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Book Review: The Ignorant Armies by E.M. Halliday

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By Edited Sep 25, 2016 0 0

Was this the real beginning of the Cold War?

"As Nikita Krushchev observed during his visit to the United States in the fall of 1959, the Communists have never forgotten - or forgiven that America was very much involved in a violent attempt to stifle them in their cradle days (xi)."

Halliday, born 1913, was an editor for American Heritage magazine and has authored many articles for several other periodicals. He has lectured and taught on the subject of Russian history at several colleges. Mr. Halliday also authored two history books; The Ignorant Armies and Russia in Revolution. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned as a reporter for the military service magazine "Yank." His first assignment was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he first began pursuing information about an Army Colonel that was known to have been a member of the American Expedition to North Russia. This article presents a little known piece of history that is often overlooked in its significance to relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Before the War Ended

During the closing months of World War I, Allied and American forces developed a plan under the guise that it was to protect North Russian sea ports from use by Germany; however, the real purpose was to disrupt Red Russian forces from changing the face of Russia to a communist regime. This inevitably created a thorn in the side of the then new Soviet Union. As a result, Allies and Americans fought an undeclared war against an undeclared enemy for the purposes of interfering with the Russian Revolution in order to stop the growth of communism.

Northern Russian Expedition

Halliday's contention is that the campaign to send Allied and American forces to North Russia "was as strange and tragic a conglomeration of cross-purposes as twentieth-century diplomacy was ever to witness, and it may fairly be said to have set the pattern for forty years of troubled American-Soviet relations (43)." He does not try to pass judgment as to whether the intervention into North Russia should have been undertaken. Nor does he try to second guess the decisions made by the key players in this drama. Halliday's attempt is to present the events, their causes, and outcomes to bring light to an important movement in history. His message is clear: that we cannot fully understand the difficult relations between the now former Soviet Union and the United States during the cold war period.

"After forty years, during most of which relations between the Soviet Union and the West have been featured largely by mutual distrust, the dealings of the Paris peace conference with Russia can be viewed with little exaggeration as a prologue to the cold war. On both sides were the two-edged weapons of arrogance and propaganda, and the treacherous armor of self-deception and ignorance. Paradoxically, with respect especially to future Soviet-American relations, this familiar armament of the cold war was wielded against a background of small but intense shooting war between Soviet and American soldiers in North Russia (227)."

Causation: "No single cause ever adequately explains a historical episode (Gustavson, 55)."

A Long-Term Effect

As presented in the book, this movement in history had a long-term effect on Soviet-American relations from 1919 through the cold war; to include enhancing the fear of communism in the capitalistic societies. This is also a long-term cause of the events in North Russia. If you were to try to find Halliday's key contributing causes to actions taken by the Allied and American leadership, as to the intervention in North Russia, it would be fear, distrust, discontent, with the idea that a Communist form of government was trying to establish itself in Russia.

Originally, the Allies major aim was to re-establish an eastern front against the Germans. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed by Russian leaders and Germany to end Russia's participation in the war, ended the eastern front (30-31). Germany began using what they gained from this treaty to build a spring offensive (30-31). Halliday shows how the desire to thwart the establishment of Communism in Russia, altered a valid military strategy to secure and control North Russian seaports for Allied use in the war against Germany.

The Russian leadership must have been confounded by the message sent by President Wilson to the first All-Russian Congress in March of 1918, considering the fact that before the end of that same year American troops would be fighting them on Russian land. In Wilson's message, he stated that the United States "will avail itself of every opportunity to secure for Russia once more complete sovereignty and independence in her own affairs . . . The whole heart of the people of the United States is with the people of Russia in the attempt to free themselves forever from autocratic government and to become masters of their own fate (32)." Two months after that message was issued; American troops were landing at Murmansk Harbor. Halliday points out that from the first landing of foreign troops on Russian shores and the subsequent months, the Bolsheviks learned that the Allies and Americans had a much different definition of intervention (33).

By the Thousands they Arrived

Fifty five thousand American troops represented the bulk of the fighting force in Northern Russia with the mission, as far as the Bolsheviks were concerned, to be a defensive security force for the Allied military supplies in the region. Eventually, American troops found themselves fighting hundreds of miles south of where they expected to be. The British commanders, with the support of the American Ambassador to Russia, David R. Francis, redefined the interpretation of President Wilson's guidance for the use of American forces in North Russia, to include offensive actions along a southward route to link-up with the Trans- Siberian Railroad (73-98).

Several hundred soldiers died, Allied, American, and Bolshevik, during those winter months. The Americans were continually told that their actions were somehow in support of the War in Europe. After armistice was signed by Germany on November 11, 1918, the American contingency in North Russia believed they were to come home soon, only to be told by their British commanders and still supported by Ambassador Francis, that they were to continue the fight. This created confusion for these American troops as to, "Why are we still here?" For the Bolsheviks, there was only the issue of fighting for their land and their civil war to secure the new government's place. Anyone not Communist, Red Army, Bolshevik was in fact the enemy. Therefore the Americans in North Russia were definitely the enemy as far the Bolshevik was concerned. There was never a declared war or conflict with any element of Russia. And yet, battles were being fought.

American Gun Crew, Northern Russia, 1919

The Role of Ideas: "They are the threads which bind the minds of men together sufficiently for joint action to occur (Gustavson, 153)."

Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Image Above: U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Image Below:  Prime Minister Lloyd George

David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

President Wilson and Prime Minister Lloyd George had many times questioned the validity of intervention into Northern Russia; however, by the insistence and persistence of Ambassador Francis advising Wilson and Winston Churchill advising Lloyd George, the intervention continued and at times escalated. In chapter eleven ("A Cruel Dilemma") of Halliday's book, the full contrast and contradictions of these key players is vividly established.

During a political social gathering in France in mid-January 1919, Lloyd and Wilson stated to each other and to those present, that intervention under the personnel currently deployed, no longer served a purpose (214-216). Yet, both Francis and Churchill were advocating massive increases in the forces present, to as Churchill put it, "crush Communism in its infancy (226)." It was the idea that communism in itself justified the intervention and any action taken to interfere with the Bolsheviks was justified. This idea drove the actions of Churchill, Francis, and British Commander's on the ground in North Russia.

Winston Churchill

Carl Gustavson's book, A Preface to History, tells us that an idea is the "spark" and motivation that can bind individuals who, until that time, had no other tie to each other. By sheer words, images and feelings are summoned up in each person to such an extent that a bond is built, not only to the "idea" but, to those that share in those passions. Common ideas and the pursuit of those ideas can bind a social group together to such an extent, that they become a powerful force in the movement of historically significant events (Gustavson, 152). This commonality of values, beliefs, and desires bound these key players (Churchill and Francis) to continue manipulating circumstances and the military resources at hand in North Russia, despite the known desires of their leaders. The influence of ideas is evident with the ending of war with Germany and the continuation of the occupation in North Russia, despite that the original Allied military intent was over. This of course brings us the question of the individual players themselves. Armed with the knowledge of what was happening to Allied and American soldiers in North Russia, why didn't Wilson pull back his forces earlier, and why did he allow the line of offensive ground actions to take place at all?

The Individual in History: "The association or institution is the lever, a very powerful lever, whereby the individual may transform his own personal will into social action (Gustavson, 132)."

This would seem a good place to discuss the impact of the individual as a force on historical movements. Gustavson discusses in his book the impact of leadership and the concept of individualism as factors influencing the individual and the social group. He presents the position that an individual can influence history within the confines of social forces, change, and continuity (130-133). To keep within the confines of the length of this paper, I will limit this discussion to two characters (Woodrow Wilson and David Francis) to illustrate the factor of the individual in history.

Wilson was never fully committed to the deployment of American troops to North Russia since the option first presented itself. In fact, as Wilson himself put it, he was sweating blood over the problem (34). He clearly was uncomfortable about making this decision and wavered "such that a veritable minuet of vacillation had ensued (34)." Wilson eventually agreed to support the intervention because of his desire to show United States support for the Supreme War Council in Europe, the promises made by the British leadership as to the limits of use of American troops for security purposes, and the persistent urging of Ambassador Francis. "When Wilson finally authorized American participation, it was several weeks before his decision was released to the press - and even then it was not clear just what he had decided (28)."

David R. Francis, 1901

The U.S. Ambassador

David R. Francis was the last Ambassador to czarist Russia and a bit of a flamboyant character. Francis had a more significant influence on Wilson than other Ambassadors. Halliday does not explain how this influence came to be, just that it existed (36). Francis regularly sent "communiqués" to the State Department, denouncing the Bolsheviks. He spoke in strong words and descriptions referring to the Bolsheviks as "foul monsters" (37). Francis had fervently urged the President and the State Department to combine with the Allies and deploy a sufficient force to penetrate deeply into Russian territory, link-up with the Czech forces and destroy the Red Armies (Bolshevik) (37). It was Francis, who using his position as the American Ambassador to Russia, interpreted Wilson's guidance for the use of American troops, to include their further deployment from the ports of Murmansk and Archangel to conduct offensive actions southward towards the Trans-Siberian Railway (39). This is what the British commanders on the ground in North Russia wanted. As Ambassador, he played a key role in influencing or controlling the American leadership there in northern Russia who were certainly confused as to where this was all leading. Francis helped the British commanders gain the cooperation of the American officers with the American troops in northern Russia, by insuring them (the Americans) that he was acting on behalf of the President and that the military offensive actions planned by the British were consistent with Wilson's guidance (66-67).

Desire Versus Results

Part of Wilson's personal desire to participate in the intervention involved his "empathy for the people of Russia in their overthrow of czarist tyranny. He was still hopeful that the Bolshevik revolution of November, 1917, might turn out in the long run to be compatible with a democratic government that would bring liberty and justice to every Russian citizen (31-32)." The last point of this statement by Halliday is particularly interesting since it implies that Wilson was not vehemently against Communism in Russia.

Another factor for Wilson was his belief that the American people sympathized with 40,000 Czechoslovakian troops (formerly of the Imperial Russian Army) who were in a predicament with the Red Russian Army. They were strung out along the Trans-Siberian Railway, and in conflict with the Bolsheviks. Wilson felt that assisting the Czech corps consolidate and establish their movement back to the fighting front would make a "legitimate" enterprise (35). Wilson therefore, authorized the dispatch of troops to Northern Russia with the understanding that they would be used to secure Allied military stores and assist the "Czecho-Slovaks" in consolidating their forces and return to the fight in Germany. Later we would see that the British leadership commanding the efforts in North Russia extended the meaning of Wilson's guidance for use of American troops to include offensive actions intended to defeat in, around, and southward towards the Trans-Siberian Railway. Wilson wrote that, "Military intervention there would add to the present sad confusion in Russia rather than cure it . . . would be of no advantage in the prosecution of our main design, to win the war against Germany (40)." With this clearly stated, you would expect that American troops would have not been involved with what was later to take place; and if such actions were taking place in North Russia, outside of this guidance, would you not expect Wilson to correct this situation?

This book implies that Wilson's inaction was a key factor in the continued efforts of the British leadership to use American troops as the primary fighting force in their (the Allied Leadership) battle to stifle Communism. As late as February, three months after the end of World War I, Wilson knew very well he had American troops still fighting and dying in North Russia (222). You get the impression as you read Halliday's book that he sees Wilson being strung along by Churchill and Francis. It wasn't until Churchill planned a full-scale military campaign to intervene in the Russian civil war, which incorporated the use of more American troops that Wilson finally put his foot down and said we are pulling out (227). It must also be noted that it took from February 20, 1919, when the Wilson's decision went public, until late in May to return the soldiers back from North Russia. During those months the fighting continued and many more Americans and Bolsheviks died for no gain or valid cause.

Individual Influence

Gustavson's discussion on the individual in history includes influencing historical movement by inaction. If inaction is based on incapacity due to outside influences that negate the individual's influence than the individual his or herself is not the primary mover of those historical events. However in this case, Halliday presents a picture that Wilson was never in a situation, where he could not influence the events, only that he failed to enforce his own policy. He (Wilson) allowed himself to be manipulated by the Allied Supreme War Council and his own Ambassador to Russia.

Halliday stays true to his purpose of writing this book. He tries to provide "a clear account of an obscure but important episode in American history (xi)." His discussion on the factors influencing events in history places the major emphasis on the influence of individuals and ideas as the determinate of this historical movement. By the time you've completed reading his book, you begin to sense that Halliday may be a supporter of what Gustavson calls the "Great Man" theory and to some extent institutional influence.

Halliday claims, "The camouflage which covered the expedition in more recent years (late 1950's early 1960's) has been compounded equally of ignorance and concealment."

He believed that efforts were made "in some quarters to push into oblivion a chapter of U.S. military and diplomatic history that was far from glorious, and which became embarrassing in view of our joint effort with the Soviet Union, during W.W.II . . . (29)." He claims that even some professional historians know little about the North Russia affair, frequently confusing it with the American intervention at Vladivostock.

Final Word

For historians, this book is a worthwhile read. The interactions, turmoil, adventures, and vividly descriptive battles, pull you into the events as he relates them. This makes the book a very enjoyable read. But you may find as I did, that reviewing a couple of other books on the topic can help put things in perspective as to where this fits in with the full picture of World War One.

The Ignorant Armies
Amazon Price: $29.99 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 25, 2016)
Russia in Revolution (Caravel Books)
Amazon Price: $47.01 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 25, 2016)


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  1. Ernest Milton Halliday The Ignorant Armies. New York: Universal Publishing and Distribution Corp, 1964 .
  2. Carl G. Gustavson A Preface to History. Carson: Custom Academic Publishing Company for California State University, Dominguez Hills, 1995 .

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