When did the cold war really begin?
By Sheldon M. Stern
It has often been argued that the ideological and geopolitical conflict between the former Soviet Union and the United States began not in 1945, but in 1917-18. Ostensibly, Washington’s congenital antipathy to the Bolshevik revolution—as evinced by an “American invasion” (or “intervention”) that targeted the new regime in Russia—planted the seeds of the cold war by generating a Soviet anger and distrust of the United States that was wholly justified. From this perspective, the US decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945 was not even the opening salvo in the cold war because US responsibility for the conflict was already manifest during the waning months of World War I.
This general argument can be found in the work of academic historians like William Appleman Williams and has been popularized in the writings of Noam Chomsky. It has also become casually accepted fare in some state high school US history standards, as I discovered while conducting a survey several years ago. A leading college-level textbook as well, published by a prominent historian in 1995, noted that before the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, President Woodrow Wilson had already “ordered the landing of American troops in the Soviet Union.” These forces “soon became involved, both directly and indirectly, in assisting the White Russians (the anti-Bolsheviks) in their fight against the new regime.” Lenin “survived these challenges, but Wilson refused to recognize his new government, nevertheless. Diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were not restored until 1933.”
But do such accounts adequately convey important aspects of US-Soviet relations from 1918 to 1933?
For one, the military intervention in Russia was not exclusively or even primarily American. Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Poland, Romania, and Serbia also put troops in Russia in 1918. Indeed, Poland (12,000), Greece (24,000), Czechoslovakia (50,000), and Japan (72,000) inserted far larger forces than the United States (9,000). The Bolsheviks, it must be remembered, had made a separate peace with the Kaiser’s government in March 1918 and had withdrawn from the war. A month later, a German division landed in Finland and was within striking distance of the port of Murmansk as well as the strategic Petrograd-Murmansk railway. The Western allies shared a justifiable concern that the Germans would seize substantial arms depots and strategic port cities in Russia. Britain, in particular, put pressure on President Wilson to send US troops with the aim of halting, or at least slowing, the potentially decisive transfer of German forces to the Western front. So in July, Wilson dispatched 9,000 troops to the Archangel-Murmansk area. The president did not regard US intervention in Russia to be an act of war, but rather an effort to help the Russians extricate themselves from German domination.
To be sure, it wasn’t the first US move in opposition to the new revolutionary regime in Moscow. Wilson had already sanctioned covert aid to anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia before the US troops were sent, and for the same strategic reason, to keep Germany fighting on two fronts. Because of Wilson’s public support for national self-determination, these secret commitments, as historian David Foglesong concluded,
evaded public scrutiny and avoided the need for Congressional appropriations. … Trying to avoid actions that would blatantly contradict liberal democratic ideals, Wilson and other U.S. officials did everything they felt was practicable to accelerate the demise of Bolshevism…. [Nevertheless] the small U.S. expedition and the many shipments of supplies to anti-Bolshevik forces were enough to provoke dissent at home and resentment in Soviet Russia, but not sufficient to secure the goal of a reunited democratic Russia.
Wilson also persisted in measures that could be termed anti-revolutionary. He opposed seating Soviet Russia at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and supported the plan by Herbert Hoover, director of the American Relief Administration, to send food to anti-Bolshevik forces in the Baltic region. Yet, these half-measures failed to bring down Bolshevism and only exacerbated “the fears of hostile encirclement and foreign subversion that buttressed the Soviet government for seven decades.” Still, neither Soviet leaders at the time nor anyone else characterized the eleven-nation 1918 intervention as an “American invasion”—at least not yet.
Ironically, an exclusively American intervention in Russia did begin soon after the withdrawal of US troops in 1920. The Bolshevik policy of forcibly seizing food from often rebellious and starving peasants, combined with drought and pestilence, resulted in a massive famine by 1921, one that ultimately cost 5 million lives and threatened the survival of Lenin’s government. Soviet authorities reluctantly permitted the internationally-renowned writer Maxim Gorky to issue a public plea for food and medicine. The United States, fortunately,
had ready for action an extraordinarily efficient volunteer relief organization, designed for just such emergencies and possessed of equipment, experienced personnel, and some funds for current operations in Europe. The American Relief Administration [ARA], under Herbert Hoover, was world famous for its work in Belgium and twenty-two other countries. Hoover, although he took a very dim view of communism, promptly answered with an offer to bring food, clothing, and medicine to a million Russian children.
Hoover even persuaded Congress, barely a year after the Red Scare, to appropriate $20 million for Russian famine relief—an astonishing achievement given that the United States did not even have diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia. By 1923, the ARA had distributed more than half a million tons of food which reached over 10 million people a day. In addition, eight million Russians were inoculated against deadly diseases, and scores of hospitals were restocked with 1,300 sets of surgical instruments and tons of medicines and medical supplies which saved the lives of millions of Russians.
There was a politico-economic edge to ARA’s altruism. Hoover undoubtedly hoped that the ARA’s work would persuade the Russian people to abandon communism for a democratic/capitalist system. “It was only natural,” he believed, that ARA relief would, “by spreading goodwill, serve to promote US economic interests.” Yet he had also recognized that Soviet officialdom was already suspicious and could easily turn obstructionist. Consequently, Hoover had instructed ARA representatives not only to avoid political activities, but to abstain from even discussing politics.