By Andrea Prada Bianchi
via the National Geographic Magazine web site
The story of how American troops battled Lenin’s soldiers in northern Russia may be missing from most history books—but the forgotten conflict still influences relations between nations to this day.
Then he left Michigan in July 1918, Private Alfred Schuck thought he was going to fight the Germans in France. Six months later, he found himself in northern Russia, staking out an Orthodox church across a frozen plain. Inside the church were not Germans or other U.S. enemies from World War I, hut the Bolsheviks of the Red Army.
The story of how Schuck and 5,000 US soldiers (mostly Michiganders) ended up embroiled in the Russian Civil War at the end of WWI is one of the lesser-known chapters of American 1nilitary history. Even two presidents-Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984-wrongly declared that the U.S. and Russia never fought one another. Yet they did, and that strange war fought at -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the subarctic region of Arkhangelsk impacted relationships between the two countries for decades.
After the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks of Vladimir Lenin came to power in Russia, and the country plunged into a civil war between the communists (“Reds”) and nationalists (“Whites”). Amidst an unsustainable domestic crisis, in March 1918 Lenin signed a peace treaty with Germany and the Central Powers (including the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires) and pulled Russia out of WWI. For the Allies, Moscow’s withdrawal was a potentially fatal blow: the Central Powers no longer had to worry about the Russian front and could converge their effort on an offensive towards Paris. Desperate, in the summer of 1918, the U.K., France, and other Allies sent troops into northern Russia and Siberia to influence the outcome of the Russian civil war and recreate the Eastern Front.
‘Polar Bears’ outfitted by Shackleton
At his home in Cicero, Illinois, Private Schuck knew nothing of these plans, nor did the rest of the 339th Regiment, 85th Division, trained at Camp Custer in Michigan. The orders were to go to England and from there to France. It was only on July 17, 1918, when the regiment was embarking on a transatlantic convoy in New York, that President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly (“sweating blood,” as he wrote to his closest advisor) yielded to French and British pressure and officially decided to intervene in Russia.
“The Allies had tried to convince Wilson to intervene against the Bolsheviks for months,” says Carl Richard, professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “When the German shells started falling on Paris, he finally agreed.”
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