Foes or Friends? The US-Soviet Grain Trade in the Cold War
It may come as a surprise to those accustomed to thinking of the United States and the Soviet Union as enemies during the Cold War to learn that the rival superpowers were also trade partners throughout much of the conflict. The sale of US grain products to the Soviet Union during this time serves as an example of the complex nature of US-Soviet relations. Contrary to the popular perception of rural America as an isolated region, it also reveals how international affairs impacted rural Americans in the heartland and cut across ideological divides in surprising ways.
Before the establishment of the Soviet Union, imperial Russia had been a major exporter of grain. After the Bolsheviks came to power, a state-led effort to push the population onto collective farms failed to produce the amount of grain authorities hoped for and even contributed to a severe famine that killed millions of citizens. Although the Soviet Union continued to export some grain until the mid-1960s, it increasingly had to turn to foreign suppliers. By the early 1970s, the Soviet Union routinely purchased massive amounts of grain from the United States and its allies. In 1972, the Soviet Union bought 19 million metric tons of US grain, including one-fourth of the entire US wheat harvest. Some farmers in the Midwest accused American officials of helping to keep grain prices artificially low to sell to the Soviet Union. Several months later, the resulting grain shortage resulted in sky-rocketing global food prices and caused the United States to limit food assistance to developing countries for fear of food shortages at home. American politicians dubbed the episode “the great grain robbery.”
Image 1: Telegram from a Kansas resident opposing the sale of grain to the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, 1963. Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas. View Image Full Size
Farmers in Kansas viewed early trade deals with the Soviet Union with uncertainty. Concerns such as those voiced by a small business owner in Hugoton, Kansas, reflect the conflicted position of many Americans in the heartland. In an opinion ballot furnished by the National “Write Your Congressman” Club in November 1963, the small business owner wrote, “If a gangster came into my place of business during business hours and wanted to buy something, and had the cash to pay, then I would sell to him.” “But,” he continued, “I would also keep an eye on him, to see he didn’t pick up something on the side.” While most farmers and small business owners writing to their congressional representatives expressed distrust of the Soviet Union, some felt that trade with their Cold War rivals could be a lucrative business opportunity. 
By 1972, farmers seemed less concerned about whether or not to sell grain to the Soviet Union but were far angrier about what they viewed as a plot by the US government to swindle the residents of the heartland. Financial concerns began to overtake ideological reservations about the Soviet Union. Farmers accused their own government of failing to announce grain negotiations with the Soviet Union, thus keeping wheat prices artificially low. If the negotiations had been announced before the harvest, many claimed, the farmers would have been able to sell their grains at a higher price and reap a larger profit. Instead, as one farming couple from Hutchison, Kansas claimed, “Russia got cheap wheat and the exporters a fat subsidy, all at the taxpayer’s expense.” The pair said that they supported the increased export of wheat, but the alleged failure of the government to deal fairly with farmers had created a “big credibility gap between us and the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and, in fact, the whole present administration.”
Image 2: Press release from Senator Bob Dole supporting a trade deal between the United States and the Soviet Union, 1975. Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas. View Image Full Size
Letters like these that expressed disappointment with US President Richard Nixon were particularly unsettling to Republican leaders, who counted on political support from rural Kansans. It appeared, however, that farmers’ desire to profit from the grain deals crossed the typical divisions of Cold War ideology. In 1975, with another Soviet grain failure predicted, the United States and Soviet Union reached a five-year trade agreement that aimed to secure higher prices for grain allowed the Soviet Union to purchase up to 8 million metric tons of US wheat and corn every year.
On December 25, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up that country’s pro-Soviet government. Shortly after, US President Jimmy Carter canceled all grain contracts with the Soviet Union, beginning a 15-month embargo. Nearly two decades after the United States first sold grain to the Soviet Union, the idea of ending those sales caused a backlash among farmers in the heartland, despite their initial reluctance to trade with the Soviet Union. Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas immediately began calling for an end to the embargo, claiming that Democratic President Carter was “using ‘crisis promotion’ to boost his chances of re-election in 1980.”
Carter lost his re-election bid. The newly elected Republican President Ronald Reagan lifted the embargo in April 1981, only to threaten another in 1982 after the declaration of martial law in Poland. Nonetheless, in 1983, even as Cold War tensions were rising and President Regan labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” the United States and Soviet Union agreed to a new grain deal.
Image 3: Press release from Senator Dole endorsing President Reagan’s support of grain trade with the Soviet Union amidst a farm crisis affecting the American heartland, 1982. Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas. View Image Full Size
The embargo had a negligible effect on the Soviet Union, which could buy grain from other Western countries, and politicians on both sides of the aisle feared political retribution from frustrated farmers in the heartland who were in the midst of a crisis caused by rising debt and falling crop prices. US conservatives, who had long opposed communism, believed the best way forward was to promote less regulated free trade, including with traditional ideological opponents. Even though the world remained divided into US and Soviet spheres of influence, the forces of globalization and the growth of a global market in grain cut across traditional ideological lines and connected capitalist farmers in the heartland with consumers in the socialist Soviet Union.
University of Kansas
- “The Shadowy World of Grain Trade,” Washington Post, 10 June 1979; Cabinet Affairs Staffing Memorandum, Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas.
- “Opinion Ballot,” 9 November 1963, Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas.
- “Letter to Robert Dole,” 9 October 1972, Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas.
- “Dole accuses Carter of promoting crises,” Topeka Capital-Journal, 27 January 1980.