Letter from Washington — From the September 2013 issue

A Very Perfect Instrument

The ferocity and failure of America’s sanctions apparatus

At the beginning of World War I, Britain set up a blockade designed, according to one of its architects, Winston Churchill, to “starve the whole population of Germany — men, women and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.” By January 1918, the country’s food supply had been reduced by half and its civilians were dying almost at the same rate as its soldiers. When the war finally ended eleven months later, the Germans assumed the blockade would be lifted and they would be fed again.

Instead the blockade went on, and was even tightened. By the following spring, German authorities were projecting a threefold increase in infant mortality. In March 1919, General Herbert Plumer, commander of British occupation forces in the Rhineland, told Prime Minister David Lloyd George that his men could no longer stand the sight of “hordes of skinny and bloated children pawing over the offal” from the British camps.

In a later memoir, the economist John Maynard Keynes, at the time a chief adviser to the British Treasury, attributed this collective punishment of the civilian population

most profoundly to a cause inherent in bureaucracy. The blockade had become by that time a very perfect instrument. It had taken four years to create and was Whitehall’s finest achievement; it had evoked the qualities of the English at their subtlest. Its authors had grown to love it for its own sake; it included some recent improvements which would be wasted if it came to an end; it was very complicated, and a vast organization had established a vested interest. The experts reported, therefore, that it was our one instrument for imposing our peace terms on Germany, and that once suspended it could hardly be re-imposed.

Not until five months after the armistice did the Allies allow Germany to import food — not out of concern for the ongoing death and suffering, but out of fear that desperate Germans would follow the Russians into Bolshevism. By the time it was lifted, the peacetime blockade had killed about a quarter of a million people, including many children who either starved or died from diseases associated with malnutrition. There were efforts meanwhile among the victors to blame the food crisis on the postwar chaos inside Germany itself. What Woodrow Wilson approvingly called “this economic, peaceful, silent deadly remedy” retained its place in the armory of nations powerful enough to use it, preserved in international law as a mechanism for dealing with recalcitrant foes.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He writes frequently on defense and national affairs, and is the author, most recently, of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.

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October 2019