- The following excerpt from the National Archives provides a brief background of America’s initial involvement in Russia beginning in 1918. Share this information with students via a handout or direct them to the National Archives site and then conduct a class discussion of the material.
President Woodrow Wilson had decided that the United States, still at war in Europe, must intervene in another part of the world to protect its investments. It had nearly a billion dollars' worth of American guns and equipment strewn along a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk.
Wilson had approved the dispatch of eight thousand men to Siberia— that cold, forbidding part of Russia— and he had chosen Graves as their commander. There, Graves would engage not in the kind of structured combat he had expected in Europe but in a wily contest of nerves, with Cossacks, Bolshevik guerrilla forces, and even Japanese army troops looking to bring Siberia into Japan's sphere of influence. At the same time, the American North Russian Expeditionary Force arrived in Archangel.
It would be the first, and only, time American troops were on Russian soil.
Graves and his men would face off against not German military leaders schooled in combat much the way he had been at West Point, but with the likes of Grigori Semenoff, a Cossack leader, or ataman, of a surly band of marauders whose sole joy in life was to rape, plunder, and steal among the local populations of the Trans-Baikal region of Siberia. On the Trans-Baikal Railway, one of the major links of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Cossacks routinely commandeered railway cars and locomotives.
Wilson's decision and Graves's unexpected adventure were coming at a time when much of the world was in turmoil.
The World War was still raging in Europe and would not end until the Armistice in November 1918. Civil war was still under way in Russia even though the Bolsheviks had ousted Alexander Kerensky in November 1917, a few months after the Mensheviks had deposed the tsar that spring. There did not appear to the Allies to be a legitimate government with whom they could do business. The Allies viewed the Czech Legion and even some White Russian and Cossack forces as levers to winning the war against Germany and Austria by creating diversions in western Russia at Archangel and in eastern Siberia. They hoped this activity would cause the Central Powers to divert forces from the Western Front back to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Red Army in Russia was still fighting for its life on at least four fronts.
When Baker met Graves in Kansas City, he handed him an envelope that contained the aide memoire, the reasons for sending American soldiers to innermost Russia:
- To facilitate the safe exit of the forty-thousand-man Czech Legion from Russia. The Legion had helped clear the Trans-Siberian Railway of Bolsheviks in the spring of 1918 and were the main fighting force in Siberia sympathetic to the Allied cause. (The Bolsheviks had made a separate peace with Germany and therefore could not be trusted.)
- To guard the nearly one billion dollars' worth of American military equipment stored at Vladivostok and Murmansk.
- To help the Russians organize their new government.
"This contains the policy of the United States in Russia which you are to follow," Baker said as he handed over the envelope. "Watch your step; you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite. God bless you and good-bye."
National Archives. Prologue Magazine. Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks
The U.S. Army in Russia, 1918–1920.
The following are varying interpretations and additional reasons historians have suggested for American intervention in Russia in 1918
- to help protect Allied war materials stored at Vladivostok from the Bolsheviks.
- to facilitate the exit from Russia of thousands of Czechs who were former enemy prisoners freed by the government when Russia withdrew from the war
- to assist the Russians with self-government and self-defense
- to protect Siberia from being taken over by Japan
- to protect the strategic port of Murmansk and Archangel
- Overthrow the Soviet government
- Allies pressured Wilson to intervene
- Then discuss with students the importance of using primary sources. Use the following guide from the Library of Congress in a teacher-led discussion with students. Provide them with a copy of the following or direct them to the Library of Congress website located at
Why Use Primary Sources?
Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period.
Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.
1. Engage students
- Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events.
- Because primary sources are snippets of history, they encourage students to seek additional evidence through research.
- First-person accounts of events help make them more real, fostering active reading and response.
- Many state standards support teaching with primary sources, which require students to be both critical and analytical as they read and examine documents and objects.
- Primary sources are often incomplete and have little context. Students must use prior knowledge and work with multiple primary sources to find patterns.
- In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials.
- Questions of creator bias, purpose, and point of view may challenge students’ assumptions.
- Inquiry into primary sources encourages students to wrestle with contradictions and compare multiple sources that represent differing points of view, confronting the complexity of the past. Students construct knowledge as they form reasoned conclusions, base their conclusions on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources.
- Integrating what they glean from comparing primary sources with what they already know, and what they learn from research, allows students to construct content knowledge and deepen understanding.
2. Develop critical thinking skills 3. Construct knowledge
Provide students with a copy of the following Stanford “Historical Thinking Chart: Then make a copy of the following information for students to read which is located at the National Archives:
Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks
The U.S. Army in Russia, 1918–1920
Winter 2002, Vol. 34, No. 4
Reasons for Intervention.
Gibson Bell Smith is an archivist specializing in modern military records, Textual Archives Services Division, National Archives and Records Administration. He has been with the National Archives since 1971 and has written several articles on diplomatic history and a book on U.S. Marine Commandant Gen. Thomas Holcomb.
Use the excerpt of Smith’s article to model how students can investigate historical questions by employing the following reading strategies: sourcing, contextualizing, close reading and corroborating.
- Request that students view the following: source: AEF in Siberia. Department of Defense Video.
Then assign them (in a cooperative endeavor) to use the National Archives video analysis worksheet located at https://www.archives.gov/files/education/lessons/worksheets/motion_picture_analysis_worksheet.pdf
to analyze the video.
- Assign students on an individual basis to access the following photograph (Nichols with U.S. American troops in Vladivostok). Then have students use the National Archives Photo Analysis Worksheet located at https://www.archives.gov/files/education/lessons/worksheets/photo_analysis_worksheet_former.pdf
to analyze the photograph. Compare and contrast selected students completed analysis worksheets.
American Lt. Col. Nichols with the U.S. Army 31st Infantry at Vladivostok during the U.S. intervention in the Russian civil war Photo: www.historyplace.com
- Assign students to access the following Internet site (Imperial War Museum) that contains a photograph of the room where Nicholas II and his family were executed. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205218772
Cellar in house in Ekaterinburg where the Tsar and his family were supposed to have been executed by the Bolsheviks, 1918.
Instruct students to use the National Archives photograph analysis worksheet located at https://www.archives.gov/files/education/lessons/worksheets/photo_analysis_worksheet_former.pdf to analyze the preceding photograph of the house were Nichols II and his family were killed.
Instruct students to then access the following website that contains background information on the murder of Nicholas II and his family. Independent. Secret files tell of final terrors for Romanovs by Paul Lashmar. July 23, 1999.
Then assign students to individual groups to discuss what are the consequences of the death of Nicholas II with reference to WWI and American intervention in Russia in 1918?