Why you should care
The man behind the most impressive humanitarian relief effort in history may surprise you.
Herbert Hoover is a name that lives in infamy in America, forever tied to a stubborn, detached leader unable to combat the worst economic calamity in the nation’s history.
In Belgium, however, Hoover is synonymous with hero, a stubborn, detached leader who kept millions of Belgians from starving during their country’s darkest hour.
It was a century ago on Oct. 22, 1914, that the newly minted Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), headed by the future U.S. president, embarked on an urgent and unparalleled humanitarian relief effort.
If nothing changed, millions of Belgians had two weeks to live.
When German forces stormed the independent kingdom of Belgium in August 1914 at the start of World War I, they destroyed the prosperous nation’s villages and factories, and seized land and livestock for their invading troops. By October, with the Germans refusing to feed the besieged civilians and Great Britain’s naval blockade choking off imports to a country that relied on them for 70 percent of its food, the situation was beyond dire.
If nothing changed, millions of Belgians had two weeks to live.
And so began what remains the most impressive philanthropic undertaking in history: the U.S.-led effort to save an entire nation, in the midst of war, from almost certain starvation. The Belgian relief mission’s organizing force and its lifeblood — the man whom thousands of unpaid volunteers would idolize as their “Chief” — was not a world leader or even a government official. He was a private U.S. citizen, a Stanford-educated mining engineer and businessman living in London who was known for his short fuse and icy temperament.
“Just making money isn’t enough,” Herbert Hoover confided to a friend that August, on the eve of his 40th birthday. For the son of Iowa Quakers who had been orphaned at a young age, work had always been his life, and he had accumulated more than $4 million supervising mining projects across the globe. But Hoover was hungry to enter public life and “get into the big game.” He was preparing to enter the newspaper business in California, when the war broke out in Europe.
When thousands of his fellow countrymen were stranded in Europe at the start of the war, Hoover helped to organize a relief effort in London, and his remarkable efficiency in doing so made a big impression on U.S. officials. And when next asked to take the reins of the CRB in October, Hoover set straight to work.
The CRB was backed quietly by a U.S. government wishing to remain neutral in the conflict and was staffed mostly with American volunteers — including more than a dozen American Rhodes scholars who interrupted their studies in Oxford to work for Hoover — but was its own private relief organization. It would become, as one British official put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence,” with Hoover as its benign dictator.
Even the astounding numbers accompanying Hoover’s efforts cannot truly capture the scale of the endeavor and the magnitude of the competence required to pull it off. To sustain the millions of Belgians on at least 1,800 calories per day, Hoover needed to raise $12 million per month, plus another $10 million to maintain the supply lines, including 60 cargo ships and 400 barges, needed to acquire and deliver tens of thousands of pounds of food from all over the world — rice from Rangoon, wheat from America, beans from Manchuria.
To do so, Hoover not only led an unprecedented marketing campaign to raise funds from private donors and millions of citizens but also shook down governments on all sides of the conflict. The daring CRB chairman routinely placed large supply orders costing more than five times his cash on hand; he commandeered railways, factories, warehouses and canal boats; and he resuscitated several Belgian industries, such as lacemaking, to keep the nation’s economy afloat.
But just as impressive as the sheer scale of the operation was the context in which it was accomplished. In order to get the food shipments through the U-boat- and mine-infested English Channel and up the canals to Belgium, Hoover had to secure the cooperation of the combatants. He likened the task to “trying to feed a hungry kitten by means of a 40-foot bamboo pole, said kitten being confined in a barred cage with two hungry lions.”
The unflappable Hoover repeatedly met with both German and British representatives, and for days on end deployed arguments, veiled threats, deception and outright lies to cajole both governments into doing the right thing. He convinced the Germans that if Belgium starved, an outraged America would surely enter the war; he convinced the British that if Belgium starved, an alienated America would surely remain on the sidelines.
In almost three years, Hoover and the CRB delivered 2.5 million tons of food to Belgian and French tables.
True to his Quaker upbringing and rather joyless personality, Hoover remained distant, even avoiding encounters with the very Belgians he was helping. But time and again, as U-boats took down his ships and leaders like Winston Churchill berated him, Hoover persevered and Belgium, and later occupied France, ate.
“Few ordinary Belgians and Frenchmen,” says biographer Eugene Lyons in Herbert Hoover, “knew by how thin a margin they were rescued again and again from the lingering death of starvation.”
In almost three years, Hoover and the CRB delivered 2.5 million tons of food to Belgian and French tables, feeding up to 9 million people each day, every day.
The entire effort cost nearly a billion dollars, yet not a penny was lost to fraud, and since Hoover and his associates performed their Herculean labors for free, there were virtually no administrative costs. These days, even the most efficient charity will spend about 20 percent of its funds on overhead expenses; the CRB’s total overhead came to 0.43 percent. At the conclusion of the war, the CRB even had a surplus of roughly $35 million, which it distributed to Belgian educational institutions.
In the press, Hoover played down his crucial role in the effort, and his name was never mentioned in the German-censored Belgian media, but every man, woman and child in Belgium knew who had saved them. After the war, King Albert named Hoover the one and still only “Friend of the Belgian People,” and he was given a Belgian passport marked “perpetual.” Today, “Hoover” streets, squares and libraries dot the country.
The CRB would serve as a model for all future relief efforts and organizations. But Hoover’s mercurial nature, boorish reputation and poor communication skills would prove far less effective in shaping economic policy and helping shepherd the American people through their own hardship during the Great Depression.
Still, by 1923, when Hoover had completed almost a decade of relief work with the CRB and other postwar relief organizations, over 80 million people, including thousands of Germans, had received food from sources that Hoover administered.
How many other U.S. presidents can say that?