Ed. Notes- With the Presidential Election in the United States coming up shortly, my mind turned to the past. I remembered reading a book in 2012 that shook me to my very core. I contacted Martin C. Fergus, Professor at Fordham University, and asked him to read The Taste of War and write a review for our newsletter. I think that the time has come to bring this book to your attention as we MUST learn from the past. This election holds the fate of the world in its hands.
Review of THE TASTE OF WAR – October 19, 2012
By Martin C. Fergus
What can an analysis of food policy prior to, during and immediately after World War II contribute to our understanding of food issues in the 21st century? As it turns out, a great deal. Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011) not only provides rich historical detail about a topic receiving limited attention in prior accounts of the war; it also offers a lens through which critical aspects of today’s global food system are brought into sharp focus. Along the way it helps us answer key questions about who eats well in our world, who does not, and why. And it exposes in stark relief the disturbing potential for a new conflict over food to reemerge in the coming decades.
There is obviously a vast literature that explores the origins and conduct of the Second World War. We are familiar with the ambitions of the Axis countries to become Great Powers as well as the fascist ideology that promoted and attempted to justify the inhumane treatment of peoples throughout the world, whether in German-occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, in the nation of Ethiopia, or within Manchuria in China. The role that competition over access to the world’s resources played in the lead-up to war is also well-documented. Collingham does not dismiss the importance of such explanations; in fact, she provides many vivid and disturbing details of the horrors that grew out of these factors. What she does that is so valuable is to provide another dimension to this analysis that is especially revealing.
In her own words: “This book seeks to understand the role of food at the heart of the conflict. The focus on food is not intended to exclude other interpretations but rather to add an often overlooked dimension to our understanding of the Second World War [pp. 1-2].” She asserts that a focus on food provides new insight into the causes of the conflict, the conduct of the war by both the Axis and the Allies, and the emergence of a global food system at war’s end. Given its scope, it is only possible to touch upon the essential contours of her analysis. Suffice it to say that there are many details, insights and revealing tidbits – including how the war “became a powerful force in establishing Coca-Cola as the archetypical American [and one should add, world] beverage” [p. 438] – that remain for the gleaning.
The struggle over access to food played a crucial role in the run-up to the war. One thing that Germany and Japan had in common in the 1930s was the fear that they had insufficient domestic resources to meet the food needs of their populations. Other nations had been in a similar position in the nineteenth century, as exemplified by Great Britain. The difference was that Britain secured a reliable source of food for its people by constructing a global empire of Commonwealth countries and colonies. And it, along with the United States, with its huge domestic agricultural market, played a dominant role in what was even then becoming a global economy. Collingham notes that, “Germany and Japan felt disadvantaged by the international economy dominated by Britain and America [p. 2].”
It was at this juncture that a fateful choice was made. Rather than pursuing their food needs through “peaceful trade and economic exchange” [p. 55] Germany and Japan chose an alternative approach. Beginning in the early 1930s, both nations implemented plans to restructure the diets of their citizens to rely more heavily on domestic production and reduce dependence on food imports from that portion of the global economy dominated by Great Britain and the United States. The newly-emerging field of nutrition science facilitated these changes by enabling an improvement in the health of their populations at the same time the mix of foods in their diets was changed. A not incidental benefit of this was to “insure a good supply of healthy recruits” [p. 56] for the military. It is important to note in passing that no nutritional improvement in the diet of the British working class was brought about during this period. Despite studies in the 1930s documenting the existence of poverty and hunger, Conservative Party officials in the government denied that Great Britain had any poor people and refused to recognize that if people were hungry, it was due to low wages and high unemployment, asserting instead that hunger was caused by the bad habits and ignorance of the poor. This situation prevailed until the exigencies of war necessitated a change.
In addition to becoming less dependent on food imports, Germany and Japan worked to insure secure access to the food imports that still were required by engaging in a “quest for empire [chapters 2 and 3].” Collingham writes:
Rather than accepting subordination to the United States, Hitler preferred to engage in a struggle for world supremacy and looked to an eastern empire as a source of food and other resources that would make Germany self-sufficient and independent of world trade. This made war in Eastern Europe inevitable. The Japanese army sought to reduce its country’s dependence on the United States by consolidating its hold over China which many officers saw as an area of settlement and resources, not the least of which was food. But Japanese belligerence in China set the country on a collision course with the United States in the Pacific [p. 2].
Thus the road to war was set in motion in part by the perceived need of Germany and Japan to secure reliable and independent access to food. This was also true of the Italian government, which attempted to transform Eritrea and Ethiopia “into a breadbasket for Italy [p. 31].”
Once war began, “securing a food supply became a central preoccupation for the governments of all the countries drawn into the conflict [p. 8].” Throughout this period every combatant nation put domestic policies in place that established a ranking of whose food needs would have priority. In general, whether in Axis or Allied nations, the needs of the military came first (although there were significant differences among nations in the adequacy of provisions for their front-line, combat troops), followed closely by the needs of domestic workers in industrial plants deemed essential to the war effort. Others found themselves farther down the list; but even then some nations were able to provide adequate if not elaborate rations for their entire populations. The Germans, for example, had specific plans to insure that its citizens would not suffer from hunger and starvation as they had during the First World War. This goal was a product of the need to maintain public morale, the desire to take care of the nation’s own, and a virulent Nazi ideology that classified some groups – including Slavs, communists and Jews – as subhuman “useless eaters” [p. 196] consuming food that should be reserved for ethnic Germans. Thus German policy called for and resulted in the deliberate starvation of millions of persons, while ethnic Germans took over the land and resources that were “freed up.” In the words of the author, “Lebensraum would make Germany truly self-sufficient and immune to blockade and this would eventually enable Germany to challenge British and American hegemony [p. 30].” Similarly, with its control of Manchuria and the rice-producing areas of Southeast Asia, Japan attempted to put itself in a position where, “[T]hey could withstand political isolation and the economic threat and military might of other powerful nations [p. 54].” In the end, due to the relentless blockade and bombing campaign by the United States, they were less successful than the Germans in keeping hunger and starvation from their shores.
War also created food problems for the Allies. The British were faced with a serious shipping shortage due not only to the effort of German U-boats to cut off the island from its normal supply routes, but to domestic factors as well. This threatened to deny Britain the volume of resources supplied until then by the Commonwealth nations and the colonies. The government’s response was to encourage people to change the make-up of the basket of foods they consumed and to increase domestic production of agricultural commodities. This enabled an alteration in the mix of food imports so demands on shipping capacity could be minimized. Foods that were imported came through aid from the United States, although negotiations were not always easy, and continued to arrive, whenever possible, from nations throughout the British Empire. Rationing was instituted, as it had been in Germany and Japan; and due to the desire to make this system fair in order to maintain morale, the advocacy of several government officials, and the growing influence of the science of nutrition, the working classes finally saw an improvement in their diets during the war, laying the groundwork for what would become a postwar welfare society. As with the Germans, the British succeeded in their efforts to insure the nation’s citizens did not go hungry; and similar to the Germans, this success was in part the product of an explicitly racist policy [p. 153] that “exported food shortages to the empire” and “gave lowest priority to the needs of the empire’s colonial inhabitants [p. 124].” One result was full-scale famines in East Africa [pp. 132ff] and in Bengal in India [pp. 145ff].
Other Allied nations were at opposite extremes. In the Soviet Union, more people (twenty million) died from “starvation, malnutrition and its associated diseases” than were the victims (nineteen-and-a-half million) of military deaths [p. 1]. While in the United States, with its vast domestic market and distance from the war’s destruction, there was no food crisis, despite what the appearance of a food rationing program might have suggested. As in Great Britain, the working class in the U.S. saw a significant improvement in their diets resulting from the abundance of war-time jobs and an increase in wages. However, due to racial discrimination in employment, this nutritional gain did not extend to Black Americans. There were also long-term economic changes emerging in the United States, as well as in Canada and Great Britain. War policies began to reshape the global economy through the promotion of agribusiness over small farms [chapter 6]. And the exploitation of colonial food resources by the Allies became “a feature of the post-war world [p. 154].”
Lizzie Collingham has laid out a fascinating, well-documented case for her assertion that a focus on food provides new insight into the causes of the Second World War, the conduct of the war by both the Axis and the Allies, and the emergence of a global food system at war’s end. In the course of her analysis she has provided some clear answers as to why some people ate well and others did not, both domestically and globally: nationalism, colonialism, ideology, race and class all played a role, often reinforcing one another. The key question remaining is whether the author’s claim, that these historical insights and explanations are relevant for understanding and interpreting the global food economy “at the beginning of the twenty-first century [p. 2],” is valid.
While the author provides only a limited and scattered set of observations to support this latter claim – understandable given the primary focus of her analysis – one need look no further for corroborating evidence than KIDS’ curriculum guide, Finding Solutions to Hunger (2009). Here we find outlined a number of the causes of hunger in today’s global economy, including: racial and economic inequality [p. 62], trade policies that shift wealth from “underdeveloped” nations to “developed nations” [p. 73], a legacy of colonialism [p. 79], a market-oriented economic growth ideology that makes even more tenuous the lives of the poor [pp. 95-96], and “the violence of war [that] destroys crops and food supplies…[while] food aid is deliberately blocked and starvation becomes a weapon of war [p. 62].” Despite some obvious differences in these two historical eras, all of this sounds eerily similar to Collingham’s account of World War II and the battle for food.
Perhaps this should not surprise us. It is all too easy to forget how closely we are linked to the past and how what we may look back on as “irrational behavior” appears all too reasonable when it reappears in a modern context. In December, 2000, a paper entitled Global Trends 2000 was approved for publication by the National Foreign Intelligence Board under the authority of the U.S. Director of Central Intelligence. One of the concerns outlined in the paper was that the 21st century held the potential for increased conflict over the world’s resources, especially water. Food stocks in
2015 were projected to “be adequate to meet the needs of a growing world population…[but] problems of distribution and availability will remain [p. 26].” Of course anti-hunger advocates have known for a long time that there is enough food in the world to feed everyone; the issue has always been how it is distributed. Moreover, in recent years as the world as a whole has become more affluent, there have been, in Collingham’s words, “marked changes in eating habits…[a] shift from a grain-based vegetarian diet to one rich in meat and milk…[reducing] the share of food available for the world’s poor…[pp. 2-4].” In 2007-2008 a “food crisis was sparked” as a result of increasing demand for biofuels, a severe drought, and a “surge” in oil prices. As a result, “food is once more becoming a catalyst for political conflict [p. 4, emphasis added].”
Disturbingly, we find ourselves not as far removed from “the battle for food” as we may have thought. This is a sobering conclusion that is made more obvious by an awareness of the history Collingham has so skillfully laid out. And new evidence of this reality emerges on almost a daily basis. A recent op-ed piece in the on-line edition of The New York Times [Dambisa Moyo, “Beijing, a Boon for Africa,” June 27, 2012] points out that the United States has been critical of Chinese investment in Africa, portraying China as “a stealthy imperialist with a voracious appetite for commodities and no qualms about exploiting Africans to get them.” In contrast, Moyo finds China’s motives “quite pure” and sees benefit rather than harm accruing to Africa. The Chinese, he writes, are simply trying “to keep economic growth rates high and continue to bring hundreds of millions of [its] people out of poverty. And to do so, China needs arable land, oil and minerals.”
While Moyo too casually dismisses concerns raised by some about poor working conditions in Chinese-owned factories, he does make a critically important point. China has chosen to fully engage in international economic competition, to join the global marketplace. This is in contrast to the choice made by Germany and Japan prior to the Second World War. As noted above, rather than pursuing their food needs through “peaceful trade and economic exchange” [p. 55] they chose military conquest as the route to accomplish their goals. Unfortunately, instead of endorsing and thus reinforcing the direction of Chinese policy, early in 2012 the United States assumed what some took to be a confrontational posture toward China, when it deployed a detachment of U.S. Marines to Australia. China viewed this as a hostile act designed to deny its legitimate right to a position of influence in the region. More recently, the U.S. has endeavored to shift the emphasis of its “new focus on Asia” away from military competition toward trade and business. Nevertheless, the impression that there is both an economic and a military dimension to this competition lingers. As one “senior Southeast Asian diplomat [said], ‘There’s a nervousness that the two of them shouldn’t get into a fight…No one wants to choose sides’ ” [Jane Perlez – NEW YORK TIMES, “U.S. Shifts Asian Focus to Trade, Business,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 8, 2012, p. A6].
What Collingham’s book helps us recognize is that the choices facing China and the United States today are not that different from those facing Germany and Japan on the one hand, and Britain and the United States on the other, in the lead-up to World War II. The question is, will we learn from history, or are we doomed to repeat it? Looking at the horrendous consequences of the decisions leading up to the Second World War, which Collingham’s book so thoroughly documents, one would hope that we have learned our lesson. It behooves each of us to do what we can to make it so. The work of KIDS to educate young people about the inequities of the global food system and what they can do to make a difference is clearly a part of that effort.
Martin C. Fergus, is Associate Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Fordham University. While at Fordham he taught courses that focused on domestic and international poverty, grassroots development, globalization, and issues of Peace and Justice Studies. In 1998 he received the Outstanding Teaching Award in the Social Sciences from Fordham College at Rose Hill. Among his papers, published articles and book chapters are "Land and Hunger: A Simulation Exercise," "Poverty, Domestic and International: Is There a Connection?" and "International Justice and the World Hunger Problem." During parts of his tenure at Fordham he served as chair of the political science department and as director of Fordham's peace and justice studies program. While living in New York he was for three decades an active member of Bread for the World, serving six years on its national board of directors. He also served for ten years as chair of the world hunger committee for the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Lutheran Church (ELCA). He currently serves on the KIDS Advisory Board. Since retiring from Fordham in 2007, Dr. Fergus has resided in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he remains active in Bread for the World and in the antihunger efforts of his local congregation.