The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
ON SATURDAY afternoons, when the farmers of our community (West Buffalo, northwest of Buffalo, Kansas) park their cars around the courthouse square at the county seat, the usual questions about field work and seasonal observations on the weather may still be heard. But this traditional visiting is interspersed with comment on the yield of spring wheat in Canada and the previous week's movement of grain products to Europe and the Far East. The next group may be talking about the collapse in the foreign demand for pork. Inevitably there will be a terse exchange of ideas on the destruction of buying power in such food importing countries as Great Britain and Germany. In other words, our eyes are turning abroad in an effort to find some solution for the market typhoon into which we have been plunged. And that is representative, I think, of the changing thought among the rural people of the Middle West.
Their first thought is of markets. But with it goes at least a dim realization of the need for a better understanding among the peoples of the earth. This feeling naturally is accompanied by an impatience with the manner in which statesmen have handled international technicalities. Perhaps the neighborhood's viewpoint, which is rather indefinite and somewhat resentful, could be expressed in the words of Signor Grandi, formerly Foreign Minister of Italy, who recently asked, "Can we close our eyes to the fact that hundreds of millions of men throughout the whole world feel that their peace and their daily bread depend on the solution of a few fundamental factors?" Anyhow, the hard realities of the business depression have forced us to look farther along the route in the sale of our products than in the old and happy days before the wreck of the world's business knocked the props from under our market structure. The smash has carried the prices of most of our commodities to astonishingly low levels, in some cases to the point of establishing new all-time low records.
But before we go farther into the market situation, and the way in which it has promoted more effective thinking on international relationships, it is only fair to say that the luck of the people in this community is not all bad. There has been much loose talk from irresponsible politicians about the decline in Middle Western agriculture. The situation is not nearly so unfortunate from the broad social standpoint as some pessimists have pictured it, in our locality at least, when it is measured in terms of the commercial débâcle of the world. Indeed, I fancy that our condition would seem quite favorable to many of the people in the cities, even to some who three years ago occupied a reasonably high and apparently secure economic position. The men are still busy with the farm work and the women are doing their household tasks in much the same way as of old -- and that in itself is a factor of splendid psychological value in carrying us through this period of trial. Plenty of food is available, most of it raised on the farms. The cellars contain huge amounts of canned products and vegetables that are more than ample to carry us through to spring. And work clothes are cheap. There is no want! As a result of these favorable factors, we are riding out this storm, as the people on the land always do in a time of commercial disaster, in a relatively satisfactory manner.
But the cash income is tiny, and not sufficient on some farms to meet the inescapable overhead costs. Corn is selling locally for 18 cents a bushel. Wheat brings 30 cents. Oats are down to 11 cents. Other agricultural products are quoted at similarly low levels. In any case, our buying power is less than half of the prewar normal. And we have little hope of any substantial improvement during the next year. Perhaps the magnitude of the disaster may be grasped better if present market levels are compared with those of former years. Hogs are bringing $2.75 a hundredweight locally (they were down to $2.40 last spring) as compared with $7 to $10 paid commonly in many former seasons. In 1920 hogs sold in Kansas City for $23.40 a hundredweight. Wheat at 30 cents a bushel (much has been sold in the Middle West from the crop of 1932 for far less than this price) should be written on the graph of human destiny alongside of the "dollar wheat" of pre-war years. And frequently wheat sold then for $1.25 to $1.50. During the World War it was above $2. An ordinary price for corn in normal times in this area is from 50 to 75 cents a bushel -- certainly a tremendous contrast to 18 cents! We sold corn from our farm during the World War for as much as $2.30 a bushel.
Because of these low prices many farmers are unable to keep a clear title to their land. In a few instances they have paid no taxes for two or three years, with the result that their homes may presently be sold by the county in which they live. The default on tax payments for 1932 will be far larger than in any previous season of the depression. A similar difficulty has been encountered in meeting the interest on farm mortgages. Both mortgagee and mortgagor are in a quandary; foreclosure proceedings have been started against only a tiny proportion of the farmers who have failed in meeting their payments, as the lenders usually are at a loss to know what they would do with the land after they had obtained a clear title to it. But there is a general belief in the Middle West that 1933 will be featured by a great increase in such actions. Meanwhile, most banks in rural regions are lending little or no money, and in some counties all financial institutions have closed. It should be remembered, however, that the seriousness of the problems produced by taxes and interest vary in different regions. In our community, for example, there has been little speculation in farm lands during this century, and only one farm has been foreclosed (in 1931). Most of the people here are meeting their taxes promptly. But in other areas -- in parts of Iowa, for example -- tax and interest payments are in default on a considerable part of the land. In other words, it is impossible to make general statements which will apply to all the agricultural regions. Observers might merely keep in mind that the estimates of the United States Department of Agriculture indicate an income for American farmers of 5,240 million dollars in 1932, as compared with 11,950 million dollars in 1929 and about 16,000 million dollars in 1920. That is proof enough of the change which has taken place.
The declines in the prices of farm products have been astonishing to us. And I have gathered, through a reading of market news, that they amaze some economists, despite the fact that their knowledge of previous secondary post-war depressions has given them a perspective which we do not possess. A few outstanding business men like Owen D. Young have alleged that the slump in the prices of rural commodities, which has resulted in the elimination of farmers as important buyers of non-agricultural products, was the principal factor in bringing about the business depression. Anyhow, and be all that as it may, the avalanche has touched the welfare of the farmers in the West Buffalo community so intimately that there is an unusual curiosity in learning the causes for the destruction of the values of our commodities. And a few fairly evident items emerge from the débris. Obviously we appreciate that the many millions of unemployed people in this country (not to mention the other millions on part time) are not eating as much food as usual. And of course there has been a marked downward tendency in the general commodity price level. Perhaps some effect also was produced by the larger use of improved machinery on farms in the last ten years, which increased the yields of food when measured in terms of individual workers.
But these are all factors which will tend to correct themselves as business conditions become more satisfactory. They are merely superficial items in the commercial tempest. The consumption of food in the United States should go back to normal when, and if, employment becomes more nearly normal. At least it may be said safely that the people in the cities always have purchased ample supplies of food when they had adequate funds. We are not concerned greatly with the location of the general commodity price level, only with the position of the farm price index in relationship to non-agricultural products and overhead costs. And large units of farm machinery, over a long-range trend, will of course be used to the extent that they are profitable.
The foreign market for American food was formerly a mighty item in the national income. Some economists, for example, have given agriculture full credit for pulling the United States out of the depression of the seventies, due to the freak combination of excellent crops in this country during the last three seasons of that débâcle, in a time when almost total failures occurred in what was then a relatively prosperous Europe. In recent years, however, we have seen this sales outlet slipping steadily away, until at present its proportions are absolutely pitiful. Such a situation naturally makes producers wonder if it is permanently lost. If so, could the decline have been prevented, at least in part? Naturally we know of the increasing export of food from such surplus-producing regions as Canada and South America. We also hear a good deal about the revival of agriculture in Russia, which apparently made rather slim progress in 1932, however. And anyone who reads newspapers at all learns something of the sub-normal income of the people in the food-importing countries. If we turn more closely to the practical items about which our community is concerned, we find the question being asked whether the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill, through the retaliatory rates which it engendered, ruined our export business (especially in food) in the same proportions that its extortions destroyed our import trade? What effect has the failure of the Federal Farm Board (and the disquieting international trade influences of its vast holdings of wheat) had on the price of the great bread crop? And finally, to what extent have the abnormally high tariff schedules of European countries against American food products, whether directly retaliatory or not, been established as a result of superficial thinking and ignorance on the part of Congress and an ineffective foreign policy on the part of the Government? In other words, if Congress and the President would really turn their minds toward solving the questions of policy affecting our relations with foreign governments (an important part of the duties which they are specifically elected to handle), might they not do farmers more good than with their never-ending and sickening parade of talk about farm relief (which has been filled with insincerity) and the building of such an economic monstrosity as the Federal Farm Board?
We farmers of the West Buffalo community discuss these problems as we meet from time to time, perhaps across the line fence while the teams are resting, because they affect our living standards acutely, and we don't know the answers. Naturally our knowledge of foreign markets is limited, and our knowledge of the technique of world diplomacy is absolutely non-existent. Our job has been production, and it has taken all the energy at our command in recent years to make a living. Nor have our people had extensive opportunities for travel; only seven individuals in our community -- five men and two women -- have ever been abroad. But we do know our Senators and Congressmen, and as we think about them in reference to the intelligent handling of international problems, and especially in regard to doing something to promote the sale of our products in foreign lands, we are not cheered thereby. I might take the Congressman from our district as an illustration, for he is above the level, mentally, of the men whom the Middle West has habitually been sending to Washington. His interests have been entirely identified, I think, with domestic problems, and with more success, let it be said, than comes to the lot of most Congressmen from this section. But if he has ever given any real attention to the legislation affecting other nations pending before Congress it has escaped the notice of the farmers in this community. Is it possible that the Senators and Congressmen from the Middle West are generally lacking in the capacity to analyze international problems? Have they failed, for example, to grasp the economic effects of the high tariff rates in the Smoot-Hawley bill, and especially the extent to which they may reduce the sale abroad of the products of a community like ours in West Buffalo? We wonder. And in the meantime we are confronted with the unhappy reality of 18-cent corn, 30-cent wheat and $2.75 hogs.
Most of us read a good deal about the tariff, and from time to time something about foreign problems in general. Frequently we discuss it all, following the Grange and Farm Bureau meetings, while we are visiting before starting for home. Some of what we read is of a political nature. Occasionally we get hold of the opinions of an economist, who discusses tariff problems in that gloomy manner common to students of the dismal science. And of course our Senators and Congressmen, especially in recent months, have given us the speeches which they prepared especially for the country picnics. They included adequate praise for a certain Party and its infallible policy of protecting industries, infant and otherwise. They also have told us about the help given agriculture: wheat on our farm, worth 30 cents a bushel, is "protected" by a duty of 42 cents. And some of us went up to Topeka in the summer of 1931 to listen to Our Charley Curtis tell us that all was well in the land, and that much higher prices for farm products were just around the corner. It all is very confusing. Apparently there is little agreement among our political leaders or economists on anything affecting foreign markets or policies. Especially has this been so, it seems to us, during the national campaign.
And so, naturally, we are forced back on the necessity for using what common sense we possess in trying to reason out some of these problems for ourselves. Inevitably we come to the simple axiom that a high tariff makes a difficult hurdle in international trade. It naturally follows that such an obstruction produces irritation of spirit; we know because we feel that way about some of the European duties. When a tariff of $1.60 a bushel is placed on wheat, as was done recently by one importing nation, it would seem that the machinery for carrying on a world exchange of commodities is definitely out of joint. This appears to be a rather high duty to pay on a product worth 30 cents on my farm!
We understand, although perhaps not fully, that nationalism may be a serious factor in tariff making and international relationships in general, and that racial hatreds often override economic factors. But in the meantime, as we consider the low living standards of the people in our community, and learn of the distress elsewhere, it appears to us -- or at least it did a few weeks ago when two or three of us were discussing this problem on the sunny side of the threshing machine while the "separator man" was fixing a belt -- that the world is paying too high a price for these hatreds. Why not declare a moratorium on hatreds until we get rich enough to afford them? At any rate, why should not our government make a conscious, determined effort to eliminate such sources of strife as we have any sort of part in? Sons of this community are buried in France. A leading farmer here was wounded twice at Vauquois Hill in the Argonne. Others followed the bloody trail along the Marne and the Vesle and the Meuse, and on to the day of triumph at the bridgehead across the Rhine. The dread of international hatreds here is not an academic matter; men in the community carry on their bodies the scars of conflicts.
As a practical way of showing that we mean it when we talk about more effective world coöperation, we think it would not be a bad idea for the nations to start a slow retreat on tariff schedules, perhaps at the rate of 10 percent a year. Might this not help in moving some of the 30-cent wheat out of our bins? Doubtless tariff problems will be discussed at the forthcoming and much press-agented World Economic Conference. Would not the position of our delegates be stronger if they had some assurance of backing from Congress, instead of the practical certainty that all their suggestions for enlightened national action will receive an ill-tempered and disdainful reception?
War debts and reparations also may receive considerable attention at the Conference. And the West Buffalo community has no suggestions as to how they ought to be handled. But we do think of the conduct of our statesmen in approaching these questions at the same time that we think of the political trickery and downright mental dishonesty shown by the two major political parties of the United States in dealing with farm relief measures. Both problems are of about the same age. Each is in a deeper mess, apparently, than when it emerged into the zone of political action. Our suggestion for handling farm relief is simple: merely dismiss the subject, along with special aids to other industries, and let economic forces rule. If the nation continues its present policy, which our community regards as silly, of helping every Tom, Dick and Harry who gets in a jam with his business and goes running to Washington for aid, it seems evident that agriculture also must receive more support before it recuperates. Meanwhile, we think that if the statesmen of the world had the moral courage to tackle in a realistic way the "few fundamental problems" mentioned by Signor Grandi, an obstruction like that of the intergovernmental debts could be removed presently from the path to world recovery.
Perhaps these champions of a New Day will emerge. As to that we have no means of knowing, and our influence can be carried no farther than to our Senators and Congressmen. But it will be carried that far. Cynics have said that it would take an earthquake to wake up the Middle West to an appreciation of the need for larger foreign markets and better international understanding; 30-cent wheat, 18-cent corn and hogs at $2.75 have done the job in our community. Out of the thought and interest produced by this period of travail should ultimately emerge a group of Senators and Congressmen of larger intellectual capacity than we have hitherto known, and with a more adequate understanding of the helpful position which the United States should occupy in the society of nations.