In 1898, President McKinley called for war with Spain to liberate Cuba from the “barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries now existing there”—offering a humanitarian justification that has underpinned other interventions, from Haiti in 1915 to Libya in 2011. But in 1994, President Clinton took a stance against intervening in Rwanda, even as the scale of the humanitarian crisis there became clear. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, BackStory takes on the history of humanitarian intervention.
Where does the idea of a humanitarian obligation originate? When and why has the US felt justified to intervene in other nations’ affairs? And how have these interventions shaped Americans’ attitudes toward the world — and the world’s attitudes toward us? These are the questions that Brian, Ed, and Peter explore in this episode, looking to history to help us make sense of America’s international role.
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This is a transcript of an earlier broadcast of this episode – there may be some differences in language.
ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. The question of what to do about Syria has dominated headlines for weeks. And a lot of the debate revolves around this question– when is it OK to use military force to achieve a humanitarian goal? This hour, we’re looking at some of the answers that previous generations of Americans have come up with. We’ll hear one scholar’s account of the way that humanitarianism was invoked to drive Indians off their ancestral lands.
DANIEL FELLER: Jackson’s argument is we have a humanitarian crisis here. We are trying to save the remaining Indian nations.
ED: We’ll also hear from one American who stepped up to intervene in a foreign conflict after his government chose not to.
DAVID KOREN: I was looking out of the right side of the plane, and I said, watch for the bombs, watch for the bombs. And sure enough, there were two great bursts.
ED: A history of humanitarian intervention, today on BackStory.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.
ED: Hello, Brian.
BRIAN: And we’re coming to you at the end of a week that, for a awhile, looked like it could end in military action– a US strike on Syria.
ED: What triggered the current crisis, of course, was a chemical weapons attack on civilians in a rebel area of Syria, allegedly perpetrated by the government itself. And central to the American debate has been this question– can United States justify intervening in another nation’s civil war because of the way that war has been conducted?
PETER: As it so often does, the debate over future moves has in many cases revolved around past humanitarian crises– in places like Kosovo and Rwanda and Kurdish Iraq. Some have even invoked World War II. And so today on the show, we’re going to spend some time with that history, and we’re going to push the clock back a lot further. How have past generations of Americans contended with this tricky issue of what’s now known as humanitarian intervention? We’ll consider the case of the Biafran separatists, the Armenian massacres, and the mass removal of native peoples right here in the United States all the way back in 1830s.
ED: We’ll begin in the middle of the 19th century when Europe was swept up in a wave of revolt. From Denmark to Italy, nationalists rose up against empires. Liberal reformers called for democracy. But of all the insurrections, it was the struggle of Hungarians that most captured the imagination of Americans. And that was chiefly the doing of one charismatic revolutionary.
PETER: The Hungarian revolt against the Hapsburg-ruled Austrian Empire, like other revolutions, began in 1848. A gifted orator named Louis Kossuth emerged as the leader of the new Hungarian government and its military forces. But against the might of the empire and its allies, the Hungarian insurrection had fallen apart in about two years.
ED: As leader of the rebellion, Kossuth feared for his life, so he fled his home country first to the Ottoman Empire, and then to the United Kingdom. But even in exile, Kossuth dreamed of an independent Hungary, and so he turned his attention to the United States. There, Kossuth figured, he would surely find the support he needed to revamp his uprising.
PETER: Timothy Roberts is a historian who has written about Kossuth’s visit to the US. He told me that Americans were already well aware of the Hungarian’s exploits, having read about them in the pages of their newspapers. But when Kossuth actually arrived in New York in 1851, Roberts says people were enthralled by what they saw.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: He was a very handsome man, apparently. There’s images of him. He was a charmer. Men were known to have broken out in tears upon hearing him speak. I’m sure the women swooned. He had a beard. Coincidental or not, a lot of Americans started growing the whiskerandos in reminiscent of Kossuth in the 1850s. Beards became much more fashionable.
PETER: Something like Che Guevara, this romantic revolutionary.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: I think that’s a great comparison. It was the Romantic Age, and Kossuth, I think, was a romantic kind of revolutionary. This was an era in which people believed that individual men could achieve great things. Thomas Carlyle, the British writer, talked about great men in history, and Kossuth fit that bill very nicely. He claimed to have learned English by reading the Bible and Shakespeare in prison. Very romantic stuff.
PETER: So Tim, what did Kossuth hope to do in the US? What was the point of this trip? He was seeking more than asylum. We wanted to rekindle the revolution, didn’t he?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: He did. Americans weren’t sure what he wanted. It became clear when he arrived, as he was intent to raise financial support. But beyond that, Kossuth wanted America to intervene. He believed that he could make the case to America that was its mission, if you will, responsibility to help another beleaguered people achieve independence as the Americans had achieved their own independence in the 18th century.
PETER: Tell us a little bit about the tour. There must’ve been– oh, what would you estimate, more than a million people turned out to see him across the country? Or certainly, in the high hundreds of thousands?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yes. Apparently, one of every three inhabitants of New York City was apparently on the streets to welcome him and give them a ticker tape parade. Women and children cut parts of his beard off, and he had to be defended by the Lafayette Guards–
PETER: [LAUGHTER] I love it.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: –from being physically trampled. He makes his way to New England, and there goes to Concord Bridge, is feted there. Emerson gives a speech welcoming Kossuth. And then he goes to the rest of the country.
He makes his way west, meets his strongest appeal in the old Northwest– Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, the home of new immigrants from Europe. The Germans, the Swedes, Eastern Europeans all welcome him under the most bellicose and insistent that America act on behalf of the Hungarians. The Ohio legislature will officially offer him weapons from the Ohio state arsenal, with the caveat that they simply be returned in good order upon the achievement of Hungarian liberty.
PETER: Right. What a dream. That’s great.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah. So there are these caches of weapons that go over. A lot of these didn’t really work. They’re kind of old relics from the War of 1812.
He makes his way to Cincinnati, and then launches perhaps into the hardest challenge of all, which is to the Deep South. He did not flinch. He makes his way through the cotton states. There, perhaps not surprisingly, because of all of his talk about liberal reform and democracy, white Southerners are very skeptical. The crowds dwindle. He really runs into anxiety for him to push on. And he’s probably most disappointed there.
PETER: So in some ways, Tim, this was the first great popular test in a democracy of the mass appeal of foreign intervention. And on the face of it, even if there was lack of enthusiasm in the South, Kossuth did an amazing job. He got a strong response. He was a charismatic figure. Why didn’t that translate into intervention?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah, Kossuth– I think, it’s the first time that Americans really seriously consider intervening in Europe. Washington had warned against entangling alliances, but Americans are feeling their muscles, just still kind of basking in the glow of the military victory over Mexico, the apparent fulfillment of manifest destiny. I think it’s important to think about Kossuth in ways that he reveals these two metaphors that Americans in their history have talked about.
One is America as an exceptional nation, a nation with what we like to think of as a kind of unusual ability to wield power gracefully. And we intervene, but it’s because other people would like us to, and we’re doing it on their behalf and not ours. The other metaphor that Americans stick to, emerging with John Winthrop and the Puritans, is this idea of America as an example.
A city on a hill, i.e., a place that other people look to emulate, but that does not come down off, if you will, the mountain, and does not meddle in other people’s affairs. And these two kind of images of America clash at some level. And I think this is what really got Kossuth– the idea that America should be an example to Europe, to the beleaguered Europeans trumped in the mid 19th century, the idea that America should use its exceptional ability to transform other places, especially using force.
PETER: Right. But as you suggested, Tim, there was a lot of local support on the local level, of state and municipal governments even. When Kossuth does get to Washington, and he gets to meet the president and the influential senator Henry Clay. What happens? So he must have expected that this would be the big payoff.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Well, he is. He is feted left and right. I mean, he’s fed well. He lives the high life. He is officially invited to address Congress.
He has an audience with, at this point, President Fillmore. But yeah, the key interview is with Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, really, almost on his deathbed. But if Clay endorses Kossuth– he still has great influence– it will really make a difference. Clay is a national figure of great importance at the time. But Kossuth speaks with Clay, and Clay kind of rasps, if America intervenes in Hungary, what does that do to the American example? How does it serve the rest of the world for the light of America to go out, i.e., it’s just too much of a risk for us to come to bat for the Hungarians at this point.
PETER: But Clay had enthusiastically supported the Greeks, and then–
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: That’s true.
PETER: –had certainly in Latin American Revolutions, he was, you might say, a famous interventionist hawk, or at least that was his attitude. But when he’s dying, he has, well, cold feet?
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: He turns. He really reverses course. And I think it’s a marker not only of his own decline, but also the real tension in American politics and society by this time over the kind of elephant in the room, which is slavery. United States is becoming so coiled, so tightly coiled that all other issues are being pushed to the margins. Clay anticipates a course that there will not be a consensus for Kossuth, and as Northerners grow more enthusiastic, it will push Southerners further away.
Clay, himself as a slave owner, is nervous that Kossuth might come out and denounce the peculiar institution of the United States. And this is something slavery, at this point, is becoming to dominate, not only American domestic issues, but also its foreign relations.
PETER: And sure enough, these sectional concerns did prevent Congress from taking any substantial action. When Senate leaders finally took up the issue about what to do about Hungary, they simply couldn’t get past their own internal divisions. The takeaway for me, Tim– I wonder what you would say– is that you cannot extricate foreign policy from domestic policy.
TIMOTHY ROBERTS: Yeah, I think that’s true, especially when you are talking about some kind of intervention. Americans will, Congress will make resolutions on behalf of beleaguered peoples. And I think we will kind of make these rhetorical salutes without partisan bickering and too much pause over what kind of domestic problems that might trigger. But when you start talking, as you say, about substantive support abroad, taking a hard position, standing up to a power somewhere else in the world, obviously it’s linked to what’s going on in the American economy.
It’s what’s going on in pivotal US states. You think about how the politics of Florida would often drive US policies towards Cuba. So yeah, in a democracy, presidents, I think, would like to separate foreign policy from domestic policy. It never really works out that way. The two really go lockstep.
PETER: Tim Roberts is a historian at the University of Western Illinois. He’s the author of Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism.
BRIAN: We need to take a short break. But don’t go away. When we get back, what humanitarian intervention looked like in an era of Indian removal all the way back in the 1830s.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re trying to better understand the debate over intervention in Syria with a look back at history. We’re going to turn now to a much earlier case of a government turning on a group within its own borders. But in this case, that government was the United States itself.
EDWARD EVERETT: Gentleman who favor the project of Indian removal cannot have viewed it as it is. They think of a march of Indian warriors penetrating with their accustomed vigor, the forest, or the cane break. They think of the youthful Indian hunter going forth exaltingly to the chase. Sir, it is no such thing.
ED: This is a speech Massachusetts Congressman Edward Everett in May of 1830. And the project he’s referring to is a plan by the brand new president, Andrew Jackson, to remove four southeastern Indian tribes– by force, if necessary– hundreds of miles to the west.
EDWARD EVERETT: A community of civilized people of all ages, sexes, and conditions of bodily health are to be dragged hundreds of miles over mountains, rivers, and deserts, where there are no roads, no bridges, no habitations. And this is to be done for $8 a head, and done by contract. Will the contractor stop for the old man to rest? For the sick to get well? For the fainting women and children to revive?
He will not. He cannot afford to. And this process is to be extended to every family in a population of 75,000 souls. This is what we call the removal of the Indians.
ED: From our vantage point, Everett’s words sound prescient, because we know that a few years later, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal plan culminated in what those peoples called the Trail of Tears, during which thousands of Indians died. But when Jackson first proposed the plan, it wasn’t at all clear that removal would even happen. Many Americans, especially in the North, pointed out that the Indians had a legal right to their land. And those opponents of removal made their positions clear in magazine essays, letters to the editor, and petition drives– efforts that nearly stopped Indian removal in its tracks.
BRIAN: But here’s the thing. At the same time that these people were making a humanitarian case against removal, Andrew Jackson was making a humanitarian case for it. Daniel Feller is a Jackson scholar at the University of Tennessee. He read me a bit of President Jackson’s first annual speech to Congress, in December of 1829.
DANIEL FELLER: Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization, which by destroying the resources of the savage, doom him to weakness and decay. The fate of the Mohican, the Narragansett, and the Delaware is fast overtaking the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek. That this fate surely awaits them if they remain within the limits of the States does not admit of a doubt. Humanity and national honor demand that every effort should be made to avert so great a calamity.
And so Jackson’s argument is we have a humanitarian crisis here. We are trying to save the remaining Indian nations from the fate of all those vanished Indian nations.
BRIAN: So because removal was going on in a kind of de facto way, Jackson was arguing that, look, we need to make this an explicit policy. We need to move them west of the Mississippi in order to save their civilization.
DANIEL FELLER: That’s exactly it, to put them in a kind of quarantine to the west. Removal, by one name or another, of course, have been going on ever since Europeans landed on American shores. And that removal, that pushing back of Indians, had always been accompanied by efforts to, in the words that whites used, to civilize and to Christianize the Indians. The argument Jackson made is that those efforts weren’t working, and the legacy of those efforts were a bunch of Indian nations that had vanished from the face of the earth.
And what his opponents say is all the humanitarian motives are really a charade. They’re a facade. What this all comes down to is whites want Indian land, and they’re willing to make up whatever argument they can to try to get it.
BRIAN: Were there any people who truly believed this argument about the humanitarian intent?
DANIEL FELLER: Certainly, there were a lot of people who believed that removing the Indians was for their own best interests. Jackson believed it. Now whether that was his prime motive– because he also believed that the Indians had no right to govern themselves where they were within the limits of a sovereign state, and he also believed that they were savages. Whether that was his prime motive, we can’t say.
But there were a lot of people who believed this. Presidents Adams and Monroe believed it. I would even say that Jackson’s opponents believed it to a degree.
One thing that handicapped Jackson’s opponents is they really didn’t have a better solution. They also believed that it would be for the best interest of the Indians to move in their own time, at their own free will. What bothered them about Jackson’s removal was not necessarily its ultimate aim. It was the means that Jackson was willing to use. It was the virtual tearing up of treaties.
BRIAN: Professor Feller, when you step back and look at this whole episode, what does it tell you about claims to humanitarian objectives when it comes to military intervention?
DANIEL FELLER: Humanitarianism can be very much in the eye in the beholder. From our point of view, the humanitarian solution of acculturating the Indians, assimilating them, teaching them Christianity, enabling them to survive and thrive within white society– it self-strikes us as often as something between misguided and evil. One person’s humanitarianism is another’s cultural genocide. Everyone on every side of this question claimed to have the Indians’ best interest at heart. And the kind of irony– I would say the tragedy here– is that there were certainly people on every side of the debate who sincerely believe that.
BRIAN: Daniel Feller directs the Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee.
BRIAN: In the mid 1890s, US newspapers began to fill with stories about a crisis in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians, a Christian minority group within the empire, were being massacred by Ottoman troops. It had started with a harsh crackdown on a tax revolt, but the violence escalated quickly. Between 1894 in 1896, some 200,000 Armenians were killed.
PETER: American missionaries had lived and worked in the Ottoman Empire for decades, and many encountered the anti-Armenian massacres first hand. Their horrified accounts soon turned up in American newspapers, along with fervent denunciations of the barbaric Turk.
ANN MARIE WILSON: This was presented to American readers, literally through headlines, as a crusade of the crescent against the cross.
BRIAN: This is Ann Marie Wilson, a historian at Leiden University College in the Hague.
ANN MARIE WILSON: Headlines became increasingly sensational. This was a time of yellow journalism, and headlines that would say things like, defense of the home against the harem. These were good ways of getting readers interested and paying attention. And this then, in turn, sparked quite a lot of middle class outrage in the United States.
BRIAN: And was this outrage organized? How did the public respond generally?
ANN MARIE WILSON: Well first, there were mass meetings in American cities, especially in the east coast and in Chicago, where there were large Armenian communities. And resolutions would be passed, and then these would be sent to local, state, and national government to call for some kind of action. And these petitions of not only to American officials, but also to heads of state abroad. So there was a cablegram sent to Queen Victoria, calling on her to redeem the honor of British church and state by doing something to stop the slaughter of helpless Armenians.
BRIAN: Now what these folks were up against, I would imagine, is a very long history of no entangling alliances, if you will.
ANN MARIE WILSON: Yeah, absolutely. There had been a long tradition of avoiding the political intrigues of Europe, that United States was safe in its own domain in the Western hemisphere. The Armenian population was technically overseen by the European powers by the terms of 1870 Treaty of Berlin that closed the Russo-Turkish War. The United States was not a signatory to that treaty.
And on the one hand, some argued that that made the Americans even more morally pure in this case, because they didn’t have a dog in that fight. On the other hand, people said, well, this is really none of our business. And that’s the conversation that took place in Congress after thousands of Americans were signing petitions to government to say, please, we need to do something to step in, to protect so-called Christian civilization.
BRIAN: So tell me about that debate in Congress.
ANN MARIE WILSON: For people in Congress who were skeptical of this whole enterprise, there was language about, should the United States constitute itself as the universal guardian of mankind? Is that the proper role for America?
ANN MARIE WILSON: On the other hand, you had Senators and Congressmen speaking about the American defense of Christian civilization against intolerance, bigotry, cruelty, and crime of every character. So the Democratic Senator from Florida, Wilkinson Call, introduced a joint resolution calling on the United States to join what he termed civilized governments to end the violence in Armenia, to provide the Armenians with a government of their own people either by peaceful means or, if necessary, by force.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee thought this was a bit too strongly worded. A somewhat tamer resolution came to the floor that simply promised President Grover Cleveland that Congress would support any, quote, vigorous action he might take. It passed quite easily in the Senate.
When it went to the House, it ended up passing the House with about 143 to 26. And most of the people in favor of it thought that the resolution didn’t go far enough. They want there to be some kind of a threat of possible military action even.
BRIAN: So the resolution passes, and then what?
ANN MARIE WILSON: Well, Grover Cleveland didn’t really want to deal with this. It was not clear the legality of what the United States could do in such a situation. And he was worried about his re-nomination for the Democratic ticket in 1896. So this was sort of adding more problems to his desk than he wanted to deal with.
BRIAN: And did anybody call him on that? Were their protests?
ANN MARIE WILSON: Well, there were certainly denunciations of American inaction. I would say that in early 1896, the attention really shifted towards relief. So this was also the first time that the American Red Cross went on a mission abroad. Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, actually went to Turkey to deliver aid.
BRIAN: Now to my 20th century ears, this sounds very much like a 19th century ending. We turn to missionaries and Christian-based organizations, and the voluntary sector for, in essence, private aid. Yet the whole episode seems to foreshadow American humanitarian intervention, which is much more frequent, of course, in the 20th century. Is there a bridge to the 20th century here?
ANN MARIE WILSON: Yeah. I would say that the beginnings of the 20th century happen around the Armenia case. The controversy over what to do in Armenia is happening at the same time that there’s discussion over what is to be done with the resistance movements against Spanish rule in Cuba, where there’s also a lot of violence coming up. Reformers are calling for intervention in both places.
In fact, the same Democratic Senator from Florida, Wilkinson Call, who had introduced the original, very warlike resolution calling for US intervention in the Ottoman Empire, he calls for gunboats to go to Cuba, as well. And in fact, Cuba was referred to as American’s Armenia. The Spanish were referred to as the Turks of the West. William McKinley, the President at the time, said that we did not go to war in Cuba because we wanted to, but because we had to defend humanity. So the language of humanity runs right through this discussion the same it did through Armenia.
BRIAN: Ann Marie Wilson is a historian at Leiden University College in the Hague.
PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’ve reached the point in our show where we turn to listeners who have posted a website comment or question about today’s topic, humanitarian interventions. Julie’s on the line, calling from New York City. Julie, what have you got for us? Intervene.
JULIE: Well, so I was actually an army brat. In the ’80s, my dad was in the military, and we lived in what was then just West Germany. And as I’ve listened to your show, and I’ve thought about that whole experience, I kind of wondered when did we start having people sort of permanently stationed overseas on these sort of long, open-end missions where we’re not at war, but we’re not not prepared. And I just kind of wondered what the perspective would be.
PETER: Yeah. Julie’s asking about the presence of Americans overseas– Americans connected with the military. It’s not exactly humanitarian intervention, but it does represent a presence overseas. What do you say, guys?
ED: I wonder, would the Philippines be the first version of this, do you think, Brian?
BRIAN: Yeah. I’m sitting here thinking Philippines. We’re talking about the very beginning of the 20th century now, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, where troops– American troops and American administrators– remained on the ground for quite some time. And we fought a very bloody, brutal, some would say, against Philippines insurgents.
But we were doing so because we were committed to so-called humanitarian objectives. Those objectives, however, seemed to look like teaching Philippines to behave more like Americans. We went so far as to try to reform their entire legal code. But you know what, Ed? I think a more interesting answer is the South, right after the Civil War. It’s a long intervention by those Union troops.
ED: Yeah, on a scale of geography, larger the any that we’ve done until the 20th century, the American South is the size of continental Europe. And they tried to occupy it without the benefits of radio or other kinds of communication in a kind of a harrowing experiment, actually. And what we’re talking about is the Freedmen’s Bureau, which grows up immediately in the ending of the Civil War, even as the war is ending.
And the idea is that not only are there refugees who are starving, but there are also these Freedmen who need some kind of assistance in moving from slavery to freedom with nothing but the shirts on their back. It is a militarily sponsored intervention that deals with everything from crime and punishment. They have special courts to land distribution, to fostering religion– they actually helped establish churches– to fostering schools, and many other aspects of what we would think of today as humanitarian aid was doing. So in many ways, this is the most ambitious enterprise of that sort do we take on for nearly– what do you say, Brian, 80 years?
ED: Until after World War II? What’s amazing is, a, they tried it; and b, that it failed, and we forgot about. In the 20th century, when we talk about occupying Iraq, reconstructing it, people never say, let’s look at the American South after the Civil War. Let’s say, let’s look at Japan or let’s look at Germany that we rebuilt after World War II. So the parallels are interesting, but the things are kind of perpendicular to history are also interesting.
PETER: Yeah, and I think the ambivalence about projecting military power does complicate the very definition of humanitarian interventions, because the presence of the American military in West Germany during Julie’s childhood, was that to protect the free world, and that is the civilians who enjoyed the security umbrella, the benefits of that? Or is it simply the projection of power and American interests of state?
ED: So Julia, do these episodes of the past resonate with your own experience?
JULIE: Oh, they do a bit. You talk about going from humanitarian aid to military aid. After World War II, we did have to stick around just to keep things in order. And then we just stuck around for 40, 50 years, by which point it had really evolved from humanitarian aid to, yeah, over here, to keep the Communists at bay.
I’m remembering know when we first moved there, I think we were trying to station some medium-range missiles. I don’t know if they were nuclear missiles or defense missiles, but there was a great deal of controversy on the German side. So on the one hand, it’s like, yes, we want you here protecting us with tanks and machine guns, but–
ED: But could you put the missiles somewhere else.
PETER: Thanks for calling.
JULIE: Thank you very much.
BRIAN: Thanks, Julie. That was great.
JULIE: Take care.
BRIAN: Bye-bye. We need to take a short break, but stick around. When we get back, a humanitarian airlift that lasted two years, and moved 60,000 tons of food– one that was run entirely by private organizations.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re looking at the history of humanitarian intervention by Americans.
BRIAN: Earlier in show, w looked at a couple of 19th century debates over whether the US government should intervene in foreign conflicts. Now, we’re going to turn to a 20th century version of that same debate. It was the late 1960s, and Americans were beginning to hear news reports about the famine in Biafra.
MALE SPEAKER: Medical facilities at the [INAUDIBLE] camp are primitive. In this tent last week, a doctor examined Biafran children. Most had bloated stomachs due to malnutrition. And many were so near death, they didn’t even cry.
PETER: Biafra was a region in southeastern Nigeria that had declared independence in 1967. The Nigerian government responded by blocking off access to the rebel area, essentially using starvation as a tactic of war against the separatists.
BRIAN: This was the first African famine to be televised, and the images were devastating– children with bloated bellies, children with hair faded to a sickly red. Before long, college students had taken up the Biafran cause, along with cultural figures like John Lennon and John Paul Sarte, and eventually, US lawmakers.
MALE SPEAKER: Senator Edward Kennedy, in his first Senate speech since the assassination of his brother, Robert, today urged the UN General Assembly to take up the problems of relieving starvation in Biafra.
BRIAN: But no government’s came to the rescue. So non-governmental groups decided to step in themselves.
PETER: The method they came up with was an airlift. A group of international aid organizations banded together to fly loads of relief supplies across the Nigerian government’s blockade. At its height, the airlift flew two and a half tons of food into Biafra every day.
BRIAN: To avoid detection, the pilots flew at night. They shut off their lights before landing. Even so, they often took fire from Nigerian warplanes. One American who worked the air lift– a young man named David Koren– reported having some very close calls.
DAVID KOREN: I was looking out at the right side of the plane, and out the Windows, just looking. And I said to nobody in particular, I guess, watch for the bombs, watch for the bombs. And sure enough, there were two great bursts.
PETER: This is a recording that Koren made just after starting on the airlift. He’d been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, and so was especially affected by news of the unfolding famine. He jumped at the chance to do something about it.
DAVID KOREN: Which is about where we would have been if we had landed and gone in about the time the bomb exploded.
BRIAN: We tracked David down in his home in Pennsylvania, and we asked him to explain how the airlift worked. He said it started each night when the first plane touched down with its load of emergency supplies.
DAVID KOREN: My job was to facilitate the unloading of that. When we landed in Biafra, there would be attacks by the bomber overhead. And the idea was to get the plane unloaded as fast as possible, and get it up and out of danger, but also allow it to go back and reload. And if we could get all that done fast enough, that plane and a few others were able to make three runs in one night.
BRIAN: What’s the closest call that you had, David?
DAVID KOREN: One night, there were eight or nine bombs went off right around the plane, shaking it. Just right after we landed, a first bomb fell not too far away. And then as we taxied to our parking area, and I opened the cargo door, I heard another one fall. And then during the course of while we were unloading there, I heard a bomb falling. It sounded very, very close. And so I dove headlong in the aisle between the stacks of food that we had, and saw the flash and heard the plane shake. And I jumped up and looked out the door, and there was a big column of sparks and things going up. And you could hear the patter of pieces of metal and rock coming down all around the plane
BRIAN: David, did these bombs exploding around you give you pause?
DAVID KOREN: Yeah, I was scared. And the Biafran workers who are helping us unload the plane, they were afraid also. But we had to get the plane unloaded and get it out of there. And so we just kept working.
BRIAN: So for you, was this a case of personal diplomacy, going ahead and getting involved in essence a war when your government would not?
DAVID KOREN: Yeah, I was definitely personally involved whether the government was or not. I don’t know if I’d call it diplomacy or not. It may be something much more simple, like helping the people I knew and liked.
BRIAN: Now the Nigerian position was that this blockade, and even the starvation that ensued, was a legitimate weapon of war.
DAVID KOREN: That was their position, yes.
BRIAN: Did that make you combatant in this war, even though your ends were humanitarian?
DAVID KOREN: I don’t know what my official status was. I was certainly not firing weapons or taking any offensive action. I was maybe at most a blockade runner. And I suppose from Nigeria’s point of view. I was an enemy. But I didn’t think so.
BRIAN: Do you think it’s right to take sides in a humanitarian effort? Or do you think it’s perhaps essential to take sides in a humanitarian effort?
DAVID KOREN: OK, the conventional wisdom is that when you’re doing humanitarian work, you should not be involved emotionally or otherwise in one side or the other. And I think that’s expressly stated in an organization like the Red Cross. But in this organization, most of us, if not all of us, sympathized with Biafran people because they’re suffering, and because many of us knew them.
BRIAN: Sure. And then you have the added incentive of being bombed. I suspect that does not warm the cockles of one’s heart.
DAVID KOREN: Yeah. Right. You probably tend to think of somebody bombing you as the enemy.
BRIAN: I would.
DAVID KOREN: So it’s messy. It’s very messy. There is no kind of a one defining humanitarian motive or spirit that makes people do humanitarian things. People can bring a lot of different attitudes and desires to a humanitarian effort.
BRIAN: David Koren is a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked the Biafran airlift. His memoir about that experience is called Far Away in the Sky.
ED: The Biafran airlift ended in January 1970 when Nigerian forces retook control of Biafra. Over a million people had died in the three year conflict, mostly from starvation and disease. But the airlift marked the beginning of the new chapter in international humanitarianism, demonstrating just how much could be done without government involvement. All told, the effort moved over 60,000 tons of aid. For a brief time, tiny Uli airstrip was the busiest airport in Africa, with up to 50 flights landing each night.
PETER: That said, the takeaway wasn’t especially clear. Humanitarian organizations like Oxfam came to believe that the Biafran leadership had co-opted the relief effort to further its own political goals. Some scholars have argued that the airlift allowed the rebels to hold out for more than a year after they had lost the war militarily, leading to as many as 100,000 additional tests. As David said, no easy answers.
PETER: We’ve got time for one more call today. Julia is on the line from Alexandria, Virginia. Julia, what have you got for us?
JULIA: I have a question regarding, was their time or is there an example where a not-friend– a country or a group of people that was hostile to the United States, maybe not an enemy– but their attitudes were transformed by a humanitarian invention, an intervention on our part so that opened up sort of doors or an avenue for the relation to become one of more understanding, or maybe more cooperation, or at least slightly less cold?
ED: Maybe this is just a warm memory from my dimly remembered childhood, but it would seem to me that actually the Marshall Plan, and the support for Germany with the airdrops and things like that might have converted a once bitter enemy into people who were pretty much on the American side. And I’m thinking of Germany. And the same thing is true of Japan, as well.
PETER: hosts, I would suggest that the transformation of attitudes really begins on the ground up, and it has more to do with American commerce and influence and the example of America. Often among the people in the 19th century, ordinary folk would look to America as a great land of opportunity. But in the 20th century, things like Coca Cola– American products, American movies, what we might call in the broader sense soft diplomacy, or unintentional diplomacy.
BRIAN: Soft drinks. Soft drink diplomacy, Peter.
PETER: Yeah, something like that has transformed attitudes. I think it’s very hard to neatly extricate something like an intended diplomatic initiative or humanitarian initiative, and to establish that it had any influence at all. I think it’s much too complicated to make those distinctions.
ED: I want to build on Peter’s excellent point about rock and roll diplomacy or Coca Cola diplomacy, because in the absence of that in the 19th century, I cannot think of any instance in which our putative efforts at humanitarian aid were not seen by either the recipients as transparent power grabs. I’m thinking about with American Indians, I’m thinking about with Mexico, I’m thinking about Latin America, I’m thinking about the Philippines. And in each of those things, almost never did people go, hey, thanks so much for sending us the blankets, or trying to import your institutions. And it suggests to me that until we have the soft diplomacy of mass culture and mass communication, that we’re not as effective.
BRIAN: Yeah, and I would just second your point by saying we did have something going for us in the 19th century, and that was that we were not a strong, governmental, colonial power. And to the extent people liked the United States outside of America, it was precisely because we were not the kind of visible, state-driven, colonial grasping power that so many European powers were. Julia, is something happening with your phone?
JULIA: No, it was a humanitarian intervention to my dog. [LAUGHTER] Otherwise, he’d start barking.
ED: All right.
PETER: Well, this crosses species now. We live in a humane society.
JULIA: Right, exactly. We provided him with food. But
ED: kidding around aside, I think that Peter and Brian are saying something important, is that people have liked Americans more than they’ve liked America.
JULIA: Do you think– in a lot of our humanitarian interventions, at least now, like when you look at going into Haiti– at least initially– or what happened after the tsunami, the Christmas tsunami, our military is really the force that logistically and, in a sense, physically has the resources to be able to come in and deal with that chaotic situation on the ground. Do you think that changes attitudes towards the American military, and therefore perhaps towards us as a country?
ED: That’s a great question, Julia. And I think that– I noticed this just the other day– that the latest ads for the United States military begin with great martial images of guys strapping on bulletproof vests and helmets and all this, and getting on the helicopters. And then when they’re on the ground, they’re carrying aid packages. They’re carrying boxes of food.
And I think that captures something important. The fact that our military can come in and do these very positive things just reminds people how quickly they could come in and do something else if they wanted to. It’s sort of a testimony to the omnipotence, really, of the American military.
So I think it comes both ways. People dressed in uniform– we all remember the pictures of our soldiers with children in Iraq and so forth. And you can see them doing kind things, but you can’t help but notice that we’re dressed for war. So it’s an interesting kind of tension there. So what it points to me is, what an awesome question, Julia.
BRIAN: Yeah. And I want to know where the question comes from, Julia. What is your stake in all of this?
JULIA: My stake in all of this is I’m a veteran. My husband is still active duty. In fact, he’s in Baghdad right now. So these issues surrounding how the military gets used are issues that are personal in a lot of ways, because it personally impacts me and my family. After 9/11, I had left the military by that time. I was no longer on active duty or in the reserves.
But this whole question of anti-Americanism was something that I was actually– I was struggling with it, sort of struggling with– I’d been an exchange student. I had traveled and lived in different places. And I really wanted to understand it.
BRIAN: Julia, could you share with us some first-hand experience about efforts at acts of kindness or humanitarian initiatives while on the ground, and the reaction to them?
JULIA: There was something. There’s a group called the Spirit of America. And it started out of– well, the inspiration was a sergeant in Afghanistan– he was a Special Forces guy– and he sent home to his wife, I need you send me some soccer balls and baseball mitts. And in this village that was near where his unit was, he taught the kids how to play baseball and how to play soccer.
And what he found was that the village started protecting the military from terrorist attacks. And that sparked this group called Spirit of America. And what they were doing was raising money so that these soldiers weren’t having to really fund it on their own, because like you said, it was an individual effort. It wasn’t an official policy.
Someone said, hey, we can provide school supplies, or we could provide soccer balls or sewing machines, and in a sense, it’ll make our lives easier as soldiers. But it also created these bonds between the two communities that were positive bonds.
PETER: And that was a bottom-up, people-to-people stuff. And I think that’s really crucial. It gets back to Ed’s point about America, sometimes when it represents sheer power and force. Of course, it’s going to generate hostile reaction.
Americans can relate differently, and I think that’s been the genius of the Peace Corps and other forms of soft diplomacy and intervention that kind of liberate the human possibilities of engagement. Well, Julia, you’ve really intervened in a very positive and constructive and inhumane way. And it was great to have your dog on the show. And great talking with you. Thanks for calling.
JULIA: OK, bye-bye.
BRIAN: And that is all the time we’ve got for today. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s show. You can post a comment at backstoryradio.org. We’ve posted a ton of background reading about the history of humanitarianism there. You can also find links to our past shows, and subscribe to our free podcast.
PETER: Again, that’s backstoryradio.org. We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nina Earnest, Jess Engebretson, Andrew Parsons, and Tony Field. Emily Charnock is our researcher and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities.