Ninety-two years ago today, after an overnight train ride from New York to Washington, DC, Winston Churchill made a courtesy visit to the White House where he was received by President Hoover. It was like a catch-up meeting between two men who had a story.
During the Great War, as World War I was then called, Herbert Hoover made a name for himself as head of the Volunteer Relief Commission in Belgium, a predominantly American organization credited with saving millions of civilian lives. Belgium was then producing enough food to feed only a quarter of its 7.5 million citizens, but it was essentially stranded by war, and the kaiser’s troops requisitioned some of the food for food.
Hoover, more than any living soul, filled the gap, spending two years in London, persuading German authorities to let him import food behind the lines and winning the affection of people on the Continent, and ultimately in England, where Hoover was offered British citizenship. . Churchill was a famous resister against this conventional wisdom. At the time, he viewed “the Great Humanitarian” as an intruder who should be tried by a military tribunal for transporting food behind enemy lines.
On that day in 1929, however, the two men had a cordial meeting. “Time heals some wounds,” writes author David Pietrusza in an excellent new book, “1932: The rise of Hitler and FDR. “
From Washington, Winston Churchill’s train takes him to Richmond. He visited the city Civil war museum before starting a tour of the battlefields of the region. A military historian himself, Churchill supplemented his income by publishing dispatches in his American tour papers for the Daily Telegraph. He was “astonished,” he wrote on his return to London, by the hard evidence of the battles that continued in these Virginia fields and forests some six and a half decades after the fighting ended.
Churchill had the impulse of a journalist to seek eyewitnesses of epic events and the instinct of a historian to get to the places where the drama actually took place. His guide in Spotsylvania was an old man who had seen this battlefield for the first time at the age of 8. It wasn’t a battlefield back then, it was his family’s farm. The soldiers came and told them to get out because a big battle was on the way. On their return, they found the country littered with a thousand dead Union and Confederate soldiers.
Read today, in a time of often acrimonious reconsideration of the monuments and place names that commemorate this history, Churchill’s dispatches help explain why subsequent generations of Virginians felt such loyalty to the losing side, despite the evils of slavery. At one stop, a local guide reported that her father, who still lived in Richmond, was injured on the ground they were crossing. Churchill’s tour took him to sacred ground all over the Old Dominion. Some of these battlefields are still known to us – Chickahominy, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville – while others are less well known: Malvern Hill, White House Swamp and Savage Station.
“Farms and churches still bear the scars of bullets and shells; the woods are full of trenches and gun pits; the bigger trees are full of bullets, ”Churchill wrote. “If you could read the hearts of men, you would find that they too carry the marks.”
At a battle site along the Rappahannock River, Churchill thought of WWI battlefields in France. He couldn’t have known it then, but unimaginable horrors were to come, worse than Ypres, Verdun and Gallipoli – and much worse than Antietam and Gettysburg – and that during a pivotal time in human history, the British people, with Winston Spencer Churchill leading them, would be the tip of the spear.
Nor could he imagine that in the aftermath of World War II, another American War President, a Democrat, would once again call on Herbert Clark Hoover, a Republican, to organize relief efforts that would avert disease and starvation to millions of war-weary people. civilians.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Join him on Twitter @CarlCannon.