History Unknown: The American Invasion of Soviet Russia
How a little-known intervention birthed the Cold War.
This post is part of the “History Unknown” series, which investigates lesser-known historical events to understand how they shaped the modern world. This series is available for premium readers. If you’re not a premium reader but would like to support my work and unlock this article, please upgrade to a premium subscription. I recently introduced a “Pay What You Can” structure, so you can subscribe with whatever price fits your budget.
In Solidarity — Joe
If you were to stop an average American on the street and ask them, “Did America ever invade the Soviet Union?” they’d likely respond, “Of course not! That’s why it was called ‘The Cold War.’” To the surprise of many, this is incorrect. In one of the lesser-known events of history, American troops invaded Soviet Russia right after World War I and attempted to displace the communist government. While the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would become allies twenty years later in World War II, the American intervention left a lasting impression on the Soviet people and their ideological allies around the globe.
World War I & The Russian Civil War
In 1914, Tsarist Russia entered World War I. The war brought tremendous hardship upon the Russian people, leading to the February Revolution of 1917 that saw the Tsar replaced with a Provisional Government. But as the Provisional Government refused to end the war, it was quickly overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution in November of the same year. The new communist government immediately sued for peace. In March 1918, Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers, officially ending Russia’s participation in the global conflict. But while the nature of Russia’s conflict changed, the horrors of war remained.
Immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution the nation fell into civil war. There were the “Reds,” the Bolsheviks and their supporters, and the “Whites,” a loose coalition of Tsarists, Provisional Government supporters, and regional independence movements. The Whites were aided by Russia’s former WWI allies of the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and the United States. (To make things more complicated, there were also sporadic “green armies,” peasant militias that fought all sides.) At first, the Allied contribution to the Whites was merely logistical, but it soon evolved into a full-fledged coalition.
In early 1918, before the war had ended, the British sent troops into the Russian city of Murmansk. The official justification for the force was to ensure the war remained a two-front conflict and to protect weapons the Allied Powers had supplied to the previous Russian government. Facing troop shortages and long supply lines, the British officially requested American troops join their Russian campaign in the summer of 1918. Against the advice of his advisors, President Woodrow Wilson sent approximately 13,000 soldiers into Soviet Russia. 5,000 “Doughboys,” as Americans were called, landed in Arkhangelsk, along the border of modern Finland, while another 8,000 were moved from the Philippines to Vladivostok on the eastern side of Siberia. The Japanese, who were staunchly opposed to communism, also sent troops into the east.
Officially, the troops were called the American Expeditionary Force. But the soldiers themselves adopted a different name — The Polar Bear Expedition.