Where Hunger Goes: On the Green Revolution

Where Hunger Goes: On the Green Revolution

Where Hunger Goes: On the Green Revolution

Nick Cullather’s The Hungry World teaches us that US agricultural assistance in Asia during the cold war was a Green Counterrevolution.


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.”

* * *

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.”

* * *

Cullather makes it clear that in the late 1940s, despite India’s vast (for the era, anyway) population of 300 mil-
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-
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 to
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.”

Cullather is not wrong to emphasize the cold war and the capitalist motivations for the rise of a postwar ideology that linked modernization and development (just as the Communists had done—a point Cullather might usefully have emphasized more than he does). And his history is pioneering when showing the ways modernization theory played a key role in shaping the evolution of ideas about food aid and its relation to population levels, nutritional needs and development. Cullather is also particularly alert to the central role played in development by the new means devised in the first part of the twentieth century for quantifying nutritional needs. Nonetheless, it is an oversimplification for him to claim that before the advent of modernization theory as a central interpretive key of development, first with US domestic policy for rural populations during the New Deal and then with America’s global policy in the poor world, hunger and poverty were seen as the universal human condition and not as political dynamite. To the contrary, the history of famine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including in India, teaches a very different lesson. As the great Irish economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda observes in Famine: A Short History, “Although many observers in the past deemed [famines] ‘inevitable’ or ‘natural,’ throughout history the poor and the landless have protested and resisted at the approach of famines, which they considered to be caused by humans. The conviction that a more caring elite had the power and a less rapacious trading class had the resources to mitigate—if not eradicate—disaster was usually present.”

Nor was it the case that before the advent of modernization theory, the Four Freedoms of Franklin Roosevelt, and technological innovations in agriculture, Western nations committed to maintaining a global order dominated by themselves were insensible to the risks of political and social upheavals that poverty and famine could unleash. I suspect that Cullather goes wrong here because, as he documents brilliantly, the language of development that accompanied the Green Revolution was novel in its rhetoric. Never before had the powerful claimed so adamantly to be pursuing what Cullather calls a “species of politics that speaks to humanity’s greatest ambitions for progress and welfare and to its greatest fears of social collapse.” But such rhetoric concealed as much as it revealed, and while it should not be dismissed because of its geo-strategic motivations, nor should it be accepted as being quite as revolutionary as its architects have claimed.

* * *

Despite making a brief reference to the British imperial famine codes, which he concedes continued to be used in India after independence and were “credited by many (and still defended by some) with banishing catastrophic famines from India for much of the twentieth century,” Cullather could be understood by an unwary reader to be arguing that before the twentieth century, the ruling elites were uniformly indifferent to the affront of famine, as if rulers had all, always, been Marie Antoinettes, or that the Malthusian understanding of famine had been displaced only in the twentieth century. But neither of these contentions is entirely true. As Ó Gráda has pointed out, the Malthusian understanding of famine (“the poor will always be with us”) was already waning among British administrators in colonial India in the nineteenth century: “The colonial regime that presided over several major famines in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India, also helped to keep the subcontinent free of famine between the 1900s and the Bengal famine of 1943–44.” Ó Gráda attributes this change partly to improved communications but also to “the shift in ideology away from hard-line Malthusianism toward a focus on saving lives.” That focus was all too often punitive in the extreme. Nevertheless, however unsatisfactory the famine codes were, the development of them was an important expression of the shift Ó Gráda identifies. Even those who think, as the best minds in the Indian right-to-food movement for the most part do (and who can hardly be accused of nostalgia for the Raj), that the assistance the codes provided was far too meager and grudging, tend to agree with the Belgian-born Indian economist Jean Dréze’s identification of a “contrast between the earlier [pre-code] period of frequently recurring catastrophes, and the latter period when long stretches of relative tranquility were disturbed by a few large-scale famines.”

Cullather is on stronger ground when he chronicles how, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and gathering steam from the 1930s onward, a broad consensus emerged among American development experts that there was a “world food problem,” and that if it could be quantified, it could be conquered. The notion quickly took root in the minds of American officials, the most influential of whom were Herbert Hoover, before and after his presidency, and FDR’s vice president, Henry Wallace; it was cultivated by charitable foundations like Ford and Rockefeller and the agronomists they backed, notably Elvin Stakman, a former Department of Agriculture official in the ’20s, who became a professor of plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, and, of course, Norman Borlaug, who began his career as Stakman’s most brilliant student.

In the Rockefeller Foundation’s view, it was in large measure because of Borlaug’s high-yielding wheat that Mexico had been brought back from the brink of an apocalypse in which population definitively outran food supply. There is no doubt that the goal of agricultural modernization of Mexico carried what Stakman thought of as a “generalizable” lesson. Stakman was part of a group of politicians, philanthropists and scientists who wanted, in Cullather’s apt phrase, to rescue Malthusianism from Malthus: they wanted to head off what Malthus saw as a cycle of uncontrolled demographic increase finally halted by the holocaust of famine, and they sought to do so through vastly increased food production and, at least for some of the pioneers of post–World War II capitalist development, population control. As an account of what these men (there seem to have been no women with any important roles in this) thought they were doing, The Hungry World is solid. The problem is that at least to some extent, Cullather does not seem to have fully grasped that Malthus was not just somewhat wrong but completely wrong, and that Malthusianism, in Alex de Waal’s great phrase, is “one of the most monstrous intellectual aberrations of all time.” There was nothing to be rescued. This is not to say that Stakman, Borlaug or Swaminathan should have known this in the first half of the twentieth century. They couldn’t have. But Cullather is writing long after Amartya Sen demonstrated conclusively that modern famines are rarely, if ever, an absolute crisis of food supply but rather of what he called “entitlements”—the ability of the poor to deploy the resources necessary to gain access to the food supply. Cullather is also writing in the wake of at least a generation of population demographers who have shown, in Ó Gráda’s phrase, that “elementary demographic arithmetic argues against famines being as severe a demographic corrective as Malthus and others have suggested.”

Of course, Cullather has read his Sen. Late in The Hungry World, while questioning the “presumed relationship between population and scarcity,” he alludes to Sen’s work and that of Jean Dréze, with whom Sen has often collaborated. In considering the prospects for the so-called second Green Revolution in Africa, which is as much the brainchild of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the first Green Revolution was seeded by Rockefeller, Cullather warns strenuously against what he rightly calls “the depoliticization of hunger,” and the excessive reliance on technical fixes. As he points out, though a bit too grudgingly, it seems to me, “If Amartya Sen’s analysis still applies, Africans are hungry not because there is no food, but because they have no entitlement to food.” But these observations appear in what is, in effect, an epilogue in which Cullather considers the combination of “détente and disillusionment [that] drained the energy” of the Green Revolution. This is the weakest part of The Hungry World, full of hortatory and hopelessly generalizing phrases such as a warning against “utopian expectations and neo-realist defeatism,” and a call for those committed to development to “find a new way forward” (the last words of the book). Ending a book is never easy, of course, but in the closing pages of The Hungry World Cullather’s tough-mindedness seems to desert him completely. It is as if all of a sudden one had been transported from the lucidity and sharpness of the book’s preceding chapters to the well-intended banalities of a United Nations General Assembly document.

* * *

Brilliant as it is, Cullather’s book could have been better had it been as well-informed about how mistaken the agricultural modernizers were in embracing some form of neo-Malthusianism as it is about the essential links between the Green Revolution and counterinsurgency. In fairness, Cullather does refer to the reforms of the Green Revolution having eventually been trapped “within a Malthusian discourse that led nowhere.” And his book is never less than an argument against what he rightly calls the American propensity—now generalized across the development field—“to employ technology as an avoidance mechanism, as a way to escape historical responsibility and the obligation to allow people to choose, through their own governments, the future that was best for them.” But the problem goes even deeper. Malthusianism and neo-Malthusianism are not frauds simply because they erroneously contend that famine is the ultimate brake on overpopulation, or that in a famine the problem is one of food supply rather than what Sen calls the entitlement to food. In terms of development, a graver problem is the contention, intuitively understandable but simply not borne out by the evidence, that famines usually afflict entire societies.

Cullather builds an airtight case about how the apocalyptic language of a global demographic calamity—in which tens if not hundreds of millions would die without access to seed technologies, industrial agriculture and capitalist markets—furthered the cold war interests of the United States. As he rightly emphasizes, these interests did not stop at thwarting the Communists but also cleared the road for capitalist economic organization. In his Green Revolution speech, William Gaud boasted that increasingly the United States had made introducing price incentives, shifting fertilizer manufacture and distribution “from public channels to more efficient private outlets,” and liberalizing “import quotas on raw materials for fertilizer production” criteria “for receiving both food aid and USAID program loans.” And, he added, “the message has been getting through.” (Capitalist markets, Cullather shows, were one of the principal conditions Washington tried to impose on the Indian government in return for food aid.) Where Cullather is less successful is in integrating into his book something that he is perfectly aware of but for some reason chooses not to bring into the foreground often enough—the extent to which all modernization theory is in intellectual debt to Malthusianism, and is morally and intellectually undermined by that debt.

Admirable as The Hungry World is in so many ways (to mention only one, in many cases Cullather makes far better use of the archives than any other historian of the cold war in Asia has done before), a good deal of what it has to say about the pre–World War II roots of the scientific research at the heart of the Green Revolution, and the cold war inspiration for the Green Revolution, is not original. A number of the important arguments he makes build on the equally hard-nosed academic skepticism of other scholars. I am thinking in particular of John H. Perkins and his neglected classic, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (1997), which certainly seems to have paved the way for Cullather’s more detailed account. Perkins was interested in the entire twentieth century, not just America’s ever increasingly hegemonic role in it, and focused almost exclusively on one staple food crop, wheat, rather than, as Cullather does, rice as well. Perkins not only argued convincingly that national security concerns were the major impetus for the development and spread of the Green Revolution but also broke with the conventional wisdom—as Cullather has done too—that it was only after World War II that scientists and aid officials began working in earnest to devise ways of preventing the population boom in Asia from causing widespread famine. It is a bit disappointing that Cullather makes no mention of Perkins and his work in his preface, where he does gracefully acknowledge a number of other scholars.

The Hungry World is an immensely important book, and I am emphatically not arguing that Cullather has simply produced a more historically research-rich version of Perkins, even if the overlap between them will strike anyone who reads both books. After all, Perkins wrote fundamentally as a biologist and a historian of science with an interest in political history, whereas Cullather writes as a historian of America’s international relations. Whatever my reservations about some of Cullather’s choices about what to highlight and what to treat less extensively, he has performed a tremendous service, and written a book not just of interest but of lasting value in showing in detail and with great discernment just how new, and also how radical, development was when it first began to transform the ways powerful nations thought about everything from the specifics of warfighting (it is where the “hearts and minds” doctrine was born, after all) to the broadest questions of national interest. Today development is part of the furniture of an international order that can legitimately and without utopianism or self-flattery be said to exist. If Cullather is right—and, again, despite my sense that he should have focused more on the deep Malthusian structures of the development ideology, and also on the extent to which the rise of capitalist development theory was made possible by the failure of the land reform movement in the immediate aftermath of decolonization (what the great Australian economic historian D.A. Low has called the passing of “the egalitarian moment”)—then his account requires us to rewrite the diplomatic history of the second half of the twentieth century. The Hungry World is the invaluable beginning of that rewriting.

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