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January 30, 2007

Food as a Weapon

Herbert Hoover fed not only the citizens of Belgium but also, in the hope that they would throw off the Bolsheviks, the citizens of Soviet Russia. Bertrand M. Patenaude has another remarkable story.


After America entered the Great War in April 1917, Herbert Hoover was brought to Washington to serve as the U.S. food administrator under President Woodrow Wilson. His assignment was to enlarge the food supply of the United States and the Allies. This meant boosting food production and also promoting food conservation. “Food Will Win the War” was Hoover’s slogan. This was the moment when Hoover became a household name in America: To “Hooverize” entered the vocabulary as a synonym for economize.

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When the war ended in November 1918, Hoover accompanied President Wilson to Paris to serve as adviser to the American delegation to the peace conference. He was made director general of relief for the Allied governments, essentially confirming his status as food administrator for all the Allies, and in January 1919 he was named principal executive of the Allied Supreme Economic Council. During the nine months after the Armistice, Hoover organized the distribution of more than $1 billion in relief, which translated into more than four million tons of food and other supplies delivered to children and adults across Europe, all the way to the inconstant borders of Bolshevik Russia.

In January 1919, at Hoover’s suggestion, President Wilson persuaded the U.S. Congress to appropriate $100 million for European relief. To manage these funds, the president established a separate government agency, the American Relief Administration (ARA), with Hoover as its director general. He built a staff from among his Belgium and Food Administration veterans and enlisted as his field-workers some 1,500 demobilized U.S. Army and Navy officers.

Upon the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, Hoover created a private successor to the government ARA. The new organization was called the American Relief Administration European Children’s Fund, but its full name and initials were used only on paper; everyone knew it as the ARA.

During the next two years, this quasi-private ARA delivered food worth more than $150 million to children in 21 countries across Europe and the Near East, acting either independently or in conjunction with other private relief organizations. Under Hoover’s direction, this food relief not only fed people but helped to fuel the economic reconstruction of Europe. ARA operations revived railroads and river transport, including the ports and traffic on the Rhine, Elbe, Vistula, and Danube; they helped reestablish telegraphic and postal communications; and they facilitated the renewal of coal production for homes and industry. And along the way much contagious disease was eradicated, notably typhus.

American food was widely seen as having prevented this period of crisis from becoming Europe’s “October Revolution.” Thirty years later, “containment” would be the fundamental assumption behind the Marshall Plan.

It was at this time that General John J. Pershing, commander of the American military forces in the Great War, called Hoover the “food regulator of the world.” The enormous power Hoover wielded, however, created bad feelings in some quarters. His particular brand of hardheaded humanitarianism rubbed some people the wrong way—and not only in Europe.

What especially raised eyebrows was the ARA’s strict accounting practices and the premium the organization placed on maximum efficiency. Nothing could simply be given away. Nothing must be wasted. What was at work here was commercial principles applied to humanitarian relief, the marriage of business and philanthropy. Those in the ARA talked openly and proudly of the “business of relief” and contrasted their own businesslike operations to softer, more traditional humanitarian endeavors. Americans of that era were very keen on the notion of efficiency; one of Hoover’s unofficial titles at this time was “Master of Efficiency.” Thus, he was regarded by Americans as a great humanitarian but a distinctly unsentimental one.

One remarkable thing about the ARA operations is the relatively small number of Americans involved in the actual relief distribution. In every country, the ARA employed only a skeletal staff of Americans to supervise much larger numbers of local citizens. The philosophy was to encourage local initiative, to emphasize the idea of self-help over charity, and at the same time to keep overhead costs as low as possible. So the name American Relief Administration was appropriate. The job of those in the ARA was to “administer” relief, with utmost efficiency, using the most sophisticated methods of organization, while standing above sentiment and politics.

MIXED MOTIVES

The hard-nosed business practices of Hoover and his relief workers fed doubts about the true motives behind American relief. Was it really humanitarianism at work, or was it something else?

In fact, American benevolence as orchestrated by Hoover was inspired by a combination of interrelated motives, the most apparent of which was pure humanitarianism, by then becoming a peculiarly American vocation. Americans tended to see themselves as the philanthropic nation. Central as well to American benevolence was a desire to speed the economic and political reconstruction of Europe, not least in order to revive the market for American goods. Related to that was a desire to unload America’s sizable agricultural surpluses. These surpluses had been accumulated during the war, and it was Hoover as food administrator who was largely responsible for having amassed them.

Hoover’s particular brand of hardheaded humanitarianism rubbed some people the wrong way—and not only in Europe.

Inseparable from these humanitarian and economic considerations was a determination, as Hoover phrased it, “to stem the tide of Bolshevism.” And here we come to a most interesting dimension of the American relief story.

The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 put Russia outside the community of nations—but for a time it looked as though a Bolshevik tide might sweep westward into the rest of Europe. Of immediate concern were the destitute peoples of Central Europe. The economic and political instability of those states, most of them newly created out of the ruins of the old empires, made them vulnerable to the contagion from the East of what was commonly called “the disease of Bolshevism.” It was generally assumed by European and American statesmen that this malady was caused by hunger; Bolshevism was what happened when good people went hungry.

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The fear was that, if Central Europe succumbed to Bolshevism, it would be hard to save the rest of Europe from the same fate. Thus on April 25, 1919, in the midst of the crisis, Hoover wrote: “Of course, the prime objective of the United States in undertaking the fight against famine in Europe is to save the lives of starving people. The secondary object, however, and of hardly less importance, [is] to defeat Anarchy, which is the handmaiden of Hunger.”

As this quote indicates, the words “anarchy” and “Bolshevism” were used synonymously at the time. Hoover was referring to ongoing events in Central Europe, beginning with a failed uprising in Berlin by the radical Spartacist League, the establishment of short-lived Soviet regimes in Munich and Budapest, and an abortive communist rising in Vienna.

In the end, American food was widely seen as having prevented this period of crisis from becoming Europe’s “October Revolution.” More than anything else, it was Hoover’s anti-Bolshevism that caused critics at the time—and ever since—to question the authenticity of his humanitarianism. If the purpose of American relief was to stem the Bolshevik tide, the argument goes, then all the heartwarming words about Europe’s starving children could not have been entirely honest. In other words, the Great Humanitarian had a political agenda. But in understanding Hoover’s motives it is misleading to insist on a dichotomy of humanitarianism against anti-Bolshevism. To Hoover—just as to Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and most Western leaders at the time—Bolshevism was a symptom of people in distress; thus, fighting Bolshevism was humanitarian.

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Although no one at the time used the word, the objective was the containment of communism. Thirty years later, that would be the fundamental assumption behind the Marshall Plan. So, in sum, there was a confluence of motives at work, with humanitarianism blended together with economic and ideological incentives.

THE GREAT FAMINE OF 1921

Although Europe did not go Bolshevik, there was still a Bolshevik Russia. In 1919 and 1920, Hoover tried without success to negotiate his ARA into Lenin’s Russia. But catastrophic events intervened. A devastating famine descended on Russia in 1921. More than 25 million people were threatened by starvation and hunger-related diseases. The famine was centered in and beyond the Volga River valley and also in southern Ukraine. The United States, led by Hoover and his ARA, responded with a massive two-year relief campaign that battled starvation and disease and saved millions of lives. The best estimates of the death toll from the Great Famine of 1921 run from 5 million to 10 million people. But that total would have been much higher had the ARA not intervened with food and medical supplies. This is all the more remarkable because the United States, alone among the major powers, had no diplomatic relations with Bolshevik Russia.

The American relief workers entered Russia in August 1921 and fanned out across the heartland. By the summer of 1922, at the peak of operations, American kitchens were feeding nearly 11 million Soviet citizens a day. The total cost of the mission exceeded $60 million, of which $20 million was an appropriation from the U.S. Congress used to purchase millions of tons of corn and seed. At the time, the rescue operation was hailed by Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, as “the beau geste of the 20th century.”

SUSPICIONS ABOUT HOOVER

From the outset there was a good deal of suspicion about Hoover’s true motives for going into Russia. Obviously he had no desire to rescue the Soviet government. So, was America’s great anti-Bolshevik hoping to bring about regime change in Moscow? Certainly Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership feared this. Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov, in negotiating an agreement with the ARA in Riga, Latvia, in August 1921, kept repeating to the Americans somewhat nervously, “Gentlemen, food is a weapon.”

At first the Bolsheviks wondered if the relief workers might actually try to smuggle machine guns with the relief supplies. At minimum the Bolsheviks assumed that the ARA would attempt to feed the class enemies of the regime. But soon enough, Lenin and Trotsky and their comrades were put at ease. They saw that Hoover’s folks were honoring their promise, delivering food without regard to class, race, politics, or religion. Of course the Bolsheviks were not happy about having these “bourgeois” relief workers in their country, and this made life unpleasant for the Americans, but their worst nightmares about the ARA never materialized.

At home in the United States, Hoover’s motives were also given close scrutiny. Not by conservatives, who were not at all concerned that the nation’s most accomplished anti-Bolshevik would play into the hands of the Reds in the Kremlin. Rather, the uneasiness about Hoover emerged from liberals and radicals on the left, who assumed that he must have some ulterior motive, some plan to engineer the downfall of the Bolsheviks.

Americans of that era were very keen on the notion of efficiency, and one of Hoover’s unofficial titles at this time was “Master of Efficiency.” He was regarded by Americans as a great humanitarian but a distinctly unsentimental one.

But Hoover was playing this entirely straight. The idea that his relief workers themselves should attempt to influence Russian politics was unacceptable to him. They had strict orders to avoid even discussing politics. Hoover did indeed intend to use food as a weapon in Russia, but not in the crude way his critics imagined. His plan was to accomplish political ends in Russia not under the guise of famine relief, as they suspected, but rather by means of it. Hoover believed that if he could only relieve the Russians’ hunger, they would return to their senses and recover the physical strength to throw off their Bolshevik oppressors. The ARA example of energy and efficiency would also serve to discredit in the eyes of the Russian people what Hoover called the “foolish” Soviet economic system. Sooner or later, the Bolsheviks were going to fall, so why not help the process along?

It turned out that Hoover was wrong about the staying power of Soviet communism. Despite the famine, Lenin’s regime stayed firmly in control, with no organized opposition to challenge it. The irony, then, is that American relief served in the end to help stabilize the Soviet economy and thus Bolshevik rule.

Beyond Hoover’s anti-Bolshevism there was now an additional factor arousing skepticism about his motives: Aside from being chairman of the ARA, in 1921 he was appointed secretary of commerce in the new Warren Harding administration. Many assumed that commercial motives must lie behind the relief mission. In truth, Russia offered a vast, unconquered market, and it was Hoover’s job to ensure that the United States was well positioned to take advantage of it. Hoover was perfectly aware that although the ARA’s mission was to fight famine, its presence in Russia would give the United States a jump on the European competition by clearing the way for American trade and investment.

Hoover was also accused of undertaking the Russian famine relief mission to ease the postwar economic depression in the United States by disposing of surplus American corn. One reason this charge still stands up is that Hoover himself publicly acknowledged it—embraced might be a better word. Consider his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the hearings about Russian relief in December 1921:

The food supplies that we wish to take to Russia are all in surplus in the United States, and are without a market in any quarter of the globe. . . . We are today feeding milk to our hogs, burning corn under our boilers. . . . I have a feeling we are dealing today with a situation of a great deal of [economic] depression and that we have a proper right to inquire not only whether we are doing an act of great humanity, but whether we are doing an act of economic soundness. To me, after assessing our ability to give, no other argument is needed beyond the sheer humanity.

This was Hoover the realist. At about this same time, he wrote in a private letter that an enormous relief operation like that of the ARA in Soviet Russia had to take into consideration “our political institutions, our public sentiment, and the needs and means of saving the lives of millions.”

This acute awareness of political and economic realities was a hallmark of Hoover’s humanitarianism. In May 1922, when American corn was pouring into the Russian countryside and the back of the Great Famine had been broken, the American journalist Walter Lippmann wrote of Hoover’s accomplishments in wartime Belgium and postwar Europe and Russia that “probably no other living man could have done nearly so much.”


Bertrand M. Patenaude, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is also a lecturer in history and international relations at Stanford University. His most recent book is Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, published by HarperCollins in 2009. He is also the author of A Wealth of Ideas: Revelations from the Hoover Institution Archives (Stanford University Press, 2006), a richly illustrated coffee-table book that showcases the Hoover Archives’ extraordinary collections. His first book, The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921 (Stanford University Press, 2002), was the basis for The Great Famine, a documentary film broadcast in 2011 as part of the award-winning PBS series American Experience. Patenaude's book reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal. He was educated at Boston College and the University of Vienna and received his PhD in history from Stanford.


Adapted from an address by the author in Brussels on October 4, 2006, in conjunction with the opening of the exhibit Remembering Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief in Belgium.