A Complicated Kindness: The Iowa Famine Relief Movement and the Myth of Midwestern (and American) Isolationism

By Bloodworth, Jeff | The Historian, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

A Complicated Kindness: The Iowa Famine Relief Movement and the Myth of Midwestern (and American) Isolationism


Bloodworth, Jeff, The Historian


IN DECEMBER 1892, America's ambassador to St. Petersburg wrote to an Iowa newsman regarding Russia's ongoing famine. Claiming peasant diets consisted of bread made from "rye and straw, rye and bark, or even entirely of bark," the ambassador encouraged Iowans to send aid. (1) Shocked that Russians were eating "rye-bark bread," the journalist fired a telegram to the Red Cross's Clara Barton. The newsman's call for famine relief, unfortunately, fell upon deaf ears. Maintaining "[t]here is always more or less suffering ... in Russia," Barton instead preferred to feed "our own poor." (2) Rather than launch a foreign-relief effort, Barton was busy securing a significant donation of land from Dr. John Gardner. Intended to serve as a "Red Cross Sanctuary," Gardner wanted his 782-acre parcel in Indiana to provide the "one piece of neutral ground on the Western Hemisphere ... [and] a perpetual sanctuary against invading armies." (3)

Equidistant from Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago, the "sanctuary" was situated thousands of miles from Europe's Old-World rivalries, internecine wars, and concomitant famines. (4) Barton's disregard for famine-stricken Russians and Gardner's "thank offering to humanity" might appear to reflect nineteenth-century Midwestern isolationism. Indeed, although "isolationism" generally remains what Washington Post editor Felix Morley once called "something highly reprehensible that nobody attempts to define," historians, nonetheless, continually draw a specious and poorly buttressed connection between it and the Midwest. (5)

Giving an academic imprimatur to the stereotype are studies on key Midwestern Congressmen who contested America's post-World-War-Two foreign policy. From Wisconsin's Philip Lafollette and Minnesota's Henrik Shipstead to North Dakota's William Langer, Eugene Burdick, William Lemke, and Gerald Nye, a bipartisan grouping of Midwest Congressmen led the opposition to the Marshall Plan, NATO, and containment. (6) Wayne Cole theorizes that the Midwest's "agrarian radicalism" spawned this isolationist worldview, while Ray Allen Billington and Sam Lubell claim ethno-cultural factors explain the region's antipathy toward involvement in world affairs. (7)

Adding to the "Midwestern isolationism" meme is the tendency of observers to freely ascribe to the region both the best and worst attributes of national life. From politicians extolling the Heartland's "family values" to cultural critics terming the region "the nesting place [for] the benign and the banal," the Midwest regularly serves as a national Rorschach test. (8) The trope of "Midwestern isolationism" is no different. The region might be distinct, but Midwesterners' foreign-policy orientations are understudied and consequently misunderstood. This outcome should hardly surprise. Decades ago, Richard Leopold presciently warned his fellow diplomatic historians, "[by] ignor[ing] the international aspects" of the Midwest, "glib generalizations" would eventually replace well-researched understandings of the region. (9)

In terms of foreign-policy orientation, however, Midwesterners are not exceptional. Far from a hotbed of isolationism, the Midwest often features ah internationalism deeply rooted in the American mission to redeem the world. (10) And thus we find that Barton's refusal to send aid hardly stemmed from isolationism. Indeed, she and the aforementioned Iowa newsman, Benjamin Franklin Tillinghast, had just delivered 32,000 tons of food to Russia in early May 1892. (11) This Iowa-based famine relief effort surely complicates traditional views deeming nineteenth-century America an epoch of isolationism, and the Midwest as the driving force of such a mindset. (12)

At first glance, the 1891-92 "Iowa Russian Famine Relief Commission" agrees with entrenched assumptions regarding US foreign policy: The emergence of a nascent internationalism followed a century of isolationism. Indeed, for many specialists, the 1890s represent a natural point of departure separating America's non-interventionist tradition from the twentieth century's swash-buckling internationalism. …

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