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.”