Author’s Note: The following is a condensation of the early, draft chapters of my doctoral thesis, “Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration in Poland, 1919-1922.” Other chapters that have been written or are in progress, focus on the mechanism of food importation and distribution into Poland and the effects of the relief on the country’s economy and the health of the population. I will have a presentation at Oxford University next week as part of the “Hunger Draws the Map: Blockade and Food Shortages in Europe, 1914-1922” project. I will focus on the A.R.A.’s activities in 1919, the types of reports and data they used to target relief to particular regions and the way in which food was rationed and meals were prepared in feeding centers or “kitchens” for maximum nutritional effect on children (the primary target of the initial relief campaign).
Warsaw, September 12, 2016
By the time the “American Mission” arrived in Poland at the beginning of 1919 to asess the food situation, the challenges being faced by Poland had already been known to Herbert Hoover (then U.S. Food Administrator) for four years.
In late October 1915, with permission from the German authorities, the Polish Citizens’ Relief Committee of Warsaw contacted the Commission for Relief in Belgium (C.R.B.) in London with the request to assess conditions on the ground in Poland in the hopes of extending relief operations to the country. Herbert Hoover authorized Dr. Vernon Kellogg, then director of the C.R.B. Office in Brussels, to travel to Poland. Kellogg visited Poland from October 31 to November 10, 1915, and submitted his report on what he had learned and witnessed shortly after his return.
Kellogg described the devastation that the war had wrought on the country, particularly during the Russian retreat from the German offensive of 1915. The retreating Russians had destroyed large swathes of land, as well as thousands of homes and factories, to prevent their use by the Germans. Numerous other factors contributed to difficult conditions in Poland, including the interruption of the harvest by wartime operations, the cutting off of the large Russian market to Polish exports once the Germans began their occupation, as well as the lack of raw materials needed by factories to continue production, especially textiles:
The outcome of all these immediate results of Poland’s unfortunate position as the seat of more than a year of war on the grand scale is that the country is stripped of its means of subsistence and the great mass of its people are now either wholly or in part dependent on charity or rapidly approaching this condition.
In Warsaw alone, for example, at least one-third of the population is now being aided by local charities. Famine diseases, such as hemeralopia, xerosis conjunctival, ulcus corneae ex inanitione, are becoming prevalent. A special disease of this type, known as hydrops-anasarca ex inanitione, consisting of a swelling of the whole body, degeneration of muscles, weakness of sight and hearing, and general deterioration, has appeared. In the town of Sosnowize alone 110 cases of the disease were noted in six weeks, half of the number being children….
Thousands of families, including old and infirm men and women, and children of tender age, are maintaining life at present on practically no other food than potatoes. Potatoes alone, in whatever quantity available, without fats and proteins, cannot long support life, especially in a cold country and among people subject to exposure. The weak, of course, go first: the children, the aged, and the sick. Then the strong become weak and the new-weak succumb.
On December 3 the Polish Citizens’ Relief Committee formally petitioned the C.R.B. to extend its relief activities to Poland. A large portion of its message, which described the difficult conditions in Poland, was identical to Vernon Kellogg’s report submitted to Hoover several weeks earlier, indicating that the Committee was the primary source of information and point of contact for Kellogg while in Poland. The petition was signed by some of Poland’s most prominent citizens, including: Archbishop of Warsaw Aleksander Kakowski, Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski, Piotr Drzewiecki, Edward Geisler, Count Władysław Potocki and other civic and religious leaders.
Hoover formalized a proposal for relief to Poland, sending it to Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, on December 22. Hoover included the reports made by Kellogg and the Polish Citizen’s Relief Committee, stating that: “No added words of mine can darken the picture of misery and despair which these statements depict, representing as they do what would have been the state of Belgium but for the relief afforded under international auspices, with your earnest support.”
Hoover related the assurances that he received from discussions with the Germans that “cereals and potatoes available in Poland and elsewhere” could serve as a basic ration for the populace, while “other items of dietary do not exist in Poland and they are critically necessary to preserve health to the strong, life to the weak, and to forehand from the whole population already incipient famine diseases”, namely “fats, beans, etc., together with condensed milk for children” could only be imported from abroad.
In addition to requesting permission for such shipments, Hoover asked for the facilitation of “exchange and banking operations”. Despite numerous meetings and attempts by Hoover, American diplomats and other members of the C.R.B. the attempts to organize for relief to Poland during the war failed, with negotiations stalling in the summer of 1916.
Although the C.R.B. was not able to organize relief for Poland during World War I, it’s efforts weren’t for naught. The publicity generated by the C.R.B.’s efforts, as well as the activities of Polish emigre organizations in America, generated tremendous good will towards Poland, that culminated in President Woodrow Wilson’s support for Polish independence. As tangible proof of this support, enormous American aid, in the form of food relief, medical assistance and technical advice, would be carried out by the American Relief Adminstration in Poland from 1919 until 1922.
The economic situation in Poland was grave in late 1918 and early 1919. The war had left Poland’s agricultural, industrial and manufacturing capacity at a great disadvantage, a result of wartime devastation, as well as confiscation of food, including seed grain, and equipment by the Central Powers. The regions hardest hit were the “Kresy” borderlands to the east and south east, traditional farming regions. Central Poland also faced challenges on one hand from food shortages and limited raw materials for manufacturing. The manufacturing output of Łódź, Poland’s textile production center, and also home to one of the largest communities of Polish Jews, was a fraction of what it was before the war.
Poland’s population at the end of the war was close to twenty-six million. Of these there were three million Jews, six million Belorusians and Ukrainians and one million Germans. It is difficult to determine how many Poles (and non-Polish inhabitants of Poland) died on the territory that became post-war Poland, as a result of military operations, starvation and disease. We know that roughly 3 million Poles served in the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Armies, and that perhaps as many as 800,000 were killed or maimed on the battlefield. Civilian deaths probably surpassed that number, with estimates ranging as high as two or three million. Three million total deaths (civilian and military), represents roughly 10% of the pre-war population. According to one source the total population on Polish territory shrunk by 4 million residents. A large portion of this decline was also the result of voluntary and forced displacement, though exact figures are difficult to determine.
Of the groups most affected by the devastated economy were children, particularly in the east. Child welfare work in Poland was well-established before the war, however the dearth of resources resulting from the conflict created a daunting roadblock to future operations:
At the Armistice, there were 1,430 registered institutions in Poland, caring for about 100,000 children. But the food shortage and the resulting high prices in 1918-19 forced many of these institutions to cut down their work at the very time when the number of children in need of relief was steadily increasing. For instance, the Soupes Scolaires, which had served one substantial meal a day to 44,000 children in the spring of 1918, could provide only a very light daily meal to 28,000 children in the tragic spring of 1919. (America and the New Poland, H.H. Fisher, 1928).
A fundamental challenge to the feeding of children was the lack of milk and fats, resulting from the confiscation and slaughter of dairy cattle and other farm animals, as well as the lack of feed available to sustain those that remained. Where food was available there was often a lack of money with which to purchase it, and to compound the problem, Poland’s orphan population grew dramatically as a result of the war:
In 1922 the Polish-American Children’s Relief Committee (P.A.K.P.D.) estimated that in 13 districts in what was formerly Austrian and Russian Poland, there were 160,640 children who had lost one or both parents in the period 1914-1920…The J.D.C. registered over 30,000 Jewish orphans in Poland in the course of their work there…it is probably true that in 1919 at least two million Polish children needed food, clothing or medical care. (Ibid.)
Malnutrition and starvation wreaked havoc on the still-developing bodies of children. Rickets, bone deformation resulting from vitamin D and calcium deficiency, and tuberculosis, an infectious, bacterial disease often affecting the lungs, were prevalent among the young. A Red Cross survey from 1920 showed that up to 50% of working-class children “were infected with either pulmonary or bone tuberculosis.” Refugees returning from the east brought with them cholera, a bacterial infection of the small intestines and typhus, another contagious, bacterial disease, which exacerbated the critical health situation and spread rapidly among those weak from hunger.
The severity of the consequences of malnutrition among children was assessed by Americans through an early-20th Century understanding of human biology, promoted by physiologists, such as Stanford University alumnus, Colonel A.J. Carlson, an advisor to the American Relief Administration in Europe. His analysis of the situation was printed in the American Relief Administration Bulletin of April 29, 1919:
War means decreased birth-rate and increased child-mortality in proportion to the disorganization, want, and distress forced on the civilian population. Modern warfare is directed against nations rather than against armies, and the child is the innocent victim of war. The pangs of hunger in the child are more intense than in the adult, and the miseries of starvation more persistent. It is a common experience as well as a reasonable dedication in proportion to the size of his body, the child needs more food than the adult, as the child is more active, and , besides, is adding to his stature day by day. It has recently been shown that quite apart from growth and muscular activity, the food requirements of the child at rest is 15 to 25 per cent greater than that of the adult.
The known facts are: The growing child needs: (a) greater pro-rata amounts of food than the adult; (b) special growth-producing substances present only in certain foods, such as milk, and lastly (c) nature has provided a “factor of safety” in the persistence of the capacity for growth beyond the period peculiar to the spices, in case of growth arrested by under-nutrition.
Recognizing the instability of the geopolitical situation in Central and Eastern Europe, Hoover did not wait to investigate conditions in these regions. Had he waited until negotiations with the Allies were complete, missions to assess the needs of those struggling nations, many having just now gained their independence, would not have been embarked on until well into 1919.
Acting quickly, in anticipation of sending food supplies immediately upon the completion of negotiations, Hoover’s representatives set out for Germany, Serbia and Austria in December, and were soon followed by the American Mission to Poland. Hoover did not have unilateral authority to send such missions, but approval from U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing was quickly obtained by Hoover. In his December 18, 1918 letter to Lansing, Hoover stressed the necessity of obtaining “reliable information as to the food situation in Poland”, by sending qualified personnel to the country.
On December 23, 1918, the American Food Mission, led by Dr. Vernon Kellogg, was established and soon sent to Poland by Herbert Hoover to investigate food conditions in the country. The Mission was officially a unit of the United States Food Administration until February 24, 1919, when it became part of the American Relief Administration (A.R.A.), which was created through an executive order by President Wilson. Herbert Hoover transitioned from being U.S. Food Administrator to Director General of the A.R.A.
Depending on the findings of the Mission, an appropriate volume of relief supplies could be sent to Poland and a framework could be established within which food relief could be distributed. Owing to the unknown realities on the ground, slow means of communication and reflecting Hoover’s leadership style, he entrusted those he designated to use their best judgment without micromanaging their actions.
After several days of meetings in Warsaw in early January 1919, the Mission was able to establish preliminary estimates of the food needs of Poland and the funding it would require. Arrangements were also soon being made for the transportation, unloading and distribution of foodstuffs. Preliminary investigations indicated that of a population of twenty-seven million in territories claimed by the Polish Government more than one-third or about ten million, were unable to provide themselves with enough food to maintain health. Some could provide a little; many were totally destitute.
On the basis of these estimates the tentative American program involved importation of supplies sufficient wholly to care for two and one-half million people, or as many more on part rations as demanded. This involved the importation of 348,250 metric tons, consisting of flour, 216,000 tons; beans, peas and rice, 72,000 tons; fats, 54,000 tons; condensed milk, 2,400 tons; and miscellaneous articles, 3,850 tons.
The work of the mission to Poland was just getting started. The Americans would begin a series of trips and excursions to the distant reaches of Poland to assess the need for food relief. Even though the transportation situation improve as far as food being transported from Gdańsk to Warsaw and then to other regional warehouses, the political situation on Poland’s borderlands to the east, the Kresy, would erupt into war between Poland and Russia in the spring of 1920. In the early months of the war, the Poles won a series of battles that’s saw them reach as far as Kiev. The American Relief Administration officers and volunteers followed the Polish front as it extended east, establishing kitchens to aid the local populations which were in even more dire circumstances than other Poles in the west.
The American Mission would also begin cooperation with other large organizations to coordinate relief efforts supplemental to food relief. These included work with the American Red Cross, which supplied huge amounts of medical supplies and clothing to hospitals civilians and the Polish Army. Private, American, charitable organizations, such as the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Y.M.C.A. (Young Men’s Christian Association) and Polish Grey Samaritans, would also coordinate with and augment the relief initiated by the Polish Mission.
The U.S. Government’s role would further expand with the establishment of an anti-typhus campaign in Poland led by the U.S. Army and a mission of technical advisers which would help Poland resolve many complicated issues surrounding transportation and mining. The foundation of all of this subsequent aid however would be the initial and ongoing reports by the members of the American Mission and their creativity in resolving myriad disputes and complex problems, all dutifully related to Herbert Hoover, who would himself visit Poland in August 1919.