Douglas Smith’s book, “The Russian Job – The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin,” reads like a thriller as he describes the commitment of anti-communist capitalists to helping the Russian people survive one of history’s most devastating famines — in a country whose government was dedicated to the eradication of capitalism.
Smith sets the stage by introducing Herbert Hoover, not as the president, but as a humble Quaker with a blacksmith father. Hoover eventually became a very wealthy operator and investor in mining operations around the world. He left business to be a philanthropist during World War I, creating and then managing the independent Commission for the Relief of Belgium to help their citizens fight off starvation. After the war, President Woodrow Wilson made him the director of the American Relief Foundation, (ARA) which distributed over $1 billion in aid to 32 countries, including defeated Germany.
A letter published in the American press from Russian writer Maxim Gorky, pleading for foreign assistance to feed their starving peasants, caught Hoover’s attention, while he was serving as the U.S. secretary of commerce under President Warren Harding. Hoover convinced the president to put him in charge of a new organization, the American Relief Administration, which eventually fed 11 million people in 28,000 towns and villages. And in the process, restored 15,000 hospitals serving 80 million patients.
Although Hoover was a life-long foe of communism, describing the Soviet Union as a “murderous tyranny,” he preferred providing food rather than intervening in Russia with our troops to stop the Bolsheviks from consolidating control of the country. He pushed a $20 million measure through Congress to distribute food directly to starving Russians through the ARA, despite opposition from both the right and the left.
Henry Ford suggested the ARA was controlled by Jews and Bolsheviks. The chairman of the National Civic Foundation described it as a “shrewd scheme” to pay Midwestern farmers to dump their surplus grain.
On the left, the ACLU and the Nation, not trusting his intentions and objecting to the U.S. not recognizing the Bolshevik government, opposed ARA’s famine relief effort. Likewise, the Soviet leaders worried that ARA’s goal was to overthrow their government, particularly since Hoover had previously helped feed the White Army that tried to do so.
Initially, Lenin welcomed the famine, since it would destroy the people’s faith in God and the Tsar. Nevertheless, he overcame the objections of Soviet leaders, like Stalin, to support Hoover’s American-run feeding program once reports came in from the countryside that people were not only dying, but literally eating dead corpses left on the streets. An array of macabre photos throughout Smith’s book testify to the depths of suffering — from cannibalism to starving children — that the American workers witnessed. Even after the ARA set up kitchens, food was so scarce that they were feeding children one meal a day of 100 grams of bread and corn grits.
Aside from the politics, the heart of the book is about the sacrifices that the Americans and their Russian staffs endured as they fought off famine’s tidal wave.
The secret police arrested numerous Russians working to support ARA’s efforts because they were enemies of the people, coming from bourgeois families. Americans had to carry pistols to ward off bandits when they walked outside their offices in some of the hardest stricken regions.
Although some Americans returned home early, overwhelmed by exhaustion and trauma, others wanted to return to Russia after the project ended because they loved the Russian people and culture. In fact, one in 10 ARA men married a Russian woman.
Smith details how all were touched by an experience that forever left them impacted. Meanwhile, both countries buried the memory of this unique effort because it did not conform to their domestic political agendas.
Read the full Dec. 11 - 17 issue.
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