What Antony Blinken could learn from Herbert Hoover

What Antony Blinken could learn from Herbert Hoover
© Getty

As Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenSullivan raised normalizing relations with Israel during meeting with Saudi crown prince: report Democrats call for State to lift ban on embassies discussing same-sex marriage US, Brazil discuss ways to slow migration MORE and the Biden administration face a continued grilling over its botched military withdrawal from Afghanistan, a related policy debate has begun to unfold. 

How much should the United States provide in humanitarian aid to citizens of a regime controlled by the Taliban? An estimated 18 million Afghans are living in a state of crisis, many of them refugees in and outside the nation’s border. 

Blinken announced Monday that the U.S. will provide nearly $64 million in new assistance, to be administered through the United Nations and the World Health Organization. That is on top of $330 million in the fiscal year ending this month, and nearly $4 billion since 2002.


But to complicate matters, on Wednesday, a group of Republican senators unveiled a bill that would direct the State Department to officially list the Taliban as a terrorist organization.

In that light, it’s worth recalling how a century ago an unprecedented humanitarian assistance campaign was designed and negotiated with a newly formed rogue state viewed as inimical to Western interests.

By the summer of 1921, Soviet Russia’s four-year-old Bolshevik government had turned the tide in a civil war with the White opposition forces; in 1919, ill-conceived American, British and French interventions to topple the regime had ended. But under the impact of drought and government mismanagement, the country was in the midst of one of the worst famines in its history.

On July 13, prodded by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the writer Maxim Gorky published an extraordinary 200-word “Appeal for Relief.” Proclaiming that “Gloomy days have come to the country of Tolstoy,” he wrote that “I ask all honest European and American people for prompt aid to the Russian people. Give bread and medicine.”

The U.S. and the Soviets had yet to establish diplomatic relations, but there was a response from Washington in the person of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover

In addition to his Cabinet post, Hoover since 1919 had been the head of the American Relief Administration (ARA), a public-private partnership that had provided the equivalent in 2021 dollars of $3 billion in emergency relief to 23 nations of postwar Europe. The New York Times described him as “the nearest approach to a dictator Europe has had since Napoleon. “

Despite his strong anti-communist outlook, Hoover believed the Russian cause a worthy one for ARA. He advised Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes that “I believe it is a humane obligation upon us to go in if they comply with the requirements set out.” 

As Benjamin Weissman has documented, Hoover’s requirements were strict: He demanded that the Soviets permit 180 ARA coordinators to move freely about the country, allow them to recruit local staff and decide which regions were to receive relief. The regime also needed to formally certify that it had requested the aid program as a willing supplicant.  

Most importantly, as he wrote to Gorky, "To the whole American people, the absolute sine qua non of any assistance must be the immediate release of the Americans now held prisoners in Russia.” He subsequently expanded that requirement to insist that any Americans living in Soviet territory be permitted to leave. In return, Hoover pledged that ARA personnel would refrain from any political activity their hosts might consider “counterrevolutionary.”

The Soviets quickly released seven Americans who had been incarcerated. Over 10 days in August, Hoover and Lenin negotiated the precise terms of the ARA mission through their proxies in Riga, Latvia. Talks remained deadlocked until Hoover compromised on two points: The Soviets would have limited oversight of ARA personnel and some say in the locales in which aid was provided. 


Hoover had concluded that too firm a stand might represent a denial of Soviet sovereignty Lenin could not accept. He rationalized his decision by noting he was committed “simply to save the lives of children.” The formal agreement was signed to much fanfare on Aug. 21.

Over the next 22 months, the program rolled out with no serious conflicts between the parties. The ARA fed an estimated 10 million people in 25 provinces in Russia and Ukraine, in Moscow and in Petrograd. Twenty million had been impacted by the famine, and five million perished. Hoover’s actions clearly prevented a calamity from becoming a catastrophe.

In 1923, the Soviets published an official thanks for the relief program, declaring that the USSR “will never forget the help rendered to them through the ARA, seeing it as a guarantee of the future friendship of the two nations.” But those future steps toward friendship did not materialize. 

President Warren Harding responded to Moscow’s thank you by declaring “International good faith forbids any sort of sanction of the Bolshevist policy … If there are no property rights, there is little, if any, foundation for national rights.” His statement echoed Woodrow Wilson’s original denial of recognition in 1918, based on the regime’s repudiation of Tsarist debts to America, and its confiscation of U.S.-owned property. 

Trade resumed between America and Russia in the 1920s, but not until 1933 would the Roosevelt administration recognize the Soviet regime. The U.S. was the last major power to do so. Ironically, hopes for even closer commercial relations as an antidote to the Depression played a role in the decision.

The Biden administration must weigh the needs of a destitute Afghan population with demands to curb the influence of a Taliban regime that defeated U.S. allies in a civil war. It’s a balancing act that echoes what Hoover faced in 1921 Russia. No one wants to see food and medicine employed as weapons. But Taliban pledges to curtail terrorist havens must be credible, and the safe passage of Americans and Afghans who worked for the Americans a “sine qua non.”

Maintaining aid to Afghanistan will require give and take on both sides. As Hoover reluctantly conceded in the Riga talks, compromises are sometimes necessary “simply to save the lives of children.” It will be important to see what, if any, compromises might emerge in the current crisis. 

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at the Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.