Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920

Photo by Jedimentat44 | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Jedimentat44 | CC BY 2.0

History never repeats itself, but it rhymes—and resonates. The American public, if they think about it at all, believe that Russia, personified by Putin, is engaged in a Hitler-like land grab at the very boundaries of its own national territory. Talking heads at even the left end of the mainstream media rarely mention the massive buildup of US/NATO forces on the borders of the former Soviet Union–from the steady stream of vilification one would think it’s been Putin conducting joint military exercises on the US-Mexican border and trying to destabilize the U.S. economy. That it’s Putin who has been financing internal dissent within the U.S. rather than the U.S. spending billions to foster coups and orange revolutions, nurturing a culture of internal dissent within Russia, and giving a world-wide media platform to whacked-out antigovernment groups like Pussy Riot.

As the U.S./NATO war games on the Russian border—and provocative moves in the Middle East–continue, it might be useful to look back at U.S. attempts to topple Russia’s government in the past. Mere footnotes in our histories of the First World War, for Russia they are monumental events. Therefore it’s exciting to find David Fogelsong’s America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920, an important work published in 1990–at the supposed birth of a unipolar world–which reveals little-known aspects of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy. The man who set such great store on public opinion yet refused to inform the public can be seen as a grandfather of “humanitarian” intervention.

“Publically committed to supporting democratic aspirations and self-determination of all people,” but only if such self-government was “in harmony with American ideals and moral values,” his policies bear a striking resemblance to the current strategy of regime change in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Wilson believed the March 1917 revolution that overthrew the Tsar had transformed Russia into a “liberal democracy”–even though the Provisional government, composed mainly of former Tsarist ministers and others from the reactionary Kadet party, was despite Kerensky’s presence in many ways a continuation of the Tsarist regime. Virtually all the propertied classes (including liberal socialists) remained committed to Russia’s continued participation in the war, while the masses of Russian people understood this to be largely a criminal enterprise perpetuating the status quo and serving the interest of war profiteers.

The soviets were longstanding elective bodies of an otherwise disenfranchised working class–formed in 1905 from a nucleus of striking workers. By 1917 they had evolved into an alternative center of power opposing the Provisional government—and included starving peasant/soldiers rebelling against their officers and self-organizing into soviets at the front. The Bolsheviks were the only soviet party consistently demanding an end to a war in which so many poor peasants were dying for no apparent reason; for this and other reasons they were able to win popular power and successfully rally the population in support of a nearly bloodless overthrow of the old regime.

Fogelsong reveals that Wilson’s sympathies, not surprisingly, resided with the “better sorts” of Russians—still loyal to the Allied cause—Who else could lead this backward nation into the light of American values? His good and trusted friend, the evangelist pastor John Mott, “especially praised Wilson’s ‘sympathy with the aspirations of what have been aptly called ‘dark people’ groping after larger light and liberty.’”

Believing the despised Bolsheviks were robbing the Russian people of the fruits of their great March revolution, and spreading chaos and disorder, he nonetheless thought it unwise to openly align with former Tsarist officers perceived by so many Russian liberals as undemocratic. European allies urged him to help reopen the Russian front by arming White Russian armies; Wilson saw the necessity that “the American hand be hidden in order to limit the possibility for damage to America’s idealistic image.”

Mindful that his actions might appear to contradict his own declared principle of self-determination, he insisted it was “what the Russian people themselves desired.” Maintaining “the Russian people have no government, “he believed [his measures] did not constitute intervention; he was merely restoring order.”

His Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, believed Russian departure from the war could prolong it for two or three years, but if Bolshevik power were broken, the Russian armies might reorganize. “The hope of a stable Russian government lies for the present in a military dictatorship backed by loyal, disciplined troops.” General A.M. Kaledin, leader of the Don Kossacks, appeared to be a likely “strong man” who could save Russia. Wilson approved Lansing’s plan to indirectly finance him through the British and French. It was thought the Bolshevik government would soon fail. However, the quick defeat of Kaledin’s forces in the face of a Bolshevik advance from the north was followed by Kaledin’s suicide shortly afterward.

Between December 1917 and February 1918, few men other than Tsarist officers were willing to enlist in the Volunteer Army. A year later, “Britain and the U.S. did provide more substantial assistance to the much bigger conscripted armies that drove from the south to within three hundred miles of Moscow, yet that campaign faltered, too, because urgently needed forces were diverted to suppress uprisings in the rear by peasants and workers.”

In March of 1918, Wilson still thought that just a little clandestine military effort was needed to bring order to Russia.

Robert Maddox’s The Unknown War With Russia: Wilson’s Siberian Intervention, written in 1977, is a brief history of this little-known Siberian expedition. He explains how the diplomatic mission of the deposed Provisional government–which remained in Washington and continued to be recognized as Russia’s official embassy for years after the revolution–served as a “dummy corporation, a cover through which the technically neutral administration could discreetly assist anti-Communists” and a “dispersing agent,” for the U.S. government, allowing it avoid congressional scrutiny.

The Provisional government had been advanced $325 million by the U.S. government, and also held assets through the sale of Russian bonds. After its overthrow, the U.S. government “preserved these assets by deferring its own claims and urging private bankers to do the same. Then, through devices such as selling goods on the basis of IOUs and miniscule down payments, substantial amounts of surplus materials were forwarded to [anti-Bolsheviks] at a fraction of their real costs.”

After the signing of the peace settlement between Bolshevik Russia and Germany, Wilson launched his Siberian expedition under the guise of “a humanitarian mission to rescue loyal allies from destruction by the Central Powers.” The treaty of Brest-Litovsk had left the 65,000-strong Czechoslovak Legion stranded on the Russian front. Since neither the Germans nor the Austro-Hungarians would permit them through their lines, their only way back to the Western Front seemed to be via the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, where they would make the journey by sea.

Wilson thought these well-trained Czech soldiers might prove nuclei for anti-Soviet forces. He approved an expeditionary force of 7000 Japanese and 7000 “ostensibly neutral” American troops to serve as “midwife to the birth of a powerful anti-Bolshevik movement.” Infantry regiments and two supporting units shipped from the Philippines reinforced by men from the Eighth Division at Camp Fremont, California, under the command of General William S. Graves.

General Graves (who later wrote a memoir about his experiences in Siberia) immediately realized that guarding a railway that was a lifeline between Vladivostok and Czech-White armies in the interior—and overseeing the mining of coal to operate the railway–was hardly a neutral mission. The Czechs, who had little interest in taking on Bolshevism and thought they would be fighting the Central Powers, believed they would receive reinforcements from the Allies—and when they discovered otherwise, their morale plummeted.

A new phase of the operation started after a coup in Southwest Siberia by Admiral Kolchak, a British protégé, Kolchak had also impressed the State Department; his minister of foreign affairs–who had been sent to Siberia by the Russian Embassy in Washigton—carefully instructed him on what to say to the Americans about his intentions. But he “did so little to restrain his subordinates that atrocities against people whose loyalty he presumably was trying to gain became commonplace.”

“It is plain from the many existing accounts of service in Siberia that American soldiers, whatever their commanders might have told them, were convinced they were there to combat bolshevism,” Maddox writes. They made sweeps searching for arms and explosives, and were harassed along the railway by partisan forces. “Most disconcerting to the troops was the realization that the men who tried to kill them at night often were the same individuals who greeted them amiably during the day.”

American troops had also been deployed around Russia’s northern ports during the summer of 1918. Establishing a beachhead where anti-Bolsheviks could organize and form an army was a common British and American objective. Wilson sent three battalions to Archangel knowing the British planned to defend the port and drive southeast to join up with anti-Bolshevik forces. However, according to Fogelsong, “The morale of the American soldiers in north Russia was very low. And although some British and French leaders wanted to wage war more vigorously, they could not enlist enough volunteers among their countrymen to strangle Bolshevism.”

“Hamstrung” by anti-interventionist sentiment and congressional opposition, Wilson withdrew the American North Russian Expeditionary force, but troops remained in Siberia to secure Kolchak’s supply line.

At Paris, Wilson told Lloyd George he thought he could convince Congress to help provide large-scale aid to Kolchak—according to Fogelsong, an easy success at the peace conference would have enabled him to deliver on that promise. However, he faced mounting problems with Congress. Senator Hiram Johnson had introduced a resolution calling on the president to explain and justify the Siberian intervention, similar resolutions were introduced in the House, and some of Wilson’s opponents claimed that American participation in the League of Nations might lead to similar interventions in the future. After a series of debilitating strokes in September, Wilson failed to take any further action.

Even after bowing “to the moral sensibility of the American people by portraying relief projects as purely altruistic programs to alleviate human suffering,” Wilson faced “near-impossible hurdles.” But in January, Congress appropriated $100,000 for Russia; the following month he established the American Relief Administration, with Herbert Hoover as its director, to distribute this aid.

The future president, a wealthy engineer (worth over $4 million) had once directed the Czar’s lucrative mines in Siberia. Hoover “loathed the ‘plague’ of Bolshevism and sincerely believed that ‘no greater relief of human misery could be undertaken than the occupation of Petrograd.’”

That summer, Fogelsong recounts, seven U.S. ships steamed into the Gulf of Finland with thousands of tons of flour, bacon and other foodstuffs to be delivered “in exchange for promissory notes” to the “Representatives of the Provisional government” to be distributed “in accord with the dictates of humanity,” “solely for humanitarian purposes.” The supplies were delivered to officers of the anti-Bolshevik North-Western Russian army. One White general, in thanking Hoover, observed that the army “which is fighting the Bolshevism in the direction of Petrograd . . . is now existing practically upon American flour and bacon.”

The American Red Cross, militarized during the war, “coordinated its activities with U.S. diplomacy and military strategy,” delaying repatriation of Russian prisoners of war “in order to avoid adding men to the ranks of the Bolshevik army,” attempting to weed out Bolsheviks among POWs repatriated to the Baltic region, and turning over medical supplies and other supplied designated for civilians to the Russian Northwestern army.

The War Trade Board, Federal Reserve Board, and Shipping Board had earlier imposed controls blocking almost all exports to Soviet Russia while permitting trade with White regions. ”British leaders worried some neutral ships might slip through [the Baltic area] at the very moment when the starving city of Petrograd appeared ready to succumb.”

Since there had been no declaration of war, Wilson could not participate in a formal prohibition of trade but he could “endorse a voluntary moral embargo” and deny clearance and passports–which “would accomplish the same purpose as a hostile blockade.”

It was feared that the evacuation of Germans from the western provinces of the former Russian empire would allow Bolsheviks to enter. The November 11 armistice provided that German soldiers would continue to occupy the territory until directed to withdraw by the Allies.

In Latvia and Lithuania Americans supported the retention of German units in positions where they could engage in offensive actions, which, according to Fogelsong, amounted to a de facto alliance with former enemy forces.

As they moved northward into Estonia, the Council of Four decided the German soldiers should be ordered to evacuate. German commanders evaded the orders in the summer and fall of 1919, and Friekorp soldiers joined a “West Russian Army” organized by German officers.

U.S. officials resisted a demand for their evacuation and considered aiding them through transfer of German arms captured in Russia during the war. While British officers believed the “’German menace was far more serious than the danger of Bolshevism’ in the Baltic region, US officials often took the opposite position. Allen Dulles argued that “the U.S. should ‘support all anti-Bolshevik elements—Baltic provinces, Kolchak, Denikin, Yudenich–until Bolshevism is out of the way . . .”

(He and his brother, John Foster Dulles, were nephews of Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing. Allen served as an advisor to his uncle. Fogelsong describes how they and many other future members of the Cold War establishment cut their teeth in Russian military intelligence during the Wilson administration.)

It was contrary to the intentions of the U.S. to encourage any dismemberment of Russia. The U.S. was “committed to the resurrection of Russia as a large economic and political unit . . . open to trade and investment . . . with Baltic ports, through which her commerce could pass out to the Atlantic and across to America.” Wilson and Lansing were willing to extend aid to anti-Bolshevik nationalist forces in the Baltic states, but not diplomatic recognition.

The British government had supported these separatist movements. However, Hoover in his memoirs recalled that “unlike the Finns, “they were too inexperienced in self-government and too inclined to Bolshevism to be allowed to rule themselves.”

(The Estonians “sought de jure recognition from the Allies at Paris. When the Allies resisted, they accepted an offer from the Soviet government to begin peace discussions.”)

In the second half of 1919, U.S. shifted attention from supporting nationalist groups in the Baltic to backing a drive by the Russian Northwestern army to capture Petrograd.

Fogelsong details the complicated machinations whereby arms were transferred from US stockpiles in France to anti-Bolshevik forces. Since the Secretary of War could not, “by law, dispose of surplus munitions, except by sale . . . it was necessary to coordinate aid to Iudenich with the Kolchak regime, which had assumed responsibility for Russian debts to the United States.”

There was an attempt to have Russian war material retained by Germany turned over to “Russian armies recognized by the Allied and Associated governments.” However it was easier to ship supplies on credit. In July, Hoover and other officials agreed the “Provisional Government of Russia” [which no longer existed, except through its embassy in Washington] would issue special treasury notes for supplies from the U.S.

By fall of 1919, there was policy consensus on “providing as much support to anti-Bolshevik armies as limited resources and domestic political conditions permitted.” Hoover believed that “Yudenitch could at an early date take Petrograd.”

“There is not a day goes by,” Wilson mourned on September 9, “that my heart is not heavy to think of our fellow beings in that great, pitiful Kingdom of Russia, without form, without order, without government.” He ordered the “Shipping Board to charter to Ambassador Bakhmetev 45,000 tons of shipping for transporting arms and equipment from British and French ports to General Iudenich’s forces.”

“Wilson’s advisors agonized over the persistent problem of limited resources to support anti-Bolshevik ventures.” Kolchak’s foreign minister asked that 30,000 tons of foodstuffs be held ready in anticipation of the fall of Petrograd—for the famine-stricken population—otherwise all military operations might be stopped.

State Department officials considered asking Congress for a $100 million authorization, but with Wilson bedridden and Congress uncooperative no action could be taken. Nevertheless, in mid-October when “premature reports reached Washington that the White forces have occupied Petrograd . . . State Department aides collaborated with the Russian ambassador to find a way to authorize new credits without a congressional appropriation. A letter was drafted approving the Russian embassy’s application to purchase on credit 29,000 tons of grain from the U.S. Grain Corporation, which the incapacitated Wilson signed, expounding that it ‘was the most effective means of limiting the spread of Bolshevism and of protecting thereby, the Government of the United States from the dangers of subversive propaganda.’”

The State department also approved plans to move ARA foodstuffs delivered earlier to Petrograd.But at the end of October Red forces commanded by Leon Trotsky drove the Northwestern Army back from the outskirts of the city, and chased them all the way into Estonian territory in November.

But support continued to the Northwestern Army, and despite the pleas of the Finnish minister, who described the desperate state of Estonia, Lansing directed that food stores should be used for assisting Iudenich.

Fogelsong describes a “squat, rotund, and aging Iudenich . . . unable to provide vigorous leadership or even control his quarreling corps. His 15,000 men were vastly outnumbered by the 50,000 Red troops hurriedly drawn from other fronts once Iudenich threatened Petrograd”—his troops had failed to carry out orders to cut the railway line. Under the slogan “Against the Bolsheviks, Without Politics,” they were unwilling to endorse land reform or democracy, some launched pogroms and white terrors in the lands they occupied.

In the end, Fogelsong concludes, many of the U.S. “humanitarian” measures backfired. “Condoning the continued German occupation of Baltic lands, resisting the evacuation of German volunteers, and giving preferential support to former Tsarist officers in their aim to restore a greater Russia antagonized Baltic nationalist governments; and the allied intervention and blockade contributed to a patriotic wave in Bolshevik Russia, a strong Soviet army, and wholehearted support of the Petrograd population when Iudenich advanced.”

The American attempts to manipulate and influence complicated situations with fatuous expectations things would work out successfully but without understanding the underlying social forces in many ways mirrors its activities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other countries today.

The history of early 20th century intervention is as little known to the American public as the current project to encircle the Russian state and deny it any neutral sphere of influence along its borders. The Russian people on the other hand, recall these earlier attempts at regime change. Having suffered millions of deaths in the First World War, Russia faced another three years of chaos, disease, and famine in a civil war unprecedented in human history–12 million people died during the three-year civil war, which buried the hopes of social visionaries and destroyed the possibility for any peaceful development and improvement—not to mention democratization–following a popular revolution the West wanted so desperately to crush. Today, as NATO troops, including many Germans, mass on their borders once again, Russians remember that the U.S. fed and armed the Whites–and even sent American troops to support forces led by former Tsarist officers.

Kathy Deacon can be reached at

Kathy Deacon can be reached at