issue 228 - February 1992
The end of total war
Maggie Black exposes a myth Oxfam has long held about its origins - but also
explains why the wartime issue that led to its formation still has resonance today.
I've spent most of the past year of my life writing a history of Oxfam. 'Ugh,' was the response of one person I told about this project. Thanks very much, I thought. She pictured it as a hymn of congratulation, a glossy brochure of Oxfam good works. It won't be that, but what will it be?
The case for the Oxfam History, as I see it, is this. An organization which only exists because people vote for it with bits of their time or the contents of their purse is an institutional expression of ideas current in the wider society. In this case the ideas are those of people in the richer parts of the world about human distress in the poorer, though over time these ideas have been influenced by thinking fed back the other way.
Sometimes Oxfam leads those ideas (though less often than it likes to think); frequently it cultivates them, etching them into the collective conscience; but quintessentially it reflects them. And it is as a barometer of how those ideas have evolved that Oxfam is of historical interest or, dare I say it, importance.
The central idea since the 1960s has been the reinterpretation of 'the white man's burden' in the post-colonial era. But Oxfam's starting point was not the people of 'the developing world' - an unknown concept 50 years ago. Its genesis lay in concern for European victims of war. And the victims were those not only of Hitler's war policies, but also those of the 'total war' policy of the Allies...
In 1942 the world was a more contained and containable place. Newsprint rationing meant that The Times and the Manchester Guardian just ran to a few pages and a whole year's copies fitted into one bound volume. Now they need a new volume every month or two.
But I began, not with The Times but with the papers of Professor Gilbert Murray, a leading figure of his age and one of Oxfam's founders. His archive happens to be deposited with the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I thought, since Murray's field of scholarship was Greek, that his correspondence might reveal precisely how and when 'Oxfam sent relief through the Allied blockade for the starving citizens of Greece'.
This proud boast has been repeated down the years as a proof of the neutral (and controversial) humanitarian credentials at the genesis of Oxfam's mission. But the actual record is scanty. Winding the handle to scan hundreds of microfilmed letters exchanged between Murray and leading intemationally-minded people of his day, I fell into the world of pre-war liberal and humanitarian thinking, a world in which ideals of peace and international understanding were a potent force. Nowhere, however, did I find one mention of that little group of people who met one October night in 1942 and called themselves the 'Oxford Committee for Famine Relief'.
For people like Murray, who had striven to bring mutual respect and the ideals of civilization into relations between nations, the War was the incarnation of all they abhorred. Throughout Europe, Hitler's armies turned day into night. To resist the forces of political and spiritual darkness, Churchill proclaimed the doctrine of 'total war'. But this in turn ran against the principles of international fraternity to which Murray and others were so committed.
'Total war' meant the prosecution of war on combatants and non-combatants alike, on enemy civilians as well as enemy soldiers, on women, the young and the old. No distinctions were made between who was guilty and who innocent, even on humanitarian grounds. 'Total war' justified the bombing of Dresden. It also meant a hermetically sealed blockade against all those under enemy control; no relief might be allowed through even for allies - Poles, Greeks, French - who had fought to resist the German onslaught.
In the autumn of 1941, Greece began to suffer famine. At its height, people died at the rate of over 1,500 a day. Some people in Britain, Murray included, began to protest that the starvation of Greece was not justifiable, that the blockade should be breached.
In the way of stories handed down, Oxfam has embellished its folkloric record in Greek relief. Although I found no mention of the Oxford Committee in Murray's correspondence, I did find out about a national Famine Relief Committee, of which Murray was a member. This was organized by an amazing Quaker, Edith Pye, and the Oxford Committee was part of a support network she got going around the country.
The Committee's proposal for 'controlled relief' for Greek and Belgian children and mothers was first put to the British War Cabinet in mid-1942, and flatly refused. The dried milk and vitamins would be instantly seized by the Germans, they said; it would be fed to workers in munitions factories and thus help the German war effort. The Hague Convention of 1907 was cited: an occupying power was responsible for care of civilians under its control. Churchill suggested that hunger might help them to rise against the forces of the Third Reich.
So how did Oxfam 'breach the blockade' and 'get food through to the starving Greeks'? It didn't. There was, in the Murray papers, a press cutting from the Oxford Times of December 1943. At a celebration in Oxford Town Hall, Gilbert Murray handed over a cheque for the impressive sum of £12,700 raised by the Oxford Committee's 'Greek Appeal' to the London representative of the Greek Red Cross in exile. I can only assume the money went to the International Committee of the Red Cross relief operation for Greece, set up 18 months earlier after heavy US pressure on Britain to let through Canadian wheat in white ships with a big red cross on the side. There was simply no way British citizens could send money or relief goods direct to Greece.
The discovery that Oxfam has unwittingly inflated its war-time effort is unimportant - at least I hope it is. What matters is the fate of the principle that groups of citizens up and down the country tried to uphold. The British policy of 'total war' was extremely regressive in opposing all humanitarian relief, even under neutral auspices, even for enemy-occupied friends. During the First World War, Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the Save the Children Fund, championed the principle that there was no such thing as 'an enemy child'. Yet Save the Children did not stand up and call for 'controlled relief' during World War Two. Vera Brittain did; but under the pacifist banner and even she knew that made it a non-starter. Edith Pye's Famine Relief Committee network came closest; they were still pushing in spring 1944, and still - with Europe collapsing and support rallying to their side - the answer was no.
After the War, work began on a Fourth Geneva Convention, passed in 1949, to govern the protection of civilians in time of war. The many wartime Famine Relief Committees in Britain were indirectly part of the movement, therefore, which led to legal instruments being set up to try to prevent the starvation and bombardment of innocent civilians in war.
Throughout Oxfam's history, the principle of humanitarian neutrality - 'human need above politics' - is a constantly recurring theme: in the Congo and Biafra in the 1960s, in Southern Africa and Cambodia in the 1970s, in the West Bank and Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s. It has not been and can never be an easy principle to uphold.
In a war or a liberation struggle those involved tend to see only conflicting alternatives: 'Those who are not with us are against us'. The neutral ground on which any humanitarian operation must be mounted is shifting and fragile. In the Nigerian Civil War, so passionately did Oxfam feel about the starving Biafran children that it nearly forgot - very nearly - that there might be starving children on the Federal side of the line as well. In the case of Cambodia, so passionate did it feel about the suffering of Cambodians and so revulsed against the genocidal Pol Pot, that it did 'forget' that there were suffering children still in the grip of the dreadful Khmer Rouge. The difficulties of upholding the principle of 'human need above politics' are acute.
Today we need look no further than Yugoslavia or Iraq to see how frail, still, the principle remains. But we can also see how far the principle has travelled. During the Gulf War, the unintentional bombing of civilians and deaths of women and children sheltering in an underground bunker provoked outrage and shame. 'Controlled relief' enters Iraq under the terms of UN sanctions and is helping to stave off famine and disease. Agencies like Oxfam are able to run a programme there under the umbrella of the UN humanitarian presence. Even when the world is united against a Saddam Hussein, our leaders no longer insist that the starvation of innocent civilians under the enemy's control is his responsibility alone and that we - the 'Allies' - may do nothing to alleviate it.
To have been a part, great or small, of that huge shift in twentieth-century thinking is something to be immensely proud of.
In the dim distant past (not quite as distant as 1942) Maggie Black used to work for the NI. Later she went to UNICEF. Her history of Oxfam will be published on the actual fiftieth anniversary in October. © Maggie Black, 1992
Marc Gordon is an hour late. I'm sitting in the lobby of a hotel next to Charing Cross Station and people are starting to look at me strangely. I am just concluding that he has stood me up to make a political point when he rushes in, full of apologies, He fields calls on his portable phone, apologizing for the yuppie symbol pretty much as would any guilt-ridden leftie, and we sit down to talk over fruit juices. Still only a flash-faced 25. He is highly plausible and extremely articulate. If you expected anything less, then you have not understood the International Freedom Foundation (IFF).
The IFF's headquarters is in Washington, though it also has offices in South Africa, Belgium, Germany and the UK. It indefatigably pumps out glossy research publications and holds conferences, funded by individual and corporate donations (mainly in the US) to the tune of $2.5 million in 1991.
Critics on the left have tended to dismiss them as just another bunch of crazies to be lumped together with all the others on the fascist and racist fringe. That's lazy, they ought to be taken far more seriously. At one point I talk about the IFF 'trying to be seen as a respectable organization' and Gordon flares momentarily in response. 'We are a respectable organization,' he says acidly.
He boasts that the IFF 'collects Presidents' with which it is on first-name terms and is now into double figures. There is no reason to doubt hint: the photo shows IFF chair Duncan Sellars with Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro; the UK branch recently flew over Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis to address an influential fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference. They are particularly strong in post-communist Eastern Europe where free-market ideas are very much in vogue.
Any lack of respectability derives from Gordon's past adventures. He was a member of the notorious Federation of Conservative Students, which was expelled from the Tory Party for being too right-wing. While still at university, all fired up with the 'Reagan Doctrine' that right-wing ideas should be internationalized, he travelled to the US at the invitation of the Heritage Foundation. I ask if the legend that he and fallow activist Robert Hoile went .on patrol with the Contras is true. He answers: 'What does "on patrol" mean? I held a Kalashnikov while I was in a Contra refugee camp.'
Gordon and Hoile returned to launch the pro-Contra Committee for a Free Nicaragua; and in 1987 Gordon started IFF UK. Journalists have often tried to establish a financial link between the IFF and the Heritage Foundation. Gordon is adamant that there is none. This is probably true, since as Gordon points out, there is a significant ideological difference between the IFF and Heritage - and ideological distinctions are as important to him as they have always been to people on the far left.
While he shares with Heritage a passionate enthusiasm for the free market, they part company on social issues. 'I'm a libertarian full stop. I believe in women's right to choose abortion, I'm in favour of the legalization of prostitution and the decriminalization of drugs. I don't think I'd be very popular in the US with Heritage and a lot of its conservative donors.'
What makes the IFF interesting is the consistency of its line, the way it cuts across traditional conservative thinking. Gordon and his counterparts are unashamed free-market fundamentalists: they think the market should be left to work its 'magic' in every part of the world. He is anxious to distance himself from the racist elements of the far right. He says he 'doesn't recognize the ideology of nationalism' and approves of poor people migrating to rich countries to better themselves as one aspect of the free market. One the market's greatest merits, he says, is that it is 'colour-blind' and he has publicly denounced the links of another Anglo-American far-right organization, Western Goals, with European fascists like Jean-Marie Le Pen.
'One of the main reasons why Os Klerk has embarked on his reforms in South Africa is that apartheid couldn't work economically. You can't justify the majority of the population being employed cleaning the swimming pools of an elite: that was bucking the laws of the free market.' Needless to say, this does not mean he is an enthusiast for the ANC - the IFF is a keen backer of Inkatha, though Gordon accepts that it has been badly damaged by the revelation that it was funded by the South African Government. He brushes off as absurd a suggestion that IFF South Africa might also have received covert funding.
So where does Oxfam fit into all this? The IFF has taken a special interest in development charities from the start. They submitted their report on Oxfam to the Charity Commissioners and have recently been raising money specifically to fund a similar 'investigation' of Christian Aid. Their basic line is that Oxfam is abusing its tax-free status as a charity by taking up political causes - they should set up a financially separate campaigning unit. Surprisingly, Gordon goes out of his way to say that he approves of Oxfam's development work. He is withering, though, in his scorn for official aid, which he believes should be abolished - we should get rid of our 'post-colonial guilt' and let developing countries stand on their own feet. His greatest enthusiasm at the moment is for the new Zambian government, to which he claims the IFF is close.
There is no question that the IFF internationally is riding the tide of free-market enthusiasm in Eastern Europe; it is also managing very effectively to link the pressure for multi-party democracy in Africa with libertarian economics. Gordon says 'The world has moved towards us'. And the trouble is, he's right.