Democrats and Republicans working together to provide assistance to Iran would seem impossible in today’s polarized politics. Similar political divisions split our nation in the early 1920s due to the “red scare.” Nevertheless, bipartisan support provided humanitarian aid to a country that wished to overthrow our government. I interviewed local author and award-winning historian Douglas Smith on how his book, “The Russian Job,” tells this incredible story and shows how cooperation on big issues can be achieved.
Why did you write this book?
I learned about the American mission to Soviet Russia while researching an earlier book — “Former People” — on the fate of the Russian nobility after the revolution. I discovered that quite a few former princesses and countesses worked as interpreters for the American Relief Administration. I was shocked by this story — it was so dramatic, moving, powerful and historically important — yet few Americans, and even fewer Russians, know about it.
Why should anyone be interested in this obscure incident?
It’s just a downright hair-raising story about a human catastrophe on an epic scale, filled with cloak-and-dagger intrigue, espionage, romance and even cannibalism.
What’s more, while historians write many books about war and conflict, we also need to know about cooperation and collaboration. This was a powerful moment when adversaries came together to take on an enormous humanitarian crisis.
Can current politicians learn anything from how a past Republican administration dealt with an advisory?
Yes, most definitely! My book reveals how Americans working there tried to make sense of Soviet Russia. Many perceptive Americans — like Herbert Hoover, the leader of the operation — were skeptical of America’s ability to bring about major changes in Soviet Russia. But they believed the two countries could work together to address concrete problems, such as the famine. Although Hoover remained wary of Soviet Russia’s leaders — their motives and sincerity — he believed the two countries could cooperate.
Are there any similarities between the national political dynamics that occurred 100 years ago and what is happening today in Washington, D.C.?
Yes, the most apparent being the voices in the media and in politics speaking out against aid and comfort to needy people based on some notion that they are undeserving.
A century ago, when Hoover was pressing Congress for additional funding to help starving Russians, many Americans argued that we couldn’t afford it or that Russia’s misery wasn’t our problem.
Thanks to Hoover’s efforts, over 10 million lives were saved.
The exploits recounted in my book are among the most glorious in our country’s history and they should guide our actions today.
Read the full Dec. 11 - 17 issue.
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