Siberian Intervention


American troops in front of a building occupied by Czech and Slovak staff in Vladivostok, 1918. One of their major objectives was to rescue the 40,000 men of the Czechoslovak Legions who were being held by Bolshevik forces. Wisely, the American commander refused to involve U. S. forces in hostilities on behalf of Russian “White” counterrevolutionaries. In January 1920, in view of the ground commander’s assessment that the Whites were doomed, the War Department withdrew the American troops. When the last forces left on April 1, the ill-starred episode had created a memory the Russians never forgot and left the graves of 192 Americans in the frozen wastes of Siberia.


A Japanese propaganda lithograph rallies for occupation of Siberia.

The complex political and military environment that emerged in the wake of World War I was particularly complicated for Japan, which greatly feared communism and wanted as much distance between itself and its Russian neighbor as possible. Japan had already annexed Korea in 1910, but was hoping to create a separate state in Siberia on the east coast of the Russian Empire in order to establish a protective distance from Russia. An international sanction with the purported aim of peace keeping provided the perfect opportunity for Japan to send several thousand men to Siberia.

Seizing the Opportunity

US President Woodrow Wilson sent the American Expeditionary Force Siberia to Vladivostock to protect allied troops, American assets, and the Trans-Siberian Railway in Siberia. The troops were sent at the request of British and French officials when they were short of men in Siberia to help the Czech Legion make its way safely out of Siberia and to Vladivostock. President Wilson asked Japan to contribute to this force. They were initially asked to provide 7,000 troops to bolster the allied forces, but eventually sent ten times that figure, and additional civilians to settle in portions of eastern Siberia.

An Intervention with Few Results

Although there were no actual results to speak of, the Siberian Intervention affected Japan detrimentally. The Japanese operated under multiple layers of reasoning when joining the coalition; however, their subtler motivations were not well defined enough to be executed with any degree of effectiveness. Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake proposed the intervention. Terauchi had had an illustrious military career, even losing his right hand during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Terauchi had been made general in Korea during the annexation and had brought the country under the military control of Japan. Staunchly devoted to expanding Japan’s control in Korea and China, he promoted the establishment of schools across Korea teaching Japanese curriculum. He also worked to negotiate, both openly and secretly, for greater Japanese control in China. Terauchi died in 1919, but the Siberian Intervention was already underway.

Disorganization and Devastation

The whole situation served to fragment Japan’s military and cause internal bitterness and strife. Japan suffered about 5,000 losses. Many of the deaths were from illness and cold, as well as poor preparation for the weather conditions in Siberia. The Japanese were unsuccessful in creating a separate Siberian state, and the Red Army won the Russian Civil War and established the communist state of the Soviet Union. All in all, it proved to be a disaster for Japan, but the threat from a communist power just across the sea did not ultimately materialize in any way that would jeopardize Japanese sovereignty. The efforts of the other countries involved were not wholly successful either, but their involvement was limited compared to that of Japan. No one was properly prepared for the terrain and the cold encountered in Siberia. The Siberian Intervention set the stage, however, for little more than a decade later when Japan would once again invade China in the second Sino-Japanese war.

The US Army Transformed

The years 1902 to 1917 saw the United States entering fully upon the world stage, and that entrance mandated that the Army change itself accordingly. The Army was forced to shed most of its Indian- fighting past and transform itself into an Army for an empire. As an imperial police force it pacified the Philippines, occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico, and participated in the international intervention force into China during the Boxer Rebellion. At the same time, it continued to fulfill its obligations as a homeland security force as it conducted operations along the southern border of the United States and into Mexico itself. The Army had by necessity become a much more capable force than ever before, equipped for overseas expeditions and for the essentially constabulary duties of America’s new empire.

Although the Army was forced to make numerous practical changes to cope with the new challenges of America’s becoming a world power, it also underwent a series of intellectual changes that established a framework for even greater changes to come. At the heart of these changes were the reforms undertaken by Secretary of War Root during his years in office (1899-1904). These Root reforms (changing the command structure of the Army with the establishment of the office of Chief of Staff with a General Staff and breaking the power of the bureau chiefs; the creation of the National Guard with training, organization, and equipment in line with the Regular Army; and the reorganization of the Army school system including the establishment of the Army War College in 1903) were essential in increasing the professionalism of the Army and forcing it to look outward to the new challenges to come.

Thanks to the reforms of the early twentieth century, for the first time the Army would have some of the basic intellectual and procedural tools in hand to prepare and conduct contingency plans for a wide variety of operations. It would have a corps of regular officers and men supported by a National Guard available for federal service on relatively short notice. When the National Defense Act enhanced the reforms in 1916, the result was little short of revolutionary. The Root reforms laid the basis for transforming the Army into a modern, albeit still modestly sized military force suitable for the new missions that had to be performed.

Yet events outside the United States were moving quicker than any peacetime reform packages could hope to contain. The United States’ involvement in the war in Europe would shortly mandate the wholesale remaking of its Army yet again. This massive conflict that began in 1914 in Europe was to change all of America’s assumptions when it came to armies and international commitments. The war was terrifying to behold, with million-man armies locked in deadly combat in trenches that scarred hundreds of miles of the landscape of northern France. Deadly armies of conscripts equipped with machine guns, vast arrays of artillery, airplanes, and tanks showed to any intelligent observer how ill prepared the American Army would be for the challenges of modern warfare. A new, and severe, test for American arms was on the horizon.

After the Armistice, Army units continued to serve elsewhere in the world, including two generally unsuccessful expeditions into revolution-torn Russia. In August 1918 the chaos in Russia resulting from the Bolshevik seizure of power induced President Woodrow Wilson to order the Army to join Allied forces in expeditions into Russian territory. Multinational forces penetrated the Murmansk-Archangel region of European Russia and entered Siberia via Vladivostok to safeguard various interests, and support anti-Bolshevik forces. The European Russia force, containing about 5,000 American troops under British command, suffered heavy casualties while guarding Allied war supplies meant for the Tsarist forces and communication lines before withdrawing in June 1919. The Siberian force of about 10,000, under Maj. Gen. William S. Graves, encountered many difficulties in its attempts to rescue Czech troops, captured soldiers of the newly collapsed Austro-Hungarian empire trapped by the deteriorating Russian situation, and to curb Japanese expansionist tendencies in the region between August 1918 and April 1920. Together these two forces incurred about 500 combat casualties. While seen in the West as only a footnote to World War I, the American and Allied intervention into the Russian civil war was deeply resented by the eventually triumphant Reds and continued to foster suspicion of American intentions in the minds of the leaders of the new Soviet Union for years to come.

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