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Raging Rivers and Propaganda Weevils: Transnational Disaster Relief, Cold War Politics, and the 1954 Danube and Elbe Floods (Diplomatic History, 2016).

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This article analyzes disaster relief efforts for the 1954 Danube and Elbe River floods. Carried out jointly by the U.S. government and the Geneva-based League of Red Cross Societies, this food aid program affected Western and Eastern Europe, and
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   j u l i a f. i r w i n Raging Rivers and Propaganda Weevils: TransnationalDisaster Relief, Cold War Politics, and the  1954 Danube and Elbe Floods InJuly  1954 , a periodof unusuallyheavyrainfall inEurope caused severe floodingof the Danube River, the Elbe River, and their tributaries, affecting an estimatedonemillionpeopleinAustria,Czechoslovakia,EastandWestGermany,Hungary,Romania, and Yugoslavia. This extreme hydrologic event thus linked people onboth sides of the Iron Curtain as victims of a transnational catastrophe. The hu-manitarian response to the Danube and Elbe floods, likewise, was transnational inits scope and execution, drawing U.S.-aligned, Soviet-aligned, and neutral par-ties—bothgovernmentalandnon-state—intoacomplexnetworkofdisasterrelief.Shortly after the floods occurred, the U.S. government offered millions of dollars’ worth of surplus food to the affected countries under the purview of brand newforeign aid legislation: Public Law (PL)  480 , or the Agricultural Trade andDevelopment Act. Much to the surprise of the Eisenhower Administration andthe U.S. State Department, six European countries—including several within theSoviet Bloc—promptly accepted the assistance. The U.S. government would sub-sequentlyfulfillitspledgetoprovidefoodtoEurope,yetitwouldnotcarryouttherelief program on its own. In a calculated effort to demonstrate the neutral andapolitical character of the undertaking, U.S. officials invited the League of RedCross Societies (LRCS), the arm of the International Red Cross Movement dedi-cated to peacetime disaster assistance, to administer the relief program in Europeon the United States’ behalf. Plagued from the beginning by delays and contro- versies, the joint U.S.-LRCS flood relief effort ultimately accomplished its goal of deliveringfoodtoroughlyamillion DanubeandElbeflood victims.Bythetimeit drewtoacloseinlateMarch 1955 ,however,ithadbecomeabattlegroundofearly Cold War politics and a contest over the meaning and practice of internationaldisaster aid. The  1954 - 1955  Danube and Elbe flood relief program constituted a landmark event in the histories of transnational disaster assistance and Cold War interna-tional relations. For the League of Red Cross Societies, it represented the secondlargest aid program the organization had coordinated since World War II andarguably the most extensive relief operation for a natural disaster that the LRCS DiplomaticHistory,  Vol. 40 ,No. 5 ( 2016 ). !  TheAuthor 2015 .PublishedbyOxfordUniversity Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved.For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. doi: 10 . 1093  /dh/dhv  053  Advance Access publication on October  8 ,  2015 893   b  y J   ul  i   a I  r  wi  n on O c  t   o b  e r  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   d h  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   hadcoordinatedinitsentire 35 -yearhistory. 1 FortheU.S.government,itmarkedthe first time that Soviet Bloc countries accepted U.S. humanitarian assistancesince Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov rejected Marshall Plan aid in 1947 . It was also the first offer of surplus commodities under PL- 480 , a law that is now regarded as a watershed in the history of U.S. foreign assistance. 2 For themillions of peopleaffectedbythefloodsandforthethousandswho participated inthe ensuing relief effort, this catastrophe and its aftermath ought to be remem-beredasacriticalmomentinpostwarEuropeansocial,political,andhumanitarianhistory. And yet, sandwiched between the East German Uprising of   1953  and theHungarian Revolution of   1956 , and occurring in the wake of the  1954  GenevaConference,thefloodcrisisofJuly  1954 andthereliefeffortsthattranspiredinthefollowing nine months have been overlooked, overshadowed by these more famil-iar events.Perhapsmostsignificantly,thisaidoperationdemonstratesthatforeignpoliciesdesignedtopromoteU.S.nationalinterestscouldsimultaneouslyfurtherthemoreuniversalobjectivesofinternationalorganizations.Itshows,moreover,thateveninan era of heightened geopolitical tensions and rivalries, U.S. actions sometimesservedtheconcurrentbutdiverseinterestsofallied,SovietBloc,andneutralstates.Forthesereasons,theDanubeandElbefloodreliefprogramcompelsustorethink ourunderstandingsofmid- 1950 sColdWarconflictandU.S.-Europeanrelations. This article recovers the history of this fascinating but forgotten moment of U.S. and transnational humanitarian assistance. In the process, it intervenes inseveral broader historiographical conversations. First, as it traces the untoldstory of the first offer of PL- 480  disaster aid, this article analyzes the politicaland strategic importance of natural disaster relief to early Cold War era U.S.foreign relations. Building on a rich body of scholarship on the history of U.S.foreignassistance,thisessayalsoaimstomovethefieldinnewdirections.Todate,theliteratureonthissubjecthasfocusedprincipallyononeoftwoareas:long-termfood and development assistance or humanitarian aid for the victims of war orpolitical unrest. 3  This essay, by contrast, considers the diplomatic and strategic 1 . Press Communique´  1955 - 31 , League of Red Cross Societies (hereafter LRCS), April  1 , 1955 , folder “General  3 ,” box A  0967 , Dossiers de M. Dunning—Danube (hereafter DMDD), Archives of the League of Red Cross Societies / International Federation of Red Cross and RedCrescent Societies, Geneva, Switzerland (hereafter LRCS/IFRC). 2 . Kristin Ahlbergh,  Transplanting the Great Society: Lyndon Johnson and Food for Peace (Columbia, MO,  2009 ), ch.  1 . 3 . MichaelHogan, TheMarshallPlan:America, Britain,andtheReconstructionofWesternEurope, 1947 - 1952  (Cambridge,  1989 ); Michael Latham,  Modernization as Ideology: American Social Scienceand ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era  (Chapel Hill, NC,  2000 ); David Engerman et al., eds., Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War   (Amherst, MA,  2003 ); DavidEkbladh, TheGreatAmericanMission:ModernizationandtheConstructionofanAmericanWorldOrder  (Princeton, NJ,  2009 ); Michael Adas,  Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission  (Cambridge, MA,  2009 ); Ahlbergh,  Transplanting the Great Society ; Nick Cullather,  The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia  (Cambridge, MA,  2010 ); Daniel Immerwahr,  Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of CommunityDevelopment   (Cambridge, MA,  2015 ). 894  : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y   b  y J   ul  i   a I  r  wi  n on O c  t   o b  e r  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   d h  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   implications of the U.S. responses to a sudden catastrophe caused by naturalforces—a category of humanitarian emergency defined by a particular set of con-straints, requirements, and cultural assumptions. 4  As such, it forms part of a dis-tinct but growing subfield on the history of U.S. foreign disaster assistance. Moregenerally, it contributes to the burgeoning literature on U.S. and global disasterstudies. 5 Second, as a study of the LRCS and the Red Cross movement more broadly,this article adds to the historical scholarship on international and transnationalhumanitarianism. Like the history ofU.S. foreign assistance, work in thisfield hastended to focus on global responses to war, political unrest, or more enduringcrises, and far less on humanitarian relief following sudden natural disasters. 6  Moreover, the LRCS, despite being one of the world’s foremost disaster relief  4 . Craig Calhoun, “The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)Order,”and Adi Ophir, “The Politics of Catastrophization: Emergency and Exception,” in  ContemporaryStates of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions  , eds. Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (Brooklyn, NY,  2010 ),  29 - 88 ; James Fearon, “The Rise of Emergency Relief  Aid,” in  Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics,  eds. Michael Barnett and ThomasWeiss (Ithaca, NY,  2008 ),  49 - 72 . 5 . For U.S. foreign disaster assistance, see William Tilchin, “Theodore Roosevelt, Anglo-American Relations, and the Jamaica Incident of   1907 ,”  Diplomatic History  19 , no.  3 ( 1995 ):  385 - 406 ; A. Cooper Drury, Richard Stuart Olson, and Douglas Van Belle, “ThePolitics of Humanitarian Aid: U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance,  1964 - 1995 ,”  The Journal of  Politics   67 , no.  2  ( 2005 ):  454 - 73 ; Alexander Poster, “A Hierarchy of Survival: The United Statesand the Negotiation of International Disaster Relief,  1981 - 1989 ,” (Ph.D. diss., The Ohio StateUniversity, 2010 ).ForU.S.domesticdisasterhistory,seeStevenBiel,ed.,  American Disasters  (New York,  2001 ); Kevin Rozario,  The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America (Chicago, IL,  2007 ); Ted Steinberg,  Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster   (New York,  2008 ); Scott Knowles,  The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America  (Philadelphia,PA,  2011 ); Michele Landis Dauber,  The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State  (Chicago, IL,  2012 ). For global disaster studies, see Louis Pe´rez,  Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba  (Chapel Hill, NC,  2000 ); Matthew Mulcahy,  Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean,  1624 - 1783  (Baltimore, MD,  2008 ); Mark Healy,  The Ruins of the New Argentina: Peronism and the Remaking of San Juanafterthe 1944  Earthquake (Durham,NC, 2011 ); J.CharlesSchencking, TheGreatKantoEarthquakeand the Chimeraof NationalReconstructioninJapan (NewYork, 2013 );DavidPietz, TheYellow River:The Problem of Water in Modern China  (Cambridge, MA,  2015 ); Stuart Schwartz,  Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina  (Princeton, NJ,  2015 ). 6 . Amy Staples,  The Birth of Development: How the World Bank, Food and Agricultural Organization, and World Health Organization Have Changed the World,  1945 - 1965  (Kent, OH, 2006 ); Gary Bass,  Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention  (New York,  2008 );Erez Manela, “A Pox on Your Narrative: Writing Disease Control into Cold War History,” Diplomatic History  34 , no.  2  ( 2010 ):  299 – 323 ; Michael Barnett,  Empire of Humanity: A History of   Humanitarianism  (Ithaca, NY,  2011 ); Gerard Daniel Cohen,  In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order   (New York,  2013 ); Davide Rodogno,  Against Massacre: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire,  1815 - 1914  (Princeton, NJ,  2011 ); Bruno Cabanes,  The Great War and the Origins of Modern Humanitarianism  (Cambridge,  2014 ); Keith David Watenpaugh, BreadfromStones:TheMiddleEastandtheMakingofModernHumanitarianism (Berkeley,CA, 2015 ).Raging Rivers and Propaganda Weevils :  895   b  y J   ul  i   a I  r  wi  n on O c  t   o b  e r  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   d h  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   organizations for most of the  20 th century, has been the subject of surprisingly little historical scholarship. 7  This essay both recognizes and analyzes the crucialrole that the LRCS played in executing the on-the-ground phase of the Danubeand Elbe flood relief program. It also calls attention to the staff and volunteers of the many different national Red Cross societies that participated in the assistanceeffort. In examining these constitutive elements, this article thus shows the work-ings of the mid- 20 th century’s foremost transnational disaster relief network  . Paying close attention to the interactions between the LRCS and the UnitedStates, on the one hand, and the LRCS and European aid recipients on theother, it also highlights the tensions and contradictions between national andtransnational humanitarian objectives and interests. Third and finally, this essay forms part of a recent push to better integrateenvironmentalhistoryandU.S.internationalhistory. 8  Asthefloodsof  1954 starkly revealed, rivers are inherently transnational hydrological features, which can crossnational borders and even flow under Iron Curtains. Likewise, another centralcharacter that will appear in this story—the grain weevil—had no qualms about ignoringthenation-state.Bytakingrainclouds,ragingrivers,andinfestinginsectsseriously, by treating them alongside U.S. diplomats and LRCS relief workers asleadingactorsinthisstory,thisessayrepresentsamodestattempttoemphasizethecentrality of the natural world to the history of international relations.  AND RAIN FELL ON THE EARTH In early July   1954 , rain began to fall across central Europe. A cold air front hadcollided with warm, wet air over the Alps, producing precipitation over much of Central and Eastern Europe. What began as a seemingly innocuous meteoro-logical phenomenon, however, soon turned cataclysmic. The downpour simply did notlet up;itcontinued, unrelenting,for overtwo weeks.Asthe warm summerrainsbeganmeltingtheAlpinesnowpack,largevolumesofwatergusheddownthemountains and into the streams and rivulets that fed into the Danube River. Theresult was a tremendous flood. On July   9 , the Danube overflowed its banks in 7 . MosthistorianshavefocusedontheInternationalCommitteeoftheRedCross(ICRC),theRed Cross branch devoted to war-related humanitarianism. The standard is David Forsythe,  The Humanitarians:TheInternationalCommitteeoftheRedCross  (Cambridge, 2005 ).Fortheearlyhistory of the LRCS, see JohnHutchison, Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross  (Boulder,CO,  1996 ),  279 - 345 ; John Hutchinson, “Disasters and the International Order: Earthquakes,Humanitarians, and the Ciraolo Project,”  The International History Review  22 , no.  1  ( 2000 ): 1 - 36 ; John Hutchinson, “Disasters and the International Order II: The International Relief Union,”  The International History Review  23 , no.  3  ( 2001 ):  253 - 98 . 8 . Kurk Dorsey, “Bernath Lecture: Dealing with the Dinosaur (and its swamp): Putting theEnvironment in Diplomatic History,”  Diplomatic History  29 , no.  4  ( 2005 ):  573 - 87 ; Jacob DarwinHamblin,  Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism  (New York,  2013 );Kurkpatrick Dorsey,  Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas   (Seattle, WA, 2013 ); Erika Marie Bsumek, David Kinkela, and Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds.,  Nation-States and the Global Environment   (New York,  2013 ); J. R. McNeill and Corinna Unger, eds.,  Environmental  Histories of the Cold War   (Cambridge,  2013 ). 896  : d i p l o m a t i c h i s t o r y   b  y J   ul  i   a I  r  wi  n on O c  t   o b  e r  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   d h  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om    Austria and southern Germany. By the time the flood crested in these areas, fourdays later, it had inundated hundreds of villages and thousands of square miles of cultivated farmland, causing an estimated $ 1  billion in damage and leaving  70 , 000 people homeless. The destruction, though, was far from complete. The Danubeflood next made its way east, coursing into Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia,andRomaniaandwreakingsignificanthavocinthesecountriesaswell.Meanwhile,in East Germany, the incessant rainfall caused flash flooding along the Elbe andseveral smaller rivers. Soon, these waterways also breached their banks, spreadingout overhundreds of square miles of farmland. In late July, the rains finallyceasedand the Danube and Elbe receded. Although the floods had claimed very fewhuman lives by this point—no more than a few dozen by most estimates—they had affected an estimated one million people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. 9  This catastrophe may have occurred in Europe, but it immediately became aU.S. foreign policy concern. At the time of the disaster, the United States hadsignificant interests in each of the seven flooded countries. The U.S. military,overseen by civilian High Commissioners, still occupied Austria, West Germany (FRG), and the American Zone of Berlin. East Germany (GDR), Czechoslovakia,Hungary, and Romania, by contrast, lay firmly within the Soviet sphere of influ-ence. Although Josef Stalin’s death the previous year had raised some hope of liberalizing relations, U.S. policymakers remained deeply concerned about Soviet intentions in Eastern Europe and refused diplomatic recognition to theGDR. Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito, had since  1948  navigated a path of independent socialism, distancing itself from the Soviet Union and pursuingmore open relations with the West; nevertheless, U.S. policymakers remained wary of Tito’s intentions. Further affecting U.S. interests, the floods occurredduring the final eleven days of the Geneva Conference—a meeting officially held to discuss Korea and Indochina but which had, for two months, served asan ideological sparring ground for the United States and Soviet Union.InthiscomplexColdWar milieu,the unfoldingdisaster capturedtheattentionof U.S. diplomatic and military personnel alike. U.S. ambassadors in Vienna,Prague, Budapest, and other flooded cities sent urgent communique´s to theState Department, while from Berlin, the Assistant U.S. High Commissionerfor Germany reported on conditions in the Soviet Zone. Their messages assessednot only the catastrophe’s material damages but also its potential strategic and 9 . “DanubeBattersat  100  Villages,”  NewYorkTimes  (hereafter  NYT  ),July  10 , 1954 ,ProQuest Historical Newspapers (hereafter PQHN), http://search.proquest.com/docview/ 113098861 ;“New Flood Havoc Hits Prague Area,”  NYT,  July   11 ,  1954 , PQHN, http://search.proquest.com/docview/ 112862136 ; “Homeless Return as Danube Falls,”  NYT  , July   12 ,  1954 , http://search.proquest.com/docview/ 113077165 ; “Hungarians Flee Flood,”  NYT  , July   17 ,  1954 ,PQHN, http://search.proquest.com/docview/ 112984177 ; “Swollen Danube Hits Yugoslavia,”  NYT  , July   24 ,  1954 , PQHN, http://search.proquest.com/docview/ 112993452  (all accessedOctober  17 ,  2014 ).Raging Rivers and Propaganda Weevils :  897   b  y J   ul  i   a I  r  wi  n on O c  t   o b  e r  6  ,2  0 1  6 h  t   t   p :  /   /   d h  . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om 
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