Herbert C. Hoover, Belgian relief, humanitarian, starvation fighter 

Herbert Hoover, the president best known for breadlines, unemployment and hungry times, actually fed and saved from starvation more people than anyone, anywhere, in the history of the world. about Herbert Hoover | Hoover in Oregon | The Cookie | about me | back to finnjohn.com

About Herbert C. Hoover:

No one has saved as many lives.

On the Internet, there are several Web sites that will tell you who holds the current world record for killing. Topping the list are an Austrian, a Russian and a Chinese man. Their feats of barbarism and cruelty are legendary and so well known that it’s not even necessary to mention their names; everyone knows exactly who they are.

But if you go looking for the opposite – for the world record in life-saving – your Google search will go begging. Other than a few peoples' forum postings, the information just isn’t out there.

Unless your search brings you to my Web site. At which you’ll learn that the current world record holder in the lifesaving category was personally responsible for stopping more people from starving to death than all three of the killers mentioned above – combined.

He was an American. And the delicious paradox is, he was likely the most reviled American of the 20th Century, the subject of widespread popular hatred for decades. Even today, 45 years after his death, his name conjures up images not of relief from hunger, but of vulnerability to it. His name is in the dictionary as part of a word for a collection of cardboard shacks inhabited by desperate, homeless people.

He’s also remembered today as the 31st president of the United States: Herbert C. Hoover.

(As a side note, there are those who feel Norman Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution," saved more people. This may be true; it's hard to count lives saved, while a life lost leaves a corpse behind as a marker. Oddly enough, Hoover and Borlaug were both from the state of Iowa.)

Misremembered as a crusty plutocrat

Herbert Clark Hoover is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, in several unfortunate ways. Some remember him as a stuffy right-winger caught stubbornly preaching laissez-faire at a moment in history that called for a more nuanced approach. Others recall him as a martyr, a victim of politics, thrown under the bus by the Franklin D. Roosevelt campaign just as his response to the Depression was starting to bear fruit. And there are grains of truth -- as well as boulders of falsehood -- in both these accounts.

Portraits of him from his Presidential years show a severe-looking, jowly man to whom the years have not been kind, thick neck bulging out of an old-fashioned collar.

But if you were a voter in 1928, you'd be remembering a far different man.

From 'most admired' to 'most reviled' in 4 years

An American in 1928 would remember Herbert Hoover as a focused, can-do businessman who had saved half of Europe, including many blood relatives of new Americans recently immigrated from the Old Country, from a miserable death by starvation during and after World War I. You'd remember a man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the worldwide goodwill the U.S. enjoyed.

You'd know him as the paragon of efficiency who'd created, in a few weeks and under great pressure, some of the biggest and most effective organizations the world had ever seen: the American Relief Agency, the U.S. Food Administration, the Commission for Relief in Belgium. And you'd remember, a few years earlier, how he rose to the challenge of a flood in the Mississippi Delta that rivaled the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in our own time.

Democrat or Republican, you would probably agree that Hoover was one of the greatest Americans who had ever lived. And you would also probably believe -- as young Franklin D. Roosevelt famously did, in 1920 -- that he'd make a great president.

Most historians today agree that in fact, he did not. The kindest among them generally concede that he was the wrong sort of president for that particular historical moment.

In the shadow of 1930s politics

Today, Hoover's reputation for all these things still lies in the shadow of his failure as president. My view is that enough time has gone by that we should be able to look at the man in a more fair light. The fact is, he is the only American I know of for whom being president was not his crowning achievement. Hoover served his country, humanity and his own conscience far better than any president ever could or did, when the world was dealing with the food crisis of World War I.

NO, I am NOT a Republican.

I'm not a Democrat either. And I couldn't care less about the New Deal one way or the other. This has to be addressed because today, Herbert Hoover is remembered more for the politics he came to represent in his later years than for the accomplishments he chalked up earlier in his life, back when no one actually knew what political party he belonged to. It is exactly this problem that I'm trying to do my bit to correct. This is why I am strictly apolitical about Hoover and his legacy. I'm interested in the man, not some stupid ideology forged like a sword in Vulcan's furnace for purposes of smiting enemies rather than finding truth. Partisans and political activists can keep their swords. I'm a plowshares kind of guy.

IMAGE SOURCES: Illustration used in page header is from a thank-you letter from a Belgian child. It's from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. The picket fence used in the footer is in front of the Hoover-Minthorn House in Newburg, Ore.
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