Last night I watched a PBS program called, "The American Experience: The Great Famine" ... The film is based on Stanford researcher Bertrand Patenaude'sThe Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921.
It was a fascinating program depicting a bit of American history that I had never heard before.
The story begins in Russia following its devastating losses in World War 1 and also following the chaos and bloodshed of the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War. In the wake of an already difficult time Russia's rich farming regions East of Moscow suffered a severe drought. Famine ensued. The new communist government apparently refused to seek international aid (which was really unknown of for the time anyway) but they did allow certain influential individuals to appeal for help and the writer Maxim Gorky made a strong case to the West for help, essentially saying that millions would die without help.
Gorky's plea caught the eye/ear/heart of someday-to-be President Herbert Hoover, then the Director of the newly formed American Relief Administration. He began by using his budget and privately raised funds to feed upwards of 100,000 starving Russian children PER DAY! Running the operation on the ground in Russia was US Colonel William Haskell...a WW1 Veteran who had overseen relief efforts in Belgium after the War. On the ground, he could see that the famine was worse than imagined and they would need to provide food for adults as well as children. Herbert Hoover fought a battle with Congress to gain an aid package worth $20 Million (1920) Dollars...that would be more than $200 Million in 2011 Dollars...twice what was initially offered by the US to Haiti after the earthquake.
(As a sidenote: I noticed in the film that the bags of corn were clearly marked, "Corn from America". Last summer in Haiti some of our volunteers had problems that the supplies we were giving out were marked "US AID"...like we were taking advantage of the situation. Maybe that's so...you can't escape politics but the practice of letting people know where the help is coming from goes back at least to the beginnings of US Government relief efforts following WW1- it's not a new thing!)
At the peak of the operation, the United States (along with several others efforts...but mostly it was a US- ARA effort)...fed more than 11 million people PER DAY in 19,000 kitchens! PER DAY! I said... PER DAY!
The PBS Program never said much about the motivations of the 300+ Americans that responded to the crises by living and working in Russia for 2+ years in incredibly severe conditions...that led to the death of several! The program mentioned that "Hoovers' Boys" were adventurous. That's for sure. I suspect something more...maybe there's more about it in the book...but early 1920's might have seen the peak of the American Social Gospel movement- the application of theology to social justice issues. A lot of modern, conservative, evangelical theologians today have some disdain for the Social Gospel Movement...and to be sure, at it's extreme- all "Social" and no "Gospel", it's empty...it's sharing a cup of cold water without sharing whose name your sharing it in!! But in my way of thinking there is no Gospel without addressing Justice issues. It's both addressing Justice and Making Disciples. I digress. What I wanted to say here is that I suspect many of the Americans that responded so heroically probably did so out of their Christian convictions.
A lot of people today have a problem with the money the US spends on humanitarian efforts around the globe. I don't have a problem with it. It's a minuscule amount compared to what is wasted by our government. Herbert Hoover was credited with saving more lives than any single person that's ever lived! That's worth more than anything I can think of that our government is spending money on!
You can read more about this episode of American History here: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2011/april/famine-040411.html
The PBS Episode "The American Experience: The Great Famine" is available on Netflix...I encourage you watch it and be proud of what we did there.