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Register of the Commission for Relief in Belgium Records, 1914-1930
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Access Points
  • Historical Note

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Commission for Relief in Belgium Records,
    Date (inclusive): 1914-1930
    Collection number: 22003
    Creator: Commission for Relief in Belgium (1914-1930)
    Collection Size: 591 manuscript boxes, 49 oversize boxes, 17 card file boxes (274 linear feet)
    Repository: Hoover Institution Archives
    Stanford, California 94305-6010
    Abstract: Correspondence, reports, memoranda, accounts, pamphlets, bulletins, and photographs, relating to procurement of food and other supplies in the U.S. and their distribution in German-occupied Belgium and northern France during and immediately after World War I.
    Physical Location: Hoover Institution Archives
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    Collection open for research.
    The Hoover Institution Archives only allows access to copies of audiovisual items. To listen to sound recordings or to view videos or films during your visit, please contact the Archives at least two working days before your arrival. We will then advise you of the accessibility of the material you wish to see or hear. Please note that not all audiovisual material is immediately accessible.

    Publication Rights

    For copyright status, please contact the Hoover Institution Archives.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Commission for Relief in Belgium Records, 1914-1930, [Box no.], Hoover Institution Archives.

    Alternative Form Available

    Also available on microfilm (777 reels).

    Access Points

    World War, 1914-1918.
    World War, 1914-1918--Belgium.
    World War, 1914-1918--Civilian relief.
    World War, 1914-1918--Food question.
    World War, 1914-1918--France.
    United States--Foreign relations.
    International relief.
    Hoover, Herbert, 1874-1964.

    Historical Note

    (Article on the Commission for Relief in Belgium by Elena S. Danielson, published in The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Cipriano Venzon)
    Herbert Hoover founded the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) in London in October 1914 as a private organization to provide food for German-occupied Belgium. Belgium's attempts at resistance to German military demands at the outbreak of the Great War had aroused much popular sympathy in England and the United States. A densely populated, industrialized country, Belgium depended on imports for three-quarters of its normal food supply. When the German Army began to requisition local foodstuffs and the British blockade cut off imported sources, 7 million Belgians faced severe hunger as the winter of 1914-1915 approached. When the American ambassador in London, Walter Hines Page, met with Belgian representatives, they concluded that Herbert Hoover was the best choice to administer some emergency relief action. The comprehensiveness of the program, however, was the result of Hoover's personal determination to feed the entire nation.
    The CRB conducted its humanitarian work on an unprecedented scale and with a unique administrative organization. The official CRB documentary history cites a British characterization of the commission as a "piratical state organized for benevolence." Like a pirate state, the CRB flew its own flag, negotiated its own treaties, secured special passports, fixed prices, issued currency, and exercised a great deal of fiscal independence. Its bold acts of benevolence were accomplished with an efficiency and integrity that later became a model for modern foreign aid.
    The basic facts hint at the scope and complexity of the undertaking. Between 1914 and 1919, the CRB dispensed nearly $1 billion in order to feed 9 million Belgian and French citizens behind German lines. Strictly maintained accounting records, provided pro bono by a prestigious accounting firm, present a clear picture of the CRB's finances. Funding was secured through a complex combination of guaranteed loans and subsidies from the Belgian, French, and United States governments combined with an outpouring of charitable contributions, as well as considerable donated transportation and services. About 78 percent of the money came from direct governmental subsidiaries. Initially, most funds came from the Allied governments, and then after 1917 primarily from United States congressional appropriations. In the final accounting report, administrative overhead came to less than 1 percent.
    About sixty full-time American administrators, most unpaid, supervised over 130,000 Belgian, French, and American volunteers. The CRB purchased about 5 million tons of food in the United States, Canada, and Argentina and then shipped it through the war zone to Belgium and northern France. The Americans, who as neutrals were allowed to travel freely in Belgium, coordinated distribution with thousands of local Belgian volunteers and members of the Comité National de Secours et d'Alimentation (known as the CN).
    Political obstacles were far more daunting than the logistical problems. CRB ships loaded with grain were repeatedly threatened by both German submarines and hostile British admirals. Hoover tirelessly negotiated with such wartime leaders as British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, German Chancellor Theobald Bethmann Hollweg, President Wilson, Col. Edward House, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to keep the CRB operating.
    Hoover's motivation for initiating the CRB was very complex and grew out of his experiences as a successful international mining engineer based in London. In 1914 at the age of forty, Hoover was at the peak of his business career. He served as a director of eighteen financial and mining companies with total capital in the range of $55 million. He controlled investments in major Australian, Burmese, South African, and Russian mines. In terms of sheer size, his Russian mining and forestry holdings had a combined area larger than Belgium. He had amassed a substantial fortune, although much of it was not in liquid assets. More importantly, he had acquired formidable experience in the use of money and power, deploying men and equipment, and in negotiating with foreign governments. He was anxious to put his restless energy and managerial skills to use for the public good. Already he was exploring possibilities such as the purchase of a newspaper or perhaps even serving as the president of his alma mater, Stanford University.
    While the outbreak of war threatened to throw his far-flung mining operations into disarray, he used the crisis as an opportunity for service. Hoover appointed several close business associates, including his trusted brother Theodore, to oversee his business ventures and then devoted himself with intense and almost ruthless concentration to the emergencies created by the international crisis. Transportation was disrupted, banks closed, normal financial transactions across borders were abruptly halted. As a result, tens of thousands of American travelers and tourists were stranded at the outbreak of the war. Just as fourteen years earlier as a young mining engineer in China, he and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, had set up a field hospital for victims of the Boxer Rebellion, now in wartime London he and Lou used their private means and considerable initiative to create a self-help organization, the Committee of American Residents in London for Assistance of American Travellers. The committee, already in full operation by Aug. 6, 1914, coordinated scores of volunteers to assist thousands of American tourists and travelers fleeing the Continent, many of whom were cut off from their normal source of funds. During the first two months of the war, Hoover, with the support of the American ambassador, distributed $400,000 in loans and gifts, including some $150,000 in U.S. government funds. This experience shaped Hoover's views about the best means of organizing an effective humanitarian response to political crisis. He was highly critical of bureaucratic waste, especially the teams of governmental officials traveling in luxury at public expense to inspect a situation that Hoover had already reported on in depth.
    The characteristics of the committee were shaped by Hoover's improvisation during the chaos of impending war. He was forced to pull together funding from all available sources, including private and public sectors, loans, and charitable donations. He established the authority of his committee by working with high-level government officials but preserved the charitable nature of the work by keeping it officially private. Working without compensation, Hoover made the disinterested humanitarian nature of the work clear. He built a team of pragmatic volunteer administrators, many engineers. The charity was based on hard-headed logic rather than traditional appeals to sentiment. Above all, he insisted on personal administrative control. Two months later these same traits were codified on a larger scale for the working arrangements of the CRB.
    The plight of the hungry Belgian children in particular took his attention. Hoover felt the need for quick action since he was very aware that malnutrition in growing children can cause lasting physical and mental damage. He founded the CRB in October 1914 with a group of trusted friends from his circle of mining engineers and businessmen. Like the London-based committee, it was an essentially private enterprise. A private volunteer organization was free of the corruption of expense accounts, maintained low administrative overhead, and enjoyed the prestige of a charitable institution. Also like the London American committee, the CRB secured high-level governmental support. Both Walter Hines Page and Brand Whitlock, American minister in Brussels, supported the CRB and gave it the legitimacy to negotiate with the German authorities. Technically, President Wilson considered the ambassadors to be acting as private citizens in this matter. This ambiguous mix of private prestige and governmental legitimacy came to be the hallmark of a long series of organizations established by Hoover. The pattern was set by the circumstances of the American Committee, expanded to serve the CRB, and later replicated many times in the U.S. Food Administration, American Relief Administration, and presidential conferences.
    A third feature of the CRB, which also set the tone for later Hoover organizations, was its monopoly on relief. This can be traced to the hectic days of the London American Committee when Hoover competed with other committees for control over travelers' aid. Hoover used a number of mechanisms from well-timed newspaper articles to connections with high-level diplomats to assert his control over relief in Belgium. He insisted that all donations from whatever sources be administered through his organization in order to eliminate waste, competition, and redundancy. Competitors would be rapidly dispatched, including the independent and well-funded Belgian Relief Committee which had been established in New York some weeks prior to the founding of the CRB. Hoover was also able to persuade the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation that his organization should take precedence in receiving fund allocations. His organizational genius was acknowledged by the Allied authorities and the still neutral United States.
    Hoover played the role of the pivot in an intricate diplomatic balancing act that required constant adjustments. For each of the countries involved, the CRB posed serious problems while it provided handsome benefits. Hoover fought for the preservation of the CRB on many fronts simultaneously. In each country he had to keep his opponents in check in order to ensure a continuous flow of food supplies to the German-occupied territory, whose welfare he essentially adopted as his own.
    The CRB posed difficult public relations problems for Britain. Clearly, Britain had a vested interest in the continued strength and resolve of its occupied ally. The British population, like the American public, was very sympathetic to the plight of the Belgians and contributed large sums for their relief. The government certainly wanted to prevent the Belgian workforce from serving the German military in exchange for daily rations. As citizens of a neutral country, American administrators, given Hoover's ability to secure guarantees from the Germans, were able to distribute British funds in Belgium. Despite these natural sympathies for the Belgians, Hoover never received unqualified support from the British. Sharp divisions in the cabinet over theutility of the CRB resulted in rapidly shifting policies toward what Hoover viewed as a human response to an emergency.
    When the CRB was founded in October 1914, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey initially approved the concept of food shipments from neutral ports on neutral ships to land in Rotterdam for overland transport to Belgium, provided the Germans did not seize the food. Asquith immediately faced a rebellion from his cabinet, including Lord Kitchener, Lloyd George, Churchill, and Reginald McKenna, all of whom objected to humanitarian aid. Their reasoning followed traditional military thinking, which was totally alien to Hoover. In this view, as the invading force, the German army had the complete responsibility for provisioning the population in occupied territory. This situation would force Germany either to divert funds to feed the country or face food riots and world condemnation. Food relief would only be diverted to feed German troops. By maintaining a tight blockade of the Continent, Britain could use the hunger in Belgium to undermine the German military machine. In an effort to sound less cynical,the British cabinet maintained that relief in Belgium would prolong the war and lead to more suffering in the long run.
    Hoover was well aware that public opinion did not accept this cold logic and that the British cabinet, unlike the German high command, was very sensitive to public pressure. While he succeeded in securing official British approval of the CRB, he never overcame the resistance of the British military, which presented a continuing series of obstacles from bureaucratic inertia to a formal investigation of Hoover on trumped-up charges of espionage, at Churchill's instigation. Each time the Germans evaded their agreements and profited from Hoover's shipments, the British responded with new demands and conditions for permitting food through the blockade. Hoover, caught in the middle, played each side against the other. Over the long run, British support for the CRB strengthened as the moral idealism of the CRB proved to have unexpected advantages in modern warfare. Hoover won over a major ally in the Foreign Office, Lord Eustace Percy, who facilitated the interests of the CRB with increasing finesse throughout the war.
    The most problematic country in Hoover's geopolitical balancing act was Germany. For the Germans, outside food subsidies presented the strong advantage of relieving the occupation authorities of any financial responsibilities toward feeding the population of 7 million Belgians and later 2 million Frenchmen. Without that subsidy the German occupation army faced food riots and civil disturbance, perhaps outright rebellion, that would divert energy from the front lines. In addition, the Germans exploited any loopholes in their agreements and weaknesses in security to divert Belgian-produced food to the German army. The scale of thefts was kept very small by Hoover's consistent efforts to plug any holes in security as they appeared. Despite assurances to the British to the contrary, Hoover was well aware of the benefits of his program to the German occupation forces under the command of Governor-General von Bissing, and he freely used this card in negotiations with him.
    Von Bissing for his part played a very cautious game. For the strong strategic advantage of incoming food relief, he was keenly aware of the dangers involved in the programs. Not least of these was the effect of fifty energetic American administrators freely touring the Belgian country-side, in new imported cars-greeted with cheers and applause. Several were accused of subverting their neutral role and spying for the British, a charge later revealed to be fictitious. Nonetheless, from the German military's point of view the potential was alarming. There were other disadvantages for the Germans. By feeding unemployed Belgians, the CRB indirectly cut off a source of cheap labor for the German Army as well as supporting the passive resistance of the population. As the war dragged on, a domestic liability bacame apparent when the German population began to complain that the Belgians were better fed than the citizens of Imperial Germany.
    In a steady succession of crises in negotiations with von Bissing and his deputy, Oscar von der Lancken, Hoover fought to maintain hard-won agreements for the safe passage of the CRB ships, passports for his administrators, security from requisition for his food supplies. Several well-marked CRB ships were torpedoed with the loss of crew members. Some American administrators were expelled. Food shipments were occasionally diverted for German use. Hoover met each threat to his program with aggressive threats and deals of his own.
    At one point in 1915 he stabilized the CRB's guarantees by negotiating directly with Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg in Berlin. Later Hoover rescued the CRB from an apparent attempt to cancel its guarantees by negotiating with General von Sauberzweig, the officer responsible for the execution of British nurse Edith Cavell. With a certain audacity, Hoover initially attempted to secure partial funding for the relief from the German government itself, a bold initiative that eventually failed but one that served Hoover well as a lever to secure funding from the Allies. Hoover did succeed in maintaining German tolerance for the American supervised relief, from October 1914 to 1919. At several points the Germans made it clear that relief efforts would only be permitted if supervised by neutral Americans under Hoover. Even Hoover's adversaries conceded that only his bold tactics could accomplish such a feat.
    For the Belgian people caught between the German occupation and the British blockade, Hoover's personal determination to provide for them in the time of need came as a totally unexpected boon. Thousands of spontaneous letters of thanks poured in to the Brussels office of the CRB each week. Expressions of gratitude were often creative, taking the form of children's artwork. Hundreds of emptied flour sacks from American mills were covered with Belgian embroidery and fine lace and given to relief workers or sold to raise funds.
    Even while the benefits to Belgium were self-evident, relief politics inside Belgium were far from straightforward. The logical person to coordinate distribution of food inside Belgium was Emile Francqui, a director of the main bank, one of the wealthiest men in the country, a veteran of establishing the Belgian Congo, and a participant in other international ventures. Hoover and Francqui had met thirteen years before in China, where they clashed over conflicting business interests. In fact, Hoover had once testified against Francqui in court. When they met again on Oct. 19, 1914, they had to overcome deep personal animosity in order to found their joint enterprise of the CRB and the Comité National, which oversaw the Belgian side of the operation. Francqui returned to Belgium and spoke to Brand Whitlock, the American minister in Brussels, of Hoover's managerial genius.
    The old animosity between the two resurfaced later in the course of the relief work as Hoover pressured Francqui's organization to keep better records, provide better security, and enforce sanctions against cooperation with the Germans. Hoover held the Comité National responsible for the illegal diversion of food to the German Army and for the difficulties those leaks caused with the British cabinet. Francqui, for his part, countered in kind. In fact, at one point in February 1916, Francqui went to London with letters of assurances from the Germans in an attempt to eliminate the role of the Americans altogether and place the Comité National in complete control. The British rejected this proposal given the CN's vulnerability to pressure from the occupation army. Both Francqui and Hoover became concerned that their disputes threatened to overshadow the historic significance of their joint undertaking. Eventually, a more cordial relationship evolved.
    Compared with Britain, Germany, and Belgium, the French government posed relatively few problems for Hoover and the CRB. Once the German Army secured northern France, appeals came to Hoover for aid. He considered the expansion of the CRB into northern France to be inevitable, the only obstacle was funding. Obtaining German cooperation for supplying northern France was one of the main purposes of his trip to Berlin in January 1915. The French government was at first reluctant to finance the relief directly, thinking the work of the CRB might lend legitimacy to the German occupation. Hoover engaged the assistance of a French mining engineer, an old acquaintance, Louis Chevrillon, to expedite negotiations. To save face, the French subsidies were initially funneled through the Belgian government in exile in Le Havre. This arrangement maintained the flow of food into occupied France until funding ran short in 1917, and the American government took over the primary financial responsibility.
    There was both a positive and a negative side to the American response to the CRB. Hoover's friends in the press, such as Ben S. Allen of the Associated Press office in London, interpreted the mission of the CRB to the American public and served as a conduit for Hoover's carefully timed press releases. The spontaneous response in the United States was enthusiastic. At the outset of the war, Mrs. Hoover returned to California with instructions from her husband to send a shipload of supplies to Belgium. With a capacity for organization very similar to her husband's, she easily succeeded in raising funds in California and organized a boatload of food, one of the first to reach Rotterdam, en route to Brussels. A letter to the governor of Kansas was all it took to secure another shipload. Charity for Belgium was a very prestigious activity for American society women and occupied the time of Edith Wharton as well as Alma Spreckels. It soon became apparent, however, that charity would not be sufficient.
    Engaging American administrative talent proved to be one of the easiest aspects of the effort. Hoover drew on former classmates, old business associates like Edgar Rickard, and American diplomats such as Hugh Gibson. This core of devoted supporters helped the Chief, as he was known, develop a series of charitable international institutions. Hoover's popularity in the United States seemed assured.
    It was an unexpected blow to the organization when a former mining associate and once loyal friend of Hoover's named Lindon Bates, the man in charge of the New York CRB office, accused Hoover of violating the Logan Act of 1793. The Logan Act prohibits private citizens from negotiating treaties with foreign governments in controversial matters. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was prepared to investigate the allegations. In October 1915, Hoover traveled to New York to deal with this challenge. Both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt assisted Hoover in reestablishing the solid reputation of the CRB. Hoover personally met with Senator Lodge to calm his fears, and the investigation was dropped. Bates had lost his son when the Germans sank the Lusitania, and Hoover attributed the trouble Bates caused the CRB to the emotional turmoil resulting from this family tragedy.
    The need for a larger financial base became obvious by the end of 1916. In January 1917, Hoover, with Wilson's support, began to lobby for U.S. congressional appropriations. The entry of the United States into the war altered the fundamental nature of the organization. No longer neutral, the United States substituted massive financial support for its former admin-istrative assistance. As the Americans were forced to withdraw from Belgium, they arranged for neutral Dutch and Spanish administrators to assume the direct supervision of relief.
    Until the spring of 1917, Hoover had been directly involved in the European arena. He had observed the front lines, sailed through mine-infested waters on some forty voyages, was subjected to body searches by hostile military officers, witnessed zeppelin raids and aerial bombardment. He had fought political battles at the highest levels on all fronts. With the U.S. entry into the war, Hoover was under consideration for several possible roles. Ultimately, he was tapped by Wilson for the position of U.S. food administrator. In that capacity he was able to continue oversight of the relief in Belgium from his Washington office. The Food Administration permitted him to expand on his recent experiences in creative ways within the United States. Then at the end of the war he used this base to build the American Relief Administration, eventually providing for Soviet relief in 1921.
    From all accounts, Hoover thrived on the challenges posed to the CRB and welcomed the openings they provided into postwar politics. The moral justification of the relief work coincided completely with his drive for public influence. His contentious personality was an asset in overcoming opposition in England, Germany, Belgium, and the United States. His basic objectives were clear to himself and the American public. From the outset, the CRB was an "absolutely new thing in History," according to Professor E. D. Adams. The ultimate dimensions became clear only with the conclusion of the war as events played themselves out. In a very real sense the CRB fundamentally changed American assumptions about its role in the world and its obligations to Europe.