Speeding through the silent blackness of the night, a long freight-train was laden with a cargo more precious than fine gold—wheat! Then suddenly, the hirelings of Apocryphos unleashed red destruction, and the great machine lay wrecked, its cars of priceless grain afire… Another blow in the ruthless campaign that was driving a proud people, whimpering, to slavery—overwhelmed by the cruel pangs of hunger! The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, thundered sharp-hoofed over the sterile reaches of a famine-wasted continent, while only one man—Operator 5—realized the ghastly extent of the diabolical plot. And only he—America’s undercover ace—could hope to bring the canny schemer to the justice he deserved—death!
“Legions of Starvation” is the ninth Operator 5 novel and was originally published in December 1934.
In this one, the enemy is the home-grown communist-like New Populist Party, “an organization that is more dangerous and more powerful to this country than the Communist Council at its worse.” The story builds on the plight of the Dust Bowls of the 1930s. Although the worse of these dust storms were still in the future in December 1934, there were significant examples as early as November 11, 1933 (South Dakota) and May 9, 1934 (Texas and Oklahoma). Basically, the food supply is under pressure in America from drought, especially with farmers who have had their fields turned to dust becoming a “desert.” The New Populists are destroying transportation, storage supplies, and food directly that might relieve the worse of food shortages and to spread the lack of food to greater populations; eventually they also deploy “clouds of insects,” large beetles, to eat food stuff that they have not destroyed or confiscated, and government imposters attempting to subvert efforts to improve food supply. Their hope is to foment rebellion by desperate, starving people against the federal government which is unable to do enough to relieve the food shortages.
Although it builds more on the general circumstances of the Great Depression rather than the dust bowls, the Spider’s tale titled “The Citadel of Hell,” published for March, 1934, also concerns the destruction of America’s food system. Probably not a coincident as both magazines are published by the same people.
Could mass starvation undermine the US and result in a rebellion significant enough to bring down the government? Probably, but it is not clear that this novel establishes sufficient mechanisms to support the potential level of mass starvation put forth. My criticism of Spider’s/Page’s “The Citadel of Hell” is that there is not a sufficient organization in place in the novel to curtail the vast food systems in America. This novel adds drought, insects, and imposters to the equation, but food systems are so extensive in the US, it is still not clear that mass starvation across the country is possible with the actions stated. Also, since the New Populists have large storages of food directly under their control to entice people to join them, one wonders why the insects do not attack their storages, or why starving people would not find these storages and loot them. As such, while a better attempt than the Spider story, this story does not provide an adequate backdrop to underpin the possibility of mass starvation. Therefore, it does not seem possible that the rebellion would ever be successful as purported by this story.
If we postulate that it could happen in an alternate universe, could Operator 5 have stopped it? The New Populist strategy is dependent on secrecy. They are causing the problem of a lack of food and have vast storages of food available to alleviate the problem when they take over; their strategy is make the existing government appear guilty of being unable to resolve the food crisis, and then coming to the rescue. So, a secret agent revealing the scheme and uncovering details could disrupt the New Populist’s efforts and thereby end the threat. Indeed, Jimmy Christopher uncovers the location of the New Populist’s food storages, and the secret head of the organization. In real life, the threat from the New Populist would likely continue if its head was severed, but the particular thrust in this novel would be defeated.
A generally enjoyable novel. The logic supporting mass starvation seems to be somewhat faulty, but the pace of the story maintains swift action. It is easy to get lost in the story and imagine that you are Operator 5. Indeed, the story is good escapist literature. It is easy to recommend the story.