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Feed the Starving Children-the U.S. Relief in Poland after WWI

Polish children preparing for the parade in honor of Herbert Hoover, in 1919. “Photo courtesy of Hoover Institution Library and Archives

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

During and after World War I, the United States was crucial in providing humanitarian aid to devastated European countries, particularly the neediest residents, including children. President Woodrow Wilson established the United States Food Administration (USFA) in 1917 to ensure food supplies for the US and Allied armies and civilians at home and abroad. Herbert Hoover served as the head of the USFA until it was wound down with the November 1918 Armistice. Subsequently, the American Relief Agency (ARA) was formed in 1919 with a budget exceeding 100 million USD. Later ARA evolved into a private association called the Fund for the Children of Europe.

Food will win the war - You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it - Wheat is needed for the allies - waste nothing. Source: Library of Congress

Under the leadership of Hoover, the ARA donated an impressive amount of aid, including nearly 2.5 million tons of food valued at around $636 million. Herbert Hoover later became the President of the United States. The support provided to European governments included cash payments, loans, and emergency materials. American citizens also contributed to the relief efforts through charitable donations. American support for the neediest residents of post-war Europe and children was considered a high priority and was extended multiple times to include more countries. The aid provided by the United States to Europe's needy and children continued to expand, encompassing more countries over time. The ARA aided 23 countries, including Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Finland, the Baltic States, and Soviet Russia. Multiple organizations, including the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the American Red Cross, also appealed for help.

The American public was constantly exposed to images and descriptions of poverty, hunger, and suffering endured by the youngest war-ravaged European residents. The ARA's initiatives and the dire circumstances in Europe were conveyed through press articles, including stories of families impacted by the assistance provided. Photographs of hungry and needy children, often featuring children from former Austrian territories as symbolic representations, were published to depict the overall situation in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, the duration of the aid efforts, combined with post-war financial, social, and political crises in the United States, posed challenges. The desire to return to isolationism and a "return to normalcy" signaled a decline in support for foreign aid. The ARA reached out to American citizens, seeking donations for operations in Europe. The fatigue and financial strain experienced by Americans led to a decline in contributions. Throughout the relief effort, appeals for donations were posted in the press, and journalists highlighted the stories of families who had received aid from the ARA. The economic crisis and social unrest in post-war America made the ARA's initiatives challenging, but the organization appealed to national and family solidarity to generate support. Fundraising campaigns were conducted through the American press, religious associations, and even "dinners with invisible guests." Hoover's calls for conservation, such as "Hooverizing," "Meatless Mondays," and "Wheatless Wednesdays," encouraged Americans to reduce consumption, save food for being shipped overseas and avoid rations.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

American humanitarian organizations, including the American Relief Administration (ARA), began arriving in Poland and other countries in Central Eastern Europe in 1919 to provide assistance. Humanitarian workers from the United States traveled to war-torn European countries where governments were unable to adequately care for those most in need, particularly children and women. The belief in societal obligations towards children had its roots in the progressive movement of the 19th century, which sought to improve the lives of families and children affected by industrialization and urbanization. The ARA recognized that the family would care for children in ideal circumstances, but the responsibility falls on the state in times of war, famine, or disease.

After World War I, many European governments could not adequately care for the most vulnerable members of society.

Poland received significant assistance from the ARA, as approximately 20% of its resources were directed toward the newly established Second Polish Republic. The commitment to Central and Eastern Europe was strengthened by the unique relationship between the United States and these countries, given the significant immigrant population originating from Polish lands and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Donations poured in from Polish and Jewish associations, particularly in Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and New Jersey, where many individuals of Polish origin resided. Approximately 85% of all donations made by Americans during the 1919 ARA campaign were directed toward supporting the starving children in the Second Polish Republic.

In the case of Poland, which had been greatly affected by the war and subsequent epidemics, malnutrition among children was a severe problem. American aid workers, including the Polish Gray Samaritans, collaborated with local associations and government representatives in Europe to ensure effective assistance. Polish government actively participated in the food assistance provided by the Hoover Mission, covering local transportation costs and financing distribution efforts. The goal of the ARA in Poland was to establish a centralized child welfare organization to continue the mission once the ARA withdrew from the country.

Historian Christopher Blackburn noted that the US delivered over 750,000 metric tons of supplies valued at $200 million to Poland from the end of World War I until the conclusion of the Polish-Bolshevik War. This support and other forms of economic and humanitarian aid helped Poland avoid internal revolt, foreign dismemberment, or collapse into anarchy, opined Blackburn.

Overall, the United States played a significant role in providing much-needed assistance to Europe after World War I, addressing the immediate needs of war-torn nations and playing a crucial role in providing humanitarian aid to devastated countries.

Read More:

The History of Meatless Mondays PBS


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