constituent Assembly would be now sitting at Moscow hammering out the details of a Federal Constitution for a mighty Russian Republic or a parliamentary system similar to our own. (Ward, 1920)

Having agreed to assist Kolchak and the anti-communists, the Allies then apparently worked at odds with each other rather than forming a united front behind his government. The British and Japanese were rabidly fearful of communism as a whole. The former were mindful of Marx' prediction that communism would be established first in England and France (the most industrialized nations when he wrote The Communist Manifesto), while the latter feared communism as a threat to the monarchy.

[...] [the Allies'] help took the form of positive wilful obstruction. The Japanese, by bolstering up Semianoff and Kalmakoff, and the Americans, by protecting and organising enemies, made it practically impossible for the Omsk Government to maintain its authority or existence. The most that could be expected was that both would see the danger of their policy in time to avert disaster. One did; the other left when the evils created had got beyond control. Koltchak has not been destroyed so much by the acts of his enemies as by the stupidity and neglect of his Allied friends. (Ward, 1920)

It may also be argued that this incursion into the fledgling Soviet Union (then called the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) by Allied forces set the stage for later Soviet fear of attack from the West. Certainly the intervention of foreign troops and their action against the new communist regime was a useful propaganda tool. It could be used to justify fear of capitalist states, the later creation of the eastern European Soviet bloc (as a buffer against invasion), and even the extermination of Soviet soldiers who came into contact with non-Soviet governments and military agencies.

As is so often the case, a badly thought out short term foreign policy decision had serious ramifications for decades to come. Is it any surprise that this incident is not even discussed in US history classes?


Note: All information contained in these pages is © 2008 Richard E. Joltes. Excerpts may be used where proper credit is given and permission is obtained in advance. All rights reserved.