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The War’s Deadliest Weapon: Starvation

World War II was about many things: ideology, conquest, survival. But food historian Lizzie Collingham makes a persuasive case in a new book that the war was largely about food. In The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food, the British author contends that starvation, both deliberate and accidental, was more deadly than all the tanks, rifles, and bombs combined. Some 20 million people starved to death during the war, Collingham estimates, compared with 19.5 million who died in battle. “And they are largely forgotten,” Collingham says, “because starvation isn’t dramatic.”

The Taste of War is the first book to comprehensively examine the subject of food during the conflict. Yet there was perhaps no more central an issue. “Food doesn’t win or lose you a war, but it’s a powerful motivator for people and nations,” Collingham says.

Neither Germany nor Japan could feed their nations without importing food from abroad, and thus made the securing of external food sources central to their plans for conquest. In Germany, this meant seizing lebensraum— “living space”—in the East. In Japan, it meant seizing Manchuria. In both cases, the conquering nations planned to send farmers and settlers into the conquered zones and, eventually, ship food home. Both plans failed, and in so doing led not only to the starvation of Chinese and Eastern Europeans, but, with the Axis military defeat, to severe food shortages in Tokyo and Berlin.

Starvation was also a military tactic. The German plan to divert food and farmland from the Soviet Union was tellingly called “the Hunger Plan,” intended to starve some 30 million Russians living in the conquered lands; at home, additional so-called “useless eaters,” including Jews and others, were sent to camps where their allotments of food were based on how much work they could do before starving to death.

Nor were the Allied powers innocent. The British government stood by for months as the Royal Navy’s blockade of Greece caused mass starvation. And Winston Churchill was reluctant to divert food and other resources to India during the Bengal Famine of 1943. When told of the famine, which killed three million people, Churchill notoriously asked why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.

Even American largess proved a divisive issue. In the Pacific, the U.S. Army fed the inhabitants of islands it occupied very well, as it plowed under farm fields to build air strips and bases. But when the army left, the indigenous populations were left without the means to feed themselves.

Almost alone among the belligerents, the American military was staggeringly well fed.“There were four tons of food and equipment for every American soldier in the Pacific, compared with two pounds for a Japanese soldier,” Collingham says. While Japanese soldiers were starving to death, every GI was allotted nearly 5,000 calories per day.

The Taste of War “argues that the side that somehow managed to continue consuming acceptable amounts of protein, carbohydrates, but above all, fats, won,” says British historian Andrew Roberts. “In a curious inversion of neo-Darwinist Nazi philosophy, the second world war was a case of the survival of the fattest.”

Newspaper Served as Front for OSS Spies

“Wild Bill” Donovan, the hard-charging chief of the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, ran a top-secret operation in China codenamed “S Project” behind the back of American ally Chiang Kai-shek. And to keep tabs on what was happening in China, Donovan founded a newspaper, The Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, with editions published in New York and Chungking.

In addition to meeting their deadlines for actual news reporting and writing, OSS agents posing as reporters also filed intelligence reports. Over two years, the team of agents filed some 1,500 reports on China and Japan, nearly all of them focused on the economic and political situation in the two countries. The operation was highly classified not just because it was circumventing the Chinese Nationalist leader, but because it was circumventing an American intelligence operation already in place in China: the U.S. Navy’s Sino-American Cooperative Organization (see “What Was the Navy Doing in China?,” November/December 2010). The entire scheme “can be blown sky-high if dealt with lightly and treated in a careless manner,” one highly-classified memo warned.

S Project was revealed for the first time in a new biography of the controversial godfather of America’s intelligence community, Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage (reviewed in this issue on page 68). Author Douglas Waller writes that the operation was subsidized to the tune of $500,000, a vast sum in the day, and was largely unsuccessful. “They would have done just as well if they were sent to the South Pole to gather intelligence amongst the penguins,” one former agent told Waller.

Another revelation in the book is the prescience of some of the OSS analysts about future threats. In the fall of 1945, the book says, Donovan’s analysts were preparing a report warning that nuclear terrorists might one day sneak a nuclear weapon into an American city and detonate it. Considering that the nuclear weapons of the time weighed about 10,000 lbs., it was a farsighted piece of analysis, Waller notes.

Hitler-Saluting Dog Outraged Nazis

What’s a good way to get a Nazi hot under the collar? Train your dog to Heil. Newly discovered records show that the Nazis were so angry about a dog in Finland that had been trained to imitate Hitler’s salute, they launched a campaign against its owner.

German diplomats stationed in the Nazi-friendly nation were directed to gather evidence on the dog, Jackie, and its owner, Tor Borg. The Foreign Office in Berlin even came up with plans to destroy Borg’s wholesale pharmaceuticals company. In one of the reports, German Vice Consul Willy Erkelenz in Helsinki wrote in 1941 that “a witness, who does not want to be named, said he saw and heard how Borg’s dog reacted to the command ‘Hitler’ by raising its paw.”

Borg was summoned to the German embassy in Helsinki for questioning, where he played down the paw-raising stunt, saying it occurred only a few times back in 1933. Reports sent back to Berlin reveal that his German interrogators reported home that “Borg, even though he claims otherwise, is not telling the truth.”

The German Economics Ministry examined the case, discovered that the country’s chemical giant IG Farben was the major supplier for Borg’s business, and offered to sever all its ties with the businessman in retaliation for his provocative pet. In their dogged pursuit of the case, the Foreign Office considered charging Borg with insulting Hitler. But plans for a trial fell apart when none of the witnesses to Jackie’s stunt would repeat their testimony before a judge. There’s no evidence that Hitler—a dog lover himself—was ever told about the incident.


Originally published in the June 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here