Much Ado About Nothing: Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War

Even otherwise reasonable historians have argued that the Western powers intervened in the Russian Civil War to kill Bolshevism in the cradle. But how significant was the Allied role in this conflict? Even a cursory look at the battle deaths shows that it was quite minimal.

The Russian Civil War


# of Battle Deaths













Source: The Correlates of War Project

The primary goal of the Allied landings, moreover, was never to overthrow Lenin; it was to re-activate the Eastern front - under Lenin's government, or any other. Only Churchill cared about the Bolsheviks long-term plans - the rest of the Allied leadership was 100% focused on defeating Germany. The rest of the Allies were trying to figure out ways to get Lenin into war against the Germans. Thus, as Richard Pipes observes:

[N]either in the closing year of World War I nor following the Armistance, were attempts made to rid Russia of the Bolsheviks. Until November 1918 the great powers were too busy fighting each other to worry about developments in remote Russia. Here and there, voices were raised that Bolshevism represented a mortal threat to Western civilization: these were especially loud in the German army... But even the Germans in the end subordinated concern with the possible long-term threat to considerations of immediate interest. Lenin was absolutely convinced that after making peace the belligerants would join forces and launch an international crusade against his regime. His fears proved groundless. Only the British intervened actively on the side of the anti-Bolshevik forces, and they did so in a half-hearted manner, largely at the initiative of one man, Winston Churchill. (The Russian Revolution)

Moreover, many of the landings were actually made by request of Lenin and Trotsky to strengthen their hand in the bargaining with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky approved the Murmansk Soviet's request for British military protection of supply depots (which were believed to be threatened by German-supported Finnish forces). As Pipes notes, "[T]he first Western involvement on Russian soil occured at the request of the Murmansk Soviet and with the approval of the Soviet government. In a speech which he delivered on May 14, 1918, Lenin explained that the British and French had landed 'to defend the Murmansk coast.'" (The Russian Revolution) The Allied presence gave Lenin new political options: if the Germans proved too unreasonable, the presence of Allied troops gave him another route to preserve his regime.

What then was it that soured Lenin's relations with the Allies? The spark that lit the fuse was an ultimatum that Trotsky issued to a "flying Dutchman" army of 50,000 Czech soldiers. These Czechs were former soldiers of the Austro- Hungarian Empire released from the Czar's POW camps. The Kerensky regime authorized them to form an army under French auspices to fight in France. They were supposed to take the railroad to Vladivostok, where Allied vessels would transport them to the Western front. While the Czech army was en route on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Trotsky inexplicably issued an ultimatum: Join the Red Army or go to the concentration camps. That was when the fighting started. The Czech army was stranded in Siberia. So then they took over the railroad and looked for some local allies, who naturally tended to be Whites. Trotsky labelled them Allied agents, but the evidence is sorely lacking. Rather, this queer attempt to conscript the Czech army angered Allies, who then backed up the Czechs with military supplies.

Only after Germany agreed to the armistance did any of the Allies show any interest in internal Russian politics - and Churchill was fighting the rest of the British leadership the whole time. American troops in particular had orders to simply remain in ports and guard supply depots. British and French troops did eventually give some material support and intelligence to White forces, but again the Allied leadership was extremely divided. There certainly was no significant fighting between Allied troops and Russians. Even Japan, which lost more troops than all of the other interveners put together, knew that it lacked U.S. support for territorial expansion and therefore made no serious effort to make permanent territorial gains. Japan even surrendered northern Sakhalin Island in 1924, although Stalin was sure to permanently annex southern Sakhalin Island in 1945.

From 1918 on, Soviet propagandists skillfully exploited the raw fact of Allied presence on Russian soil. But the facts evince only the feeblest intent to crusade against Communism. Allied forces first landed at Trotsky's invitation. Fighting started because of Trotsky's unprovoked attack upon Czech forces en route to Vladivostok. The scale of Allied operations was trivial, as their combat losses show. The British in particular provided military equipment to the Whites, but soon abandoned their Russian friends to their fate.

Students of history searching for underemphasized American, British, and French crimes against humanity during the World War I era will find few of interest in Russia. Far more significant were those committed against the Central Powers - particularly the starvation blockade of Germany which claimed several hundred thousand lives. (Compare that to the number of civilians murdered by German submarine attacks - the main justification for U.S. entry into the war). A large fraction of the deaths from the starvation blockade occurred after the Armistance was signed. The Allied command ruthlessly continued the blockade in order to ensure German compliance with their demands. Few Allied leaders shared Herbert Hoover's assessment of the post-war blockade, which he described as "absolutely immoral... We do not kick a man in the stomach after we have licked him."

So myopically focused was the Allied command on their defeated German opponents that they utterly overlooked the possibility that German Communists would judge starving Germany ripe for a Lenin-style coup d'etat. Luxemburg, Eisner, and other would-be German Lenins failed to seize power - but it was the Allies' starvation blockade that created their opportunity to do so. Again, Hoover was one of the few to observe the connection between starvation policies and Communist revolution: "Communism was the pit into which all governments were in danger of falling when frantic peoples were driven by the Horsemen of Famine and Pestilence."

In World War I, the Western powers were guilty of serious atrocities - but these had nothing to do with a long-term crusade against Communism, and in fact indirectly provided local Communist parties with a fertile revolutionary climate. Western leaders failed to learn the lesson, doing the same on an even larger scale in World War II. After abandoning all principles of respect for civilian life in order to defeat Hitler's totalitarianism, British and American leaders somehow overlooked the stark fact that their alliance with Stalin would nevertheless condemn half of Europe to totalitarian despotism.