• CMTU History

Episode 20: The Polar Bear Expedition




Remember the time the United States invaded Russia? No? Well you're not alone. Few people know that the two superpowers of the Cold War at one point actually did participate in so-called "hot" war. In fact, even Presidents Nixon and Reagan gave speeches in which they claimed the US and Russia had never been in a direct confrontation. Nothing could be further from the truth.


My guest today is James Carl Nelson, a former staff writer for The Miami Herald who has since written extensively on the American experience in World War I. He joins me from Minnesota via Skype to discuss his latest book, "The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America's Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918-1919." Jim and I discuss the reasons the Allies thought it necessary to intervene in the Russian Civil War, the experience of the AEF - North Russia (or the polar bears as they became known) during their nearly year long campaign in Russia near the arctic circle, and what lessons this "strange little war" has for us living 100 years later.



Key Points in Today's Podcast

Some of the major topics I discuss with Jim in this episode are:

  • Russia's role in World War I and the turmoil of the Russian Revolution

  • The decision for Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War

  • The make up of the American Expeditionary Force - North Russia

  • The Bolshevik resistance against the American invasion near Archangel, Russia

  • How troops stationed in Russia received the news of the Armistice that ended World War I

  • Why this war has mostly been forgotten


For the Ever Curious

If you are interested in learning more about the Polar Bears, World War I, or James Carl Nelson's work, consider checking out these resources: Books by James Carl Nelson


Photos & Video


  1. The Polar Bear Memorial at White Chapel Cemetery, Troy, Michigan

  2. Doughboys of the 339th Infantry Regiment prior to deployment

  3. AEF - Northern Russia Polar Bear shoulder patch


Sites to Visit


The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collection

The Bentley Library, University of Michigan


"The Bentley Historical Library holds the largest collection of manuscript and printed materials related to the Polar Bear Expedition. The materials, many of which have been digitized, are freely available for public use."



National WWI Museum & Memorial

Kansas City, Missouri


"Soon after World War I ended, Kansas City leaders formed the Liberty Memorial Association (LMA) to create a lasting monument to the men and women who had served in the war. In 1919, the LMA and citizens of Kansas City raised more than $2.5 million in just 10 days. Construction on the classical Egyptian Revival-style monument was completed in 1926 and the Liberty Memorial was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in front of more than 150,000 people. The National WWI Museum and Memorial opened in 2006 to national acclaim. Since then, more than two million people have visited the museum."


© 2018 by Can't Make This Up History Podcast.

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