Opinion | What Herbert Hoover Can Teach Joe Biden

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As the United States watches its Covid-19 rates decline, the next looming challenge will be fighting the disease in the rest of the world, where new variants are spreading and could continue to emerge, and the pandemic may dig in for years. To fight the virus overseas, President Joe Biden has just announced a plan at this week’s G7 Summit to donate 500 million vaccine doses to mostly lower-income countries. This pledge should make Americans proud.

As big as that number is, however, it is only a down payment on the long-term effort to stamp out the pandemic globally. Of roughly 7.8 billion people, around 85 percent are not yet fully vaccinated. As the administration gears up to help with the daunting challenge of vaccinating the world, there’s a model that could point a way forward: the American-led post-World War II famine relief program. It’s a story of bipartisan cooperation, and it involves the return from political exile of an unexpected hero: Herbert Hoover.

The food shortage after the war was dire. As Winston Churchill said in his “Iron Curtain” speech, “famine stalk[ed] the earth.” The U.S. was one of a few countries with a mostly intact economy and a surplus of food. The task then was to get that lifesaving good in mouths. Now, it’s to get shots in arms, and America has the opportunity to become the vaccine breadbasket of the globe.

Democratic President Harry Truman turned to the Republican Herbert Hoover because of his unmatched qualifications. Hoover, the only living former president at the time (a title he held for 20 years), left office unpopular. But he also had earned the nickname “The Great Humanitarian” for leading the Commission for Relief in Belgium to feed 10 million people during World War I.

At first, the U.S. sent food through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. But that effort was inadequate. So, Truman selected Hoover in 1946 to lead the new Famine Emergency Committee, a partnership between government and business leaders.

Hoover first analyzed the famine in Europe, dividing the continent into priority segments and assessing the Soviet Union’s responsibility to provide for the people under its control. Hoover’s early contributions were about prioritizing scarce resources. Truman, the man who had ordered the dropping of atomic weapons, wrote that a famine-relief session with Hoover was “the most important meeting held in the White House since I had become President.”

To assess needs and rally the world, the 71-year-old Hoover went on the road. He traveled 50,000 miles to nearly 40 countries across five continents. He also met with everyone from the Pope to Gandhi to Chiang Kai-shek. While in Cairo, he and Truman gave a joint radio address urging their fellow citizens to fight the famine. Truman called for Americans to make real sacrifices and, on two days a week, to “reduce our food consumption to that of the average person in the hungry lands” so that more would be available to export.

But feeding the world after the war wasn’t America’s responsibility alone. Argentina had a surplus, and Hoover traveled to Buenos Aires to persuade Juan Perón, who at that time had been in power for just two days, to export food. The State Department objected to the non-diplomat heading into a politically fraught situation, but Truman overrode these concerns. Determined to succeed, Hoover wrote that he would take Perón’s snubs, and even “eat Argentine dirt,” to get 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 the postwar recovery right was key to keeping the peace. America exported 6 million tons of grains to Europe by 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.

From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, some bodies like the World Health Organization have failed to meet the challenge. Going forward, multilateral cooperation and creative institution-building will be necessary. Hoover’s 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 task before leaders in 2021, and, as Hoover showed, planning early is key to success. After the tragic rise in deaths in India earlier this year, the U.S. announced that it would export tens of millions of vaccine doses to the country. The race between vaccines and variants adds urgency going forward. Triage, like the kind Hoover did when he analyzed the famine across Europe to prioritize need, is required to ensure an efficient distribution system.

Moreover, just as Hoover insisted about feeding the world, vaccinating the world isn’t just the United States’ job. We are in a position to lead, however. And we need partners, including even illiberal nations with surpluses of proven, safe and effective vaccines.

Hoover’s public diplomacy engaged America’s partners and the American people. One could imagine an envoy for vaccine diplomacy meeting with religious leaders, heads of state and even celebrities to coordinate relief and increase buy-in so that the effort has the political will to be sustained for the duration.

Obviously, 2021 and 1946 are different in countless ways. Hoover estimated the world’s starving population at 500 million, and today the number of people to be vaccinated runs in the billions. But the needs, as well as America’s capacity to help, are clear in both instances. And in some ways, it was even harder then. The world was much less technologically sophisticated and interconnected. Hoover’s efforts were plagued especially in places like China, where, as he wrote, “Transportation to the interior and inadequate organization … rendered relief only partially successful.” Despite these hardships, and exhausted from depression and war, the U.S. recognized that its leadership could make the difference. That fact remains true today.

Last year, there couldn’t be in-person celebrations of the 75th anniversaries of the end of World War II. This year, let’s mark the 75th anniversary of what came after—the American-led effort to build a freer and safer world—by leading one of the most urgent relief efforts since Truman brought Hoover on board for one of the most improbable political pairings of the 20th century.

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