While at the Hoover Institution I joined a team organizing a large volume of unprocessed materials covering the American Relief Administration to Europe after World War I. This research revealed new facts about extraordinary accomplishments of the United States in saving tens of millions of people. When finished analyzing almost nine hundred boxes a new picture of the organization emerged; one that showed an even more impressive picture. The scale of operations in each country became much clearer. Unbeknownst to me most of the facts contained in the records had been forgotten by the countries which received aid and by contemporary historians who merely praised the relief efforts for its efficiency, grit and ingenuity.
As a result of my involvement in the project I developed two unique ideas to present our findings. First, I wrote the screenplay for a
documentary that was shown on European television. This was repeated by popular
demand eight times. Secondly, I came up with the idea of organizing a large
exhibit illustrating accomplishments of the ARA. After acquiring the funds, I
wrote the script, selected the materials, and oversaw the entire production
process and the installation at different venues in Europe. We also received
the full approval and support of the State Department. Enthusiastic coverage in the media attracted
tens of thousands of visitors. After a year I moved the project to the United
States, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, and Stanford.
I believe that I successfully restored an awareness of a forgotten episode of the
American role in the recoveries of many post-WW I Central European nations and
the role of Herbert Hoover who run the biggest relief operation known to man
and who truly
deserves the title of the first global humanitarian. It is estimated that relief organizations
established by him between 1914 and 1922, fed 200 million people. Millions were given hope and freedom from hunger. Without
him, new nations like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia might not have survived political tensions in
the region. Poland was high on
Hoover’s list. He went there to
strengthen its newly regained independence.
Hoover in Europe: With the outbreak of the war in 1914, most Americans in Europe moved to London. Thousands were stranded, frequently without money for food. Herbert Hoover decided to do something to help Americans return home. He organized a group of five hundred volunteers to assist some one hundred twenty thousand of his compatriots. As it turned out his private efforts were more efficient than the official government program.
mid-October 1914, when Hoover was ready to return to the United States, he was
contacted by a group of Belgians who told him about the starvation that
followed the German invasion of their country, which was cut off from outside
shipping. Hoover organized a private aid
group, the Commission for Relief in Belgium.
He accepted no pay for his services; collected funds to run the
operation, and even contributed his own money to the effort. In its most active period, the CRB required
25 million dollars per month to operate.
Hoover sought food supplies throughout the world, delivered them safely
with fleets of ships, past the armies and navies of warring nations, and
distributed them to the civilian population, making certain that none of it
fell under the control of the German authorities. The Poles approached Hoover
in a similar way in 1915 asking for assistance to their starving nation.
American Relief Administration in Europe: In 1918
President Woodrow Wilson asked Hoover to organize aid to war-devastated
Europe. Thus in December, with the help
of some of his colleagues from the CRB, Hoover set up headquarters in Paris for
the American Relief Administration (ARA).
Soon the ARA began delivering food, clothing, and medical supplies. Four thousand former U.S. Army officers and
soldiers in Europe, and tens of thousands of civilian workers, helped run
Hoover's program. At his request, ships
coming to Europe were filled with relief supplies. Also, the U.S. Army turned over all its extra
food and clothing to the ARA, which Hoover, as food administrator, collected.
American Relief Administration in
Poland, 1919–1922: The ARA Mission in Warsaw
began its work in January 1919 with two aims: to provide one meal a day for the
neediest children and to develop a permanent institution that would function in
the future as a countrywide child welfare organization. As one of the ARA
worker wrote at that time: “Reports from special
inspectors, confirm the belief that conditions in Poland, caused by the lack of
food, are deplorable. In town and industrial localities workmen cannot obtain
food for their children, and that mortality among them is so great the whole
civilized world is filled with compassion and a desire to actively assist.”
Food: In the first
months of 1919 tens of thousands of rail cars with American food left the port
of Gdansk on their way to Polish cities. The
towns most affected by famine were in the most remote parts of the country,
where local authorities were not firmly established. Thus feeding stations and warehouses were
created first in large cities and then proceeded east from village to village. Within
six months deliveries reached the value of $50 million. In 1919 the program fed over 1.5 million children.
After the 1920 Hoover increased the number to an additional half million
and expanded the number of kitchens to 10,000.
For almost four years following the war half a billion meals were
provided to the hungry and starving of Poland. Transporting food by rail was extremely difficult, owing to a lack of
cars and locomotives. Where railway
facilities or horses were lacking, American motor trucks were pressed into
service. When the first carload of American Relief flour arrived at
Warsaw in February 1919, a journalist wrote: “America is the only nation that
has ever made a promise to Poland – and kept it.”
During Hoover's visit to Poland in August 1919 he witnessed
a heartbreaking scene in Warsaw: Twenty-five thousand children had walked
barefoot to pay him homage. Within hours he telegraphed for help and 700,000
overcoats and 700,000 pairs of shoes were shipped to Poland before the onset of
winter. Another half million coats and shoes were delivered in the following
two years. The visit had convinced him that the ARA’s original plan—to withdraw
after the harvest of 1919—would be impossible in face of drastic food
shortages. Indeed, the program was
extended and expanded to include, besides children, the intelligentsia and
Orphans: Hoover was especially concerned about the children, his
own experience as an orphan making him very sensitive to the plight of some 2
million children living in horrible conditions in Poland. Thus he set up programs to ensure that all
children got at least one meal a day.
Orphans and homeless youth were sheltered in numerous institutions organized
and supported by the ARA. The Russian invasion of 1920 and the subsequent occupation of nearly half
the country, including the requisition of food and livestock by the invading
troops, pushed Poland back to where it had been a year earlier.
Invisible Guest Dinner organized by Herbert Hoover at Hotel
Waldorf Astoria in New York City on December 29, 1920 co-hosted by general John
J. Pershing who commanded American forces during the war. The candle symbolizes
a distinguished child’s life. The thousand guests paid $1000 each for a meal
worth twenty-two cents, a typical ration for a Polish child. This evening
Hoover was able to collect one million dollars. John D. Rockefeller Jr. who
also attended the event helped push the fundraising to $3 million for the
night. Hoover said in his speech: “These
children are the obligation of every man and woman who has a penny more than
his own children and his neighbor’s children require. This is the real wastage
of the war, this mass of the undernourished, under-clad, the mentally, morally
and physically destitute children.” The Invisible Guest campaign did not stay in New York City;
similar events took place across the country. In Northern Kentucky, according
to the Cincinnati Enquirer, an Invisible Guest club was formed with a fee of
$10 to save the life of a child until the next harvest.
Monument of Gratitude: To commemorate the
contributions of Hoover and the United States, Poland erected a monument in
Hoover Square on the Krakowskie Przedmiescie thoroughfare. At the entrance to the square two marble
stands bore the inscription: Herbert Hoover.
The monument was unveiled on October 29, 1922. In 1946, during his next humanitarian
mission to Poland, Hoover visited what was left of it. Under Poland's communist
regime (1945–1989), the square's name fell into disuse. In 1992, a stone
memorial was erected and dedicated and the square returned to its prewar name,
Volumes of gratitude:
On Oct. 14, 1926, U.S. President was
presented with 111 volumes composed of sheets bearing an estimated 5.5 million
signatures of Polish citizens as well as drawings by Polish artists, decorative
bindings, official seals, photographs and calligraphy. This gift symbolized the
friendship and gratitude of the Polish people for the United States on the
150th anniversary if American independence. The signatures in these volumes
represented the entire spectrum of Polish society, encompassing more than one
sixth of Poland's population at the time. This extraordinary gesture on the
part of Poland serves as a testament to the strength of the influence that
American political institutions had in shaping modern Poland and even more
telling was the fact that on July 4, 1926, as they had done before, Poles
celebrated America's Independence Day as well.