“Eat your vegetables. Children are starving in Europe.” I remember my grandmother saying that when I was very young and wondering what she was talking about. The phrase has endured and has been modified to embrace Asia, Africa or any other areas plagued by hunger. But I suspect my grandmother’s saying has more to do with the subject of “The Great Famine” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings), an illuminating presentation from “American Experience.”
Like the best history documentaries, “Famine” teaches you things you did not know and asks you to look at the familiar from a new perspective. In the decades since the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover has been portrayed as a leader who did nothing while Americans plunged into poverty. That version may not be accurate, but it endures.
As we learn in “Famine,” Hoover’s pre-presidential image was that of a rather heroic engineer diplomat who saw government intervention and American know-how as all but invincible. Hoover had organized famine relief for starving Belgians during World War I and saved millions of Europeans from starvation after the war.
“The Great Famine” concerns Hoover’s efforts to get American food and grain to the Soviet Union in 1921-22 when millions faced imminent death. Months of bad weather and blunt communist efforts to collectivize and control farmers resulted in food shortages and catastrophe. “Famine” details the men known as “Hoover’s Boys,” who would surmount vast distances, logistical nightmares and the suspicions of an openly hostile and devious Bolshevik regime to succeed. By the summer of 1922, Hoover’s men were feeding more than 11 million Soviet citizens in approximately 19,000 kitchens.
Hoover had no illusions about Lenin or his government. He believed that a demonstration of American generosity and efficiency would bond the Soviets to their benefactors and help usher out the Soviet regime. Years later, Hoover admitted that he was wrong and that he had probably saved the USSR from collapse. All the same, Hoover’s efforts set an example of humanitarian concern and relief that has been followed to this day.
• “Law & Order: LA” (8 p.m., NBC) returns with two original episodes. Look for Terrence Howard as Deputy District Attorney Jonah Dekker seen in last week’s “Law & Order: SVU.”
• Thirteen, aka Dr. Remy Hadley (Olivia Wilde), returns for the 150th episode of “House” (7 p.m., Fox).
Tonight’s other highlights
• An epidemic of prescription drug abuse leads to several overdoses in one Ohio county on “Intervention In-Depth: Hillbilly Heroin” (7 p.m., A&E).
• A crime wave looms as the city sizzles on “The Chicago Code” (8 p.m., Fox).
• “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (8 p.m., Travel) visits Brazil.
• Mike and Frank of “American Pickers” scour the countryside for artifacts requested by the NASCAR Hall of Fame (8 p.m., History).