Feeding Russia


A relief campaign might help speed the process. The possibility of using food as a weapon was highlighted when Hoover laid down both domestic and foreign conditions for his program. Soviet officials had first to release about one hundred Americans held as prisoners on one charge or another, and to refrain from any interference with ARA personnel as relief was distributed “without regard to race, religion, or social or political status.” Meaning that the Russians could not deny food to suspected opponents.

At home Hoover brought together a number of charitable organizations under the ARA umbrella, including the American Friends Service Committee, the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, the American Red Cross, the YMCA and YWCA, and Lutheran, Baptist, and Catholic welfare organizations. But he pointedly excluded a number of other fund-raising committees that were sympathetic to the Soviets.

Hoover talked the conservative Congress of the United States into putting up some $20 million and got the Army and Navy to spring some $4 million’s worth of surplus medicines from their unused wartime stockpiles. In addition, Hoover made the Russians contribute some $11 million of their own in gold.

That was big money for the time, and it sustained big operations. In two years the ARA shipped more than 700,000 tons of food, clothing, and medicine to the stricken regions. A staff of two hundred, under the direction of Col. William Haskell, oversaw the distribution of mountains of rice, corn, flour, sugar, and milk, aspirin and chloroform, vaccine and blankets, shoes and delousing powder.

It was no picnic. The Samaritans had to contend with transportation breakdowns, foul weather, losses, thefts, and hassling by Soviet policemen, spies, and bureaucrats—as well as loneliness, cold, and disease. At least one died of typhus. But the job was impressively done. Estimates are that some 10.5 million Russians were fed at 18,000 emergency shelters. Fully 8 million children were inoculated. In regions where the dead had lain in the streets and the half-naked living had fought one another for the carcasses of frozen household pets or chewed thatch torn from their roofs, life was restored.

The staunchly anticommunist Hoover’s brilliant relief campaign helped preserve the Bolshevik revolution.

The Russians of 1923 were not ungrateful. Official thanks came at a Moscow banquet for ARA chiefs at which Hoover got a scroll of thanks signed by Lev B. Kamenev, president of the Council of People’s Commissars. It expressed gratitude from “the millions of people who have been saved as well as the whole working people of Soviet Russia,” and declared that “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics never will forget the aid rendered to them … holding it to be a pledge of the future friendship of the two nations.”

It would be lovely to stop there. But only three years later the Large Soviet Encyclopedia pooh-poohed the ARA effort, minimized the number of Russians helped, and understated the amount of American relief money by 98 percent—crediting the ARA with spending about $1.5 million instead of the $60 million actually laid out. Its second edition, in 1950, listed the episode as one of the efforts by “the capitalist world” to do in the U.S.S.R.

Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce, did nothing to discourage the efforts of American companies to help build Russian industry. But when he himself was elected President in 1928, as just the kind of efficient, nonpolitical progressive businessman the country needed, he refused diplomatic recognition to the Bolsheviks.

Then came the onslaught of the Depression. Deeply and sincerely convinced that American character, local initiative, and private benevolence would be harmed by handouts and make-work projects, Hoover fought off calls for federal relief programs, and across the country ragged men in tent cities called “Hoovervilles” learned to think of the humanitarian as a hardhearted supporter of the status quo. Seldom has a reputation been reversed so swiftly.

Yet in both feeding the hungry abroad and refusing federal help to them at home, Hoover was true to basic American convictions—and contradictions—of his time. There are richer ironies too. His work helped to preserve the Bolshevik revolution for Stalin to capture.

But we have no assurance that a Bolshevik collapse in 1921 would necessarily have been followed by something more benign—not in the decade that saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. And we do know that 10 million or more Russians who might have perished lived instead. That itself may be the best reason to look with kindness on proposals to feed the Russians.