Herbert Hoover: The Man Nobody Knows
When the economy sank into the Great Recession in 2008, memories of the Great Depression were resurrected and the name Herbert Hoover was dusted off for a new round of scolding. George H. Nash has described Hoover as a political orphan, “too progressive for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.”
Virtually every Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt has equated Hoover with hard times. When people think depression they think Hoover. They might as well be listed as synonyms in Roget’s Thesaurus. Presidential polls of historians as late as 2008 ranked him among the worst presidents and the stereotype cemented in the mind of the general public resembles a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch who stole Christmas.
His historical reputation is ensnarled in exaggerations, distortions, factual errors, and oversimplifications. He is as much identified with the Great Depression as Isaac Newton is with the Law of Gravity.
Before his presidency, Hoover was one of the most admired Americans in the world, an enormously successful mining engineer, humanitarian and philanthropist, gifted administrator, and his life a rags-to-riches story. Born in West Branch, Iowa, a Quaker village of about four hundred on the cusp of the frontier, he was the first president born west of the Mississippi River. Orphaned at nine, raised by relatives in Iowa and Oregon, he graduated from the first class of Stanford University. At Stanford, he met Lou Henry, one of the first women in America to earn a degree in geological engineering, with whom he enjoyed a companionate marriage. His rise was rapid. His mining assignments took him to the dusty Australian outback and to the far reaches of China, where he survived the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
Hoover entered public service as a humanitarian who fed Belgium and German-occupied northern France, clothed in no more authority than that of a plain American citizen, his impeccable honesty, and his own wits. When America entered the war, he returned to his homeland to serve as Woodrow Wilson’s Food Administrator, coining the slogan, “Food will win the war,” which, in part, it did. Hoover subsequently became possibly the greatest Secretary of Commerce in history, nurturing infant industries such as radio and aviation and becoming the first American face transmitted on television in 1927. Hoover helped rationalize businesses through transmutation of Commerce into an engine that helped drive the prosperity of the 1920s. Yet he warned that the economic locomotive could be derailed by reckless speculation in American stocks and foreign bonds, only to be ignored.
President Calvin Coolidge tapped Hoover to lead the federal effort to rescue and rehabilitate the Mississippi Valley from the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, an unprecedented federal activity in a unique natural disaster. Hoover’s unbroken record of success, unselfish temperament, remarkable intelligence, prodigious diligence, and impeccable public and private character led voters to overlook his inexperience in politics in 1928 and elect him president overwhelmingly. In the wake of the Warren G. Harding’s governmental corruption and the Teapot Dome scandal, the last thing Americans wanted was another machine politician.
Hoover embarked on the presidency with an agenda of reform before the stock market crash of October 1929. The nation slid into the most intractable depression in its history. As president, Hoover became the most activist chief executive during hard times up to that point in American history, the first to pit the government against the economic cycle. Many of his ideas became integral to the New Deal. It is plausible to argue that economic hardship occurred in spite of, not because of Hoover. The best idea man in his own administration, he wrote his own speeches because he considered ghostwritten speeches intellectually dishonest. He was the last president to do so. His love of children was expressed privately through his founding of the American Child Health Association and small kindnesses to individual children. There were minimal strikes and lockouts during Hoover’s tenure.
Lacking a working majority in both houses of Congress, he nonetheless wrung out a more comprehensive, integrated domestic program than any of his twentieth-century predecessors, including Theodore Roosevelt, except perhaps for Woodrow Wilson’s first term. He devoted diligent attention to agriculture, encouraging cooperative marketing, crop diversification, and retirement of marginal lands. Prior to Hoover’s presidency there had been a vacuum of reform since the Great War, and he stepped into the vacuum. His program included the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which loaned money to failing banks, businesses, and railroads.
Hoover had planned to make world peace his greatest priority before the depression and his achievements were consequential. These included the Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America, often attributed to FDR and face-to-face summit diplomacy with foreign leaders. In the London Naval Treaty of 1930, Hoover expanded the 1921 limitations on battleships to smaller ships among the major naval powers. The Stimson Doctrine set the precedent of refusing to recognize territory seized by force when Japan invaded Manchuria. The president masterminded and helped implement a moratorium on all international obligations, including war debts and reparations, in 1931.
Although he led a fascinating life, the depression dimmed Hoover’s halo and the legacy of the 1932 election, which blamed him for being there when the depression happened, reverberates into twenty-first century. Americans have a tendency to blame presidents for every negative event that occurred during their administration and to credit them for everything positive, even if they did nothing to cause the events. As late as 2008 GOP candidate John McCain said that Hoover was the last president to raise taxes during a recession, forgetting that Franklin D. Roosevelt did so twice and George H. W. Bush raised taxes after promising not to.
Hoover was not gregarious publicly but his friendships were life-long. He disliked attention, including both criticism and praise. The president did not like crowds, delivering speeches, or fundraising; he was inner-directed. These traits are common to Quakers such as Hoover, but rare in politicians. He did not buy votes with patronage and he lacked some of the ruthlessness needed to compete in modern American politics. As a politician, he did not seek to win at all costs. Anyone elected in 1928 would have been blamed for the catastrophe that became the Great Depression and probably defeated in 1932. Hoover was a strong, activist president, yet he was not Franklin D. Roosevelt writ small. He believed in personal responsibility, thrift, self-sufficiency, balanced budgets during ordinary times (though not in extenuating times), decentralization, and separation of powers. Government aid should be available, but as a last resort rather than a first resort. In many respects, Hoover’s philosophy was more personal than political. He thought outside of the box and borrowed from classical liberalism, practical idealism, moderate conservatism, and the Progressive movement. Hoover was no lover of bigness, whether big government, big business, big fortunes, or a big military establishment. He believed in the Quaker axiom of equality of opportunity.
Hoover believed in aggressive government initiatives when the situation demanded it. Yet the bureaucracy created to solve temporary problems should be temporary, not the closest thing on earth to eternal life. If there was a need, he wanted problems to be solved in the simplest, most humane manner possible. He lived by the Quaker creed that all men are brothers. He did not believe either the rich or the poor were inherently predatory and resisted demonizing them. The GOP president felt it was possible to be both kind and gentle as well as tough and smart.
Hoover, the Quaker, perceived some of the dangers of the welfare state and entitlements long before Ronald Reagan made it fashionable. He mitigated the depression but did not end it. His administration was not a total failure but an incomplete success. By that standard, the New Deal too, was an incomplete success.
The case for Hoover’s place in world history lies not simply in what he did but in who he was. If character counts, which it does, Hoover will be among the meek who inherit the earth. He was not a great president, but he was a great man. More importantly, he was a good man. He never cheated his maker. In fact, he never cheated anyone.
Glen Jeansonne taught American history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 37 years. He has published sixty articles, 170 book reviews, and fourteen books, most recently Herbert Hoover: A Life (2016).
George H. Nash, “Herbert Hoover: Political Orphan,” in Timothy Walch, ed., Uncommon Americans: Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover (2003), 16.
For Hoover’s abysmal standing in the CNN Poll of 2008, see West Branch Times, March 5, 2009. The Times, his home town newspaper, devoted nearly its entire front page to the poll.
Gary Dean Best, “The Hoover-for-President Boom of 1920,” Mid-America, 35 (Oct., 1971), 227–32; Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive, (1975), 78-80, 885-86, 103-105, 110-114; David Burner, Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1979), 166–67.
Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Vol. 2, The Cabinet and the Presidency, 1929–1933, (1951), 223; Ray Lyman Wilbur, The Memoirs of Ray Lyman Wilbur, eds. Edgar Eugene Robinson and Paul Carroll Edwards (1960), 442–48; James Stuart Olson, Hoover and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 1931–1933 (1977), 3–32, 50.