Milton Hershey, POWs and Kindness

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“One is only happy in proportion as he makes others feel happy.” -Milton Hershey


In 2017, Forbes published what they call the Global 2000. These are the 2000 biggest companies in the world according to their ranking system. Hershey was #956 on the list. One of the best illustrations of the influence of Hershey is that, like Apple or Wells Fargo, when you call the company by name, everyone knows what it is. When speaking about the company, no one has to say, Hershey, the chocolate company that distributes candy bars world wide. Milton Hershey did something incredible.

Milton HersheyThis recognition does not come from size or money or sales. In fact, the #1 company on the same list is ICBC. Ever heard of it? Perhaps you have, but there are a few ICBC’s around. Is it the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia or the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China? Once you hear the full name it becomes apparent which it probably is but, unless you frequent China, or study global economics you most likely did not know that initially.

This is Hershey

But you do know Hershey? This multi-billion dollar company had almost 18,000 employees in 2017 and $7.44 billion in sales. These numbers put the company at #874 in profit, #533 in market value and #94 in the worlds most valuable brands.

Let me explain that a different way. There are only 93 companies, in the world with a more valuable brand than Hershey, which is an astounding feat.

This behemoth success was started on one thing. Not the investments of a community, old money handed down or a new craze that swept the nation. It was initially established on a single belief in Milton Hershey, the kind man who started it.

Milton Hershey was not a great businessman, when he started.

  • In 1876 Milton Hershey failed a printing apprenticeship.
  • At 19 Milton Hershey started his first candy business with money from his mother, sister and a man named Harry Lebkicher. It failed.
  • He went to Denver to make money on the silver boom, and failed.
  • In 1883 Milton Hershey started another candy business in New York, which collapsed.

At this point his mother’s side of the family had written him off. They had invested and lost small fortunes on him by this time and his repeated failures were more than most people could handle, except for one man.

One of his first investors, Harry Lebkicher, continued to support Hershey despite the repeated failures. After his failure in New York, Harry paid for Hershey to get his equipment back from the train station that had shipped it, cash on delivery. Milton Hershey was broke. But Lebkicher wasn’t, and it was this final investment that launched Hershey into the business stratosphere. With the financial and physical help from Lebkicher he started a successful caramel business that he parlayed into the chocolate empire we all know today.

But why did Lebkicher continue investing in a proven failure? How Creatives Get Paid 11 Days Faster


Lebkicher was notoriously quiet. It is difficult to find quotes by the man. In fact Hersey himself said, “Lebbie was the only man I couldn’t outwork. But I could out talk him. He didn’t say much, and when he did, he usually snapped at you.”

But one quote attributed to him during his service in the Civil War speaks loudly about the person he was. In reference to his commanding officers he said,  “…if the Generals would all work together the war (would have) been at a close, but here the one tries to get more honor than the other to get a fat office.”

Lebkicher valued congeniality and working together. Eventually, he was able to find it in the kind and generous Milton Hershey. The examples of Hershey’s kindness were amplified after he made his fortune. He was notoriously generous. That kindness and generosity stood out amongst many of the other businessmen of his time.Milton Hershey

Brutal Business

Milton Hershey operated in the backdrop of atrocities from “businessmen” like Leopold II and Hermann von Siemens.

King Leupold II was heir to the Belgium throne, and in 1865, he took his birthright. Obsessed with building Belgium’s overseas footprint, he searched and found an area perfect for European meddling. It was the Congo.

With its rich natural resources like gold, ivory and rubber, and it’s unorganized system of tribes, the Congo was ripe for exploitation. It was exactly the place and people that Leopold felt needed an introduction to Jesus Christ, and in some cases, literally. Under the guise of spreading Christianity and with borrowed money from the Belgium government for his “humanitarian” project, Leopold forcefully seized control of the Congo partially through a very complicated and underhanded exchange of power with a slave trader named Tippu Tip. With control over the region, Leopold was able to export it’s incredibly profitable natural resources.

Phase Two

After rapidly paying off the debt owed to his homeland, the new enterprise paid Leopold handsomely. His bloody seizure of the area would pale in comparison to the brutal business practices he employed.

For example, workers who did not meet their daily ivory or gold quota would have a hand or a foot amputated. But if amputating their hands or feet interfered with their work, or if a worker had already missed a quota and couldn’t afford to lose another extremity, it was their family that paid the price. Images of men staring at the severed hands and feet of their young children sent a clear message to those who hadn’t experienced the brutal practice themselves.

Leopold’s agents also “de-populated” areas needed to develop rubber crops. In some instances this meant the eradication of a few sparse dwellings. But in other cases it meant wiping out entire villages. This extermination was not done as a war tactic, but as a means to increase profits.

Hermann von Siemens

Hermann von Siemens was another businessman operating during Hershey’s life. He ran the manufacturing company that bore his name during WWII. Siemens found a cheap work force in a very unorthodox place; Jewish concentration camps. They amassed a fortune on the backs of the victims of the holocaust.

A very common anecdote attributed to Siemens during this time is, “it was not atypical for a slave worker to build electrical switches for Siemens in the morning and be snuffed out in a Siemens-made gas chamber in the afternoon.”

This was the time period in American history that made child labor laws necessary and the gathering of the work force in the form of unions common. Because of the labor-related deaths and mistreatment of workers by business owners during this time, the landscape of the U.S. workforce changed dramatically. A slogan arose during the “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912 in  Lawrence Massachusetts that sums up some of the conditions. “Better to starve fighting than to starve working.”

A Shining Light

But, in this psychopathic business environment, Milton Hershey built an empire out of spreading kindness and joy. A description of the book Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams says it best. “(The author) solidifies his subject’s reputation as a kindly type of industrialist. Hershey himself unknowingly explained his own kind nature accidentally in a famous quote attributed to him.” He said, “business is a matter of human service.”

It was this man in which Harry Lebkicher choose to invest, not Hershey the multi-national conglomerate. It was Milton Hershey, the kind and gentle failure who needed a hand. This honest and gentle spirit, shining in an age of darkness, needed the help of a Civil War vet, and it was that Civil War vet who made the final investment Milton Hershey needed to get his candy making equipment back, and change the world.

But why do people inherently trust and believe in kindness? Is that even true? Perhaps Harry Lebkicher was a crazy old sentimental coot who happened to get lucky. How powerful is kindness when it comes to influence and persuasion?

If we honestly give everyone a fair shake, regardless of what they have done, will it offer more or less persuasion? It turns out, kindness is incredibly persuasive, and to understand how, we can look in a very unlikely place.

Kindness was pivotal in Communist prisoner of war camps during the Korean war.

In June of 1957 a young Mike Wallace was broadcast into the homes of America. The white smoke drifting up from his cigarette bore a stark contrast to the black background behind him, and the colorless video accentuated the contrast even more. He opens with, “My guest tonight is the youngest U.S. army turncoat of the Korean War. You see him behind me,” a picture of a young, handsome man flashes on the screen next to Wallace.

He continues. “He’s David Hawkins of Oklahoma City.” The screen goes dark. Suddenly the words, The Mike Wallace Interview flash across the black backdrop with cigarette smoke wafting behind the words as they are simultaneously spoken by a man with a deep voice. For some reason there is the sound of a drum being struck twice. Then the interview starts. This is the point where the irritation for Wallace becomes visible.


He fidgets with some papers as he explains, “Three years ago the United States was stunned by an announcement from war-torn Korea. U.S. army private David Hawkins and 20 other prisoners of the communists have become turncoats,” Wallace over pronounces the word turncoats. He continues, “they had renounced their own country and disappeared behind red China’s bamboo curtain.” Hawkins is quietly smoking behind him, leaning on the arm of his chair to the right. Wallace partially swivels around, not facing Hawkins but instead, speaking to him from the left side of his face, as if the empty blackness behind Hawkins was more worthy of his attention.

“Dave,” Wallace says, “let me ask you this.” He goes on to explain that the New York Times had published a piece suggesting that the “turncoats” hadn’t really converted to communism, but that they had committed crimes against their own, and didn’t want to face whatever punishment the U.S. had in store for them.


Hawkins had been captured shortly after his 17th birthday. He was shot, lost conciseness, and when he awoke the first words he heard were, “We are friends. We are not going to hurt you.” He was in a Chinese communist hospital, and this was much warmer welcome than the one he received from Mike Wallace.

The Korean War, like any war, was a complicated political and fundamental contention that, at it’s core, pitted capitalism against communism. WWII resulted in the division of Korea along the 38th parallel. The communist controlled, north side butted squarely against the U.S. occupied south. In 1950 the communists from the north crossed the 38th parallel, sparking what would be the Korean War and a debate between communism and capitalism that still rages today.

Two Enemies

As Hawkins awoke to hear the kind words of his doctor, there was no doubt he was uneasy. At the time there were basically two halves of the communist enemy. There was the North Korean half, which often did not recognize the Geneva Convention mandates. Frequently, South Korean POWs were used as labor for military purposes, which is strictly forbidden by articles 49-57. Or they were indoctrinated to communism, then assigned to the most dangerous battles and positions in the war. The stance of the Koreans was, why kill ours, when we can kill theirs.

Then there was the Chinese half of the North Korean army. They also frequently ignored the Geneva Convention guidelines, but for a much different reason. They adhered to the Confucian Code. Although Confucianism is a deep system of actions and beliefs, it is often described as being built on three values.

  1. Filial Piety. Respect for parents and elders.

  2. Ritual. Observance and adherence to systematic signs of respect and faith.

  3. Humaneness. Caring and empathy for other humans.

In other words, if you were captured by the North Korean army, you could be captured by a Korean enemy that used you as fodder, or by a Chinese enemy that viewed you as an equal. Hawkins, along with mountains of others, was captured by the Chinese.

So many soldiers were captured that the Chinese army had to hire hundreds of staff to manage the POW camps. Amongst those hired was Zhou Shangun, a translator.  She said of the POWs, “They didn’t know our policy. They didn’t know if we were going to kill them, or force them to do hard labor or keep them in China forever and not let them return home. So they worried a lot.”

But most, at that point had little to worry about. Qian Meide, who was also a translator said, “My supervisor asked me to read the regulations to the POWs. It began with Dear Students. I was very surprised and asked why, because to me they were prisoners and we were their captors. My supervisor said yes, they are students and you are instructors.”

Complete Equality

The Chinese often held lectures and classes for the prisoners, athletic events between camps and essay contests for the POWs. It was the latter that produced the comments of U.S. soldiers, the Chinese used as propaganda.

After the soldier had experienced unexpectedly kind treatment, great meals, and lectures explaining the communist view of the world, the Chinese captors would offer small prizes to the winners of essay contests. More often than not, the winners of these prizes had dotted their essays with small, pro-communists statements. After all, these men had come to Korea with the purpose of killing the Chinese. Now, those same Chinese were treating them better than some had ever been treated at home.

William White, a black POW said of the Chinese, “For the first time in my life, I have witnessed complete equality.”


In his fabulous book, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini explains why the Chinese offered small prizes for men who won these contests. He explains that, not only were the little, pro-communist statements great for propaganda, but they also held a deeper, psychological power. The power of written commitment.

The prizes for these essay contest were kept purposefully small. Cialdini explains that items such as small bags of rice went to the winners. The reason was the Chinese wanted their POWs to own what they had written. They needed the authors to think that they themselves believed the small incremental shifts that were happening in their opinions. If a prisoner was offered something very valuable for his winning essay, he could explain away his writings. But no one would compromise their beliefs for a bag of rice, would they?

How Much is the Price of Rice?

The answer is not simply yes or no. It depends on the value they placed on the rice. They would not place massive value on a bag of rice, if they were being treated as guests rather than prisoners. Imagine the poor souls detained in the Korean POW camps. If they were offered the opportunity to build a bridge for winning a pro-communist essay contest, rather than fight their own, on the front lines, in the most dangerous places, for the enemy, it would be easy to explain away writing almost anything.

Milton HersheyBut what is a bag of rice to a man who is so healthy, he is competing in athletic events? The reason a bag of rice was a small prize had everything to do with the condition of the recipient. In an article by Reuters named, American POWs remember life in Japanese prison camps, Wayne Miller explained that their food ration was usually two bowls of rice, with little meat or vegetables.

Imagine offering that prisoner a bag of rice for a sentence degrading capitalism. That bag of rice could double his calories for a day. When you are starving, that is a huge reward. But, the men under the kinder, Chinese control in Korea weren’t starving, so the bag of rice seemed small, and the sentence written supporting communism seemed their own.


Not long after the contentious beginning of the Mike Wallace interview with David Hawkins, Wallace is finally facing Hawkins. He asks, “You became a turncoat…Why? What did you have against the United States?”

Hawkins voice is soft and quiet. He answers, “Well Mike it wasn’t actually that I had, uh, something against the United States.” He stops. Perhaps the longest pause during the interview. Hawkins seems to be searching for his actual feelings. He goes on, “I underwent the, uh, mass indoctrination program that the Chinese, uh, instigated in the camp, and there was a lot of things that they told me that, uh, sounded to me like common sense.”

As part of the agreement of peace, a 90-day window was offered to any soldier to consider, or reconsider his choice. If they had initially renounced their citizenship, they could change their mind and choose a repatriation plan. After denouncing the U.S. two soldiers changed their mind. Edward Dikenson and Claude Batchelor returned home. They were both immediately court-martialed. Their repatriation plan included prison sentences. Batchelor served 4 1/2 years and Dikenson 3 1/2.

Lewis Griggs, one of the “turncoats” said in a televised interview, “Even if I had wanted repatriation, the fate of Dikenson and Batchelor would stop me.”

The kindness of the POW camps in Korea seemed more appealing than the McCarthyism Griggs felt he would face at home.

Milton Hershey’s Workers

History has painted a picture of Milton Hershey that seems incredibly kind as well. One story tells that, during the Great Depression, Milton Hershey was deeply involved in the building of his town. He sent workers from the chocolate factory to the town projects rather than lay them off.

At one point he had the opportunity to buy a steam shovel that could, as the story goes, “do the work of 40 men.” Milton Hershey apparently said, “Get rid of the steam shovel, and bring back the 40 men!”

Many people believe that Hershey, the company, was built on the kindness of Milton Hershey, which I’m sure is very true. But it started with the kindness of a little known man named Harry Lebkicher. Lebbie was kind enough to help a friend over and over, and never pass judgement on his failures.

At Lebbie’s funeral, Milton Hershey said, “We’ve just buried the best friend I’ve ever had.”

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