Hemp Against Hitler: How Cannabis Helped America Win World War II
Seventy-seven years ago today, nearly 95 percent of registered German voters turned out at the polls to give 38 million votes (or, 90 percent of the vote) to Adolf Hitler. From Reich Chancellor to Führer, Hitler now brandished absolute power by the...
Seventy-seven years ago today, nearly 95 percent of registered German voters turned out at the polls to give 38 million votes (or, 90 percent of the vote) to Adolf Hitler. From Reich Chancellor to Führer, Hitler now brandished absolute power by the people's will, and began forging ties with Italy and Japan. Eight years later, stretched thin against Axis powers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released arguably the direst American wartime propaganda film ever. If we really wanted to smash the fascists into oblivion, the reel argued, we needed a whole bunch of Cannabis sativa L. And quick.
From the outset of WWII, in 1939, Japan cut off American supplies of Filipino hemp and Indian jute, and by 1942 our bulk war supplies were dwindling. Hemp for Victory was an urgent appeal: We needed rope for naval towlines, webbing for parachutes, thread for shoes! A primer on successful planting, reaping and bundling techniques, as well as information on equipment and tips for rope binding, the 15-minute short goaded farmers to prove their patriotism by harvesting lush stands of industrial hemp. It called for an appreciable bounty increase – 50,000 total acres – of product for 1943, a 14,000-acre bump over 1942.
Marihuana-producer tax stamp (Wikipedia)
The overture opens with a pan across crumbling Grecian ruins. "Long ago," begins some grandfatherly narrator, "when these ancient Grecian temples were new, hemp was already old in the service of mankind." The ancient Arabic word for canvas was the same as cannabis; hemp had been used for cordage in ancient China; the Conestoga wagons of America's westward expansion had hemp hides.
Why? Not to get all patchwork-shorts burnout-ball bro on you – and because none of this is anything new – but the fibrous stalk of this distinct, non-psychotropic strain of Cannabis sativa L is pretty amazing. Not only is hemp insanely durable, with fibers that are longer and stronger and more permeable and mildew-resistant than cotton. It can be grown in a range of soils and requires few pesticides, and can typically yield 3-8 dry-fiber tons per acre. That's four times what the average arboreal forest can turn around.
Plant cannabis, fight fascists
Of course, possessing and transferring weed was first criminalized in 1937. And while hemp can't get you even remotely stoned, its relation to what can has kept it illegal. We're the only industrialized nation that doesn't allow for the production of industrial hemp.
But we made an exception then, like we always do, to ensure the maximum output of our military forces – and because where we've fought wars, we've come up against drugs. Northern hospitals during the Civil War liberally administered morphine and opium for painkilling; countless veterans who'd begun using narcotics for legitimate medicinal purposes became addicted. Many American troops in the Vietnam conflict who shot up heroin for the first time overseas returned home addicted. In spring of 1986 the Reagan administration disclosed a three-page memorandum admitting the CIA's involvement in trafficking cocaine in Nicaragua during the Contra war. U.S. military interests in the ongoing Afghanistan conflict are battling a war machine financed through the opium trade.
Hemp for Victory, all campiness aside, is testament to liminal legalities, wartime’s privilege.
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