Hemp for Victory: A Brief & Overdue History, Part 2

In early 1944, while his countrymen still fought the Axis powers abroad, Senator Guy Gillette (D-IA) prepared for a political battle on the home front. Its first rumblings came from his constituents in the Heartland, but Gillette’s fight would be in the halls of Congress, and it would be over the government’s wartime hemp program.

Photo of Senator Guy Gillette of Iowa
US Senator Guy Gillette (D-IA)

In late February, the senator, who held a seat on the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, announced hearings “to investigate why the nation’s hemp industry, newly established at great expense, is being partially abandoned.” Gillette was skeptical of the War Production Board’s (WPB) explanation for the program’s reduction—the renewed availability of cheap foreign fibers after Allied victories at sea. Instead, he alleged that “the [M]idwest hemp program” was targeted “by people in WPB that have roots in an international jute and sisal cartel.”[1]

Gillette considered it suspicious that many of the government-funded hemp mills, initially ordered to be complete by September 1943, were still not in operation the following February. He cited one manager of an Iowa hemp plant, who allegedly wrote him saying “It is apparent that someone for some diabolical reason has prevented completion of the plants.”[2] A newspaper in Algona, Iowa—the site of a soon-to-be-shuttered hemp mill—echoed Gillette’s criticism, bitterly writing that the hemp program reflected “planning without foresight and without regard for the taxpayer’s money.”[3]

Hearings on Hemp

A list of the government's remaining hemp mills in 1944.

While Gillette’s frustration and skepticism were understandable, they had little basis in fact, as he would soon find out. The reality was that the WPB reduced the wartime hemp program for a number of practical reasons. For one, the program had produced more than enough hemp for the war effort; for another, the Allied defeat of German submarines in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean had allowed shipments of cheaper and more desirable fibers, including jute and sisal. There was never any evidence that WPB members had connections to international fiber cartels.

In the spring of 1944, federal officials attempted to clarify all this and put Gillette’s concerns to rest at a series of hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture and Forestry, of which Gillette was a member. At the hearings, Gillette told federal officials that Iowa farmers “have been well pleased with the work and the experience they have gained, and the return from this very profitable crop.” He asked, “Why are you cutting them off now after you have induced them to go into it? Why are you stopping it?”[4]

After War Production Board cordage chief Edwin Metcalf explained the re-introduction of foreign fibers to the supply chain, Arthur Howe, a WPB consultant, reassured the Senator that “we have not abandoned the hemp program. We will continue to grow hemp. We now have a nucleus of 42 mills. We now have more experience than we had before. That program expanded very rapidly, and if necessary we [will] recommend that it be expanded very rapidly.”[5]

At a later hearing, Iowa farmers testified to how quickly cannabis had become an important crop in their communities. Father Leo Entringer of Grundy Center told the committee that “our land in this neck of the woods has been mined. We need other crops. … it is up to us to get out and work hard and put in crops that will rebuild the soil by proper care, and I consider hemp as one of those crops.”[6]

Thomas Kenefick, a farmer from Eagle Grove, Iowa, argued that hemp had become “an integral part” of local communities. “These plants were put out on a patriotic basis,” he told the committee. “They have taken a place along with the other farm crops. They stabilize employment in the communities, and it would kind of unhinge things to see them just dropped without much reason for it.”[7] This echoed sentiments in other Midwestern communities; for example, after people near Lexington, Illinois, learned that their local hemp mill would be sold as surplus in 1945, they “expressed a wish that the mill might be continued in operation as a private industry during the peace years ahead.”[8]

Reactions from the Farm Belt

For many Midwestern farmers, hemp had
become an important part of their community
during World War II.
While people like Entringer and Kenefick were keen to keep their local hemp industry alive, others in Midwestern communities saw that the program had run its course. In February 1944, the Globe-Gazette in Mason City, Iowa, argued that criticism of the hemp cutback was “about as unfair as it could possibly be.” According to the paper, arguing that “we ought to go on raising vast quantities of hemp after the need for it has passed is like arguing that we ought to go on fighting this war after victory has been achieved.”[9] In Traer, Iowa, the Traer Star Clipper opined that “if the war outlook is so much better we should not mourn the loss of the hemp mill.”[10]

Still, there were clearly enough Midwesterners upset about the end of the program to warrant Senator Gillette’s attention. Some of the criticism was politically motivated. The Iowa GOP headquarters, for instance, declared that the hemp mills were “only a small part of many mistakes and much reckless spending” by a Democratic administration.”[11] Another Iowa paper “lamented” the program’s waste and conflated wartime projects with the New Deal, arguing that “farmers in the vicinity … more than likely feel that they have been given a raw deal by the new deal.”[12] In Indiana, a writer for the South Bend Tribune described the upcoming closure of Hoosier hemp plants as “another Roosevelt administration proposition … gone wrong.”[13]

A Private Industry?

For its part, War Hemp Industries, the government company that operated the mills, remained optimistic that the hemp program could become a viable peacetime industry. In January 1944, CEO Fred Butcher met with Iowa and Minnesota hemp plant managers in Mason City, Iowa, to announce “efforts to make hemp a permanent crop in the north central United States,” including a $30,000 “government grant to Iowa State College for such studies.”[14]

Later that year, the Subcommittee on Agriculture and Forestry discussed the findings of that program, as well as other research on hemp applications. Research at Iowa State found that most of the literature on hemp growing was in Italian or Russian journals, so American farmers and officials had a lot of catching up to do.[15] Meanwhile, research at the University of Wisconsin focused on breeding varieties of hemp for fabric and other non-cordage applications.[16]

Dr. O.E. Sweeney, an Iowa State professor of chemical engineering who participated in the college’s hemp study, told the committee that “hemp can be used for a great variety of things, if we could make it cheap enough.” He recommended feeding excess hemp material to cattle, and he showed a piece of hemp-derived insulation to demonstrate the fiber’s potential in building materials.[17]

Alas, after the Allied liberation of the Philippines in late 1944 and the end of the war in 1945, the government’s attention was removed from the potential hemp industry, and federal price supports stabilized the postwar farming economy.[18] In the end, there was simply not enough incentive, either on the part of government or farmers, to invest the time and resources required to revive the domestic hemp industry. With that, marijuana again became the major focus of government cannabis activity.

Return of the Marijuana Menace

The successful hemp program complicated postwar enforcement of the Marijuana Tax Act. In 1944, an article in the Courier of Waterloo, Iowa, reported that "30,000 acres" of marijuana had been "cut" in 1942, but the secretary of the state pharmacy board admitted that "farmers who raised hemp will have a continual fight to prevent patches of marijuana from springing up along creeks, in timber and along fence rows."

Once it ceased to be a wartime necessity, hemp reverted back to its status as the dreaded source of "marijuana." Here, GIs burn wild hemp near Denver, CO, in 1951.

Indeed, Midwestern authorities did have difficulty determining whether cannabis plants were intentionally planted marijuana or the natural progeny of wartime hemp plants. Those who tried to continue farming hemp ran up against the strict parameters of the Tax Act. In March 1945, the US Treasury Department sent a notice to hemp mill operators that “no hemp stalks could be legally transported from the farm to the mills unless all leaves were removed.” Some farmers protested, arguing that “such a process would not only injure the plant but would be so costly there would be no point in growing it.”[19] One farmer testified that he could think of “no instance … of anyone going into a hemp field and gathering the leaves for illicit purposes.”

Little did he know that in a couple decades there would be certain people who did just that, or that a “Johnny Pot” would be scattering cannabis seeds all over the country, leaving maps to wild patches of marijuana for his hippie followers.[20]

Conclusion

The saga of “Hemp for Victory” reflected the general uncertainty that accompanied life on the home front during World War II, as well as how the government’s attitude toward certain plants and substances can turn on a dime. It is ironic that, right after Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger spent years convincing Americans that cannabis was a fire-breathing menace to society, Midwestern farmers were then encouraged to plant thousands of acres of it. A recent article notes that Anslinger was aware of the government’s intent to create a wartime hemp program, but was instructed not to mention it in his public statements about marijuana.

While they may have gone along with anti-marijuana propaganda during peacetime years, rural Midwesterners’ unquestioning embrace of the wartime hemp industry suggests that, when it really came down to it, they did not view cannabis to be as terrible of a thing as authorities made it out to be.

Notes


[1] Ralph E. Young, “Gillette Group Will Probe Iowa Hemp Plant Cutdown,” The Courier (Waterloo, IA), February 25, 1944.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Throwing Money to the Winds,” The Algona Upper Des Moines, February 15, 1944.
[4] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Subcommittee, Hearings on S. Res. 80: Utilization of Farm Crops (Fiber), 78 Cong., 2 sess., April 5, 7, 12, 21, May 3 and 19, 1944, p. 2513.
[5] Ibid., p. 2493, p. 2538.
[6] Ibid., p. 2831-32.
[7] Ibid, p. 2833.
[8] “Future is Doubtful For the Hemp Crop,” The Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL), November 15, 1945, p. 13.
[9] “Our Hemp Critics,” Globe-Gazette (Mason City, IA), February 8, 1944, p. 9.
[10] “Hemp Project Debated,” The Courier (Waterloo, IA), January 30, 1944, p. 4.
[11] “G.O.P. Hits Profit On Hemp Plants,” Des Moines Tribune, January 25, 1944, p. 14.
[12] “Waste Lamented,” Toledo (IA) Chronicle, in “Hemp Project Debated,” The Courier (Waterloo, IA), January 30, 1944, p. 4.
[13] “Hemp Plants Built by U.S. To Close Soon,” The South Bend Tribune, January 18, 1944, p. 13.
[14] “Would Make Hemp Permanent Crop in Northcentral U.S.,” The Courier Sun (Waterloo, IA), January 23, 1944, p. 12.
[15] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Subcommittee, Hearings on S. Res. 80: Utilization of Farm Crops (Fiber), 78 Cong., 2 sess., April 5, 7, 12, 21, May 3 and 19, 1944, p. 2820.
[16] Ibid., 2821.
[17] Ibid., 2825.
[18] US Department of Agriculture, “History of Agricultural Price-Support and Adjustment Programs, 1933-84,” Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 485 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, December 1984), p. 17.
[19] “Marijuana Rule Hits Hemp Farms,” Chippewa Herald Telegram, May 25, 1945, p. 2.
[20] Nick Johnson, Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017), p. 83-4.