Horace Holmes and Peasant at Etawah

One of America’s most successful diplomats of the 20th century, was Horace C. Holmes, who spent over 30 years in the diplomatic service. Most of that time was spent in what are now called Third World countries, where he became known for being able to change the minds of those he was trying to help—even though most were firmly convinced they already knew what to do.

Working first in China, shortly after the end of World War II, during the chaos of civil war, he had some success. However, when he was posted to newly independent India, his methods and ideas were quite successful.

As Holmes once explained, “My work is in the total area of helping usually newly independent countries to bring about improvement of the individual. I try to help them help themselves, from locating new water supplies to improving their economic advantages within the framework of their own culture, without imposing our own ideas on them.”

As he famously pointed out, he wasn’t there to make second—rate Americans out of them, but to make them more successful in their own world.

As a native of Harden county, in western Tennessee, Holmes, soon after being graduated from the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), with a BS in Agriculture became known locally as the only agriculture expert able to change the minds of stubborn old—timers about the new advances in Agriculture.

At the time, the TVA was in existence, but needed a large lake to produce power, and the bottom lands for the lake were owned by a number of old men with no interest in selling.

A number of bright young men had been sent from Washington to change the necessary minds. The newcomers could not conceive of a rational reason for anyone to prefer useless land to real money—and in the depths of the Depression at that. The Powers that Be decided a local might have better luck, and (grudgingly) asked Horace to try his luck.

So Horace went to the mountains. He did not offer money. He listened to the Old Timers tell of the hard times their ancestors had had with the Indians when the land, later known as Tennessee, was opened to newcomers. Horace could relate to the tales, as his ancestors had arrived at the same time, but settled on more useful land. He could listen to the “music” of the hounds running foxes in the dark of night–and translate the different baying. Did he perhaps take a nip or two of the “white lightning”, with which the mountaineers fortified themselves in the long night? Who knows? But we know he laughed at the tales of their hiding the stills for that “lightning”, and how easy it was to fool the town—bred “revenooers.”

Then, and only then, did Horace inquire what they planned to do with their worthless, worn—out bottom land. You know the answer to that. The land was secured, the lake created, which brought power to the whole area and improved the lives of thousands.

The first time Holmes applied his brand of diplomacy came shortly after World War II, when he was chosen as the Agricultural Expert by a UN commission to see if anything could be done in civil war-torn China. They were interested in Kiangau Province, far to the west of Shanghai on the mighty Yangtze River .It had been long known as the Bread Basket of the Middle Kingdom, but the area had been stripped earlier by the invading Japanese in the late ’30s, by the seeming never ending travails of war—and a plague of locusts.

Posted to the town of Chinkiang, he would live in a compound that had been originally fortified by a transnational oil company to guard against ever present bandits, Horace was thankful his wife had not come with him.

Horace was married to another Tennessean, Eveline Savage Holmes, who had every intention of joining her husband on the “great adventure.”About to board the first “civilian” ship to the Orient after WWII, she conveniently “missed” getting his cable not to come. The very next day she was on her way to the Far East. It might have been called a “civilian” ship, but it was run by the military. The men and boys were housed on one side of the ship; women and girls on the other, and they seldom saw each other on the long voyage. In the hold of the ship were many former Japanese soldiers being repatriated to Japan.

So Ev made it to Shanghai, only to be told by the UN authorities to return home immediately. Or get a job. Turned out Horace’s armed compound needed a new landlady-den mother, to keep the place running for 73 inhabitants. To be sure, Ev had lots of help, but there was the language barrier, not to mention differing opinions between Chinese and Americans on how to cook, what needed cleaning or even how often to change the sheets. But, somehow, Ev persevered and, in time, even received a UN commendation for “meritorious service.” After that experience, Ev was wont to say, No job was impossible.

Meanwhile, Horace found the local farmers grateful for any aid, but terrified of the future. When the Holmes arrived in China, its dollar was pegged at 12 to one of ours. By the time the Holmes left in December 1947, it was pegged at 10 million to one, and it took two suitcases to carry the money to pay for a meal for four people.

At the same time, Mao Communists were moving ever farther East, while Chiang Kai Chek’s Nationalists were driven ahead of them. The local bandits did their best to make things even worse. So the time came when Horace realized his mission had run its course, and gave away as much of the UN supplies to worthy entities such as hospitals, He held on to two barrels of fuel oil for himself. He had a 30 foot fishing boat and he knew that the Communists were known for blowing up rail tracks when approaching a community, and he wanted to be sure he had an exit.

The day Horace decided to leave he found his precious barrels of oil missing.(He found out that they had been sold by the (heretofore honest) office manager0So the Holmes had to join a great many others taking the train to Shanghai. Fortunately, the train arrived safely, and by the next day, the Holmes were on a freighter, bound for home.

No doubt on the long trip home, Horace had plenty of time to consider the Way of the Communists, which were still calling themselves Agrarian Reformers. As he said, years later, “The Communists work in three stages. First, they correct a real evil, such as food hoarding or grasping money lenders. And then they do something good, like getting the trains to run on time. During the Second stage, they pick off the unpopular rich. When the Third stage arrives, when having disposed of any possible opposition and all the natural leaders, they turn on the screws.”

Horace might have daydreamed a bit about farming in good of Tennessee, but two months later he was once more headed to the Orient. This time it was India.

The year before, India had received its independence from Britain. There were many conflicting ideas as to the future of its people, particularly the large farm population, with ancient ideas and ever-worsening soil. Some experts suggested mechanization; others; communal farming. Prime Minister Jawahandral Nehru wisely felt the problems of Indian farmers were quite different from the West, where the object is to make the most efficient use of each unit of manpower. In India, the lack was not in the labor, but the lack of land, lack of water, and the tow productivity of the little land available to the average peasant.

(Not to mention the hordes of sacred cattle consuming the scanty crops. Plus the millions of monkeys, which might not be sacred, but also ate unmolested.)

So Nehru got in touch with the US, asking for help in planning India’s future. Horace was chosen for his agricultural expertise, along with three other Americans; a city planner, an architect and an engineer.

Once in India, Horace had a survey made of the whole vast subcontinent. He then decided to make his headquarters in New Delhi in northern India, but to make his first project in a hundred mile square area centered by the town of Etawah. This was located in the United Provinces which is not far from Nepal. The locals made it plain they wanted nothing from the distant “intruder”.

So how did he go about changing their minds? According to Holmes, the answer was simple. “Find a few people with the right attitude, the right spirit.” Clad in jeans and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, he might be taller than the locals, but at least he had brown eyes. Taking his time, he found a few with the “right spirit.” To one he gave better seeds; to another, a better plow; to a third, fertilizer.

When the new crops cane in, the whole village was ready to try some of those strange ways, which had so improved their neighbors’ crops. As Horace once remarked, “There’s a tremendous difference in helping people to do something they want to do, and in high-pressuring them to do something someone else feels will do them good.”

Early in his “workshops”, he noticed a few men standing uncertainly in the back of any group, obviously interested, not daring to come closer. Horace asked who they were. Untouchables, he was told indifferently. “Bring them up here,” he decreed. “I want to teach Everyone who will listen.” And so the ugly Untouchables found a new way of life, for they were not stupid…. just “untouchable.”

The local farmers might seldom be able to read or write, but they were not slow in adjusting to the new ways. Their crop yields doubled and even tripled. And in one spectacular instance, the farmer’s crop went from 12 bushels of wheat to the acre, to an astounding 63 bushels! (By comparison, at that time, our Midwestern farmers were happy to get 20 bushels of wheat per acre:—-and they weren’t using ox-drawn plows.)

Nehru was so happy at the success of the Etawah project, he decreed there should be 50 more such projects. They were to take in an average of 400 villages inhabited by 200,000 people per project.

Schools were set up to train the necessary supervisors and specialists. Who were all required to have actual village experience as a prerequisite for appointment or promotion to staff.

The rigorous practical training began at 4 a.m., and teaching was based on actual demonstration and practice. There were no holidays and no Sundays, and the course lasted six months. Many left after the first day, but those who finished the course were well prepared for their work.

In setting up all those “schools” all over the sub-continent, Horace rode in every mode of transportation, including 20 harrowing hours on an elephant in a great storm.

To be sure, Horace faced difficulties he had never known when he was trying to improve the lot of American farmers. Now take legumes. Horace realized using “green” fertilizer would help the well-worn fields. So the first thing he had to do was find a legume the sacred cows didn’t like. He found that, but then the farmers objected when it came time to plow the legumes into the ground. “It will kill the plants before they are matured, and that would be taking life, which we are forbidden to do.”

Horace found an obliging local Hindu scholar, who reinterpreted the religious law exempting legumes. “It is a sin, to be sure,” the scholar argued, “but it is a greater sin to starve one’s family and cattle. Let us accept the lesser of two evils.”

And they did–after a high ranking Braham farmer was willing to try the experiment.

The local maharajah soon realized that Horace was visibly improving the lives of “his” people, so, being both affable and cosmopolitan, he invited Horace on a Tiger hunt.

Curious to see how “the other half” lived, Horace accepted. He and the other members of the hunting party rode elephants all night to get to the Tiger site, while the beaters and the bearers walked beside the huge beasts. Horace planned to be a simple on—looker. It was all very well to be a dead shot at home, using a familiar gun. Quite another to be hunting tigers. They reached the hunting stand, which looked, to Horace, like a large house set up in a huge tree.

Then Horace received another surprise. He was told his would be the first shot of the day. It did nothing for his self—confidence that it was an unhappy surprise to the gathered nabobs, as well.

So there was Horace, with a strange gun, expected to fell the first tiger to be chased into the area. “I felt like the honor of America was at stake,” he remarked in later years. “It was obvious everyone expected me to miss.”But, squeezing the strange trigger of the strange gun, he fired–and killed the tiger instantly.

In later years he bitterly regretting killing “that magnificent animal”, and yet, perhaps like the legumes, the tiger was sacrificed to a greater good. How better to impress the haughty nabobs that Americans had unexpected powers?

The genial maharajah later invited Horace to a special dinner (only for men), and he gave Horace pride of place on the maharajah’s, right hand. Horace glanced down the great table, covered with heavy silver, fine crystal and elaborate plates. He looked down at his plate, which was obviously very cheap.

“Ran short of plates?” he inquired of his cosmopolitan host. “I’m sorry,” his host replied. “It is all my cook’s fault. He feels no one can use a plate once used by an Infidel…I’m very sorry, but he is old–and a very good cook:”

Three years into the Etawah period, Horace’s success suddenly became grist for the American media. He was quoted in the NEW YORK TIMES, he was interviewed by TIME and rated a four page spread in the middle of LIFE. The last he had mixed feelings about. It concerned the most important picture of him at work.

“The photographer took a thousand pictures of one of my working days with the locals. I had been on my feet all day and wanted to sit down. The only place available was a hammock, and even there I was asked what to do. LIFE’s picture showed me lolling in a hammock, giving orders to those present, as though that was the way I worked all the time.”

By that time, Horace had worked himself out of a job as agricultural agent to a sub-continent, so he (and Ev) returned to America, but for the next decade he was posted to various “emerging countries” from Thailand to Egypt, from Laos to Korea.

During those years, Horace noticed that Americans, overseas, when faced with a problem, simply threw more people into the mix, rather than looking for problem-solvers. He also noticed, as the years passed, more and more of the newcomers were interested, not in helping the locals, but living so far above them (financially speaking) that it embarrassed the locals to ask any questions of the new American “nabobs.”

During their tenure in Pakistan, the Holmes lived not far from the legendary Khyber Pass. Indeed when they spent time on the roof of their residence to enjoy the evening breeze, they could see caravans from everywhere passing through that Pass. They came from Iran and Iraq, from China and Arabia, and though the Pass supposedly represented the border between Afphganistan and Pakistan, they never stopped.

Over the years, Horace acquired a large variety of awards and plaques for distinguished service, but the one closest to his heart was an early one.

Just before leaving India, Horace made flying farewell visits to all 51 of his “Etawahs!”, leaving the original one ’til last. When he arrived there, he was begged to stay overnight, for the locals had something for him to see.

The next morning he was taken to the local temple. (A great honor to be accorded an outsider.) Once inside, he met a great many he had helped. Lots of Hindus, but also Muslims and’ Christians and, yes, even a few Untouchables. (Now remember this was during the bitter little war being waged by Muslims and Hindus on the boundaries of brand—new Pakistan.) The village elders told him that never in the long history of the temple had any such event taken place.

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, Oh East is East and West is West, but the void can be bridged by a few good men.

Joscelyn Dunlop

Joscelyn Dunlop is a Virginia native and a widely experienced journalist.

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