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When the United States Invaded Russia

Woodrow Wilson’s Siberian Disaster
Carl J. Richard (Rowman & Littlefield, $34)

The history of US-Russian relations is littered with forgotten episodes that had a significant impact on the trajectory of those relations. Without question, the US invasion of Russia in 1918-1920 ranks in the top tier of such events, given the degree to which it is unknown to the vast majority of Americans, and how it profoundly affected the course of Russian-American relations during the twentieth century.

Indeed, the influential historian and diplomat George Kennan felt not only that this ignominious episode made a fair post-WWI settlement impossible (which of course started the clock ticking on WWII), but that it tainted US-Russian relations and helped cement the Bolsheviks in power:

Never, surely, have countries contrived to show themselves so much at their worst as did the Allies in Russia from 1917 to 1920. Among other things, their efforts served everywhere to compromise the enemies of the Bolsheviki and to strengthen the Communists themselves. So important was this factor that I think it may well be questioned whether Bolshevism would ever have prevailed throughout Russia had the Western governments not aided its progress to power by this ill-conceived interference.

It is this very issue, the folly of foreign intervention and interference in the affairs of another nation, that drove Richard to focus on this sadly forgotten episode (he focuses just on our Siberian intervention, not on that in the North). It is one he feels “can teach us valuable lessons about the extreme difficulties inherent in counterinsurgency campaigns and thus the general inadvisability of interventions.”

The US decision to intervene in Russia, Richard argues, was driven initially by President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to re-open the Eastern Front in WWI, to bring Russia back into the war against Germany. But, as time and the intervention dragged on, the original purpose was overtaken by events, and mission creep led to new, inappropriate justifications, to ill-considered, anti-democratic decisions (support of the despotic Kolchak regime), to the sort of foul up Kennan so aptly summarized. As a result, the intervention, Richard states, “was a complete failure.”

At a time when our country is considering the value of intervention in the Middle East, or how best to support democratic movements in nations as diverse as Russia, China, Venezuela and Egypt, history can be instructive. In this concise, well-researched volume, Richard makes the lesson of our Siberian intervention at least very plain: interventions never go as planned, and often they have the exact opposite of their intended effect.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2013