Before Herbert C. Hoover became the 31st president of the United States and was blamed for the 1929 Great Depression, he was known around the world as the Great Humanitarian.
His fall from grace has been well documented, while his initial rise to glory during the most horrific war the world had ever witnessed has all but been forgotten.
Historians generally agree that approximately 9 million soldiers died in World War I (1914-1918). During those same four years, nearly 10 million Belgian and northern French civilians trapped behind German lines were saved from starvation by Hoover’s non=governmental Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and its Belgian counterpart, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CN), which was run by financier Émile Francqui.
It was an unparalleled feat that no one had thought possible: A group of private citizens saving from starvation an entire nation trapped in the middle of a world war.
To succeed, however, the relief efforts had to overcome enormous logistical challenges, international intrigues, and intense personal conflicts between Hoover and Francqui.
The story began when the Germans invaded Belgium on Aug. 4, 1914 to get to their real goal, France. Belgium — slightly smaller than Maryland — imported more than 75 percent of its daily food, but was suddenly cut off from the rest of the world. The Germans refused to feed the 7 million Belgians and 2.5 million northern French trapped behind their lines.
Mass starvation was imminent.
News of the impending catastrophe reached London as Hoover, a highly successful mining engineer, was wrapping up months of volunteer service as the head of a group he had founded to assist the 100,000 American tourists stranded by the war.
He and his wife and their two young boys had been living in London. He had turned 40 on Aug. 10 and was contemplating what to do next in his life. An orphan at an early age, he had been raised as a Quaker and was instilled with a “Quaker conscience” of morality that led to a strong desire to serve humanity, but he was unsure how to do so.
Two areas that deeply interested the mining engineer were pubic service and politics. He was a wealthy man, but as one associate said: “He didn’t want to become just richer. He wanted sincerely … to do public service and help people.”
By late September 1914, Hoover was approached to help the Belgians. With little thought for his personal fortune and mining operations, he agreed and founded the CRB on Oct. 22, 1914.
In a surprising coincidence, Hoover and Francqui had met before in a courtroom in China at the turn of the century, and they disliked each other. When Francqui discovered Hoover was the leader of American relief, he reportedly shouted: “What! That man Hoover who was in China? He is a crude, vulgar sort of individual.” Now, in a fascinating twist of fate, their ability to work closely together would dictate the survival of a nation.
Before relief supplies could flow into Belgium, the British had to agree to allow the food through its blockade. Because of widespread popular support for Belgium relief, the British government agreed, despite the objections of British military men such as First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
Officially, the food was consigned to the minister of the U.S. Legation in Brussels, Brand Whitlock. Because the English did not trust the Germans to keep their hands off any imported food, they stipulated that Americans be in Belgium to act as Whitlock’s “delegates” to guarantee the Germans didn’t take the food and to supervise the supplies until they were turned over to the CN for distribution.
But where could Hoover find U.S. volunteers in Britain ready to drop everything, work for free, go into the unknown world of German-occupied Belgium, and do a job no one could explain in detail? It could take months to get men from America with the right experience. Hoover needed people immediately.
He found some of them at Oxford University. The school term was ending and numerous American students — most of them Rhodes scholars — were about to start six weeks of winter break.
Arriving in Rotterdam on Saturday evening, Dec. 5, 1914, the first 10 Oxford students were a bit stunned by how quickly events had transpired. They were suddenly in neutral Holland preparing to go into German-occupied Belgium to do a job no one could explain.
“What we were to do, no one exactly knew,” said Emil Hollmann, one of the first 10, who was only 24. “We had visions of sitting on the top of box cars or sleeping on the decks of small canal barges in their long journeys from Rotterdam into Belgium. … We expected to see German savages prowling around, ready at the slightest provocation, to scalp women and children and perhaps provoke a quarrel with us for the same purpose!”
In the end, nearly $1 billion 1914 dollars (more than $24 billion today) was spent in the food relief program. These young men and the rest of the CRB and CN overcome incredible odds and kept alive nearly 10 million civilians through the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918.
As a result, Hoover was loved worldwide and became known to many as the Great Humanitarian. And the CRB helped change the way the world saw America and how America saw its role in the world.