Where Hunger Goes: On the Green Revolution
The term “Green Revolution” is now so firmly entrenched in the history and practice of development that it is easy to forget its haphazard origin. It was coined more as what today we would call an exercise in branding than as part of a good faith effort to soberly describe the agricultural transformation that took place first in Mexico and then in Asia—above all in the Philippines and on the Indian subcontinent—between the late 1940s and the late ’60s. The term was the invention of the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), William Gaud, who first used it publicly in a speech he delivered to the Society for International Development on March 8, 1968, at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington. The Green Revolution was not, he said, “a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets,” nor was it “a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran.” Gaud was not just preaching to the converted but trying to drum up support for official US development aid in Asia at a time when such support badly needed to be rallied. Gaud made his speech less than two months after the Tet Offensive, which, rightly or wrongly, turned so many Americans against the continuation of the Vietnam War. Both public and Congressional skepticism about the war had put paid to whatever enthusiasm remained on Capitol Hill for large appropriations for foreign aid, giving rise to what a document prepared by President Johnson’s National Security Council referred to as “dangerous isolationist pressures.” Plus ça change and all that.
The Johnson administration’s frustration was more than warranted. Take away the hype, and the results of the agricultural transformation that became known as the Green Revolution were a mixed bag technically. For example, farming techniques requiring much water and chemical fertilizers greatly increased crop yields but also eradicated weeds that were the principal source of vitamin A for poor peasants in large parts of India. But unlike the slow-motion train wreck in Vietnam, the Green Revolution had already been demonstrated to be a huge geopolitical success for the United States. As Nick Cullather shows in great detail in his brilliant new book, The Hungry World, Washington had launched the Green Revolution as a bulwark against the challenges it faced across Asia throughout the cold war. The first challenge came with the victory of Communism in China in 1949, and the subsequent failure of the American military, which had defeated Japan and Germany several years earlier, to secure a less than advantageous stalemate at the end of the Korean War. Then came the development during the 1950s of powerful guerrilla insurgencies in the United States’ former colony, the Philippines, and in British-ruled Malaya (as well as Indochina, obviously). There was also the far more critical matter of India’s apparent growing inability to feed its rapidly rising population, and the increasing disaffection among the country’s numerical majority, the rural poor who had long formed the base of support for the ruling Congress Party. Washington’s ability to sustain its hegemony in Asia was very much in doubt.
The anxiety that preyed on American policy-makers at the time is sharply conveyed by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s bestselling novel, The Ugly American. The story is set in an imaginary Southeast Asian country called Sarkhan, a blend of elements drawn from Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and the Philippines. The book’s premise is that because of the arrogance of most Americans in the country, the battle with the Communist insurgents for what would later come to be known as hearts and minds was being lost. The only heroes are the counterinsurgency expert Colonel Hillendale, a barely disguised portrait of Gen. Edward Lansdale (who had been the head of the Saigon Military Mission), and the development engineer, Homer Atkins, who is directly modeled on Otto Hunerwadel, who worked in Burma during the period, but could as well have been based on Norman Borlaug, the American agricultural scientist who developed high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties in Mexico before pioneering their introduction in Asia. Along with his Indian collaborator, M.S. Swaminathan, Borlaug is conventionally regarded as the father of the Green Revolution.
Paradoxically, by the time The Ugly American was published, in 1958, the Green Revolution in Asia was well under way. In contrast to the incoherence that marked American analyses of Vietnam, US policy-makers in Washington had not let prejudices, commitments to local clients or wishful thinking distract them from the root causes of the conflict they were trying to win. Senator McCarthy and like-minded members of Congress might repeat ad nauseam that China had been “lost” through treachery at the State Department or in Harry Truman’s White House, but only a year after Mao Zedong’s victory, in 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had already properly identified both the extent and novelty of the challenge Washington faced in Asia, and the need to craft very different policies to subdue it. There was, he said, “a developing Asian consciousness, a revulsion against the acceptance of misery and poverty as the normal conditions of life.” The Chinese Communists might not have inspired this desire for change, but their triumph over the US-backed Kuomintang demonstrated that they had the ability to “ride this thing into victory and into power.”
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Before long, American aid experts had developed a one-sentence catchphrase to describe the phenomenon: “Where hunger goes, Communism follows.” Starting during Truman’s presidency, but carrying over with remarkable single-mindedness through the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Washington became heavily invested in programs that promised to offer the rural poor of South and Southeast Asia an alternative way out of poverty. In the case of India, where famine remained an ever-present risk, the stakes were particularly high for Washington. In the words of New York Times columnist James Reston, who, like Walter Lippmann before him, had enjoyed for decades something of a symbiotic relationship with whoever was in power, “Not only the well-being of the Indian people but the balance of power in South Asia may depend on it.”
More than military operations or covert action (not that Washington forswore either of these, not to mention collusion in massacres of Communist Party members by America’s local allies), the Green Revolution became the weapon of choice to ensure that the balance of power remained in America’s favor. The subtitle of Cullather’s book—America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia—puts the emphasis exactly where it belongs. Had William Gaud been more faithfully describing what American assistance had accomplished, “A Green Counterrevolution” surely would have been a better catchphrase for a decades-long effort that encompassed everything from massive food shipments to India, at a time when a new famine on the scale of the catastrophe in West Bengal in 1943 seemed to be a real possibility at several points between the mid-’50s and about 1970; to the successful development of high-yielding plant varieties, thanks largely to the efforts of the greatest private philanthropic organization of the day, the Rockefeller Foundation; and the introduction of new farm technologies, above all tractors and chemical fertilizers. As Cullather explains, whereas the Communists looked to industrial growth as the key to ending misery, the United States looked to agricultural technology to alleviate poverty and promote economic growth on a scale that would “discipline [Asia’s] unruly politics and shore up client regimes.” An India that focused on the problems of food and farming, Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, emphasized, would be “the kind of India we want.”
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Cullather makes it clear that in the late 1940s, despite India’s vast (for the era, anyway) population of 300 mil-â¨lion, US policy-makers at first believed that increased involvement with India was more likely to be a strategic burden than a boon. At a time when the total US aid budget for Asia was less than $40 mil-â¨lion, a 1949 assessment by the new National Security Council stressed that Washington must on no account assume that an independent India could play a major role in raising living standards for the mass of the Indian people. It took a decade for Washington to fully change its mind. Lippmann articulated this new view when, writing in 1959 in, of all places, Ladies’ Home Journal, he argued that to win over “the submerged masses in the old imperial lands, the US needs to take a ‘glorious gamble,’” above all in India, that would provide Asia with a model “take-off from [its] stagnant poverty…toward a progressive, independent, modern economy.” Embedded in Cullather’s account of this change in US strategy is a larger point. The policy debate that led to this emphasis on India’s strategic importance coincided with the broader emergence of “economics as a policy language.” As cold warriors shifted their focus from a recovering, post–Marshall Plan Europe toâ¨a “hungry” Asia, “the terminology of alliances, iron curtains, and armaments gave way to a language of takeoffs, five-year plans, and [economic] growth rates.”
The point is an essential one, although in my view Cullather overplays it. His claim is that the Green Revolution was not simply, as the canonical version would have it, “the greatest success in foreign aid since the Marshall Plan” but, far more important, the inauguration of an entirely new type of international politics. In decades since, Cullather observes, it has gone by “a variety of names—nation-building, humanitarian relief, foreign aid—but it is usually known simply as ‘development.’” For Cullather, this new form of politics—one in which “hunger and poverty were no longer seen as the universal human condition but as a danger to international stability”—is inextricably linked with, if not US imperialism (Cullather’s views on that matter are not entirely clear) then the maintenance of the US-dominated post–World War II global system. “The pattern of US and international response to humanitarian crises, especially famine,” he writes, “was set during this period [of the Green Revolution], as were the fundamentals of nation-building and counterinsurgency, which remain the favored strategies for subduing rural threats to the global order. Today, US marines, the latest generation to struggle for Asian hearts and minds, confront the Taliban amid the ruins of irrigation works built in the 1950s by American engineers.”
Cullather writes extremely well, and his poetic construct of ruins captures the imagination. His claim about the novelty of development is nonetheless at once too sweeping and too narrow. To begin with, while development as an ideology is indeed a Western construct, both in its capitalist and communist forms, it is also the inheritor of the so-called second imperialism of the latter part of the nineteenth century, insofar as the United States after World War II assumed in many important respects the mandate of the British Empire. One of the architects of British colonialism, Cecil Rhodes, defined imperialism succinctly as “philanthropy plus five percent.” In his superb book Le développment: Histoire d’une croyance occidentale (Development: History of a Western Belief), the Swiss development expert Gilbert Rist charts in great detail how European nations justified the equation. Of the myriad examples of “humanitarian” rationales for European colonial rule cited by Rist, perhaps none is more striking than Victor Hugo’s impassioned claim that French colonization was “not for conquest, but for fraternity” and was the expression “of an ever-growing solidarity, of a community of sentiments and interests that links the metropole to its overseas possessions.”