Skip to contents
SunLit

SunLit interview: An inheritance of diaries and journals spurred a years-long pursuit of history

Jeffrey B. Miller's interest in a World War I-era humanitarian aid effort led to his current nonfiction account of the people behind a program that saved millions from starvation

Jeffrey B. Miller has been a Denver-based writer, magazine editor, and independent historian for more than 40 years. He started six magazines (city, regional and national), was editor in chief of five in-flight magazines, spent 13 years as a freelance travel writer, and five years as the director of communications for AAA Colorado. He has authored “Stapleton International Airport: The First Fifty Years” (Pruett Publishing, 1983); co-authored with Dr. Gordon Ehlers “Facing Your Fifties: Every Man’s Reference to Mid-life Health” (M. Evans & Co., 2002); and authored the most recent “Yanks behind the Lines” (Rowman & Littlefield, Oct. 22, 2020).

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

In the 1980s, when my beloved grandparents died, I inherited their diaries, journals, correspondence, and photographs from World War I. My grandfather, Milton M. Brown, was a 1913 Princeton grad who joined the American-led, nongovernmental Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and entered German-occupied Belgium in 1916 as a CRB delegate. 

The CRB became the largest food relief program the world had ever seen, saving from starvation nearly 10 million Belgians and northern French trapped behind German lines. The CRB—which was founded and run by Herbert Hoover, who became known to the world as the “Great Humanitarian” before becoming the 31st US president—also helped to change the way the world saw America, how America saw itself on the world stage, and created the template by which much of modern-day humanitarian aid is organized and distributed.  

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

While my grandfather was in German-occupied Belgium, he fell in love with Erica Bunge, a young Belgian woman who had founded and run a dairy farm during the war that provided milk to the children of Antwerp. Happily for me, they married after the war.

Inspired by their stories, I began collecting and cataloguing the papers of more than 50 CRB delegates, diplomats, and Belgians. In the mid-1980s (before the Internet was available), I took a couple of years to work full time on researching and writing an 800-page historical novel, “Honor Bound.” It received a few nibbles from book publishers but no one ever picked it up. 

After numerous magazine startups, a couple of books, 13 years as a freelance travel writer, and barely surviving stage 4 throat cancer, I emerged at the end of 2012 with the determination to do a non-fiction book about the CRB. You can see proof of that by going to YouTube and typing in “WWI and the CRB.” The first entry is the video I posted eight years ago (71 views!). Watching it again for the first time in eight years, I can’t believe how far I’ve come on the coattails of that younger man’s sincere determination. 

Restarting in late 2012 my full time research and writing, I wrote and self-published two Kirkus best books of the year on the CRB— “Behind the Lines” (Milbrown Press, 2014), and “WWI Crusaders” (Milbrown Press, 2018), which was a Colorado Book Award finalist in 2019. 

My newest book is the culmination and the distillation of my work into a concise history for readers interested in learning more about one of America’s finest hours in humanitarian aid. It has become my life’s goal to ensure that this little-known CRB story is not forgotten. 

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The first part, if I’m honest about it, is included for the egoistical reason that I believe it’s some of my best writing! The second part, the Preface, is a great short overview of this incredible humanitarian story. The third part will, I hope, emotionally engage the readers and help them realize not all history books are boring! 

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

Before I created my CRB books, I read the best WWI history books and analyzed their source materials and how they made the words fly off the pages, how they created that page-turning quality that makes readers sorry that an 800-page book ends too soon. 

My inspirations when it came to researching and writing my CRB books included journalist-turned-historian Barbara Tuchman and her classic “Guns of August”; anything from Adam Hochschild, who wrote “King’s Leopold’s Ghost” (the finest nonfiction history I’ve ever read); and, of course, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough. To learn how to add dramatic—but still accurate—flair to my writing, I also studied from the masters of creative nonfiction Laura Hillenbrand and Erik Larson.

These and many more inspirations drove me in my project to find the best historical sources, uncover as much little-known material as possible, and dig deeper and deeper when it came to trying to understand the drive and motivations of the people I was writing about. 

Lastly, I had an experience that took place during the early research stage that touched me deeply and created a stronger sense of purpose and drive. My grandfather, while in German-occupied Belgium as a 25-year-old man, had written an extensive diary and hundreds of letters detailing all that he had seen and done. After the war, he requested the letters be returned to him because he hoped to someday write a book about his CRB experiences in Belgium. Even though he lived into his 80s, he never got around to writing that book. When he died, I was the beneficiary of the work he had done to collect all his writing in one place. 

While reading those letters and diaries, I was struck by his tremendous idealism and his feeling that it had been his privilege to have served the CRB and the Belgian people. What followed for me was a fascinating exercise as I tried to reconcile the content of those letters and the 25-year-old man who had penned them with my remembrance of my 80-year-old grandfather.  

Suddenly, the story I wanted to tell became much more personal. And that extended to my grandmother and even to all the others who I extensively studied. Becoming part of the lives of those men and women gave me a greater sense of purpose and even a sense of obligation that I needed to tell their stories. 

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

As I began to write what I thought was going to be one book, I suddenly realized that I had a huge tiger by the tail. This story was big, really big, and it would need much more space to tell it the way I wanted to tell it. At first, that realization frightened me. I wasn’t far out from my battle with cancer and I didn’t know if I had the physical strength and/or mental stamina to spend years writing multiple books. 

Once I determined that the first book would cover only the chaotic beginnings of the war and the CRB, then I settled down to do the writing, leaving the thought of other books to the future. 

One of the hardest things to do was to tell each one of my major characters that they were NOT going to have as much time and space in my book as I had first planned. Some of them fought back. Others accepted the news with quiet dignity. In the end, they all finally agreed to how it would be . . .then began arguing with me over which stories and details of their lives would be told and which would end up on the cutting room floor.  

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

The biggest challenge was the sheer size and scope of the project and the magnitude of the research materials I had to assimilate. I look back now and say, “My god, I did all that laborious work! What kind of fool does that?” 

In all seriousness, what truly surprised me as I dove into the topic was how massive the food relief was and how such an effort has totally disappeared from the consciousness of the American people. This is one of America’s greatest humanitarian efforts and it is basically unknown today to most Americans – and even a lot of historians! 

Tied to that forgetting is another surprise I found: My three books are the first to solely focus on the CRB in more than 30 years. For such an important humanitarian subject, I was surprised no one had written about it for so many years. I’m happy to report, though, that I know of at least four academic scholars who are currently working on CRB-related books that should be published in the next year or two. 

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

The biggest shock or surprise registered by readers and/or people who hear me speak is why haven’t they heard of this great endeavor before? They are truly bewildered by why they have never heard about it – until, of course, they hear that it was run by Herbert Hoover, the perceived devil of the Great Depression. Then they usually go, “ahhhhhhh.” 

But those same people end up also being surprised and shocked that such an “evil” man as Hoover could have done such good in the world. 

If you focus solely on statistics for a moment, there were about nine to 10 million soldiers who died in World War I, while the CRB (led by Hoover) saved nearly 10 million lives in World War I. An interesting balance, don’t you think?  

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

My wife and I have lived in the same 850-square-foot house for 37 years. I have a small office there, but I also have rented a space in a building about a mile or two away. I did a lot of my initial research and reading from my home office, while my tiny other office is used for the serious, lonely task of writing. 

When I’m in the writing stage, I gather up in the morning all the pertinent materials for that day’s writing and head to my little office. I’ll unfold all the materials and lay them out everywhere—the floor, top of the filing cabinet, the extra chair, and the desk. Then I’ll begin writing and, like an orchestra conductor, I’ll turn at the appropriate times to one document or another to bring them to the forefront of my composition. 

Every hour, I’ll force myself to stand up, walk down the building’s four flights of stairs, then briskly walk around the building before climbing back up the stairs to resume writing. 

Lunch will be grabbing something at the nearby Whole Foods and eating among my research materials. I’ll always try to break at 5 p.m. and head home so I won’t get burned out. 

Tell us about your next project.

 I’m going through a bit of existential despair right now as I think about what big writing project I should turn to next. I have spent nearly 10 years absorbed in this topic and I believe I’ve written as much as I can on the CRB. But I don’t want to walk away from nearly 10 years of research. I do hope that my next project will be one in which I can do more creative nonfiction in the vein of writers such as Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand.   

Read excerpts from the book.


To find this book:
Prospector: Search the combined catalogs of 23 Colorado libraries
Statewide list of independent bookstores
Searchable database of bookstores nationwide

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.