The Grimmest Spectre: The Famine Emergency of 1946

Friday, July 18, 2014: 9:00 AM
Room: 315
Oral Presentation
Lisa OSSIAN , Des Moines Area Community College, Ankeny, IA
“Let them starve,” a Maine farmwoman angrily responded to a Successful Farmer pollster about the Famine Emergency of 1946 throughout Europe and Asia.  A more thoughtful Idaho farmer explained, “Normal people, in a land of plenty, should not stand by and see any group of people starve.”  Yet only 51 percent of six million American farmers believed aid should be sent to starving Europeans and Asians.  By mid-1946 agricultural economists narrowed this complex issue of famine relief to a simple economic ultimatum of thirty cents more per bushel of wheat.  Would Americans respond in a generous, ethically-minded spirit or a miserly, profit-motivated manner? 

            When the Second World War finally ended, food mattered most.  Rations and calories--mostly bread and potatoes--remained below subsistence level in many warring countries but now started plummeting after WWII to record starvation levels.  After war’s end in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and India, more people succumbed to starvation than during the violent conflict.  As Winston Churchill proclaimed within his infamous “iron curtain speech, 1946 had become “this period when famine stalks the earth.”  At the same time, President Truman considered this foreign aid as a “solemn obligation.”

            To fulfill this obligation, Truman appointed former President Herbert Hoover, whose expertise saved millions of European lives following the Great War, to be chair of the Famine Emergency Relief Committee, and Hoover eagerly embraced the challenge, announcing via radio that half a billion people faced starvation worldwide.  Hoover, his name synonymous with relief in Belgium and Poland, would now be visiting the children of the children he had saved thirty years ago, but the death and destruction by 1946 had dramatically escalated.  He visited thirty-five countries in less than two months, collecting famine information that would later contribute to the establishment of the Marshall Plan.