The Road Not Taken: Hoover and Feeding the Five Small Democracies

Former Pres. Hoover, head of the Finnish Relief Fund thanks Popeye the Sailor Man. Popeye is handing Hoover $100 in bills, his contribution to start the “Kids Popeye Finnish Relief Fund.”

The famous Robert Frost poem ends:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Herbert Hoover often took the road less traveled.   In World War I, against conventional political and military wisdom, he successfully fed millions of noncombatants in German-occupied Belgium and Northern France on a daily basis without the food, medicine and clothing being redirected for military purposes. This was done through his creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which would be used as a model for future food relief efforts.

Knowing the importance of feeding civilian populations during time of war, after the German Blitzkrieg in World War II, Hoover attempted to direct food to noncombatants in Poland, Finland, Norway, Holland, and Belgium.  The Allied opposition Hoover faced was much more organized and determined not to allow food relief in areas overrun by the German Army.  In a series of public addresses, Hoover made the argument for humanitarian relief.  The following excerpt is from the November 15, 1940 speech given in Poughkeepsie, New York “America and the Famine in the Five Little Democracies”:

There is a group of persons who close their minds with the idea that the Germans would get the food and that it would help the Germans to win the war and that therefore the subject should not be further discussed.  They obstinately refuse to believe the fact that such an effort was successfully managed in the last war, and that the occupying army did not benefit.  They do not realize, moreover, that such an operation is conducted in such a way that there would be only a small stock of food supplies on hand in the occupied area, at any one time.  This stock would not exceed 120,00 to 140,000 tons.  The German nation consume about 1,400,000 tons a month.  If they seized it all, they would be getting only a three days’ food supply.  That would not prolong the war very much.  In any event, under any such violation the whole work would have to stop as hopeless.

Driven from these positions, this sort of people then fall back on the argument that agreements made now would be less likely to be respected than those in the last world war.  But agreements with belligerents during war are not to be based only upon altruism, humanitarianism, or good-will.  With people who are desperately fighting in a great war, agreements must be based on self-interest.

When the food supply falls to famine levels, people don’t lie down and die from starvation.  Long before they get to that point their physical resistance is so lowered by malnutrition that they die of disease.  The children weaken first, the women and old men next.  The common cold turns to pneumonia.  Influenza seems to become very much more virulent and deadly in its passage through non-resistant populations.  Typhoid and smallpox are more prevalent because of lowered resistance.  Typhus always appears, for when a population is approaching famine levels, it will eat all of its fat supplies and thus deprive itself of soap.  Soap is the greatest disinfectant that the human race has discovered.  With the absence of soap, lice at once spread, and from lice comes typhus….

To state the cold statistical fact that two-thirds of the peoples of the world are at war illuminates little of its dreadfulness.  It is the most inhuman war of history.  There was a time when war was carried on exclusively by soldiers and sailors.  Brave men fought with brave men.  They held to the ancient chivalries for the protection of women and children and noncombatants.  But modern warfare has transformed all this.  It consists today mainly of armed men fighting against noncombatants.  Blockades, rains of explosives from the air, sinking of ships without warning are the major destructive operations.  The strategy is to terrorize and break down the resistance of civilian populations that they may beseech peace at any price…. But I cannot forget the faces of the hungry, despaired, and terrorized women and little children, who are the real victims of modern war.  I cannot forget the unending blight cast upon the world by the sacrifice of the flower of every race not only in the trenches but in the cradle.  All that was dreadful in the last war beyond any words of mine.  But it is far worse and there is far more of it in this war.  It is not alone the vast increase of air power.  But there is an increase in its ruthlessness and brutality.  And while in the last war only one little democracy was invaded, today there are all these others.  Truly the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—War, Death, Famine, and Pestilence—have come to them in a terrible host.

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