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Allied Intervention in Russia

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and quickly began efforts to withdraw from participation in World War I. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March of the following year. By arranging a separate peace with Germany, Russia created immense problems for its former allies. German soldiers fighting in the East were subsequently transferred to the Western Front and contributed to the initially successful spring offensive in 1918.

Bolshevik volunteer

Even before the separate peace had been signed, Allied efforts to intervene in Russia were under way. Reasons for the intervention included:

  • Denial of War Matériel and Ports to the Germans. Allied commanders feared that German forces would seize vast stores of war matériel in Russia after Russian soldiers had laid down their arms. Other Allied powers hoped to take important Russian port cities and deny them to the Germans.
  • Rescue of the Czechs. A Czech army of 40,000 men had been fighting in Russia against the Germans and Austrians. Following Brest-Litovsk, the Czechs were deemed to be at risk and their rescue was one of the most frequently stated Allied rationalizations for intervention.
  • Fear of Communism. Allied governments were distressed by the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia, fearing that revolution might spread to Western Europe and beyond. Some Allies advocated extending military assistance to the White armies, the opponents of the Reds (Communists).
  • Reopening of the Eastern Front. Some Allied leaders entertained the belief that the Bolsheviks' defeat would revive the war effort in Russia and put Germany back into the precarious position of having to fight a two-front war. In truth, few Russians of any political stripe desired to resume participation in the conflict.

Alexander Kerensky

Allied intervention arrived in a variety of forms and at different times. In September 1917, the beleaguered Kerensky provisional government requested U.S. assistance to maintain control of the Trans-Siberian Railway; 280 American transportation experts were given military commissions and were sent to Russia. Japanese forces moved into Vladivostok in December after Kerensky’s fall. French soldiers made a brief appearance in the Ukraine in a confusing struggle among Communists, Whites and Ukrainian nationalists. The British concentrated their efforts in the north in Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and Murmansk, but gave up the venture in the fall of 1919.

Regular American forces under the command of General William S. Graves made an appearance in August 1918 with one segment of the command sent to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, and the other to Vladivostok. The American leadership had been reluctant to become involved in this venture, but were urged on by the British, who hoped the Bolsheviks' grip could be loosened. The U.S. also was motivated by its growing rivalry with Japan, which had dispatched more than 70,000 soldiers to Russia; the American force would number about 9,000.

Graves was successful with his prime assignment to aid the Czechs, but the relationship with the other Allies was difficult. The British lobbied hard for direct intervention on behalf of the Whites against the Bolsheviks. The Japanese government became increasingly unhappy with Woodrow Wilson, who had initially indicated a willingness to support a Japanese plea for a statement on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The British opposed such a statement, fearing that an endorsement of equality might spell trouble for their worldwide empire. In the end, Wilson caved in to British pressure and withdrew his support, which deeply offended the Japanese.

American forces in Russia were not fully withdrawn until April 1920. Japanese soldiers, which sustained heavy losses in Russia, remained until October 1922; some Japanese political and military leaders had lobbied for the outright annexation of Siberia, but were overruled.

The American adventure in Russia did not go unnoticed at home. Newspapers openly questioned the venture, wondering why soldiers should be fighting in a foreign war long after the armistice was signed.

Wilson remained firm in his refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to the new Soviet government, but he pressured Britain and France to give up their interventionist forays into Russia. At the Paris Peace Conference, Russian issues and the status quo in the Pacific were largely ignored.


See Wilson and Foreign Affairs and World War I Timeline.

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