On August 8, 1900, a young Lou Henry Hoover wrote to her friend Evelyn Wight, “you missed one of the opportunities of your life by not coming to China in the summer of 1900… So many many many times I thought of you, and that you should have been here, at the most interesting siege and bombardment of the age.” It was perhaps a bit of hyperbole by a 26 year old who had just survived the adventure of a lifetime, but the casual reader might be forgiven for wondering to what event she referred. History books rarely offer more than a passing mention of the Boxer Rebellion that engulfed China that summer, and even fewer mention the Siege of Tientsin.
Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover arrived in China in March, 1899 as young newlyweds. Herbert had just received a promotion to be the Chief Engineer in China for the British mining firm, Bewick, Moering and Company. Bewick, Moering owned an interest in a multinational corporation, the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company, and Hoover was to oversee the establishment of a new coal mining operation. In the months after the Hoovers arrived, a nationalist insurrection arose against the increasing influence of the various colonial powers who were attempting to carve out “spheres of influence” in China. The “Boxers” (Society of Righteous Harmonious Fists) believed they possessed supernatural powers that protected them from harm, and they planned to destroy all foreigners and foreign industries in China. They were also out to exterminate any Chinese who associated with foreigners or Christianity.
In June, 1900 the Hoovers along with hundreds of foreign families found themselves trapped in the city of Tientsin as the Boxers closed in. The Boxers were joined by thousands of renegade Chinese soldiers, trained and armed with the latest European weapons. Protected only by a motley assortment of foreign troops, the settlement withstood four weeks of bombardment by modern Krupp field guns and sporadic attacks by the Boxers and their allies. Had the Boxers managed to organize a coordinated assault, the battle would have soon been over. The Hoovers were in the thick of the city’s defense; Herbert helped construct defensive barricades, organized the food supplies, and saw to the operation of the water purification plant, and Lou helped out at the hospital. A multi-national expeditionary force relieved Tientsin in mid-July, and Lou and Herbert Hoover were able to leave for England at the beginning of August.
The Siege of Tientsin was, as Lou described, one of the great battles of the colonial era. Some 60,000 shells were fired into the settlement by the Boxers, and the casualties among the defenders of Tientsin — soldiers, civilians and native Chinese — were greater than the combined casualties of the three great sieges of the Boer War in South Africa that had occurred just a few months earlier. But strategically, the Siege of Tientsin was of little consequence; had the settlement been overrun, it would have made little difference to the military situation. The key episode of the Boxer Rebellion, and the main goal of the relief expedition, was raising the siege of the diplomatic legations in Beijing.
Despite being relegated to a footnote in history, the Boxer Rebellion was not without significance. It was the first opportunity for the United States to intervene in China as a colonial power; two years earlier, as part of the Spanish-American War, the United States had wrested control of the Philippines from Spain. Despite an ongoing rebellion in the Philippines (the Filipinos were for the most part not pleased to have traded one imperial power for another), more than 2500 U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines participated in the China Relief Expedition. The United States’ involvement in China and the Philippines put the U.S. on an eventual collision course with another great power – Japan.
It was also a key moment in the career of a young Herbert Hoover. After the siege, Hoover and his colleagues set in motion a complex scheme to protect the mining investments of Bewick, Moering and Company from being seized or destroyed in the chaos, by reorganizing the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company as a British corporation. Hoover negotiated a very profitable bargain, and as a result Bewick, Moering offered Hoover a junior partnership in their firm. From this opportunity Hoover built his personal fortune (estimated at $4 million by 1914) and acquired his extraordinary skills as an administrator and financial manager, and it placed him in London, the mining capital of the world, when World War I broke out in 1914. That August, Hoover was asked to use his logistical acumen to help provide food for the civilians of Belgium trapped behind the Western Front. Though he did not realize it at the time, his engineering career was at an end, and he found himself “on the slippery road of public life.”