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Reading 3: Feeding the Children
World War I (1914-18) brought enormous destruction to European nations. The German army swept through Belgium on its way to France and occupied that nation for the rest of the war. Belgium normally bought most of its food from other nations, and when the war prevented these imports, the population was reduced to near starvation. Surveys taken early in the war showed that some 10 to 12 million children in a total of 18 other nations were also suffering from malnutrition or starvation.
American diplomats and displaced Belgians searched for someone who would lead the Commission for the Relief of Belgium. In 1914, they chose Herbert Hoover, who was living in London at the time and who, during his brilliant career, had become well known as an effective leader and an aggressive negotiator.
Hoover had worked hard to establish his career. After his move to Oregon in 1885, he attended school for a time, but left at age 15 to go to work as a clerk in an office. Although he did not graduate from high school, he continued to read and study on his own. In 1891, he was admitted to the first four-year class at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and worked at odd jobs to pay his tuition and room and board. Hoover's first job as a college graduate was pushing a cart in a mine. That did not last long. Within a few years, he became a well-known mining engineer with offices in San Francisco, New York City, Paris, London, and Petrograd, Russia. He was already a millionaire several times over when the war broke out.
He stood to make many more millions from the increased demand brought by the war for ores and metals. When he was asked to head up a relief mission, Hoover took a day to think over the offer, and then accepted, calling it "the greatest job Americans have undertaken in the cause of humanity."1 He knew he would lose a great deal of money since he would have to neglect his business. He accepted no salary from the commission he set up, and he spent some of his personal fortune in his efforts. To a close friend he asserted, "Let the fortune go to hell."2
Experience proved that if the children received one hot supplemental meal daily in schoolhouses and special canteens, in addition to their families' meager rations, they made a dramatic and quick recovery. Hoover spent all of his waking hours trying to ensure that those supplemental meals would be available to any youngster who would benefit from them. Years later he reflected on his experiences with the relief commission:
Love of children is a biological trait common to all races....It therefore seemed to me that around this devotion there could be built a renaissance of unity and hope among the distracted elders....It was not expensive to rehabilitate an individual child in this way....The cost of each meal to us could be measured by a few cents. A pound of concentrated food, in rich soup, stews, milk, porridge, cocoa, sugar minerals and cod liver oil daily is like water to a wilting plant.3
1. How many European children were underfed and ill during the early years of World War I?
2. Why do you think Hoover felt that feeding the children was important to the future of the world?
3. What personal sacrifices did Hoover make in accepting the position as head of a relief commission? What aspects of his childhood might have influenced that decision?
Reading 3 was compiled from Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Years of Adventure, 1874-1920 (London: Hollis and Carter, 1952); Susan Clinton, Encyclopedia of American Presidents: Herbert Hoover (Chicago: Children's Press, 1988); Richard Norton Smith, An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (Worland, Wyo.: High Plains Publishing Company, Inc., 1984).