Hoover. Unless you are into vacuum cleaners, the name is synonymous with failure. This is due to the surname’s most famous namesake, Herbert Hoover. A man who was unlucky enough to be the American President when the Great Depression struck. That cataclysmic economic event ruined Hoover’s reputation, both then and now. Because he was unable to stabilize the American economy, Hoover will be forever labeled as a failure. Sadly, this is a very narrow view of the man. One that only looks at Hoover through the prism of his presidency from 1929 -1933. Many never realize that the popular image of Hoover as a failure is a false one. Herbert Hoover was a success in everything he did other than the American presidency. He was a man whose ability to organize and facilitate aid for the needy was unprecedented. Those skills saved countless lives, including in Poland.
Hoover led large scale relief efforts for those left destitute by war. Most famously, in establishing and leading the Commission for Relief in Belgium that provided lifesaving assistance to Belgians after the German invasion of the country in 1914. Just as important, but much less well known were Hoover’s efforts after the World War I ended. President Woodrow Wilson made Hoover the point man for one of the largest relief efforts in human history. Hoover was charged with leading the American Relief Administration (ARA) in Central and Eastern Europe. Nowhere was Hoover’s work appreciated greater than in Poland. A newly reconstituted nation whose citizens, especially children, would forever be indebted to Hoover for feeding and clothing them in the years after the war.
Helping Hands – A Nation In Need
Several years ago, I was walking around Warsaw’s Old Town, fascinated by its immaculate post-World War II reconstruction. There was nary a stone out of place. The buildings resonated Old World charm. It felt as though the clock had been turned back several centuries in this part of the Polish capital. Perhaps that was why I took notice of something that was much more modern, a name that evoked the new rather than old world. On a sign I saw the words, “Herberta C. Hoovera Skwer” (Herbert Hoover Square). This could mean only one thing, that Herbert Hoover was honored with a square named after him in the Polish capital. At the time, I had no idea how important Hoover’s efforts were at helping fight off starvation in Poland after World War I. And this was not the only time Hoover assisted Poland. He was one of the few Americans who visited Poland both before and after World War’s I and II. Hoover’s visits in 1913, 1919, 1938 and 1946 endeared him to Poles. Of those visits, none was more important than the one in 1919, when Hoover witnessed an outpouring of adulation, the likes of which has rarely been seen before or since for a foreigner visiting Poland.
With World War One at an end, many parts of Europe were in dire need of food and clothing. Nowhere was this problem more acute than in Eastern Europe, where low level warfare still raged and new nations struggled to keep their citizens healthy and fed. Poland had hundreds of thousands of malnourished citizens. This problem was particularly bad among children. As head of the ARA, Herbert Hoover facilitated the shipment of provisions to Poland. This also included organization and setup of 10,000 kitchens during 1919-1920. It was estimated that some two million children gained much needed nourishment as part of this program. Hoover’s organization skills and administrative acumen became the stuff legends are made of, at least in Poland. In the summer of 1919, he decided to visit the country to see firsthand the fruits of the ARA’s labors.
Ultimate Honors – The Barefoot March
Hoover arrived in Warsaw on August 14, 1919. By this time, the ARA’s efforts had resulted in half a million Poles being fed each day. Among the most grateful were children who decided to pay Hoover the ultimate respect during his visit. At a horse racing track in Warsaw, tens of thousands of barefoot children, marched past Hoover. Many of the children waved small American flags. The procession lasted from the early afternoon into the evening. This outpouring of gratitude moved Hoover to tears. It also motivated him to even greater action. After what he saw in Warsaw, Hoover ordered that 700,000 pairs of shoes and overcoats be shipped to Polish children in need. At the same time, the ARA continued to provide meals. Their work saved innumerable lives. It is estimated that the kitchens they setup may have served as much as 500 million meals. While that number was astounding, it pales in comparison ti its result. None of this would have been possible without Hoover’s efforts. The Poles could not think him enough, but they certainly tried in the years to come.
In 1922 Hoover became the first foreigner granted national citizenship by the Polish Legislative Assembly. That same year Herbert C. Hoover Square was also designated with a Monument to American Gratitude erected in the square. The sculpture did not directly reference Hoover. Instead, it was of a mother holding a child on each of her shoulders. Hoover would have approved. He came from modest circumstances, growing up in a Quaker household. His greatest satisfaction came from helping others in need, something he would do once again for Poland after Germany invaded it 20 years later. Hoover once again spearheaded a relief effort. He led the Commission for Polish Relief to assist a population ravaged by war. After the Germans declared war on the United States in December 1941, Hoover focused his efforts on helping Poles who had fled to other countries.
A Necessary Corrective – Do No Wrong
After World War II ended, Hoover came back to Warsaw for a final visit to help organize yet another relief effort. It was a fine example of Hoover’s tireless efforts to lead by action. His four historic visits in twenty-seven years were the public face of an effort that required incredible administrative skills. The upshot was that Hoover probably saved more Polish lives than any foreigner in 20th century Polish history. His work was based upon kindness and generosity. Hoover’s Polish relief efforts were a masterstroke of soft diplomacy, winning over the hearts and minds of Poles through humanitarian efforts.
In turn, the Poles helped provide a bulwark against Bolshevism, which they would beat back in the Polish-Soviet War in 1919-20. It is questionable if the Poles would have been successful without the American Relief Administration aid that was sent to them. That aid made Hoover a legendary figure in the country. It is little wonder that his name can still be seen in Warsaw today. To Poles, both then and now, Hoover could do no wrong. A necessary corrective to his historical image in America of a president who could do no right. Herbert Hoover was one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century. His work on behalf of Poland is one of the great unknown legacies of an astonishing life.
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