A Belgian relief soup kitchen
Last night I mentioned that the Commission for Relief in Belgium was founded on 22 October 1914. Such humanitarian relief was all new in 1914, at least on this scale. Even more incredible were the diplomatic, logistical and other obstacles the CRB overcame. And oh yes, they were doing it in a war zone amidst chaos and mass slaughter on a scale never before seen in history. Decades later Hoover described the feeling of crossing from Holland into occupied Belgium as “entering a land of imprisonment.” If he had known how hard it would be he might not have taken the job; Hoover was convinced the war would be over by summer 1915.
Herbert Hoover was a forty-year-old mining engineer who had made his fortune and was now yearning for something more. He was in London when the war began and his first task was to facilitate the return of Americans stranded in Europe when the fighting commenced. He managed to ensure the safe passage back to America of nearly 150,000 persons. The Belgian crisis was next. Belgium was especially vulnerable. It was a small, highly urbanized nation hit hard by the German offensive. Allies such as Britain were suspicious because they believed any food stuffs sent to Belgium would ends up in the stomachs of the German occupiers.
Hoover was adept at public diplomacy and used advertising to make sure the Belgian famine stayed in the public consciousness.
Hoover began working even before the official founding of the CRB, placing orders in the Chicago commodities markets for 10 million bushels of wheat. Over the next four years they also imported rice, peas, cereals, milk, sugar, potatoes and other items. Relief committees were established in nearly American state and in countries around the world, including Japan, India, Australia, and Argentina. Hoover even wrangled fifteen Rhodes scholars to think out the box on how to solve the problem of Belgian starvation. In four years the CRB transported five million tons of food.
It is an incredible story and one that I am simplifying here. One can only be impressed by the task Hoover set for himself and those who worked with him. Literally millions of people owed their lives to him. Reading about it in Hoover’s memoirs however, one can understand why the public is apathetic. It wasn’t just the Depression that fueled the apathy. Hoover lived until 1964 and published his memoirs in three volumes, each one drier than the one before. There is no Undersecretary of This or Assistant to That he cannot rattle off. Hoover was like that in person as well. He had the technical capacities of an engineer but little of the common touch a true politico. It is no wonder that years later President-elect Roosevelt declined to attend the meetings Hoover was having in which he would parse the in and outs of the banking crisis ad infinitum. Hoover knew the technical details; Roosevelt knew what the people wanted and needed to hear. It is all so unfortunate because Hoover was one of the great men of the 20th century.
One group that understood was the Roosevelt Memorial Association. The RMA held its annual dinner at the Roosevelt Birthplace on 27 October 1927. This would have been Theodore’s 69th birthday. Secretary of Commerce Hoover was there that evening as one of three recipients of the Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal. Hoover had been much in the news that year because he had again worked his magic, this time in service of those ruined by the Great Mississippi Flood. The other recipients of Roosevelt medals that year were jurist John Bassett Moore and John J. Pershing. Hoover was the only honoree who could attend the function on East 20th Street. Thankfully New Yorkers got a sense of how the evening went; WRNY broadcast the event live over the radio.
(images/Library of Congress)