Today marks the 93rd anniversary of Herbert Hoover’s historic visit to Warsaw, Poland. It wasn’t his first visit, nor his last, but surely the most memorable and one of the most moving experiences of his life. At that time Herbert Hoover was chairman of the American Relief Administration (A.R.A.), which had begun to provide massive humanitarian aid to Eastern Europe, then recovering from the devastation of World War I.
Hoover took a particular interest in Poland when he learned of the serious shortages of food in the country and its effect on children. At Hoover’s initiative, shipments of condensed milk, flour, and wheat, totaling thousands of tons, began arriving in Poland in the spring of 1919. By the time of his visit in August, an extensive operation had been established through the cooperation of the A.R.A. and civic organizations, which established hundreds of kitchens that fed more than 500,000 children daily. Within a year the operation would feed as many as 1.5 million children and nursing mothers each day. The humanitarian aid for children was a precursor to massive shipments of clothing, shoes and medical supplies to establish inoculation centers against typhus and other diseases. Extensive technical assistance from American advisers also helped rebuild Poland’s railways and other industries. The Poles had much to be grateful for.
Vernon Kellogg, a close associate of Hoover’s who made the initial reports on the situation in Poland, was present in Warsaw at the Mokotow Field on August 14:
It was a great day for the children of Warsaw. It was a great day for their parents, too, and for all the people and for the Polish Government. But it was especially the great day of the children. The man whose name they all knew as well as their own, but whose face they had never seen, and whose voice they had never heard, had come to Warsaw. And they were all to see him and he was to see them.
He had not announced his coming, which was a strange and upsetting thing for the government and city officials whose business it is to arrange all the grand receptions and the brilliant parades for visiting guests to whom the Government and all the people wish to do honor. And there was no man in the world to whom the Poles could wish to do more honor than to this uncrowned simple American citizen whose name was for them the synonym of savior.
For what was their new freedom worth if they could not be alive to enjoy it? And their being alive was to them all so plainly due to the heart and brain and energy and achievement of this extraordinary American, who sat always somewhere far away in Paris, and pulled the strings that moved the diplomats and the money and the ships and the men who helped him manage the details, and converted all of the activities of these men and all of these things into food for Warsaw---and for all Poland. It was food that the people of Warsaw and all Poland simply had to have to keep alive, and it was food that they simply could not get for themselves. They all knew that. The name of another great American (Woodrow Wilson) spelled freedom for them; the name Herbert Hoover spelled life to them.
So it was no wonder that the high officials of the Polish Government and capital city were in a state of great excitement when the news suddenly came that the man whom they had so often urged to come to Poland was really moving swiftly from Prague to Warsaw.
Ever since soon after Armistice Day he had sat in Paris, directing with unremitting effort and absolute devotion the task of getting food to the mouths of hungry people of all the newly liberated but helpless countries of Eastern Europe, and above all, to the children of these countries, so that the coming generation, on whom the future of these struggling peoples depended, should be kept alive and strong. And now he was preparing to return to his own country and his own children to take up again the course of his life as a simple American citizen at home.
But before going he wanted to see for himself, if only by the most fleeting of glimpses, that the people of Poland and Bohemia and Serbia and all the rest were really being fed. And especially did he want to see that the children were alive and strong.
When he came to Paris in November, 1918, at the request of the President of the United States to organize the relief of the newly liberated peoples of Eastern Europe, terrible tales were brought to him of the suffering and the wholesale deaths of the children of these ravaged lands. And when those of us who went to Poland for him in January, 1919, to find out the exact conditions and the actual food needs of the twenty-five million freed people there, made our report to him, a single unpremeditated sentence in this report seemed most to catch his eyes and hold his attention. It did more; it wetted his eyes and led to a special concentration of his efforts on behalf of the suffering children. This sentence was: “We see very few children playing in the streets of Warsaw.” Why were they not playing? The answer was simple and sufficient: The children of Warsaw were not strong enough to play in the streets. They could not run; many could not walk; some could not even stand. Their weak little bodies were bones clothed with skin, but not muscles. They simply could not play.
So in all the excitement of the few hours possible to the citizens of Warsaw and the Government Officials of Poland to make hurried preparation to honor their guest and show him their gratitude, one thing they decided to do, which was the best thing for the happiness of their guest they could possibly have done. They decided to show him that the children of Warsaw could now walk!
So seventy thousand boys and girls were summoned hastily from the schools. They came with the very tin cups and pannikins from which they had just had their special meal of the day, served at noon in all the schools and special children’s canteens, thanks to the charity of America, as organized and directed by Hoover, and they carried their little paper napkins, stamped with the flag of the United States, which they could wave over their heads. And on an old race-track of Warsaw, these thousands of restored children marched from mid-afternoon till dark in happy, never-ending files past the grandstand where sat the man who had saved them, surrounded by the heads of Government and the notables of Warsaw.
They marched and marched and cheered and cheered, and waved their little hands and cups and napkins. And all went by as decorously and in as orderly a fashion as many thousands of happy cheering children could be expected to, until suddenly from the grass an astonished rabbit leaped out and started down the track. And then five thousands of these children broke from the ranks and dashed madly after him, shouting and laughing. And they caught him and brought him in triumph as a gift to their guest. But they were astonished to see as they gave him their gift, that this great strong man did just what you or I or any other human sort of human being could not have helped doing under like circumstances. They saw him cry. And they would not have understood, if he had tried to explain to them that he cried because they had proved to him that they could run and play. So he did not try. But the children of Warsaw had no need to be sorry for him. For he cried because he was glad.
(“Review of the Children of Warsaw”, Vernon Kellogg papers, Box 1, Folder 1, Hoover Institution Archives)