Category Archives: military

Missionary Interrogators in the Pacific

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3201-35, 3284-3321:

[A]mong the first wave of US Marines to hit the beach at Guadalcanal on August 8, 1942, was a man who had been a Congregationalist missionary to Japan for twenty-six years.

Sherwood F. Moran (1885–1983) had been home on furlough on December 7, 1941. Immediately, he went to US Marine headquarters in Washington. Volunteering for service, he told the Marines there that his idiomatic Japanese was probably better than any other American’s. The Marines sent him to the South Pacific, and put him in charge of interrogating POWs. He had radical ideas about how this task should be carried out: “By the expression on your face, the glance of your eye, the tone of your voice” you must “get him to know” that you really do regard all men as “brothers,” he instructed other Marines. He proved to be so good at extracting intelligence from captured soldiers that he was told to write an instruction manual for others assigned to this job. The resulting document systematically rejected the beliefs of many Marines that Japanese prisoners should be shot, if not tortured. The American interviewer, Moran’s manual advised, should speak to the Japanese prisoner “as a human being to a human being,” treating him with respect.

On Guadalcanal, Moran was by far the oldest man around. He was soon being called “Pappy” by the young men working under his supervision. Language fluency was what got Moran to the South Pacific, but what he did with his Japanese is what made history. Moran may have been, as his family liked to say of him, “probably the only Marine of his era who never took a drink, never smoked a cigarette, and never cursed.” He was much more than that. He was, among other things, a classic ecumenical Protestant missionary.

Educated at Oberlin College and at Union Theological Seminary, and inspired more by Jane Addams’s social work than by any ideology of religious conversion, Moran was a devoted follower of the Student Volunteer Movement’s greatest orator, Sherwood Eddy. Moran and Eddy were sometimes called “the two Sherwoods” because Moran served for a year as Eddy’s personal secretary, traveling with him and absorbing his liberal views about the missionary project. Worldly enough to have become an accomplished tap dancer, and to have considered a career in vaudeville before a trusted female friend warned him against the unwholesome characters he would meet in the New York theater milieu, Moran was anything but retiring in his ways and was far from orthodox in his theology. Moran married his Oberlin sweetheart, Ursul, and settled down with her in Japan to raise a family and exemplify what the two understood to be a Christian life, and to help local Japanese in whatever way they could. Moran quickly took a serious interest in Buddhism and in Japanese art—on which he published several monographs late in life—and became an outspoken critic of the militarism of the Japanese ruling elite.

Moran’s manual instructed the interrogators to speak to a Japanese prisoner not only as a brother, but almost as a seducer. In his very first paragraph Moran compared the “interviewer”—a label he preferred to “interrogator”—to a “lover.” Each interviewer must develop his own skills, so that each “will gradually work out a technique of his own, his very own, just as a man does in making love to a woman! The comparison is not merely a flip bon mot; the interviewer should be a real wooer!” Some Marines in their “hard-boiled” manner will “sneer that this is a sentimental attitude,” Moran predicted, but he urged resolution and persistence in the face of such banal scorn. The central theme of “Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field,” as the manual was entitled, was the need to establish rapport with the prisoner. Moran insisted that “the Japanese soldier is a person to be pitied rather than hated,” a man who has been misled, deceived, and manipulated by his government and his officers. Every prisoner actually had a story he wanted to tell, and the job of the interviewer was to create an atmosphere in which the prisoner would tell it. The interviewer should learn as much as he could about Japan and its history and culture. Those like himself who had lived in Japan had a great advantage, yes, but others should do all they could to inform themselves so as to do a better job.

Of course one must never forget the goal of extracting intelligence.

The missionary foundation for Moran’s work with POWs becomes all the more significant when we recognize two counterparts in the army and the navy who adopted virtually the same approach, and who were both missionary sons. The notorious service rivalries in the Pacific war prevented Moran from knowing about it, but Army Col. John Alfred Burden (1900–1999) and Navy Lt. Otis Carey [sic] (1921–2006) were operating on the basis of the same instincts. That the anti-torture policies and practices of all three services in the Pacific War were instituted by missionary-connected Americans has gone unnoticed until now. A sign of just how thoroughly this episode had been forgotten by the 1980s is the fact that none of these three men is mentioned in two books written in that decade by the leading students of the war in the Pacific: Akira Iriye’s Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941–1945 and John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy.

“Otis Cary’s name,” reports Ulrich Straus, “was the only one cited repeatedly” many years after the war, when Japanese veterans “wrote up their wartime experience in prison camps.” Cary, who was remembered with respect, even affection, “was determined,” writes Straus, “to treat prisoners not as enemies but as human beings, individuals who deserved to have a bright future aiding in the reconstruction of a new, democratic Japan.” The son and grandson of Congregationalist missionaries, Cary, who always considered Japanese his native language, had come “home” in 1936 to attend Deerfield Academy and then Amherst College, as did so many missionary sons. He enlisted in 1942 and by early 1943 was the navy’s primary officer for interrogation. He was stationed first in Hawaii and then in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where he led in the interrogation of POWs captured in the fighting there. Cary was first hampered by the army, which was in control of the American operation in the Aleutians and wanted nothing to do with the navy’s Japanese language specialists. Still, Cary managed to win acceptance when he had the astonishing luck of encountering, as his first POW, a soldier from his own hometown in Japan. Carey extracted information from this man that was deemed highly valuable by the top brass.

But Cary did not operate on a large scale until later in the war, in the Marianas, especially on Saipan in the summer of 1944. It was there that Cary, confronted with a flood of captives, made such a lasting impression on the soldiers he interrogated. “Following lengthy discussions,” notes Straus, many of the prisoners “eventually found persuasive Cary’s argument that [they] had given their all in the service of their country, had nothing to be ashamed of, and should look forward to contributing to the reconstruction of a post-war Japan.”

Cary’s successes in the Aleutians and the Marianas would be better known if he had written about his exploits in English instead of only in Japanese. As translated by Straus, Cary explained that the soldiers “were used to being coerced and knew how to take evasive measures,” but “if treated humanely, they lost the will to resist.” While there were rumors about high pressure methods used on the POWs, Cary insisted that nothing of the sort happened on his watch. The unanimous postwar testimony of the POWs in his charge vindicates the claim. Cary went back to Japan after the war and headed the American Studies program at Doshisha University, the close partner of his US alma mater, Amherst. Largely unknown in the United States, to which he returned ten years before his death in 2006, Cary was an important and widely celebrated figure in Japanese academia.

Cary apparently had no contact with his Army counterpart, John Alfred Burden, who was a medical doctor in Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Burden immediately enlisted in the army, ready to use the language skills he acquired as a Tokyo-born son and the grandson of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. He was able to speak the Tokyo dialect more fluently than most of the Nisei with whom he worked in the South Pacific. As a captain posted to Fiji in October 1942, Burden was frustrated that his superiors did not quickly send him into the combat zones where his language facility could be of immediate use. He finally persuaded them to send him to Guadalcanal in December, accompanied by two Japanese Americans who, Burden complained bitterly, had been stuck in a prejudice-filled atmosphere on Fiji driving trucks around the base. Burden went on to lead the first joint Caucasian-Nisei team of interrogators, eventually establishing an impressive record.

This very long extract will have to be my last from this book. Burden and Cary deserve their own Wikipedia articles, as do a few other missionaries who once worked for the OSS.

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Missionaries and the Growth of Area Studies

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4678-4717:

THE MAN WHO came to be called the “viceroy” of South Asian Studies had a high position in government during World War II and used it to promote the academic study of India. Missionary son W. Norman Brown (1892–1975) got to know Kenneth Landon in the Washington headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services. But unlike Landon, who had heavy policy responsibilities, Brown was in the research division, where he headed the South Asian section. In 1943, Brown convened a “private IPR roundtable” at Princeton to talk about India. The main item on the agenda was Brown’s memorandum, “Suggested Program to Promote the Study of India in the United States.” The memorandum called for the creation of institutes, teaching programs, and public lectures designed to advance knowledge of India.

That an officer of the OSS could run a private event under the auspices of the Institute of Pacific Relations highlights the easy back-and-forth between IPR and government officialdom. The roundtable also shows how an OSS officer could promote an academic cause not immediately related to the war effort. The roundtable is revealing, further, for the individuals who participated in it. Brown knew how to light a fire under people located in potentially relevant networks. The recently elected congressman Walter Judd was there. So was the prominent Asian affairs writer T. A. Bisson, who was then serving on the wartime Board of Economic Welfare. Present, too, was Harry B. Price, the lobbyist who had been Executive Director of the “Price Committee”—the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression—and who by 1943 was coordinating the Lend-Lease program for China. Brown made sure that the Rockefeller Foundation sent representatives. The group also included journalist Varian Fry, already a legend in Washington circles because of his death-defying work for the Emergency Rescue Committee in Vichy France, smuggling more than two thousand anti-Nazi refugees out of Marseille. The presence of Judd, Bisson, and Price, all of whom were former missionaries to China, shows how Brown mobilized the missionary network for his own purposes, and how that network easily bridged different mission fields.

After the war the enterprising Brown established himself as one of the most successful empire builders in an academic generation legendary for its empire building. Whenever there was a committee related to his interests, Brown ended up chairing it. Whenever there was a center or an institute to be established, Brown was invited to serve as its director. Whenever there was an academic position to be filled, Brown’s advice was taken into account. Whenever there were funds to be distributed, Brown was part of the decision process. Whenever there was a major event concerning India, Brown’s views about it were quoted. Focused, efficient, and determined, Brown was the prototype of the academic operator.

Brown’s counterpart in postwar Japanese Studies was another missionary son, Edwin Reischauer. The Chinese Studies equivalent was John K. Fairbank, who was neither a missionary son nor a former missionary but whose formation as a scholar was heavily influenced by the missionary contingent. This chapter is devoted to the careers of these three men and the attendant growth of what came to be called Foreign Area Studies. By 1967, missionary son and Japan scholar John W. Hall was justified in claiming that the success of Area Studies in the previous twenty years had rendered obsolete the old charge that American academia was parochial. The universities of no other nation had achieved as wide a global range as those of the United States. This could happen as rapidly as it did because so many missionary-connected individuals were ready to make it work. In no other institutional setting was missionary cosmopolitanism more visible than in academia, and nowhere was its Asian center of gravity more consequential.

There were few American missionaries in Russia and Eastern Europe. Programs for that part of the world developed without significant missionary background. This was also true for programs focused on Western Europe and its sub-regions. Latin American Studies had no special need for missionary-connected individuals because Latin America was the subject of extensive academic study before the war and its major language—Spanish—was widely spoken in the United States. 3 There were plenty of missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa, but the Foreign Service and the OSS did little recruiting there because that region was not a major theater in World War II, and its strategic significance in the Cold War was not recognized until much later.

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IVS: Role Model for Peace Corps

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 5687-5725:

IVS emerged from a confluence of church and government engagements with the decolonizing world. Shortly after President-elect Dwight Eisenhower announced late in 1952 that John Foster Dulles would be his secretary of state, Dulles declared in a radio address that US foreign aid programs needed to be supplemented by organizations of volunteers who would go abroad to help the peoples of the non-Western world to develop the resources of their own countries. This idea appealed to Harold Row, the director of the Church of the Brethren’s social service agency, the Brethren Service Commission. Row approached his counterparts on the Mennonite Central Committee and the Friends Service Committee, the social service agencies of the other “historic peace churches” which, like the Brethren, had been eager to find foreign postings for the “alternative service” that conscientious objectors performed under the terms of the Selective Service Act of 1940. The Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers all maintained missionary programs, but it had not been possible to assign conscientious objectors to missions because of the latter’s official involvement in religious proselytizing. Hence, most of the conscientious objectors served their two years of alternative service stateside in a variety of medical, construction, and agricultural endeavors. Row rounded up his Mennonite and Quaker friends and they went to Washington together and started to knock on the doors of officialdom.

While the churchmen were making their rounds, a middle-ranking officer of the State Department’s Point IV Program—President Truman’s foreign aid project—returned from a posting in Iran and voiced to colleagues his wish that churches or some other private party would send volunteers abroad to do vocational training and other work to enable the Iranians to modernize themselves. Dale D. Clark knew nothing of Dulles’s speech, but had come up with this idea while contemplating the needs of people in Tehran. Clark had been a Mormon missionary in Europe for two years as a youth, an experience that may have influenced this episode, although he did not say so. Clark was delighted when his aides excitedly told him that there were church officials in town at that moment trying to get someone to listen to exactly such a plan of their own. Row and his friends had found an official who was ready to work with them. In February 1953, the Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers established a new NGO, International Voluntary Services (IVS), a name suggested by Row as a variation on his own denomination’s Brethren Volunteer Service.

IVS came into being at a time when ecumenical Protestants were divided about the viability of their missionary programs but more committed than ever to the service ideal. IVS was a means for expanding service projects without having to deal with the uncertainties of missionary purpose and ideology. IVS’s director for its first eight years was John S. Noffsinger, a Brethren minister who in his youth had been a teacher in the Philippines, then spent most of his career in the United States working for vocational training organizations, including the Federal Board of Vocational Education. Once in place, Noffsinger quickly dispatched young men and women abroad. They almost always operated “missionary style,” interacting directly with local populations in villages and learning to speak the indigenous languages.

IVS was a secular organization that welcomed volunteers with no religious affiliation, but throughout its history—including the volatile Vietnam years which I discuss below—its volunteers were overwhelmingly ecumenical Protestants. Noffsinger himself seems not to have pushed the analogy to missions, but some of his staff did. “You are still missionaries,” one staffer told a group of volunteers, “for like Christ you are working to improve peoples’ lives. Your job is to bring your great American know-how to Asia.” One volunteer from the mid-1950s recalled that the Foreign Service officers in Laos, where he was serving his alternative service, referred with some derision to his IVS group as “the missionaries.”

By the late 1950s, IVS had “won a reputation,” historian David Ekbladh explains, “as an exemplar of community development with its programs in Africa and Asia.” In 1961, immediately after President John F. Kennedy announced that Sargent Shriver would head such an agency, Noffsinger wrote to Shriver offering assistance. Members of Shriver’s newly appointed staff began attending IVS staff meetings to get a sense of the operation. IVS was not only the ideological model for Shriver’s agency, but the practical one as well. Historian Daniel Immerwahr notes that IVS staffers “showed Shriver’s team how to set up payrolls for international work [and] screen recruits.”

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Pearl Buck as Egalitarian Feminist

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 792-816:

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was an extraordinary woman whose significance in the histories of the United States, of women, and of feminism remains to be fully registered. Luce’s importance has been clear for some time, even if rarely analyzed in relation to his missionary background. Buck is most often remembered as an overrated novelist and as a major influence on American images of China. She was both. But she was also more than that.

Buck was, as James C. Thomson Jr. has observed, the most influential interpreter of China to the West since Marco Polo. The Good Earth, published in 1931, was the first and foremost vehicle for her most widely disseminated message, which was that Chinese people were as fully human and endowed with dignity as the average American, and equally worthy of respect. Buck wrote more than seventy other books, fifteen of which were Book-of-the-Month-Club selections and many of which have been published in hundreds of editions. Her writings have been translated into at least thirty-six languages. She is one of the most famous American writers of any generation, and by far the most widely translated female author in American history.

Buck’s anti-imperialist, antiracist, and even feminist credentials are impeccable. She advocated independence for India well before it was achieved, opposed the confinement of Japanese Americans, campaigned for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and criticized the Kuomintang without romanticizing the Chinese Communists. She demanded that women have access to birth control technologies and as early as 1941 had articulated most of the ideas about women later popularized by Betty Friedan’s 1963 volume The Feminine Mystique. Buck founded and financed the first adoption agency specializing in transracial adoption, and designed a program to rescue the mixed-race offspring of American soldiers—especially African Americans who fought in the Korean War—from neglect and rejection in Asian societies. She was a major figure in the reconsideration of the American missionary project itself. In these and other activities, Buck was “an evangelist for equality,” in the words of biographer Peter Conn. Buck was, for “three decades,” affirms another biographer, Hilary Spurling, a campaigner “for peace, tolerance, and liberal democracy, for the rights of children and minorities, for an end to discrimination on grounds of race and gender.”

Buck especially touched American women of her generation, above all those who read magazines like Reader’s Digest and Saturday Evening Post. As late as 1966 readers of Good Housekeeping voted her as one of the most admired women in America, surpassed only by Rose Kennedy, mother of the recently martyred president. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey renewed The Good Earth’s status as a best-seller by choosing a new edition for her own highly influential Book Club. In a typical reflection of 2010, the young writer Deborah Friedell observed that Buck was the favorite novelist of both of her grandmothers.

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Hitler’s Role at Dunkirk

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1052-72, 1226-39:

Up until now victory had tumbled upon victory in breathless profusion. Now was time for defeat. Hitler suffered his first at Dunkirk. And what better authority for this statement than von Rundstedt himself.

“To me,” remarked the Field Marshal rather ruefully, “Dunkirk was one of the great turning-points of the war. If I had had my way the English would not have got off so lightly at Dunkirk. But my hands were tied by direct orders from Hitler himself. While the English were clambering into the ships off the beaches, I was kept useless outside the port unable to move. I recommended to the Supreme Command that my five panzer divisions be immediately sent into the town and thereby completely destroy the retreating English. But l received definite orders from the Fuhrer that under no circumstances was I to attack, and l was expressly forbidden to send any of my troops closer than ten kilometres from Dunkirk. The only weapons I was permitted to use against the English were my medium guns. At this distance I sat outside the town, watching the English escape, while my tanks and infantry were prohibited from moving.

“This incredible blunder was due to Hitler’s personal idea of generalship. The Fuhrer daily received statements of tank losses incurred during the campaign, and by a simple process of arithmetic he deduced that there was not sufficient armor available at this time to attack the English. He did not realize that many of the tanks reported out of action one day could, with a little extra effort on the part of the repair squads, be able to fight in a very short time. The second reason for Hitler’s decision was the fact that on the map available to him at Berlin the ground surrounding the port appeared to be flooded and unsuitable for tank warfare. With a shortage of armor and the difficult country. Hitler decided that the cost of an attack would be too high, when the French armies to the south had not yet been destroyed. He therefore ordered that my forces be reserved so that they could be strong enough to take part in the southern drive against the French, designed to capture Paris and destroy all French resistance.”

Hitler’s successes as a strategist were now beginning to bear their blighted fruit. Despite the assurance of a man like von Rundstedt that he was capable of carrying on against the English at Dunkirk, his opinion was tossed aside by the Fuhrer in favor of his own judgment and intuition. Thus a little man studying a map hundreds of miles away from the battle, by rejecting the advice of his most brilliant commander, changed the course of history. The ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ seems even more fore-ordained than it ever appeared before.

“Hitler’s order preventing us from attacking the English at Dunkirk convinced many of us that the Fuhrer believed the English would come to terms,” said Blumentritt, “I have spoken to some Luftwaffe officers and they also say that Hitler forbade them from conducting an all-out aerial attack against the shipping at Dunkirk. This attitude of the Fuhrer’s was made clear to me at a round-table conference he had with a small group of officers following the break-through into France. It was at Charleville when Hitler came to visit Army Group headquarters. He was in an expansive mood and discussed with us his political ideas of the moment. He told us that he was exceptionally pleased with the way the offensive was going, and that everything had worked out beyond his wildest expectations. Once France was defeated there was only England left.

“Hitler then explained that in his opinion there were two fundamental established institutions which, for the time being, must be recognized as essential cornerstones in the framework of Western civilization — the Catholic Church and the British Empire. The power and strength of these two forces must be accepted as faits accomplis, and Germany must see that, for the moment, they be maintained. To achieve this purpose he proposed to make peace with England as soon as possible. Hitler was willing to grant England most generous terms, and he would even desist from pressing his claims for German colonies. Of course, England’s armed forces would have to be disbanded or seriously decreased in size. But in return for such a concession, Hitler was prepared to station as many as ten German divisions in England to aid the British government in maintaining the security of the United Kingdom. Having heard these theories of the Fuhrer, we can hardly be blamed for believing that the invasion of England was never contemplated as a serious operation.”

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Reasons Germany Lost WW2

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 199-225:

It is obvious that men make wars. The corollary that men lose wars is a truism that is often forgotten. The popular tendency at the moment is to identify all man’s military achievements with the machine. The aeroplane, the tank, the battleship, radar and the atom bomb amongst others are all credited by various proponents with having been the decisive factor in winning the war for the Allies. It seems to be felt, in some quarters, that given enough aeroplanes, or enough battleships or enough atom bombs, any power could guarantee for itself ultimate victory in a future war. But the story of Germany’s defeat in World War II convincingly destroys such theories.

Germany had sufficient machines to have assured victory for herself more than once during this war, yet she failed. This view has been expressed over and over again by leading military personalities in the Wehrmacht. They propound it every time they talk about Germany’s greatest military mistakes — and each general suggests a different one. Some say it was allowing the British to escape at Dunkirk, others the failure to invade England in 1940, others the refusal to invade Spain and seize Gibraltar, others the attack on Russia, others the failure to push on and take the Suez when Rommel was at El Alamein, others the stupidity at Stalingrad, and still others the disastrous strategy adopted at Normandy. At each of these decisive phases, except perhaps the last, Germany had sufficient material strength to have enabled her to defeat her immediate enemy or to have prevented that enemy from defeating her.

Yet why did the superior power of these machines not prevail? Because the men who controlled them lacked either the courage or the faith or the imagination or the ability to make them prevail. It is a fundamental principle of war that to win battles superiority of machines and men must be brought to bear at the right time and the right place. German strategists failed to carry out this tenet time and time again. Why, then, did these men who guided Germany’s destiny make blunder after blunder until victory became impossible? In the answer to that question, rather than in the quantity and quality of machines, is the real reason for the fall of Germany in World War II.

The causes of the defeat of the Reich were substantially either political or military. The evidence and judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal has done much to clarify the political reasons behind Germany’s collapse. The military reasons, while obviously subordinate to political events, have not been given the same searching scrutiny and therefore still remain relatively obscure. The discriminating and scientific study of psychologists, sociologists and soldiers will undoubtedly produce the answers. But what evidence have we now on hand to help the historians and students of the future? The men of the Wehrmacht themselves. And their evidence is both interesting and important.

If men make wars, what manner of men were these who led the armed forces of the Reich to its worst defeat in history? What fundamental causes forced the military leaders of Germany to act as they did for five years of war? Why did a group of men with more training, more experience and more passion for the art of warfare than any other contemporary group of similarly trained men fail to ensure the victory that was so often within their reach? It is suggested that at least three weaknesses existed in the framework of the Wehrmacht which combined to produce a defeated, rather than a victorious, Germany. These weaknesses might be summed up in three words — Hitler, discipline and ignorance.

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Sources of Lenin’s Red Terror, 1918

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 904-43:

Lenin’s turn towards political violence in 1918—a set of policies known as the Red Terror—to his struggle against his political opponents. But even before the Red Terror was formally declared in September, and even before he ordered mass arrests and executions, Lenin was already discarding law and precedent in response to economic disaster: the workers of Moscow and Petrograd were down to one ounce of bread per day. Morgan Philips Price observed that Soviet authorities were barely able to feed the delegates during the Congress of Soviets in the winter of 1918: “Only a very few wagons of flour had arrived during the week at the Petrograd railway stations.” Worse, “complaints in the working-class quarters of Moscow began to be loud. The Bolshevik regime must get food or go, one used to hear.”

In the spring of 1918 these conditions inspired Lenin’s first chrezvychaishchina—a phrase translated by one scholar as “a special condition in public life when any feeling of legality is lost and arbitrariness in power prevails.” Extraordinary measures, or cherzvychainye mery, were needed to fight the peasantry whom Lenin accused of holding back surplus grain for their own purposes. To force the peasants to give up their grain and to fight the counter-revolution, Lenin also eventually created the chrezvychainaia komissiia—the “extraordinary commission,” also known as the Che-Ka, or Cheka. This was the first name given to the Soviet secret police, later known as the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD and finally the KGB.

The emergency subsumed everything else. Lenin ordered anyone not directly involved in the military conflict in the spring and summer of 1918 to bring food back to the capital. Stalin was put in charge of “provisions matters in southern Russia,” a task that suddenly mattered a lot more than his tasks as Nationalities Commissar. He set out for Tsaritsyn, a city on the Volga, accompanied by two armoured trains and 450 Red Army soldiers. His assignment: to collect grain for Moscow. His first telegram to Lenin, sent on 7 July, reported that he had discovered a “bacchanalia of profiteering.” He set out his strategy: “we won’t show mercy to anyone, not to ourselves, not to others—but we will bring you bread.”

In subsequent years Stalin’s Tsaritsyn escapade was mostly remembered for the fact that it inspired his first public quarrel with the man who would become his great rival, Leon Trotsky. But in the context of Stalin’s later policy in Ukraine, it had another kind of significance: the brutal tactics he used to procure grain in Tsaritsyn presaged those he would employ to procure grain in Ukraine more than a decade later. Within days of arriving in the city Stalin created a revolutionary military council, established a Cheka division, and began to “cleanse” Tsaritsyn of counter-revolutionaries. Denouncing the local generals as “bourgeois specialists” and “lifeless pen-pushers, completely ill-suited to civil war,” he took them and others into custody and placed them on a barge in the centre of the Volga. In conjunction with several units of Bolshevik troops from Donetsk, and with the help of Klement Voroshilov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, two men who would remain close associates, Stalin authorized arrests and beatings on a broad scale, followed by mass executions. Red Army thugs robbed local merchants and peasants of their grain; the Cheka then fabricated criminal cases against them—another harbinger of what was to come—and caught up random people in the sweep as well.

But the grain was put on trains for the north—which meant that, from Stalin’s point of view, this particularly brutal form of War Communism was successful. The populace of Tsaritsyn paid a huge price and, at least in Trotsky’s view, so did the army. After Trotsky protested against Stalin’s behaviour in Tsaritsyn, Lenin eventually removed Stalin from the city. But his time there remained important to Stalin, so much so that in 1925 he renamed Tsaritsyn “Stalingrad.” During their second occupation of Ukraine in 1919, the Bolsheviks never had the same degree of control as Stalin had over Tsaritsyn. But over the six months when they were at least nominally in charge of the republic, they went as far as they could. All of their obsessions—their hatred of trade, private property, nationalism, the peasantry—were on full display in Ukraine. But their particular obsession with food, and with food collection in Ukraine, overshadowed almost every other decision they made.

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