As Thanksgiving approaches, we think of the early settlers at Plymouth and the beginning of the holiday tradition. But Thanksgiving should also be remembered for another historical event that took place in Plymouth.
The year was 1947, just two years after the end of World War II. Overseas in Europe there was hunger. No food meant no peace or reconstruction for the war-torn countries.
The governor of Massachusetts, Robert Bradford, adopted an interesting idea from Iris Gabriel. Why not start a Thanksgiving campaign to help the hungry overseas? Bradford led the way in creating the Silent Guest program, with its headquarters in Plymouth. Bradford, incidentally, was a descendant of the governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony.
When Thanksgiving came around, everyone was asked to take in a silent guest to their table. You simply paid for the cost of this extra guest by sending money to a committee in Plymouth. These donations translated to food for hungry people in Europe.
The Silent Guest campaign was part of an overall effort to fight hunger and build peace. There was also the Friendship Train, which went coast to coast picking up food to be shipped to France and Italy.
The public was engaged, and so too were the government leaders. President Truman and his Cabinet Committee on World Food Programs made fighting hunger a top priority. Former president Herbert Hoover served as food ambassador in 1946-1947.
Secretary of State George Marshall pushed for interim aid to provide food in France, Italy, and Austria for the winter of 1947-1948. This was a key stepping stone to his famous Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Food was the foundation for the eventual recovery of Europe.
Marshall won the Nobel Prize for this effort. But this was a prize shared by all Americans who took in many silent guests in the years after World War II.
Today, the scene of hunger and suffering unfolds in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan, and Benin. These and other countries are recovering from conflict and natural disasters.
In Benin and Pakistan, millions of people are trying to rebuild their lives after losing everything in the massive floods that ravaged their homelands. They need food, shelter and compassion.
In Afghanistan, there are 600,000 street children. If a full ration program were provided to all these children, it could keep them off the streets and help get them to school. Tragically, such a program is not given funding or priority.
Not far from Plymouth MA, in the neighboring state of Rhode Island, is a non-profit organization called Edesia, which produces a peanut paste called plumpy’nut. Millions of infants in the third-world countries are in desperate need of this food to survive. But the low funding for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and other aid agencies is preventing children from getting this life-saving food.
What’s needed today is the same spirit that took hold in Plymouth and across America in 1947. This was the Spirit of the Marshall Plan era, a signature of the Greatest Generation. It’s worth remembering on this year’s holiday that there are many silent guests around the world, waiting for a place at a Thanksgiving table.
Visit the Silent Guest page at WFP USA.