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How an Iowan Saved 10 Million Lives

A hundred years ago, Belgium was starving.

The German army marched into the country in 1914, and the British navy set up a blockade of Belgian ports. So the seven million Belgians, who had been importing three-quarters of their food, had to scrounge for whatever crumbs they could find.

But a man from West Branch, Iowa, stepped in to help. Herbert Hoover was living in London at the time, putting his Stanford education to good use as an engineer. By the time the First World War broke out, he was in charge of an array of mining operations that employed a some 100,000 workers worldwide. But he was itching to get into public service.

“Just making money isn’t enough,” he told a friend, according to one account by the biographer George Nash. The 40-year-old Hoover wanted to “get into the big game.”

An opportunity opened up for him as the noose of hunger tightened around Belgium. Hoover teamed up with a Belgian industrialist to form the CRB, or Commission for Relief in Belgium, which quickly mobilized to feed the entire country during the German occupation. At the time, it was the largest relief effort the world had ever seen.

“The CRB became almost a mini-state of benevolence. It had a fleet of ships, its own flag, and negotiated treaties with the warring parties,” NPR reporter Eleanor Beardsley explained in a 2006 report from Brussels, where Hoover is still seen as a national savior.

Although quiet and plainspoken, Hoover became a master of public relations. He used posters depicting suffering Belgians to encourage Americans to donate to the cause. And whenever U.S. officials dragged their feet, he goaded them into action.

“He stretched a lot of legal and diplomatic niceties,” former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Tom Korogolos told NPR. “He would do things, try and get the State Department and the government to move on them. And when it took too long, he would blandly write a press release, give it to the New York Times and say, ‘Here’s what’s happening,’ and Washington would faint and say, ‘Gee, I guess we better do it.’”

The sheer scale of the CRB’s humanitarian machine was bigger than anyone, including Hoover, had foreseen. Rations had to be shipped in (through submarine-filled waters) and equitably distributed to more than 2,500 cities, towns and villages in Belgium and, later, a neighboring chunk of northern France.

A CRB delegate named Joseph Green detailed the challenges in a letter in 1917.

Take the one item of bread, for example. First the [CRB] Provincial Representative has to figure out periodically the exact population of his Province, and the exact quantities of native wheat and rye and of imported wheat and maize on hand. From this he calculates the quantity of imported grain necessary to cover a certain period. This he reports to Brussels, and Brussels to London. London supplies the ships. New York purchases and sees to the loading. Rotterdam tranships into canal barges. In the meantime Brussels has decided upon the exact quantities to be shipped to each mill in the country, and Rotterdam ships accordingly. The provincial man must see to the unloading and the milling. The milling involves questions of percentages of bran and flour, of mixtures of native and foreign grains, of the disposal of byproducts and so on. …

When the flour is finally milled, the real work of distribution begins. Sacks must be provided and kept in rotation. The exact quantity of flour required by a given Commune for a given period must be ascertained. Shipments by canal or rail or tram or wagon must be made to every Commune dependent upon the mill. Boats and cars and horses must be obtained and oil must be supplied for engines and fodder for horses. When the flour has reached the Local Committee it must be carefully distributed among the bakers in accordance with the needs of each. Baking involves yeast, and the maintenance of yeast factories, and the disposal of byproducts, and questions of hygiene and a dozen other minor matters. When the bread is baked it must be distributed to the population by any one of a dazes methods which guarantee an absolutely equitable distribution, each man, woman and child getting the varying ration to which he is entitled, paying for it if he can afford it, and getting it free if he can’t. All this involves financial problems, and bookkeeping, and checking and inspection, all along the line; and the whole process to the tune of endless bickering with German authorities high and low, and endless discussions with a thousand Belgian committees.

Now, if you have digested that, you have some idea of what it means to supply a nation with bread. But that is only one item among many. Lard, rice, milk, clothing, etc., etc.: each involves its own special series of problems.

This went on for four years. When the United States entered the war, in April 1917, Hoover moved home to lead a new agency called the U.S. Food Administration, but the CRB continued until the end of the war, in late 1918. Historians credit it for saving 10 million lives.

By then, Hoover had become an international symbol of American generosity and practical idealism. The U.S. ambassador to Great Britain at the time, Walter Hines Page, called the West Branch native a “simple, modest, energetic little man who began his career in California and will end it in Heaven.”

New Exhibition and Learning Opportunities

Learn more at a new exhibition called “Iowa and the Great War,” opening at the State Historical Museum of Iowa on April 6, exactly 100 years after the United States entered the war. A reception for the public and representatives of the consuls general of France and Germany is set for 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, April 7.

Also, please mark your calendars for “History Alive!” a field-trip opportunity for students in grades 3 through 5 (on April 6) and grades 6 through 12 (on April 7). The list of workshops includes a session about Hoover’s work in Belgium, as well as Fort Des Moines’ role in training African-American military officers.

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