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Introduction by Michael Gibson
Years before my father, Hugh Gibson, accompanied Herbert Hoover on his food mission around the world in 1946 and 1947, he worked by his side in Belgium during World War I, forming a lifelong admiration for “The Chief” and his humanitarian endeavours.
My father, a career diplomat who had been appointed secretary to the American legation in Belgium, reached Brussels in March 1914. Five months later, on August 20, the German army marched into the city, cut off communications with the outside world, and set up a blockade.
A month and a half later, famine threatened. On October 14, accompanied by two prominent Belgian bankers (Baron Lambert-Rothschild and Emile Francqui), my father set out once again for London—he had already discussed the food situation in Belgium on an earlier visit at the end of September—to meet with U.S. ambassador Walter Hines Page and Herbert Hoover—at age forty, a wealthy and world-famous engineer. Hoover was well aware that if he listened to their pleas for help he would have to give up his worldwide professional activities and devote himself to saving the Belgian population from starvation.
Indeed, Hoover had already made a thorough study of the subject. “I was astonished, Gibson later wrote, to see how clearly he grasped all the essentials of the situation. He sat still while the rest of us talked but his few remarks were very much to the point, particularly when, in answer to a question, he said very quietly ‘Yes, I’ll take over the work. I have about finished what I have in hand. Now we can take up this’.” Hoover then proceeded to set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a neutral organization, independent from any state, and recognized by all sides, that functioned like a sovereign state, negotiating on an equal footing with all the belligerent powers.
The logistics of the undertaking were mind-boggling. Money was collected, food was found, shipping was organized, distribution by American volunteers was set up in Belgium and northern France, and every precaution was taken to ensure that the food reached those for whom it was destined and that no hint of partisan preference was at any time displayed.
Gibson was filled with admiration for Hoover from the outset. As he noted in his Journal from Our Legation in Belgium (published in 1917): “There is something splendid in the way Hoover and his associates have abandoned their own affairs and all thoughts of themselves in order to turn their entire attention to feeding the Belgians. They have absolutely cut loose from their business, and are to give their whole time to the work of the Committee. This is done without heroics. I should hardly have known it was done, but for the fact that Hoover remarked in a matter of fact way: ‘Of course everybody will have to be prepared to let business go and give their whole time’.” Half a year later, Gibson informed Lucy James (former wife of Undersecretary of State Huntington Wilson) that “the work of feeding the civil population has finally been organized on a really wonderful basis & runs like a well regulated grocery business on a large scale. The crowd of American volunteers who came in to do the hard work have wrought marvels & we have reason to be proud of them.”
Gibson worked closely with Hoover until Gibson left Brussels in 1916 for another post. But he always kept in touch with “the Chief,” particularly while minister plenipotentiary to Poland (from 1919 to 1924) when Hoover was coordinating the American Relief Administration’s (ARA’s) reconstruction efforts in Poland and more than twenty other countries in devastated Europe and the Near East, saving millions from starvation. Hoover then expanded ARA operations to Soviet Russia, bringing life-saving food and medicine to millions of people from 1921 to 1923.
In 1942, during World War II, Herbert Hoover and Hugh Gibson collaborated in writing the book The Problems of Lasting Peace. It was widely praised as a thoughtful contribution to preparations for postwar peacemaking—an urgent matter, lest the United States repeat the errors that had contributed to the flawed Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Their book was adopted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and became a best-seller.
After the war, in 1946, President Harry Truman was handed a horrifying report. Not only had the exactions of war brought on a worldwide decline of agriculture, but disastrous droughts had hit China, India, the Mediterranean countries, France, Italy, and North Africa; further droughts, although less severe, had hit South Africa and Argentina. There was a food deficit of eleven million tons—more than half of what was needed to carry the world through to the next harvest. As a result, more than 800 million people (about one-third of the world’s population) were threatened with famine. Knowing of Hoover’s expertise, Truman called him out of retirement to lead the U.S. Presidential Famine Emergency Committee, often referred to simply as the Food Mission.
Hoover got busy assembling his team. Ten days later they had studied all available reports and statistics and sent out telegrams to the embassy of each country they planned to visit, indicating the materiel they required. Child welfare was their greatest concern, with twenty to thirty million malnourished children in Europe alone and child mortality at 250 per 1,000. On March 17, 1946, with my father as his right-hand man, Hoover boarded the twin-engine Douglas C-54 that was to carry them on their mission. Because of the moaning of the plane’s flaps on landing, the craft was soon dubbed “the Faithful Cow.”
For two months that plane carried them eastward around the world, with stops in Paris, Rome, Geneva, Prague, Warsaw, Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, London, Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, Belgrade, Athens, Cairo, Baghdad, Karachi, New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Bangkok, Manila, Shanghai, Nanking, Seoul, Tokyo, Midway, Honolulu, San Francisco, Washington, and back to New York on May 12.
A second trip, from May 25 to June 19, took them to South America: Mexico, Panama City, Bogotá, Quito, Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio, Belém de Pará, Caracas, and Havana. In June 1947, a third mission, which lasted three weeks, took them back to Europe (by way of Bermuda and the Azores) to study the economic situation of the defeated countries of Germany, Austria, and Italy.
The mission never stopped anywhere for more than two days. The pilot of the Faithful Cow, Captain Westmoreland, defined the pace: “This stop won’t last long—did it?” The pace must have been grueling for all concerned, but it didn’t seem to weary the seventy-two-year-old Hoover.
Owing to the technical expertise acquired through thirty years of experience, Hoover and his team once more proved extraordinarily effective in identifying surpluses, evaluating needs, and quickly moving food from one region to another. Thanks to their efforts, the famine, which had been threatening close to a billion people in the spring of 1946, was averted. Few people are aware of this today because, although history books offer an exhaustive record of obliterated cities and people murdered by the millions in the criminal wars of insane conquerors, the disasters that failed to happen are never properly considered—and those who took the timely decisions that averted a great misfortune are not often acknowledged or remembered.
My father brought his portable typewriter with him and, at each stop, wrote memoranda summarizing his and Hoover’s conversations with various statesmen. He also found time to assemble a “short snorter”: a practice established by air force pilots flying from country to country during the war whereby they would have a local banknote signed by whichever local happened to be at hand, do the same thing at the next stop, and assemble the notes with Scotch tape until they formed a strip, sometimes of considerable length. By the end of the mission’s three successive journeys, my father’s neatly rolled short snorter contained sixty-seven banknotes at a length of more than thirty feet.
Throughout the trip, faithful to a lifelong habit, my father kept a daily record of events. The result is a dizzying cross-section of the world just one year after the war ended. It is this text that has now been put on line.
Hugh Gibson’s diaries are covered by the copyright law of the United States.
Please refer all requests to publish excerpts or quotations to the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 94305-6010, or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Such requests will be forwarded to the family, who owns the rights to the diaries.
Please browse the guide to the Hugh Gibson papers at the Hoover Archives.
Please browse the:
Guide to the Hoover (Herbert ) subject collection (see in particular boxes 141 and 154)
See also Herbert Hoover, An American Epic (volume IV), and Addresses upon the American Road, 1945–1948 (both available in the Hoover Library and Archives reading rooms).