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Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I

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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?

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 mâchoire.

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 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 acclaimed as a “Master of Efficiency.” An admiring American called him a “Napoleon of mercy.” There was truth in this label. Between 1914 and 1923, more than 80,000,000 people in more than twenty nations received food allotments for which Hoover and his associates were at least partly responsible. To put it another way, between 1914 and 1923, Hoover was responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history.

Why did he do it? An autobiographical statement that he composed sometime during World War I provides an important clue:

There is little importance to men’s lives except the accomplishments they leave to posterity. What a man accomplishes is of many categories and of many points of view; moral influence, example, leadership in thought and inspiration are difficult to measure . . . and the proportion of success to be attributed to their effort is always indeterminate. In the origination or administration of tangible institutions or constructive works men’s parts can be more certainly defined. When all is said and done accomplishment is all that counts.
During his lifetime Hoover created and administered many “tangible institutions,” the most remarkable of which was the Commission for Relief in Belgium. He wanted this institution to be remembered, and so it continues to be. But institutions, we know, are not impersonal beings; they are animated by the spirit of their founders. Today we celebrate not only an institution and its legacy, but also the dedicated individuals—both Belgian and American—who sustained its constructive work and mitigated the horror of war. Men like Albert, King of the Belgians. Men like Emile Francqui and the volunteers of the Comité National and the Commission for Relief in Belgium. And, in the vortex of this magnificent effort, that indispensable American bienfaiteur, Herbert Hoover: ami de la nation belge.

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

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