Wheat as a Cold War Weapon

By Teddy Tawil

To most observers, the weapons that characterized the Cold War were nukes, ballistic missiles, and other similar armaments that put the world on edge in an era of hair-trigger brinkmanship. But there was also another weapon on the list. One that doesn’t destroy life, but instead sustains it: high-yield varieties of wheat. 

Understanding why wheat was a weapon of the Cold War first requires an explanation of one of the world’s great humanitarian successes: the Green Revolution. The conventional narrative is that, in the 1940s, American agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug discovered new disease-resistant, high-yield varieties of wheat, later followed by a series of similar “modern variants” for other crops. These breeding breakthroughs, along with a series of other innovations that included new pesticides, chemical fertilizers, farming machinery, irrigation advances, and modern land management techniques, meant that farmers could produce greater crop yields while using the same amount of land. Bankrolled by the U.S. government and charitable organizations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, these discoveries were disseminated across the globe, leading to a boom in food production and saving perhaps a billion people from starvation.

While this sunny history is not wrong, it also overlooks an insight that fundamentally reframes the world’s most consequential humanitarian initiative to date: it was a geostrategic program first, motivated by the Cold War, and was philanthropic only second. Or, as fictional journalist Danny Concannon from The West Wing shrewdly observed in discussing foreign aid, “You can’t make this about charity. It’s about self-interest.”

Agricultural technology and international relations began their collision course decades before the outbreak of the Cold War. As Indiana University historian Nick Cullather details in his book The Hungry World, the advent of the calorie—a uniform way of quantifying the sustenance provided by different foods—helped spark worry among American development experts about a “world food problem.” Nonetheless, they were hopeful that quantifying the problem would help solve it. Evergreen State College Professor John H. Perkins writes in Geopolitics and the Green Revolution that agricultural scientists did not emphasize their international obligations, however, until World War II. At that time, the U.S. had a decisive global advantage in agricultural research, and consequently, pioneers like American Society of Agronomy president Richard Bradfield foresaw an ascendant America feeding a war-torn world.

The internationalization of farming laid out by Bradfield began to take shape as Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated his vision for a world “free from want” in his landmark 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the Allied Powers established the Food and Agriculture Organization under the banner of the United Nations. After the war, the U.S. began to distribute food aid across a devastated Europe, first through the Marshall Plan and then famously in the Berlin Airlift

As World War II ended and  the Cold War began, some U.S. leaders sought to leverage America’s agricultural advantage towards geostrategic goals. The State Department feared that impoverished and famished rural villages in the developing world would serve as breeding grounds for Marxist ideology; they were particularly concerned about Asian countries near the communist powers of the Soviet Union and China. But with this danger came opportunity: if the U.S. could serve as a benefactor—or, better yet, help vulnerable countries become self-sufficient—it could affirm the superiority of capitalism and democracy as a model for global development, thereby extending American influence across the world. American aid experts soon came up with a single-sentence slogan summarizing their guiding ethos: “Where hunger goes, Communism follows.”

President Truman formalized this commitment with his Point Four initiative, which he called a “bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” From its outset, Truman tied the program to the Cold War: its name comes from the fact that it was the fourth point Truman outlined in his 1949 Inaugural Address as part of his strategy to contain communism. The project served as the nonmilitary counterpart to Point Three, which called for a mutual defense agreement that would eventually become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

The U.S. concentrated its efforts on India, a country thought to be of great strategic importance. Vulnerable to famine (former President Herbert Hoover’s Famine Emergency Committee estimated in 1946 that 230 million Indians could be at risk of starvation) and on China’s doorstep, American policymakers feared that the country could soon be the next domino to fall to communism. Even Indian officials agreed; in 1949, the American embassy reported that S.T. Raja, India’s undersecretary of Agriculture, thought the country would become communist within five years unless it rapidly increased food production. New York Times columnist James Reston warned in dire terms that “not only the well-being of the Indian people but the balance of power in South Asia may depend on” the success of American agricultural programs in India. As a result, more than a third of Point Four funding went to India, and it soon was on the forefront of the Green Revolution.

As agricultural innovations and Cold War antagonisms accelerated, so too did the American government’s use of geopolitically-minded food programs. Public Law 480, previously a nondescript food surplus disposal program, was reinvented as a tool of agricultural diplomacy; the Johnson and Nixon administrations expanded it to include technology transfers, and later made food aid conditional on boosting domestic spending towards farming and counterinsurgency efforts. In 1968, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator William Gaud boasted about how the U.S. used food aid and USAID loans as bargaining chips to force recipient countries to privatize and liberalize their agricultural policies, ushering them into the prosperous, well-fed free market. In the same speech, Gaud coined the term “Green Revolution,” which was itself internationally-focused; Gaud framed it as the American response to “a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets” or “a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran.” It was during this time that, in Cullather’s eloquent words, “hunger and poverty were no longer seen as the universal human condition but as a danger to international stability.”

However, the humanitarian and geostrategic objectives of the Green Revolution did not always have a symbiotic relationship; when one came at the expense of the other, officials were willing to tolerate greater starvation. In a provocative 2019 study, University of Manchester and Kings College London Professor Jonathan Harwood argues that Green Revolution officials consciously reduced the overall production of food when they deemed that it was in conflict with their strategic goals.

In particular, Harwood argues they funneled unnecessary amounts of fertilizer into areas with  optimal growing conditions to produce dramatic increases in crop yields, even when they knew total food production would have been greater had they distributed some of this fertilizer to other regions. To take an abstract, extreme example to illustrate the idea, imagine they had ten “fertilizer units” to give the promising Region A and the more lackluster Regions B, C, and D. In Distribution 1, Region A gets all the fertilizer and boosts its production from 100 “points” to 450, while Regions B, C, and D still produce 100 (total production: 750). In Distribution 2, Region A gets seven points of fertilizer and produces 400, while Regions B, C, and D each get one point and produce 120 (total production: 760). In India in the 1960s, officials often chose the equivalent of Distribution 1 so that the production increase in Region A would seem even more impressive.

According to Harwood, the reason officials did this—even when it may have condemned more people to starvation—is that they believed seeing breathtaking production gains in specific areas would “shock” former peasant farmers and convince them to buy into commercialized farming, private markets, and with them, the U.S.-led liberal world order en masse. Particularly telling, Harwood says, is that in its 1959 ten-point program to promote Indian farming, the Ford Foundation named boosting the incomes of the farmers it targeted (i.e. the well-endowed Region A landowners) as a goal but did not name raising the overall quantity of food produced.  

There are other examples of the same phenomenon, suggesting that utilitarian humanitarianism took a backseat to spreading industrialized agriculture in the Green Revolution. Kapil Subramanian of King’s College London reports that Ford Foundation agricultural economist David Hopper suggested a similar scheme with the New Delhi irrigation system in the 1960s, proposing to concentrate production so that total output was lower but a lucky few experienced more impressive gains. By the same token, American officials in India focused on the cultivation of wheat—considered a good candidate for these sudden booms—even though both rice and millet were more widely grown and local officials were interested in maize.


The sort of self-interested altruism exemplified by the Green Revolution continues to this day. In a particularly stark example, Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker of Harvard found in 2006 that the U.S. uses foreign aid as a tool to incentivize states on the UN Security Council to vote with it, increasing aid to countries that become temporary members by 59 percent when they rotate onto the council. Unfortunately, this can also hamper the effectiveness of assistance in reducing suffering: Sarah Rose, a Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development, writes that politically-motivated aid flows are often volatile and have muddled goals, making them worse at alleviating poverty than stable humanitarian projects.  

Nonetheless, in many cases, there are strong arguments to be made for a revitalization of strategically-motivated development based on contemporary political realities rather than antiquated domino theory. It is a proposition even a President who believes steadfastly in “America First” has been willing to get behind in theory, and Washington insiders say it is one of the most politically powerful arguments for increasing foreign aid. 

In particular, two recent developments have bolstered the self-interested case for an outward-facing America:

First, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The UN Trade and Development Report estimated in 2018 that the developing world needs $4.6 trillion to $7.9 trillion of infrastructure investment annually to achieve sustained growth. China has proven willing to provide credit on lax terms with the BRI, aiding the authoritarian state’s hegemonic ambitions. The U.S. has responded with the $60 billion BUILD Act, which is a promising step. However, America may have strategic and philanthropic interests in formulating an even larger response to the BRI given the immensity of China’s $4 trillion multinational infrastructure project and the developing world’s current needs. 

Second, the coronavirus pandemic. As we continue to fight a virus that does not respect national borders, the U.S. has skimped on international assistance and balked at global vaccination initiatives. This is arguably a missed opportunity: our abdication of global leadership in the midst of this crisis has stunned allies, empowered China, and dealt serious damage to our international image. 

It is a bizarre fact of history that so many altruistic initiatives with the best of intentions fail, and yet the world’s greatest humanitarian success was philanthropic only secondarily. One is left to wonder—and fear—how the history books might read if the U.S. didn’t have a national security interest in a historic reduction in human misery, and hope that we can again find reason to commit to helping others. 

Title image credit: Reuters/Enrique Marcarian/File Photo

Aaro Berhane

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