US Participation in the Archangel Expedition in Russia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Archangel Expedition, also known as the Polar Bear Expedition, was the posting of about five thousand US troops to the Russian city of Arkhangelsk (Archangel) to support the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the Russian Civil War, safeguard the passage of Czechoslovak troops out of the country, and safeguard the Allied military stockpiles in key Russian ports. An additional eight thousand troops were sent elsewhere in Russia. The United States and the other Allies were reluctant to involve themselves in the Russian Civil War, which broke out following the Russian Revolution in 1917, but they were also concerned about inroads that Germany was making in the area, particularly in the Ukraine and Finland. In this July 1918 letter from US secretary of state Robert Lansing to the Allied ambassadors, he sets out President Woodrow Wilson’s willingness to send American troops to Arkhangelsk, but only if their role was restricted to guarding supplies. Wilson’s concern about the Russian intervention becoming a larger conflict was clear in his refusal to participate in the conflict if it grew beyond this stated intent, but he was also eager to make his philosophical support for anti-Bolshevik forces clear.

Summary Overview

The Archangel Expedition, also known as the Polar Bear Expedition, was the posting of about five thousand US troops to the Russian city of Arkhangelsk (Archangel) to support the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the Russian Civil War, safeguard the passage of Czechoslovak troops out of the country, and safeguard the Allied military stockpiles in key Russian ports. An additional eight thousand troops were sent elsewhere in Russia. The United States and the other Allies were reluctant to involve themselves in the Russian Civil War, which broke out following the Russian Revolution in 1917, but they were also concerned about inroads that Germany was making in the area, particularly in the Ukraine and Finland. In this July 1918 letter from US secretary of state Robert Lansing to the Allied ambassadors, he sets out President Woodrow Wilson’s willingness to send American troops to Arkhangelsk, but only if their role was restricted to guarding supplies. Wilson’s concern about the Russian intervention becoming a larger conflict was clear in his refusal to participate in the conflict if it grew beyond this stated intent, but he was also eager to make his philosophical support for anti-Bolshevik forces clear.

Defining Moment

The Russian Empire collapsed in March 1917, with the abdication Czar Nicholas II (who was then executed in July 1918) and the establishment of a provisional government. The Russian Army was also on the verge of collapse amid heavy casualties on the Eastern Front and widespread desertion and mutiny. The provisional government was quickly challenged by the Bolsheviks, the most radical wing of the Russian Communists, who were in favor of withdrawing from the war. However, the provisional government, under Alexander Kerensky, continued to support the Allies. The Bolsheviks, now led by Vladimir Lenin, organized the working-class militia into the so-called Red Army, and in October 1917, they overthrew the provisional government in Petrograd. In March 1918, Bolshevik leaders signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Russia’s participation in World War I.

Russia’s exit from the war was a disaster for the Allies. Not only were they without Russian support in the field, but also the lack of an Eastern Front meant that German troops were able to be redirected to the Western Front and reinforce their army there. Though the United States had joined the Allies in April 1917, its army needed time to mobilize and train troops and ship them to Europe. In addition, the Allies had been sending supplies to Russia since 1914, and many were stockpiled in ports around Russia, including the port of Arkhangelsk in northern Russia, on the Dvina River, near the mouth of the White Sea. When Germany landed in Finland in April 1918, the Allies worried that the Germans would seize both the supplies in Russian ports and key railroad lines then under White Army control.

The Bolshevik Red Army was challenged by the anti-Bolshevik White Army, and Russia devolved into civil war. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks agreed that Czechoslovak soldiers in Russia, who wished to continue to fight against Germany–if they remained neutral while in Russia and left quickly–could travel safely through Siberia, where they would be reunited with other Allied forces. The Allies felt obligated to help these men leave Russia safely.

As Germany, unchecked by the Bolsheviks, moved in to claim parts of Russian territory, the Allies grew increasingly alarmed. President Wilson was extremely reluctant to involve US troops in a Russian conflict and severely limited the involvement of troops in July of 1918, as this document attests, while supporting the aims of the Allies, who had committed troops. Troop numbers in Russia were never large, and the Allies were ambivalent about their involvement in the continuing conflict in Russia, particularly after the November 1918 armistice ended fighting on the Western Front. Despite his misgivings, and against the recommendation of the Department of War, Wilson ultimately sent thirteen thousand US troops to fight in Russia, five thousand of these to Arkhangelsk. One hundred seventy-four American soldiers would die there.

Author Biography

Robert Lansing was born in Watertown, New York, in 1864. He studied law after graduating from Amherst College and was admitted to the bar in 1889. He became an expert on international law, serving as associate counsel and advisor to the US government until 1914, when he became a lawyer for the State Department. In 1915, Lansing replaced William Jennings Bryant as secretary of state. In 1919, Lansing led the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He resigned in 1920 after his lack of support for Wilson’s League of Nations put him at odds with the president. After his resignation, Lansing resumed a private law practice. He died in 1928 and is buried in Watertown.

Document Analysis

This excerpt from a communication between the US secretary of state and the other Allies lays out, in the strictest terms, the extent of US participation in the Allied intervention in Russia. This communication is couched in such negative terms that it is difficult to see it as a document authorizing aid, but that is precisely how it was intended. The mission must not overreach its stated aims, says Lansing, and if it does, the United States will “feel obliged to withdraw those forces, in order to add them to the forces at the western front.” In July 1918, the outcome of the war was far from certain, and experienced troops were needed in France and Belgium to prevent German advances there. Though the United States would not be offering any assistance outside of its stated aims, this was not to be taken as any criticism of the actions of any of the other Allies, but was a “perfectly frank and definite statement of the policy which the United States feels obliged to adopt for herself.”

The United States was understandably hesitant to involve itself in an internal conflict in Russia, though it also understood that the outcome of the conflict could influence the course of the war a great deal. Though the United States was committed to assisting in “safeguarding the rear of the Czecho-Slovaks,” the US position was that that Allies should refrain from “any interference of any kind with the political sovereignty of Russia, any intervention in her internal affairs, or any impairment of her territorial integrity either now or hereafter.” The US goal was to only offer aid that was “acceptable to the Russian people in their endeavor to regain control of their own affairs, their own territory, and their own destiny.”

While eschewing any role that could be seen as an invasion of Russia (or would embroil the nation in another foreign conflict), the United States did want to assure the Russian people, particularly those fighting the Bolsheviks, that they would receive non-military assistance in the form of “a commission of merchants, agricultural experts, labor advisers, Red Cross representatives, and agents of the Young Men’s Christian Association.” These service agencies would be important in the “spreading (of) useful information and rendering educational help of a modest sort.” The reluctance of the US government to involve itself in Russia is clear in this document: if read alone, it would be difficult to know that the government did send thirteen thousand troops to Russia in September 1918. However, the effort was in vain; by October 1919, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were firmly in power, and the Allies began to withdraw.

Essential Themes

The essential theme of this letter is the reluctance that the US government had in involving itself in Russian affairs, though it recognized its obligations to its allies and to the loyal Czechoslovak troops trapped in Russia. The United States not only wished to avoid another costly foreign conflict, but also was uncomfortable with the appearance of invading a non-combatant nation. Despite the careful language and caveats in this letter, the Bolshevik press had a field day with the arrival of Allied troops on Russian soil, labeling it a capitalist conspiracy. In the end, the intervention of the Allies was not enough to save the White Army from defeat.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bullock, David. The Russian Civil War, 1918–22. New York: Osprey, 2008. Print.
  • Ironside, Edmund. Archangel 1918–1919. 1953. Uckfield, England: Naval and Military P, 2007. Print.
  • Kettle, Michael. Churchill and the Archangel Fiasco. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
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