Food as a Weapon
By Bertrand M. Patenaude
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.
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.
A toy distribution is organized in Saint-Gilles, Belgium. “Merci aux Americains,” the banner reads. “Three cheers for the Commission for Relief in Belgium!”
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
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.
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.
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.”
American flags flutter as schoolchildren gather outside the Musée Communal, Saint-Gilles.
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.
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.
Long rows of food sacks await distribution. The CRB and its Belgian counterpart, Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation, fed more than nine million people a day in Belgium and northern France, at a cost of almost $1 billion.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.
Bertrand M. Patenaude is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a lecturer in history and international relations at Stanford University. He is an expert on modern Russian and European history.