Our modern-day presidents are well-known as lawyers, businessmen and, above all, politicians. In the not so distant past, the United States had a president who came to office after saving the lives of millions of impoverished, starving, war-occupied individuals.
That man was Herbert Hoover.
Hoover was born to a Quaker family on Aug. 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa. Orphaned by age 9, he spent several years living with extended family, first in Iowa and then later in Newberg, Oregon, as Brigham Young University history librarian, Albert Winkler, shared in the publication “Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief: The Philanthropy of a Swiss-American President.”
Hoover graduated in the first class of newly established Stanford University in 1895. He worked in the Nevada mines of the Eastern Sierras during the summer as a student, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Then after graduating with a degree in geology, he was at the Reward Gold Mine, near Nevada City, California, and then went to the mines in the hot, forbidding deserts of Western Australia.
And he proved to be successful in Australia (see the Australian Dictionary of Biography at adb.anu.edu.au) and received other job offers in other parts of the world. Given his generous salary, his knowledge of geology and mining and his growing network of connections, Hoover was well-poised to make targeted and judicious investments in several mines.
Some of these mines continued to pay him dividends over the next 60-plus years. This financial cornerstone supported his ability to do much good.
Hoover’s skills at evaluating the prospects of a mine and operating mines with unparalleled efficiency won him expanding opportunities for success and influence, Winkler outlined. By the age of 40, in 1914, he had mining and investment interests on several continents, had working offices around the world, was on a first-name basis with top bankers and government ministers the world over and was worth some $4 million, according to George H. Nash's "The Life of Herbert Hoover, Vol. 1 The Engineer, 1874–1914." That translates to about $93 million in today’s dollars.
What was left to accomplish?
Then the devastations of World War I broke out.
Given his intellect, his skills and capabilities, his worldwide network, his investments and his ability to create and capitalize on tremendous opportunities, Hoover had several options when World War I crashed upon the world. He could have lived in comfort and ease without a care or concern. He could have capitalized on the enormous money-making opportunities presented by war. Or he could have poured his vast resources, network and capabilities into service.
He chose the latter.
Hoover had been in England when World War I began. More than 100,000 Americans were in Europe, desperate to leave the chaos. Hoover personally oversaw the successful evacuation efforts and used his own money to provide loans and resources to those who had been impacted by the conflict, which Winkler detailed.
More ominous, however, was the massive humanitarian crisis ripping across Belgium. Germany had invaded France by way of Belgium, creating circumstances historians now call The Rape of Belgium. Though the surviving Belgian army persistently harassed Germany throughout the war, once Belgium fell to Germany in the autumn of 1914 and Germany pressed on into France, the majority of Belgium was effectively cut off behind enemy lines. Millions of Belgians were now standing on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster.
Who would come to their aid while the world was awash in peril and war?
Hoover stepped up pledging his time and resources. He launched and led a voluntary organization called “The Committee for the Relief of Belgium” that fed and clothed millions of people for the duration of the war and the year following, which Winkler details. Hoover directed operations from his London office, often conducting shuttle diplomacy across enemy lines to ensure distribution was going to the Belgians and not to the German army. The CRB kept up the pace of relief throughout the war, having to source food and supplies, raise money, find and train volunteers, create supply chains and then deliver supplies through enemy territory.
Hoover and the CRB had rescued millions of lives, an entire generation saved from the brink of disaster. Accordingly, he and the CRB have long been honored by Belgians.
Back home in America, for his successful efforts, his virtues and values and his patriotism, Hoover was thrust into the national spotlight. He served as U.S. secretary of commerce in the 1920s, introducing progressive themes such as efficiency in business.
Although his service as U.S. president from 1929-1933 was impacted by the onslaught of the Great Depression and he was overwhelmingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, Hoover nevertheless was an exemplary civic servant, leader and humanitarian.
Where are our Hoovers today?
Note: This article was inspired by Winkler's “Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief: The Philanthropy of a Swiss-American President,” which is online at scholarsarchive.byu.edu. Also, documents related to the "Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium" is online at net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/CRB/CRB1-TC.htm.
Taylor Halverson holds Ph.D.s in biblical studies and instructional technology. He is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is at taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.