Waging a Kinder Cold War

In 1921, U.S. famine relief saved millions of Russians.

March/April 2011

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Waging a Kinder Cold War

Delivering humanitarian aid in a disaster is rarely a matter of logistics only. Catastrophes such as the Haitian earthquake and Hurricane Katrina illustrate how bureaucracy, politics, cultural differences and human nature can throw up formidable roadblocks to recovery.

Yet one of the greatest rescue efforts of all time succeeded despite some of the most intractable obstacles imaginable. The place: Bolshevik Russia, 1921. The disaster: widespread famine affecting millions of people stretched across the largest country in the world. The rescuers: some 300 Americans, led by Herbert Hoover.

At the time, their accomplishment—feeding up to 10.5 million Russians daily at the two-year program's peak in 1922—was hailed as an unforgettable miracle. Until recently, however, that epic achievement had long faded from memory. But a wealth of documentation survived, much of it in the Hoover Archives at Stanford, and on April 11, the PBS show American Experience will retell the story in an hour-long documentary, "The Great Famine."

The film is based on the work of Bertrand Patenaude, MA '79, PhD '87, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of the 2002 book The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 (Stanford U. Press).

Patenaude spent 14 years plumbing documents, diaries, official and personal correspondence, photographs and memoirs of individuals who worked for the American Relief Administration, run by Herbert Hoover. An enduring irony is that long before his presidency during the Depression indelibly associated misery with Hoover, he was hailed as Europe's savior for having masterminded relief in the wake of World War I. (Hoover, Class of 1895, had been in charge of the food supply for the American public and its troops during the war; the ARA was an offshoot of those efforts.)

Nothing Hoover's 1,500 field staff had done in more than 20 countries matched the challenge awaiting them in Bolshevik Russia—they nicknamed it Bololand—at war's end. Reconnoitering groups, including Russian historian Frank Golder, an associate professor at Stanford who worked at the Hoover Archives, were appalled at what they discovered as they traveled the country. Once farm animals were devoured, people subsisted on dirt, grass and in some documented cases the remains of those who preceded them in death. Archived photographs also show skeletal children, whose parents had already succumbed, scarcely clinging to life in crude makeshift orphanages. The Americans met grave-diggers preparing mass burial pits for what one of them called "future corpses."

Communist authorities naturally were suspicious about American intentions—indeed, 120,000 local staff hired by the ARA to execute relief operations were educated White Russians, enemies of the Revolution. Hoover did believe that if Americans vanquished Russian hunger, Bolshevism would crumble at the same time. Against that was Lenin's desire to have the United States recognize his government and the chance that ARA activity would pave the way. In the end, "Hoover's boys" pretty much got what they wanted logistically. But on the Americans' departure in 1923, retribution against their Russian colleagues was an abiding worry, given that secret police had kept close tabs on them throughout.

Patenaude's book also delves into how the relief experience affected American participants personally. The film, produced by Austin Hoyt, focuses on two of them, featuring workers' writings as well as interviews with survivors and historians.

Politicians are frequently ruined when past misdeeds come to light. But for Hoover, a heroic past couldn't overshadow his inability to rescue his own country, and previous good deeds were all but forgotten. Thanks to Patenaude and PBS, Americans may yet form a more balanced view of "the Chief."

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