Herbert Hoover’s Nobel Peace Prize nominations

The Nobel Peace Prize medal.

by Spencer Howard

Herbert Hoover was known as “The Great Humanitarian” for the many food relief programs he led during and after both World Wars.  The precise number of people Hoover saved from starvation remains a matter of debate, but most scholars agree it is in the hundreds of millions.  Despite his achievements, Hoover never won the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was nominated five times.

Hoover was first nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921 in recognition of his World War I food relief activities, including the Commission for Relief in Belgium (1914-1917), the U. S. Food Administration (1917-1918) and the American Relief Administration (1918-1919).  Through his leadership of these unprecedented programs, Hoover had provided food relief and other necessities to millions of civilians in Europe during and after the war.  The 1921 Prize was awarded instead to Hjalmar Brantling, a Swedish Prime Minister, and Christian Lange, a Norwegian political scientist, “for their lifelong contributions to the cause of peace and organized internationalism,” most notably their work leading to the establishment of the League of Nations.

Hoover was nominated for the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize at the end of his Presidency by his Secretary of the Interior (and long-time personal friend) Ray Lyman Wilbur.  I was unable to find the exact text of Wilbur’s nomination, but it reportedly contained a list of “peace initiatives” of the Hoover Administration, including the “Stimson Doctrine.” 

The Stimson Doctrine was the United States’ response to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931.  President Hoover understood that Japan’s aggression could not be ignored, but he was unwilling to commit the U.S. to war in China, nor to economic sanctions, which he saw as a backdoor to war.  Hoover settled on a policy of declaring that the United States would not recognize any territorial or administrative changes the Japanese might impose upon China.  Ironically, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson himself did not agree with Hoover’s decision – he favored economic sanctions – but he reluctantly carried out the President’s instructions, and his name became linked to the policy.  The Stimson Doctrine was echoed in March 1932 by the League of Nations, which unanimously adopted a resolution incorporating almost verbatim the text of Stimson’s official diplomatic note to the government of Japan.  At the time, nonrecognition seemed to be a reasonable alternative to war, but in hindsight it proved entirely ineffective and may have aided Japanese militarists to enact even more aggressive policies.

The 1933 Nobel Peace Prize was instead awarded to Sir Norman Angell, a British journalist and Member of Parliament, “for having exposed by his pen the illusion of war and presented a convincing plea for international cooperation and peace.”  Angell’s writings, summarized in his book The Great Illusion, argued that war between industrialized countries cost more than any possible gains, and that as nations became increasingly interdependent, war would become unthinkable.  Within the decade, both Angell’s and Hoover’s ideas would be seen as wishful thinking.

Hoover was next nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940 by Stanford University Professor Eugene Robinson, but due to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, the nomination paperwork did not reach the committee before the deadline and was therefore transferred to 1941.  

It’s not clear what Prof. Robinson nominated Hoover for.  At that time, Hoover was beginning to launch his World War II relief programs including the Finnish Relief Fund and Food for the Small Democracies.  He was also a prominent voice against U.S. involvement in the war, and suggested that the U.S. should help the allies with only defensive weapons.  But all of these activities were ongoing, and the outcomes yet to be seen.  It is more likely that Robinson’s nomination was intended to honor Hoover for his World War I work or his Presidential policies, or both.  But it was a moot point;  due to disruptions of World War II, the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded from 1939 through 1943.

In 1946 Hoover was again nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  The nomination was essentially a revival of Hoover’s previous nominations, spearheaded by interested citizens in the United States.  A number of prominent individuals offered their formal endorsements, including former Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who had himself been awarded the 1945 Peace Prize “for his pivotal role in establishing the United Nations.”  

The 1946 Prize was instead shared by two other Americans, Emily Greene Balch and John Raleigh Mott.  Balch was a pacifist who was nominated for her leadership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).  As Secretary-Treasurer of the League, she administered the organization’s activities, established schools on peace education, and created new WILPF branches in over 50 countries.  Mott was the head of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), who was nominated for his work with international Protestant Christian student organizations that promoted peace.

The last attempt to nominate Hoover for the Nobel Peace Prize would have been for the 1965 prize, but was never formally completed due to Hoover’s death in October 1964.  Hoover’s 90th birthday that August prompted well wishes and fond reminiscences from all corners of the world.  Two Republican Congressmen, John Wylder of New York and Craig Hosmer of California, upon realizing that Hoover had never won the Peace Prize, started a new drive for Hoover’s nomination as a sort of lifetime achievement award for the many humanitarian and food relief programs he had led.   Dozens of Senators and Congressmen offered their endorsements, as well as many others from all walks of life.  But the Peace Prize is not awarded posthumously, so Hoover’s nomination died with him.  

Fittingly, the 1965 Peace Prize went to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s charity led by Hoover’s protégé, Maruice Pate.  Pate began his humanitarian career working for Hoover on the Commission for Relief in Belgium during World War I, and served with Hoover in numerous other humanitarian organizations before being selected as the founding director of UNICEF in 1947.  Pate declined a nomination for the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize because he felt the contributions of the entire UNICEF organization should be recognized instead of one individual’s work.  By honoring UNICEF in 1965, the Nobel Committee honored the humanitarian ideals that Hoover, Pate and so many others had worked for.

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