To Italy's homeless children, a G.I. truck means rapture and food.
George Rodger — The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
By Fortune Editors
May 1, 1945

EUROPE, mother of the finest arts of living and surviving, was prepared to outlive defeat and betrayal, rape and shame, Nazis and quislings. It was not prepared for the ultimate ordeal, perhaps the wildest of all: Europe has yet to learn how to survive liberation.

For liberated Europe is fed, clothed, and sheltered worse even than it was under German occupation. That Dr. Goebbels (in case anyone still remembers the name) might take advantage of such an appraisal is far less disturbing than the fact itself, known to millions of liberated Europeans as surely as they know the pangs of hunger and the cold sweat of tuberculosis.

Europe’s rehabilitation, a management job of an unprecedented order, calls for an unprecedented effort. What is required is a giant transfusion of healthy economic blood into a shock-struck continent. The job must be done either on grounds of Christian duty or on grounds of egotistic self-preservation; but it must be done. And the only country that can do the job is America.

Last March it was reported that General Eisenhower had rebuked the War Department for its seemingly hardheaded policy of neglecting civilian supplies to Europe in favor of military requirements. The General undoubtedly realized that his assignment would be botched if the U.S. expedition achieved the military and lost the superior political objective.

The Europeans, of course, consider U.S. rehabilitation aid to be self-understood. What is more, they claim, it has been solemnly promised by official U.S. propaganda. For evidence they can quote Victory, OWI’s magazine for foreign consumption, which after the invasion of North Africa and Sicily gave this mouthwatering picture of what happens when the Allies arrive: “Food distribution centers community restaurants, and clothing centers were set up … Thousands of tons of sugar, powdered and condensed milk, meat and concentrated vitamin preparations arrived for distribution to civilians … The lights went on again; the engines turned.”

When OWI realized the seriousness of the shipping situation, it stopped promising. Actually, it matters little what U.S. propagandists did or did not broadcast to occupied Europe. Stronger than promotion or denial, stronger even than facts, is the one contemporary legend that is believed on five continents—the legend of America’s unlimited wealth. Frenchmen and Eskimos, Africans and Chinese are united in the global folklore that nothing but illwill could keep this wealth from flowing their way. And far from disenchanting the audience, America’s performance in logistics must have converted the last few skeptics: what if not a magic wand could have catapulted these fantastic U.S. Army supplies across more than seven seas?

So the time has come, it seems, for assessing American productive power in its true proportions and in relation to a job that is much more than just feeding the hungry. It is the vast job of regenerating a continent.

What is needed, above all, is an American rehabilitation policy—plain, forthright, public—understandable alike to the people of the U.S., to their soldiers, to their Congress, and to the world. The correct policy can be based only on a correct appraisal of the facts.

THE ORDER THAT WAS

In four years Hitler’s social alchemists had remade an ancient continent after the image, and according to the needs, of Germany. The Germans had indeed created a New European Order—for the prosecution of their war of course, and not for the greater happiness of the French or anyone else—but nevertheless an Order, ruthless, efficient, radically different from the status quo. In four years occupied Europe had become a well-integrated part of Germany’s continental economy. Cost did not matter, nor did feasibility under other than war conditions. This Rube Goldberg Europe was not supposed to make sense. It was supposed to deliver results. And it did.

For four years the Continent was managed as a unit. Giant holding companies like the Reichswerke Hermann Göring, the Vereinigte Stahlwerke, the LG. Farbenindustrie, synchronized all of Europe’s industrial capacities with a single-purposed plan of maximum production and a common pool of continental supplies. The Reich Coal Association, the Kontinentale Petroleum A.G., and, over all, the military, ran production and distribution of coal and fuel from Cherbourg to Warsaw, from Bergen to Naples.

A view from inside one of the landing craft after US troops hit the water during the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. The US troops on the shore are lying flat under German machine gun resistance. (Photo by Robert F Sargent/Getty Images)
Robert Sargent — Getty Images

In four years Europe’s agriculture, forcibly adjusted to blockade conditions, was remade to fit total caloric requirements of the Continent rather than regional eating habits. As a whole, this synthetic Europe produced less feed for livestock and more food for direct human consumption than ever before. The farmers were regimented, the crops ruthlessly requisitioned and efficiently distributed throughout the Continent. Every robot got just enough to keep him producing German war supplies; but that much he got—unless, of course, there was absolutely nothing that he could contribute to the German war economy. Such marginal cases (millions of them) were left to starvation or, like occupied Greece, to the humanitarian urge of the Allies.

To achieve the balance of the artificial Big Space, the equilibrium of the organically grown small spaces had to be utterly destroyed. Not only every country, but every region of every country, was wired to the central switchboard. And the most effective single instrument of continental control was of course transportation. For decades the Germans had learned to build and to run railroads according to the testament General von Schlieffen had bequeathed more than forty years ago: “Railways have become the most important instrument of war for Germany. In future wars one need no longer ask how many divisions the enemy has at his disposal but, rather, how many railroad lines he has.” The blockade threw coastal traffic (60 per cent of normal intra-European transportation) onto the rail tracks. Yet for four years, in spite of strain and sabotage and bombing, the Nazi forces of occupation kept 155,000 rail miles open for monolithic German Europe.

This German Europe was not happy, because it was being robbed and, above all, because it was German. But being robbed meant the enforced use of all productive capacities. And to be German meant to be ruled with cruel, insulting, but undeniable efficiency.

MOSAIC OF PETTY HELL

Came liberation. It did not come as a fast stroke of deliverance. It moved step by step, it cut into tissues that had grown together, occasionally into arteries, and always into the highly sensitive nervous system of a Europe that had been attuned to German impulses. From a distance, and provided the analyst enjoys a fairly balanced diet, the surgery makes perfect sense. On the spot, it is a bloody mess.

It is being performed on a destitute people. For they are destitute, even in regions where food is relatively ample, as in Normandy. The American Quakers, again at war with suffering, again saving man’s faith in man, made a meticulous regional survey of Normandy five months after invasion. Their conclusions add up to a mosaic of petty hell.

Abundance of food. No pots. Total lack of stoves. Most railways damaged by bombing. The few lines repaired by Allied engineers reserved for military traffic. All bridges destroyed. All remaining trucks and cars demobilized for utter lack of fuel and tires. No tiles, tar paper, sheet iron, tarpaulins, window glass or glass substitute available. No shoes, not even for those who fled in summer sandals. No blankets. Hundreds of thousands of people without a single change of underwear. No heating material, except wood salvaged from ruined houses.

The roof went down over Normandy. Of Le Havre’s 18,000 houses, 11,000 completely razed; every fifth house in Rouen; two-thirds in Lisieux; Condé-sur-Noireau 95 per cent razed; in Falaise nine houses out of ten; three-quarters of Caen a pile of dust; 450 of 765 villages in the Calvados department completely destroyed; in Aunay-sur-Odon not one house left; in the village of La Hoguette—”not a single living soul. In the evening you could still smell the rotting corpses and beasts not yet buried.”

This was Normandy. Here peasants had cream. They had loads of butter, so much in fact that they were burning some for fuel. Some wine cellars were undamaged, some wells contaminated by dead cattle. Some old church towers pointed to the heavens, as did some old coffins blown to the surface of the surrounding cemeteries. This was Normandy, liberated. Yet some people in Paris wished they were there.

THE PLAN THAT FAILED

The Allied war chiefs knew that the liberation of Europe was bound to produce the most violent dislocation of history. Before their armies invaded Europe, everything had been figured out, except the actual course of events. That the Allies would have to arrive with civilian supplies, with food and raw materials, was generally understood. So the U.S. and Great Britain pooled the economic brain trusters of the two General Staffs to produce a minimum plan.

Basing their calculations on years of research that had gone into the Allied Minimum Imports Program (a combined planning venture of all United Nations), the brain trusters of the General Staffs emerged with three hypotheses and three corresponding requirement plans. Plan A assumed the Germans would retire in a hurry and without scorching. Plan B assessed the supply requirements if the Germans were continually driven back, but had sufficient time to scorch. Plan C figured on very slow progress and complete destruction of painfully conquered territories.

The military did what military would do. They first found out how much shipping space and how many supplies they thought they could do without, and then picked the plan that fitted this arithmetic. Sure enough, it was Plan A, with a few items of Plan B thrown in for good measure. Reality, as it happened, resembled much more a combination of Plan B and Plan C, which, in an ironical way, justified the selection of Plan A: the brilliant German “pocket” strategy of sealing all major Atlantic ports made the unloading of even the minimum civilian supplies technically impossible. And though the German scorching in western Europe and Italy differed from the Russian home version, Allied precision bombing, combined with the consequences of reckless Nazi withdrawal, disrupted the interior communications of the liberated countries just as effectively.

This French locomotive would have hauled enough coal in 1945 to increase French steel production by 50,000 tons.
Ralph Morse — The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Nor was this all. One of the many factors Plan A could not possibly have calculated was that the tremendous stepping up of the Pacific campaign would coincide with a setback in Europe: the European timetable of advance was badly upset in the late fall and military supplies were lost at an unexpected rate. Another uncalculated development was the disruption of Great Britain, the decisive Allied supply base, by the nightmare of V-l and V-2. The sweeping evacuation measures that followed immediately, rather than actual damage done, canceled many of the stand-by arrangements that had been made for the British stockpiles.

The experts maintain that theirs was a pretty plan, and it undoubtedly was. Only, Plan A when it collided with reality broke down. The French, for instance, insist that Plan A, of which they had been secretly informed before invasion, promised approximately 2,200,000 tons of civilian supplies (including 900,000 tons of coal) to continental France before the end of 1944. Actually, they received between D–day and December around 660,000 tons (including 400,000 tons of coal). The difference is fully accounted for by the fact that the Germans and the Japanese refused to act according to Plan A. But unfortunately, this difference spells a state of health and nerves that makes it difficult, even for the famously logical French, to comprehend the law of cause and effect.

And when the dust of the liberating explosion began to clear away, UNRRA had become irrelevant. In fact, it just was not there.

LA DOUCE FRANCE, DESTITUTE

Most certainly this was not what liberated Europeans had expected. They had dreamed of liberation as a burst of glory and calories, as a sunrise of sweet normalcy. What hit them was a ferocious hurricane.

Europe’s liberation catastrophe is man-made, but no power on earth could have prevented it. Elementary forces are at work, as inescapable as in Greek tragedy—forces of human guilt and human greatness. Western Europe’s guilt was that it had preferred defeat to war, and in defeat worked for the enemy. Four years later, it had to pay the postponed debts in full, plus accrued interest: once more war proved the pitiless usurer. But Europe’s greatness was that it ultimately insisted on being Europe and free again, though the price of Freedom was Want.

This want seems universal, omnipresent, and bottomless. It has a thousand faces, it is as petty as lack of matches, as humiliating as lack of soap, as heartbreaking as a child’s cry for bread.

Last winter, even if they had known in Paris how to get butter from Normandy, they would not have known how to keep it from turning rancid: there was a shortage of salt. There was not enough salt to preserve pigs, which made for disastrous lack of charcuterie, the Parisian stand-by meat dish. There was no sugar to sweeten the coffee, but neither was there coffee to be sweetened.

Starving inhabitants of German occupied France rummage through barrels in search of food on February 24, 1945.
Picture Post/Getty Images

Six months after liberation a Parisian adult was to live on the following quantities of food (provided, of course, he knew where to get them): 12.5 ounces of bread and 9 ounces of potatoes daily; 2.5 ounces of fat (or butter or lard) and 7 ounces of meat products per week:* 10 ounces of cheese, 9 ounces of jam, 21 ounces of sugar, 5 ounces of ersatz coffee, and 2 liters of wine per month. Last January, the total Parisian ration equaled 1,300 calories daily—500 calories less than what it had been under the Nazis (FORTUNE, January, 1943).

Such figures spell less than subsistence, and subsistence would be punishment enough for a people whose sensuous relations to good food are an inextricable part of its national character. But reality, last winter, was worse than that. Reality was a Paris hungrier than at any time since they ate the rats of 1870. (The rats of 1944 were cats. Thirty thousand of them are said to have disappeared in Paris. The black market got $6 per cat—meat, fur, and all.) Reality was a Paris colder than she had been any other winter of the war. A Paris with no vaseline to heal cold-broken lips and no plaster to set the many legs broken on icy streets. Paris was clinics lacking drugs, heat, and even light for operations. It was people allowed to use about half the coal they received under German occupation. A clothing ration that amounted to legal nakedness. (Sixty points per person per year; a man’s suit cost 139 points.) The highest infant mortality rate since reliable records had been kept. Children, fattened by a bread and potato diet, but slowed up in development and dangerously susceptible to pneumonia and bronchitis. (In Marseille, a study of 7,000 babies found that almost 50 per cent of those between nine and twelve months old were either stationary in weight or had lost.) “The French nation is imperiled,” a French newspaper tersely summarized a few weeks ago. Its name, by the way, is Libération.

THREE BOOBY TRAPS

What happened to France in 1944 happened, or is going to happen, to all of Europe. When governments of liberation step into territory that has for years been exposed to German social engineering, three gigantic booby traps are set to explode under their feet: production collapses, distribution collapses, currency collapses.

Every country’s production had been geared to an intricate system of continental (read: German) demands and supplies. When the transmission belts are cut, the wheels stop. Every country’s distribution system had become dependent on unified continental transportation. Allied invasion and German wreckage decimated the rolling stock; recovered national sovereignties impede the efficient use of what rail lines are left. Currencies collapse because this is all currencies can do when production and distribution go to pieces—particularly the madly manipulated sort of currencies German occupation forces bequeath after years of monetary warfare against conquered nations.

The result of this threefold collapse is the reign of the black market. All France (and all liberated Europe, for that matter) is divided into three parts: those who sell in the black market, those who buy there, and those who cannot get in on either side. What makes moral condemnation of Europe’s black market doubly inadvisable is its specific origin and its momentous contribution. For four years it had been sheer patriotism to cheat the Nazi requisitionists and to bootleg the salvaged produce; but what could be more habit-forming than profitable patriotism? Second, if the black market, since liberation, keeps the economy from recovering, it also keeps millions of people from dying. It makes, in fact, more goods available than the government’s distributive and monetary policies manage to get moving.

However, not even the black market can perform miracles: it cannot sell goods that have not been produced, and it cannot sell to people who lack purchasing power. And in France as in all liberated Europe, industrial production is paralyzed, unemployment at an all-time high. France, which from 1940 to 1944 had suffered from manpower shortage, may soon have three million people on the dole—half of her industrial labor force. France, like all of liberated Europe, does not know how to square a supremely vicious circle: there is no transportation to supply dilapidated plants with unobtainable raw materials.

With the merciful weather of spring came tokens of convalescence to France. Though the Germans were still doggedly sticking to five major French ports, facilities in Marseille and Cherbourg had been immensely improved. Thirty-one Allied ships had been earmarked for regular transport of French civilian supplies. Carloadings had increased substantially. But the period of “getting started,” said Pierre Mendès-France, the country’s Minister of National Economy, could not set in before 1946. The job until then is the period of “repairs.” Size and nature of these repairs will predetermine France’s whole social future.

Import-starved France is still faring better than Belgium. This little nation always lived, and lived well, as a processing organism of most subtle balance. Foreign trade was not the margin but the essence of her economy.

Occupation chained Belgium, liberation choked her. During the first five months of new freedom, Belgium received less than 60,000 tons of imports; but when she had to work for Germany, Belgium imported in five months 3,750,000 tons; and when she was herself, before the war, over 12 million tons. True, Allied supplies were mainly food while the bulk of German imports consisted of raw materials to be re-exported as finished products. But a manufacturing nation simply cannot live without a two-way flow of tremendous tonnage.

After the initial shock of dislocation, and the resulting political upheaval, Belgium’s situation improved. Last February, 50,000 tons of supplies reached Belgium. But her people are still undernourished, in dire need of animal proteins. The splendid textile factories of Belgium are locked up, though all of liberated Europe needs clothing perhaps even more urgently than food. (It has been estimated that the Continent’s textile needs are in the neighborhood of one billion yards.) Belgian coal mines produce a small fraction of their capacity because pit props are practically unavailable.

Whatever their hardships may be, the people in the liberated parts of the Netherlands are too close to the utter starvation in the still occupied regions to sulk in self-pity. Last February the official daily ration in occupied Amsterdam had dropped to 320 calories a day. Compared with this depth of nutritional catastrophe, the food standards of the liberated Netherlands indeed look like liberation.

But the transportation crisis that is shaking all of western Europe hit the liberated Netherlands with particular force. And the land itself has been partly corroded. Where sea water has flooded cultivated land, years of sweat will have to undo what the salt did to the earth in a few weeks.

MISERY, UNASHAMED

But in the Balkans and in Poland man has hurt man more cruelly than the sea could ever hurt the land. These had been the areas of least industrial contribution to the Nazi war machine, and they had been treated accordingly. Relieved from the restraining rules of give and take that had governed the occupation of the economically more delicate west, here the Germans just took and took without inhibitions—grain from the fertile valleys for their home reserves, cattle for their stockades, women for their brothels. And liberation misery was equally direct, uncomplicated, uninhibited. Unlike in the west, where the Allies at least had tried to land civilian supplies together with the invading forces, the liberators of Poland and Yugoslavia lived partly on the land.

The Polish Government in exile maintains that agricultural requisition quotas in liberated Poland are now 20 per cent higher than under German occupation. Such statistical accuracy might be open to doubt, but it is a fact that Russian soldiers are allowed to send home from Poland eleven-pound parcels of food. In Yugoslavia, the prolonged epic campaigns of the Partisans looked to the peasants on the spot pretty much like never-ending military forages for food. The country is emerging from the wild ups and downs of occupation and liberation with utterly depleted livestock, completely devastated communications, and a dangerous surplus of currencies. Serbian dinars, Croatian kunas, Italian lire, Hungarian pengö are clogging what remained of the channels of normal economic exchange.

The fertile Voivodina is ready to supply the ravaged regions of Yugoslavia with thousands of tons of wheat; but even if transportation could be rearranged soon, the market economy certainly could not: suspicious of any paper money, the peasants insist on barter. And there just are no exchangeable goods. There is no salt, there are no matches, no needles, no leather. Five hundred thousand destitute children who have survived their parents are roaming the country half naked and mostly barefoot. The clothing of the more fortunate children, in fact the clothing of the whole population, is hardly better; it has been estimated that 80 per cent of all Yugoslavs are in rags.

Relief, if any, arrives in trickles. Poland remains a Russian responsibility, and the Russians’ notions of relief are conditioned partly by their own country’s hardships, partly by their remarkable political “realism” so seldom weakened by humanitarian sentimentalities. Last March the first UNRRA ship loaded with supplies for Poland sailed for a Black Sea port, after many months of humiliating negotiations with the Soviet authorities. UNRRA, to obtain the privilege of getting food into Poland, finally appointed a Soviet citizen as its representative. But even so it is by no means certain that UNRRA will be allowed to have the distribution of its supplies supervised by its own personnel (as required by UNRRA’s charter). The Russians do not share our ideas of charitable and in-discriminating relief. For many a month it looked as if UNRRA would have similar trouble with Tito, but chances are now that UNRRA will be allowed to do its relief work in Yugoslavia on its own terms.

Ironically, Athens, which for so many years has gone through the lowest depths of hell, is today one of the better-fed continental cities. Even more ironically, the reasons for such a change of scene are anything but encouraging. The economic breakdown of Greece had become so final, the prospects for revival so ambiguous, that the entire nation, lock, stock, and barrel, had to be put on relief. To the Greeks, this may be a foreboding of a future of humiliating dependency. But at the moment it also means 2,000 calories a day in Athens, about 35,000 tons of civilian supplies a month.

Mother and children living in neighborhood that was bombed in the war.
George Rodger — The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Quantitatively more has been done for Italy than for any other liberated territory. From July, 1943, to the end of 1944, more than two million tons of civilian supplies have been pumped into Italy (of which roughly one-third was foodstuff). If only in self-defense, U.S. medical services have accomplished, in spots, veritable miracles of sanitation. For instance, soapless civilians receive free daily dustings with DDT, which kills lice as they never before have been killed in Naples and other places of picturesque dirt.

But to a nation as stricken as Italy all this does not even faintly resemble rehabilitation. Italy, in April, is still cut in two, the Germans still occupy the industrially pertinent half of the country. The modest industrial plant that exists south of the present German line is bare of raw materials and, particularly, power. In the preceding years, Italy depended on coal that she received from Germany at a rate of one million tons a month. The 125,000 tons of coal “cobelligerent” Italy is now receiving a month amount to virtual cessation of industrial activities. Combined with the spiritual exhaustion that is the result of two decades of Fascism, this state of economic affairs makes for a national atmosphere of cynical nihilism.

The dominant purpose of contemporary Italian life is getting food. Italians have two popular ways of improving their official ration. One is the black market, which has by now a far larger volume than the “normal” economy. It has been estimated that two-thirds of all market transactions throughout liberated Italy are “black.” The other trick is to line up wherever G.I. chow is issued. Many an Italian lives on what U.S. soldiers leave on their plates.

The atmosphere of dizzy destitution that lies all over the beautiful landscape of southern Italy is about to merge with the much more highly charged northern air. This might make for a strong explosive. The densely populated industrial areas of the North might be left in shambles. And beyond the Alps, the nature and the size of the job defy imagination: Germany, a more destructive force in her apocalyptic defeat than even in her passing triumph, must not infect the world.

THE DREAMS ARE OFF

To cope with the Götterdämmerung Hitler was indeed able to stage all over Europe, the United Nations have Herbert Lehman’s UNRRA. FORTUNE readers will undoubtedly recall the enthusiastic salvation dreams that two years ago, when UNRRA received its franchise, swept America’s institutionalized goodwill. But the warmhearted college girls who saw themselves descending upon Europe in gallant formations of angels will have to stay home. The dreams are off.

Few of Mr. Lehman’s many friends ever had illusions about his administrative talent and managerial energy. But these very qualities were required if UNRRA was to do a job at all. Competing for allocations of supplies and shipping space with the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Lehman was bound to remain a poor second.

If and when UNRRA deals with restored governments, it will be by no means better off. First of all, European governments that are cash customers, lend-lease receivers, or just generally acceptable credit bets want to do business direct with those who are in actual possession of materials and shipping—the Combined Boards and, ultimately, the U.S. Government. So UNRRA is confined to the ward cases—and leaves even the paupers unimpressed.

Indicative of UNRRA’s sad lot are the stipulations of its recent contract with the Czechoslovak Government: UNRRA supplies will be handed over to the government, which is in sole charge of their distribution and retains the sale proceeds in excess of the local expenditures of the UNRRA mission.

In short, the high-minded slogan of a few years ago, “Food Will Win The War And Write The Peace,” is more literally true than its originator, Secretary Claude Wickard, might have thought. Food, in the broader sense of relief and rehabilitation, is indeed the substance of the international hustle in which the coming peace is being shaped. All governments, liberators and liberated, are intensely nationalistic and firmly resolved to use rehabilitation as an instrument of national policy. To continental governments, the kindly idea that food should be kept out of politics sounds about as understanding as a suggestion to keep revolutions out of politics. None of the restored governments will cede one iota of authority to UNRRA if they can help it.

Governments that dispense relief and rehabilitation are by no means less anxious to secure their authority. They bargain hard. The British stockpiles of food (estimated at six million tons) are carefully maintained, apparently as strategic reserve for the moment when their dispatch to newly liberated western territories might clinch useful rapprochements. And the U.S. Government has now made unmistakably clear that America’s exportable wealth is American property and will have to be bargained for with no one but the proprietor: James F. Byrnes’s newly established supercommittee on allocations of all exports is even authorized to cancel existing UNRRA commitments.

So the cards have been dealt, the fast game has started, and UNRRA holds very few trumps indeed. The realities of rehabilitation are far from adding up to a higher and international form of life. National governments face national governments, and every phase of this intricate maneuvering for place and survival is dominated by what the U.S. Government does or fails to do.

SUPPOSE, SUPPOSE, SUPPOSE…

To make European rehabilitation a success, three things must be available: supplies, shipping, and, above all, an American rehabilitation policy.

What are, first of all, Europe’s food requirements? Food imports of nine million tons, submits the National Planning Association quite convincingly, should cover Europe’s relief needs during the first year of rehabilitation. Quantities of such order might be available, theoretically at least. U.S. wheat reserves at the end of this season are estimated at around 10 million tons, those of other leading wheat exporters at 11,500,000 tons. But this year’s crop is catastrophically bad in the Southern Hemisphere, which has been struck by unprecedented droughts. Still, Europe’s grain requirements could be met above the starvation level.

Newly installed Bailey Bridge spanning bombed-out portions of a bridge which was almost totally destroyed by the Germans on September 01, 1944.
Margaret Bourke-White — The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Meats and fats, Europe’s most desperate nutrition shortage, are needed in relatively small quantities—and create the toughest supply problem. The National Planning Association estimates the meat requirements for Europe’s first rehabilitation year at 600,000 tons—less than 7 per cent of the meat the U.S. civilian population consumed in 1944. If a 7 per cent drop could really solve the Continent’s perilous meat hunger, it would be indeed, as the President suggested a few weeks ago, a matter of decency to accept the cut with equanimity, if not delight. But there are reasonable doubts whether 1945 meat consumption will be anything like last year’s, and what would have been a minor curtailment in 1944 may amount to a drastic cut in 1945. Even more serious is the heavy decline in U.S. lard output and vegetable-oil production. Even so, Europe’s rock-bottom requirements in meats and fats are far from unmanageable.

But if minimum food supplies are instantly available, shipping space is decidedly not. So all the hopes are pinned on V-E day. Once hostilities cease in Europe, goes the popular thesis, a substantial portion of military shipping space will be released. This may be so, and then again it may be an illusion: immediate concentration on Pacific supplies could be so unqualified, the shipping requirements so staggering that V-E day might reduce rather than increase present civilian shippings to Europe.

But suppose all these millions of tons of supplies were available in the Western Hemisphere; and suppose they could be hauled across the seas; suppose, furthermore, Europe’s shattered ports could handle such quantities; and suppose a singularly effective international agency had a foolproof assessment of all the needs; suppose, finally, financial and currency considerations were entirely discarded—then there still would remain the biggest stumbling block of them all: the utterly disorganized intra-European communication system.

This transportation misery is only a reflex of Europe’s basic predicament: the collapse of her technological fiber. To approach such a situation in terms of the case worker means to fail beyond redemption. Europe is not just hungry. The entire economic system of a great continent has to be reconstructed during the next year or two, one way or another. What to do for Europe’s rehabilitation, and how to do it, may turn out to be the most momentous policy decision this country has had to make since it entered the war.

THE AMERICAN STRATEGY

Last time, America’s contribution to the reconstruction of a war-torn Europe was relief. When Herbert Hoover’s great crusade—still gratefully remembered in the Old World—was successfully ended, the Continent simply went back to the way of life that had been interrupted by war. This time, the foremost war victim is Europe’s economic system. Its social, technological, financial order has to be restored in toto.

The unprecedented job requires unprecedented clarity of purpose on America’s part. Even America’s economic might is not unlimited. But every particle of our limited contribution can be so invested that it produces a maximum of curative effect. These, then, seem to be the elements of what would be a thoughtfully realistic U.S. policy:

1) Food. Paradoxically, food is one of Europe’s lesser problems: its uniquely resilient agriculture can supply practically all the Old World needs, if and when transportation and, above all, the peasant’s faith in the market system are restored. Still, initial food supplies are needed with utmost urgency. Since we cannot provide all requirements, we should direct our limited contribution to the least self-sufficient region of the Continent—to western Europe.

2) Technological fiber. One thousand tons of machinery and 10,000 tons of strategic raw materials will combat Europe’s destitution more effectively than a hundred thousand tons of food. If the gigantic supply machinery of our armed forces is left behind to reconstruct western Europe, the fundamental interests of America may be better served than if it were shipped home to increase domestic surplus piles.

3) Economic order. The reconstruction of Europe’s industrial half depends on sane economic interrelations within widest possible areas and on stable currencies. Neither can be established unless western Europe quickly moves toward some sort of unification. An American rehabilitation policy should strengthen the trend, deliberately and powerfully.

4) Rehabilitation efficiency. The size and the nature of the job require, to use a term of American folklore, a Bernie Baruch: the nations abroad as well as the U.S. people whose wealth is being transfused must have no doubt that America’s contribution is administered by managerial talent of the highest order and authority.

An American rehabilitation policy, in short, has to apply the fundamental law of battle—to concentrate superior strength in selected crucial spots. The superior American forces are tools, raw materials, and technological efficiency. The crucial spots have already been selected—by the Big Three. Whether we like it or not, there will be two Europes—the Russian sphere and, roughly, western Europe (with some German wilderness, not yet explored, between them). What stays west of the dividing line that runs approximately from Stettin to Trieste is not just our temporary responsibility but the area of final decisions.

The Russian sphere will include all European countries (except Denmark) that normally produce more than their own food supplies. (Significantly, the only Balkan nation doing worse, Greece, has been easily conceded to be a British asset.) What might happen to western Europe has been described by a most distinguished authority in these unequivocal terms: “In the British and American area of occupation the conditions for the people will be those of a sweatbox, to say it politely. Russia will not let any food pass west from the surplus areas she occupies.”

If the social fiber of primarily industrial western Europe continues to deteriorate, paupers will follow the pull of continental food—a new and, this time, passive Drang nach dem Osten. If her rehabilitation results in prosperity, western Europe will merge with what Walter Lippmann, for lack of a better word, baptized the Atlantic Community. It is America’s vital interest to underwrite the latter alternative.

There is little doubt that Russian Europe will be able to manage for itself. But both the future of international peace and that of American enterprise depend on how well the other half of Europe can manage. And this depends on the sort of ignition the U.S. will apply to a machine that went dead.

The U.S. did not accept the hue and cry about lack of materials and lack of shipping as apology for not winning the war. Both shortages were licked in grand style, simply because the war had to be won. If the U.S. realizes the urgency of the job, shortages will be licked again, simply because the rehabilitation of Europe is just as important to this country as Europe’s liberation.

*Last year, per capita meat consumption in the U.S. was 2 pounds and 13 ounces per week. All considered, the U.S. consumed last year 3,367 calories per day and per person, 130 calories more than in peacetime.

This article originally appeared in the May 1945 issue of Fortune.

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