Monday, August 22, 2011

The Decision To Intervene

The Decision to Intervene, George F. Kennan, Athenaeum, New York, 1967. Original copyright 1958.

The last time I went through the Milwaukee Airport, I found about twenty pounds of used books, mostly on Russia, that I had shipped home. The Milwaukee Airport may be the only airport in the world with a used book store, and it’s a good one.

But I carried with me The Decision to Intervene by George Kennan. Anything by Kennan is worth reading, and I wasn’t aware of this one, which is particularly timely.

The decision that Kennan was writing about was the decision of the United States to intervene in the Russian Revolution. Some background first, because much of this isn’t widely known.

In 1917, the war in Europe was in full swing. The Allies (Britain, France, Russia, several other European countries, the United States) were fighting against the Central Powers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and Bulgaria). America was late to enter the war; only after German submarine warfare had caused American losses did Congress declare war on Germany on April 6.

Russia had been becoming progressively more unstable as the war progressed. Political movements against the monarchy had been growing for decades; a partial revolution in 1905 introduced some elected representation into the government, but the Tsar was reluctant to give up his autocracy, and the government was not running smoothly by 1917. The war was a further stress in multiple dimensions: casualties, shortages of civilian goods, and dealing with the Allies.

Another revolution broke out in March 1917 (February by the Julian calendar, which Russia was still using). A provisional government was formed, and the Tsar abdicated. Several political parties leaned toward socialism and organization based on local soviets (councils). However, there was great disagreement over principles among and within the political parties. This further weakened Russia’s ability to participate in the war.

In October, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government and took control, as much as they were able to, which was mostly in Moscow. The politics across Russia’s wide expanse broke into Red (Bolshevik) and White (anti-Bolshevik) factions, and civil war ensued.

Recognizing that they could not establish control of the country and fight a war with the Central Powers, the Bolsheviks negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918, to remove Russia from the war. The Allies were alarmed that this might mean that Russia had gone over to Germany’s side. Certainly it allowed Germany to concentrate on fighting its Western Front.
Kennan examines the American decision on how to respond to this development. Britain and France wanted Allied intervention in the Russian civil war on the side of the Whites. President Woodrow Wilson took a long time to make his decision. Kennan focuses on the actions and correspondence of Americans in Russia – the ambassadors and their embassies and the Red Cross mission.

Complicating the decision was the presence of the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia. Czechs and Slovaks who had been living there before the war were in the army; so were a large number who had been fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had deserted to the Allies. All were incorporated into the Czech Corps of the Russian Army. When the Bolsheviks took over in October 1917, the Czech Corps was in the Ukraine, near the fighting front. The Czechs proclaimed their neutrality. In December, the Allied governments recognized an “autonomous Czechoslovak army” as a regular Allied force now subordinated to the French High Command. France and Russia agreed that the Corps should be evacuated to France as soon as possible.

But, of course, they could not get there by going west, through the front and Germany. So the Corps was, after some difficulty extracting itself from the fighting, put on trains moving east across Siberia to Vladivostok, there to board ships for France. The trip did not go well, and the Czechs wound up fighting on the side of some of the numerous forces rebelling against Bolshevik rule. So the question of intervention was also whether and how to aid this Allied force in a country that had made peace with the enemy, or perhaps the question of how to use the Czech Corps to help remove the Bolsheviks from power, depending on the temperament of the questioner.

Kennan gives the most complete history of the Czech Corps I’ve yet found. He’s got a big story to tell, and he tells it skillfully, almost novelistically.

It’s necessary, in reading this book, to reset one’s modern assumptions about communication. Phones and telegraphs, often unreliable, are the fastest means of communication. But the greatest communication difficulties seem to be those that still operate: individuals’ prejudices and egotism; lack of full information; and decision-making without consultation of relevant parties.

President Wilson seems to have made the decision with little consultation, although it appears that Kennan may not have had access to all the documents or that Wilson didn’t document his thinking. Eventually he agreed with the Brits and French to land Allies at Vladivostok and Archangelsk, the east and west of Russia, with too-small forces poorly equipped, which were rather quickly withdrawn, their biggest effect to convince the Bolshevik government that the Allies meant them no good. The Czech Corps was in control of parts of the area around the Siberian railway at various times, even as far as from Irkutsk to Vladivostok. But the Bolsheviks eventually took it away from them, and what was left of the Corps left Vladivostok in 1920.

Kennan’s objective in examining this decision was to find the roots of US-Soviet animosity. Certainly invading a country on the side that eventually loses is not a positive, but the treatment of Allied embassies by the Bolsheviks exhibited what Kennan calls the anti-social tendencies they inherited from earlier Russian officialdom:
the governmental xenophobia, the exaggerated concern for prestige, the compulsive fear of foreign observation and influence, the persistent tendency toward over-suspiciousness, dissimulation, and deception in dealing with an outside force[.]
On the American side:
The reasons for this failure of American statesmanship lay…in such things as the deficiencies of the American political system from the standpoint of the conduct of foreign relations; the grievous distortion of vision brought to the democratic society by any self-abandonment – as in World War I – to the hysteria of militancy; the congenital shallowness, philosophical and intellectual, of the approach to world problems that bubbled up from the fermentations of official Washington; and the pervasive dillatantism in the execution of American policy.
Of course, in today’s world, a book called The Decision to Intervene is likely to have additional relevance. The decision must be made in a cacophony of contradictory voices arguing for their interests. France and Britain, in the decision to send NATO to help Libyan rebels, showed some echoes of the Allied case for intervening on the side of the Russian Whites.

The difficulty in the question of intervention is determining where national interests lie. The desire and perhaps need to oust a tyrant may be clear; it unifies factions with differing interests. But once the tyrant is gone, the factions may ignite another civil war, or their interests may not coincide with those of an intervening power. Then there are the questions of how to make an intervention effective and being on the winning side.

The Decision to Intervene is on Google Books, and it looks like it’s still in print. Definitely worth reading, if for the adventure story alone.

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