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SIBERIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

WHY SIBERIA?

CANADIAN FOREIGN POLICY AND SIBERIAN INTERVENTION, 1918-19

P. Whitney Lackenbauer, University of Waterloo

©April 1998


In the latter stages of the Great War and early into the peace, Canadian soldiers and economic commissioners were dispatched to Siberia in an obscure campaign that has since evoked historical interest and debate. However, the context that had justified Canadian involvement soon dissipated, leaving Canadian policy makers divided on a course of action. The subsequent change in Canadian policy, which led the budding nation to respond to American demands over the British appeal for continued concerted action, was a reaction to both domestic and international pressures. This paper explains the reasons why Canada participated in the Siberian campaign, and comments on why the episode may have been "the best illustration of the growth of Canada's policies in external affairs during the war."(1) First, the rationale for Canadian involvement will be discussed. Second, changing political, economic and military contexts will be explored. Third, Canada's decision to withdraw its troops will be analyzed. Conclusions will be drawn on the symbolic, if not practical, importance this decision had on Canada's increasing autonomy from Britain and how it provided an early indication of her transformation into a North American nation.

Kim Nossal has delineated three major determinants to Canadian foreign policy: the international setting, the domestic setting, and the governmental setting. All of these factors are critical to our understanding of Canada's intervention in Siberia. International setting refers to the external environment in which the state must operate, as well as the condition in which a state finds itself within this system (determined by factors like economic structure, alignments in international politics, and its status, capabilities and power in the international sphere). Domestic setting refers to domestic politics which impact upon the foreign policies of the Ottawa government. Explanatory variables related to the domestic context of Canadian foreign policy include the nature, composition and background of Canadian society, historical cleavages within the Canadian polity, and "elite" and "public opinion." The domestic and international environments set the parameters for viable foreign policy options, but individual governments decide Canada's international course. As such, the government setting and politics within the state apparatus are important dynamics to foreign policy making.(2) By examining and assessing the historical appraisals of the Siberian intervention along these lines, new insights will be gained into an existing debate on why Canada became involved.

The chief historical debates over Allied and Canadian involvement in Russia surround the decisions to intervene and later to withdraw. Several streams of thought exist, discernible from one another by the emphasis they placed on the reasons for Canadian involvement. Historians and political leaders in the Soviet Union (prior to the cession of Cold War hostilities) treated the intervention as "class hatred" by the "ruling circles" in Canada. They argued that Canadian authorities nurtured "anti-Soviet hysteria" to gain public support for the campaign.(3)Furthermore, Communist historians argued that there was an ideological impetus for Canadian military intervention and withdrawal, and that burgeoning public sympathy and working class support for socialism and the Soviet idea led to the government to eventually acquiesce to domestic concerns.(4) In contrast, other historians have characterized Canadian intervention in Russia as the rational outgrowth of various military, economic and political considerations, downplaying the anti-Bolshevik dynamic. This same myriad of factors, stressed in varying degrees of importance, was also used to explain the eventual withdrawal of Canadian troops.(5)

This essay will focus on Borden's foreign policy decisions with regard to the Canadian expeditionary force to Siberia, the region that witnessed the largest commitment of Canadian troops and the most historiographical controversy.

Allied and Canadian Intervention in Russia began in the early months of 1918. The early "Dunsterforce" initiative in the Caucuses was the first occasion for Canadian participation in Britain's Russian policy; the Minister of Overseas Forces in London (Sir Edward Kemp) agreed to send forty Canadian officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) without consulting his collegues in Ottawa. Similarly, Kemp was accommodating when the British request came for Canadians to participate in training missions "Elope" (destined for Archangel in northern Russia) and "Syren" (for the Arctic port of Murmansk). They assisted in training local Russian forces and administration; Canadians were deemed particularly suitable because of their northern upbringing. In the absence of Canadian federal and military policy (none of these developments required major policy decisions from Canadian commanders and politicians), routine took precedence.(6) The focus of Canadian policy makers, however, soon turned to the northwest hinterland of the Asian continent and discussions for a larger Canadian contribution to Allied intervention in Siberia.

The key reason Canada participated in Allied intervention was because Britain asked. First and foremost in Britain's eyes were military considerations. When the internal turmoil of the Russian Revolution led to a separate Russo-German peace treaty (Brest-Litovsk) in March 1919, effectively ending the Russian contribution to the war effort, the Allies lamented the loss of a second front. The German offensive in March and April of 1918 threatened to prolong the war indefinitely, and (as Borden and other members of the Imperial War Cabinet were informed) unless the Russian front was "reconstituted there [was] no reasonable probability of such a superiority over the enemy being concentrated by the Allies as will ensure victory on the Western front in 1919."(7)

A series of strategic military concerns made intervention in Siberia both timely and palatable. First, members of the Czechoslovak Corps (who had been German prisoners of war and/or fought for the Russian Imperial Army) were fighting their way along the Trans-Siberian railway to try and reach the eastern terminus of Vladivostok(8) with a view to return to Europe and fight the Germans with the Allies. This provided an immediate justification for Allied intervention.(9)Second, intervention would be the only assurance of closing the material resources of the Far East to the Central Powers. Furthermore, vast quantities of Allied military and civil stores (including raw materials), provided on credit to the tsarist regime, were held in Vladivostok. Intervention would ensure that these materials would not fall into German hands.(10) Third, President Wilson, long under pressure from the Allied Supreme War Council to accept and commit to Siberian intervention, finally agreed to American participation in the project in July 1918. Japan had already agreed to take part in the intervention,(11) and the British needed to provide a contingent to ensure that the Empire had a presence and influence in the region.

Politically, Borden had good reason to concede to British appeals. From the onset of war the Canadian prime minister had been on a quest for Canadian involvement in the higher direction of the war. In early 1917, with David Lloyd George now leading the British government, it appeared that Borden's pleas would finally be answered. Canada could share in the councils at the centre of the imperial war effort, so long as it continued to share in the burdens of the war. Intervention would buy political leverage with Britain. Desperately short of troops, the British appealed to Borden to "furnish the 'British' contingent for this new front" with Canadian units sent directly across the Pacific. Furthermore, a British battalion from Hong Kong was to be placed under the Canadian commander.(12) Canada's prestige would be heightened and the Canadian Expeditionary Force would, in Borden's eyes, increase Canadian power within the machinery of the Empire.

Continue reading "Another key factor behind Canadian intervention...."


ENDNOTES

1. Gaddis Smith, "Canadian External Affairs During World War I," in Hugh L. Keenleyside et al., The Growth of Canadian Policies in External Affairs (Duke University Commonwealth-Studies Center, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1960), 57.

2. Kim Nossal, The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy, second edition (Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall, 1989), 5-12.

3. These terms were used as late as 1985 by O.S. Soroko-Tsiupa, in Istoriia Kanady [History of Canada] (Moscow, 1985), 151, and also in her 1976 essay "Poslevoennaia Kanada (1918-1922 gg.)" [Postwar Canada, 1918-22]. As quoted in J.L. Black and Norman Hillmer, "Canada and the Soviet Union as Neighbours," in J.L. Black and Norman Hillmer, eds., Nearly Neighbours: Canada and the Soviet Union: from Cold War to Détente and Beyond (Kingston, ON: Ronald P. Frye, 1989), 1, 13 ff. This view is not surprising, given that many works by Tim Buck and other leading Canadian Communists were printed in the Soviet Union; although these writers captured only a tiny audience in Canada, they were the only Canadian political writers who were widely read in the USSR. J.L. Black, "Soviet-Canadian Relations, 1917-1985: A Bibliography," Institute of Soviet and East European Studies, Bibliography no. 4 (Ottawa: Carleton University, 1985), iii.

4. Tim Buck, Canada and the Russian Revolution: The Impact of the World's First Socialist Revolution on Labour and Politics in Canada (Toronto: Progress Books, 1967), 44-49.

5. Aloysius Balawyder, Canadian-Soviet Relations Between the World Wars (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972); Robert Bothwell, "Borden and the Bolsheviks," in David Davies, ed., Canada and the Soviet Experiment: Essays on Canadian Encounters with Russia and the Soviet Union, 1900-1991(Waterloo, ON: Centre on Foreign Policy and Federalism, 1992); Roy MacLaren, Canadians in Russia, 1918-1919 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1976); Gaddis Smith, "Canada and the Siberian Intervention, 1918-1919," American Historical Review, LXIV (July 1959), 866-877; C.P. Stacey, Canada and the Age of Conflict, volume 1: 1867-1921 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984); John Swettenham, Allied Intervention in Russia, 1918-19: And the Part Played By Canada (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967).

6. Bothwell, 25-26; Swettenham, 41-50; Stacey, 276-277. For the purposes of this paper, "Allied" will refer to the Allied and Associated Powers of World War One.

7. Borden Papers, vol. 395, IWC-22, 28 June 1918, quoted in Bothwell, 26.

8. In the source material the port is written as both "Vladivostok" and "Vladivostock." The first spelling will be adopted except in direct quotes where the latter appears in the original text.

9. Initially, the Bolsheviks had permitted the Czechoslovak Corps to cross Russia, albeit partially disarmed as ordered by the Germans (leaving them with only limited weapons for "defensive purposes"). The relations between the Bolsheviks and Czechs became increasingly strained as the former placed one of their representatives on each train carrying the Czech soldiers and attempted to coerce the latter to join the Red Guard. After a violent incident on 16 May 1918, Trotsky ordered that all remaining Czech arms be surrendered or the soldiers face execution; the Czechoslovak Corps would not concede and mounting hostilities between the two groups worried the Allies. Swettenham, 92; Balawyder, 9-10; Stacey, 277. See also Bothwell, 26.

10. MacLaren, 127. Yet another concern to the Allies was what effect newly released Austrian and German prisoners of war (estimated as high as 1,600,000 and termed "displaced persons" under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) would have on the war effort. While the Czech Legion was pro-Ally, some Allied statesmen and military leaders worried that other groups could be organized by the Germans to form a fifth column and hand over Russia (with all its natural resources) to the Central Powers. MacLaren, 128-129.

11. Smith, "Canada and the Siberian Intervention," 867; Stacey, 277.

12. Stacey, 277.

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