January 11, 1919 – First Meeting of the Supreme Council of Supply and Relief, or “Vengeance is Mine!”

On Armistice Day marking the end of World War I in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson had gone before Congress and announced the need to get food to the starving Germans and Belgians. He spoke of “disinterested justice” and “humane temper.” To this end, he dispatched Herbert Hoover to Europe to oversee the operations. (The future President Hoover was then a wealthy mining engineer and consultant with a knack for management. He had made a worldwide reputation heading the effort to feed captive Belgium during the War itself.) But Hoover ran into a number of roadblocks.

Thomas Fleming, in his fascinating history, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, reports that the Europeans were not really over their anger towards the Germans. Winston Churchill, for example, favored letting the Belgians starve and blaming the Germans. The British government was opposed to lifting their blockade of European harbors “until the Germans learn a few things.” In London’s newspapers, stories about German hunger were headed ‘Feeding the Beast’ and ‘Germany Whines.’”

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Hoover’s own research revealed that Germany was a nation on the brink of mass starvation. He arranged for large shipments of food to set out from America, in spite of the Allied blockaid of Europe that had actually been extended on the day the armistice was signed! But he got a “coldly negative” reaction from the Allies: “With almost incredible meanness, they accused Hoover of shipping food from the United States because American cold-storage warehouses were overcrowded with a surplus of pork and dairy products.” The Allies also “announced plans to ‘investigate’ how much food Germany needed – and how much reparations it could pay, a chilling linkage.”

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover

When Hoover lamented to Clemenceau of France that “The wolf is at the door of the world!” Clemenceau’s reply was “There are twenty million Germans too many.”

Eventually, the Allies dropped their objection to shipping food to neutral nations, but forbade any sale of forthcoming American food to Germany from them. Hoover shipped the food anyway, stored it, and worried.

American food relief in Belgium after WWI

American food relief in Belgium after WWI

Fleming recounts what happened next:

“After more wrangling, Hoover became head of a compromise organization, the Supreme Council of Supply and Relief, with representatives from all the Allied governments. At their first meeting on January 11, 1919, the delegates informed Hoover that not a pat of butter or a peck of wheat would go to Germany until it surrendered its merchant fleet. They claimed this was necessary to alleviate a world shipping shortage, caused by the depredations of the U-boats. In fact, there was no shortage. By this time, shipbuilding efforts by the British and Americans had replaced 90 percent of the tonnage the U-boats had sent to Davy Jones’s locker. What the Allies wanted was the German merchant fleet, which had been omitted from the armistice accords.”

. . . For the next two months, this impasse continued, while tens of thousands of men, women and children succumbed to malnutrition and starvation in Germany and Austria. … This was a long way from the ‘humane peace’ that Woodrow Wilson had promised Congress he would deliver in his mission to Europe.”

This book will also help you understand why the “peace” of 1918 was no peace at all.

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