by Spencer Howard
One of the most interesting documents at the Hoover Library is a handwritten, five-page personal letter from King Albert of Belgium to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. A transcript of the entire letter can be found at https://hoover.archives.gov/KingAlbertltr.pdf.
King Albert wrote to ask Hoover to intervene with the U.S. Shipping Board on behalf of a private Belgian shipping company, Lloyd Royal Belge. At the end of World War I, Lloyd Royal Belge had purchased 22 merchant ships from the U.S. Shipping Board in a risky gamble to rebuild Belgium’s merchant fleet. Due to the economic downturn in 1920 and 1921, Lloyd Royal Belge struggled to stay in business; the company, and the king, were hoping that the U.S. Shipping Board would restructure the payments or even forgive part of the debt.
As Secretary of Commerce, Hoover had no authority over the U.S. Shipping Board. Hoover’s response to the king indicates that he did take the matter up with the Board, but that they were busy with bigger problems. Apparently, the Board made no concessions to the Belgians, and Lloyd Royal Belge suffered considerable financial losses in 1921. The Belgian government and a consortium of banks propped up the company, enabling them to make the final payments on 20 of the 22 ships, however, Lloyd Royal Belge refused to pay for two of the ships that had been received in very poor condition – in fact, one sank before it ever arrived in Belgium! The outcome of the dispute is unknown, but Lloyd Royal Belge continued to struggle, and was taken over in 1930 by its competitor, Compagnie Maritime Belge.