New York Times Headline

Hoover the ‘humanitarian’ re-branded himself in the first weeks of the Great War as the saviour of the many thousands of Americans stranded on the wrong side of the Atlantic by the unexpected outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914. Most were tourists, school teachers with students, businessmen and the like. Four different support groups had been organised promptly to help distressed Americans get home safely, but Hoover was not initially involved with any one of them. The first American Citizens Committee was led by Fred I Kent, vice-president of the Banker’s Trust Co. [1] and the diplomat, Oscar Straus. Its Headquarters were sited in London’s Savoy Hotel.[2] At the American embassy, the recently appointed U. S. Consul, Robert Skinner, could barely cope with enquires and angry demands for instant repatriation in the early chaos of those August days. This was not what Skinner had expected when he took up the post, but he worked closely with the ambassador and embassy staff to address the pressing problem he had inherited. It was chaos.

Step forward Herbert Clark Hoover. Watch carefully how he operated. Hoover let nothing stand in his way to gain control of a situation from which he could make money. He manipulated officials, lied about his circumstances, invented credentials, leaned heavily on government contacts in America and Britain and emerged triumphant. This was how Hoover did business.

USS Tennessee sent to Britain with £2,500,00 of gold to assist stranded Americans in august 1914Fred Kent and his American Citizens Committee had prompted the U.S. Ambassador, Walter Page to seek funds from Washington to enable their stranded citizens to return quickly to the United States. Congress instantly approved an advance of $2,500,000 in gold on 5 August and sent it across the Atlantic on the USS Tennessee that same day. [3] Hoover smelled an opportunity and pushed his way to the fore. He claimed that Robert Skinner telephoned him in person and asked for his help. Skinner’s version was that Hoover appeared out of the blue and offered his assistance.

Hoover next telephoned an associate in America, Lindon W Bates, and asked him to approach the Wilson administration in Washington to appoint him as a special commissioner to handle the return of stranded Americans. [4] He convened a meeting of fellow mining engineers and trusted associates and had himself appointed chairman of a ‘Committee of American Residents in London for Assistance of American Travellers.’ He called Bates again on 6 August to announce that he had ‘today been elected President of a Relief Committee established in London by American residents to look after the 40,000 stranded Americans.’ [5] He did not mention that it was his own, self-styled, unauthorised committee.

Hoover meant business. Within 24 hours he had stationary printed with the new committee’s logo on the masthead. Like the proverbial cuckoo he moved in on Kent and the original American Citizen’s Committee and pushed them out of the nest, claiming with his customary disregard for fact that his rescue group was organised under  the ‘official auspices’ of  US Ambassador Walter Page whom, he alleged, had agreed to be honorary chairman. [6] The Ambassador had not been consulted. Indeed on 9 August, Ambassador Page pointedly did not invite Hoover to join a committee empowered to distribute $300,000 in advance of the arrival of the USS Tennessee. Instead, he appointed Fred Kent. Relationships deteriorated. When the Congressional money arrived in London on 16th August in the care of the US Under-Secretary of War, Henry Breckinridge, Hoover magnanimously proposed that they join forces, but was rebuffed in no uncertain manner both by the Under-Secretary and the Ambassador. [7]. Why would they have surrendered a huge sum of public money to the care of an unknown American mining engineer resident in London?

Walter Page, U.S. Ambassador at LondonDespite the clear antipathy expressed by both the American Ambassador and the Under-Secretary for War, a seismic change in their opinion occurred, literally, overnight. It was as if there had been divine intervention. The situation was completely turned on its head.  By the evening of 17 August, Hoover and his Resident’s Committee had been formally invited by the Ambassador to take over and manage the entire distribution of the funds. Why? How? Neither Page nor Breckinridge knew or had  worked with Hoover, so who instructed them that he should be entrusted not just with the money, but in his own words, ‘take over the entire distribution’? [8] Given that Kent had impeccable credentials in the United States as a high-profile banker from the J P Morgan stables and Straus was a government-favoured diplomat, what more could Herbert Hoover have to offer? He too was associated with the Morgan empire in New York, but Hoover’s connections traversed the Atlantic. He alone had Secret Elite backing from British politicians and business. That was the difference.

Hoover’s victory was absolute. He was given undivided management of the  congressional funds.  Page also authorised Hoover to use the money to reimburse any costs which had already been incurred by the Resident’s Committee. A ‘most opportune’ subsidy, as he later described it. [9]  This was not a change of heart; radical surgery had been involved.

In a private letter to President Wilson dated 23 August 1914, the Ambassador reported that ‘the organization and measures for helping our stranded people were energetic and right…’ thanks to the ‘Americans of ability who conducted the American Relief Committee.’ [10]  Did he mean Hoover? What pressures were exerted on Page and Breckinridge to bring about such a complete turn around? Who, within the darker recesses of Washington politics, could have authorised a decision so much at variance with the initial instincts of both the Ambassador and the Under-Secretary for War? This is a very important question, and one which will be asked over and again. Who was behind Herbert Hoover? Unquestionably Hoover had many friends in, and associated with, the Wilson Administration in Washington and, as we have shown, in London too.

Cleveland H Dodge, known as President Wilson's banker. He paid Ambassador Page an annual income to help his expenses in London.

When President Wilson approached Walter Page in 1912 with a view to his appointment as Ambassador to Great Britain, Page was reluctant to accept the position because he did not think that he could support himself in the necessary style, give lavish dinners and mix with the wealthy upper-class society of London. [11] Wilson arranged for his personal banker, Cleveland H Dodge of the National City Bank of New York to add $25,000 per annum to Page’s account [12] to sweeten the burden of office. Cleveland Dodge was the financial powerhouse behind Woodrow Wilson. [13]

Thus Britain was gifted an American Ambassador financed by a major stock-holder of the National City Bank,  who also happened to be one of America’s munitions magnates  [14] and financial collaborator with J P Morgan. Hoover’s connections in Washington linked him to President Wilson’s right-hand-man, Colonel Edward Mandell House and the Morgan banking empire. Strangely, while House’s semi-autobiography, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House, contains no reference to Herbert Hoover, a volume of correspondence about Hoover and his work in Belgium, sent between House and the President, can be found in Woodrow Wilson’s private papers. [15] What was House determined to hide? Why did he want to wipe out any reference to his links with Herbert Hoover?

Hoover allegedly ‘forsook his private pursuits’ and entered the ‘slippery road of public life’ [16] for the greater good of humanity. Events as they unfolded proved just how great a lie that was. He did not forsake his private pursuits.  In fact in order to take advantage of the excessive profits offered by the war, Hoover defied the international embargoes and Acts of Parliament by which the British government forbade trading with the enemy and bought cyanide from Germany for use in his mines in October 1914. At precisely the same time as he was thrusting himself forward at the Foreign Office as the one man who could save the starving in Belgium, he purchased a valuable shipment of the chemical from Germany through a Swiss agent. His cargo was shipped down the Rhine to Rotterdam and paid for by the Swiss agent so that the cash transfer could not be traced back to him. Since both Holland and America were neutral countries, the transaction was untouchable. Once his cyanide was safely in Rotterdam it could be forwarded to almost any port in the world that he chose. Hoover understood well how business found ways around legal barriers, tax liability and contractual obligations. He instructed his agent to use the word ‘stock’ rather than ‘cyanide’ when he cabled London to deceive the British censor. [17] His business ‘ethics’ did not include loyalty. If the Germans could supply a product at a lower cost, he bought from Germans; war or no war. The Secret Elite understood.

Herbert Hoover, ever an opportunist

Indeed, contrary to the impression that he abandoned his predatory capitalist instincts in favour of charitable humanitarianism, Hoover continued to promote his own business interests from 1 London Wall Buildings. His Russian investments (sold at profit quite miraculously before the Revolution of 1917) still earned him a sound return as did his holdings at Lake View and Oroya in Australia. [18] His Zinc Corporation, which he formed while in partnership with Bewick, Moreing & Co (of Kaiping infamy), flourished. [19] Though he did not attend the 1914 Annual General Meeting of the Burma Corporation in person due to his ‘duties connected with his position as President of the American Belgian Relief commission’, his brother, Theodore, attended as a  Board member. [20] Hoover wrote the Chairman’s Report. It promised great wealth to investors, claimed that the company owned one of the ten most important mining discoveries since the turn of the century, and promised that the Burma Corporation would have ‘an important bearing on the future course of the world’s production of lead, zinc and silver’. With costs of extraction at £3 per ton and selling price a variable between £11- £18 per ton, expectations were high. [21] His prediction was no idle boast. Share prices later rose tenfold between August and December 1915. [22] Of course, war was raging across the globe and both sides paid high prices for the ores from which to manufacture death.

Herbert Hoover was no humanitarian.

[1] Fred I Kent Papers (1901-1954). http://findingaids.princeton.edu/collections/MC077
[2] George H Nash, The life of Herbert Hoover, The Humanitarian, 1914-1917, p. 4.
[3] Chicago Tribune, 6 Aug 1964, at http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1964/08/06/page/123/article/widow-recalls-husbands-voyage-on-gold-ship-u-s-s-tennessee
[4] George H Nash, Herbert Hoover, The Humanitarian, 1914-1917, p.7.
[5] CRB Miscellaneous files, H1. Nash, op. cit., reference 22 page 386.
[6] New York Times, 8 August 1914, p. 3.
[7] Nash, Herbert Hoover, The Humanitarian, p. 10.
[8] Ibid., p. 10.
[9] Hoover to Page, 23 September, 1914. Reference 52, as cited in Nash, Herbert Hoover, p. 387.
[10] Burton J Hendrick, The Life and Letters of Walter H Page, vol. 3, p.136.
[11] Ferdinand Lundberg, America’s 60 Families, p. 142.
[12] Ray Stannard Baker, (Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and confidante of Woodrow Wilson),  The Life and Letters of Woodrow Wilson, VI, pp. 33-4.
[13] Antony Sutton, The Federal Reserve Conspiracy, p. 78.
[14] Lundberg, America’s 60 Families, p. 142-3.
[15] The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol, 32. Princeton NJ, as quoted in Nash, Herbert Hoover, The Humanitarian, p. 96.
[16] Nash, Herbert Hoover The Humanitarian, 1914-1917, preface, p. x.
[17] Ibid., p. 16.
[18] John Hamill, The Strange Career of Mr Hoover Under Two flags, p. 318.
[19] The Mining Magazine, July 1916, p. 9.
[20] Elena S Danielson, Historical Note on the Commission for Relief in Belgium, , in United States in the First World: An Encyclopaedia, edited by Anne Cipriano Venzon http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf6z09n8fc/entire_text/
[21] The Times, 23 December, 1914, p. 14.
[22] The Mining Magazine, July 1916, pp. 42, 103, 168,  232.