Patriots, Not Patsies
Following the outrageous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, officials in the American government debated the most effective means of convincing the Communist behemoth to repent and go home. Widespread belief within the administration of President Jimmy Carter was that the right combination of punishments would persuade the Soviets to turn tail. Among the motivators under consideration was an embargo on U.S. grain, for which the Russians had a huge appetite. According to Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, farm state representatives—Vice President Walter Mondale and Ag Secretary Bob Bergland included—were wary of this sanction.
President Carter—a farmer (though not his first career choice)—was more sanguine that withholding grain would be an economic gut punch that the Kremlin would reel from. While he was entering a re-election campaign, he was sanguine about the heartland reaction: “Farmers are patriotic people,” he assured Jordan and the others. Whether this assumption was, in fact, presumption, is difficult to tell. Yes, farmers were—and are—patriotic. They swallowed their anxieties for the most part, and supported the president’s embargo.
Until they didn’t.
Growers did not wane in either national pride or love of country. As they saw it, they were taking one for the team, the coach of which was making bad calls. How did they know? The USSR stayed put in Afghanistan. In spite of the government purchasing millions of tons of wheat to offset the pain of the embargo, the stubborn and growing inflation of that period were driving input costs far above the gains realized from the relief effort. Finally, the Soviets managed to procure grain from third-party actors (some of whom obtained American grain at much lower cost than the American-Soviet contracts specified). Sacrifice is noble only when it has a noble end. None was in sight as the embargo ensued.
Worse, the proscription on grain sales left after-shocks that impacted long after the embargo was lifted by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. In fact, the 1980s saw a foreclosure crisis that brought an end to countless family farms that had lasted for generations prior. Whereas the federal government encouraged farm growth and investment (by borrowing) during the export-flush 1970s, the same government showed no mercy when rural borrowers were caught short on monthly payments as access to global markets constricted.
“Food power,” as it is known, is a dangerous political notion. Agriculture is different from manufacturing and technology and service industries. A farmer can do everything right and still go broke due to weather, disease and environmental regulations. Granted, the United States trades with some pretty rotten governments, some of whom play dirty, e.g. China. Still, if the ineffective and self-defeating corn and wheat embargo of 1980 demonstrates anything, it is that food should not be used as a punitive political cudgel. Other countries and enterprises are all too eager to fill the void we leave. Remember, too, that farming is expensive and open markets are what make agriculture an affordable business.
Yes, farmers are patriotic people. Yet the foundation for American patriotism is political liberty AND economic opportunity. It is a hard thing to maintain the American spirit when that bedrock crumbles.