“King Kong” and the American Relief Administration

Publicity photo of Merian C. Cooper with a King Kong prop, ca. 1933.

History is often more imaginative than fiction with individuals whose lives reflect deeds like something out of a novel. Merian C. Cooper is one of these individuals. As a young journalist, he joined the American Expeditionary Forces and became a pilot. His plane was shot down, but he survived with severe burns. After the war, he joined Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration and supported the food relief efforts in Poland. While in Poland, he was recruited by the Polish government to create the Kosciusko Squadron using other former American pilots in the Polish struggle against the Bolshevists. The squadron, named after Polish general who served in the American Revolution, was so effective that the Russians specifically targeted their planes. Cooper’s plane was shot down, but he was not recognized and spend ten months in prison. He escaped and made his way to Latvia and then the United States.

Here he joined forces with Ernest B. Schoedsack to produce two highly acclaimed silent documentaries, “Grass” and “Chang.” But his greatest claim to fame was his collaboration with Schoedsack to direct and produce the 1933 classic, “King Kong.” Cooper would continue to have a successful career in Hollywood as well as on boards of the emerging airline industry. His many adventures and achievements did not prevent him from being active in the American Relief Administration’s “Association Review” providing updates on his activities. When a 1928 request from “Association Review” editor George Barr Barker reached Cooper in Sudan asking for stories of his time with the ARA, Cooper sent the following:

Your letter referring to Mr. Hoover has been forwarded on to me here; and I am, of course, only too glad to write anything I can, for, though a good Democrat, my personal admiration and esteem for Mr. Hoover are very great indeed.

I recall when I was sent to Lemberg, Poland for the A.R.A. in early 1919, during the siege of that town, the tremendous influence for peace and straight dealings that the name of Hoover carried. I was nothing but an inexperienced flying officer, twenty-four years old, suddenly thrown into a most difficult and complicated position—a besieged town, three antagonistic races living within the town, and the people literally starving. It was necessary to form a joint committee on which all three races should be represented, in order that the hungry should be fed, especially the thousands of small children and babies. Previous to this time it had been found impossible to get all three races on a committee together; and chaos and terror from hunger had been the result of disorganization.

My inexperience and my youth were such as to have made any action of mine almost useless, except for one thing—I spoke in the name of Hoover; and such already was his reputation in Central Europe as a man who never broke a pledge, who worked only for the common good of humanity uninfluenced by any ulterior motives, that even such a young man as myself when speaking as “Hoover’s representative” was listened to, believed in and obeyed. People there simply knew that Hoover was straight.

So I—for Hoover—got the representatives of the three races together in one room; and the committee then and there was formed. And it worked. As a result thousands of children who would have died of starvation or malnutrition lived. And once more in a distant land the name of the American Hoover had become the symbol of straight dealing, mercy and truth.

I have worked for a good many men in my time, but for none other for whom I have quite the admiration and respect as I have for Mr. Hoover.

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