When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, years of war had left Europe in ruins, populated in large part by widows and orphans. Economies had collapsed, infrastructure was destroyed, and money was devalued to the point of being worthless. People were displaced, homeless and starving. Violence had become normalized.
Although the United States was heavily involved in the war and suffered devastating losses, the fight was not on our soil. So in 1947, when journalist Drew Pearson suggested the Friendship Train to collect food and other supplies to send to France and Italy, Americans were more than happy to help.
The train traveled from Los Angeles to New York City, making many stops along the way. Cities and states not on the route found ways to get their contributions to the train. Communities held friendly competitions to see who could contribute the most.
In the end, the donations came from individuals, communities, organizations, and businesses. Donations included food, clothing, fuel and medicine. Supplies filled 270 train cars with an estimated value of $40 million. Also donated were the trains, the ships, and the labor required to move the actual goods along the journey. Laborers volunteered to work on Thanksgiving to ensure that this gesture of good will arrived in time for Christmas. It did.
This happened before the Marshall Plan began in April 1948. And while the Marshall Plan was aid from one government to another to rebuild (and to prevent the spread of communism), the Friendship Train was all about the people, both the givers and the recipients.
Then, a little more than a year later, the United States received a gift from France. In February 1949, we received 49 train cars full of gifts. This included one train car for each state (there were only 48 states at that time) and one to be split between the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii.
The boxcars were the type that had transported thousands of American GIs, in both World War I and World War II. They were known as “40 et 8” because they could transport either 40 soldiers or 8 horses. Although the gifts were not always distributed to individual Americans or communities, many of those gifts, including the actual boxcars, can be found in local museums or municipal parks around the United States.
We also received a return gift from Italy. They sent the money needed to complete four bronze statues that were unfinished for political and financial reasons. Two statues were placed at the end of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, while the other two are near the Lincoln Memorial. The Italians also sent a short film titled “Thanks, America!” and asked that it be copied and played in theaters around the country.
This is a great story of humanity, but there is more to this story.
The journalist who suggested this grand undertaking, Drew Pearson (1897-1969), wrote the syndicated newspaper column, Washington Merry-Go-Round, which was started in 1932. At least one source called him a “muckraking journalist” and President Roosevelt called him a “chronic liar”. There’s a story that he was sued by General Douglas MacArthur, but that MacArthur dropped the suit after Pearson threatened to publish love letters written by the general to a woman not his wife.
My overall impression was that Pearson was almost more politician than journalist. He gathered information and used it as leverage, withholding as much as he shared. But he challenged Senator Joseph McCarthy, so he couldn’t have been all bad.
That is the man behind the Friendship Train. One story is that he was traveling in Europe after the war and noticed that the Russians had sent a few train cars filled with grain to the destitute Europeans, who were very vocal in their gratitude. Whether his idea of the Friendship Train was to prevent the spread of communism that could arise from their good deeds, or if he just wanted that gratitude for his own country is unclear.
What is clear is that on the Friendship Train Pearson included supplies and tools to make signs so that everyone knew the gifts they were receiving came from the U.S. He also wanted the recipients to be aware that the gifts were from individual Americans, not from the U.S. government. To that end, each gift included a tag that had the name and address of the donor, an American flag, and the statement “All races and creeds make up the vast melting pot of America, and in a democratic and Christian spirit of good will toward men, we the American people, have worked together to bring this food to your doorsteps, hoping that it will tide you over until your own fields are rich and abundant with crops.”
Whether or not the original idea was for the purest of reasons, a lot of really good people made really good things happen. Individuals matter, so feel free to let your humanity shine.