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The Spirit of 1947: This Thanksgiving Feed a Silent Guest and Build World Peace

The holiday season is upon us. It's a time to give thanks and, thanks to Black Friday, to shop. But it could also be a season when Americans take the reins of their country's foreign policy . . . and build peace in the new year.

Can ordinary people, not someone in Washington, be in charge of American diplomacy abroad? It may sound impossible. But it has been done before.

In 1947, before the U.S. government launched the famous Marshall Plan, everyday Americans spent the holiday season fighting hunger in Europe and helping those countries recover from World War II. There was a train that traveled across America, stopping in cities and towns to collect food that would be shipped overseas. The Friendship Train was a powerful symbol of American humanitarianism and peacemaking.

A sign posted on this train read, "Your chance to contribute to world peace." Americans did not let this opportunity pass them by. They understood that the defeat of hunger was critical for rebuilding a peaceful Europe. At the time, many worried that Communism might gain power in Europe. Could a third world war be a possibility?

One woman said that she would rather send milk to Europe than see her son go back there again. Across the country, high school students took the initiative to organize collections of food for the train.

Americans knew that winning the war was one thing, but winning the peace was quite another. That could not be achieved if people in Europe were hungry and could not work. If children were starving, they could not develop in mind or body. There could be no future for these countries under such conditions. Chaos might easily fill the void.

Sound familiar?

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Well, this is what faces Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and many other countries today. They are suffering from conflict and underdevelopment, and without adequate nutrition, none of their problems will go away. Peace will remain elusive. Yet despite this grim reality, Congress is proposing to reduce international food aid.

Revisit 1947. Americans chose not to let hunger gain strength in the suffering countries of Europe. They chose not to just sit around and wait for the politicians to do something to help. They found a way to take action.

Columnist Drew Pearson wrote that the Friendship Train offered ordinary Americans an opportunity to get involved in crafting the foreign policy of their country. Instead of just being spectators on the sidelines, they could do something themselves and make a difference.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1947 Americans were asked to take a "Silent Guest" into their homes. This guest would represent one of the hungry in Europe. A participant would send a donation to pay for feeding that silent guest to a committee in Plymouth, Mass., the home of Thanksgiving. Because of this project, thousands of CARE packages were bought and delivered to hungry families overseas.

The American people were out in front of the Congress in 1947. George Marshall's European Recovery program, the Marshall Plan, eventually kicked off in 1948, after an interim food aid package was approved late in 1947. The food from interim aid, the Friendship Train, the Silent Guest, and CARE packages all made a difference in the success of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe.

Today, you can make a similar contribution to world peace. You can take a silent guest into your home on Thanksgiving. You can donate the cost to feed that silent guest to your favorite charity. Help feed the hungry overseas and also those who are struggling at home. You might even play an online game such as Free Rice, which raises funds to feed the hungry.

william lambers

If all Americans would do their part and take action against hunger this holiday season, they could recreate the caring spirit of 1947 and help build peace on earth.

William Lambers
History News Service

William Lambers is the author of the Spirit of the Marshall Plan (2008). He writes for the History News Service.