The League of Nations and Our Moral Obligation to Feed the Starving, July 5, 1920



As a preliminary to my subject may I give this audience a hasty review of my impressions concerning the starving children of Europe which I received less than a year ago. When my friend, Dr. Alice Hamilton and myself made some investigations for the Quakers who in cooperation with Mr. Hoover were feeding children in various parts of devastated Europe ↑war worn nations↓. Not that our experiences differed from those of thousands of other Americans who were bent upon errands of succor and relief but because our impressions were so vivid and compelling that we cannot relinquish the hope that more adequate help will come from the United States and also because we came firmly to believe that only by governmental loans on an adequate scale with a widespread participation of willing citizens, could we as a nation fulfill our moral obligation to feed the starving multitudes in central and Eastern Europe and in the Far East.

Moreover I have gradually become convinced that unless The League of Nations is captured by the friends of mankind, by those who shall insist that it direct and canalize a widespread and overwhelming impulse to feed "the hungry" that it will become one more of those abortive efforts “to end war” which fail because they have nothing tangible and human upon which to focus scattered moral energies and no popular drive with which to make effective moral ideas upon a more extended scale than that to which the time has become accustomed.

Our first view of starved children was in the city of Lille, one of the cities in northern France which as you remember was occupied by the Germans throughout the entire period of the war. We went to see the school children who were being examined for tuberculosis, we had already been told that 40% of the children of school age in Lille had [page 2] open tuberculosis and that the remaining 60% were practically all suspects. As we entered the door of a large school room, we saw at the other end of the room a row of little boys, from six to ten years of age passing slowly in front of the examining physician. The children were stripped to the waist and our first impression was a line of moving skeletons; their little shoulder blades stuck straight out, the vertebrae were all perfectly distinct as were their ribs and their arms, of which the bones alone were visible, hung limply by their sides. To add to the gruesome effect not a sound was to be heard, for the French physician had lost his voice as a result of shell shock during the very first bombardment of Lille. He therefore whispered his instructions to the children as he applied his stethoscope and the children thinking that it was some sort of a game, all whispered back to him. It was incredibly pathetic and unreal and we could but share the doctor’s grave statement that only by a system of careful superfeeding, could any of these boys grow into normal men.

Our next view of starved children was in Switzerland; [throughout] the war the Swiss continually fed the children of their warring neighbors. Thousands of French children “back of the German lines” who were repatriated at Evian, passed through Switzerland where they were often retained for weeks to be nursed and fed; many undernourished Italian children were also tenderly cared for but after the armistice when more food became available for the Allied nations but even less for the Central Powers, the Swiss invited many Austrian and German children to be ↑their↓ guests in private households. We saw 600 Viennese children arriving in Zurich. As they stood upon the situation platform without any [page 3] of the bustle and chatter naturally associated with a large group of children, we had again that painful impression of listlessness and of mortal illness: we saw the winged shoulder blades standing out through their thin  ↑[meager]↓ clothing, the little thin legs upon which they could scarcely support themselves. The committee of Swiss women were offering them cakes and chocolates, telling them of the children “at home” who were waiting for them, but there was little response because there was no vitality with which to make it.

We were in Switzerland when Gen’l Smuts was returning from his mission to Hungary and Austria, and one story which he told illustrates most vividly the utter demoralization of children subjected for months to such abnormal conditions. A young officer on his ↑Gen'l Smut's↓ military staff walking one morning on the streets of Vienna, seeing some children who looked particularly starved, gave them some food which he happened to have in his pocket. Immediately the children came running from every direction until there were about two hundred of them; they threw him down, tore his uniform into shreds and bits in the effort to extract more food from his pockets and so badly mauled him that when he was finally rescued he had to go to a hospital for a weeks repairs. Of course the young officer could have defended himself at first, but he did not want to hurt sick and starving children and while he parried with the situation these little creatures who had lost all the restraints and inhibitions of civilization, reduced to the sheer instinct of self preservation, attacked him as any other starving animal would have done.

There are many such aspects of long continued starvation, we were told by probation officers and charity workers, of starved children who stole the family furniture and clothing, books and kitchen utensils in order to sell them [page 4] utensils in order to sell them for food, who pulled unripe potatoes and turnips from the fields for miles surrounding the cities, to keep themselves alive. The judges winced under the necessity of filling the [underfed] juvenile prisons with any more of these hard driven creatures.

I recall a public playground in Leipzig in which several hundred children were having a noon day meal consisting of a pint for each of “war soup” which meant a pint of hot water into which had been stirred war meal, the latter as always, made of a foundation of rye or wheat flour to which had been added ground vegetables or saw dust in order to increase its bulk. The children would have nothing more until supper time for which many of the mothers had saved the entire daily ration of bread because as they sometimes told us they hoped thus to avert the hardest thing they had to bear which was hearing the children whimper and moan for hours after they were put to bed because they were too hungry to go to sleep.

These Leipzig children were quite as listless as all the others we had seen; when the playground director announced prizes for the best gardens and several other matters, they were utterly indifferent, only when he said he hope by day after [tomorrow] to give them milk in their soup did they break out into the most ridiculous feeble little cheer ever heard. The city physician who was with us challenged the playground director as to his ability to obtain the milk, to which the director replied that he was not sure that he could but that there was a prospect for it and that the children must have something to hope for, that was the [prerogative] of the young. With the [uncertain] hope we left them only to visit day nurseries, child welfare stations, schools and orphanages where the [midday] meal was practically the same war soup. [page 5]

We in America are slow to realize that the European food situation has been growing increasingly worse, and, unless some far-reaching program is supported by the United States, may reach an even more desperate pass in 1921. Mr. Hoover has recently declared that, owing to diminished food production in Europe, approximately 100,000,000 Europeans are now dependent upon imported food. Sir George Paish, the British economist, put the fact more [startlingly] when he said that 100,000,000 persons in Europe were facing starvation.

All this is made much worse by the rapid decline in the value of European money in America and in other food markets of the world. In Austria, the crown, valued at about twenty cents in American money before the war, has shrunk to less than one cent. Starvation is now actuality in Vienna; little children are dying for want of milk; the sick, aged, and weak are succumbing; whole population is wasting away. There is appalling misery in the broad belt lying between the Baltic and the Black Seas, to say nothing of Russia to the east and Armenia to the south. Armenia, of course suffers beyond belief. The presence on this platform of Dr. Barton, the chairman of the Relief Commission for the Near East, recalls a story I heard in his presence only a few months ago when one of the returned workers was reporting upon his work in Syria. He said that all through his district they had grown accustomed to seeing the children crack open every bone they found in order to extract the marrow, but that one day when he saw a little girl pounding with a stone, a peculiar looking bone, he asked her where she found it; the child instantly replied “In the graveyard, everybody knows that is the very best place to find bones!”

And yet according to a report made recently to the League of Red Societies, a well informed observer wrote: “There was found everywhere never-ending [page 6] vicious circles of political paradox and economic complication, with consequent paralysis of national life and industry.”

Does this diagnosis give a clue to the situation? Must the League of Nations abandon [its] political treatment of war worn Europe and consider the starving children as its own concrete problem? Would not the Church naturally take the lead in this world wide effort to feed the hungry? If the church gallantly accepts the challenge, we might find the United States arising to its obligation and the world gradually returning to its normal swing.

In other countries, a few people are at least beginning to feed the children of their former enemies. We hear from England of 500 German children landed at [Folkestone] only two weeks ago to become the guests of hospitable people there, and that Italians are entertaining the children of their traditional enemy, the Austrians. Without this return to normal, kindly and humane relationships, it is hard to predict what lies ahead of a distracted and starving world.

As the revolutionists have learned from the war the ready use of arms in pressing their claims, is it not possible that the governments from their war experiences in the increased production and distribution of foods, may also have learned first what the great underlying demand of the oppressed actually is, and also ↑secondly↓ to use the training of war to meet it reasonably and quickly.

In face of the wide spread famine which was doubly the result of war, first of its devastation and destruction and secondly of the withdrawal of millions of men from productive labor, the actual demand for food, the rising challenge of those political and social institutions which prevented its adequate production and distribution, become inevitable. If this demand could be recognized and acknowledged as in a great measure valid, what a much needed change in the worlds affairs [page 7] might take place, not as it now threatens to occur under the leadership of men driven desperate by hunger, but with the help of men who are trained in the daily processes of world wide commerce; men working wholeheartedly to meet adequately and scientifically a world obligation but newly formulated on an international scale [although] long recognized in piece meal fashion. The great danger ahead of the League of Nations is that its first work will have to be the guaranteeing of a purely political peace involved in all the old entanglements and depending upon the old political motives. Whereas if from the very first it could perform an act of faith which marked it at once as the instrument of [a] new era, if it evinced the daring to meet new demands which could be met in no other way then, and then only would it become the necessary [instrumentality] to carry on the enlarged life of the world and would be recognized as indispensable.

Not only the world itself but the minds which appraise it have been profoundly modified by the war ↑and↓ an institution to survive must not only be adapted to human nature but must take into consideration the human mood of the moment.

Doubtless there would be a great sense of relief as the result of dropping the 18th century phrases in which diplomatic intercourse seems to be conducted for plain economic terms fitted to the matter in hand. Such a course might make it easier to discuss credit for reconstruction purposes, the need of an internationally guaranteed loan, the function of a recognized international Economic Council for the control of food stuffs and raw material, the world wide fuel shortage, the effect of [malnutrition] on powers of production, the irreparable results of “hunger [edema]”, even the 12,000,000 Germans whom it is estimated must emigrate if the rest are to survive. [page 8]

Some brave spirit might even point out that it is useless to hold an International Labor Congress in order to raise the standard of life and wages throughout the world, if famine continues to steadily depress that standard throughout the great manufacturing regions of Europe.

Certainly such a situation presents material for a statesmanship which is genuine and straightforward and absolutely essential to the feeding of Europe’s hungry children.

If such an atmosphere of discussion and fiery knowledge of current conditions as revealed by war, were once established, the promoters of the League might at last feel “the zeal, the tingle, the excitement of reality,” or quoting James further come to realize that “whenever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant”. Is it this significance which at present the League so sadly lacks?

It is assumed that the rights of the League are anterior to and independent of its functioning. We are all forgetting that men are instinctively wary in accepting at their face value, high sounding claims which cannot justify themselves by [achievement], and that in the long run, “authority must go with function.”

Why does the League refuse to become the instrument of a new order and insist upon turning over all the difficult problems resulting at least in their present acute form, from a world war, to those who must advocate revolution in order to obtain the satisfaction of acknowledged human needs?

May the time have now come to satisfy these cravings at least to make certain that all men shall be insured against death by starvation, to follow not only the religious command but a primitive instinct [page 9] to feed the hungry, upon an international scale? Why should this great human experiment be turned over solely to those who must appeal to the desperate need of the hungry to feed themselves. May not this demand in its various aspects afford a great controlling motive in the world at the present moment, as political democracy, as religious freedom, has moved the world at other times?

Should the United States lead in a generous response to this overwhelming demand a much needed result would accrue to ourselves; our sympathy and aid given to kinsmen in the old world would serve to strengthen the bonds between us and the foreigners now living on our shores. Here at last is the chance for us to restore the word alien to a righteous use and end its service as a term of reproach. There are many Poles in this country who have had no word from their relatives in Eastern Poland since its invasion by the Grand Duke Nicholas in the first year of the war. The Russians are even in a worse plight, many of them receiving the largest wages of a life time, are yet unable to send home money to their starving parents, to their wives and children left behind in the old country until they could be sent for.

It would be simple to cooperate with the Polish relief fund with its headquarters in Buffalo and its treasurer, an American banker, and the result might well be a new sense of fellowship between them and their so called American neighbors to whom they now feel so remote. To ignore the natural anxiety of the Russians and to fail to understand their inevitable resentment against an unauthorized blockade, to account for their “restlessness” which any of us would feel under like conditions, by all sorts of fantastic explanations is to ignore a human situation which is full of possibilities for a fuller fellowship and understanding [page 10] of our neighbors. To be concerned and sympathetic with our sorely tried immigrant population, might lay the foundations of a genuine internationalism which is so sorely needed in ↑before↓ The League of Nations ↑can become an actuality.↓

Much has been said during the war about primitive emotion and instinctive action, but certainly their use need not be reserved to purposes of destruction. After all the first friendly communication between tribe and tribe came through the need of food when one or the other was starving and too weak to fight, primitive human pity made the [foot] way which afterward developed into political relationships.

Why not open the gates and let these primitive emotions flood our devastated world; by all means let the beneficent tide be directed and canalized by the League of Nations which is after all the outgrowth of century old dreams. The great stumbling block always in the way of its earlier realization and the crux of its actual survival now, is the difficulty in interpreting it to the understanding of the common man, grounding it in his affections, appealing to his love for human kind.

To such men, who after all compose the bulk of the citizens in every nation participating in the League, the abstract politics of it make little appeal [although] they would gladly contribute their utmost to feed the starving as the two and a half million French trades unionists regularly tax themselves for the children of Austria, or as the British [Labour] Party insists that the British foreign policy shall rest “upon the humane basis, really caring for all mankind, including colored men, women and children;” or as the American Federation of Labor declares its readiness to “give a mighty service in a common effort for all [page 11] human kind.”

So far as the working man in any country has expressed himself, it is all in this direction.

Millions of earths humblest toilers whose lives are consumed in securing the daily needs of existence for themselves and their families, go stumbling towards the light of better international relations largely because “Man is constantly seeking a new and finer adjustment between his inner emotional demands and the practical arrangements of the world in which he lives!”

The advocates of the League complain that it is difficult to endear their cause to “the people” when it is precisely the people who are most ready for an act of faith, to whom it seems most natural to feed the hungry. It may take years to popularize the principles of the League but citizens of the Christian nations have already received much religious instruction. “To do the will” on an international scale might result in that world wide religious revival, which the war in spite of many predictions, has as yet failed to bring.