How 1 Woman Took on Soviet Union in Afghanistan

Joanne Herring, a longtime political activist and philanthropist, deserves a great deal of credit for helping break the back of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

Herring, who became politically engaged in the Middle East in the 1970s, saw that the Soviet Union was seeking to take over Afghanistan to ultimately gain control of the Strait of Hormuz, the passage today for one-fifth of the world’s crude oil exports.

Today, Herring joins the show to share how she and the late Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, worked together to get the Afghan people the resources they needed to defeat the USSR and move America one giant step closer to winning the Cold War. 

Herring also discusses her philanthropic work in Afghanistan, which she calls Marshall Plan Charities, and how one Afghan village was revitalized by empowering the people with the tools they needed to survive.  

Plus, we break down what you need to know about former Vice President Joe Biden’s female press team and what the media missed about President Donald Trump’s powerful female leadership team.

And as always, we’ll be crowning our “Problematic Woman of the Week.”

The transcript below has been edited for length. Enjoy the show! 

Virginia Allen: I am so honored to welcome to the show Joanne Herring, the founder of Marshall Plan Charities, a longtime political activist, philanthropist, an inductee to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, and a woman who can receive a great deal of credit for helping to break the back of the Soviet Union.

Ms. Herring, thank you so much for being here today.

Joanne Herring: Well, thank you Virginia, I’m privileged to be here. Nothing is really as important in the United States today as The Heritage Foundation. It’s the think tank that can save America, and we are, I think, in danger.

Allen: Oh! Thank you, that is kind of you to say. High praise coming from you, and you’re so right, this is a critical time in our nation where, as you have done your entire life, we all have to be standing up and fighting for freedom. And Ms. Herring, I am just truly inspired by your story, by the life you have lived.

We’ve gotten to know each other just a little bit over the past month, and it has been such an honor to hear your stories.

Ms. Herring, you worked for years in Afghanistan, and during the Cold War, you played a really critical role in helping the Afghans defeat the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were violently attacking the Afghan people, bombing their villages, and killing their women and children. So, after you had been working over there for a time, you realized you were going to need support from Congress to get the funding needed to actually support the Afghans’ fight against the Soviets.

So, you recruited … Rep. Charlie Wilson [D-Texas] to help get the funding needed to supply the Afghans with the resources they needed to defeat the USSR. What you all were able to accomplish was just incredible. So, tell why you chose to get so involved in the fight to defeat the Soviets in the Middle East?

Herring: I went into Afghanistan in ’79, when there was not anybody in there but us, the Soviets, and the mujahideen, which was the Afghans fighting for their survival. And that is when I realized that, [the Soviets’] aim was not Afghanistan or Pakistan, but the Strait of Hormuz.

President [Jimmy] Carter was calling it a tribal war, and the Soviets were landing tanks every 48 minutes.

And I, for some strange reason, was the only person that looked at a map. I thought, “Why do the Soviets want Afghanistan? Why are they invading this little country that doesn’t have a blade of grass, that’s 90 degrees in the summer and below 30 in the winter? What are they doing here?” And then I saw Pakistan, and I said, “Oh! And they’re going to invade Pakistan? Why?”

Because from Pakistan you could control the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz every day, 80 million barrels of oil passed. The United States was not energy independent. I said, “Oh, my goodness! It’s not our air conditioners and cars that are threatened, but our factories, our jobs, our defenses, our airplanes, our boats. We don’t have the means of keeping them working until we have enough petroleum to make them work.”

This is the economy of the United States that they are aiming for. We have got to save the Strait of Hormuz. Thanks to [President Donald] Trump, we’re now energy independent, but we were not then, and this was a great threat.

When I took this to Charlie [Wilson], and the other people in the United States who had told me Afghanistan was not important, and [President Ronald] Reagan—see, this got to Reagan, too, and he understood it quickly.

And that’s why Charlie with the Republicans voting solidly behind him were able to get some money for helping Afghanistan. And it started out with very little money, and we had to do all kinds of machinations to get the armaments for them because they couldn’t be marked “made in USA.” And this was very difficult, but we managed to get it through my connections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Charlie’s connections in Israel.

And this all came together and under the radar, we were starting to help the Afghans fight the war, and they did. And we did it without one single American, not one American soldier was involved in that war, and we won it. And it was hind legs of the Soviet Union because, it’s the first time that Soviet soldiers were actually involved in the fighting all over the world.

Whether the Soviet Union in Vietnam, and in Cuba and in Nicaragua, all the places that were threatened, they raised their own troops, financed them, armed them, but they didn’t carry the Russian name. But this time, the Russian soldiers themselves were there, and the word was going home and the body bags were going home, and this made a big difference in the Soviet Union itself, and it had a lot to do with the end of the Cold War, so that is what that was all about.

Then what happened after that? The United States, after asking this tiny, little, poor country with nothing to fight to the death for our beliefs and the things we wanted … we walked out. We left them a ruined country.

We didn’t give them schools as Charlie said in the movie, we couldn’t even give them a school.

Allen: And at a moment that’s when I, correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like, that’s when a light bulb went off in your head, of saying, “I can do something to help these people on the ground in a practical way”?

Herring: Well, I’d more or less said, “What can I do?” Because you see, I didn’t think it was right to take everything they had, and then not help them at all.

Allen: Mm-hmm, because they just fought this massive war, defeated the Soviets, but Afghanistan, they were a war-torn nation. So many lives had been lost, people had lost limbs, been terribly injured, and now they were sitting as a nation just struggling to survive, parents struggling to feed their children. People didn’t have jobs.

So, you determined that there were five key elements needed.

Herring: No, darling. I would love to take credit for all of that. What I did is ask, “What in the world can we do for this country?” And then I thought, “Well, what do they need?” And I thought, “They need food. They need water. They need everything, but what they need is so basic. They need schools.”

And schools are so important, but if you are sick with dysentery, which has killed more soldiers and armies over the world than anything, you can’t learn. And if you’re hungry, and you don’t have any food, you can’t work.

Allen: Yeah.

Herring: How are these people going to survive? How can a school help them when they’re really not in the condition to take advantage of it? They need a little medical care, not big things, but shots, mosquito nets, a midwife. They have the highest death rate among mothers in the world, in a country that’s war-ravaged, and the average person is under 14 years old.

And they need their children, and the Afghans are wonderful parents. They try so hard, and they do everything, and they’re willing to work like dogs for anything and give their life.

So I said, “OK, how can I get them food, water, health care, moderate education, and the most important thing in the world, in any charity … is tomorrow.

You can give them a wonderful meal today, but how about tomorrow? You can’t feed them forever, so we have to teach them to feed themselves, help them to learn. Most of them couldn’t read and write, 80% of the Afghans couldn’t read and write, so they had to follow the head man into everything.

When you start a village in some parts of this sort-of country, you’re really starting with very modest things because they’re not able to move any faster than they can learn, and they were brilliant. There was nothing wrong with their minds. It was the opportunities they had never ever had.

Anyway, what I said to them was, “Look, let’s do one village. Find me the strongest, most honest head man that you know in Afghanistan.” And I did this with colonels. By this time, America was involved in Afghanistan, and the colonels read my story and what I had done in freeing Afghanistan. And I say that with quotation marks, because they were barely free.

And [the colonels] said, “Oh, my goodness! We’re the guys that go out and fight. We don’t plan the battles. We actually participate in them.” And they love the Afghans. And they said, “I know you’ll never answer this letter, but if you will, we’d like to help you. If you want to do a village, if you want to try to help the Afghans rehabilitate themselves and be a country that can take care of themselves, we want to help.”

And they were wonderful. And so … I said, “OK, let’s go.”

Allen: This was about 10 or 15 years ago, correct?

Herring: Right. And since then, what happened, but you see you have to understand that this is what we’re facing around the world today. It’s not just a matter of throwing stuff at them. They have to learn how to use the stuff. America is so far advanced that we send in for medical help an MRI.

In six months, because nobody knows how to use it, nobody knows how to repair it, it becomes a doorstop, when what they need is bandages and penicillin, and anything that will help stop the infections that they get and the malaria, and that they have polio, all those things and the TB, which can be helped. There are shots for all of these things, but they didn’t have access to them.

This is what we started doing, giving them access.

Allen: Well, I think, it’s just amazing how out of this one little Afghan village, this beautiful model has come about that is so practical and can so practically be implemented in other nations.

And in 2009, you founded Marshall Plan Charities, and I encourage all of our listeners to check out the website. We’ll link it in the show notes because it’s so incredible to see what can be done when you do go into a community and like you say, “You teach people how to fish.”

It’s beautiful. It brings lasting change. And Ms. Herring, thank you, your work is amazing, and I’m so inspired by you and the fact that you don’t stop. You’re continuing, you keep going, I love that you don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You have this beautiful vision for how you can really transform impoverished areas all over the world.

Herring: Well, darling Virginia, thank you for that. …. God bless you and The Heritage Foundation, which I have supported from the very beginning, and which I believe in as the great think tank of the world.

Allen: Thank you, Ms. Herring, we so appreciate your time. It is an honor to have you on the show.

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