The recent Berlin Deutsches Historisches Museum exhibition on “1945: Niederlage, Befreiung, Neuanfang. Zwölf Länder Europas nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg,” features two artifacts having to do with food. One is a bag of flour from UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) and the other is a CARE package containing, among other things, two cans of powdered milk. Both artifacts are meant to illustrate the state of hunger in Europe at the war’s end and the emergency relief measures aimed at getting food into the most challenged regions.

Content of a CARE-Package in Westerrn Germany, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Content of a CARE-Package in Western Germany, Bundesarchiv, Picture 183-S1207-502, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

What the exhibit does not suggest, however, is the longer-term consequence of post-war food relief, particularly the creation of an international food aid system administered by private agencies but based on public resources – most notably USDA surplus agricultural commodities. The Deutsches Museum’s CARE package offers a glimpse into how and why American surplus commodities became so central to the post-war food aid system.

In 1945, as the war was ending, American planners in and outside the government began discussing the best options for moving large quantities of food and other relief items to the devastated regions of Europe. In 1945 about 25 voluntary agencies that had been trying to deliver relief to Europe joined together in a new cooperative venture named CARE (Cooperative Association for Remittances to Europe). From the start, CARE represented a new type of relief work based on secular ideals and rooted in a partnership between government and voluntary agencies.

CARE’s first permanent Executive Director, Paul Comly French, oversaw the organization’s expansion during the 1950s into relief and development work far beyond Europe. The key element in Paul Comly French’s strategy to build CARE and solidify its role in international food aid was access to USDA surplus commodities. While the immediate crisis in Europe lent an urgency to CARE’s fledgling relief operations, American agricultural planners fretted about how to create market stability for their goods. In this context, government as well as private citizens began to talk about the American surplus as both “the moral challenge of abundance” and as a very practical solution to the need in Europe.

French, like many post-war liberals, was motivated by a humanitarianism forged in the context of secular internationalism and a faith in democratic institutions – but also informed by a growing mistrust of the Soviet Union. French worried, for example, that the Communists were using food aid to further anti-American aims and he urged American officials to make more strategic use of their own surplus. Given this context, it was neither contradictory nor surprising that CARE felt its efforts to be strongly aligned with American interests abroad. The question is, why did the organization look to the US Government rather than private donations, or even business support? The answer is two-fold. On the one hand, private relief agencies recognized that they could not, through private donations, meet the magnitude of the post-war crisis. But beyond that, they seriously mistrusted business and corporate interests and believed that the government, representing the public, would be a natural ally. As a result, during the late 1940s, French, with the backing of the CARE Board of Directors, began a campaign to allow private agencies access to USDA commodities for their relief work abroad.

Post-war humanitarianism soon turned from European recovery to a more generalized agenda of relief and development. For CARE, the logic of institutional growth led not only to an expansion of the organization’s reach beyond Europe (the organization changed its name to “Cooperative Agency for Relief Everywhere) but also to increased dependence on USDA commodities and hence on US foreign interests as well. Indeed, the organization’s first internal crisis occurred when French and the Board decided to expand operations outside of Europe. Some member organizations, the American Friends Service Committee among others, objected. They declared that CARE’s mission – relief to Europe – had been achieved and there was no longer any need for continuing operations. French strongly disagreed, pointing to large swaths of the world still characterized by hunger and poverty.

During the early 1950s, CARE operations expanded in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. CARE also intensified its campaign for access to US surplus commodities and government contracts for relief work abroad. In particular, CARE, along with other aid groups, actively sought a seat at the US food relief policy table – ultimately realized in the 1954 passage of P.L. 480 which became the iconic U.S. Cold War agency, “Food for Peace.”

Mitchell Wallerstein has called P.L.480 the double edge sword of U.S. agricultural policy. It both stabilized commodity prices and responded to humanitarianism and foreign aid aims. I would suggest it was more of a triple edged sword. It did both of those things, but it also tied relief agencies to government supplies and government priorities in unintended ways that had profound effects on the nature of their organizations. As a result of P.L. 480, CARE’s work became increasingly tied to US geopolitical interests abroad. The organization began to depend as much or more on government contracts as on private donations to fund its relief work. When Paul Comly French resigned (amidst a second organizational crisis, this one focused fiscal issues as well as questions about the scope of operations) he was replaced by Richard Reuter. Like French, Reuter saw no contradiction between CARE’s mission and US interests abroad.

As the Cold War intensified, however, those ties became increasingly problematic, particularly in terms of CARE’s independence in determining the focus of its aid efforts. Thus CARE’s operations, for example, in India and later in Viet Nam became integral parts of US strategic agenda. In 1960, newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, re-named P.L.480 “Food for Peace,” and appointed Reuter as director. Reuter left CARE but maintained close ties to the organization. CARE, for example, trained the first generation of Peace Corps volunteers. The idealism of the Kennedy years harkened back to the optimistic internationalism of Paul Comly French’s humanitarian leanings. By the 1960s, however, anti-colonial movements abroad and a growing peace movement at home transformed the context for foreign relief. Paul Comly French believed that ending hunger and poverty would be key to the triumph of democratic institutions abroad. By the 1960s however, anti-communism had, often as not, led to support for decidedly un-democratic regimes. This then, became a fundamental problem for American (and Western) aid organizations and for humanitarian work more generally. Food relief thus has never been simply about feeding the hungry. The CARE package in the Deutsches Historisches Museum is only the beginning of the story.

About the Author

Susan Levine

website Susan Levine is Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on gender, social welfare, and food policy. Most recently she has been exploring the history of international food relief looking at the relation between voluntary aid organizations and state agricultural policies and geo-political strategic goals. Levine is the author of three books, Labor’s True Woman: Carpet Weavers, Industrialization, and Labor Reform in the Gilded Age (1984), Degrees of Equality: The American Association of University Women and the Challenge of Twentieth Century Feminism (1994), and School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (2008).

» More articles by Susan Levine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>