One of the galleries of the Hoover Library and Museum is dedicated to his years as a humanitarian. Hoover was a self-made millionaire as a mining engineer. He was in London at the outbreak of the First World War, and essentially took it upon himself to repatriate many Americans who were there at the time. He was later called upon by the U.S. Government to organize relief for Belgium which he did, despite vehement criticism that he was aiding the enemy by bringing food to the citizens of of Belgium. Interestingly, one of the protests was that he was prolonging the war. The argument was that the Germans should have to deal with the inevitable food riots if the innocent civilians of the occupied country were simply left to starve.
After the war, Hoover continued his humanitarian work through the American Relief Administration. I’d never known much about the details of this work, and I was surprised to see this poster in the museum. It was a surprisingly good idea. Millions in Europe were facing starvation. But millions of them also had a glimmer of hope, in the form of relatives in America. The American Relief Administration merely put into place a mechanism by which these Americans could help their own family: Americans could go to a bank, and for $10 or $50 buy a food draft which could be sent to buy “good American food for your folks in Europe.”
These drafts could be purchased here, and redeemed at warehouses in Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Germany. The system is explained in this memorandum to American bankers requesting their cooperation. As Hoover writes in that circular, “the sum total of food now available in Central Europe is insufficient to keep the population alive, and under these circumstances money thus becomes that much paper so far as nutrition is concerned. A hungry man wants food, not money, and under the arrangement outlined above, we can meet this need.” This advertisement from the Spokane Daily Chronicle from January 26, 1920, is from a bank where these vouchers could be purchased.
The scheme worked because it made use of existing institutions: Banking, postal, shipping, and, of course, American agriculture. The few bureaucrats necessary to carry out the program simply had to bring together these existing resources. And it was fueled by the natural generosity of the American people. This generosity wasn’t coerced, and it wasn’t procured through feelings of guilt. It was based upon pre-existing familial relationships. And it served even those Europeans without relatives in America, by increasing the overall food supply to one sufficient for the whole population.
It worked because Hoover knew it would work. He knew the American people were generous enough to help. He used their existing motivations and their existing resources.