Former New York Times correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury worked in the Soviet Union from 1949 until 1953 and covered the 1955 U.S.-Soviet Agricultural Exchange, in which twelve Soviet agricultural delegates toured the United States’ farming land to learn more about corn cultivation and modern agricultural machinery. During Salisbury’s time abroad, he learned about Russian perceptions of America and American cultural diplomacy. In his biography about his experience in Russia, Salisbury credited his understanding of the Russian people to his conversation with a Russian architect, whom he met at a Leningrad opera performance. The architect quickly recognized that the man sitting next to him was not a Leningrader, and in Russian asked if Salisbury was a foreigner. When Salisbury replied that he was American, the Leningrad architect responded with delight and, during the opera performance breaks, peppered him endlessly with questions about America, American citizens, and American culture. This sentiment voiced by the Leningrad architect showcased why grassroot diplomacy was so successful during the Cold War.
Salisbury and the man walked home together after the performance ended, and Salisbury asked if the man had ever listened to the Voice of America (VOA) broadcast. Salisbury reported in his biography that the architect’s face fell with disappointment as he explained how the Soviet state jammed the radio stations on which the VOA aired. However, the Leningrader continued, remarking on the experience he and a friend had listening to the VOA broadcast, “We could not believe it and we listened a little more. Then we knew and we turned off the radio. We had heard the new American truth. But it wasn’t a truth. It wasn’t a truth at all. It was propaganda. American propaganda.”
Taken aback, Salisbury noted that he continued to listen to the architect. “You see,” the architect continued, “we were sick to death of propaganda.” Salisbury reported that the architect stammered a bit, apologizing for his emotional and seemingly radical views. “That is why it was such an event to meet you tonight, a real American. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe if I met and really talked with an American I might after all be able to find out what is your truth,” the architect explained to Salisbury.
This Leningrad architect voiced what many Americans and Russians felt, and historians and journalists of the period attribute this idea of truth through cultural exchange to the success of the 1955 U.S.-Soviet Agricultural Exchange. Instead of sending stuffy government officials or glamorous celebrities to each other’s countries, the Soviet Union and the United States exchanged humble farmers and agricultural delegates. Scholar Peggy Ann Brown borrowed a quote from President Eisenhower in her article about the 1955 agricultural exchange, “[he] couldn’t imagine anything better than to have…their agricultural people visit our agricultural people.” Because this exchange was “farmer to farmer” and the State Department was not heavily involved, the Soviet and American farmers were able to connect on a personal level that was not influenced by a State Department agenda.
This exchange was successful for three reasons: the United States was not actively selling agriculture as a part of its cultural diplomacy; the Soviet Union had a real need and desire to learn and imitate American farming practices and products; and the exchange was not initiated by a governmental body. Instead, this exchange was initiated by the American people, specifically an Iowan newspaper reporter, and accepted by the Soviet government. While the Soviet Union may not have been able to grow corn as successfully as the United States thanks to the exchange, both countries were able to learn from and deepen their knowledge about and experience with the other and, in the long term, fostered understanding about the other’s culture. As a result of the unique circumstances under which it occurred, the 1955 U.S.-Soviet Agricultural Exchange became less about cultivating corn and learning about agriculture, and more about cultivating culture and understanding between the two opposing nations.
The United States held a substantial advantage over the Soviet Union in many scientific and technological avenues; however, agriculture was not an area in which the United States actively sold its practices to the Soviet Union through cultural diplomacy. Scholar Yale Richmond explained that the United States saw cultural exchange as a two-way street: the United States shared its science and technology with the USSR, and in return it gained access to the Soviet scientific community in order to learn what they were doing. Since the United States held an advantage over the Soviet Union in the modernization of agriculture, it would not have benefitted from actively selling its agricultural practices to the Soviet Union, since it would not receive agricultural gains in return. However, they gained an advantage by being able to send a group of Americans to the Soviet soil, a privilege not common for American citizens during the Cold War era. By having American citizens in the Soviet Union, the United States would be able to learn about this politically isolated country, its people, and its culture.
In addition, the Soviet Union needed new agricultural techniques in order to keep both its human and livestock populations fed and healthy. While the Soviet Union had a strong farming history, and an idyllic image of peasants working together in the rural Russian farmland may come to mind, this had become a fantasy by the 1950s. The Soviet Union at this time was unable to produce enough grain to feed its human and livestock populations. In 1954, The New York Times published an article about the poor agricultural conditions in Russia. A month later, The Times reported that the Agriculture Minister of Kazakhstan, F. Karibzhanov, was replaced by Grigori A. Malnik. Karibzhanov was replaced due to his inability to lead the Kazakh agricultural sector. Agriculture in the Soviet Union needed help, and as a result, Nikita Khrushchev gave a glowing speech in the Soviet Union about the innovativeness and success of American farming, while criticizing Soviet agriculture. Soviet leaders and agricultural experts recognized that something needed to change, and that their need could be met by the industrial and modernized agricultural technology of the United States. Thus the Soviet Union was not being sold agriculture by the United States through cultural diplomacy, but instead recognized that the United States could fulfill its need.
Finally, the 1955 agricultural exchanges were not initiated or sponsored by the State Department or by any other governmental body, but instead initiated by the American people. After hearing Khrushchev’s speech about the supremacy of American agriculture, The Des Moines Register printed an article inviting the Soviets to come and learn about corn and animal husbandry from Iowan farmers themselves. The Soviet government accepted the invitation, but problems arose once the governments began to interact. The Soviet Ministry of Agriculture telegraphed the U.S. State Department, formally requesting that the two countries exchange agricultural delegates. Scholar Penny Ann Brown wrote about the U.S. government’s hesitancy to support this tour at the beginning. Nevertheless, the State Department changed its tune by the time of the summer tour, when newspaper articles were filled with phrases such as, “The Russian group is the first high level non-diplomatic Soviet delegation to come here for observation and travel with the blessing and encouragement of the U.S. government since the Cold War began in 1946.” Regardless of the initial lack of support from the U.S. State Department, the two governments were able to work out the bureaucratic logistics that allowed this exchange to happen. Due to the grassroot beginnings of this exchange, The State Department adamantly stated that this exchange would not be officially sponsored by a U.S. government agency; therefore, the trip was officially sponsored by Iowa State College. The context in which the exchange occurred set the stage for its success.
It is important to note that the 1955 exchanges were not the first agricultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, the past exchanges had been private and generally one-sided. Russian agricultural specialists had long admired American farming machinery, and specifically the tractor. In the 1920s, Lenin sought to establish model American farms in each of the 250 farming districts in the Soviet Union. These farms would teach U.S. farming methods and utilize American farming products such as Ford tractors. In order to make this idea of the American farmstead work in Russia, the Soviet Union purchased 25,000 Ford tractors between1920 and 1926. By 1927, eighty percent of the trucks and tractors in the Soviet Union were Fords. Due to the increasing presence of American-made Ford farming vehicles, the Soviet Union requested that Ford send a delegate to design a maintenance system and possibly a Soviet Ford plant. Henry Ford pondered this option, but ultimately refused, citing the lack of Soviet managerial skill as his reasoning for not erecting a Ford plant on Soviet soil. Instead, the Soviets sent delegates to Detroit, Michigan to learn how to repair these trucks and tractors. While the Soviet delegates were in Detroit, they made connections with other American agricultural firms that aided them in creating the Stalingrad Tractor Works, which became the largest tractor plant in Europe.
While this experience was beneficial for a private company like Ford Motors, and also for the Soviet Union because it gained knowledge and products that would help it to imitate American farming practices, this was not a true exchange of ideas and culture as Yale Richmond defines it. In this particular situation, the United States did not receive anything from the exchange, and while Ford received business, it would be difficult to argue that Ford understood the Russian people and culture by sending trucks and tractors to the Soviet Union. These early agricultural exchanges between Ford and other companies would be better classified as business transactions rather than cultural exchanges The 1955 exchange was successful because it was initiated by citizens rather than the government, executed by officials who ordinarily were not involved in international affairs, and centered on an industry that the United States did not actively market to the world. This is what made the 1955 agricultural exchanges unique from other Cold War exchanges.
The first spark for this exchange occurred at the beginning of 1955. On February 10, Lauren Soth, a reporter for the Des Moines Register, published an article inviting representatives of the Soviet Union to Iowa to learn more about corn and hog farming. This article responded to the speech that Nikita Khrushchev gave on January 25, in which he praised American agriculture. In this speech, Khrushchev stated his intent to create a Corn Belt within the Soviet Union, much like the Corn Belt within the United States. He also refuted claims that the Russian climate was not fit for corn cultivation, and claimed that a narrow strip of land near the Ukrainian region would be perfect for the Soviet Corn Belt. Soth’s article invited the Soviets to come to Iowa, and in return, Americans would tour the Soviet Union. The American delegates sent to the Soviet Union were agriculture experts, mostly from the Midwest. According to Penny Ann Brown, “The State Department was less enthusiastic…” about the proposed exchange.
Due to their need for new farming techniques, the Soviets quickly decided to take the Iowans up on their invitation to visit their state and learn about American corn farming and animal husbandry; however, some American agricultural specialists and journalists wondered if Iowa was the best place for the Soviets to learn about farming. The New York Times published an article that expressed the views of agricultural economist Professor D. Gale Johnson of the University of Chicago. Johnson believed that the Soviets would not learn anything useful about corn by visiting Iowa. Due to the differences in climate between Iowa and the Soviet Union, Johnson thought it would be better for the Soviet agriculture delegates to visit a climate in the United States that was similar to their own, his suggestion being North Dakota. Johnson, a well-known, outspoken pessimist regarding the Soviet corn-growing program, also criticized Khrushchev’s speech, noting that many of the American agricultural successes Khrushchev spoke of were not as successful in states such as North Dakota with climates similar to the Soviet Union: “…hybrid corn has probably increased yields in the high-yielding corn areas of Iowa and Illinois by about 20 percent; the influence has been much smaller in the low-yielding and drier areas most comparable to the U.S.S.R,” Johnson concluded in his study.
Perhaps Johnson’s research influenced the Soviet delegation, because the Soviet delegates traveled to South Dakota and Minnesota, climates similar to Russia. Although the Soviet delegates were not “dirt farmers,” most of them grew up on farms before taking their positions as agricultural officials in the Soviet state. Therefore, they could appreciate the intensive tour that they undertook. Their 36-day itinerary included stopping in Iowa to visit Iowa State College, corn-fed hog farms, dairy farms, and other diversified farms. They also visited meat packing and milk processing plants, county extension offices, and typical rural communities. The twelve delegates then moved on to Nebraska, where they saw poultry processing, hybrid corn production, sprinkler irrigations, and grain storage methods, and South Dakota, where they saw livestock and grain farming. In Minnesota, they saw farms, a seed plant, cooperative dairies, creameries, educational and experimental institutions, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, flour mills, and a farm equipment factory. In Chicago, the group visited the Institute of International Education, and a local advisory group set up a three-day itinerary with activities including a concert and a visit to the local stockyard. The West Coast was also represented in this 36-day trip, with the group touring citrus and grape-producing regions of California. The tour ended in Washington, D.C, where they visited the Agricultural Department’s research center in Maryland.
While on tour, the Soviet delegates took time to better understand the differing cultures of the American Midwest. In Iowa, they played touch football with local residents, ate hot dogs, played golf, and attended a local church service at the First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson, IA. The Iowans perceived the Russians positively and welcomed them warmly to their state upon their arrival on July 17. They were greeted by 5,000 Iowans on the airfield, where Vladimir V. Matskevich, the First Deputy Minister of Agriculture, gave a welcoming wave to the excited crowd and an uplifting speech in Russian, which was then translated for the benefit of the English-speaking audience. Iowans in the crowd made welcome banners and signs, some of which were written in Cyrillic. According to a New York Times article, the Russian delegates were eager to try American cuisine and began eating American meals on the flight from Washington, D.C. to Des Moines.
On the flight over, the Soviets were open about their agricultural issues with American agriculture specialist John Strohm. Strohm commented on the poor condition of some of the collective farms, to which Mr. Matskevich responded, “You’re too tactful, Mr. Strohm. You don’t have to say ‘not quite so good.’ Some of our farms are lousy.” Such open communication and honesty, unusual between Russians and Americans during the Stalinist age, became more prevalent during the post-Stalinist Thaw of the 1950s and contributed positively to the agricultural exchange. One could speculate that perhaps the reason Mr. Matskevich was so open about the dire situation of the collective farms was that the Soviet Union was nearly at a crisis level in its agriculture. In the terms of Yale Richmond’s ideas on a balanced exchange, the Soviets’ need for a new farming system fit in with the Americans’ desire to learn more about Soviet farming culture and Soviet society in general. This honesty between the agricultural delegates allowed for a balanced exchange to occur. Harrison E. Salisbury wrote in a New York Times article: “The meeting of Russians and Iowans has been somewhat more successful than, in all probability, either side thought it would be.”
Once the Russian delegates reached Iowa and settled into their trip, support from the Iowans continued. Iowan farmers eagerly signed up to host the twelve Soviet delegates and showed off their properties and work with immense pride. The Allermans were one couple who opened up their farm to the Soviet delegates and were interviewed by the Council Bluff’s Nonpareilabout the experience. The twenty-five-year-old Army veteran Richard L. Allerman greeted Mr. Matskevich warmly and was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “We certainly want to welcome our Soviet friends and we will answer their questions.” Lunch dates on different farms were also common on the Soviets’ agenda. The Council Bluffs Nonpareil published a brief article detailing the laborious process of preparing a luncheon for the Soviet delegates and their entourage. The Soviet delegation party would be having lunch at the George Hora Farm on the following Tuesday after the article was published. In order to prepare for the luncheon, the family selected their plumpest roosters to cook and serve as the main dish, with “all American” side dishes and desserts such as peas, salad, potatoes, various pies, and ice cream, all of which they would wash down with iced tea. While these articles might appear to be “fluff pieces” or general interest pieces, it is important to note that these small American farming communities were not often the center of national and international attention. These small communities and the farmers who lived there were finally receiving recognition for their hard work, and from a foreign leader, albeit a communist one.
The Russian delegates listened to agricultural lectures while at Iowa State College about agricultural education in the United States. One of the lectures was given by Dean of Agriculture Hoyd Andre on the general operation of the first land grant colleges established in the United States. The Russian delegates asked questions about the agriculture majors offered at Iowa State College, as well as the classes offered, according to The Mount Pleasant News. The Soviet delegates then split up into groups while at Iowa State to learn more about their specific agricultural interests. However, this led to the translators being stretched thin, and as a result a new translator had to be called upon. A translator from the Library of Congress arrived in Ames, Iowa to assist with this issue.
Questions about how the American government functioned and its influence on the American higher education system arose during the visit to Iowa State College. The Soviet delegates were reported to be confused about how universities and colleges were run and how research was assigned. The Estherville Daily News reported that Soviet delegation leader Matskevich repeatedly asked what ministry in Washington, D.C. ran the colleges. When he was told that U.S. universities were either state-run or privately organized, Matskevich appeared puzzled and kept asking what person or ministry controlled the classes and research conducted at higher education institutions. The American guides who led the Soviet delegates also remarked on the Russians’ confusion about the lack of control held by the federal government over educational institutions. Despite the Soviet delegates’ uncertainty about what entity controlled U.S. colleges, many of them expressed their admiration for the high quality and intensive agricultural programs found at these institutions. Matskevich even remarked that he hoped to have the Soviet agricultural institutions work more closely with Russian farmers in order to educate them so that their agricultural industry could grow and become stronger.
Meanwhile, the American agricultural delegates who traveled to the Soviet Union arrived at the Russian farmland in July 1955. The New York Times reported from Moscow that the group was impressed by Russian friendliness and hospitality. The Americans began by touring the U.S.S.R Ministry of Agriculture, where the Soviets gave a welcoming speech. The Americans were told by the Russians that they hoped to learn about American farming techniques and utilize these skills in Soviet farming. The Americans noted their admiration for the hard work of not only the Russian farmers, but of the farming families as well. The Americans continued, stating how much of the farming was done by Russian women, and how much more laborious Russian farming was than American farming. Herb Plambeck, an American radio newsman who traveled with the twelve American agricultural delegates, remarked on the appearance of the corn in the Azporizhe region, and he was quoted in the Ames Daily Tribune as saying that it was corn any Iowan would be proud of. The article then diverged into a brief summary of the Soviets’ experimentation with hybrid corn, trying to find the best fit for their harsh climate and short growing season. Plambeck also commented on how the Americans were “eating their way through the tour,” making them guinea pigs for Soviet agricultural goods. Besides touring collective farms and eating homemade Russian meals, the American delegates also visited a hydropower plant at Dnepropetrovsk. On this tour, Dean of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska and head of the American tour W.V. Lambert received a round loaf of bread and a dish of salt, both of which were covered with an embroidered linen cloth. This was a traditional Ukrainian gesture of welcome and symbol of hospitality.
One of the greatest benefits of this exchange was that it occurred during the height of the Cold War and de-Stalinization and provided a humanizing element for both sides about a group of people they had been “othering,” and consequently de-humanizing. Tom Whitney, a reporter who traveled with the Soviet agriculture delegation, wrote a summary piece for the Syracuse paper, The Post-Standard. In this piece, Whitney remarked about a moment he witnessed at the Illinois State Fair. He watched as a toddler boy cried to his mother as the Soviet delegates walked by, “Mummy! Lift me up! I want to see a Russian!” The mother responded, “But, sonny, they’re just people.” Whitney remarked that this was a common phenomenon that he witnessed as he traveled with the Russians, stating, “And it was amusing, of course, but it is also sad. It expresses in a way the ultimate tragedy of the Cold War.” Whitney briefly touches on the idea of “othering” in his article, noting how neither the Americans nor the Russians viewed the other side as human beings during the Cold War. “Things got even to the point where Americans were not emotionally sure that Russians really were human beings and Russians on their side were not certain inside themselves any longer that Americans were people.”
Whitney believed the exchange to be a success, but did note some problems with the tours. He noticed, for instance, that many American delegates remarked that they did not receive much knowledge from their tour of the Soviet Union. The Americans did not go in with specific goals, as the Soviets did, but rather just went to experience the culture and country. As a result, many of the American delegates came back feeling like they learned nothing about Soviet farming technology. Many of them commented that they felt as if they had been “wined and dined” and this took away from their time in the fields. Yet despite the lack of new agricultural knowledge with which the Americans returned, Whitney still considered this exchange a success due to the cultural exchange and discussion between groups that occurred.
The exchange for the Soviet delegates from the American perspective; however, was a grand success. The Soviet delegates entered with specific goals, which made it easier to gauge the success of their trip. According to Whitney, the group not only wanted to learn more about corn cultivation and hog farming, but also traveled to the United States in order to purchase Texas Santa Gertrudis cattle, as well as explore the possibility of buying farming machinery. The Soviet delegates also brought back samples of hybrid corn to grow. However, these tangible successes were not as important as the cultural gains and relations formed between the two groups. The head of the American delegate group, W.V. Lambert, remarked that he felt as if wedges were driven into fifteen-year-old barriers and true friendships had been formed.
The 1955 U.S.-Soviet Agricultural Exchange became a tour that went deeper than corn and hogs. It created an opportunity for understanding and admiration to be fostered through farming. This tour’s success can be attributed to its initiation by private citizens, and execution by ordinary American farmers and Soviet agricultural specialists, who worked long hours and were underappreciated. The delegates on both sides were not interested in the bureaucracy or ideology of the Cold War during this exchange, but rather were excited to use this opportunity to proudly share and show off their life’s work. Through this tour, “truth” was exchanged between ordinary Russians and Americans, much as the Leningrad architect who spoke to Salisbury had hoped. The United States sought over the entire Cold War era to sell democracy to the Soviet Union through mediums such as film, science, propaganda, and academic and cultural exchanges, but agriculture was one area that the Soviet Union could benefit from and the United States did not actively sell. Lastly, because this exchange was not heavily burdened with bureaucratic red tape, the Soviet and American agricultural delegates were able to learn about each other’s cultures in an intimate setting. Perhaps if these grassroot agricultural diplomacy efforts had continued past 1955, the United States and the Soviet Union would have been able to maintain friendlier relations. These three factors, and the correspondence of the tour with J.D. Park’s ideas of a balanced exchange, are responsible for the success of the 1955 exchange. Tom Whitney summed it up perfectly in an excerpt from his article: “When future historians look back at the year 1955 they will possibly describe it as a year in which the United States and the Soviet Union experimented at working out a way of living with each other in the atomic world.”
Secondary Books and Articles:
Brown, Peggy Ann. “Diplomatic Farmers: Iowans and the 1955 Agricultural Delegation to the Soviet Union.” State Historical Society of Iowa. Vol. 72, No. 1. Winter 2013. 31-62.
Parks, J.D. Culture, Conflict, and Coexistence: American-Soviet Cultural Relations, 1917-1958.Jefferson, NC. McFarland. 1983.
Richmond, Yale. U.S.-Soviet Cultural Exchanges, 1958-1986: Who Wins? Boulder, CO. Westview Press. 1987.
Salisbury, Harrison E. American in Russia. New York: Harpers and Brothers Publishing Company. 1955.
“12 Soviet Farm Experts to Open 36-Day Tour of U.S. on July 15.” Special to The New York Times. June 29, 1955. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“American Farm Experts to Visit Giant Power Plant.” The Mount Pleasant News. July 21 1955. Newspapers.com.
“Bountiful ‘Lunch’ for the Russians.” Council Bluffs Nonpareil. July 19, 1955. Newspapers.com.
“Iowans Meet Soviet Hosts on Farm Tour.” Carrol Daily Times. July 16, 1955. Newspapers.com.
“Kazakh Official Ousted: Agriculture Minister in Soviet Republic is Replaced.” The New York Times. April 22, 1954. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“Lag in Agriculture Assailed in Soviet.” Special to The New York Times. May 13 1954. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“Russians Take Scholarly Look at Iowa State.” The Mount Pleasant News. July 21, 1955. Newspapers.com.
Salisbury, Harrison E. “5,000 in Iowa Cheer Soviet Farm Group.” The New York Times. July 18, 1955. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Salisbury, Harrison E. “Russians in Iowa.” The New York Times. July 24, 1955. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Schwarz, Harry. “Iowa Visit’s Use to Soviet Scouted: Economists Finds Dakotas More Nearly Approximate Russian Farm Climate.” The New York Times. March 14, 1955. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Soth, Lauren. “This is Iowa: Soviet Agricultural Experts are Coming to Study Midwest Farm Life. Here is What They Will See.” The New York Times. March 20, 1955. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“Soviet Corn Program ‘Amazing’ U.S. Farmers.” Ames Daily Tribune. July 27, 1955. Newspapers.com.
“Soviet Farm Chiefs Visit Slater Family.” Council Bluffs Nonpareil. July 19, 1955. Newspapers.com.
“Soviet Farm Delegation Arrives; All are Officials.” Carrol Daly Times Herald. July 16, 1955, Newspapers.com.
“Soviet Farm Leaders Split Up for Study.” Estherville Daily News. July 22, 1955. Newspapers.com.
“Visitors to Soviet Impressed.” The New York Times. July 19, 1955. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Whitney, Tom. “Farm Folks Thaw Cold War by Twin Grass Roots Tours; Foes Turned People; Both Sides Believed They’ve Benefitted.” The Post-Standard. September 4, 1955. Newspapers.com.