At precisely 11:00 am on November 11th, 1918, the Armistice of Compiègne officially went into effect, finally bringing an end to the most destructive war the world had ever seen. The guns along the Western Front fell silent. But 4,000 km away, in a little known province along the frigid northern Russian frontier, an American Expeditionary Force nicknamed the "Polar Bears" was engaged in a desperate battle (sometimes called "Peace Day's Bloody Battle") with Bolshevik troops for control of a fairly inconsequential railway town called Tulgas. When news of the Armistice reached the American troops in Russia, they rejoiced. But what the bejeezus were American troops doing in Russia fighting the Bolsheviks in the first place?
Answering this question requires a bit of backstory. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the Russian throne in 1917 amid mass popular unrest, organized strikes, and violent protests. The Russian people were tired of fighting the war. This led to the establishment of a Provisional Government made up of a loose coalition of liberals, socialists, and communists, however, this new government failed to satisfy the Russian people’s immediate desire to end World War I. For the hard-line Marxist Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a Lenin, on the other hand, peace with Germany was perhaps the top priority. A groundswell of support emboldened the Bolsheviks to seize control of the government infrastructure and army barracks in Petrograd, Moscow and other major Russian cities in November of 1917, much to the shock of the rest of the world. Lenin and the Bolsheviks kept their word and sued for peace with Germany, signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3rd, 1918, effectively ending official Russian involvement in World War I.
The Allies were understandably not pleased with this development. Western leaders were concerned that German reinforcements who had been fighting the Russians could now be diverted to the Western Front, replenishing German lines and making a final allied offensive much more costly. And given the tumultuous events in Russia over the past year, it wasn’t clear at the time that the Bolsheviks would be able to maintain control of the new government. The pro-Tsarist Russian Army officers (the Whites), who were staunchly anti-communist, fought a protracted Civil War with the newly formed Bolshevik army (the Reds) for control of the country. Since the Whites promised to reopen the Eastern Front if they won, France and England pledged to support them and were able to convince President Wilson to commit a portion of American troops to the Russian operation.
The U.S. Army's Eighth Division had been organized in January of 1918 at Camp Fremont in California under the command of Major General William S. Graves. When deployed in the summer of 1918, the division assumed it was being sent to France to fight the Germans. Meanwhile, the members of the 339th Infantry Division (the Polar Bears) who were training in England had their British-made Enfield rifles confiscated and replaced by the much more unreliable Russian designed Mosin-Nagant rifles—weapons that were compatible with Russian ammunition. These two divisions, which comprised approximately 13,000 men, weren't sent to Western Europe to finish off the Germans. Their final destination was Siberia.
Ostensibly, there were three goals for the combined Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War:
- Assist the Czech Legion, an anti-Bolshevik force that had been fighting the German army, by helping them escape from Russia along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
- Secure the millions of dollars worth of war armaments stockpiled in the port cities of Azcherican and Vladivostok to prevent them from falling into German or Bolshevik hands.
- Help the Whites resurrect the Eastern Front against the Red Army.
When the Americans arrived, the British had already been there for at least a month and had secured any armaments not seized by the Bolsheviks. Despite pressure from the British and White Army leadership, Major Graves was reluctant to directly engage the Bolsheviks. He saw his primary mission as securing the railway to allow the Czech Legion to escape, not fighting Russians. Even then, he wondered how much good their presence was actually doing. The Polar Bear expedition (339th Infantry) on the other hand fought several pitched battles against communist forces during their deployment. The last American troops didn't head home until April of 1920, a year and a half after the end of the war. All told, there were about 424 casualties between the two expeditionary forces during their twenty-odd months in Siberia.
By early 1919, the Czech League had been successfully rescued, the supply depots had either been secured or raided by the Bolsheviks, and Germany had surrendered—negating the need for a second front. Why did American troops suffer under terrible conditions in Russia for another year?
Long story short: the US was already terrified of communism. The perceived pointlessness of the Great War had swelled the ranks of socialist, anarchist, and communist parties worldwide. A Bolshevik victory in Russia could lead to a further spread of Marxist ideas in Western countries and embolden revolutionaries, potentially overthrowing the existing power structure in Europe. Bolshevism had to be wiped out. The Allied mission was only reevaluated when it became apparent that the Bolsheviks were going to win the Civil War. In the summer of 1919, the Wilson administration finally brought the Polar Bears home. Why did the US decide to abort the ill-fated mission? There was no way the American public would have accepted another extended war in Russia just to oust the communists.