The first book of a planned trilogy chronicling American-led relief efforts in Belgium during World War I.
Just in time for the Great War’s centennial, this valuable narrative reprises a dramatic chapter of world history that rarely takes center stage in history books, as it’s often overshadowed by subsequent wars. Specifically, Miller (Facing Your Fifties, 2002, etc.) focuses on the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a multinational humanitarian organization that saved 9 million Belgian and French civilians under German occupation from starvation. Led by future U.S. president Herbert Hoover, then 40 years old and living in London, the CRB was the first mission of its kind, establishing precedents that shaped current policies regarding universal human rights and international humanitarian intervention. Miller shows how Hoover navigated German and Allied opposition, co-opted competing humanitarian groups and improvised a distribution network that deployed young Americans as neutral “delegates” across Belgium’s provinces. Miller’s grandfather Milton M. Brown was one of these delegates, and he married Erica Bunge, a wealthy Belgian native whose family is integral to the overall story. Their diaries, letters and photos, bequeathed to the author in the 1980s, sparked Miller’s interest in the period, and it’s obvious that this book was a labor of love. The narrative covers only August through December 1914, and readers contemplating 397 pages of text (plus sources, notes and an index) about a mere six months of wartime may fear a tedious journey. But instead, the pages fly by, thanks to Miller’s consistently smooth prose and careful scene-setting. He effectively captures the human drama, with exquisite descriptions of how characters looked (“With his rimless pince-nez, he had the appearance of a scholar or professor and, just like one, he longed for the solitude of the writer’s garret”) and why they behaved as they did. He quickens the pace with short chapters that bounce among Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, London and New York. Readers who only associate World War I and Herbert Hoover with trench warfare and the Great Depression (or the Hoover Dam) will discover meaningful contexts for both in a tale that personalizes extraordinary times. Miller writes that his goal was to write for people “who never read history books”; he accomplishes that splendidly, while also creating a work that scholars will admire.
An excellent history that should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians.