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‘The Grimmest Spectre’ | September 8, 2017

‘The Grimmest Spectre’

The World’s Emergency Famine, Herbert Hoover’s Mission, and the Invisible Year, 1946

Welcome guest blogger Dr. Lisa Payne Ossian, who recently received a Research Grant to explore the archives at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum thanks to the generosity of Truman Library Institute members and donors. Dr. Ossian traveled to the Truman Library to research the famine following World War II and wrote the following about her research.

“At President Truman’s request, Herbert Hoover had travelled 50,000 miles through 38 countries.
Few men except the starving themselves knew so much about food–and famine.”  – Time, 8 July 1946

“Let them starve,” a Maine farm woman angrily responded to a Successful Farmer pollster when asked about the Famine Emergency of 1946 throughout Europe and Asia. Other farmers across the country responded more carefully as a thoughtful Idaho man explained, “Normal people, in a land of plenty, should not stand by and see any group of people starve.”

A Kansas woman, for example, worried about the European children, and an Oregon voter simply stated, “It will be easier to educate the Germans if they are not cold and hungry.” Yet only 51% of the 6 million American farmers polled believed they should aid the starving people of Europe and Asia in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Initially, a lack of guidance by the USDA complicated international politics and personal business, and by mid-1946 farm economists had narrowed this extreme and complex issue of famine relief, that of keeping the American promise to deliver more food to starving countries following World War II, to a simple economic ultimatum of thirty cents more per bushel of wheat. Did Americans respond in a generous, ethically-minded or a miserly, profit-motive manner to this world famine of 1946?

The Aftermath of War

When the Second World War finally ended, food mattered most. Rations and calories—derived mostly from bread, rice, and potatoes—had often remained below the subsistence level in many warring countries but now plummeted to starvation levels. In some areas such as Eastern Europe, Greece, China and India, more people were threatened by and succumbed to starvation after the war than during the world conflict. As Winston Churchill justly proclaimed within his infamous “iron curtain” speech, the year 1946 had become “this period when famine stalks the earth.”

President Harry S. Truman, from the ending of WWII throughout the post-war era, faced a number of crucial decisions about the devastated conditions of Europe and Asia. Supposedly peaceful, the year 1946 composed an even more complex variation of warring factions and furious partisans combined with little agricultural harvest on both continents. The United States, however, had produced a record amount of wheat and other grains. How would this harvest be utilized? As human food or animal forage? Stockpiled in granaries or distributed through relief efforts?

President Truman’s State of the Union address in 1946 tackled many important domestic topics such as labor strikes, angry GIs, housing shortages, idle plants and potential inflation. The United States had not emerged from the Second World War completely unscathed but remained relatively secure compared to the rest of the world’s devastation. Europe and Asia, however, possessed few alternatives but to turn to the United States and a few other surplus nations as their pending food crisis escalated. “Now is the time to replace hysteria with judgment,” as General Dwight D. Eisenhower commented at the end of that first month. Yet others worried about America’s seeming inaction as this January headline queried: “Had Americans already forgotten the war?”

President Truman would weather many difficult political storms that year, and he needed factual information and positive media coverage to present his message that the United States should be an effective and moral superpower on the new world stage. Somehow, President Truman kept his optimism throughout that spring as he encouraged his citizens to aid their former allies along with their past enemies because the United States had committed future food aid with a promised “solemn obligation.”

A New Job for a Former President

To help fulfill this pledge, President Truman appointed former President Herbert Hoover, whose expertise and consistent hard work had saved millions of European lives during and following the Great War, as honorary chair of the Famine Emergency Committee. Initially the two presidents believed foreign food relief could be met by Americans through “self-denial and self-respect” as Americans would voluntarily reduce wheat consumption by 25% and conserve necessary food oils.

The Great War with its “Hooverizing” campaigns of “Wheatless Wednesdays” and “Meatless Fridays” had initially seemed uniquely patriotic, and many Americans met those sacrifices with enthusiasm. However, the U.S. involvement in the First World War had only lasted eighteen months, so the public patience could persist, but after years of WWII rationing along with pent-up savings, Americans did not particularly want to deny themselves the longed-for luxury goods of meat and sugar. Hoover would therefore develop new and increasing complex strategies based on Truman’s advice about the changing world order.

On March 17th, Herbert Hoover set off aboard a C-54 transport from New York City for a six-week “food study” through 23 countries (the number of countries expanded as the trip progressed). Hoover, his name remaining synonymous with relief in Belgium and Poland, would now be visiting “the children of the children” he had saved 30 years ago, but by 1946 the death and destruction had dramatically escalated. In Poland, for example, over 6 million fewer children lived in this country then before the war began in 1939, and those children who had somehow endured now barely survived within almost unspeakable conditions.

Still, charming photographs of an almost-smiling former president walking through the devastated Warsaw ruins—hand-in-hand with adoring but terribly thin orphans—filled American newspapers and magazines. As Hoover responded to reporters’ queries with rare emotional expression, the city’s scenarios appeared to him as “the grimmest spectre” and remained “heartbreakingly sad.” Hoover concluded succinctly with a voice that echoed past world war relief work, “No one is the enemy of children.”

A Global Famine Survey

On May 13, 1946, Herbert Hoover delivered his “round-the-world food survey” to President Truman and Secretary of Agriculture Clinton P. Anderson at the White House. Questions still lingered, and President Truman requested that Hoover also tour a dozen South American countries that next month to assess their resources toward the global famine
By July President Truman announced that the United States had kept its promise of wheat deliveries (at least in “the pipeline.”) The determining factor remained money rather than supply as the world market price increased over 30 cents a bushel to “pry grain from U.S. farms.”

The war’s immediate aftermath and famine have remained an understudied wedge of time between the official ending of World War II and the beginning of an international plan officially titled the Organisation for European Co-operation. This “pause” may have been needed as a time to recover from wartime’s frantic violence, yet immediate needs for food, shelter and safety could not be set aside. What roles did America’s president and other politicians as well as humanitarians and agriculturalists play in the immediate post-war humanitarian aid before the more well-known Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan? The organization UNICEF—the United Nations aid to international children—would be established in early 1947 as a direct result of this famine survey.

A Plan Emerges

During Hoover’s worldwide Famine Mission—amidst the investigations and interviews; throughout the reams of census figures, rations, cereals, fats, calories and pounds; within the calculations of stocks, storage, tonnage and transport—a possible, plausible plan emerged and took form for the world’s redemption from extraordinary starvation and disease. Strategic order out of senseless chaos began to take shape regarding who should send what food assistance where.

“If every source of supplies will do its utmost,” as Hoover concluded within his final report to President Truman, “we can pull the world through this most dangerous crisis. The saving of these human lives is far more than an economic necessity to the recovery of the world. It is more than the only path to order, to stability and to peace. Such action marks the return of the lamp of compassion to the earth. And that is a part of the moral and spiritual reconstruction of the world.”

Thank you Dr. Ossian, for this enlightening glance into the famine in 1946, and thank you to the generous members and donors who have made it possible for scholars like Dr. Ossian to conduct their research! Are you interested in ensuring that important research like this continues? Donate today.

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