Douglas Smith is a Seattle-based independent Russian scholar. His 2018 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 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, which distributed over $1 billion in aid to 32 countries including the 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, by then 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 the agency 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 troops to stop the Bolsheviks from consolidating control of the country. He pushed a $20 million appropriation 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 the ARA as a “shrewd scheme” to pay Midwestern farmers to dump their surplus grain. On the left, the ACLU and the Nation, not trusting Hoover’s intentions and objecting to the U.S. for not recognizing the Bolshevik government, both 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 America-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 the 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 who were helping in the effort, because they were enemies of the people, coming from bourgeois families. To ward off bandits, Americans had to carry pistols when they walked outside their offices in some of the worst-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 ten ARA men married a Russian woman. Smith details how all were touched by an experience that forever impacted them. Meanwhile both countries buried the memory of this unique effort because it did not conform to their political agendas.
I recently had a chance to interview the award-winning historian Douglas Smith, with a focus on how his book offers lessons on ways cooperation on big issues can be achieved between enemies.
Q. Why did you write this book?
Douglas Smith: I first 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.
Q. Why should anyone be interested in this obscure incident?
First of all, it’s just a downright hair-raising story about a human catastrophe on an epic scale. It’s also a book filled with cloak-and-dagger intrigue, espionage, romance, and even cannibalism. What’s more, while historians write so 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.
Q. Can current politicians learn anything from how a past Republican Administration dealt with an adversary?
Yes, most definitely! Beyond the story of humanitarian relief, my book reveals how Americans working there tried to make sense of Soviet Russia. I show how the most 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 that didn’t mean the two countries couldn’t work together to address concrete problems, such as the famine. Although Hoover remained wary of Soviet Russia’s leaders — their motives and sincerity — he also believed that there were ways the two countries could cooperate.
Q. Are there any similarities to the national political dynamics that occurred a 100 years ago to what is happening today in Wash DC?
Yes, indeed, perhaps 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. Hoover swatted away these arguments, and thanks to his efforts, over 10 million lives were saved.
The exploits recounted in my book are among the most glorious in our country’s history. We need to know about them, and they should guide our actions today.