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The Polar Bear Expedition: A Bottom-Up Reinterpretation of America's Military Intervention in Northern Russia

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Military History

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Abstract

During the Russian Civil War, the American military sent troops to Northern Russia to guard supplies sent to the country’s former government. Known as the Polar Bear Expedition, this force was a part of a larger Allied expeditionary force commanded by the British. Arriving in Russia via the port of Archangel in September 1918, American troops were used by the British command as combat troops for the purpose of directly intervening in Russia’s civil war. From the outset, relations between the American and British forces were poor and only worsened with time. Forced to eat British rations, take orders from foreign officers, and fight against men they did not always identify as their enemies, morale among the American troops was abysmally low. Letters home to family members complaining about the conditions in Russia led to a public outcry that resulted in the withdrawal of American troops in June of 1919.

Overshadowed by the end of the First World War, the Polar Bear Expedition has likewise been largely ignored by scholars. The few military histories that have been written about the topic are top-down histories, having a focus on the larger events of the intervention. These works tend to be thin on critical analysis and usually adopt the biases of the source material. Also, none of these are what are known as bottom-up histories, or ones that focus on the perspective of the soldiers. The lack of a bottom-up history is somewhat surprising considering the large number of sources the men left behind. The current scholarship, with its top-down focus, has underutilized these sources leaving gaps in the historical narrative and raising questions about current interpretations. Particularly, the discussion of troop morale remains underdeveloped and the amount of theft that took place during the expedition has been largely overlooked. Consequently, a bottom-up history is necessary in order to address these issues and fully understand the history of the expedition. Although a comprehensive monograph is required to effectively use all of the source material, it is possible to engage aspects of the expedition in a smaller study. This article demonstrates how examining the expedition from the soldiers’ perspective not only enriches its history, but also provides for new interpretations.