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Recurring Foreign Policy Errors and the Decision to Intervene in Russia

American intervention in Russia's civil war is a classic example of how the U.S. can be lured into doing something unnecessary and dangerous on the basis of shoddy information.

A hundred years ago this month, the United States declared war on Germany and entered WWI in one of the most costly and avoidable foreign policy blunders in our history. Another ill-advised intervention soon followed as a result of entry into the war when the U.S. sent troops into Russia in 1918 to embark on a fool’s errand of ostensibly defending the Czech Legion. George Kennan wrote an extensive history of this decision, and described some of the errors that led to it:

There was no lack of willingness to see the facts of the Russian situation or to face them; but even here, understanding was constantly bedeviled by the inability to form a realistic image of the German opponent. There was a tendency to exaggerate German ambitions and the German role in Russia; to underestimate the disunity in the German camp and the weaknesses and limitations that rested on the German war effort; to underrate the phenomenon of Bolshevism as an indigenous manifestation of Russian political realities; to regard the confusions of the Russian scene as only another projection of German evil; and to argue from this that the problems of Russia, like those of Europe proper, would find their solution automatically in an Allied victory over Germany. (The Decision to Intervene, p. 10)

These errors are not unique to Americans, but we do seem to repeat many of them again and again in our assessments of foreign threats and our estimates of an adversary’s capabilities and influence. There has long been a tendency to see an adversary as having far grander goals than they actually have, and to credit them with the ability to achieve those goals even when there is plenty of evidence that they can’t. There is likewise a refusal to accept that many developments in another country are the product of local circumstances and interests, and instead everything is pinned on the sinister activities of the adversary. We see this most often in analysis related to Iran at the moment, but that is just the latest example.

In the case of the Siberian intervention, the Wilson administration relied on the most alarmist views of the situation. Kennan describes how the U.S. joined the civil war on the ludicrous grounds of guarding the Czech Legion from German and Austrian POWs:

In this way the United States government, disregarding the many reports in its possession that threw doubt on the validity of such a thesis, ultimately sponsored by implication the wildest and most alarmist image of a Siberia threatened by seizure by armed detachments of the Central Powers and saved from this fate, for the moment, only by the heroic Czechs. In this dramatic image there was no room either for the Bolsheviki, who were the real opponents of the Czechs in Siberia, nor the Russian Whites, who were their real allies. (p.401)

While this alarmist story was clearly untrue, it was nonetheless a very useful pretext to justify an intervention that the other Allied governments wanted:

If, as was plainly the case, [Secretary of State] Lansing and the President were partly the victims of misinformation–much of it deliberate–one senses that their vulnerability to this information was enhanced by the difficult position in which they found themselves. For men unwilling to face up to the awkward reality of Soviet power but desperately anxious to find a means of escape from the endless importunities of Allied governments and of public opinion, that they “do something” about Russia, the thesis that the Czechs, an Allied force, found themselves opposed in Siberia by the armed forces of the German and Austrian governments came as the perfect answer to all perplexities. (p.402-403)

The intervention in Russia’s civil war is a classic example of how the U.S. can be lured into doing something unnecessary and dangerous in a war in which it had nothing at stake to satisfy allies on the basis of shoddy information. It would not be the last time. All together, only a few hundred American soldiers died as a result of this decision, but those were lives wasted in an intervention that never should have happened.