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Maj. Gen. William S. Graves, U.S. Army – Truly a Soldier of the Old School

Saturday, 25 May 2002 12:00 AM

What an inspiration it is, in these days of political correctness and sweet-talk diplomacy, to learn about Maj. Gen. William S. Graves, U.S. Army, West Point Class of 1889, in his soldier-diplomat role in Siberia at the end of World War I – truly a soldier of the old school!

Gen. Graves, an unassuming man of high character, overcame near-impossible obstacles and hostile criticism in his faithful execution of a delicate mission in that remote and primitive part of the world, 8,000 miles from home and mostly on his own.

President Woodrow Wilson, a highly intelligent man himself, was looking ahead to U.S. interests. His State Department Aide Memoire of July 17, 1918, constituted Gen. Graves' official guidelines of U.S. policy to help stabilize that part of Russia.

Graves became Commander, American Expeditionary Force, Siberia, with 9,000 troops, among ambitious "allies": 72,000 Japanese, 70,000 Czechs, 12,000 Poles, 4,200 Canadians, 4,000 Romanians, 4,000 Russian auxiliaries, 2,000 Italians, 1,600 British and 760 French. All "allies" were jockeying for advantages.

President Wilson's real motive in committing U.S. troops in this joint intervention on the other side of the world was twofold, according to historians: (1) Block the Bolsheviks from taking over Russia and (2) block the Japanese from taking over Siberia and parts of Chinese territory.

Wilson's "cover" for this bold American move was "to steady any efforts by the Siberians at self-government"

Despite stinging rebukes and grossly unfair criticism from our own State Department and "allies," Gen. Graves faithfully carried out his orders, "surrounded by ambitious commanders of many nationalities and confronted by many people made desperate [and] embittered by years of war."

Even so, he had the last word: Twenty years later, he turned out his intriguing account of the whole mission in his book, "America's Siberian Adventure" (Peter Smith, 1941), in meticulous detail: chapter and verse, date and time, place and weather, who and what – every jot and tittle, the full story, laid out in 377 pages.

It is a modest narrative, without bitterness or blame, clearly accurate and historic. Gen. Graves, though he didn't intend it so, comes out the shining knight, with the courage, dedication and character that enabled him to perform a great service for his country.

But it wasn't easy. For 19 months he faced a challenge virtually every day, beginning the day he arrived in Vladivostok on Aug. 16, 1918. The Japanese, already well situated, had dreams of taking over Manchuria and parts of Siberia; and Russia's disarray was a great advantage. Japanese general Kikuro Otani, as senior "allied" commander and acting on "authority" from his emperor, had ordered U.S. troops to engage partisans nearby.

Gen. Graves quickly rescinded that order and made it clear that U.S. forces were under his, not Otani's, command. This was a prime example that Graves was in charge of the AEF Siberia and that he absolutely would not interfere in Russia's internal affairs, obeying the orders in the Aide Memoire, which had been written by President Wilson himself.

An important part of Graves' job was working with John Frank Stevens in protecting the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Stevens, the great American railroad builder, had been chief engineer of the Panama Canal from 1905 to 1907.

The U.S. State Department and War Department seemed to work at cross-purposes in executing Wilson's Siberian policy. The consul general in Vladivostok, E.H. Harris, was telling the Siberian people that U.S. troops would intervene to assist them – contrary to Gen. Graves' orders and complicating his job.

The "allies," particularly the British and French, tried to convince Gen. Graves to intervene on several occasions, but Graves was steadfast in his courteous refusals. When President Wilson was at the Paris Peace Conference, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker told him that British and French sources bitterly complained that Graves was "an obstinate, difficult and unacceptable commander because he wouldn't deviate."

President Wilson smiled and answered, "I suppose it is the same old story, Baker. Men often get the reputation of being stubborn merely because they are everlastingly right."

Even Britain's Prime Minister David Lloyd George complained to President Wilson that all conflict between U.S. and Russian troops emanated from Graves' policies and that Graves should be removed. Wilson informed Lloyd George that Graves could not be the root of the difficulties because "Graves possesses an unprovocative character."

A major conflict between Graves and the State Department had been over U.S. recognition of Adm. Aleksandr V. Kolchak's White Russian government, which Graves accused of mistreating the people.

At one tine, Graves blocked delivery of rifles to Kolchak because he believed the weapons could be turned against his own troops, thereby bringing in the acting secretary of state, Frank L. Polk, with another complaint against Graves.

Even so, some of the most influential men of the period fully supported Graves and said so, starting with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peyton C. March, Secretary of War Baker and President Wilson himself. Gen. March was ecstatic in praising Graves for his performance in Siberia:

The selection of Gen. Graves met with my instant and complete approval. I knew him to be a self-reliant, educated and highly trained soldier, endowed with common sense and self-effacing loyalty, two qualities most needed to meet the many difficulties I foresaw. Now this strange adventure is over and I am more than ever satisfied with the choice of the American Commander. …"

The Japanese and American discrete maneuvering for control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad very probably delayed Japan's incursions into Siberia and neighboring Manchuria and China. By the time U.S. forces left Siberia in February 1920, the Japanese military was under attack at home and faced a revolt in the Chinese territory it controlled.

Therefore, Gen. Graves' Siberian adventure had another reward: It delayed and weakened Japan's resolve to dominate the Far East.

Gen. Graves won the respect of the Russian people for his evenhanded treatment of them and especially for the restraint he imposed on "allied" commanders trying to dismember Russia.

Although the Bolsheviks did come to power in Siberia and the Japanese did eventually occupy Manchuria, Gen. Graves and his soldiers carried out their orders with great valor, dignity and compassion. Sixteen were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award. Thirty were killed in action and 60 were wounded – testifying to the courage and dedication of a generation of Americans, led by a commander who exemplified those qualities in every respect.

In recognition of his accomplishments as assistant to the Army chief of staff and as commander of the Siberian expedition, Gen. Graves was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, with the following citation:

The Japanese gave him something else to remember. Just as his ship, Great Northern, departed Vladivostok for Manila, Gen. Oi's band struck up the good old American tune "Hard Times Come Again No More" – both a hint of humor and good riddance! This was a tribute not unlike Cornwallis at Yorktown serenading George Washington with "The World Turned Upside Down."

William Sidney Graves was a Texan who became an American hero. He was born in Mount Calm on March 27, 1865, and grew up on an open range, where he learned survival, responsibility and self-reliance – qualities he needed and exhibited throughout his military and diplomatic career.

His father, Andrew, and mother, Evelyn, had driven their covered wagon from Tennessee to Texas "in the footsteps of Sam Houston."

Originally, he planned to be a teacher, but he switched to West Point and graduated in 1889. He served at Fort Logan, Colo., under Civil War hero John Merriman – a lucky assignment because there he met the colonel's niece, Katherine Boyd of Maine, and married her – a union that "became almost a tradition in the Army."

After 39 years of distinguished service, Gen. Graves retired in 1928, his last assignment being governor of the Panama Canal Zone. He and Katherine then bought a home in Shrewsbury, N.J., where they frequently welcomed former members of his Siberian command.

In 1939, the American Legion awarded Gen. Graves a parchment attesting to his steadfast and faithful execution of President Wilson's orders and rejecting the unjust criticism in doing so. The citation stated, in part:

His death on Feb. 27, 1940, at age 75 generated sincere expressions of sympathy from the media and praise for his frank views on national matters and for his priceless accounting of the true story of America's Siberian adventure.

Gen. Graves, handsome soldier, was perhaps the first of America's soldier-diplomats and, as such, became a role model in many respects. He kept the faith in the noble effort to block the imperial takeover in the Far East – and gave hope to the bewildered people of Siberia in their struggle for freedom.

Capt. Evans' columns are distributed by the Americanism Educational League of Buena Park, Calif. He lives in Norfolk, Va.

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What an inspiration it is, in these days of political correctness and sweet-talk diplomacy, to learn about Maj. Gen. William S. Graves, U.S. Army, West Point Class of 1889, in his soldier-diplomat role in Siberia at the end of World War I - truly a soldier of the old...
Saturday, 25 May 2002 12:00 AM
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