Herbert Hoover and Belgium Relief in World War I

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Herbert Hoover and Belgium Relief in World War I ...

    *Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I


    Dr. George H. Nash

    In less than eight years the nations of Europe and North America will mark

    the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. For the people of the United

    States this occasion will evoke many memoriesof terrible battles, of valiant

    soldiers, of Flanders Fields where poppies grow. For some Americans the

    remembrance will elicit another image as well: of the grim, chaotic month of August

    1914, when the brave and independent kingdom of Belgium courageously resisted

    an invading army, only to fall victim to a four-year ordeal of conquest.

    One American will be forever linked in history with Belgium’s travail in that

    awful war. His name, of course, is Herbert Hoover. After the battle of the Marne,

    giant European armies bogged down in the trenches, and famine threatened

    beleaguered Belgium, a highly industrialized nation of seven million people

    dependent on imports for three-quarters of their food. On one side the German

    army of occupation refused to take responsibility for victualing the civilian

    population. Let Belgium import food as it had done before the war, said the

    Germans. On the other side stood the tightening British naval blockade of Belgian

    ports. Let the Germans, as occupiers of Belgium, feed its people, said the British.

    Besides, they argued, how could one be sure that the Germans would not seize

    imported food for themselves?

     * A lecture delivered at the Fondation Universitaire in Brussels, Belgium, October 4, 2006.


    As the tense days passed in the early autumn of 1914, food supplies dwindled

    ominously inside Belgium. To the outside world went emissaries pleading for the

    Allies to permit food to filter through the naval noose. Finally, on October 22, after

    weeks of negotiation, Herbert Hoover established under diplomatic protection a

    neutral organization to procure and distribute food to the Belgian populace. Great

    Britain agreed to let the food pass unmolested through its naval blockade. Germany

    in turn promised not to requisition this food destined for helpless noncombatants.

    Why Hoover? In the summer of 1914 Herbert Hoover was a prosperous,

    forty-year-old, international mining engineer living in Londonand dreaming of a

    career of public service in the United States. This orphaned son of an Iowa

    blacksmith had come far indeed from his humble beginnings in the American

    Middle West. Rising rapidly in his chosen profession, by 1914 he directed or in part

    controlled a worldwide array of mining enterprises that employed a hundred

    thousand men. “If a man has not made a fortune by 40 he is not worth much,”

    Hoover had said, while still in his thirties. By August 1914 he had achieved his goal

    yet was not content. “Just making money isn’t enough,” he confessed to a friend.

    Instead he wanted (as he put it) to “get into the big game somewhere.”

    His opportunity came in a form he could not have predicted. In the first

    tumultuous weeks of the war, tens of thousands of American travelers in Europe

    fled the continent for the comparative safety of Londonand, they hoped, passage

    home. Arriving in the British capital, many Yankee tourists found themselves

    unable to cash their instruments of credit or obtain temporary accommodation, let

    alone tickets for ships no longer crossing the Atlantic. Responding to the travelers’


    panic and necessities, Hoover and other American residents of London organized an emergency relief effort that provided food, temporary shelter, and financial assistance to their stranded fellow countrymen. Eventually the passenger ships resumed their sailings, and more than 100,000 weary travelers headed back to the United States. Hoover’s efficient leadership during the crisis earned him the gratitude of the American ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Hines Page. And when a few weeks later the plight of Belgium became perilous, Ambassador Page and others agreed upon Hoover, a man of demonstrated competence, to administer this new mission of mercy.

    And so began an undertaking unprecedented in world history: an organized

    rescue of an entire nation from starvation. Initially no one expected this humanitarian task to last more than a few months. Few foresaw the gruesome stalemate that developed on the western front. As Hoover himself later wrote, “The knowledge that we would have to go on for four years, to find a billion dollars, to transport five million tons of concentrated food, to administer rationing, price controls, agricultural production, to contend with combatant governments and with world shortages of food and ships, was mercifully hidden from us.”

    Within a few months Hoover and a team of mostly American volunteers built

    up what one British government official called “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” Indeed, the novel relief organization, which went by the name of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), possessed some of the attributes of a government. It had its own flag, it negotiated “treaties” with the warring European powers, and its leaders parleyed regularly with diplomats and cabinet ministers in


    several countries. It even had a “pirate” leader in Hoover, who enjoyed informal

    diplomatic immunity and traveled freely through enemy linesprobably the only

    American citizen permitted to do so in the entire war.

    As a historian and biographer of Mr. Hoover, I am particularly impressed by

    four aspects of his wartime service to the people of Belgium. First, by the sheer

    complexity and magnitude of the relief commission that he led. Today we take for

    granted the prompt intervention of humanitarian agencies in areas of distress. In

    1914, however, no institution for the succor of Belgium existed. It became Hoover’s

    awesome responsibility to create one.

    Consider the array of tasks that the Commission for Relief in Belgium was

    obliged to perform. First it had to raise money throughout the worldpartly

    through charitable appeals, but primarily, as the war went on, through subsidies

    from the Allied governments. With this money it had to purchase wheat and other

    foodstuffs from North America, South America, and Australia. Then it had to

    arrange for shipping these foodstuffs to Belgium; eventually the CRB had a fleet of

    several dozen ships continuously at its disposal. When these ships entered the

    European war zone, they were required to navigate carefully lest they be seized or

    subjected to submarine attack. And when the food-laden vessels reached the

    neutral Dutch port of Rotterdam, their cargo had to be unloaded for conveyance by

    canal into Belgium.

    Once inside the occupied country the supplies had to be prepared for human

    consumption in mills, diaries, and bakeries. Then the food had to be distributed

    equitably to an anxious population scattered over more than 2,500 villages, cities,


    and towns. As part of its undertaking, the CRB needed to verify that the daily

    rations did indeed reach their intended recipients and not the German army of

    occupation. Working with Hoover and his staff was a vast network of forty

    thousand Belgian volunteers who handled the distribution of food throughout their

    land. This parallel Belgian organization was known as the Comité National de

    Secours et d’Alimentation. At its head were some of the country’s most eminent

    business leaders, including Ernest Solvay and Emile Francqui. In early 1915

    Hoover’s team was allowed to extend its life-sustaining operations to 2,000,000

    desperate French civilians caught behind the German battle lines on the western

    front. Thus the CRB’s work came to encompass a total area of nearly twenty

    thousand square miles.

    The commission’s functions were even more complex than this summary suggests. Writing in early 1917, one of the CRB’s young supervisory delegates,

    Joseph C. Green, explained in a letter what providing food to a civil population

    under enemy control actually entailed:

    Take the one item of bread for example. First the [CRB] Provincial

    Representative has to figure out periodically the exact population of his

    Province, and the exact quantities of native wheat and rye and of imported

    wheat and maize on hand. From this he calculates the quantity of imported

    grain necessary to cover a certain period. This he reports to Brussels, and

    Brussels to London. London supplies the ships. New York purchases and

    sees to the loading. Rotterdam tranships into canal barges. In the meantime

    Brussels has decided upon the exact quantities to be shipped to each mill in

    the country, and Rotterdam ships accordingly. The provincial man must see

    to the unloading and the milling. The milling involves questions of

    percentages of bran and flour, of mixtures of native and foreign grains, of the

    disposal of byproducts and so on.

And this was just the start:


    When the flour is finally milled, the real work of distribution begins. Sacks

    must be provided and kept in rotation. The exact quantity of flour required

    by a given Commune for a given period must be ascertained. Shipments by

    canal or rail or tram or wagon must be made to every Commune dependent

    upon the mill. Boats and cars and horses must be obtained and oil must be

    supplied for engines and fodder for horses. When the flour has reached the

    Local Committee it must be carefully distributed among the bakers in

    accordance with the needs of each. . . . When the bread is baked it must be

    distributed to the population by any one of a dozen methods which guarantee

    an absolutely equitable distribution, each man, woman and child getting the

    varying ration to which he is entitled, paying for it if he can afford it, and

    getting it free if he can’t. All this involves financial problems, and

    bookkeeping, and checking and inspection, all along the line; and the whole

    process to the tune of endless bickering with German authorities high and

    low, and endless discussions with a thousand Belgian committees.

    Now, if you have digested that, you have some idea of what it means to

    supply a nation with bread.

    One object of special solicitude was young people. It was our task and the Belgians’, Hoover wrote later, “to maintain the laughter of the children, not to dry

    their tears.” Thanks to the CRB’s external fund raising and food imports, and the

    dedicated zeal of Belgian volunteers, the challenge was impressively met. By early

    1917 three-fourths of Belgium’s children were receiving daily hot lunches at canteens established especially for this purpose.

    No enterprise so massive, so multifaceted, so exposed to the passions of war, could hope to function undisturbed. This is the second feature of Hoover’s relief

    experience that impresses the historian: namely, the unremitting pressures and

    troubles that beset him at every turn. From the day of its inception, the CRB had to

    cope with critics in the various belligerent governments who were convinced that its

    work was enhancing the military strength of one side or the other. Scarcely a month

    went by that did not witness some challenge to the precarious existence of the

    commission. Time and again Hoover became embroiled in exhausting negotiations


    in an endless race against famine and malnutrition. At times, too, he had furious

    disagreements with his Belgian counterpart Emile Francqui, a man, like himself, of

    great ability and formidable force of personality.

    Sometimes, weary from incessant conflicts with one or another belligerent

    power, Hoover considered resigning. “Were it not for the haunting picture in one’s

    mind of all the long line of people standing outside the relief stations in Belgium,” he

    wrote early in the war, “I would have thrown over the position long since.” Often,

    too, he threatened to resignthe better to obtain his objectives. But Hoover did not quit. When the chips were down, it was his critics who yielded, recognizing his

    indispensability, his growing stature, and the risk of angering American public

    opinion that he had so skillfully mobilized.

    Third, I continue to be impressedas were so many observers at the time

    by the energy, resourcefulness, and public relations acumen of the man at the apex

    of the CRB. While the relief commission had many volunteersall, like Hoover,

    working without payand while Hoover himself emphasized the value of organization, his loyal subordinates knew that one man dominated their endeavors:

    the man they called “the Chief.”

    What kind of a person was he? Here is a description of him by one of his

    acquaintances in this period, Edward Eyre Hunt:

    In appearance he is astonishingly youthful, smooth-shaven, dark

    haired, with cool, watchful eyes, clear brow, straight nose, and firm, even

    mouth. His chin is round and hard.

    One might not mark him in a crowd. There is nothing theatrical or

    picturesque in his looks or bearing. . . . At work he seems passive and

    receptive. He stands still or sits still when he talks, perhaps jingling coins in

    his pocket or playing with a pencil. His repertory of gestures is small. He

    can be so silent that it hurts.


    Being an American he sometimes acts first and explains afterwards.

    But his explanations, like his actions, are direct and self-sufficient.

He was indeed a man of determination and force. Emile Francqui called him une


    When the United States entered the European conflict in 1917, Hoover

    returned home to head a new wartime agency, the United States Food

    Administration. But the relief commission that brought him fame continued to

    function, although in a reorganized form necessitated by the end of American

    neutrality. Throughout the war the CRB and Comité National indefatigably fed

    more than nine million people a day in Belgium and northern France. And when

    the commission finally closed its accounts, it found that it had spent nearly a billion

    dollars. It had sustained the health and morale of the Belgian people. It had made

    Herbert Hoover an international symbol of practical idealism, and it had launched

    him on what he later called “the slippery road of public life.”

    Hoover was not a man to covet what he called “European decorations.”

    Moreover, once he became an official of the United States government he could not,

    without consent of Congress, accept an office or title from any king, prince, or

    foreign state. Nevertheless, in August 1918, when Hoover visited the tiny portion of

    Belgium not under German control, King Albert conferred upon his American guest

    a specially created, unprecedented title: “Ami de la nation belge,” Friend of the

    Belgian Nation. By royal directive only Hoover would ever receive this honor. It

    was the king’s way of expressing what he called a “debt of gratitude” that could

    never be repaid.


    Hoover’s association with Belgium did not terminate with the end of World

    War I. Even before the cessation of hostilities he was thinking ahead to the

    reconstruction of the land whose history had intersected so fatefully with his own.

    In 1918 Hoover confided to the American minister to Belgium, Brand Whitlock:

    As to the question of re-building in Belgium and Northern France,--it

    is the one job that I would like to have.

    In 1920, after various negotiations with the Belgian government and

    Francqui, Hoover’s dream came to practical fruition. Upon liquidating, the CRB had a surplus of over $35,000,000. Of this sum it distributed more than $18,000,000

    in outright gifts to the Universities of Brussels, Ghent, Liège, Louvain, and other

    educational institutions. The remainder of the money was divided between two

    foundations created that year: the CRB Educational Foundation in the United

    States (now known as the Belgian American Educational Foundation), and the

    Fondation Universitaire in Belgium where we meet this afternoon.

    Through this creative device Hoover and his wartime associates forged

    enduring bonds of Belgian-American cultural exchange, bonds that persist to this

    day. Thus was born in the tragedy of World War I an empire of philanthropy with

    which Hoover was identified for the rest of his life.

    Finallyand this is the fourth theme to which I call your attentionthe

    creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium turned out to be more than a

    passing episode in a great warand more than a springboard to one man’s political

    career. Hoover’s endeavor was in fact a pioneering effort in global philanthropy—a

    forerunner of the great network of transnational, nongovernmental organizations

    with which we are familiar today. As Hoover himself proudly declared in a speech


    here in Brussels in 1958, his unprecedented Belgian relief organization had brought

    “lasting benefits” to the world. It had “pioneered the methods of relief of great

    famines,” and it had developed a “system” for “maintenance and rehabilitation” of

    children during war and other social upheavals. Many years later, after World War

    II, Hoover’s experience and example helped to inspire the creation of UNICEF, the

    United Nations Children’s Fund.

    The CRB was also pioneering in another respect: it was the first great institutional embodiment of a new force in twentieth century politics: American

    altruism in the form of humanitarian relief missions and foreign aid programs.

    Hoover himself later described the CRB and his other relief enterprises as an

    “American epic,” and he was not alone in thus assessing their significance. In 1916

    Lord Eustace Perry of the British Foreign Office described Hoover himself as “the

    advance guard and symbol of the sense of responsibility of the American people

    towards Europe.”

    In more recent times the world has grown accustomed to American action to save lives and restore the fractured economies of far-off lands. Indeed, today such

    involvement is almost universally taken for granted. One reason for this

    expectation, one reason for its acceptance, is the institution created nearly one

    hundred years ago by Herbert Hoover.

    For Hoover the Belgian experience was but a prologue. In the years 1917 to 1921, he as well as his country moved even more prominently onto the international

    stage. No longer just the almoner of Belgium, in 1918 and 1919 he became (in the

    words of General John J. Pershing) “the food regulator for the world.” He was

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