“To All Honest People”: Hoover’s Response to Famine

By Thomas F. Schwartz

ca. 1922 ARA vehicle used for distributing food.Wars are always highlighted in the history books for later generations to read about.  The humanitarian efforts that follow in the aftermath of wars rarely receive as much attention except by the people who are the immediate beneficiaries.  After World War I, significant problems of food shortages faced many countries.  Herbert Hoover was sent by President Woodrow Wilson to become Director of the American Relief Administration [ARA] to address and solve the immediate problems of food.  Congress appropriated $100 million dollars to fund the ARA’s efforts to provide food for roughly 300 million people in twenty-one countries in Europe and the Middle East.  Hoover was able to overcome opposition in providing food to the defeated Germany suffering from famine since hunger was reaching starvation levels.  When the Congressional funding ran out, Hoover continued the ARA as a private organization with a special emphasis on feeding children.  His food relief efforts continued in areas of Europe through the summer of 1921.

Although Russia was offered food relief in 1919, the Soviet government refused it since Hoover insisted that the ARA administer all food distribution to make certain it was not provided on a political or religious basis.  A severe famine struck Russia in 1921 prompting famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky to issue an appeal to America and Europe describing the crop failure caused by drought and the severe famine that followed.  “I ask all honest European and American People for prompt aid to the Russian people.  Give bread and medicine.”  Hoover was no friend of the Bolsheviks and openly expressed his opposition to Bolshevik ideas.  But neither could Hoover watch innocent children and adults die from hunger that was avoidable.  He read reports of towns being reduced to eating grass, weeds, acorns, twigs, bark, roots, dirt—whatever was available.  The story of how Herbert Hoover successfully overcame the needs of between 25 to 35 million people facing famine while the Russian Revolution still raged in some areas is the theme of the upcoming temporary exhibit opening May 29 in the Quarton Gallery.  Famine was not the only problem facing Russian people as disease such as typhus also raged.  Infrastructure improvements neglected by years of war made it difficult to transport supplies to regions most in need because the lack of working train engines and rail cars or useable tracks.  The work of Hoover and the ARA to overcome these and other obstacles is nothing short of extraordinary and will be the subject of future blog posts.

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