The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia
Harvard University Press, 2010
368 pp., $40.50
The Hungry World
On the other hand, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog quote seems uncannily evangelistic in spirit—not at all unlike a centuries-old Christian confidence (shared, in our own times, by decidedly non-Christian philosophers like Slavoj iek and Alain Badiou) in the revolutionary potential of Bible reading. The Sears catalog, along with the television, was a witness of another way of life. Television sets, placed "in the thatch huts of the world," as Walt Rostow of Kennedy's National Security Council put it, would "defeat both tradition and communism with the spectacle of consumption."
Cullather brilliantly identifies the religious accent to the development race. Peasants viewing test plots of dwarf rice were expected to undergo conversion experiences. Robert McNamara insisted that "irrigation, fertilizer, and peasant education can produce miracles." Cullather comments: "McNamara and other observers used religious terminology to describe such conversions, appropriately perhaps, for development has been described as a 'global faith,' a belief—often in the face of contrary evidence—in the redemptive power of science and economic growth."
The mythology of development has indeed survived over a half century of contrary evidence. In his conclusion, Cullather looks at the amazingly simple translation of Green Revolution logic from the Cold War to the War on Terror. We are still battling for hearts and minds with the weapons of American material culture. The fundamental problem is less a cheery optimism about consumer society than "a search for technical fixes … as a substitute for serious engagement. Political structures attuned to the twenty-four-hour news cycle are impatient with problems that require sacrifices and investments over an indefinite but undoubtedly long term." We might easily add American churches' unwillingness to hear missionary experiences of unresolvable problems and unending suffering.
Nick Cullather thus leaves us with an urgently moral plea for the American people to grow muscles of stamina. This is no anti-American message. Cullather clearly finds great potential in the American can-do spirit. Some problems can indeed be solved. But some problems can only be solved slowly and perhaps even painfully, if at all.
Paul Grant is pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Wisconsin.
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