Even as millions of soldiers lost their lives on the battlefields of the Great War, millions of civilians faced starvation in shattered lands. The threat of famine went on long after the fighting stopped.
The hunger could have been worse but for one man who organized food shipments on a massive scale: Herbert Hoover, the future 31st president of the United States.
Hoover, a blacksmith’s son from Iowa, was a renowned mining engineer who had organized large-scale projects from Australia to China to other corners of the world. Living in London when World War I broke out, he was asked by the U.S. consul there to organize the safe evacuation of 120,000 Americans stranded in Europe.
The American ambassador to Britain next asked the 40-year-old Hoover to organize relief for the 7 million people of Belgium, a country overrun and occupied by the German army and cut off from food imports by a British naval blockade. Three million French citizens were in the same plight.
Within days, Hoover enlisted the help of other wealthy businessmen, secured government and charitable support, and began building a team that could address the challenge. Soon 20,000 tons of wheat were on their way to Belgium, via canal from Holland. Hoover negotiated safe passage for cargo ships, and subsequent shipments delivered millions of tons of food to war-ravaged countries. Hoover’s lean organization dispensed $12 million a month in supplies for the war’s duration.
Schoolchildren in occupied Belgium and northern France got an extra “Hoover lunch” and enriched crackers made from fats, cocoa, sugar and flour. Over four years, by Hoover’s precise count, the relief commission delivered $615 million (in 1920 dollars) in food and other aid.
Summoned home by President Woodrow Wilson days after the United States entered the war, Hoover set up the U.S. Food Administration to produce enough food for U.S. and Allied troops while feeding the American populace and continuing relief efforts for war-stricken Europeans.
His title was administrator, but newspapers approvingly dubbed him America’s “food czar” and “food dictator.” Again, Hoover enlisted help from top business executives, sliced through red tape and demonstrated a genius for galvanizing public support.
“Food Will Win the War,” was the Food Administration’s slogan, emblazoned on posters and buttons.
Hoover eschewed rationing, relying instead on exhortations to people to eat less on “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.”
“We knew that although Americans can be led to make great sacrifices, they do not like to be driven,” he said later.
Farmers, guaranteed a price for wheat, hogs and other foodstuffs, produced bumper crops, and “the American soldiers and sailors were the best-fed fighting men in the world.”
Hoover wasn’t done
Six days after the armistice, Hoover sailed for Europe and set about preventing starvation in the lands of both the victors and the vanquished. “There was a mass of waif, orphan, undernourished, diseased and stunted children in every town and city of the liberated and enemy areas,” Hoover recalls in his autobiography. The new American Relief Administration he headed fed millions of children in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.
“I did not believe in starving women and children,” he writes.
Even the new Soviet Union, which lacked diplomatic relations with the U.S., received massive aid during a famine. Leading Russian literary figure Maxim Gorky wrote Hoover in 1922, “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death.”
By then, Hoover was serving in the Cabinet of Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge as secretary of commerce. In 1928 he was elected president and served one term before losing a re-election bid in 1932 to Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.
Fourteen years later, after an even more terrible war, President Harry Truman summoned the 71-year-old Hoover to undertake another global relief mission. Hoover sprang into action and again galvanized the support of the American people. In a national radio address, he said, “Hunger hangs over the homes of more than 800 million people — over one-third of the people of the Earth.”
He journeyed to the hardest-hit countries across Europe and Asia, then convinced dozens of kings and prime ministers in those countries spared the worst to contribute more to the international relief effort.
A grateful Truman later thanked Hoover for “a magnificent job [done] for the welfare of the world.”
This article was originally published on March 29, 2017.