By: Matthew Schaefer, Hoover Archivist
The meeting of the Iowa World War I Centennial Committee reminded this Hoover archivist that it was time to pen the monthly installment of the Herbert Hoover saga. When we left, Hoover was struggling to raise funds in America for the Commission for Relief in Belgium. German submarines were exacting a deadly toll on trans-Atlantic shipping, and President Wilson was nudging America closer to war.
By early March, Hoover was beginning to lose hope that his fund-raising efforts for the CRB would be effective. The publication of the Zimmerman telegram [with Germany proffering Mexico inducements to attack America should the United States enter the war on the side of the Allies], Americans were quickly becoming less neutral in thought. Wilson’s advisor Colonel Edward House told Hoover at a March 7th meeting that: ‘the American people are obsessed with our entry into the war and cannot be brought to think of anything else.’
Stymied in the states and worried about the safety and security of Americans still working Belgium for the CRB, Hoover looked for a passenger ship berth to get back to Europe. Submarine warfare had reduced Atlantic passenger traffic to a trickle. The only berth available was on the Spanish boat, Antonio Lopez, described by Hoover as a: “jalopy, some 40 years of age, a cross between a full-rigged sailing ship and a steamboat.” Creaky as it was, the Antonio Lopez embarked for Cadiz on March 13, 1917.
Knowing too well the food shortages faced in Europe, Lou Henry Hoover packed eggs, butter, fresh vegetables and meat for Herbert’s trip. Hoover’s memoirs noted: “When we asked the steward to put them in cold storage, we learned: that there was none, that there was not a steward on the boat who spoke any language but Spanish, and that the supply of beef, mutton and pork was on its four feet in pens on the forward deck.” In addition to feeding the passengers, the livestock served as an impromptu orchestra–bleating, mooing and snorting on the uneasy seas; they also provided unpleasant olfactory reminders of their presence on board. Hoover closed this pungent passage of his memoirs by noting: ”By storing our food resources in my cabin, I also learned that we carried a full cargo of rats and cockroaches.”
Neither the world, nor the war stood still while Hoover was in route to Europe. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, leaving the more democratic Alexander Kerensky as the head of state, thus removing one potential sticking point for American entry into the fight to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ On the seas, German U-boats sank several American ships in the mid-Atlantic, making it all but inevitable that America would enter the war. This was cemented when Wilson’s war cabinet voted unanimously in favor of declaring war on Germany on March 20th.
Once on the ground in Europe, Hoover bent his efforts to closing out American involvement on the ground in Belgium with the CRB. Sensing American entry into the war was imminent, Hoover wanted to secure the safety of his men and see to the smooth transition of decision-making authority of the CRB to the Dutch and Spanish, who were still neutrals. This was no easy task, but Hoover managed.
Hoover clearly sensed that American entry into the European war was nearly inevitable. Before departing on the Antonio Lopez, he gave an interview to his friend Will Irwin for the Saturday Evening Post. Hoover said: “A war of any size in this country would strain our respected old Constitution until it creaked…. Modern warfare is about one part army, one part navy, two parts economics, one or two parts moral forces, and one part finance. If we are to have war, with its hatreds, its disturbances, its checks to all good causes—perhaps with its spilling of our strongest blood—we should at least have the compensations. So far as we can, we should check extravagance in living, dress, travel and amusement, and set the people to saving. It will be good not only for the conduct of the war but for our souls.”
Time would tell whether American entry into the war would be good for our souls.