Learning Nuclear Policy from an Iowa Farmer


Lee Winningham teaches history at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. He is currently researching cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

As America rethinks its nuclear policies on issues such as retaliation and the construction of new weapons, we will inevitably turn to former Cold War diplomats and policy experts for either praise or condemnation.  Though much can be learned from these individuals, perhaps we can further our understanding of nuclear policy by listening to a small farmer from Iowa, who also found himself in a dangerous and unpredictable world. 

In the summer of 2007, I wrote about what we could learn about international diplomacy from the U.S./Soviet agricultural exchanges in the summer of 1955.  These cultural exchanges not only provided much needed agricultural technology to the Soviet Union, but also established cordial relations between citizens of the United States and the Soviet Union before official policy recognized such citizen diplomacy.  A leading figure in that movement was Roswell Garst.

In 1987, Richard Lowitt and Harold Lee edited and published Letters from an American Farmer:  The Eastern European and Russian Correspondence of Roswell Garst, which is a revealing look into the man who traveled throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the 1950s.  The letters focused on the dissemination of agricultural knowledge to Eastern Europeans and revealed the beliefs of a very articulate diplomat, who quickly discovered that he was in the Soviet Union to do more than sell corn.  There are two themes that resonate in his letters addressing foreign policy:  the ridiculous notion of preparing for nuclear war and the courage needed by world leaders to challenge the need for devastating nuclear weapons.

While the debate between the Cold War superpowers focused on a war of annihilation, the modern debate focuses on the proliferation of nuclear materials leftover from that war.  President Obama’s desire to see a nuclear free world, however, would be praised by the humble farmer, who challenged the premier of the Soviet Union to change the debate raging in his own country.  In August 1958, Garst wrote the following to Khrushchev on leadership in the nuclear age:

It seems to me that you have the greatest opportunity in world history--that you personally have this opportunity.  It will take great courage on your part to be accused of instigating war without you yourself retaliating with the same kind of talk. […] Likewise, President Eisenhower must have great courage to stand up against the charges that the government of the United States is provoking war--and not retaliate in kind with charges that it is someone else who is creating warlike situations.

If Garst could speak to President Obama as he seeks to bring different ideologies together in America behind a common nuclear policy, he would remind the president of his unique opportunity.  In a letter written in May 1959, Garst wrote to Ambassador Mikhail A. Menshikov that Chairman Khrushchev’s position offered the greatest opportunity to change the world’s attitudes toward war and nuclear weapons:

If Mr. Khrushchev talks about the insanity of the whole world spending this terrific amount of money wastefully--and talks about nothing else--the United States will be forced to talk about the same thing.  If Mr. Khrushchev talks about the insanity of the armaments race, he will of course have to think about the insanity of the armaments race.  And if he talks about the insanity of the armaments race and we are forced to talk about the insanity of the armaments race, we will be forced to equally to think about it and stress it.

Garst firmly believed that this type of leadership could make war less likely and focus both nations on their similarities rather than their differences, which to Garst was a desire to live in peace with one another.  Such talk in the late 1950s was considered by some to be a pipe dream, much as any mention of a nuclear free world is scorned and mocked by modern critics.

Just as Garst corresponded with Khrushchev about his unique position in the world to change the political dialogue between the two superpowers, he also spoke eloquently about the insanity and waste of preparing for nuclear war.  In Garst’s view, nuclear weapons were absolutely useless and, from an agricultural standpoint, completely illogical given the millions of impoverished and malnourished people on the planet.  To Garst, the U.S. and Soviet Union  should not spend their time arguing over who could annihilate who in a nuclear exchange, but find common ground feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and teaching agricultural knowledge to the poorest regions of the earth, especially Eastern Europe.  These lessons resonate in the present, given the abundance disease, hunger, and poverty plaguing many regions of the planet.  In 1959, Garst wrote to Khrushchev expressing the hope that  “If the Soviet Union, Western Europe, the United States and Canada, and a very few other more scattered parts of the world, could join in being helpful to the great parts of the world which need help, what a wonderful world we could live in.” 

To Garst, a nuclear war was not only unthinkable, it was wasteful.  He expressed this belief on a number of occasions to Khrushchev and other Soviet representatives.  In 1958, Garst remarked that “the last ten years, the people on this globe of ours just must have been spending something like $100 billion a year preparing for a war that nobody wants, nobody expects, and that no one could survive.  On a global basis, that situation is completely insane.”  Even as late as December 1961, roughly ten months before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink, Garst expressed his belief in the insanity of a globe that spends $100 billion on nuclear weapons.  Though the dynamics of the nuclear debate have changed, the twenty-first century begs the same question:  Should we build more nuclear weapons?  With the Soviet Union long in its grave, America is in a unique position to take a lesson from Roswell Garst and not only discourage the proliferation of these materials, but also question the sanity of a world that continues to spend billions on weapons in the face of such global poverty, disease, and hunger. 

Roswell Garst was neither a diplomat nor a political leader.  His desire for global peace, however, fostered connections which he believed would make great inroads to a peaceful resolution of the Cold War.  History tends to push teachers, students, and casual readers toward ex-presidents, diplomats, politicians, and other officials for information, but while the views of these experts are valuable, reliance on them alone can blind the student and historian to valuable contributions by those that slip between the historical cracks.  As the United States rethinks its response to nuclear threats in the twenty-first century, we can enlighten ourselves by looking outside official channels for guidance and progress, just as Laren Soth (a writer for the Des Moines Register who proposed the agricultural exchanges), Roswell Garst, and all of the other participants in the agricultural exchanges that looked outside official channels attempting to ensure peace and prosperity in their time.

President Obama’s call for a world without nuclear weapons is facing the expected disputes from opponents, whose attacks range from irresponsible to weak to fool-hearted.  It would serve President Obama well to seek leadership advice from the humble farmer from Iowa who would insist that he not be afraid to change the dialogue on nuclear weapons in the face of opposition and mockery.  Likewise, Americans need to have an honest dialogue about the usefulness of these weapons.  If we lead the world to begin talking about their usefulness it will force other nations to talk about nuclear weapons in a different way.  Hunger, poverty, and disease are no less a problem in 2010 than they were in the late 1950s.  Perhaps the United States can lead the world not in building more nuclear weapon, but in finding common ground with other nations and spend money feeding the hungry, alleviating poverty, and healing the sick.  That would be the greatest honor to the legacy of a simple man who dared challenge the conventional wisdom of his time.

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