[This book review appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 492-3.]

 

 Book Review

The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918

By George H. Nash

W. W. Norton & Company, 1996

 

            Although this is a book that can stand alone, it is best understood as the third volume in George Nash’s on-going multi-volume biography of Herbert Hoover.  1917 and 1918 were the years that Hoover left his job as chairman of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium (which had kept nine million people nourished who were trapped by the circumstances of World War I) and became the head of the United States Food Administration to make America the breadbasket for the Allies and for the two million U.S. soldiers who embarked for France.  Thus, the volume is an account of Hoover’s service as what we might today call “the food Czar” of World War I.

            We are reminded about just why it is that World War I was the great defining event of the twentieth century, carving out the hatreds and creating the desolation that was prelude to so much that followed.  On the Western Front, there were 25,000 miles of trenches!  Five million soldiers had already died by the time the United States became involved in the spring of 1917!  By that time, Europe had 40 million men under arms.  The United States itself planned to send as many as four million more—and contemplated losing as many as one million dead, an incredible figure.  That this didn’t happen is due to the unexpectedly early end of the war.

            We see the rationale for this vast effort and sacrifice in Hoover’s own opinion that the Allies were fighting “in defense of the whole world.”  Future generations looking back on Europe’s internecine slaughter will need fully to fathom the extent of American feeling that the Germans under the Kaiser were so profound a threat to civilization.  Since events leading up to World War I provided so little basis for it, this is one of history’s great enigmas.

            Hoover’s task as Food Czar was one of constant challenge and drama.  With impending doom hanging overhead in the form of threatened starvation for millions, he had to grapple with dreadful rail and fuel shortages and with one of the harshest winters to hit the eastern United States.  Seeking a voluntary response from the American people wherever possible, Hoover instituted businesses’ “heatless Mondays” and the general public’s “meatless Tuesdays” and “wheatless Wednesdays.”  The slogan of “Hooverized meals” became popular, and the “doctrine of the clean dinner plate” took hold (suggesting the origin of this reviewer’s own mother’s ethic of “cleaning your plate” which in recent years in the United States has been seen as an odd and little-understood feature of an earlier American culture).

            The central story has to do with Hoover’s efforts to supply food, but running through the book is the additional story of the strategic issues that confronted the Allies.  France, we are told, believed that it could not hold out beyond October 1917 without U.S. aid.  For his part, Hoover believed that if the allies could be fed, the Germans could be starved out through the blockade, so that the sending of an American Expeditionary Force was not necessary, but the Allies clamored for American forces in the trenches.  Two million arrived by the end of the war.  The dilemma of how to use the limited Allied shipping to dispatch both men and food makes fascinating reading.

            At the same time, we are reminded of what a marvel the market is, marshalling investment and the flow of goods and services day in and day out, year in and year out, unheralded, to millions of people, without gluts and shortages.  When we see what a monumental effort it takes, in wartime, to marshal much the same resources through a command system, we see that production and distribution ought not to be taken for granted. 

                                                                                                                                                            Dwight D. Murphey