Churchill Starved Occupied Europe by Withholding Overseas Food Shipments
Richard M. Langworth and Warren F. Kimball
Professor Kimball is editor of Roosevelt and Churchill: The Complete Correspondence, 3 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1984. Mr. Langworth is editor of Finest Hour.)
It is occasionally suggested, particularly on the World Wide Web, that Churchill favored withholding food and medical aid to occupied Belgium, and other countries under the Nazi boot, in an effort to cause revolts against the Germans, while President Roosevelt insisted on shipping aid to the needy. This is an inaccurate interpretation of the views of both leaders, not borne out in the documents, including memoirs of the principals.
The Allies blockaded Nazi-occupied Europe as part of the war effort. But it is unlikely that Churchill would entertain such Machiavellian thoughts, and no such evidence has turned up. Churchill did, however, object in principle to sending food to countries occupied by the enemy. And so, apparently, did FDR.
Roosevelt advocated humanitarian aid to unoccupied countries like Vichy France, and Churchill went along with this. But in 1943, when Roosevelt suggested aid to occupied Norway, Churchill said “conditions in Belgium are worse than in Norway and in our judgement it would not be right to make a concession to Norway and not to Belgium.”
Churchill’s policy (as advised by his military chiefs) was clearly aimed at the common enemy, as he wrote in 1943: “To abandon the principle that the enemy is responsible for the territories he has conquered will lead very quickly to our having the whole lot on our backs, a burden far beyond our strength.”
Mischief-makers have implied that Churchill wished to starve the Belgians into revolt. But until evidence is shown, we cannot accept this.
Churchill’s daughter once said, “My father would have done anything to win the war, and I’m sure he had to do some very rough things—but they did not unman him.” An overt starvation campaign does not, however, appear to be one of these things. —RML
A message (drafted by Sumner Welles) from Roosevelt to Churchill dated 31 December 1940 makes no mention of Belgium, but proposes, “for humanitarian and also political reasons,” sending “limited quantities of milk and vitamin concentrates for children” through the Red Cross to unoccupied [my emphasis] France and to Spain. FDR drew a distinction between occupied and unoccupied territory. He seemed primarily concerned with Spain. The carrot, not the stick, was advocated by the State Department for Franco’s Spain.
This was a positive response to Churchill’s message of 23 November 1940, suggesting that the USA “dole out” food to Spain “month by month” so long as Spain stayed out of the war.
What FDR did, in his message of 31 December, was to add unoccupied France—something he indicated had met with opposition from British blockade authorities on the grounds that the distinction between occupied and unoccupied France would be difficult to establish or enforce.
Churchill replied on 3 Jan 1941, cautiously agreeing to such humanitarian relief shipments, but asking for strict adherence to the conditions and assurances from Vichy that it would acknowledge “the cooperation of His Majesty’s Government....” WSC ended asking for FDR to provide the same assurances: It was all right, Churchill wrote, to say it was a USA initiative, but “we would like it stated that the relief goods are available only by the good will of His Majesty’s Government.” (Perhaps the first and only time Churchill equated the United States and Vichy!)
Thereafter it seems that relief to Vichy France gets caught in the politics of Vichy’s neutrality.* But even there I find nothing wherein WSC argues that humanitarian relief should be withheld so as to foment uprising in occupied territory. In 1940-41, my cursory look shows that such aid was discussed only for unoccupied lands.
Three years later, on 15 March 1944, Roosevelt wrote Churchill saying he’d been thinking further about “limited feeding programs for children and nursing and expectant mothers in the German occupied countries of Europe.” Belgium is specifically mentioned. Roosevelt (in a message drafted by the State Department) made a plea on humanitarian grounds that withholding food “hurt our friends more than our enemies.” On 8 April Churchill rejected this proposal, arguing that it would hurt “impending military operations,” as it required opening channels of transportation into Europe.
Yet intelligence reports, available to both WSC and FDR, indicate that short rations did not damage enemy morale. The total embargo/blockade on relief to occupied countries was, by 1944, of no strategic value, and added to the existing humanitarian tragedy. That said, I can find no words or actions by Churchill holding back relief to Belgium to create conditions so horrible that the Belgians would revolt. Not only was Churchill not so jaded, but he also knew that such a revolt (unlikely as it was) would be crushed like an eggshell by Nazi/Gestapo enforcers.
This claim is remindful of the “Auschwitz argument,” that liberation would be quicker and more effective than dealing with the immediate situation—not much help to Jews in the camp, or starving mothers in Belgium; it is the old debate: a short-term prophylactic versus a permanent solution.
There is no mention that I can find by Churchill inciting the Belgians to revolt. As I recall, he really didn’t think the Belgians had the stomach for revolt, but that’s a question for others.
To the extent that Franklin Roosevelt comes out looking more humane, it is because he did, in one instance in 1944, support food shipments to Belgium, while Churchill, perhaps following the advice of his military, did not. —WFK
Paul-Henri Spaak, The Continuing Battle: Memoirs of a European 1936-1966 (Boston, 1972), described his first meeting with Roosevelt at the White House in 1941:
I explained to him the food situation in occupied Belgium and exerted all my powers of persuasion to interest him in the fate of my compatriots....When I had ended my plea, he declared coldly, without betraying the slightest sign of human warmth or compassion, that nothing could be done. This unfeeling answer was accompanied by comments which angered me, and this anger was all the harder to contain as I was forced to hide it. He declared that the trials through which Belgium was passing were not so tragic, that Germany had gone through much the same experience after the first World War and had yet produced a generation that was physically fit; the proof of this could be seen in the way the Germans were now fighting.
CHURCHILL TO ROOSEVELT, 12 March 1941:
…We fear very much prolongation of the war and its miseries which would result from breakdown of blockade of Germany, and there are immense difficulties in preventing Germany from profiting directly or indirectly from anything imported into unoccupied France. Dealing with Darlan is dealing with Germany, for he will not be allowed to agree to anything they know about which does not suit their book. Also there is the danger of rationing spreading to occupied France, Belgium, Holland, and Norway. Perhaps however you might be able to devise a scheme under which supervision would limit leakage and might also give you a number of agents in favourable positions in unoccupied France and in French Africa. It would be easier for you to talk to Vichy, with whom you are in regular diplomatic relations, than for us to negotiate via Madrid or by making speeches on broadcast. Besides this, Darlan has old scores to pay out against us in the dire action we were forced to take against his ships.**
CHURCHILL TO ROOSEVELT, 1 January 1943:
About two months ago [U.S. Secretary of State Cordell] Hull asked for an assurance, which we gladly gave, that the British Government was in agreement with the United States Government that the blockade of enemy territory should be vigorously maintained. This is our policy, as agreed with your Government. The single exception is Greece, where alone of all Allied countries the enemy allowed wholesale starvation conditions to develop. We have resisted extremely strong pressure from the Belgian Government and others to depart from it. To abandon the principle that the enemy is responsible for the territories he has conquered will lead very quickly to our having the whole lot on our backs, a burden far beyond our strength.
Conditions in Belgium are worse than in Norway and in our judgement it would not be right to make a concession to Norway and not to Belgium. It would be impossible, too, to dispute the claims of other Allied governments who would certainly press violently for equal privileges.
In our view the plan you propose might therefore have the eventual effect of reversing our whole joint food blockade policy, and this, I am sure you will agree, we should not contemplate.
As you are no doubt aware, we have already agreed with your authorities upon a secret scheme, which while distinct from ordinary relief, will help our Norwegian friends without dangerous repercussions. This scheme, which has been welcomed by the Norwegian Government, provides for the despatch in the Gothenburg [Göteborg] traffic of limited quantities of supplies disguised as Swedish imports, to be distributed in Norway through secret channels. If it is put into operation it will bring material aid to our friends, although it is of course vital that none but the Norwegian officials directly concerned should know of it.
We are also anxious to proceed with plans for the evacuation of Norwegian, Belgian, and other children to Sweden and Switzerland respectively, where they could be maintained by extra imports through the blockade.
* Admiral Francois Darlan, Vichy French Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated in 1941 that he might use the French fleet to prevent further British interference with the importation of food and other supplies to occupied France.
** On 3 July 1940, the Royal Navy had destroyed three French battleships and a destroyer at Mers-el-Kebir, near Oran, and had seized a number of lesser warships in Britain. Five days later the British had attacked and damaged the battleship Richelieu at Dakar.