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Allied Intervention in the Russian Revolution

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Александр Павлович Шиманский
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia →
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188912476 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Was the Allied intervention in Soviet Russia that began in 1918 intended to crush communism?

Viewpoint: Yes. The Allied military presence was aimed at eradicating the Bolshevik regime.

Viewpoint: No. The Allies were concerned mainly with protecting their own wartime and postwar geopolitical and strategic interests in the region.


The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 set off not just a brutal civil war in Russia but also a determined international effort to aid anti-Bolshevik forces. Beginning in the spring of 1918, the Allies sent troops eventually numbering 150,000 men from fifteen nations, including Britain, France, the United States, and Japan. In most cases these forces had been withdrawn by 1920, but Japan kept troops on the mainland Far East until 1922 and on the Russian part of Sakhalin Island until 1925. This intervention cast a long shadow over Soviet Russia and its relations with much of the rest of the world.
The true motives for this intervention have been debated. One argument suggests that it was a determined effort to crush Bolshevism by aiding domestic resistance to communist rule. Future British prime minister Winston Churchill, who served as war minister during much of the intervention, spoke of "strangling the Bolshevik baby in its crib." In addition to sending troops, both Britain and France gave large amounts of material and diplomatic aid to the "Whites," the Russian anti-Bolshevik forces.
At times, however, the intentions of the interventionist powers appeared to be less ambitious, and eradicating Bolshevism seemed only incidental to the Allies' main goals. As a counterargument suggests, many of the nations involved were less worried about the Bolsheviks than they were that Germany would exploit its World War I victory over Russia by moving unopposed into the Russian heartland. According to this argument, one major reason for intervention was preventing Allied supplies that had been intended for Russian units on the Eastern Front from falling into German hands. American intervention, the argument maintains, was mainly oriented toward preventing Japanese expansion into Asian territories of Russia.

Viewpoint: Yes. The Allied military presence was aimed at eradicating the Bolshevik regime.

Governments in general dislike admitting to failure, and so it is not surprising that the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War has often been portrayed as anything but what it was: a failed attempt to eradicate Bolshevism while it was still weak.

Initially, the Allied decision to help the anti-Bolshevik "Whites" against the Bolshevik communist "Reds" was part of the Allies' strategy to defeat the Germans in World War I. The Reds were committed to ending the unpopular and costly war with Germany on whatever terms necessary so they could focus on consolidating Bolshevik power within Russia. As a result they accepted the punitive terms demanded by Germany in the March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Allies hoped that defeating the communists in Russia would lead to the reopening of the Eastern Front, thus preventing Germany from concentrating its forces against the Allies in the West. Then, however, the Allies won World War I without reviving hostilities on the Eastern Front. As a result they found themselves in the awkward position of intervening in Russian internal affairs without their original compelling reason to do so.

The Russian community in exile argued that, as Russian governments before the communist takeover had been loyal to the Allied cause, the Allies had a moral obligation to help the Whites defeat the Reds. Furthermore, the Soviet government, at this point still committed to "global revolution," was actively spreading communist propaganda and conducting subversive activities in many Allied countries, as well as in most of the defeated ones. War weariness, however, initially led the Allies to attempt a compromise between the two sides, while Allied troops remained in place.

As early as February 1918, even before the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Britain supported intervention in the civil war on behalf of the Whites, and in March it landed troops in Murmansk. They were soon joined by forces from France, Italy, Japan, the United States, and ten other nations. Eventually, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers served in Russia. Reluctant to send their own soldiers into major combat, the Allies supplied impressive quantities of war matériel and financing to the White armies. Thousands of tons of supplies poured into the camps of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak in Siberia and General Anton Denikin in southern Russia, as well as to the forces of lesser and more-infamous commanders, such as the brutal Cossack Grigorii Semenov.

The United States, under the idealistic leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, hoped for a compromise between the warring parties. Although the British were more willing to fight than their allies, they joined the Americans in calling all Russian parties to a truce and peace talks at Prinkipo, in the recently defeated Ottoman Empire (now Büyükada, Turkey). The Reds declined the truce but accepted the call for peace talks, while the Whites declined both. The failure to bring the two sides together led War Minister Winston Churchill of Britain to call for increasing aggressive action against the communists, but the Americans continued to hope for a settlement, sending Assistant Secretary of State William Bullitt to Moscow in March 1919. The peace proposals he received from the communists, including amnesty for Russians who collaborated with the Allies and a pledge of a cease-fire in return for an end of Allied aid to the Whites, came at a time when the Allies were already embroiled with the seemingly more pressing matter of the Rhineland and Germany. The communist proposals proved unacceptable to the Allies and the Whites, and the accommodationist phase of Allied intervention ended, allowing Churchill's opinions to assume temporary prominence.

The scale of the war between the Russian Reds and Whites, however, was such that the Allies soon realized they would have little, if any, direct impact on the course of the Civil War unless they were prepared to intervene on a far grander scale. By the end of April 1919 the French had withdrawn their soldiers. The Allies were involved in almost no military engagements. British and American troops saw some action in November 1918 on the Northern Front, near the port of Arkhangel'sk, but this campaign was of limited significance in the outcome of the Civil War. The last British and American soldiers were withdrawn in 1920. The main Allied contributions to the White cause thereafter were supplies and money, mostly from Britain.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 communist power was at first concentrated mostly in Moscow, Petrograd, and the heart of European Russia; communist control was weaker in other parts of the Russian Empire, especially in the south of European Russia, the countryside outside the heartland, and Siberia. In the Far East the Japanese had established good supply lines and were willing to defend their newly gained advances. Under direct pressure from the Americans they agreed to begin withdrawing from Russian territory in summer 1920, but Japanese forces remained on the Far Eastern mainland until autumn 1922 and in the northern (Russian) half of Sakhalin Island until 1925.

To a certain extent the Allies' collective amnesia about their missed opportunity to eliminate communism in its infancy was made easier by official Soviet historiography. Soviet historians tended to portray the Civil War as a domestic struggle against segments of Russian society that resisted the consolidation of Bolshevik power (internal suppression) and as military campaigns against the White armies. Although these historians acknowledged Allied intervention on the Whites' behalf, they downplayed this aspect of Soviet history. The Soviets needed to portray Bolshevik forces as strong and their victory as inevitable. To suggest that the outcome could have been otherwise would have highlighted the tenuous nature of early Bolshevik rule in Russia and thus undermined the subsequent legitimacy of the Soviet state. Furthermore, after the Civil War the Soviets desperately needed to normalize relations with the West in order to secure foreign investment in their war-torn country and promote foreign trade. Lenin and his associates believed that stabilizing the domestic economy was critical to the survival of their regime, and such stabilization was impossible without a return of healthy foreign trade and investment.

After the end of World War I in November 1918 the only reason for continued Allied intervention in Russia was the menace of international communism to global security and the Western capitalist way of life; the Allies' goal was to eradicate Bolshevism. Because of their recent heavy fatalities in World War I, however, the Allies lacked the resolve to involve their troops in a full-scale intervention. Neither the French nor the Americans had much appetite for the new adventure. The United States had entered World War I late and with reluctance, and the idealistic government of Woodrow Wilson was unwilling to countenance the loss of American lives to restore a conservative autocracy or to install what would almost certainly have been an undemocratic military government. France had paid such a high price in lives and property during the war that its only interest was extracting a suitable degree of reparation from Germany at Versailles. Moreover, many influential French socialists viewed the Soviet state with a degree of optimism that prevented them from supporting intervention on the behalf of its domestic enemies.

Britain was the Allied nation most heavily involved in the Russian Civil War, largely because Churchill viewed communism as an abomination, a threat to world peace and security. Foreseeing that the menace to Western society posed by a communist Russia was potentially greater than the upheaval inflicted by Germany, he called on the Allies to "strangle the Bolshevik baby in its crib." As British public opinion was tired of involvement in military action, however, the British contribution against the Reds ultimately consisted mostly of financial support and military matériel.

One could attempt to argue, by virtue of the Allied attempts at mediation in early 1919, that there was a genuine willingness to allow the Reds to continue to exist. Yet, the presence of Allied troops in Russian territory during these supposedly honest attempts at compromise leads to some skepticism. Furthermore, the volume of Allied material support was great, and the Whites' failure to use it in an effective, united, and well-organized effort--not an insufficiency of Allied supplies--was largely responsible for their failure to win the Civil War. Finally, the Allies' unwillingness to consider the ideas brought back from Moscow by the Bullitt mission indicates that the main purpose of the mission, from the Allied leadership's perspective, was to give them a pretext for rejecting the Reds' proposals and thus legitimize continued action against the Reds. The chief purpose of Allied intervention in Soviet Russia was to help the Whites defeat the Reds and destroy Bolshevism.

-- Vasilis Vourkoutiotis, University of Ottawa

Viewpoint: No. The Allies were concerned mainly with protecting their own wartime and postwar geopolitical and strategic interests in the region.

In the past the official Soviet historiography described the Allied intervention in Russia as a large-scale, well-coordinated, and ideologically motivated crusade of "international capitalism" against Soviet Russia. During the Stalin era this approach went even further. The Russian Civil War was officially renamed a "Patriotic War Against the Interventionists and the White Guards." Some Western scholars, while doubting that the Allied endeavor in Russia was well coordinated, also view anticommunist intentions as the Allies' primary motive. Some scholars, particularly left-wing critics of the intervention, have even defined it as the real beginning of the Cold War between the Soviets and the West. Surely there was a strong and persistent element of natural hostility on the part of the West toward the Bolshevik regime installed in Russia in 1917. The West took note of its radical ideology, extremist tactics, and brutality and also suspected links with the Germans during World War I. Moreover, the Bolsheviks withdrew Russia from the war and thus from the Allied camp.

Nevertheless, even those historians who share the view that intervention was intended to crush communism could not deny several paradoxes of the Allied involvement in the Russian Civil War. First, most of the Allied contingents sent to Russia were not large enough to participate in major combat. After the end of World War I the Western powers deployed only a small portion of their forces to Russia. Second, as many Western diplomatic documents reveal, the Allies, at least initially, were reluctant to fight the Bolsheviks, and the British and U.S. governments repeatedly made it clear that they did not intend to take sides in the Russian turmoil. Third, most of the Allied troops in Russia were deployed in theaters of operation far removed from the Bolshevik-controlled heartland. The Allied forces' confinement to the periphery prevented them from playing any decisive role in the clash with the Reds. Finally, in the diplomatic sphere the Allied powers did not use all the opportunities available to create an effective anti-Soviet coalition involving the states bordering Russia.

The Bolsheviks later admitted that they could not have withstood a concerted French and British attack in the end of 1918, but such an attack had not occurred. Historians have also identified three critical moments in 1919 when the Reds were in grave danger of defeat, and the Allies did not employ stronger intervention tactics, which had realistic chances for success. In the late spring and early summer of 1919 Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak's forces in Siberia made substantial gains in their march on Moscow, the new capital, before they were turned back. In the fall of that year the forces of General Anton Denikin in southern Russia moved north with some success and were stopped only about a hundred miles south of the new capital. Another army's simultaneous attack on the former capital of Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed in 1914) reached the suburbs of the city before stalling. Each of these campaigns received tentative Allied assistance, but it was mostly confined to material supplies and some limited naval operations in the Baltic. Substantive Allied aid to any one of these White campaigns might have made the difference in the Civil War.

Many historians have pointed out that the Allied adventure in Russia was motivated by more complex considerations than just anticommunism. Until the armistice was signed on the Western Front in November 1918, the continuing war with Germany and its allies (the Central Powers) dominated the Allied approach to the Russian problem.

Having been exhausted by the uncertain and bloody standoff in the West, the British and the French particularly wanted to reestablish an Eastern Front, which had virtually disintegrated after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia and declared their intention to leave the war. The Allies were concerned that the peace in the East could allow the Germans to transfer some one million troops to the West and defeat the Allied cause. The Allies hoped that the emerging anti-Bolshevik movements in Russia--which, as a rule, strongly opposed separate peace talks between the Russians and the Germans--would carry on fighting against the Central Powers if they were successful. These considerations, rather than just anticommunism, prompted the British and French decision of 1 December 1917 to establish contacts with the anti-Soviet forces in Russia.

After the collapse of the first round of the separate peace talks between Russia and the Central Powers in February 1918 the rapid and successful advance of the Central Powers deep inside Russia added new elements to the situation. On the one hand, the Allies began to consider how to prevent the Central Powers from making use of Russian agricultural, mineral, and industrial resources. Addressing this problem might have required Allied operations in southern Russia and the Caucasus. If, however, the Reds continued to fight the Germans, any Allied confrontation with the Bolsheviks would have been unnecessary and counterproductive for the reestablishment of the Eastern Front.

Moreover, the Allied governments, though for a brief period of time, even considered cooperating with the Reds in fighting the Germans. The United States, Britain, and France maintained unofficial contacts with the Soviets in 1917-1918 and attempted to sponsor peace talks between the two sides in the Civil War in 1919.

In the growing chaos surrounding the German advance in Russia, the Allies, particularly Britain and the United States, also became concerned that the Germans might seize the huge quantities of war supplies that they had delivered to Russia in 1916-1917. Many of these supplies were stockpiled at the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangel'sk in the north and at Vladivostok in the Far East. The perceived need to protect these supplies strengthened the Allied (particularly the British) desire to intervene in Russia.

After Soviet Russia and the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the Allies had raised one more concern about the Russian situation. They feared that, when the Russians released their enemy prisoners of war, those roughly one million men might easily take over Siberia with its infrastructure, including the port of Vladivostok. In addition, the British were haunted by visions of enemy armies invading the Caspian region on their way to India. Such fears, realistic or not, contributed to the Allies' decision to intervene in Russia.

In May 1918 an armed conflict broke out between the Reds and the Czechoslovak Legion, a unit that had been formed in Russia to fight the Germans and was on its way to Vladivostok to be transported to the Western Front. The Allies, particularly the United States, decided to help the Czechs. When the well-disciplined Czechs easily took over the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Allies began to view them and the pro-Allied and anti-Bolshevik Russians as the possible nucleus of an army to reopen a new Eastern Front. Thus the interrelated imperatives of keeping the Germans occupied in the east, helping the Czechoslovak Legion, and keeping strategically important areas and resources of Russia from the enemy provided strong motives for the Allies to go into northern Russia, Transcaucasia, the Caspian region, and Siberia in March-April 1918. The Allied troop presence was increased with the arrival of French forces in Ukraine in December 1918.

Japan sent more troops to Russia (seventy-three thousand) than all the other Allies combined. Many historians agree that the Japanese intervention was much less motivated by anticommunism than by a desire to establish de facto Japanese control in Siberia and the Far East, which Tokyo considered its special "sphere of interest." Some scholars stress that sending American troops to Siberia was primarily an attempt to offset unilateral Japanese action there. Moreover, as some students of the intervention have concluded, the mission of the U.S. expeditionary forces in Siberia was a continuation of the traditional "Open Door" policy that Washington had long advocated in the Far East. The U.S. troops in Siberia were instructed to remain strictly neutral in the civil war. For that reason the White leaders in Siberia later advocated the removal of the Americans from the Russian territory.

The U.S.-Japanese rivalry in Siberia and the Allied occupation of other parts of Russian territory stimulated many complaints from the Whites as well as the Reds, both of whom charged that the Allies were pursuing their own expansionist goals and economic interests. Adherents of this view often refer to the 23 December 1917 convention in which Britain and France defined their "spheres of influence" in southern Russia. While the Allies' immediate aim was to keep the area and its resources from the Central Powers, the convention divided up the region strictly according to the economic interests of the signatories. Britain took responsibility for Caucasus and its oilfields, while France made itself responsible for Ukraine with its coal and iron mines.

At least in the immediate aftermath of World War I the Allies considered themselves bound by obligations of honor to the Russian anti-Bolshevik regimes that had emerged under the shelter of the Western military presence. Also, the Allied powers had some sense of responsibility toward the newly independent states that were proclaimed on the periphery of the former tsarist empire and were threatened by the continuing Civil War in Russia. The British Navy, for example, was instrumental in safeguarding the independence of the Baltic States, while Allied diplomatic pressure and a French military mission helped Poland survive Bolshevik attempts to conquer it.

Some British leaders, particularly Foreign Secretary George, Lord Curzon, justified the British presence in Transcaucasia by arguing that they needed to maintain a buffer between Russia and India--the classic British imperial strategy regarding the East. A well-known historian of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes, has said that on the British side there was a "fear not of White defeat, but of White victory." Some private statements by the British politicians, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George, reveal that they were ready to deal with the Bolsheviks as the de facto government in the part of Russia they controlled, and that they favored dividing the country into separate states with none of sufficient size and power to threaten the general peace.

During the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 the Allies viewed the pacification of Russia as an integral part of postwar reconstruction. President Woodrow Wilson and Prime Minister George endorsed the idea, trying to bring together the belligerents in the Russian Civil War at an Allied-sponsored peace conference. This initiative, though unsuccessful, would have placed the Bolsheviks on an equal plane with the Whites in the peacemaking process.

Even the staunchest anti-Bolshevik Allied leaders--including Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, Allied Supreme Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch, and War Minister Winston Churchill of Britain--who repeatedly advocated stronger Allied intervention in 1918-1920 were not motivated solely by anticommunism. Broader geopolitical and strategic considerations were at stake, including not only the danger of aggressive Bolshevism but also the possibility of revived German militarism and Japanese imperialist ambitions--all of which could combine to create the most formidable threat the West had ever faced.

Thus, many considerations other than anticommunism motivated the Allied intervention in Russia. This fact, as well as a growing post-World War I rivalry among the Allies, precluded a large-scale, coordinated, and successful Western assault on Soviet Russia.

-- Peter Rainow, San Mateo, California


In an 11 April 1919 speech at an Aldwych Club luncheon in London, Winston Churchill warned of "The Bolshevik Menace":

Of all the tyrannies in history the Bolshevist tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading. It is sheer humbug to pretend that it is not far worse than German militarism. The miseries of the Russian people under the Bolshevists far surpass anything they suffered even under the Tsar. The atrocities by Lenin and Trotsky are incomparably more hideous, on a larger scale, and more numerous than any for which the Kaiser himself is responsible. . . .

Lenin and Trotsky had no sooner seized on power than they dragged the noble Russian nation out of the path of honour and let loose on us and our Allies a whole deluge of German reinforcements, which burst on us in March and April last year [after the Russians withdrew from World War I]. Every British and French soldier killed last year was really done to death by Lenin and Trotsky, not in a fair way, but by the treacherous desertion of an ally without parallel in the history of the world. There are still [anti-Bolshevik] Russian Armies in the field, under Admiral Koltchak and General Deniken, who have never wavered in their faith and loyalty to the Allied cause, and who are fighting valiantly and by no means unsuccessfully against that foul combination of criminality and animalism which constitutes the Bolshevist régime. We are helping these men, within the limits which are assigned to us, to the very best of our ability. We are helping them with arms and munitions, with instructions and technical experts, who volunteered for service. It would not be right for us to send our armies raised on a compulsory basis to Russia. If Russia is to be saved it must be by Russian manhood. But all our hearts are with those men who are true to the Allied cause in their splendid struggle to restore the honour of united Russia, and to rebuild on a modern and democratic basis the freedom, prosperity, and happiness of its trustful and good-hearted people.

There is a class of misguided or degenerate people in this country and some others, who profess to take so lofty a view that they cannot see any difference between what they call rival Russian factions. . . . Their idea of a League of Nations is something which would be impartial as between Bolshevism on the one hand, and civilization on the other. We are still forced to distinguish between right and wrong, loyalty and treachery, health and disease, progress and anarchy. There is one part of the world in which these distinctions which we are bound to draw can translate itself into action. In the North of Russia the Bolshevists are continually attacking the British troops we sent there during the course of the war against Germany in order to draw off pressure from the West, and who are now cut off by the ice from the resources of their fellow countrymen. . . . We have no intentions whatever of deserting our lads and of leaving them on this icy shore to the mercy of a cruel foe. The Prime Minister has given me the fullest authority to take whatever measures the General Staff of the Army think necessary to see that our men are relieved, and brought safely through the perils with which they are confronted. . . .

Very great perils still menace us in the world. Two mighty branches of the human race, the Slavs [of Russia] and the Teutons [of Germany], are both plunged at the present time in the deepest misery. The Great Power which was our foe, and the Great Power which was our friend, are both in the pit of ruin and despair. It is extremely undesirable that they should come together. Germany is struggling against breaking down into Bolshevism. But if that were to happen it would produce a reaction which it is no exaggeration to say would reach as far as China.

The Russian Bolshevist revolution is changing in its character. It has completed the Anarchist destruction of the social order in Russia itself. The political, economic, social, and moral life of the people of Russia has for the time being been utterly smashed. Famine and terror are the order of the day. Only the military structure is growing out of the ruin. That is still weak, but it is growing steadily stronger, and it is assuming an aggressive and predatory form, which French Jacobinism assumed after the fall of Robespierre, and before the rise of Napoleon. Bolshevist armies are marching on towards food and plunder, and in their path stand only the little weak States, exhausted and shattered by the war.

If Germany succumbs either from internal weakness, or from actual invasion, to the Bolshevist pestilence, Germany no doubt will be torn to pieces, but where shall we be? Where will be that peace for which we are all longing; where will be that revival of prosperity without which our domestic contentment is impossible. . . .

. . . I say to you, keep a strong Army loyal, compact, contented, adequate for the work it has to do; make peace with the German people; resist by every means at your disposal the advances of Bolshevist tyranny in every country in the world.

Source: Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, Volume III, 1914-1922 (New York & London: Chelsea House/ Bowker, 1974), pp. 2771-2774.



John F. N. Bradley, Allied Intervention in Russia (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968).

George F. Kennan, The Decision to Intervene, volume 2 of his Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958).

William J. Morley, The Japanese Thrust into Siberia, 1918 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957).

Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1990).

John Silverlight, The Victors' Dilemma: Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War (New York: Weybright & Talley, 1971).

Ilya Somin, Stillborn Crusade: The Tragic Failure of Western Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1920 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1996).

Richard H. Ullman, Intervention and the War, volume 1 of his Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961); Britain and the Russian Civil War, volume 2 of his Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

Betty Miller Unterberger, America's Siberian Expedition, 1918-1920: A Study of National Policy (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1956).

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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