Seventy-six years ago the United States was in a world of hurt. In the Atlantic, Nazi U-Boats harassed Allied merchant ships from the Arctic to Long Island, and would sink more than 1,600 ships that year.
Things were even direr in the Pacific where our battleship fleet was lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Army on a rampage in the Philippines and East Indies. Its Empire included all of Micronesia creating a wall across the Western Pacific extending from the Aleutians to the Solomon Islands.
For a nation struggling to fight a two ocean war the blockade was a disaster. Japanese control of the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean blocked U.S. access to jute from India and Manila hemp from Luzon. Every navy depended on hemp for cordage. A single battleship required 34,000 feet of rope. There were many other wartime applications for hemp product: twine for tying and upholstery; marine rigging and towing; heavy and light-duty tackle; fire hoses; cobblers tread for millions of soldiers’ shoes; and parachute webbing.
The answer was a crash program of domestic hemp cultivation and processing. Five years before Congress enacted the Marijuana Tax Act closing down hemp production. The law required any cultivator of cannabis to pay a tax, but the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics wasn’t collecting it and anyone who dealt in marijuana without paying the tax could receive five year felony sentence in a federal prison.
The desperate to produce 50,000 acres of hemp by 1943, the U.S. Department of Agriculture swung into action with an emergency war program. The first thing the Agriculture Department did was produce a government propaganda film Hemp for Victory recruiting Midwestern farmers and training them on growing Cannabis Sativa, the hemp plant.
First, the movie provides a history lesson on hemp; how indispensable it’s been throughout the ages, for “the sailor, no less than the hangman”, its use on the frigate “Old Ironsides”, and for canvas for covering Conestoga wagons and prairie schooners that settled the American West.
Given the recent federal laws regulating the hemp plant, the picture of course comes with warnings: “This is the hemp seed. Be careful how you use it.” The narrator explains how to apply for the appropriate federal registration and tax stamp to get the seed provided for under the farmer’s contract. He tells prospects to ask “your Triple-A Committeeman (a reference to the New Deal Farm Relief Act) or County Agent;” again with the final warning: “Don’t forget.”
The film explains the contrasting cultivation in the states of the Upper Midwest and the South. It shows the best soil types, the way to plant in rows, and the types of harvesting. Kentucky harvests in August, while Wisconsin has a later hemp harvest in September, use different implements and drying techniques.
Hemp for Victory concludes with scenes of improved processing machinery at plants in Kentucky and rope production at the Boston Navy Yard, where the iconic U.S.S. CONSTITUTION was berthed. The announcer gives a final pep talk to his audience how American hemp needs to “go on duty again…just like in the days when ’Old Ironsides’ sailed the seas victorious with her hempen shrouds and hempen sails.”
You can just imagine Minnesota farmers watching Hemp for Victory in their darkened Grange Halls during World War II and responding patriotically to do their part. The project didn’t last long. Soon after V-J Day the film was disappeared from government inventories. In 1957, the last authorized Minnesota hemp field was plowed under.
Meanwhile, the National Archives denied Hemp for Victory ever existed. It wasn’t until the 1990s amid rumors of the existence of the picture show, hemp activists petitioned for its release. It’s now available to tell the story of this exciting war program.
In our next posting we will explain how the U.S.D.A.’S Commodity Credit Corporation created and provided financing for War Hemp Industries, Inc., manage and operate hemp processing plants across the Midwest, recruit and train plant workers, and contact with farmers for growing hemp.