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United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration

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The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was an international agency chartered in Atlantic City, New Jersey in November, 1943 and tasked with providing relief to refugees in Europe and China in the aftermath of World War II.

The humanitarian success of UNRRA in repairing the social fabric of Europe after World War II is not as well known as Allied military and political successes, but it deserves study, especially in light of the socioeconomic aftermath of present-day Asian land wars.


UNRRA was a uniformed service. Its members wore a gray outfit with an UNRRA shoulder patch, which stood for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. "UNRRA" was an acronym pronounced "oon-rah". Two training centers provided a few weeks of basic instruction for UNRRA staff -- one in College Park, Maryland (USA) and another in Granville, Normandy (France).

An UNRRA relief team usually consisted of a dozen workers dispatched to a location and tasked with reconnoitering and reporting on medical and material assistance needed by the local population. On the military side, US Army doctrine specified a team of twelve people (eight enlisted men, three officers, plus one UNRRA liaison) to act as the supervisory element managing a camp of 3,000 people.


Planning for UNRRA began after Allied victories in North Africa (1942) and Stalingrad (1943). UNRRA was founded in November 1943, and predated the United Nations by a year and a half. Later, the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe, but at the outset UNRRA provided desperately needed first-responder international assistance. Forty-four nations sent liaisons to Atlantic City, New Jersey in November 1943 to sign the UNRRA charter establishing the relief agency. Dean Acheson and Franklin D. Roosevelt were key supporters.

UNRRA was initially headed by Herbert H. Lehman, former governor of New York State, and then later by Fiorello LaGuardia, former Mayor of New York City, and then finally Major General Lowell W. Rooks, a former commander in the European theater. The first head of UNRRA, Herbert H. Lehman, campaigned forcefully for the necessary resources, transport, and logistics on behalf of UNRRA at its beginnings.


At the end of World War II, the Allies penetrated Germany in the spring of 1945 and encountered a forced labor pool ultimately estimated as a quarter of the German workforce, and composed of 1.9 million prisoners-of-war and 5.7 million foreign civilians. Of these, 2.7 million were Soviets and 1.6 million were Poles. Counting political prisoners and non-working POWs, around 11 million people were released from captivity by the Allied victory. UNRRA offered 8 million displaced persons (mostly forced laborers) food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and job training.

Displaced persons (DPs) were those civilians outside their original national borders. An administrative pipeline processed DPs into national groups, provided registration cards, and funneled them to specific camps for eventual repatriation or relocation elsewhere. Many did not want to be repatriated, and many had been traumatized by the war. Such psychological damage is nowadays referred to as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the syndrome had long been recognized as "shell shock" and "battle fatigue" much earlier.

The DPs needed to be repaired mentally as well as physically, since enslavement, violence, forced transport, penal servitude, abusive working conditions, and separation from family had reduced the population to a bitter, broken, depressed, and dangerously aggressive state. Few Americans spoke the language of the DPs, which made overall administration confusing and difficult.


Funding for UNRRA came predominately from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, although by the time UNRRA's charter expired in 1947 over forty countries had contributed money, goods, and people to its humanitarian activities. The $4 billion dollars of aid was mostly paid by the United States (73%) and the United Kingdom (16%), with the remainder provided by the other 44 nations, most notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Brazil, and South Africa.

UNRRA was the official Allied umbrella organization overseeing the work of almost 125 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing relief assistance with money and materials. Sometimes there were personality clashes in the field between UNRRA workers (seen as naive do-gooders) and Army officers and NCOs (seen as insensitive and ruthless); but somehow the necessary work got done.


UNRRA workers also clashed in the field with the volunteers from the various private relief organizations they supervised. These groups had gathered money and goods under their own agendas, often for specific ethnic groups and circumstances, and resented their assistance being diluted by incorporation into a common aid pool.

Gradually UNRRA operatives learned to step back and to better accommodate the specific charitable groups, and thus provide a low-key conduit for smooth and optimal flow of private fund-raising money and goods. In the best of partnerships, the US Army brought its logistical and transport skills and the UNRRA personnel brought their compassion and people skills to rescue a needy population in a dark time.

Allied military commanders eager to arrange for the swift return of their own soldiers being held in both Nazi and Soviet camps cooperated with the repatriation of former Soviet citizens back to the Soviet Union, although this was resisted by many of them. Registration and assessment of the displaced persons, most no longer possessing vital-records documentation, was an important UNRRA function that began bringing order out of disorder.

In the summer of 1945 the Soviet Union sent NKVD liaison officers to the DP camps to encourage Soviet citizens to return, promising them amnesty and good treatment. The reality was far different -- most were shipped to the Siberian gulag to provide yet more slave labor there for its mines and lumber mills. Forcible repatriations were met with physical resistance and hunger strikes, and US and British commanders eventually realized the effects of this counterproductive policy.

Since the Allied military forces were reluctant to give up trucks and supplies while combat operations continued, it took much negotiating and bargaining to arrange for logistical support on recently abandoned battlefields. But the urgent swarming of refugees quickly overwhelmed roads and the remaining housing, so local military commanders worked out partnerships with UNRRA and the various volunteer groups under its auspices to separately house and feed non-combatant civilians from prisoners of war.

Both Allied army field commanders and representatives of relief agencies supervised by UNRRA clashed with UNRRA personnel over logistics, transportation, and control issues -- extreme scarcity and chaos were the norm in postwar Europe. In total, around four billion dollars worth of food, goods, and equipment were shipped by UNRRA to Europe and Asia. (UNRRA also had a presence in China.)

By 1945 UNRRA had ten thousand employees and was operating in over a dozen countries. UNRRA was composed predominately of volunteers, drawn from many countries and many former occupations. The organization as a whole performed miracles of logistics, ensuring that food, clothing, blankets, and medical supplies reached literally millions of people in need throughout the late 1940s.

In addition to its ten thousand direct-hire staff, UNRRA engaged the services of local contractors fluent in the local languages and skilled at navigating the local terrain and sociopolitical circumstances. Volunteers from UNRRA entered combat-damaged areas within days of the guns falling silent, and in a few cases came under fire from both sides while delivering supplies under white flags to civilians caught in the cross-fires of mopping up operations.


UNRRA's low-paid operatives provided millions of war-damaged civilians with life-support systems in the aftermath of carnage and horror. Finding experienced bureaucratic operators and field personnel was always a challenge. UNRRA also supervised (but did not pay) thousands of volunteers from multiple private relief organizations. The men and women who set up the UNRRA soup kitchens, drove the trucks, erected shelters, and distributed the blankets and medicine provided the necessary human services for mending a broken population.

In 1947 UNRRA was disbanded, and its responsibilities assigned to various other agencies. Its rapid response in shipping 25 million tons of goods to millions of people saved lives and relieved much hardship, at a time when the logistics infrastructure was badly broken. UNRRA archives are currently maintained by the United Nations in New York City.