When America entered the war, Hoover headed to Washington, D.C., as U.S. food administrator; he was a volunteer receiving no salary. His goal was to rationalize the production and distribution of food for the war effort. When the war ended in November 1918, Hoover transformed the Food Administration into the American Relief Administration (ARA) to help Europe recover from the devastating aftermath of the war. On 24 February 1919 Congress appropriated $100 million for the ARA. Undamaged by war, the United States provided the bulk of relief assistance, including food, medical supplies, other goods, and credits to Europe after World War I. Concerned for efficiency and for U.S. public relations, Hoover insisted that Americans, rather than the Allies, supervise the relief efforts.
Hoover and other Americans were motivated by humanitarianism and other factors. Food surpluses in pork, wheat, and other commodities, fostered by the Food Administration's efforts to stimulate production to support the war effort, now served to feed Europe. Hoover was criticized for being motivated more by concern for the American economy than by genuine humanitarian feeling. Hoover claimed food was not political, but it occasionally was. He ensured the flow of food to nurture new countries in eastern Europe, but to discourage Bolshevism in Hungary, Hoover temporarily withheld food aid from Bela Kun, leader of the communist revolution there. Certainly, Hoover believed that food and other supplies would help provide greater order and stability. Food promoted peacemaking in that sense, and if at the same time it reduced the appeal of Bolshevism, all the better. On the other hand, Hoover opposed an Allied invasion of Soviet Russia.
After the armistice the Allies held back humanitarian relief to the defeated powers until Germany signed the peace terms. When they did, Hoover tried to get food to Germany partly to use up the American surplus but largely out of his desire to feed hungry people. The AFSC helped coordinate relief assistance to Germany. In some ways it served as a buffer between the ARA, which had helped Belgium and was seen as anti-German, and the German American community. It was expected that the German Americans would offer substantial support for German relief, especially since they had contributed proportionately less after the war than Hungarian, Polish, and South Slavic Americans.
Hoover assisted the German relief effort by providing $5 million in ARA funds. The ARC became deeply involved in providing civilian relief once the war ended. The Inter-Allied Relief Commission recommended that the ARC focus on civilian relief in eastern Europe. Surplus army food, equipment, and supplies were handed over to the Red Cross following congressional approval. It was not until 1923 that the American Red Cross brought the last of its foreign civilian relief workers home. Once again, while relief was intended to respond to an emergency, occasional attempts were made to have a lasting impact on the societies where relief was provided. For example, in central and eastern Europe the Red Cross helped communities develop health centers that were designed to promote child welfare.
In late 1919 the publicly funded ARA endowed private organizations for specific tasks, essentially privatizing the relief effort. One such organization was the Children's Relief Bureau, later renamed the American Relief Administration Children's Fund. Although it continued to provide important feeding and health services to Europe's children, it also was the vehicle by which the ARA became a private relief agency under Hoover's leadership. Although Hoover had objected to U.S. intervention against the Bolsheviks, he used the ARA to provide support for the anti-Soviet White Russian forces. The ARC also offered relief to the anti-Soviet forces.
In 1921 Hoover, now secretary of commerce, responded to word of a devastating Russian famine in the Volga region. American assistance for famine relief included the work of the ARA, the Volga Relief Society, the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Friends Service Committee, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, and others. Despite concern in the United States that the assistance would succor the Bolshevik regime, Hoover was successful in rallying new congressional appropriations for the ARA. Agricultural interests supported such funding because of eagerness for subsidies, but the measure passed largely because of a widespread understanding that regardless of anti-Bolshevik feeling, this famine threatened large-scale suffering. Soviet authorities, at first suspicious, cooperated with Hoover, and American relief assistance prevented the loss of millions of lives.
Domestic American support for the relief effort was high when the war ended, but Americans soon turned inward, disillusioned by the results of war in Europe, consumed by developments at home, and eager to return to their regular peacetime pursuits. Despite pleas by ARC officials that relief work counteracted the threat of Bolshevism, Americans were less willing than during the war to support relief efforts either through volunteer activities or financial contributions. Despite the decline in giving, it still exceeded prewar levels. In 1919 and 1920, $35 million was spent in the United States and $75 million was spent for overseas relief. By the end of 1922, $15 million in additional funds went to foreign relief.
Total U.S. relief efforts in the armistice and rehabilitation period were approximately $1.255 billion. Much of it came from the ARA, the European Relief Council, and other U.S. agencies (including loans and congressional appropriations); about 10 percent came from the Red Cross. In an unprecedented effort, a cooperative fundraising campaign called United War Work raised $200 million for seven relief organizations. Despite extensive American generosity, loans required repayment and would later spark European resentment against the United States.
While many relief organizations had ceased operations by the early 1920s, some, like the AFSC, became permanent. The American Red Cross grew dramatically. Increasingly, the ARC was operated by paid professionals rather than volunteers. The monthly payroll grew from less than $12,000 per month in 1914 to $1 million in 1919. As support for foreign relief fell, ARC officials determined to expand domestic operations. Increasingly, the ARC engaged in activities designed to promote health and well-being on a permanent basis rather than concentrating on responding to emergencies. While this shift focused largely on the domestic front during the interwar period, it set precedents for an expanded understanding of the role of relief agencies that was later applied abroad.