With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Remember the Agricultural Exchanges Between the US and USSR? What We Can Learn from Them Today

Despite the parade of books and papers during the years following the Cold War, historians continue to overlook a series of events that could add immensely to our understanding of the conflict. In the mid-1950’s, ordinary American farmers and Soviet officials, out of a desire to share agricultural knowledge, attempted to break through the ideological barriers that separated them by participating in an agricultural exchange program. These forgotten events and how people from both countries reacted to them, illustrate how different high-level officials can view a conflict differently, and also how ordinary people sought to establish a degree of control in an unpredictable world. Most of all, I believe this topic can teach people and officials valuable lessons that we can apply to our foreign relations today.

The research into this topic began a year ago in graduate school. I became intrigued with how ordinary Americans, led by the Hybrid-Seed corn farmer Roswell Garst of Iowa, and officials on the Soviet side temporarily broke down many of the barriers to peace that eluded professional diplomats. In the United States the Soviets traveled in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, California, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Michigan, Wyoming, and Texas. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Americans traveled from Moscow to the Virgin Lands of Kazakhstan. The purpose was to learn from each other’s agriculture, but many participants began to see the exchanges as a unique opportunity to promote a better understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet trip to Texas and the reactions by government officials and ordinary people is a microcosm of the overall exchange that was taking place in different states and in the Soviet Union. When investigating the delegates’ experience a person is struck by certain characteristics, such as enthusiasm, pettiness, and boastful attitudes on both sides. The enthusiastic greetings that accompanied the delegates were remarkable considering the fact that many consider the mid-1950’s to be one of the most intense periods of the Cold War. In the majority of cases ordinary people’s enthusiasm and curiosity overshadowed the hostility and fear expected to accompany and contact between the Americans and Soviets.

According to the testament of many participants, the exchanges broke down stereotypes and ideological barriers. Men like Roswell Garst and other participants in the exchange program believed that the tense international environment rested on ill-founded stereotypes and by breaking these stereotypes both sides would realize their vested interest in keeping the peace. On many occasions these men placed a remarkable emphasis on the realization that though there were differences between Soviets and Americans, their similarities outweighed their differences. This, however, did not stop many, especially on the American side, from boasting and flaunting their way of life as superior.

One of the most important characteristics of the exchanges was the apparent disconnect between how officialdom viewed the Soviet visitors and how ordinary Americans received them. Despite the fact that President Eisenhower endorsed such exchanges, many officials in America attempted to throw every roadblock possible in the path of the exchange program, almost stopping it all together in the early summer of 1955. Though my own research is ongoing into how genuinely enthusiastic the Soviets were about their American visitors, it appears that there was much less opposition on the Soviet side, to the point that the Soviet Union could use American opposition to propagandize against American arrogance.

The official American reaction to the Soviet visitors provides historians with a different angle on the overall conflict, especially among right-wing historians and other writers who like to argue against any American role in the Cold War’s perpetuation. With the agricultural exchanges we see a Soviet Union (at least as far as we now know) eager to promote a more open relationship while, as the Soviets charged, America constructed its own Iron Curtain. Granted, any objective historian must be quite leery of what he or she reads in official Soviet documents from the period, but this topic does provide another angle into America’s role in the perpetuation of the Cold War by showing America’s own war mongering, prejudices, sensational language, and petty obstacles to peace.

Was peaceful coexistence possible? The belief that both sides could live in peace gains credence when one sees groups of Soviet and American citizens using common denominators such as agriculture to coexist and travel within each other’s borders. Perhaps, Roswell Garst and other participants saw that agriculture and a vested interest in better food production could be the key to peaceful coexistence.

Today, in an uncertain dangerous world, we are once again faced with the challenge of understanding people who are different from us. Are we once again misunderstanding each other? Many Americans understand today’s Arab culture much as Americans in the 1950’s understood Soviet culture and vice versa. Like the participants in the agricultural exchange, we cannot be paralyzed by stereotypes and false assumptions, but should seek out those also searching for a way to peacefully coexist.