Historical Notes: To give the boots, not just the bootstraps

ON 24 June 1947, two years after the Second World War ended, British ministers met US officials in London for the first joint talks on the implementation of the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was the programme for post-war reconstruction for a Europe shattered by six years of war and it aimed to provide millions of dollars in aid to both victors and vanquished.

It is widely accepted that, without Marshall Aid and the generosity of the United States in providing it, Europe's recovery and subsequent path to prosperity would have been almost impossible. What is less well known is the part that an almost forgotten organisation played in providing relief in the two years preceding the Marshall Plan.

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (Unrra) was yet another American initiative. The first international relief agency in world history, it had been established in November 1943 round a table at the White House in Washington at which representatives from the then 44 members of the still embryonic United Nations agreed to set up a temporary relief organisation.

In essence, Unrra's objective was to provide the innocent victims of the war with

the essentials to keep them alive, and give them some of the means to begin to pull themselves up by other than their own bootstraps. And, to as vast an extent as possible, give them some of the boots as well.

Huge supplies of food, medicines, clothing, technical equipment and personnel were sent in to help rebuild the devastated countries. The three largest contributors were the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom which, although it had been severely impoverished by the war, managed to provide pounds 155m - obviously a far larger sum at the time than it is now.

In January 1948, with Unrra winding down and Marshall Aid taking over, Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons, "What sort of Europe we should have had without Unrra, I really do not know. It is too horrible to contemplate."

Even though the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was ultimately overshadowed by the Marshall Plan, it can be argued that Ernest Bevin was correct in his utterance and that Unrra was indeed the essential first step to Europe's survival at the time and its later prosperity.

One reason that it would appear to have vanished from the annals of war history could be that the Unrra programme had a far from easy time and, indeed, was soon a frequent target of controversy and attack. The reasons for this were complex, but one example is that its certainly admirable aim of working as soon as possible with the governments of the liberated countries inevitably led to complicated organisational structures which lent themselves to criticism. In the same way, welfare work in Germany such as the setting up of camps for the displaced people, and the reuniting of children with lost parents, was not helped by the division of the devastated and defeated country into four military zones.

Unrra existed for slightly over four years - only two of them were spent in the front line of relief action - and despite its failures (which were at the time often the focus of much criticism in both press and Parliament) what it achieved was remarkable. International relief organisations have since then had time to improve their operations in war-torn countries and, it is to be hoped, will meet fewer of the difficulties faced by Unrra.

Today, with the plight of Kosovo headline news, it is saddening to recall that Yugoslavia was among the countries that received most help from Unrra after the Second World War. But perhaps the better message to learn from Unrra is that what was done once can be done again, given the will and the generosity of wealthier nations.

Phyllis Willmott is the author of `From Rural East Anglia to Suburban London: a century of family history' (Institute of Community Studies, pounds 9.50)