Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Before serving as our 31st president (from 1929-1933), Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964) led the Commission for Relief in Belgium, served as the director of the U.S. Food Administration, and served as the third U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

When the United States entered World War I, President Wilson appointed Hoover, who became known as the country’s “food czar,” to lead the Food Administration. After the war, Hoover led the European Relief Council, which was charged with restoring Europe’s civilian economy and feeding the starving multitudes of Europe. Known as “the Great Humanitarian,” he is credited with saving literally millions of lives, including countless thousands in Jewish communities across Europe.

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Hoover’s role administering European food relief brought him in contact with Europe’s Jews and sensitized him to their suffering from both severe economic distress and harsh anti-Semitic persecution. Moreover, a common interest in humanitarian work cemented friendships and political partnerships between Hoover and leading members of the Jewish community, particularly Bernard Baruch.

After Poland’s declaration of statehood in 1918, the Polish army began a campaign of terror against Polish Jews, including the April 5, 1919 summary execution of 37 Jewish residents of Pinsk by a Polish firing squad. Polish leader (and later first prime minister) Ignacy Jan Paderewski persisted in his claim that no Polish pogrom against Jews had ever been perpetrated, until Hoover secured his cooperation with blunt threats to withhold much-needed American support.

Hoover’s food aid to Poland was at the root of the Pinsk Massacre because the murdered Jews were reportedly meeting to discuss how to distribute Hoover’s aid when they were rounded up and shot. According to Lewis Strauss – whom Hoover put in charge of ensuring the equitable treatment of minority groups in the distribution of American aid (more on him below) – Hoover was “the only U.S. Government official to effectively press Poland and its prime minister to act against the pogromists.”

Among other relief activities, Hoover organized children’s milk shipments to Lvov, an effort funded in part by the American Joint Distribution Committee which, with Hoover’s help, was able to evade Polish government restrictions on Jewish organizations providing aid to Polish Jews. Hoover received many thousands of grateful notes from Jews across the world, including many from children and a formal expression of appreciation issued by the American Jewish Congress during its 1919 convention.

In this historic December 22, 1920 correspondence on his European Relief Council letterhead, Hoover writes to Baruch about his despair regarding the monumental task of providing food to the legions of the destitute in post-war Europe, particularly given the worsening economic situation in the United States:

I am indeed greatly obliged for your letter of the seventeenth and your check for 5,000.

I feel a great deal despaired of succeeding in this task, because the economic situation in the country is of course driving all of those who generally support these measures to greatly curtail their gifts. When you return to town I hope to have the privilege of taking up with you the whole question as to an extended use of your wide influence to command greater resources for us.

Baruch (1870-1965) was an American financier, stock investor, philanthropist, statesman, and political consultant who, though he never ran for public office, was one of the most influential Americans of his time – note Hoover’s reference in our letter to his “wide influence.”

Baruch was often referred to as “America’s elder statesman” because, after his great success in business, he became a trusted advisor to seven American presidents on economic and other matters. During World War I, he served as chairman of the War Industries Board with the vast power to mobilize the American wartime economy.

During Hoover’s 1928 campaign for the presidency, his Jewish supporters, having never forgotten his extraordinary support for their European co-religionists, distributed a Yiddish/English booklet which characterized him as “the modern Moses of war-stricken Europe who led Israel out of the slavery of starvation and despair.”

However, most American Jews then – as now – were Democrats with short memories, and Hoover sadly received only 28 percent of the Jewish vote. Most American Jews saw Republicans as racists and reactionaries – recall renowned reactionary Archie Bunker singing: “Mister, we can use a man like Herbert Hoover again.”

Hoover faced his first domestic policy crisis shortly after taking office when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression became the defining issue of his presidency. He faced the first foreign policy crisis of his presidency in August 1929 when Arab terrorists murdered over 100 Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron, including 12 Americans. The Arab atrocities outraged American public opinion to the point that a number of congressmen urged the president to dispatch a warship to Eretz Yisrael post haste.

While essentially maintaining a neutral stance on the issue to preserve good relations with Great Britain, Hoover nonetheless issued an August 29, 1929 message to the Jewish Organizations Meeting in Madison Square Garden to Protest the Events in Palestine in which he expressed “profound sympathy” for victims of the Arab riots; called for Americans to support the living victims of the attacks; and urged the British government to take “vigorous action” to restore “a large measure of protection.”

Perhaps most significantly, he underscored his support for a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael by expressing confidence that “out of these tragic events will come greater security and greater safeguards for the future, under which the steady rehabilitation of the Palestine as a true homeland will be even more assured.”

Though the Quaker-born Hoover had cultivated relations with the non-Zionist, highly assimilated, and largely German-Jewish leadership of American Jewry, he had always manifested the soul of a proud Zionist. He actively pushed for the adoption of the Lodge-Fish Resolution (1922), signed by President Harding, pursuant to which the Balfour Declaration became official American policy.

In a November 1932 letter to the Zionist Organization of America on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he wrote, citing the unanimous approval of both Houses of Congress by the adoption of the Lodge-Fish resolution, “I wish to express the hope that the ideal of the establishment of the National Jewish Home in Palestine, as embodied in that Declaration, will continue to prosper for the good of all the people inhabiting the Holy Land.”

In this original newspaper photo, former President Herbert Hoover (right) is greeted by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise as he arrives at Madison Garden on December 13, 1939 to speak at the mass meeting at which 22,000 Jews and Christians gathered to condemn all forms of totalitarianism, Nazi, Fascist, or Communist.

Hoover sent a January 11, 1932 message to the American Palestine Committee advocating for “the realization of the age-old aspirations of the Jewish people for the restoration of their national homeland” and he played a leading role in convincing the Republican Party to include a plank in its 1944 platform supporting Jewish statehood, a first for any political party.

As a private citizen, Hoover became an even more powerful advocate for the Zionist cause. He addressed the Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe in July 1943, concluding that the Jews should be moved to Eretz Yisrael. During a subsequent meeting with ZOA leader Judge Louis Levinthal, he explained that “Palestine cannot become a Jewish Commonwealth until the Arabs are [forcibly] evacuated to other countries in the Near East.”

In a dramatic move to publicize his solution to “the Palestine problem,” the ex-president published an article in the November 19, 1945 New York World-Telegram presenting what came to be known as “The Hoover Plan.” Under the headings “Hoover Urges Resettling Arabs to Solve Palestinian Problem” and “Believes Migration Would End Conflict over Jewish Refuge,” Hoover proposed that the Arabs be resettled in Iraq, which would “clear Palestine completely for a large Jewish emigration and colonization.”

Hoover argued that Iraq would obtain what it needed most: millions of dollars in financing for, among other things, damming and irrigation projects and the growth of its agricultural workforce to toil its vast lands. The Palestinians, who excelled in farming and construction, would gain fertile land to toil in exchange for the dust fields of Palestine, and they would be comfortable among their own race, the “Arab-speaking Mohammedans.” The Jewish survivors of war-torn Europe would finally gain their homeland. Win-win-win.

Hoover maintained that at a time when millions of people were physically transferred to other lands, many dying in the process or having their lands confiscated, the transfer of the Arabs from Eretz Yisrael “could be made the model migration of history, a solution by engineering (Hoover was a trained engineer) instead of by conflict” and constitute “a method of settlement with both honor and wisdom.” The necessary financing for the plan would come from a variety of sources, and Hoover attempted to interest self-made millionaire Bernard Baruch in the project.

The Jewish press in New York gave the Hoover Plan broad coverage and support, noting the significance of it being advanced by a non-Jew of Hoover’s prominence, and most – but by no means all (several Zionist leaders insisted that the transfer would have to be voluntary) – American Jewish organizations endorsed it.

Not surprisingly, however, the reaction from the Arab world was vociferous and hostile; the Iraqi press characterized Hoover’s “devilish American plan” as “fiendish” and his statement as “hateful” and urged a boycott of American goods. The Iraqi government sent a telegram announcing that the Arabs would never agree to the creation of a Zionist state.

One of Hoover’s final presidential acts was to instruct the American ambassador to Germany to put as much pressure as possible on the Nazi regime to stop the persecution of German Jewry. He was not shy about publicly challenging Franklin Roosevelt’s misguided immigration policies and, as a respected ex-president and humanitarian, he drew considerable attention to the cause.

He collaborated with Jewish activists to publicize Hitler’s mass murder and, in particular, he provided broad support to the Revisionist Zionists, particularly the Bergson Group. He served as honorary chairman of Bergson’s July 1943 Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe and served on the Sponsoring Committee of Bergson’s famous protest pageant, “We Will Never Die.”

In a move contrary to his own political interests – he hoped to win the 1940 Republican presidential nomination, and most Republicans were anti-immigration – Hoover fought hard for increasing American immigration quotas for Jewish refugees. This included a public endorsement of the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted an additional 20,000 refugee children beyond the existing quotas – which would have included Anne Frank – but Roosevelt infamously didn’t back the bill and the doors of immigration remained shut.

Although no Jews served in Hoover’s cabinet, some of his most important friends, consultants and confidents were Jewish, chief among them Lewis Strauss (1896-1974), a self-identified Jew committed to American Jewish life and welfare who actively fought against the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.

At the beginning of the atomic age, few men played a more pivotal role in shaping U.S. nuclear policy than Strauss, a champion of the hydrogen bomb, a strong believer in maintaining a large nuclear stockpile, and the Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission (1953-1958).

Strauss may have been hyper-competent, but he was also autocratic and arrogant, which did not particularly endear him to the denizens of Capitol Hill. After two months of exhausting hearings in 1959, the Senate rejected his nomination to serve as Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce in what was a publicly humiliating ordeal. In this July 2, 1959 handwritten draft correspondence, Hoover seeks to console his close friend and expresses deep admiration for him:

You have no right to be chagrined nor to apologize to anybody. You have been the best, the most able and the most patriotic public servant in my recollection.

These people who in reality failed in their lynching performance. For you have a bright future ahead.

They on the other hand have an incurable cancer in their moral character and in their future political life.

I am looking forward to seeing you and […] many times as always.

In the handwritten note exhibited here, Strauss explains the origins of this correspondence:

Hoover’s consolation letter to Levi Strauss regarding his rejection as Secretary of Commerce.

I had written to the Chief when I resigned as secretary of commerce. It was, I believe, my last letter from that office. He replied with a long hand letter of which this draft was found among his papers after his death in 1964 by his son Allan.

L.L.S.

Hoover would frequently consult with Strauss on Jewish political and community issues. Other close Jewish friends included Baruch, as discussed above; Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company who became the largest American contributor to European Jewish war relief (donating some $100 million); and Louis Marshall, a distinguished constitutional lawyer who served as president of the American Jewish Committee. Strauss declined offers of several high positions in the Hoover administration and Rosenwald declined an appointment as Secretary of Commerce due to illness.

Finally, Hoover became the second president to nominate a Jew to the United States Supreme Court when he selected the almost universally beloved Benjamin Cardozo – a Democrat! – as the first Hispanic to serve on the High Court. (No, the first Hispanic was not Sonia Sotomayor; another article for another day.)

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.