*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 memories—of 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 London—and 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 London—and, 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 lines—probably 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 world—partly
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 resign—the 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 impressed—as 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 volunteers—all, like Hoover,
working without pay—and 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.
Finally—and this is the fourth theme to which I call your attention—the
creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium turned out to be more than a
passing episode in a great war—and 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
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