When World War I finally came to US shores, President Wilson summoned Herbert Hoover back home.
The Hoovers: Ex-Pats
For nearly twenty years, Mr. And Mrs. Herbert Hoover had lived abroad, in various and exotic locations. They didn’t even have a US residence. On their infrequent trips “home” they usually stayed with family.
Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was one of the pre-eminent mining engineers in the world, and had become a bona fide millionaire by the time he was forty. At the outset of the Great War in 1914 (as it was called then), the wealthy Hoovers had been living in the upscale Mayfair section of London for a few years.
Virtually unknown outside his small circle, Herbert Hoover became famous when he helped tens of thousands of Americans return home when war began in August, 1914. That assistance was immediately followed by a yeoman effort to rescue the starving populace of Belgium, who had been brutally overrun by the advancing German army.
By 1917, Herbert Hoover was a household name.
The World’s Bread Basket
President Woodrow Wilson had tried for three years to keep America neutral. Since George Washington, the country had a long-standing tradition of remaining uninvolved in foreign entanglements. The President had won his second term because “he kept the country out of war.”
But events frequently override the best of intentions, and by April, 1917, events had come to a head; the country clamored to participate in the War to End All Wars.
Believing that our purpose was not only to fight in the War, but to sustain both our forces and our exhausted and decimated allies, Wilson proclaimed the US as the world’s bread basket. It was a huge project. Europe was truly exhausted; starvation was a reality in many places. The US had been a mega-benefactor in sending shiploads of food and humanitarian supplies to Belgium. Now it needed to do it for a continent.
Wilson sent for Herbert Hoover.
Herbert Hoover had displayed prodigious talents as a superb administrator, coordinating the efforts of a capable cadre of young Americans living abroad – collecting, shipping and distributing survival necessities to war torn Belgium. More than $5 million in foodstuffs were being sent across the Atlantic each month. The specially-designed flag for this humanitarian effort was the only one respected by seven belligerents.
Now, as the head of the newly-created Food Administration, Hoover’s managerial system was well honed. He assumed the modest title of “Food Administrator” and set to work feeding the world.
Further blessed with a talent for amassing and absorbing copious amounts of facts and figures, Hoover determined that production needed to be expanded while US consumption needed to be conserved…simultaneously.
A powerful public awareness program was quickly put into effect. Wheatless days; meatless days, and even heat-less days. Understanding that this one voluntary measure alone could save nearly 15%, without rationing, the country was happy to participate. First Lady Edith Wilson was immediately on board, insisting that the White House comply 100% with the policies.
Hoover’s plans also included a series of substitutions. Wheat was one of the most durable grains, and was thus earmarked for troops overseas. Bakeries and housewives were urged to bake with rye, or oatmeal, or barley or corn. Sugar, another commodity needed overseas, could be substituted with syrups or honey or fruit.
Meat, especially pork, was another product that could be cured to last. It was said that Hoover learned so much about hog raising (he had grown up on a farm) that he could tell you how many pounds of ham, pork chops, roast and bacon could come from a single hog.
Lou Henry Hoover, the Administrator’s energetic and capable wife, was also recruited to participate in the programs. She wrote magazine articles, spoke to various civic organizations, and helped promote inexpensive and easy-to-prepare “substitution” recipes.
Even little children were targeted to “do their part” for the war effort. The saying, “Eat everything on your plate. There are children starving in Europe!” may seem archaic and perhaps downright peculiar today, but it originated during World War I, and seems to have become a part of childhood memory ever since.
It was a mammoth effort between farms, mills, processing facilities, bakeries, grocers and consumers across the country. Then there was the packaging, transporting by train and truck, barge and steamboat, arranging for overseas shipping, and distribution to wherever it was needed.
Hoover oversaw it all, and added to his cadre of project managers who were devoted to their “Chief” as he came to be called.
Hoover By the Numbers
World War I formally ended in November, 1918, but the Food Administration was still providing sustenance overseas.
According to a contemporary source, the normal pre-war tonnage had tripled between 1918-19.
…………………………………..Normal Pre-war ……………………. 1918-19
Meats & fats……………………645,000…………………………………..2,369,630
Sugar (US & West Indies)..618,000…………………………………..1,704,523
And that was just a small sampling.
Herbert Hoover had become not only a household name, but a verb. To “Hooverize” came to mean conserving food. He had also become one of the most respected and admired men in the world.
And he never took a dime for any of his services.
Smith, Richard Norton – An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover – Simon and Schuster, 1984
Sullivan, Mark – Our Times: Over Here 1914-18, Scribners, 1933