Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August, 1976
Oral History Interview with
January 22, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Miss Strauss, I wonder if you recall the first Presidential appointment you had during the Second World War, and how you came to serve in such a long line of Presidential special committees and on various commissions established by the Department of State?
STRAUSS: Well, the first reason was, I believe, because I was National President of the League of Women Voters, and the subjects that we were interested in. We were in touch with the Government people and others who were interested in those subjects. So that when they were setting up a committee or commission the League of Women
Voters would have been sought out in connection with certain subjects. I was National President. I suppose that the higher the title the more likely you are to be asked to participate.
MCKINZIE: Do you recall the circumstances of your appointment to the Food and Agricultural Organization Conference in Quebec in 1945? With what feelings did you receive that appointment? What expertise did you think you had to bring to that, and what you did when you went to Quebec?
STRAUSS: That is quite a long story in that the League of Women Voters had certain topics that the members themselves at a convention chose to make their major interest and activity. One that we had at that time was to see that we got more food to the European countries, because it was the time when there was famine over there in certain parts. It was under the Secretary of Agriculture's authority that the decision was
made as to how much food was sent. The three staples that might be considered as the best food to ship, and that the people receiving them would know how to handle, were wheat, and potatoes, and rice. Well, we are not a rice-growing country; potatoes don't travel well; but wheat is a common food that all the European countries had as staple. We looked into the matter, and felt that the Secretary of Agriculture was not sending as much wheat overseas as was needed and that we could well afford to get along without in this country. So, I tried to see the Secretary of Agriculture on the basis of this and he was not interested. Then, since he wasn't interested, the way the League works, we decided we had to make him interested, because we felt this was important. We had all of our local leagues throughout the country, and this turned out to be something that they felt strongly about; it was something in which you could interest people who didn't have
a great deal of background but had a sympathy for what was happening in Europe -- they needed more food. The local leagues throughout the country became very active in educating the country as a whole on the fact that we could use substitutes here and send more food to our Allies through this way. One of the imaginative things took place in Virginia. One of the things that our people had been saying was that there was a great waste of food in this country and that more should go overseas. To prove this point -- in Arlington or Alexandria, I'm not quite sure -- but one of the towns near Washington decided that they would go through the garbage cans that were sitting outside and pick out the breads that had been thrown away because people thought it was stale or whatnot. It just so happened that at this place they were picking over the garbage cans -- which took a good deal of nerve to think of and to want to do -- they put the bread down next to the garbage can, and
a photographer just happened along; and he took a picture of all this bread that was being wasted and people were starving overseas. This caught on very easily. This was only one device, but it was the kind of imaginative thing that people think of when they are trying to get an idea across. This, and other ideas that people had, got newspaper publicity and made people realize that they were throwing away food that was vital to the existence of people in Europe and not realizing it.
I had gone south on a trip for the League of Women Voters and when I came back I'd barely gotten my foot across the threshold of the office when they said, "The Secretary of Agriculture wants to speak to you, will you call him?" And some of our friends in the State Department were wanting to talk with me.
I said, "What in the world is up?", because we had not had close contact with the Secretary
They said, "Well, you'll hear soon enough." Well, the gist was that the Secretary of Agriculture was hearing from all over the country, "Send more wheat abroad," and he was quite upset by this fact.
He said, "Well, why didn't you let us know?"
I said, "Well, I did, Mr. Secretary, but it seemed that you were too busy ever to return my calls," and so forth and so on. After this conversation he ended it by saying, "Well, now, anytime you have anything on your mind just pick up the telephone and I'll be delighted to hear from you." So I thanked him very much. Actually it did turn the tide. He made a decision that more wheat should go overseas, which was our objective. The next time I heard from him was an invitation to be a member of the U.S. delegation to the Food and Agriculture meeting in Quebec. I
told him at that time that I had very little background on this. It was the overall philosophy that we were interested in, getting the food over, and that I was not a specialist on food matters and so forth, but he insisted. I think I was one of the first people to be invited, because I did explain how the U.S. system worked, and the people had a right to be in touch with their officials and so on. Therefore, it was because of the action of the League of Women Voters as a whole all over the country that this came about. It's on this basis that the League of Women Voters work -- education for the Secretary of Agriculture.
MCKINZIE: Do you recall much about the conference itself, in Quebec? Some local color, some of the delegates, some of the hope or frustration you had about the possibility of using the United Nations as a vehicle.
STRAUSS: It had all the advantages of interest. It
was the first official meeting of any U.N. group, and that made it very interesting because there was absolutely no precedent. The League of Nations wasn't as much a citizen interest. It was more in government to government, and with the U.N. having in its charter much more reference to citizens and so forth, it made it very interesting. Very little material was sent out ahead because there was no pattern for doing it. Everybody was just playing it by ear.
When we got there the Secretary of Agriculture asked me to be chairman of our delegation to the organization and financing of the work. That was an appropriate place for me if he was going to ask me to be chairman of anything. I told him I didn't know enough to be chairman, but he insisted upon it; and administration and government has always been a special interest of mine. Of our delegation there were four of us in the field of administration, of financing, of personnel, and
so forth. The others, I think about six or seven, were specialists on food, the growing of it, and the supply, and so forth. So we four U.S. people met together, either early in the morning or late afternoon, to exchange what had been going on in various committees, and to decide what the U.S. position should be on what we thought would be the next subject to come up. There was one man from the State Department that had been in Government service in the State Department for, I think, about two years. Of the other two men, one had been in one month and one three months, as far as I remember. So that we were all of us neophytes as far as food went or agriculture. We knew nothing about that. That had never been our specialty. So that when we discussed things we would each report as to what had happened in the committee, to keep the other members up to date. Then we would say what we thought would be the next subject coming up or the next angle and we would
discuss it. I remember we would turn to our one man who had (let's see, I guess he was from the State Department) been there longest and say, "Well, what is the U.S. position on this?" And the answer generally was, "The U.S. has no position. We have to play it by ear." That was the way all our activity took place. This was the development of the U.S. positions on international subjects, subjects we would be following through. We occasionally cleared something with the Secretary of Agriculture, but this angle of what was going on was of less interest to him than food and agriculture per se. So that, even when we asked for more advice, he had very little to give, because it was just outside his specialty.
MCKINZIE: Were you heartened by that experience about the potential of international action through the U.N.?
STRAUSS: Oh, yes, very much so, because at least there
were all of these people sitting around and putting their minds on the same subject. Now, of course, they varied tremendously in their own background and many of their governments had no position. They'd never been in international conferences, either; so we were all feeling our way. There was the highly partisan political angle of a special nature that I wasn't as accustomed to. In some of the other angles, I had to learn all the political undercurrents that were motivating them. We had a delegate from one of the Asian countries, who was elected as chairman of our group, and that was because the U.S. did not want any of our people to be chairmen. The chairmanship had to be spread all around, because otherwise those that didn't have the background got their feelings hurt. So when we were discussing who was to be chairman, the delegates from all over the country had decided that I should be in my committee. That was because they really had never had this kind
of technical consideration in most of the countries. Now, of course, there were great exceptions: the Britisher had been in this kind of work since he was in knee breeches, and he pulled this kind of position on us when he wanted something. It was very interesting, and in a way amusing, but in a way sad, because it showed how little background we in this country had had in the international field. He'd been in it all his life, and they could afford to have somebody as knowledgeable as that in that committee. Some of the other countries had even less experience than we had had. But the other countries that didn't know so much were so pleased to have somebody that had an overall point of view as we in the United States had, and not just a personal point of view, and that sort of endeared us to them. I remember there was an Asian that we did elect, and he was so lost in all of this. His country had had so few representatives in these subjects that he frankly turned to me (I had
sympathy with him and had a little more experience), and asked for help all along. So, they were a very informal kind of committee meetings and all, as compared to what the much more sophisticated meetings of today are. We were really trying to get at the right thing to do and to set it up as well as possible. One or two people stood out as just sort of wanting everything and not knowing what they really wanted. But it was education for all of us, and this is a very interesting atmosphere to be in when you ha