An American railroad man east of the Urals, 1918-1922.
The RRSC came to Siberia at the request of Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government, which was subsequently ousted from power by Lenin and his followers. Though ostensibly politically neutral, the corps in fact worked closely with anti-Bolshevik forces and played an important role in the Allied military expedition in Siberia of 1918-20. At first tolerant of the American railroad men's presence, since it hoped for U.S. recognition, the Bolshevik government came to view the RRSC as enemies of the state. Drawing heavily on the diary and letters of Benjamin Johnson, a high-ranking RRSC officer, this essay illuminates a little-known episode in Russian-American relations that was to color future Soviet perceptions of the United States.
The Trans-Siberian Railway extended 4,700 miles from the Ural Mountains to the Sea of Japan. From Cheliabinsk, just east of the Urals, it passed through Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk, then skirted Lake Baikal and proceeded to Chita. Shortly beyond Chita two branches continued to the sea at Vladivostok, the chief port of the Russian Far East. The Chinese Eastern Railway, the shorter southern branch, intersected the Chinese frontier at Manchuria Station, crossed Northern Manchuria through Harbin, the line's center for administration, and reached the Russian frontier again at Podgranitsa, a few hours from Vladivostok. The other, more circuitous branch made a great loop along the northern side of the Amur River to Khabarovsk and then due south to Vladivostok.
The chain of events resulting in the RRSC's creation began shortly after the collapse of the tsarist regime earlier in 1917 and the establishment of the Provisional Government. At the end of March, Daniel Willard, a railroad executive then serving as chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense, was alerted to the serious impairment of the Trans-Siberian Railway by Stanley Washburn, correspondent for both the London Times and the Chicago Daily News and later a major in the U.S. Army. The railway was vital to Allied interests as it was a major means of transporting supplies. According to Washburn, who had been in Russia since September 1914 and had covered over 80 battles, the Trans-Siberian had almost ceased to function, a situation especially critical because German submarines effectively precluded shipment of arms to Russia through the Baltic, and it seemed likely that rail transportation from Archangel to European Russia might be closed. While the Trans-Siberian line itself was basically in good condition, it suffered from poor management and antiquated equipment, much of which was in dire need of repair or replacement. As a result, military supplies purchased from the United States and shipped across the Pacific were piling up at Vladivostok. In order for these supplies to reach the Allied Russian armies in Europe--which Washburn considered imperative to winning the war--the whole system of rail transportation in the Russian Far East required reorganization and rehabilitation, something that could best be accomplished through American assistance.(1)
At Willard's request, Washburn briefed the Council of National Defense, which was sufficiently alarmed that it recommended to President Wilson that the U.S. government undertake a survey of Russia's railway needs. After hurried yet serious deliberation--and after obtaining the approval of Russia's Provisional Government--the president appointed John E Stevens of New York City, an outstanding railway builder renowned for his efforts in organizing the staff for the construction of the Panama Canal, to head a five-member Advisory Commission of Railway Experts to Russia. Their charge was to inspect the Trans-Siberian line and advise the Russian government on how to improve the railway and increase its carrying capacity.(2)
By late July 1917, the commission had completed its inspection and recommended substantial operational changes. Russia's Provisional Government welcomed the commission's suggestions but claimed that they would be impossible to implement unless men familiar with the methods involved provided firsthand instruction to Russian personnel. Accordingly, in September the government asked for the assistance of a unit of American railway men, for which it agreed to pay all expenses. The American response to this request was the formation of the RRSC.(3)
Authorized by the secretary of war, the corps was to consist entirely of officers, led by a colonel. John E Stevens was to have supervisory authority over its operations in Russia, while its senior officer, George H. Emerson, general manager of the Great Northern Railway, would recruit the unit's members. Most were to be selected from northwestern states like the Dakotas and Montana, where long hauls and the rigors of the climate most closely approximated the conditions under which the men would have to function in Siberia. At a meeting at RRSC headquarters in St. Paul, Emerson urged a specially selected group of railway executives to call upon their men to volunteer for the new organization as a "patriotic duty" By early October, applications began to pour in far beyond the most optimistic predictions.(4)
Among the applicants was Benjamin Oliver Johnson, a 39-year-old division superintendent of the Northern Pacific Railway then residing in Livingston, Montana. The second of five children born to a Swedish immigrant couple who had fled to the United States to avoid military conscription, he had grown up on a farm on the outskirts of Winchester, Massachusetts. Fulfilling a boyhood dream to become a railroad man, he joined the Northern Pacific in 1900, shortly after receiving a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Over the next 17 years, he rose from section hand to assistant engineer, to roadmaster, to trainmaster, and finally to superintendent.(5)
Like others who volunteered for the RRSC, Johnson knew that such service would exempt him from the draft and that his pay would be higher than that of officers in the regular army. But such considerations played no part in his decision to seek appointment to the unit. Indeed, he had attempted in June 1917 to join the American forces in France, stressing that he was "physically in very good shape" and citing, as a presumed bonus, his previous study of French.(6) Rejected because of poor eyesight and bad teeth, he saw the prospect of service in Siberia as his last opportunity to contribute to the war effort. At the end of September, having spent $600 on dental work (over 12 percent of his annual salary), he wrote to the Northern Pacific's main office in St. Paul requesting support of his RRSC application. "I thoroughly believe I am physically, mentally, and otherwise qualified to withstand the exacting conditions of Russian service" he assured the assistant to the first vice president. "My only physical defect is that my eyes will not measure up to military standards, but of this I can say that with glasses my general sight is normal and that ... my efficiency [has never] been in the least impaired by this condition."(7) A second letter, addressed to the company's general manager, reveals his passionate desire to join the RRSC: "I never personally wanted anything in my life so badly as I want this opportunity," he declared. "I have never asked the Railroad Company for a favor during the years I have been with them ... but I do want to ask a favor now in that I be released to go . ...I certainly would plead that you do what you can to help me on this."(8)
Johnson's application was endorsed enthusiastically, and in the latter part of October he reported to Colonel Emerson in St. Paul, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. The day he and his family left Livingston the Montana Record-Herald ran an editorial praising his decision to serve the nation "in a capacity that will have a vital influence in the winning of the war" and paying tribute to his many contributions to the Northern Pacific and its patrons:
Ben Johnson is capable and efficient, kindly and courteous to all with
whom he comes in contact, loyal to the interests of his employers,
fair to those who have dealings with them. While he is away in Russia
driving spikes and struggling with the difficult language of that
country, he can be sure that there are many hundreds at home in Montana
who are betting that he will lead the percentage columns in both.(9)
During the next three weeks, Johnson and the other volunteers were interviewed, given medical examinations, and tested to determine their knowledge of railroad operations. Those judged acceptable were granted commissions by the War Department and underwent a brief but intensive indoctrination course. They committed to serve for at least 12 months, or for the duration of the emergency if that proved less. Johnson accepted appointment as a major, one of 13 corps members awarded that rank. Although the corps was authorized to consist of a total of 339 officers, only about two-thirds of this number made it through the selection process and were sent to the Russian Far East in 1917.(10)
On 19 November following several days of additional preparation in San Francisco, Johnson and the other corpsmen sailed for Vladivostok aboard the transport Thomas. They were accompanied by 75 machinists and a handful of interpreters. Unfortunately, upon their arrival in December, they found the port city in turmoil. Confusion and lawlessness engendered by news of the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, combined with a lack of adequate housing and food, compelled the corpsmen to proceed to Nagasaki, Japan, to await improved conditions. As it turned out, the bulk of the corps' personnel would remain in Nagasaki for eight months, unable to return to Vladivostok and begin their work until mid-August 1918. Happily for Johnson, however, Stevens received permission from Russian officials in Harbin for a contingent of the unit to begin work along the Chinese Eastern Railway. Early in March, about 100 corps members, including Johnson, were transported to Harbin following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the separate peace negotiated in March 1918 between Lenin's Bolshevik government and the Central Powers. Although the peace caused dismay on the part of the Allies--and seemingly lent credence to the charge made repeatedly since the preceding April by American Ambassador David R. Francis that Lenin and his antiwar colleagues were dupes of the German General Staff--it did not delay the work of the corpsmen. Within a matter of weeks they were riding trains, superintending repairs to roundhouses, instructing Russian railway workers in methods to increase efficiency, and generally working to improve railway operations.(11)
At the end of April 1918, Johnson joined Colonel Emerson and four other members of the RRSC contingent in Harbin on a special assignment to Vologda, the junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Moscow Archangel Railway, where Ambassador Francis had moved his headquarters from Petrograd as a result of the Brest-Litovsk crisis. They were to consult with Francis regarding transportation matters in European Russia, and on the way they were to observe how the Trans-Siberian Railway was functioning under Bolshevik control. Traveling only by daylight, stopping frequently to inspect terminals, and fighting traffic delays, by 26 May the Emerson party had gone no further than Irkutsk. In the meantime, a crisis had arisen: the "revolt" of the Czechoslovak Legion. This crisis not only would profoundly affect the work of the RRSC, but--together with the perceived need to protect Allied supplies stored at Vladivostok from the Germans--would be used to help justify to the American public President Wilson's decision that July to send an expeditionary force to Siberia and the Russian Far East under the command of Major General William S. Graves.(12)
Formed in 1914, the legion consisted of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army eager to fight against the Central Powers for their country's independence. Stranded in Ukraine following the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin's subsequent peace treaty, the legion, which by then numbered over 40,000 men, determined to continue fighting the enemy on the battle front in France. Since access routes to the western front from Ukraine were blocked by the Germans, the Czechoslovak nationalist leader Thomas Masaryk obtained permission from Bolshevik authorities for free passage of the legion's members to Vladivostok, from which they hoped to arrange sea transport to the front, on condition that they surrender most of their arms. About 15,000 of them had reached Vladivostok by mid-May 1918, but the greater part of the Czech forces were strung out at broad intervals along the Trans-Siberian Railway and the legion as a whole would finally succeed in leaving Russia only in June 1920. Fearing that because of its anger over the Soviet government's separate peace with the Central Powers the legion might join counterrevolutionary armies massing in the Russian Far East or support a surmised Allied invasion, the Bolsheviks delayed the exodus and tensions grew. The legionnaires, in turn, became increasingly suspicious of Bolshevik intentions and hid weapons and ammunition in violation of Masaryk's pledge.(13)
On 14 May a seemingly minor incident became the catalyst for bitter and extended military conflict. A Czech troop train at Cheliabinsk station, just east of the Urals, found itself alongside a train load of Hungarian prisoners being evacuated from Siberia for repatriation. Nationalist antipathy flared, and a piece of iron or a stone was thrown from the Hungarian into the Czech train, killing one of the Czech soldiers. The Czechs retaliated by lynching the man responsible. When the authorities at Cheliabinsk, unable to identify the actual culprits, randomly arrested several Czech soldiers whose collaboration was desired as witnesses and incarcerated them in a local jail, their Czech comrades seized the town's arsenal, armed themselves, and forcibly released the prisoners. Upon learning of the Czech action, Bolshevik leaders ordered its forces stationed along the Trans-Siberian to disarm the legion immediately, to execute on the spot every armed Czech found on the railway, and to imprison the Czech soldiers in every troop train in which even one armed man was discovered.
On 26 May, the same day that the Emerson party reached Irkutsk, hostilities between Czechs and Bolsheviks broke out in full force. Within two weeks most of the railway from a point west of Samara (later renamed Kuibyshev), on the Volga, to somewhat west of Irkutsk--a distance of roughly 2,500 miles--was wrested from Bolshevik hands either by Czech forces or by various indigenous anti-Bolshevik organizations that took advantage of the Czech action to seize points independently and establish a number of anti-Bolshevik governments.(14)
Beginning on 27 May and continuing for nearly two weeks thereafter, Colonel Emerson and his men attempted to mediate the Czech-Bolshevik dispute, taking part in numerous conferences between representatives of the two sides and encouraging a cessation of hostilities. During the negotiations the Americans repeatedly passed blindfolded from the lines of the one group to the other. On 8 June, Ernest L. Harris, the American consul general at Irkutsk, ordered an end to the mediation efforts when it became apparent that the crisis was not a series of misunderstandings but a full-scale civil war. Harris feared that the mediatory efforts might be misconstrued as an attempt at American interference in the developing strife between the Bolsheviks and the so-called Whites, the name widely used by that time as a blanket designation for the various Russian counterrevolutionary groups moving to establish their own governments in eastern Russia.(15)
Considering Harris's concern, it is ironic that within a matter of weeks President Wilson would use the Czech-Bolshevik conflict to justify American intervention. Wilson came to believe that only by sending American troops to Siberia and the Russian Far East could the way be cleared for the Czechs to reach Vladivostok and depart for the western front. In effect, the Czechoslovak Legion provided a solution to the dilemma that confronted the President. The British, French, and Japanese governments were exerting strong pressure to cooperate in salvaging a front in Russia against the Germans. But American participation conflicted with Wilson's belief in self-determination. He deeply loathed the Bolsheviks for their Marxist ideology and antidemocratic practices, yet he was committed to the principle that the Russian people should determine their own fate. By convincing himself that the Czechoslovak forces required assistance, Wilson could at once justify intervening in Russian affairs and soothe his conscience.(16)
The decision to send troops to the area, however, would evolve into something more than an effort to remove the Czechs and either, at best, salvage a front against the Germans or, at least, prevent Allied supplies from falling into German hands. After Germany's defeat in November 1918, the secondary motives of Wilson's Allied counterparts achieved prominence--fear of the Bolsheviks' Marxist radicalism and hopes of establishing spheres of influence in a weakened Russia. Never completely clear himself on how best to undermine Bolshevism without damaging the Russian people's right to self-determination, Wilson was drawn into Allied efforts to support anti-Bolshevik forces with advisers, materiel, and funds. Yet, publicly, the U.S. role continued to be portrayed variously as an attempt to help the Czechoslovak Legion, promote the best interests of the Russian people (a conveniently vague concept), monitor the Japanese--anything but an effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks. And it was this public rationale for the continued American presence that was also communicated through official channels to the RRSC, whose members were never wholly disabused of the belief that they were to remain neutral in the struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Whites--their increasing assistance to the Czechoslovak Legion notwithstanding--and focus their efforts on creating and maintaining efficient railway service.(17)
Their mediation efforts at Irkutsk ended, Emerson and his men resumed their journey to Vologda, getting as far as the Urals when they were advised by the Bolshevik authorities that they would not be allowed to communicate with Ambassador Francis. The authorities' action was provoked by Francis's continuing denunciations of Bolshevism, a pattern of behavior that had begun shortly after the collapse of the tsarist regime and became ever more pronounced during the months following the overthrow of the Kerensky government. While his anti-Bolshevism was not considered sufficient to demand his departure from Russia and thereby risk eliminating what slim hope remained that Washington would recognize Lenin's government, it was regarded as grounds to prohibit Francis's consultation with Emerson and his colleagues. Consequently, they turned back, reaching Vladivostok in early September. En route to the port city they accompanied the advancing Czech forces and lent their expertise to the task of repairing the railway--a formidable challenge since the Bolsheviks, retreating before the Czechs, destroyed more than 100 bridges as well as numerous depots, water towers, and other railway facilities.(18)
Johnson played a major role in the repair work, taking charge of repairs from Irkutsk to the Ural Mountain front. His efforts gained the admiration of Czech military leaders, especially that of General Jan Syrovy, with whose troops Johnson had been early in July as they prepared to attack Ekaterinburg, the city in the northern Urals in which Tsar Nicholas II and his family were confined as prisoners of the Bolsheviks. Shortly before the general armistice of 11 November 1918, Johnson was awarded the Czechoslovak War Cross in recognition of "conspicuous service" the only American to be thus honored during the First World War.(19)
The good relations Johnson enjoyed with the Czechs were no doubt enhanced by his ability to communicate with them without an interpreter. Nearly all the Czech officers spoke French and, as Johnson wrote to a friend back home in Livingston, his own command of that language was good enough "so we get by." Initially, he had great difficulty communicating with Russians, but he spent many of his evenings during the spring and summer of 1918 struggling with the Russian language and his progress was such that by the middle of August he was able to report, "I felt very proud lately to have a boss ask me to do some Russian interpreting for him."(20)
Although all members of the Emerson party were impressed with the Czechs, Johnson found them particularly praiseworthy. In his diary he described them as "brown, hardened trenchfighters, undoubtedly the greatest fighting men in the world." Some soldiers, these boys! Their young boyish officers, so serious, so courteous--it has been a pleasure to know them."(21) Nor had his opinion altered by October 1919 when he characterized them in a letter to a friend and fellow railroad man in Montana:
These Czechs are a wonderful lot. Clean skinned, clean bodies, wonderfully
disciplined and tending absolutely to their own business. My admiration for
them exceeds my power of language .... [W]hile they do not in the slightest
degree strut or put on airs, they are the most self-confident bunch of men I
have ever seen.(22)
Johnson also had very definite views on the Russian situation. When approached by Czechs or Russians regarding his political opinions, he responded in the manner expected of RRSC personnel, that he was not interested in political affairs but was concerned only with improving railway operation. But what he would not say to Russians or Czechs he expressed without reservation in his diary, in letters to friends back home, and in a number of journal articles published after most RRSC members had returned to the United States. Sympathy for Russia's plight was a persistent theme in his letters. "[N]ever in modern times has a nation been so down and out as is Russia at the present time" he wrote at the end of July 1919.
Can you imagine a condition where the morale of a whole nation is
absolutely all gone? You have to see it to realize what that means.
Where everybody just mopes around looking at the ground. They don't
talk. They have lost every bit of their ambition and even hope of
anything better. It is dreadfully sad. I have read a good deal about
the French Revolution but I don't think they ever got down to where
Russia is today.(23)
Yet Johnson was optimistic regarding Russia's future, often expressing in his diary and in correspondence home that "the Russians will pull themselves out of this," that "Russia is coming back and coming back strong."(24)
Despite his admiration for the Czech Legion, Johnson was convinced that Bolshevism--its radical excesses notwithstanding--was preferable to tsarism, which, as he later said, was "absolutely unfeeling to the masses of the people."(25) Following the Red army's victory in the civil war, he offered his perception of the common Russian's attitude toward Bolshevism--and included his own view of Russia's likely future--in a letter to the editor of his alma mater's alumni magazine. "Ivan is no Bolshevik" Johnson wrote, but he frankly says that nothing better has as yet been offered him .... and at that the disadvantages under Bolshevism are rather less than those under Czarism, as far as he is concerned.
... Bolshevism does not suit him, but it is the best thing yet. And he insists on working this thing out for himself.
And how will he work it out? I would not dare venture a prediction .... But of this one thing I am sure--that Ivan, not Lenine [sic] and Trotzky, will rule Russia.
... An overthrow of Bolshevism at present means anarchy, as there is absolutely nothing to take its place. The steering of Bolshevism by peaceful means into channels of proper conservatism would be the happy solution, and that is what Ivan is trying to bring about.(26)
Johnson's attitude regarding railway conditions was mixed. He was highly impressed by the physical shape of the railway, writing to his father in the spring of 1919 that "today there is not one single American transcontinental line in the splendid physical condition of the Trans-Siberian." He also found much to admire about the rank and file Russian railway workers, whom he described to his father as "as fine a bunch of workmen as are found in the world. They are about 75 per cent [sic] as efficient as our men, but are steady, good natured, and very good workmen." Railway managerial personnel, however, were lazy, incompetent, and dishonest:
You have read stories and seen plays of comic-opera South-American
armies with fifty generals and ten soldiers. The Russian way of running
a railroad is along the same lines, and the comedy of the situation
never appeals to the Russian railway officers. When it comes to morals
for this office-holding class there is no such animal. Honesty, ditto,
ditto. So much for the officers and their staffs.(27)
Managerial inefficiency exacerbated the increasingly chaotic condition of the railway following the arrival of the Allied interventionist effort. These forces increased dramatically the volume of traffic across track that, contrary to what Johnson wrote his father, was not wholly repaired of the damage inflicted by Bolsheviks troops retreating before the Czechs. In response, the Inter-Allied Railway Committee (IARC) was organized early in 1919 to provide general supervision of the railway in those regions where Allied troops were operating. The IARC was chaired by a Russian, included one representative each from the United States, Japan, China, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, and arrived at all agreements by a majority vote. One of its first decisions was to divide the railroad into sections to be guarded by Japanese, Chinese, and American forces. The Japanese, who by March 1919 had an army of 70,000 in the Russian Far East, were assigned the greatest share, protecting the line from Verkhneudinsk, some 30 miles east of Lake Baikal, to Khabarovsk and down to Iman. The Chinese were given control of the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria, while American troops were to guard only a minute portion of the line: a small section from Mysovsk, on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, to Verkhneudinsk and the section between Iman and Vladivostok.
Since the IARC was theoretically a policymaking body, the actual administration was carried out by a number of specialized agencies. The most important of these was the Technical Board, which was responsible for the technical and economic management of the railway. The board's official language was English, and from its first meeting in March 1919 to its dissolution on 1 November 1922, John E Stevens served as president. Since Stevens alone controlled the funds earned along (or contributed to) the railway line under their supervision, he had the major role in decision-making, a fortuitous circumstance since at first the board consisted of men with little practical railway experience.(28)
To keep railway traffic moving in the chaotic conditions engendered by civil war and Allied intervention was a formidable task. Stevens assigned RRSC members to the Trans-Siberian main line from Vladivostok to Omsk, a line made perilous by the presence of Grigori Semenov, a notoriously brutal anti-Bolshevik warlord. For nearly four years, beginning in January 1918, Semenov directed a guerrilla army that varied in size from a few hundred men to upwards of several thousand. From his strategically situated headquarters at Chita, he seized railroad cars and locomotives for his own use, disrupting railway traffic. Worse, he permitted his troops to murder, flog, and otherwise maltreat Russian railway operators and their families and to force indignitiesupon members of the RRSC, ranging from verbal insults and crude jokes at the corpsmen's expense to, in one instance, physical abuse. Although the Japanese were responsible for protecting this section of the line, they not only declined to interfere with his actions but provided him with financial support. They regarded the disorder he created as helpful in preventing the emergence of a strong Russian government capable of thwarting their desire for pre-eminent influence in Siberia and northern Manchuria. The IARC proved unable to compel the Japanese to honor their obligation to protect railway personnel, freight, and passengers.(29)
Despite the obstacles confronting them, before departing for home in June 1920 the RRSC succeeded in bringing about a marked improvement in both the railway's physical condition and its efficiency. Under their direction, bridges were repaired or replaced with temporary structures; entrances to major tunnels blocked by explosives were cleared; and depots that had been destroyed were rebuilt. Locomotives and cars were repaired more quickly, and freight tonnage increased through the use of daily reports on train movements and the heavier loading of freight cars. An American dispatching circuit was installed for train operation from Vladivostok to Omsk and a modified system of centralized dispatchers' control of train movement substituted for the old station-to-station system, thereby reducing delays; modern accounting methods were introduced; and, in general, Russian railway workers were taught to carry out their duties more rapidly and more efficiently.(30)
Benjamin Johnson contributed substantially to these improvements. At the beginning of April 1919, three months after being promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was appointed by the Technical Board to serve as district inspector of the Omsk Railway, one of eight operating divisions into which the board had divided the Chinese Eastern and Trans-Siberian lines. His efforts in this post were sufficiently successful that in mid-June he was able to report to Colonel Emerson:
There is not the slightest question in my mind but what our mere
presence on this railroad has had a very great moral effect. Things
are moving noticeably better than they were when I got here. ...
Officials are using us very well and are getting in good shape on any
small matter which I have thus far called to their attention.(31)
Later that summer, Johnson visited Ekaterinburg. Although he and the other members of the Emerson party en route to Vologda a year earlier had been for a brief time in the vicinity, they had not been able to enter the city itself. Johnson now made up for that missed opportunity by taking the time not only to interview a number of Russians who had been in the city when the imperial family was killed that summer but also to tour the house--and stand in the very room--where the executions were carried out.(32)
Shortly after the visit to Ekaterinburg, Johnson was confronted with an unanticipated challenge that taxed his energy and expertise to their limits. The forces of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, leader of the White movements against Bolshevism, suffered disastrous reverses near the Ural Mountains, prompting a massive eastward retreat across the Trans-Siberian Railway. Johnson and a handful of other RRSC officers had charge of this movement through Omsk, and during September 1919 they directed the passage of some 45 trains a day. Then, in October, with the demoralization of the Kolchak forces complete and amidst an outbreak of typhoid fever and smallpox, the Allies ordered the evacuation of all Allied troops from Siberia. RRSC personnel were instructed to cease all other activities and assist the troops to Vladivostok. Johnson left Omsk with the last Allied train on 12 November and the Bolsheviks occupied the city the next day.(33)
Despite the enormous demands placed upon him, Johnson had no intention of resigning. When asked by Emerson whether he wished to remain in Siberia, considering the very real danger posed RRSC members, Johnson replied that he was "perfectly and entirely willing to stay" as long as his presence seemed beneficial.(34) He did not mention to Emerson the horrors he had recently witnessed in Omsk, later described in a letter to a friend and former railway associate back in Montana:
Right after the first of November everything went to the bow-wows, panic,
twenty below, confusion and the most extreme case of madhouse that a person
can imagine. ... Every track blocked, all leads blocked, even the roundhouse
lead plugged, numberless switch engines standing still with everyone at once
trying to get some car dug out, dragging of dead from typhus out of cars,
children among refugee families actually freezing to death on the depot
platform, everyone with any authority including myself being begged and
implored by people to do something for them, the wild look, the haunting
unpleasant look of panic on everyone's faces, yard crowded with
people trying to simply climb on outbound trains, with no food or
Johnson's efforts were appreciated; in December, he received word that the faculty of Worcester Polytechnic had adopted a resolution expressing "keen interest and great pride" in his "splendid service ... for Russia and for civilization."(36) He was also promoted to the rank of colonel and designated Emerson's successor both as commanding officer of the RRSC and as chief inspector of the Chinese Eastern and Trans-Siberian Railways. Johnson therefore became responsible for overseeing the drawn-out process of evacuating Allied forces from Siberia. Owing to a combination of cold weather (as low as 55 degrees below zero in early February), disease, a shortage of food and locomotives, and the periodic destruction of track by Bolshevik troops pursuing the scattered remnants of Admiral Kolchak's army, it was 1 June 1920 before the last train load of Allied soldiers reached Vladivostok. By 30 July, all Allied forces but those of the Japanese had sailed for home.(37)
Though most RRSC members departed for the United States in June, Johnson was one of a small group of officers selected to remain in Russia until the dissolution of the Inter-Allied Technical Board in 1922 following the belated withdrawal of the Japanese. During this period, he assisted in all aspects of railway rehabilitation, and on two separate occasions he served as acting president of the Technical Board while Stevens visited Washington on State Department orders. The "courage, intelligence .... practical experience .... and loyal devotion" he brought to these tasks were acknowledged warmly by Stevens on the eve of Johnson's departure from Russia in mid-November 1922 after an absence from the United States of five years.(38) In recognition of his services assisting French soldiers to evacuate, the president of the French Republic awarded him the Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, while for his labors as acting president of the Technical Board he was awarded the Imperial Order of the Sacred Treasurer by Japan and the second class Chia-Ho decoration by China.(39)
Upon his return to the United States Johnson moved his family from Montana to Minnesota to be near his relatives. Although his mother had died while he was in Russia, his father still worked the farm outside Winchester and a brother and two surviving sisters lived nearby. He was offered the presidency of Worcester Polytechnic Institute but turned it down, explaining that he was "a railroad man, not a college man." From 1923 until February 1932, when high blood pressure attributed by his doctor to the harsh conditions in Siberia forced him to retire, he was employed in various executive capacities by the Northern Pacific, working out of the company's main offices in St. Paul. According to his daughter, Frances Bishop, "he got into trouble in some circles" during these years, "because he believed the Bolsheviks were doing the best they could, considering the circumstances, and commented publicly that `although things are in a mess now, Russia will come out of it.'" Bishop also cites his sympathy for the Bolsheviks as the reason he turned down an offer of $35,000 from Collier's Magazine for two albums of nearly 800 photographs given him by the Czechs in 1922. The albums included a number of gruesome photographs of Bolshevik atrocities, and Johnson felt that their publication would "show only the anti-Bolshevik side of things," noting pointedly that "there were also atrocities committed by the Whites and their supporters."(40)
There is reason to believe that the Soviet authorities were aware of Johnson's attitude toward their efforts. In 1930, on a return visit to Russia, he was offered a three-year contract to direct the country's railway system. While his professional skills and firsthand knowledge of Russia's railways doubtless prompted the offer, it is unlikely that the invitation would have been extended had the government not recognized his sympathy toward their regime. His daughter Frances related years later that his decision to decline this offer was difficult, arrived at solely because he was worried about his ailing health. Johnson's concern was well founded; he died at his home in St. Paul just two years later, in June 1932, at the age of 54.(41)
Although Johnson earned the respect of the Soviet government, the same cannot be said for the RRSC and its role during the Allied intervention. When Johnson predicted in 1923 that the Russians would long remember the "sympathy, generosity and encouragement" of the corps, he was mistaken.(42) The corpsmen regarded by Major General Graves as a "remarkable lot of men" who did "what was just and right for the Russians, regardless of Russian claims of bolshevism or anti-bolshevism,"(43) were subsequently denounced by Soviet authorities as propaganda agents hostile to the interests of the Russian people and their legitimate Bolshevik representatives. They accused the RRSC of supporting the American imperialists in the latter's alleged role as the principal organizers of all the forces of external and internal counterrevolution, who intended to strangle the Soviet state in its infancy and turn Russia into an American colony.(44)
However exaggerated its articulation, the Soviet view of the RRSC is understandable. It is true that many of the railway improvements for which the Soviet government later claimed credit were due to the work of the corps; it is also the case, however, that the RRSC worked closely with forces hostile to the Soviet government, notably the Czechs and--even more damning from the Soviet perspective--Admiral Kolchak, particularly during the latter's retreat in the summer of 1919. While Secretary of State Robert Lansing would depict the railway corpsmen as merely doing what was best for the Russian people in a spirit of unselfishness and disinterestedness, Soviet historians Nikolai Sivachev and Nikolai Yakovlev came closer to the truth in their 1979 account of Russian-American relations: "The American railroad mission headed by John E Stevens spared no effort in organizing transportation for the Kolchak `government'.... To Stevens, the `value' of his Russian Railway Service Corps was in the help it gave to Kolchak."(45)
The RRSC's lasting significance with regard to Soviet-American relations lies in its role within the overall framework of the Allied intervention, an ill-prepared and uncoordinated venture that, while far from an imperialist conspiracy, clearly evolved into what the commander of America's military forces in Siberia and the Russian Far East would acknowledge as an effort "to destroy bolshevism."(46) Lenin and his Bolshevik colleagues had clear proof that the Western powers meant to overturn the Soviet government if given the opportunity. The precise extent to which the intervention influenced the Soviet regime's subsequent interaction with the United States cannot be known for certain, but if the subsequent declarations of Lenin, Stalin, and other Soviet leaders are an appropriate indication it was profound.
(1) Jacqueline D. St. John, "John E Stevens: American Assistance to Russian and Siberian Railroads, 1917-1922" (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1969), 49n, 72, 76-77; see also Betty Miller Unterberger, America's Siberian Expedition, 1918-1920 (Durham, 1956), 8.
(2) Newton D. Baker (secretary of war) to Robert Lansing (secretary of state), 31 March 1917, U.S. Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918, Russia (Washington, 1931-32), vol. 3, 183 (hereafter FRUS); see also Lansing to Walters Hines Page (ambassador to Great Britain), 13 September 1918, FRUS, 251; and St. John, "John E Stevens" 75-76.
(3) See St. John, "John E Stevens" 80-111; and Raymond Estep, "John E Stevens and the Far Eastern Railways, 1917-1923" Explorer's Journal 48 (March 1970): 13-24.
(4) W. M. Black (chief of engineers) to Chief, Bureau of Embarkation Service, 15 October 1917, microfilm, file 861.77, frame 1756, Department of State, National Archives (hereafter NA); Emerson to C. A. Decker (representative, Inter-Allied Technical Board), 25 February 1920, file 861.77/1648-49, NA; U.S. Congress, House Committee on Military Affairs, Russian Railway Service Corps, Statement of George H. Emerson, 9 February 1923, 1-2.
(5) Frances (Mrs. William) Bishop, interview by author, tape recording, Phoenix, Arizona, 24 January 1975.
(6) Johnson to J. M. Rapelje (general manager, Northern Pacific Railway), 4 June 1917, Papers of Benjamin O. Johnson (hereafter BOJ Papers, originals or copies in author's possession); Frances Bishop interview.
(7) Johnson to T. H. Lantry (assistant to first vice president, Northern Pacific Railway), 29 September 1917, BOJ Papers.
(8) Johnson to J. M. Rapelje, 29 September 1917, ibid.
(9) Montana Record-Herald, 20 October 1917.
(10) Railway Review 65 (18 October 1919): 575; "Information Sheet for Applicants to the RRSC" file 861.77/1506, NA; Memorandum from Major General W. M. Black (chief of engineers) to Chief, Bureau of Embarkation Service, 15 October 1917, file 861.77/1756, NA.
(11) Frank L. Polk (counselor for the State Department) to John K. Caldwell (consul at Vladivostok), 19 November 1917, file 861.77/1582, NA; John E Stevens to Daniel Willard, 28 December 1917, file 861.77/1638-40, NA; Estep, "John E Stevens" 17-18; St. John, "John F. Stevens" 296-98; Stevens to Robert Lansing, 13 August 1918, and Lansing to Walter Hines Page, 13 September 1918, file 861.77/1782, 1792 ff., NA; Paul Wright, "The Work of the Russian Railway Service Corps," Railway Age 69 (23 July 1920): 154.
(12) See Colonel George H. Emerson, "Report of American Railway Engineers Who Were in Siberia with the Czecho-Slovacs from May 5th to September 9th, 1918" file 861.77/1855 ff., NA; and Johnson diary, Department of History, Arizona State University.
(13) See George F. Kennan, Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920: The Decision to Intervene (New York, 1967), 136-44, 149.
(14) See Betty Miller Unterberger, The United States, Revolutionary Russia, and the Rise of Czechoslovakia (Chapel Hill, 1989), 170-200.
(15) "Report of American Railway Engineers" frames 1902-04; Johnson's diary, entries for 28 May through 8 June 1918.
(16) John L. Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: An Interpretive History, 2d ed. (New York, 1990), 72-83.
(17) Ibid.; See also John A. White, The Siberian Intervention (Princeton, 1950), 144-45.
(18) "Report of American Railway Engineers," frames 1906-25; "Col. G. H. Emerson's Experience in Russia" Railway Age 68 (14 June 1920): 1769.
(19) Johnson diary, 28 June through 15 July 1918; Francis Bishop interview, 24 January 1975; clipping from the St. Paul [Minnesota] Pioneer Press, 31 August 1924, BOJ Papers.
(20) Johnson to Walter M. Bradford, 14 August 1918, BOJ Papers. (21) Johnson diary, 9, 16, and 17 June 1918.
(22) Johnson to Walter M. Bradford, 3 October 1919, BOJ Papers.
(23) Johnson to William H. Bunney, 31 July 1919, BOJ Papers.
(24) Ibid.; Johnson diary, 23 May 1918 (emphasis in original).
(25) Frances Bishop interview.
(26) Johnson's letter was written in Harbin on 8 May 1921 and was published in the form of an article, "What Ivan Thinks of Bolshevism," Journal of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute 25 (November 1921): 3, 5.
(27) Johnson's letter to his father, Olaf Johnson, in Worcester, Massachusetts, was subsequently printed as "Sidelights on the Russian Railway Situation," Railway Age 66 (25 April 1919): 1063-64.
(28) United States, FRUS, 289-302; St. John, "John E Stevens" 261-63.
(29) William S. Graves, America's Siberian Adventure, 1918-1920 (New York, 1931), 86, 177, 185-86; John Swettenham, Allied Intervention in Russia, 1918-1919 (Toronto, 1967), 138-39; see also Grigori Semenov, O Sebe (Harbin, Manchuria, 1938).
(30) Benjamin O. Johnson, "American Railway Engineers in Siberia" The Military Engineer 15, no. 81 (May-June 1923): 191; Benjamin O. Johnson, "The Trans-Siberian Railway" The Journal of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 26 (July 1923): 180-82.
(31) Johnson to Emerson, 14 June 1919, U.S. Advisory Commission of Railway Experts to Russia, Hoover Institution (microfilm of the records at the National Archives), record group 340, reel 1, frame 0107 (hereafter U.S. Advisory Commission).
(32) Frances Bishop interview.
(33) Johnson, "American Railway Engineers in Siberia" 191; clipping from St. Paul Pioneer Press, 31 August 1924, BOJ papers.
(34) Johnson to Emerson, 12 November 1919, U.S. Advisory Commission, reel 2, frame 0335.
(35) Johnson to William Merriman, 21 November 1919, BOJ Papers.
(36) Zelotes W. Coombs (secretary of the faculty, Worcester Polytechnic Institute) to Johnson, 7 October 1919, ibid.
(37) Stevens to Lansing, 8 December 1919, file 861.77/1392, NA; Johnson, "American Railway Engineers in Siberia," 191-92.
(38) Stevens to Johnson, 14 November 1922, BOJ Papers; see also Johnson to Stevens, 10 December 1920, 4 January 1921, 19 February 1921, 10 March 1921, 16 May 1921, and 25 November 1921, BOJ Papers.
(39) "Biographical and Professional Record of Members of the American Society of Civil Engineers," BOJ Papers.
(40) Ibid.; Francis Bishop interview. The two albums, entitled "Views of Siberia, Russia, and China, 1917-1922," are in the possession of the Department of History, Arizona State University.
(41) Francis Bishop interview, 15 March 1978.
(42) Johnson, "American Railway Engineers in Siberia" 192.
(43) Graves, America's Siberian Adventure, 175-76.
(44) See A. I. Melchin, Amerikanskaya interventsiya na Sovetskom Dalnem Vostoke (Moscow, 1951), 15; and S. E Naida, O nekotorykh voprosakh istorii grazhdanskoi voiny v SSSR (Moscow, 1958).
(45) See St. John, "John E Stevens," 272-73; Lansing to Page, 13 September 1918, FRUS, 249-52; Nikolai V. Sivachev and Nikolai N. Yakovlev, Russia and the United States (Chicago, 1979), 54.
(46) Graves, America's Siberian Adventure, 194-95.
Frederick C. Giffin is a professor in history at Arizona State University.
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|Title Annotation:||Ural Mountains, Russia|
|Author:||Giffin, Frederick C.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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