Eighty years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) directed American farmers to bypass a federal law prohibiting the harvest of hemp. This unusual policy was enacted out of desperation – after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese cut off the Asian supply of rope fiber exports to the U.S. Since these exports were needed to provide cordage for the U.S. naval fleet, the government needed an alternative commodity to fill that void.
Except that there was a problem – the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act made hemp farming illegal. Never mind that hemp lacked the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) necessary to create the narcotic effect of marijuana – the feds insisted hemp and marijuana looked so much alike that it was difficult to enforce the nation’s drug laws. Thus, a once-lucrative non-criminal cash crop was removed from the soil.
But thanks to Tojo and friends, the USDA did an about-face – or, more accurately, an end-run around the Marihuana Tax Act, which was not voided or amended. As a wartime emergency effort, the USDA ignored the law and sought to gather as much industrial hemp as possible. But this created another problem – many farmers never grew hemp and had little idea how to generate a bumper crop.
The solution was a short documentary produced by the USDA called “Hemp for Victory.”
On The Big Screen: “Hemp for Victory” was designed as a crash-course for farmers in how to cultivate this crop. The film opens with a thumbnail history of hemp, noting its ancient roots as a source of cordage and clothing in China and across Asia.
“For centuries prior to about 1850, all the ships that sailed the western seas were rigged with hempen rope and sails,” said the film’s narrator, adding that the USS Constitution, the U.S. Navy frigate more commonly known as Old Ironsides, “took over 60 tons of hemp for rigging, including an anchor cable 25 inches in circumference.”
The films also reminded the viewers that the Conestoga wagons and prairie schooners of pioneer days were covered with hemp canvas.
“In those days, hemp was an important crop in Kentucky and Missouri,” the narrator continued. “Then came cheaper imported fibers for cordage, like jute, sisal and Manila hemp, and the culture of hemp in America declined.”
The narrator conveniently forgot to mention the Marihuana Tax Act that effectively ended hemp farming – and that missing fact is only hinted at when the film flashed the image of a federal license to produce “marihuana.”
“This is hemp seed,” the narrator stated. “Be careful how you use it. For to grow hemp legally you must have a federal registration and tax stamp. This is provided for in your contract. Ask your county agent about it. Don’t forget.”
The remainder of the film is a fairly academic presentation on how to grow hemp, with tips on which soil is best – “Soil that will grow good corn will usually grow hemp” – and how to recognize when the crop is ready for harvesting. Advice on preparing hemp for shipment and a view on how the wartime military planned to use the hemp was also detailed.
“Hemp for mooring ships!” the narrator proclaimed. “Hemp for tow lines! Hemp for tackle and gear! Hemp for countless naval uses, both on ship and shore! Just as in the days when Old Ironsides sailed the seas victorious with her hempen shrouds and hempen sails: hemp for victory!”
A Lost Film: “Hemp for Victory” was released in theaters in rural markets and was also distributed for non-theatrical screenings by agricultural agents working with farmers.
During wartime, hemp was a sought-after crop. But after the war was over, the USDA did an abrupt about face and remembered the Marihuana Tax Act was still the law. Farmers went back to their prewar crops, and for years the U.S. was the only country in the industrialized world that outlawed the growing of hemp.
But the hemp crops weren’t the only things to disappear after the war – “Hemp for Victory” also vanished. Over the years, film scholars and marijuana legalization activists tried to secure a print of the film from the USDA, but the department insisted that the film never existed despite USDA brochures from 1942 that included the title among its non-theatrical film releases.
As a government-produced film, “Hemp for Victory” had no copyright and could have been duplicated for educational and television release, but the USDA did not want the production seen – no copy of the film was deposited in the Library of Congress and there was evidence that the USDA proactively contacted university libraries to have the film removed from their collections.
But the censorship and state of denial evaporated in 1976 when marijuana legalization advocate William Conde obtained a ¾-inch video copy of “Hemp for Victory” from a Miami Herald reporter, which effectively confirmed the film’s existence. In 1989, John Birrenbach, founder of The Institute for Hemp, obtained a second generation copy of the film on VHS from a private collector. The following year, original film reels of “Hemp for Victory” were located in the library of the National Archives.
As a public domain film, “Hemp for Victory” has been widely copied for exhibition by advocates of legalized marijuana and film scholars interested in World War II-era government films. Copies of the films – some satisfactory, others not so much – can easily be located on many video websites.
Eighty years after its creation, “Hemp for Victory” offers a strange reminder of the federal government breaking its own cannabis laws to win a war, and then going to war against those who wanted an honest accounting of history. Within the realm of cannabis cinema, this is one of the most important productions of all time.
Photo: Screen shot from “Hemp for Victory”