A Reviewers Notebook: The Life of Herbert Hoover

“Food will win the war.” So we were told in 1917 by Herbert Hoover, who was just home after a three-year period of feeding Belgian and French civilians who were trapped in back of the contending Allied and German armies. Accordingly I signed up to work on a school farm in Windsor, Connecticut, where I did my bit by shingling a hen house roof and chopping stumps out of a field destined for corn. At the age of fourteen I was sure that Hoover was a man for the ages.

I was not so certain at a later age, when Hoover, as President, couldn’t contend with what he called “the Mississippi Bubble of 1927-29.” We forget that Hoover, in the White House, pioneered many of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal devices. His Reconstruction Finance Corporation tried to save weak banks, his Federal Reserve Board bought millions of government notes in the open market, his Farm Board tried to prop up wheat prices. His excuse was that he had to compete with Europe in a world that had lost touch with Adam Smith. Roosevelt beat him at the polls in 1932, partly by a promise to balance the budget. Then Roosevelt proceeded to double Hoover’s New Dealism in spades.

George H. Nash, the able historian of American conservatism, is doing a multi-volumed life of Hoover. He will be wrestling with the contradictory White House career of Hoover, the “chief,” at some later date. We have already had a remarkable account from his pen of Hoover’s pre-1914 days as a mining engineer all over the world, from the Australian “out back” to Burma, Siberia, and northern China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Hoover was a great competitor then. He made his million, dominating his ventures in silver and other metals from a London office, and was ready for public service when the outbreak of war came in August of 1914.

Nash’s current installment of the Hoover saga is called The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914- 1917 (New York: Norton, 497 pp., $25.00). It is a wonderfully researched story of a venture in practical benevolence that belies Hoover’s outward demeanor of cold-hearted efficiency.

In the beginning, when he was setting up his CRB, or Commission for Relief in Belgium, Hoover was threatened with competition from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Swiss also had ideas of getting into the act. But Hoover insisted on a monopoly. He couldn’t quite have it all his own way. The Spanish diplomat Villalobar and the Belgian banker Emile Francqui dogged him for three years. There had to be an agency inside Belgium to help distribute food in German-occupied territory. But by February of 1915 the British Admiralty and the Germans, with French concurrence, agreed that only a Hoover could properly coordinate tens of thousands of people on several continents in saving 9,000,000 Belgians and a much smaller number of Frenchmen from starvation.

The tens of thousands in the Hoover organization included volunteer fund-raisers in America, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain; farmers, bankers, accountants, shippers, and grain merchants in the U.S.; the crews and owners of dozens of cargo ships crossing the oceans to British ports and Rotterdam in Hol land; diplomats in Madrid and Berlin and Le Havre; stevedores operating 600 tugs and barges along canals from Rotterdam into Belgium, where 40,000 volunteers stored the food in regional warehouses for distribution to hungry people in more than 2,500 communes,

Hoover, says Nash, appeared to sense the epic actualities of his endeavor as early as March of 1915. To a Belgian priest he wrote: “To beg, borrow and buy nearly $1,800,000 worth of food every week; to ship it overseas from America, Australia, the Argentine and India; to traverse three belligerent lines; to transport it through a country with a wholly demoralized transportation service; to distribute it equitably to over 7,000,000 people; to see that it reaches the civilians only and that it is adapted to every condition from babyhood to old age . . . is a labour only rendered possible by the most steadfast teamwork on the part of all. . . . We are under daily zealous surveillance of all the governments involved; . . . we maintain an investigation department of our own . . . and we have the right to demand the absolute confidence and support of our fellow countrymen.”

Hoover, if he had written to the Belgian priest again in 1917, would hardly have changed a word in his estimation of what he had done. But the difficulties of traversing belligerent lines were multiplied by the shifting attitude of the Germans in regard to submarine warfare. The sinking of the Lusitania, and the turn to unrestricted attacks on all shipping into British, Dutch, and French ports, forced Hoover to fight the Germans to obtain respect for the symbol CRB on the sides of his ships. The matter was never really settled.

Hoover’s blunt ways of operating did not sit well with Brand Whitlock, the American ambassador to Belgium. Whitlock understood Hoover’s virtues, but couldn’t regard the eternal squabbling with Francqui over jurisdiction inside of Belgium with equanimity. He came almost literally to dislike Hoover. For his part, Hoover thought Whitlock was something of a weakling. He would have called him a wimp if he had known the word.

Hoover had to get along with the French and British governments to get regular subsidies for his “practical institution.” But, although he aspired to play a big part in the Wilson administration once we were in the war, he regarded most governments as obstacles to be shunted aside. His way of dealing with governments involved him in undercover operations to plant stories in the press of two continents. He was a master of what we would now call media subversion. He ghostwrote articles for Ambassador to Britain Walter Hines Page and for others in embassy headquarters; he “edited” materials for the Associated Press. With him, freedom of the press was freedom to manipulate the press.

He did not butter up the young men who worked selflessly for him. The most he would say was a cool “well done.” But his youthful supporters loved him for his assumption that good men should make correct decisions as a matter of course.

The British had always to be reassured that the Germans weren’t stealing neutral-intended food from the regional warehouses. There were “angry egos” involved in the disputes about possible thefts. The relief of Belgium depended on German forbearance. This forbearance was never total, but what there was of it sufficed.

Hoover’s one great disappointment was the behavior of his good friend Lindon Bates, head of the New York office. Bates feared Hoover was guilty of infringing the Logan Act and making foreign policy. No doubt be was. But 9,000,000 people remained alive.

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