National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 5/Bind the Wounds of France

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Bind the Wounds of France[edit]

By Herbert C. Hoover, Chairman of the Committee for Relief in Belgium

From a meeting of the American Red Cross War Council, Washington, D.C., May 24–25, 1917

I always feel an infinite embarrassment at the reception and over-estimation of the part that I may have played in what is really an institutional engine, and the credit for which belongs, not to myself, but to some fifty thousand volunteers who have worked for a period now of nearly three years.

During the whole of this period we have had as one of our duties the care of the civilian population in northern France. We are, I think, the only Americans who have been in intimate contact or even in any contact with that imprisoned population. We are the only group who know of their suffering, of their misery, of their destruction, and who know of what confronts those people even after peace.

We have always entertained the hope that possibly some other engine, some other organization, might be found that could adequately take in hand their wounds and bind up their difficulties, rehabilitate them into a position again of self-support.

That is probably the greatest problem of all the war. There is an untold destruction of property, a total displacement of population, an enormous loss of human life, a loss of animals, a loss of implements—a population of probably three millions of people totally and absolutely unable to get back onto their feet without help.

Where only the vulture could live[edit]

About the end of March the retreat of the German army over a small area opened up to the world a vision of what had really happened to the three millions. It was but a little parcel in France that was recovered, with a population of only 30,000 people.

I had visited that area from behind the lines and again visited it from the Allies' side. I found that every village, with the exception of two small areas, had been totally destroyed.

The Germans had erected battering rams, had destroyed and burned villages, had leveled everything to the ground, had gathered up all the agricultural implements in open squares and burned them, had taken all the animals, and had removed all the male portion of the population between the ages of 18 and 65 years.

Even the fruit trees have been destroyed, and that entire section, of probably 60 miles in length and over 20 or 25 miles in depth, has been devastated to such an extent that those people cannot get back onto their feet without an entire replacement of all of the engines by which production is carried on.

This is but a sample of what we have to expect from practically the entire area. The cost of rehabilitation runs into figures which should startle all except Americans, and perhaps Americans even in the larger figures in which we have begun to think.

The damage runs into billions[edit]

I made a rough estimate of the immediate amount of money required to rehabilitate that little parcel of population and to support them for one year; to provide them with their implements, to give them the roughest kind of housing, to get them back to the point where they may get the land into cultivation and get into self-support, would run somewhere from seven to ten millions of dollars.

Altogether the north of France is probably faced with a total expenditure for rehabilitation which will reach a billion and a half dollars.

There are other problems in France also demanding immediate help. Tuberculosis from exposure in the trenches, from a population in many sections partially undernourished, has spread to the most alarming degree. The French, busy and intent upon the war, with limited resources, have not neglected the problem; but they need help, they need sanitary support, and they need care and direction. I am informed that there has been an increase above normal in tubercular cases in France, in the men alone, of over 600,000.

There is still a further field in France, and that is the children. The orphans of France increase day by day. That service is one which probably touches more nearly to the heart of every American than any other we can do.

Bleeding France on liberty's pyre[edit]

On the children of France rests absolutely the hope of France, because today France is sacrificing her manhood on a pyre devoted to liberty and a pyre devoted to our protection.

In these three problems the American people have an outlet for all of their generosity, for all their capacity of organization, and that has never before been presented to them.

The problem of Belgium is a problem much the same as France, but a problem of much less dimensions, so far as we see it today.

If the Red Cross could now consolidate the whole of effort directed toward civilian charity to civilian support in France, it would have laid the foundation for probably the greatest work which the American people must undertake as one of the aftermath results of the whole war.

I have long had the feeling that all civilian charities in Europe should be better organized and better consolidated in the United States. We have had a multitude of bodies engaged in that effort, a multitude of overlapping effort, a multitude of overlapping in collection of support, and a multitude of overlapping in distribution on the other side.

Helping heroic people help themselves[edit]

Furthermore, as the war goes on, as times become harder, we will require a greater and a better organized effort in order to maintain that support. It requires an effort that not only covers the field of charity, but also covers the field of helpful finance. I do not think that any thinking person wishes to pauperize a population by pouring charity upon them.

We ourselves have undertaken to do some rehabilitating and have made some study of that subject, which is only one of the three great problems.

We have developed a method by which we believe that these people may be put back on their feet and made self-supporting again. If perhaps only 10 or 15 per cent of the total cost may be founded in charity, these people themselves will repay the entire cost of their reconstitution. They must be given time. The 80 per cent may be accomplished by financial measures, but some one has to provide the first 10 or 15 per cent to give the foundation for any adequate development of that problem.

Since coming to America I have had a number of discussions with your officials, and I have urged upon them, and they are only too glad to undertake, that problem as the problem of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross is perhaps founded fundamentally for the care and comfort of soldiers, but we are not fighting this war alone for the direct efficiency of battle. We are fighting here for infinitely greater objectives, and there is no support that can be given to the American ideal, to the American objective of this war, better and greater than a proper organization of that side of our civilization which we believe is today imperiled.

We are fighting against an enemy who had become dominated with a philosophy, with an idea, for which there is no room in this world with us. It is a nation obsessed with the single idea that survival of the strong warrants any action, demands any submergence of the individual to the state, which justifies their mastery of the world.

Our contention of civilization lies in the tempering of the struggle for existence by the care of the helpless. The survival of the strong, the development of the individual, must be tempered, or else we return two thousand years in our civilization.

While the Red Cross devotes itself to the strengthening of the strong, to the support of the soldier, it is a duty of the Red Cross to illume that part of American character and American ideal which stands for the care of the helpless.

I had hoped, and I think that all of your officials had hoped, that it would be possible to now congregate the strength of the whole nation into the Red Cross in order that it might undertake this, possibly the greatest work which we have yet to perform, and that is to bind the wounds of France!

Source: Herbert C. Hoover (May 1917), “Bind the Wounds of France”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(5): 439–444.