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Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922 by Paul E. Dunscomb

The common narratives for the First World War—an assassination in the Balkans leading to the bloody stalemate of trench warfare, the entrance of the United States into a European war and its emergence as a world power, the Russian Revolution, the disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the misguided peace treaty that followed—often skip the messy aftermath, much of it in the Asian periphery. History often fast-forwards to World War II, thus omitting the carving up of the Middle East, the occupation of Turkey, the redistribution of foreign concessions in China and the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.

Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922 by Paul E. Dunscomb
Japan's Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922, Paul E. Dunscomb (Lexington Books, February 2011)

One lesser-known, arguably almost forgotten, aspect was the Japanese intervention in Siberia. Troops from other countries, notably the United States, also took part but were dwarfed by the sheer number of Japanese troops (which reached 70,000). The Japanese also stayed for two years after the rest of the Allied Forces withdrew in 1920.

Paul E. Dunscomb’s recent book Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922 is an almost day-by-day recounting of not just the events of the intervention itself, but the political debates and machinations in Japan, extensively quoting from official communications and contemporary newspaper accounts and editorials. It deserves a specialist reviewer, which I unfortunately am not; the book is nevertheless accessible to the non-specialist.

One might well ask what were Allied troops doing in Siberia in the first place. Insofar as there was a military reason, it seems to have been fears that the German forces might push all the way to the Pacific—as far-fetched as it seems now. Intervention was a subject of considerable debate in Japan; it is clear that at least parts of the Japanese establishment saw an expansionist opportunity. Dunscomb quotes Ninakawa Arata, a professor of international law: “Now that China is helpless and Russia on the verge of disintegration Japan has no formidable rival to prevent her rise to a supreme place in the Orient; but her opportunity may pass if she does not seize it.”

A “seeming undeniable justification for intervention” came with the Czechoslovak Legion, a group about 50,000 soldiers, mostly Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, who had agreed to fight for the other side in the hopes of achieving independence for Czechoslovakia. After Russia withdrew from the War, it was decided to evacuate them—via the Trans-Siberian and Vladivostok. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, withdrew his objections to an Allied intervention in Siberia in order to “rescue” the Czechoslovak forces.

The door to Siberia was now open and Japan went through it with several times the 7,000 troops Wilson envisaged. Four years later, they were gone. Both the Czechoslovaks and the Americans had left two years earlier. The Japanese played politics in the ultimately unsuccessful “White” counter-revolutionary rear-guard action, hoping to achieve some long-term benefit. It was all, at a cost of thousands of lives and large sums of money, for naught. Dunscomb calls this “a case-study in failure if there ever was one.”

The value of Dunscomb’s book lies not in the recounting of the events, but rather in his exploration in how the Siberian Intervention affected Japanese constitutional and political development. He argues that “Japan’s Siberian Intervention represents an important ‘missing link’ in the development of Japanese imperialism and the domestic institutions that were so integrally associated with it.”.

The book also provides, perhaps inadvertently, several examples of how little leaders seem to learn from history. Dunscomb quotes a Japanese officer who complained that it was “impossible to tell partisans and bandits from ‘good’ Russians. ‘It’s not as if they have two noses and three eyes.’ ... The enemy was not in uniform.” He might as well have been talking about Iraq.

A Japanese company produced a series of patriotic lithographs in 1919, unfortunately not reproduced in the book but easily found on the Internet, celebrating—in a naïve artistic style—Japan’s military exploits in Siberia. One is particularly striking, or fantastical: a scene of the Japanese army marching through the streets of Vladivostok, with Japanese flags in the hands of evidently cheering Russian crowds... and front and center, a young blond Russian girl in a stylish green hat. Someone was dreaming.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.