By Matthew Schaefer
While driving back from a Des Moines meeting of the Iowa World War I Centennial Committee, it occurred to this Hoover Archivist that a series of monthly posts might be in order to describe the activities of Herbert Hoover as America edged closer to war. Consider this episode one.
Hoover had spent the first thirty months of the Great War organizing and running the Commission for Relief in Belgium [CRB]. The mission of the CRB was to feed the nine million citizens of Belgium and northern France who faced famine trapped behind the entrenched German army and the British naval blockade. Hoover ran the CRB as private citizen from a neutral nation, negotiating safe passage of food and relief goods into the war zone. This was the largest famine relief effort to date and it entailed logistical and diplomatic maneuvering as well as considerable sums of money.
By January 1917, Hoover realized that the CRB’s ongoing needs for money would soon outstrip fundraising efforts. He returned to the United States to embark on a drive to raise $150 million to sustain the CRB over the next year. Before Hoover can get underway, events overtake him. At the beginning of February 1917, Germany declares that it will begin a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, unleashing its U-boats to attack shipping without warning. Germany hoped that this strategy would so severely disrupt Allied supplies that they would sue for peace.
Hoover recognized the gravity this threat represented to the CRB. At best supply lines would be stretched, at least CRB ships may be sunk and food lost, at worst America might enter the war and all Hoover’s agreements regarding the CRB’s special status would be voided. Hoover stayed the course, giving a series of public talks to raise funds, knowing that the issue might be rendered moot.
Never at ease as a public speaker, Hoover pushed on: speaking to the New York Chamber of Commerce in early February, addressing the Committee on National Defense on Lincoln’s birthday, holding forth to the National Geographic Society on February 17th, speaking to his colleagues at the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, and culminating in an address to the New York State Legislature on February 28th.
The February 28, 1917 address is item # 1 in the compilation of articles, addresses and speeches that Hoover’s staff affectionately referred to as the ‘Bible.’ This speech, echoing those earlier in the month, called on Americans to ‘preserve rigid neutrality’ and to step up contributions to the CRB. Hoover pointed out that American contributions [per capita] lagged behind all Allied nations, with Canada contributing twice as much! Hoover asked his audience to imagine themselves in Belgium–movement restricted by the occupying German army, no contact with the outside world, factories closed, and limited food. To drive this last point home, Hoover had arranged to make his presentation while serving the legislators a Belgian lunch of soup, bread and one slice of bacon, a baseline of subsistence costing 7 cents per citizen per day.
Hoover throws down the gauntlet: ‘There are millions of helpless people whom America, and America alone, could save. Not only was this our duty, it was our privilege. It was our privilege to forfend infinite suffering for these millions of people, to save millions of lives… It was our opportunity to demonstrate that great strain of humanity and idealism which saved our Republic. We could throw a gleam of sunshine into the sweltering dungeon in which Europe has been plunged.’
How did American respond to this unequivocal challenge? Will Hoover succeed in raising enough funds to feed an entire country for a year? Will German U-boats thwart these ambitions? Will Woodrow Wilson continue to keep America out of war? Tune in next month.