1955 U.S. Agricultural Delegation to the Soviet Union

Prompted by a Des Moines Register editorial, this venture provides insights into how Americans and the press viewed the Soviet Union during this early Cold War period.  I have examined the delegation from three perspectives:

  • U.S. press coverage (with an emphasis on the American correspondents, including Irving R. Levine, who accompanied the delegation).   I will be adding my paper from the March 13, 2010 AJHA-AEJMC History Division Joint Journalism Historians Conference: "Vodka, Women, and 'Home on the Range': Reporting on the 1955 American Agricultural Delegation to the Soviet Union" soon

  • the delegates' personal experiences (as detailed in their articles, lectures, and journal

  • the U.S. government response (including State Department and CIA Reports).

By looking at the American delegation from these three perspectives, my goal has been to provicce a comprehensive examination of the delegation and provide insights into how these  groups were responding to conditions and events in this early Cold War period.

Introduction

The story begins in January 1955 when Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev praised the U.S. corn-hog economy, a recognition of Soviet efforts to increase the corn crop, fulfill promised livestock goals, and shift wheat production to the New Lands regions.  Khrushchev's speech before the Communist Party Central Committee also demonstrates his desire to secure his position by emphasizing the importance of agriculture in the country's future.

In response to Khrushchev's speech, Lauren Soth of the Des Moines Register penned a provocative proposal in a February 10, 1955 editorial (awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1956).  Promising to hide none of Iowa's "secrets," he invited Russians to tour Iowa for "the lowdown on raising high quality cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens."  In turn, Iowa farm experts could visit the Soviet Union and share their know-how.

Soth was convinced agricultural exchanges could be beneficial and might even persuade Soviets of the advantages of improving living standards over amassing armaments.  To Soth's surpise, Khrushchev was interested.  So were dozens of Americans, who wrote to Soth, the State Department, and elected officials asking to be part of the delegation.

The Delegation

The State Department was less enthusiastic but ultimately agreed to an exchange, appointing an independent committee to select the unofficial American delegates.  The Justice Department allowed the Soviets to send an official delegation of government agricultural specialists, thus foregoing the fingerprinting required under the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act of all unofficial visitors from Communist countries.

From July 14 to August 23 the Americans toured state and collective farms throughout the Soviet Union, including Siberia and the New Lands area.  They visited factories, research institutions, and hydroelectric stations. 

Their fact finding mission was often overshadowed by lengthy meals with numerous toasts, welcoming ceremonies complete with bouquets and oversized loaves of bread, and restrictions on what they could actually see.  At the tour's conclusion, the delegates presented the Soviet Agricultural Ministry with specific recommendations based on their observations.

In Review

The media gave considerable attention to the Americans and to the Russian delegation that was concurrently visiting the U.S.  Several dozen reporters followed the Russians, while only six reporters covered the American delegation, the dearth reflecting Joseph Stalin's legacy of refusing entrance to Western journalists.

My approach complements studies that have examined Cold War journalism and the Soviet Union from the perspective of the USIA and propaganda, television news, and the Soviet press, for example.  Media studies have focused primarily on the late Stalin (1945-1953) or Sputnik and glasnost periods (1957 and forward).  Likewise, reports on U.S.-Soviet exchanges (such as Yale Richmond's Cultural Exchange & the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain, 2003), detail activities since the January 1958 U.S.-Soviet Union cultural exchange agreement.

Nevertheless, historians such as J.D. Parks (Conflict and Coexistence. American-Soviet Cultural Relations, 1917-1958, 1983) agree that 1955 was "pivotal in American-Soviet cultural relations" and view the agricultural exchanges as an early step in reopening dialog between the two countries.  The delegation occurred at the same time as the 1955 Geneva Conference attended by President Eisenhower and the leaders of Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.  Cultural exchanges were on their agenda, ranked only behind disarmament and German unification in importance.

The 1955 American agricultural delegation to the Soviet Union was one of the earliest efforts by Americans to reach out to the Soviets during the Cold War.  Occurring only a year after the McCarthy hearings, the events provide insights into how one group's curiosity, interests, and expertise bridged the divide between the United States and the Soviet Union.

For more information, see my article in the Winter 2013, Annals of Iowa, "Diplomatic Farmers: Iowans and the 1955 Agricultural Delegation to the Soviet Union."

Contact Peggy Ann Brown, Ph.D., Your Washington, D.C. Researcher, at peggyannbrown AT verizon DOT net