Few American presidents have been as thoroughly unpopular at the end of their terms as Herbert Hoover, who served from 1929-1933. Unable to stem the economic failures that began with the collapse of Wall Street in his first year in office – brought about by events and policies in existence long before his election – he is unfairly seen as the cause of the Great Depression and remembered in the early 20th century label of “hoovervilles” for homeless camps.
What we too often forget is Hoover’s tremendous success in humanitarian service. He may have saved more human lives than any other person in world history. Hoover headed efforts to feed starving Belgium in World War I and directed the American Relief Administration and led efforts to ameliorate the Russian famine of 1921. He served as a one-man FEMA following the flooding of the Mississippi in 1927, organizing funding and services from private organizations to combat malaria and typhoid in the flood zones. (I recognize, however, that the services of these and other project were far from perfect, especially in matters of racial discrimination.) Following Nazi occupation of Poland and during the term of American neutrality, which ended in December 1941, Hoover created the Commission for Polish Relief (aka “the Hoover Commission”); his similar Finnish Relief Fund aided the citizens of that country, purchasing food supplies in Scandinavia and running the Allied blockade to prevent starvation there. Some 35 million free meals were provided to Finish children in those months.
All of that took money, of course. Hoover’s genius was in recognizing a need, convincing the world to help, and creating efficient procedures for getting food where it was most critically needed.
And all of that is context for the telegram Hoover sent to Heber J. Grant early in 1940, after the Church had made a $2,500 contribution to one of his funds:
I think I realize the many problems of relief which the Mormon Church faces among its own people, and the whole country knows of and admires the effective way in which it is solving its serious problems at home. I can therefore on this occasion pay sincere tribute to the Mormon Church for its support of the Macedonian call for help from across the sea.
As in all great undertakings, this work upon which we are engaged has its discouragements. What the Mormon Church has done and is doing for this fund lifts us out of the realm of despair.
In addition to the formal donation from the Church itself, Mormons contributed to Hoover’s funds in other capacities. The Salt Lake County committee alone (of which President Grant was a member) dedicated itself to raising $25,000 for famine relief in those years.
Debates about the cause of the Depression or comparisons and contrasts to current political and economic leaders and policies are off topic for this post. Let’s talk about humanitarian efforts, and about combining our efforts with those of others.