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GALLERY TWO: The Humanitarian Years

Flour sacks on display in the Humanitarian gallery
This recreated Belgian warehouse recalls Herbert Hoover's heroic efforts to feed ten million victims of World War I, for which he earned praise as "The Great Humanitarian."

World War I

Bored with making money, the Quaker side of Herbert Hoover yearned to be of service to others. In August of 1914 he got his chance, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand touched off long-simmering rivalries among the jealous nations of Europe. World War I--the Great War--was at hand, and few Americans were prepared. An estimated 120,000 of Hoover's countrymen, penniless and confused, were trapped on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

On August 3, Hoover received an urgent request for help from U.S. Ambassador to Britain Walter Hines Page. Within twenty four hours, five hundred volunteers were assembled and the grand ballroom of the Savoy Hotel was turned into a vast canteen and distribution center for food, clothing, steamer tickets and cash. "I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914 my engineering career was over forever. I was on the slippery road of public life."

During the next few weeks Hoover assisted Chief White Feather of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and dowagers in jewels to get home. When one woman angrily insisted on a written pledge that no German submarine would attack her vessel in mid-ocean, Hoover readily complied.

Together with nine engineer friends Hoover loaned desperate travelers $1.5 million. All but $400 was returned, confirming the Great Engineer's faith in the American character. The difference between dictatorship and democracy, Hoover liked to say, was simple: dictators organize from the bottom down, democracies from the bottom up.

World War I destruction inLouvain, Belgium, 1915.
1915-28: World War I destruction in Louvain, Belgium, 1915. (public domain)

The Ordeal of Belgium

Trapped between German bayonets and a British blockade, Belgium in the fall of 1914 faced imminent starvation. Hoover was asked to undertake an unprecedented relief effort for the tiny kingdom dependent on imports for 80 percent of its food. This would mean abandoning his successful career as the world's foremost mining engineer. For several days he pondered the request, finally telling a friend, "Let the fortune go to hell." He would assume the immense task on two conditions-- that he receive no salary, and that he be given a free hand in organizing and administering what became known as the Commission for the Relief of Belgium.

The CRB became, in effect, an independent republic of relief, with its own flag, navy, factories, mills and railroads. Its $12 million a month budget was supplied by voluntary donations and government grants. More than once Hoover made personal pledges far in excess of his total worth. In an early form of shuttle diplomacy he crossed the North Sea 40 times seeking to persuade the enemies in London and Berlin to allow food to reach the war's victims. He also taught the Belgians, who regarded cornmeal as cattle feed, to eat
WWI painting by Louis Raemakers -
"In Belgium," an original World War I painting by Louis Raemakers.

cornbread. In all, the CRB saved ten million people from starvation.

Every day brought new crises. The British investigated charges that he was a German spy. Germans deported youthful CRB workers, including a Salvation Army major, on similar charges. At home, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wanted to prosecute Hoover for dealing with the enemy. Theodore Roosevelt promised to hold Lodge at bay, informing Hoover that "the courage of any political official is stronger in his office than in the newspapers."

Despite the obstacles put before him Hoover persisted, purchasing rice in Burma, Argentine corn, Chinese beans and American wheat, meat and fats. Long before the Armistice of 1918 he was an international hero, in the words of Ambassador Walter Hines Page "a simple, modest, energetic little man who began his career in California and will end it in heaven."

 

Belgian Lace
WWI poster depicting the activities of the CRB.
"Belgian Lace is not a luxury": a World War I poster depicting the activities of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium.

His experiences in Belgium and postwar Europe confirmed Hoover's belief in the generosity and idealism of his fellow Americans. "If you tell them what is needed they will give you anything and everything," he once said. "The winter I ran the National Clothing Collection Drives, I put new tailcoats and tuxedos on every waiter in Europe."

Lou Hoover was no less active. A skilled organizer in her own right, Mrs. Hoover led the American Women's War Relief Committee in London. She established a knitting factory and a hospital staffed and supported entirely by American volunteers. Perhaps most notable, she played a leading role in preserving Belgium's vital lace industry, world famous since the sixteenth century.

During World War I the Commission for the Relief of Belgium found work for more than 20,000 women in the lace-making trade, artists whose unique abilities had been passed from generation to generation. The CRB then sent this lace to Britain and America for sale, with every dollar in earnings returned directly to the women of Belgium. Lou Hoover was active in finding customers for their product, overcoming her dislike of public speaking to make numerous appeals at events like the Belgian Relief Fair. (see photo above).

For their part, German authorities reluctantly permitted Belgian lacemakers to continue their output, while strictly forbidding any patriotic motifs. CRB personnel nodded their heads, then wrapped the prohibited lace around their bodies for smuggling through the port of Rotterdam.

 

The Children of Famine

War inflicts a special terror upon children, and the orphan from West Branch made their needs his top priority-- first in Belgium and northern France, where he fed an estimated 11 million youngsters between 1914-18, and later throughout the ravaged continent of Europe. When children in the war zone showed signs of rickets and tuberculosis, cocoa was added to their diet, along with an extra "Hoover lunch" of white bread and thick vegetable soup.

Hoover's European Children's Fund-- forerunner of CARE-- alone helped six million victims of war. Overall it has been estimated that Hoover's relief efforts during and immediately after World War I rescued between 15 and 20 million children. Among them was a Latvian child who had lived for a year on black bread and crackers. "It was like the sun coming out," she recalled of the Sunday morning she first sampled white rolls. "Finally bread, Hoover's bread. I will never forget. Whenever anyone mentions Hoover, I think white bread." Others still remember hot lunches of condensed milk and rice, the taste of bananas, and the warmth of American boots against the winter chill.

1919-6B. Hoover's food relief efforts during WWI saved  15-20 million European children.
1919-6B: Hoover's food relief efforts during World War I saved between 15 and 20 million European children. (unknown copyright)

Feeding the World

Gallantry, like the sight of hungry children, moved Hoover deeply. When two English ladies during World War I sent him a dozen silver buttons snipped from their gowns, he returned all but one "which ... I shall keep as a reminder that there are people like you in the world."

There were many such people, it turned out, who responded generously to several major relief campaigns organized by Hoover during and after both world wars--among them the National Committee on Food for Small Democracies, the Finnish Relief Fund, the Polish Relief Commission and the Famine Emergency Committee.

The American Relief Administration played a pivotal role after World War I when Russia's new Bolshevik government sought outside help to avert mass famine and lethal waves of typhus, cholera and dysentery. Many of the victims were too young to know a communist from a capitalist. Hoover persuaded a Republican President and Congress to spend $20 million to help the desperate nation.

Within 17 days of signing an agreement with Soviet authorities, ARA shipments of food were reaching hospitals in St. Petersburg. Four days later the first child-feeding stations opened in Moscow. Teachers were named to supervise schoolroom kitchens and food was used to pay railroad workers. When the local Communist leader said that only fifty cars of corn could be unloaded a day, the ARA mobilized 600 hungry people who daily unloaded 150 cars in exchange for American foodstuffs. Said Hoover, "Starvation does not await the outcome of power politics."

Hoover and Kitty Dalton inspecting European Relief Council supplies. 1921-11
1921-11: Hoover and Kitty Dalton of the Knights of Columbus inspect European Relief Council supplies, January 21, 1921. (Underwood and Underwood)

A World of Thanks

During the First World War Hoover frowned on receiving medals--what he called "toys"--even from Belgium. Eventually King Albert persuaded him to accept a unique title on condition that it would lapse upon his death. And so Hoover became "Friend of the Belgian People," with a passport stamped "Perpetual."

Official honors aside, countless gifts of appreciation were sent to Hoover for his fifty years of relief work. These included honorary degrees and beautifully decorated albums, embroidered and woven hangings, books and letters, sculpture and artwork ranging from a child's crayon drawing to richly illuminated testimonials.

Hoover's personal favorites were the letters and drawing from children in many countries, including those from German youngsters who in the wake of World War II thanked him for their daily "Hoover Speisung," or Hoover lunch, and addressed simply to "Onkel Hoover, New York, New York."

Coming Home

Hoover aboard ship, January 11, 1917.
1917-82: Hoover aboard ship,
January 11, 1917. (unknown copyright)

In the spring of 1917 Woodrow Wilson asked Belgium's savior to become director of the new U.S. Food Administration. This latest success would burnish Hoover's already impressive reputation, until many Americans wanted him to run for President. Hoover held back. "I do not believe that I have the mental attitude or the politician's manner," he remarked to a friend soon after the war. "Above all, I am too sensitive to political mud."

By then America was largely disillusioned with Woodrow Wilson's "war to end war." Instead of pride, peace brought an endless round of inflation and strikes, race riots, Red scares, shattered dreams and pointed fingers. Hoover did what he could to stem the tide. "We shall never remedy justifiable discontent until we eradicate the misery which the ruthlessness of individualism has imposed upon a minority," he said. To him reactionaries were more dangerous than radicals, more subtle in their methods, more seductive in their platitudes.

Yet what was the proper balance between individual striving for success and collective conscience? In the war's aftermath prophets as dissimilar as Einstein, Freud and Marx combined to weaken the traditional code of personal responsibility by emphasizing forces beyond individual control. Hoover disagreed, and attempted to fashion a more caring individualism, one "that will preserve the initiative, the inventiveness...the character of men and yet will enable us to synchronize socially and economically this gigantic machine that we have built out of applied science."

Food Will Win the War
WWI poster art, combining a  message with anti-German propaganda.
A Classic example of World War I poster art, combining a conservative message with anti-German propaganda.

The world war that introduced poison gas, flame throwers, machine guns, zeppelins, and the U-boat also produced a unique exercise in applied idealism called the United States Food Administration. Using the same techniques of mass propaganda used to inflame civilian populations, the Food Administration inspired tens of millions of Americans to observe "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays"-- to substitute fish and vegetables for beef and bread-- and to dig backyard War Gardens.

Hoover's formula was simple: "Centralize ideas but decentralize execution." To control wartime prices without strangling the economy, he invented Price Interpreting Boards bringing wholesalers, retailers and consumers together at the county level. He created the U.S. Grain Corporation to purchase foodstuffs and the Sugar Equalization Board to buy up Cuba's entire crop (sugarless gum was one of the many Food Administration spinoffs).

Publicity was the glue that held the Food Administration together. "Do Not Help The Hun At Meal Time," banners proclaimed and 20 million housewives eager to comply joined Hoover's domestic army. Blood sausage became "victory sausage." Children sang songs about the "patriotic potato." Within a year Hoover could boast of doubling U.S. food shipments to Europe--without ration cards, interruption of traditional economic freedoms or heavy bureaucracy. In fact, the entire budget for the Food Administration was less than $8 million.

By war's end, Herbert Hoover was not only famous for feeding Europe. He was also celebrated as the man who had persuaded millions of his countrymen to "hooverize," sacrificing their own comforts so that desperate Allied populations might survive.

The Hoover's Palo Alto home, designed by Lou. 1920-50
1920-50. The Hoover's Palo Alto home, which was designed by Lou.

A House On San Juan Hill

Hoover envisioned returning one day to California, to renew his mining career or perhaps run a newspaper. In 1919, the same year the Hoovers began work on a Hopi-style house on a hill overlooking the Stanford campus, Mr. Hoover gave Stanford $50,000 to launch the archival repository and public policy think tank that would come to be known as the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. Scholars from Palo Alto were dispatched to comb European archives for tens of millions of documents tracing the Great War and its revolutionary aftermath.

Hoover himself attended the Versailles Peace Conference, returning home a man without illusions. America could win great wars, he concluded. But she could not make a lasting peace for Europe, with its ancient hatreds, racial mistrust, colonial ambitions and the seeds of Fascism and Communism. "There will be another world war in your time," said the French statesman George Clemenceau to Hoover at Versailles, "and you will be needed back in Europe." It was a prophetic remark.

Meanwhile work on the California house proceeded. With its rooftop dining space and exterior stairways 623 Mirada Drive reflected its occupants' love of the outdoors. "Our home must be an elastic thing," Lou told her younger son, Allan, "never entirely finished." The house was also a monument to modern technology, as many- sided as its owners. It was built of reinforced concrete and fireproofed to protect Lou's antique pewter, Chinese porcelains and the many gifts bestowed on her husband for his international relief efforts. One room recalled the Hoover's beloved Red House in London. On the second floor was a hidden study where Lou typed her own correspondence on the machine she called Miss Corona. She enjoyed every current labor-saving device available, with one exception. She would not purchase a refrigerator for fear the local iceman might lose his job.

A House on S Street

Beginning in 1920 the Hoover's East Coast address was 2300 S Street in Washington, a 22-room house stuffed with objects d'art from all over the world, including gold boxes, figurines and plaques from grateful Belgians. Since Hoover hated to eat alone, working breakfasts were common, while dinner guests filled the house almost every night. After a long day's work, Mr. Hoover would return for a family ritual: tall glasses of orange juice (this was Prohibition, after all) served on the back veranda.

In the library at 2300 S Street was one of the millions of Hoover Home Cards blossoming across the American landscape in response to the Food Administration's appeals for self-sacrifice. "Save fuel. Use wood when you can," it read. On weekends the family picnicked in nearby Rock Creek Park, where "the Great Engineer" rounded up volunteers to build miniature dams. Then as always, he seemed incapable of doing nothing.

A 1920 "New York Times" poll ranked Hoover among the ten greatest living Americans. Many of his countrymen in both parties hoped he would succeed the broken Wilson in the White House. Among them: Hoover's S Street neighbor Franklin D. Roosevelt. "He is certainly a wonder, and I wish we could make him President of the United States," wrote FDR. "There could not be a better one."

Hoover himself told friends he hoped to make the GOP into a strongly progressive party, of the kind Theodore Roosevelt had in mind. But when Republican delegates assembled in Chicago that June the Old Guard had its way. Hoover's cheering galleries were no match for the senatorial cabal that nominated one of its own, Warren G. Harding.

Hoovers home on S Street in Washington, DC. 1967-26
1967-26: The home on S Street in Washington, DC, where the Hoovers lived during his tenure as Secretary of Commerce. (unknown copyright)


Gallery Index | 1:Years of Adventure | 2:The Humanitarian Years | 3:The Roaring Twenties | 4:The Wonder Boy | 5:The Logical Candidate | 6:The Great Depression | 7:From Hero to Scapegoat | 8:An Uncommon Woman | 9:Counselor to the Republic


Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
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