How Truman Sold Americans on Going Hungry

In 1947, the United States sacrificed for the sake of a starving Europe.

By , a professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School.
A group of school boys displaced by World War II bombardments pose with CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) packages from the United States in Belgium in 1947.
A group of school boys displaced by World War II bombardments pose with CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) packages from the United States in Belgium in 1947.
A group of school boys displaced by World War II bombardments pose with CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) packages from the United States in Haren, Belgium in 1947. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The United Nations recently released two numbers that should shock the world into action. Forty-five million human beings might starve to death this coming year, and 222 million people will suffer acute hunger. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called this the “greatest global food insecurity crisis of our time.” He is correct, but Americans have been here before. The last time the world faced a global famine, Americans did something astonishing: They chose to go hungry to make more food available for shipment overseas.

The United Nations recently released two numbers that should shock the world into action. Forty-five million human beings might starve to death this coming year, and 222 million people will suffer acute hunger. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called this the “greatest global food insecurity crisis of our time.” He is correct, but Americans have been here before. The last time the world faced a global famine, Americans did something astonishing: They chose to go hungry to make more food available for shipment overseas.

As the winter of 1947 approached, millions of Europeans faced mass starvation. A combination of wartime destruction, postwar drought, and the coldest winter in memory was damaging production. By the close of September 1947, the U.S. State Department was reporting that Italy and France were in danger of total collapse, which would trigger a cascade of calamities across the continent. The next three months would be critical. The United States had already sent as much surplus grain as it had available, but Europe needed an additional roughly 100 million bushels before Christmas to avoid apocalypse. There was simply no more grain to send—at least, not yet.

Then-U.S. President Harry Truman could not stomach the idea of allowing millions of people to starve if he could possibly prevent it. So much had been sacrificed throughout the war, so many lives had been shattered and lost, and now starvation threatened to destroy the hard-won peace. Mass death, malnutrition, and especially the spread of disease that accompanied the crisis would leave Europe prey to anarchy and communism. Hunger, he knew, drove people to despair. Somehow, that extra 100 million bushels would have to be found. And Americans would need to find it in less than 100 days.

It would be a strategic disaster as well as a moral one: The United States was already embarking on a global contest with the Soviet Union, and Europe was the first battleground where prosperity was the key to people’s hearts and minds. Truman had to persuade the nation to sacrifice on behalf of total strangers overseas. And he was counting on the American people’s sensibleness, goodness, and basic sense of decency. Truman was not wrong to expect support, but his idealized image of America crashed headfirst into the reality of a divided nation.

Unlike his Soviet counterparts, the president had no legal authority to seize grain from farmers. Any additional grain would have to be secured voluntarily by changing existing patterns of usage. So, Truman made an unusual move. He recruited the nation’s top salesman, Charles Luckman, to head an emergency food committee. Time magazine had dubbed Luckman the “boy wonder” of business when he was 27, a few years before catapulted to the head of Pepsodent at 27. Instead of selling toothpaste, his job would now be to convince Americans to eat less to free up grain for shipment abroad. Luckman immediately turned to the country’s top seven advertising agencies to create their most compelling campaigns, and he gave them only a weekend to work on it. Luckman had thrown down a challenge, and the so-called Mad Men of Madison Avenue responded. The slogan they selected was simple: “Save Wheat. Save Meat. Save the Peace.”

Luckman’s Citizens Food Committee then put forward a stringent four-point program. Americans would be asked to eat one less slice of bread per day, to eat no meat on Tuesdays, and to eat no poultry or eggs on Thursdays. In addition, restaurants would be asked not to serve bread unless requested. And that was just the start.

Amazingly, ordinary Americans rallied behind the food drive. Meat sales fell as sales of fish rose. But Truman and the Citizens Food Committee understood that the greatest savings would come from grain producers, not consumers. Here, again, the country came together. Bakers changed what they produced and how they produced it. Restaurants enforced meatless Tuesdays and eggless Thursdays. Flour mills reduced waste; breakfast cereal manufacturers cut production. Sector after sector, countless companies pitched in. But then, as it always does, the backlash began.

The first major opposition came from the country’s poultry producers. Fearing the loss of revenue, they strongly opposed poultryless Thursdays. To draw attention to the problem and simultaneously embarrass the president, they sent crates of live chickens to the White House, hoping that the cacophony of squawks would undermine the president’s public relations campaign. The media instantly dubbed them “Hens for Harry” and “Leghorns for Luckman.” The ploy worked. Luckman’s committee dropped poultryless Thursdays, kept eggless Tuesdays, and hatched a new plan.

It turned out that the largest consumers of grain were chicks, not people. Feeding them required the use of enormous amounts of grain. The solution was clear. The nation’s poultry producers engaged in an act of mass extermination in which 136 million baby chicks were killed. The industry also reduced the turkey population, even though Thanksgiving was coming soon. But those measures combined to yield 56 million bushels of extra grain. The Citizens Food Committee was nearing its 100-million-bushel mark. They just needed 20 million bushels more, but this last measure seemed a step too far.

There was one other industry that could make a major difference. Distilleries consume vast quantities of grain to make alcohol. If they could be induced to shut down their operations altogether, if only for a few months, then the United States could make enough grain available for Europe. But shutting them down meant that American workers would be laid off during the holidays, and they objected. The workers felt that the president should be putting America first.

Industry leaders were equally outraged. They had no wish to lose so much revenue, especially around the holiday season. With industry chiefs seated around a table, Luckman made his case. He described the desperate straits of Europe’s women and children. He played on the industrialists’ compassion, their kindness, their humanity—and the owners were utterly unmoved. The discussions were not going well. Luckman knew he would soon have to call for a vote.

And then, unexpectedly, Luckman was passed a note. It came from one of the industrialists in the room, the influential Armand Hammer. The note read: “Everyone in this room knows you have the complete backing of Harry Truman. Make them vote by name.”

Luckman immediately understood what it meant. None of these men would want to make an enemy of the president, but the cost of being exposed as shirkers would be even worse. At a time when so many Americans were doing their part to sacrifice for strangers overseas, if these wealthy industrialists were revealed as heartless, then it could be a public relations disaster for their businesses. When the roll call vote was taken, the tally was 14 to 7. Luckman had won.

On Oct. 25, 1947, production of alcohol in America slowed to a trickle. It did not resume until Christmas Eve. The grain savings exceeded even the best estimates, pushing the final campaign’s total over the 100-million-bushel goal. Unfortunately, nearly 1,000 distillery workers lost their jobs and had their lives upended by the stoppage. America was waging a war on hunger, and in the cold calculus of this campaign, it was a simple choice between the loss of work or the loss of life.

Today, America is a much wealthier country with far greater productive capacities. Its citizens will probably not need to eat less to create more food for others, but Americans will likely have to sacrifice in other ways to help feed hungry humans. As the global food shortage worsens, the United States will have to devise creative new methods for supplementing food shipments to countries in dire need. And as in the past, everyone will be expected to do their fair share. The overwhelming support for Ukraine has shown that Americans can still unite behind those people in need. There will always be selfish America-firsters, indifferent to the suffering of others, but most Americans still want to do the right thing. They just need their leaders to show them how.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Zachary Shore is a professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School; a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies; and a national security visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of A Sense of the Enemy, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, and This Is Not Who We Are: America’s Struggle Between Vengeance and Virtue. The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

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