Democratic President Harry Truman turned to Republican Herbert Hoover because of his unparalleled credentials. Hoover, the only former president living at the time (a title he held for 20 years), left office unpopular. But he also earned the nickname “The Great Humanitarian” for leading the Relief Commission in Belgium to feed 10 million people during World War I.
At first, the United States sent food through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. But this effort was insufficient. So, Truman chose Hoover in 1946 to lead the new Emergency Famine Committee, a partnership between government and business leaders.
Hoover first analyzed the famine in Europe, dividing the continent into priority segments and assessing the responsibility of the Soviet Union to provide for those under its control. Hoover’s earliest contributions concerned prioritizing scarce resources. Truman, the man who ordered the dropping of atomic weapons, wrote that a famine-fighting session with Hoover was “the most important meeting held in the White House since I became president.”
To assess the needs and rally the world, Hoover, 71, took to the road. He has traveled 50,000 miles in nearly 40 countries on five continents. He also met everyone from the Pope to Gandhi to Tchang Kai-shek. In Cairo, he and Truman gave a joint radio address urging their fellow citizens to fight famine. Truman called on Americans to make real sacrifices and, two days a week, to “reduce our food consumption to that of the average person in hungry countries” so that more is available for export.
But feeding the world after the war was not America’s sole responsibility. Argentina had a surplus and Hoover traveled to Buenos Aires to persuade Juan Perón, who had only been in power for two days then, to export food. The State Department objected to the non-diplomat heading into a politically tense situation, but Truman ignored those concerns. Determined to succeed, Hoover wrote that he would accept Perón’s rebuffs, and even “eat Argentine dirt,” to obtain several tons of much-needed supplies. In the end, Perón agreed to help, offering to issue a special decree that Argentina would speed up exports.
Getting a good post-war recovery was the key to peacekeeping. America exported 6 million tonnes of grain to Europe in July 1946, with more to come. Lives were saved, goodwill at the start of the Cold War was born, and organizations like the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) were born. From tragedy came triumph.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, some organizations like the World Health Organization have failed to meet the challenge. In the future, multilateral cooperation and creative institutional strengthening will be needed. The Hoover committee could serve as a model for a multi-stakeholder organization with specific, time-bound commitments to distribute vaccines.
Vaccinating the world is the most important job for leaders in 2021 and, as Hoover has shown, planning early is the key to success. After the tragic increase in deaths in India earlier this year, the United States announced it would export tens of millions of doses of the vaccine to the country. The race between vaccines and variants adds urgency to the future. Triage, like the one Hoover did when he analyzed famine across Europe to prioritize needs, is necessary to ensure an efficient distribution system.
Plus, just as Hoover insisted on feeding the world, vaccinating the world isn’t just America’s job. We are, however, in a position to lead. And we need partners, including even illiberal nations with proven, safe and effective vaccine surpluses.
Hoover’s public diplomacy engaged America’s partners and the American people. One could imagine an emissary for vaccine diplomacy meeting with religious leaders, heads of state and even celebrities to coordinate relief efforts and increase membership so that the effort has the political will to be sustained over time.
Obviously, 2021 and 1946 are different in many ways. Hoover estimated the world population to be starving at 500 million, and today the number of people to be vaccinated is in the billions. But the needs, as well as America’s ability to help, are clear in either case. And in some ways, it was even more difficult back then. The world was much less technologically sophisticated and interconnected. Hoover’s efforts were particularly undermined in places like China, where, as he wrote, “transportation to the interior and inadequate organization … made relief only partially successful.” Despite these hardships and exhausted by depression and war, the United States recognized that its leadership could make a difference. This fact remains true today.
Last year there couldn’t be any in-person celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. This year marks the 75th anniversary of what followed – the American-led effort to build a freer and more secure world – by leading one of the most urgent relief efforts since Truman brought Hoover on board. for one of the most unlikely political couples of the 20th century.