Hoover and the Belgians

How An American Has Directed The Feeding Of TenvMillion.
How Did He Escaped British Precedent?
How Much Has America Done For The Belgians?
How Much Have The Belgians Done For Themselves?
What Would Happen To Belgian Relief If The Relations Between
Germany And The United States Should Be Broken?

By Lewis R. Freeman

[The Outlook; September 8, 1915]

"If England could have availed herself of such talent for organization as H. C. Hoover has displayed in feeding the Belgians, we would be a good year nearer the end of the war than we are to-day."

So spoke a well-known Member of Parliament with whom I chatted for a few minutes one evening after the House of Commons had arisen. Scarcely less striking was the tribute paid the forceful, incisive American engineer who heads the Belgian Relief Commission by a prominent London banker with whom I recently discussed the success of the new war loan.

"With Hoover's remarkable ability as an organizer, his genius for bringing order out of chaos, we of the city were already familiar, and as a consequence we felt certain that, in one way or another, the starving Belgians were going to be fed. But that the whole work of relief, involving the handling of huge sums of money and colossal shipments of clothes and provisions, should be carried on as efficiently and economically as an established business is almost incredible. It is an actual fact that over £12,000,000 sterling have been expended—some of it in the far corners of the world—at a cost of less than a half of one per cent. Nothing like it has ever been heard of before. And this, too, mind you, in the face of the fact that in the whole jolly business, from first to last, there have been no established precedents to go by."

Precedent is the most highly enshrined of all fetishes in the heart of the British financial world called "The City," and Hoover's Yankee penchant for riding over this same precedent without coming a cropper is the principal reason why they speak of his achievements in connection with Belgian relief with a wonder that is not unmixed with awe. His contempt of precedent—his readiness to hew a direct new road instead of wasting time following the sinuosities of an old one—is the main element in Hoover's success. He himself will tell you that. "What brought you through those first terrible months when primal chaos reigned in Belgium, and before your present system was in working order?" he was asked recently. "The fait accompli," was the prompt reply. "If a thing was really necessary, we did it first and asked permission afterwards."

Here is an example of what Hoover means by the fait accompli. Before his organization was fairly on its feet there came a moment when a huge quantity of food was needed immediately to prevent the actual starvation of many thousands of Belgians. The Commission had the food on hand in England, and the "proper" procedure would have been the orthodox one of requesting the Government, via the usual red-taped channels, for permission to move it, a course, however, which Hoover knew only too well would result in a series of delays that would prove absolutely fatal to the success of his plans. The necessary cars—in spite of the fact that all rolling stock was supposed to be held subject to the Government's call for military exigencies—were secured by direct application to the railway people, and in record time the supplies were transported to the seaboard and put aboard steamers which had been provided in an equally "high-handed" manner. When the last bag had been stowed and the hatches battened down, Hoover went in person to the one Cabinet Minister able to arrange for the only things he could not provide himself—clearance papers. "If I do not get four cargoes of food to Belgium by the end of the week," he said bluntly, "thousands are going to die from starvation, and many more may be shot in food riots."

"Out of the question," said the distinguished Minister. "There is no time, in the first place; and if there was there are no good wagon's to be spared by the railways, no dock hands, and no steamers; moreover, the Channel is closed for a week to merchant vessels while troops are being transported to the Continent."

"I have managed to get all of these things," Hoover replied, quietly; "and am now through with them all except the steamers. This wire tells me that these are now loaded and ready to sail, and I have come to have you arrange for their clearance."

The great man gasped. "There have been—there are even now—men in the Tower for less than you have done," he ejaculated. "If it was for anything but Belgian Relief-—if it was anybody but you, young man—I should hate to think of what might happen. As it is—er—I suppose there is nothing to do but congratulate you on a jolly clever coup. I'll see about the clearance at once."

"You must love Hoover as much for his humanness as you admire him for his quickness of mind," one of his fellow-workers on the Commission said to me a few days ago. "He is a chap of many sides, and his adeptness in dealing with men has been scarcely less a factor in the success of our work than has his genius for organization. You have heard, doubtless, that Lloyd George has the reputation of being the most-persuasive man in England. Well, a few months ago, when we were trying to simplify our work by arranging for an extension of exchange facilities on Brussels, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer sent for Hoover. I will tell the story as Lloyd George himself told it to some friends at the Liberal Club a few days later:

"'Mr. Hoover,' I said, 'I find I am quite unable to grant your request in the matter of Belgian exchange, and I have asked you to come here that I might explain why." Without waiting for me to go on, my boyish-looking caller began speaking, gesturing with one hand, clinking coins in his pocket with the other. For fifteen minutes he spoke without a break—just about the clearest expository utterance I have ever heard on any subject. He used not a word too much, nor yet a word too few. By the time he had finished I had come to realize, not only the importance of his contentions, but what was more to the point, the practicability of granting his request. So I did the only thing possible under the circumstances—told him I had never understood the question before, thanked him for helping me to understand it, and saw to it that things were arranged as he wanted them.'"

Hoover's directness of thought and speech make him quite the most satisfactory man to interview I have ever encountered. He has nothing of the cryptic or euphemistic type of "interviewee;" neither does he wax reminiscent or anecdotal; nor yet does he answer your questions by asking others. He simply tells you, with a remarkable lucidity, as much as he deems expedient of what you want to know—and goes on with his work. It is said that he will take a prepared list, of questions and dispose of it as a machine-gun does a belt of cartridges, or, with equal facility, cover a single subject in a few sharp, incisive, yet entirely comprehensive sentences. It was after the latter fashion that he handled my inquiries as to the progress of the Commission's work yesterday.

"What, do you want to know?" he asked abruptly, after we had snatched a hasty luncheon at a long table with a half-dozen members of the Commission and retired to his office.

"The past, present, and future of Belgian Relief work," I answered in a feeble attempt at pleasantry.

"Very well," replied Hoover, coolly accepting my comprehensive order as literal. "Only you must pardon me if lack of time compels me to answer in five minutes a question on which I might well speak for five weeks.

"Beginning without any supplies, equipment, or organization, we are to-day, directly or indirectly, feeding close to ten million people in Belgium and northern France. This is more than the commissariat of any one of the belligerents is supplying, and half as many as all of them together. From the beginning business principles have been applied in every department, the consequence being an incalculably higher efficiency than could otherwise have been attained. As a specific example of practical economy, I may state that we are to-day buying wheat in Argentina, transporting it to Belgium, milling it, and converting into bread which can be sold with a small profit at ten per cent under the prevailing price in London." Good food and better sanitary conditions have effected a \steady improvement in general health, so that the death rate is now lower by twelve per cent than that prevailing before the war.

"I find that it is not generally known that of the $60,000,000 we have expended, only about $10,000,000. have been derived from charitable sources. The other $50,000,000 have come, in "one way or another, from the Belgians themselves. The proportion of their own load which the Belgians are carrying has increased right along, and their efforts have, naturally, been strongly directed toward making it possible for them to carry it all. This goal, I regret to say, is not yet clearly in sight. I have just arranged with the German authorities to have the Belgians allowed a portion of their coming harvest equivalent to one-twelfth of their demands for a year. With this, and with such stores and funds, as we now have on hand or in sight, the Belgians can be fed until the first of the coming year. If the war is not over by that time, we shall again, be forced to ask America, and the rest of the world, for further assistance. In this connection it may be interesting to note that, while the United States has contributed more in the aggregate to Belgian relief than all other countries combined, the per capita contributions of several other nations greatly exceed our own. Australasia's seventy cents for each inhabitant makes our six cents look rather small, and even Canada, with all her hard times and other war burdens, is well ahead of us. I am confident, however, that our country's generosity in this cause is bounded only by the needs of the Belgians, and look forward to receiving from her whatever we need, and whenever we need it. What the needs, are will be made known in good time. Is there anything else you want to know?"

"One thing only," I replied. "What would be the consequence to Belgian Relief work of a severance-of diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany?"

"Beyond saying that this contingency has been fully considered and provided against, that matter is, obviously, one upon which it would not be proper for me to speak at this time. You may assure the people at home, however, that the work in which they have played so important a part will go on, whatever happens."

I may add that I am informed on the best authority that the Belgian Relief Commission, realizing from the first that all Americans would have to be withdrawn from Belgium in the event of trouble between the United States and Germany, has, trained and ready, a complete staff of neutrals fully competent to carry on the work along its present lines. This staff would, for the most part, be made up of Scandinavians, and at its head would be a Dane of high standing and established qualifications for the work in hand. Finally, I may also say that, come what may, the masterly business ability, the keen diplomacy, and the broad humanity of H. C. Hoover will be available in the furtherance of Belgian relief as long as such work has to be carried on.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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