Food for Thought

With all the talk about Russian interference in our democracy, I thought it appropriate to examine briefly Russia in the context of our heritage – both in America and Italy.

A recent book, The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin, is an excellent example of our nation’s global generosity.  For sure, we have started some wars and caused much heartache to vulnerable races, but ultimately, we own up to our sins.  Our intentions may often be suspect but America does have a big heart.

The book chronicles the Russian famine of 1921-23 and how the American Relief Administration (ARA), headed by future president Herbert Hoover, fed war-torn Europe including the new Soviet Union. Formed by Congress in 1919 with a budget of $1.5 billion and doubled with private donations, the ARA was surely the first massive humanitarian mission any country had undertaken in history.  It provided aid to numerous European nations that included food, clothing, and medical care – including vaccinations.

The First World War might have ended in 1918, but the misery lived on for another decade. Russia, of course, was convulsed by the Bolshevik revolution as well as the war in 1917.  By 1919-20, the Allies supported a counter revolution by Admiral Kolchak and his “White” Russian forces against the Reds.  [By coincidence, fifty years ago I was a lieutenant in the 27th Infantry Regiment stationed in Hawaii.  That unit had been sent to Russia during its civil war in support of Adm. Kolchak. The Reds nicknamed it “the wolfhounds” for its swift attacks.  In 1970, our mascot was a Russian wolfhound named Kolchak.]

Pre-Fascist Italy also sent an expeditionary force of 2,500 men to Siberia until 1919. Ultimately, the Whites were defeated and Admiral Kolchak faced a Red firing squad.  The Allies evacuated, leaving the Communists unopposed.  The great Marxist experiment now found its first victim.

War and revolution weren’t the only causes of famine in Russia. In 1918, Lenin sought to impound all the nation’s farm products to feed Communist strongholds and for export to buy weapons and industrial machinery.  The more farmers resisted, the more brutal the reprisals.  Stalin learned his butchery in these years.  On Lenin’s order, every district that hoarded grain saw at least 100 farmers (“bloodsuckers”) publicly hanged.  Starvation spread, and so did cannibalism – the dead served the living.  An American journalist documented one such case with photos of the accused with unconsumed body parts.

Hoover negotiated with the Soviets to set the ground rules for relief. The ARA bought and shipped food, clothing, and medical supplies, established kitchens and networks for distribution to remote areas, even importing vehicles to move supplies. It had to contend with the Soviet secret police, Russian winters, poor roads, and an inadequate rail system.  Still, some 10 million Russians were saved from starvation in ARA’s three years of operation.

So, it came as a shock to Americans when they read a headline in the February 21, 1923 issue of the NY Times: “PLEADING FOR FOOD, RUSSIA SELLS GRAIN.”  In fact, eight million Russians were still at risk of famine that year.  Nevertheless, the Soviets began rewriting the ARA story minimizing its role and claiming it was a tool of counter-revolutionaries.

These events, and others, in Russia had a direct effect on the rise of Fascism in Italy. Fascism was a reaction to Communism.  Lenin needed to export Communism to keep his regime safe.  The Comintern (Communist International) was established in 1919 to foment global revolution.  Newly independent Hungary was one of the first targets of the Comintern.  Only an invasion by neighboring Romania in 1919 toppled the Communists.  Italy was next.

If we accept the standard narrative of Mussolini’s takeover it would minimize the havoc wrought by the various Italian Communist, anarchist, and socialist parties after the First World War.   However,“Italy was on the verge of falling apart. Parliament was regarded even by its own members as a corrupt bazaar…” according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, [p.19, Fascism: A Warning]  Lenin’s murder of the Czar was not lost on Italy’s King Victor Emanuel. Lenin’s destruction of the Orthodox Church was not lost on Pope Pius XI, Lenin’s decimation of the bourgeoisie was not lost on educated Italians, the massive starvation of millions was not lost on the Italian people.  Italians reacted.

Things don’t happen on their own. -JLM

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