History is fickle with heroic humans, even when they loom over their generation in service to humanity. Even presidents suffer the fickle hand of history, especially when events in their administrations overshadow them. It happened to Herbert Hoover.
From the 1930s onward, most Americans associated him with a failed administration and economic deprivation that spawned terms like “Hoover buggy” (a dilapidated horse-drawn cart with an automobile axle and tires), “Hoover gravy” (without any meat flavor),” and “Hooverville.”
John Steinbeck wrote in “Grapes of Wrath” about California, “there was a Hooverville on the edge of every town,” explaining, “The rag town lay close to water; and the houses were tents and weed-thatched enclosures, paper houses, a great junk pile.” For decades, blame for economic failure and hard times was laid at Hoover’s doorstep, eclipsing the story of a “great humanitarian.”
Several recent books, articles and television presentations have partially resurrected his image for those who read and saw them. To those who knew only of Hoover’s damnation, the rest of the story is almost incredible.
Hoover, who was orphaned as a 10-year-old and raised by an uncle, was an over-achiever. He graduated with the first class at Stanford University in 1895, majoring in geology. Because of his industry and management skills, he soon became famous over the world in mining, spending much of his time abroad in several countries. He was a wealthy man before World War I. Biographer George H. Nash said that, at the time, Hoover was a director of 18 mining and financial companies with a combined 100,000 employees.
He was living in London when the war started. He first attracted attention for his humanitarian efforts in helping Americans caught in Europe by the war to escape and return home. Because of this work and his many contacts in Europe, he was persuaded by the U.S. ambassador to Britain to organize an effort to aid people facing famine in Belgium and northern France amid war embargoes.
So, at age 40, Hoover changed in 1914 from entrepreneur to public servant. He organized the Committee for Relief in Belgium which, over the next four years, is said to have saved 9 million people from starvation in Belgium and France.
In 1917, Hoover was appointed by President Wilson to direct the new U.S. Food Administration, whose mission was to encourage increased production and reduced consumption to aid the war effort. After the war, Hoover helped organize and led the public-private American Relief Administration, to help those left poor and hungry in 20 different countries, mostly in Europe. He persuaded governments and American citizens to contribute money, food and medical supplies, which the ARA used to help war-ravaged countries recover.
Russia suffered during World War I. But that was just the beginning of its nightmare. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, it was further devastated by civil war as the “reds” fought the “whites” and other groups to consolidate the revolution. Then in 1921, cumulative effects of war and drought brought prospects (and reality) of mass starvation.
Russian author Maxim Gorky, according to Hoover’s memoir, “addressed an appeal to me and the American people for aid in the stupendous famine among Russian people in the Ukraine and the valley of the Volga.”
Hoover despised the politics of the Bolsheviks, but couldn’t resist the need for help. He replied to Gorky, setting out the minimum conditions for aid: freedom of all Americans imprisoned in Russia; non-interference in the administration of American relief and travel; the power to organize local committees of Russians to advise and help in the work; distribution of food without politics; free storage; free transportation, and free offices.
The work began in the summer of 1921 and continued for approximately two years. The ARA recruited about 300 Americans, most from previous relief projects, to direct the work at local kitchens and supply depots. The biggest problems were political interference from local and central Soviet officials, and organizing transportation in a rail and road system (and bureaucracy) dilapidated from war and revolution.
Hoover estimated that in the Spring of 1922, at the project’s busiest, the ARA was feeding 18 million Russians. He received a letter from Gorky in 1923, which said, “In the past year you have saved from death three and one-half million children, five and one-half million adults, … In all the history of human suffering I know of … no accomplishment which in terms of magnitude and generosity can be compared to the relief that you have actually accomplished.”
The 2011 PBS show, “The Great Famine,” had third-person praise, that Hoover “is said to have saved more lives than any person in history.” An American History article in April of this year said of him, “Hoover lacked social graces but was a tenacious problem-solver with one controlling passion, … a determination, a drive, to succeed.”
Hoover had much help in the relief projects he undertook, and certainly doesn’t deserve all of the credit. But if Herbert Hoover’s part in the saving of so many lives is not a “social grace,” the phrase has no meaning. The next large-scale humanitarian rescue effort after a war, earthquake or flood ought to be called “Hoover care” as a small atonement for all the negative Hooverisms of the mid-20th century.
Brown is professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.