Department of History
Nick Cullather

Cullather's Hungry World Wins Major Book Prizes.

Professor Nick Cullather’s book The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, published by Harvard University Press in 2010, is the winner of several prestigious book prizes, including the Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians and the Robert H. Ferrell Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. The Hungry World does two things: it debunks the myth of the Green Revolution, a claim that American scientists rescued of Asia from mass starvation in the 1960s by inventing new strains of wheat and rice. Secondly, and more importantly, it examines how Americans came to see controlling diets and eradicating hunger as their humanitarian calling, one that could serve to modernize nations and stem the tide of communism. In a recent interview, Cullather shared some reflections on the book.

What inspired you to write on this topic?

It struck me that the whole area of “development”—as important as it was in the lives of millions—had largely been neglected. The work of aid agencies, the Peace Corps, private charities, and UN agencies, all of which changed the way people lived, ate, reproduced, and thought was vastly more influential than treaties or trade agreements. It was a kind of foreign policy that was personal, even intimate. It reached into gardens, kitchens, and bedrooms. The characters involved were fascinating figures with strong views on how society ought to work. They either labored in remote places face to face with desperate poverty, or in the centers of power where the lives they affected were complete abstractions. Their disagreements and maneuvers were a hidden politics that had somehow dropped out of the historical narrative.

Can you recall a particularly challenging or gratifying aspect of your research?

Development experts speak in a language of statistics, and I flunked out of stats in college. What I could do, though, was historicize the numbers, so I began trying to figure out where and how various quantitative measures got their start. What I found was that the statistics we use to gauge human progress and welfare each encode an ideology. GDP, for instance, records growth, but it also tells you which human activities have value and which don’t. The calorie asserts an entitlement to a minimum daily requirement of food for each person. It also asserts universality; nations have different cuisines but they all add up. So, the calorie created a moral obligation. Since we were all eating from the same plate, some said let's share it equally, but American experts said, let’s make that plate bigger.

What lesson do you hope readers walk away with?

Economic development is a story we tell ourselves about who we are and where we’re going. It has unusual power; whoever defines the meaning of progress has already won the argument about who gains and who makes the sacrifices. In much of the world, development is the only politics there is, so it’s something we historians ought to pay attention to.