11. The Ordeal of Belgium

Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1915. Men unloading relief flour from a ship's hold.
Trapped between German bayonets and British blockades in the fall of 1914, Belgium faced imminent starvation. The resourceful Hoover was asked to oversee an unprecedented relief effort. After talking it over with Lou, Hoover suspended his engineering career by declaring, "Let the fortune go to hell." He refused a salary or expenses, only demanding a free hand to administer what became known as the Commission for the Relief of Belgium.

The CRB became, in effect, an independent "republic of relief" with its own flag, navy, factories, mills and railroads. A monthly budget of $12 million was supplied by government grants, voluntary donations, and personal pledges from Herbert Hoover. Crossing the North Sea forty times, he persuaded both England and Germany to allow food to reach nearly 11 million war victims, saving them from starvation.

In Britain, Hoover was investigated as a German spy. In America, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wanted to prosecute Hoover for dealing with the enemy, but was prevented from doing so by Theodore Roosevelt. Hoover persevered to purchase Burmese rice, Argentine corn, Chinese beans and American wheat, meat and fats. He became an international hero and in the words of Ambassador Page, "a simple, modest, energetic little man who began his career in California and will end it in heaven."