For a generation of Americans, his name was synonymous with failure. Before the Great Depression was great, it was the “Hoover Depression.” Shantytowns built during its worst years were “Hoovervilles.” Pulled-out, empty pants pockets were “Hoover Flags.” These unhappy memories of Herbert Hoover and his presidency persisted for years after he left the White House—so much so that Mario Cuomo, in his 1984 keynote speech to the Democratic convention, could attack supply-side economics by saying: “the Republicans called it trickle-down when Hoover tried it”—and expect a knowing, visceral response from his audience.
It’s unlikely Cuomo’s reference would be met with such emotion today, but most would probably get his point. Insofar as Americans think about Herbert Hoover at all, they likely do so in connection with his successor. Every great story needs a villain, and Hoover serves as perfect foil for Franklin Roosevelt. Supposedly reserved and grumpy, Hoover refused to abandon conservative orthodoxy in the face of economic disaster—which only ended with FDR’s ebullient application of activist governmental policies.
This narrative, promoted by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the postwar years and countless others in the decades that followed has never been fair or wholly accurate. In the 1980s, such was even proven to be the case, through new studies of Hoover written by historians Richard Norton Smith and George Nash. But this correction never took hold in the popular imagination.
It’s a welcome development, then, that Hoover is in the midst of a mini-revival. Earlier this year, Charles Rappleye wrote a well-received account of his administration. And in Herbert Hoover: A Life, University of Wisconsin professor Glen Jeansonne has produced an elegant, concise, and insightful full-dress biography of the former president. It will likely remain the definitive single-volume account for some time.
Herbert Hoover: A Life is organized chronologically and split into three parts: Hoover’s childhood and pre-presidential career, his single term in the White House, and his post-presidential activities. The first of these sections is the most compelling.
Hoover’s early years would put a Horatio Alger character to shame. Born in tiny West Branch, Iowa, to a family with little money, he was orphaned at age nine. Sent to live in Oregon with an uncle, he dropped out of school at 14, and worked as a manual laborer and administrator at his uncle’s land-office business. After seeing an ad in a Portland newspaper for a new university in Palo Alto, he applied and won admission as a member of Stanford’s first class. There, he excelled in geology and met his wife Lou Henry, a fellow geologist who enjoyed riding and the outdoors.
After a brief stint as a mineworker, a British mining company hired Hoover to manage its operations in Western Australia. He improved the efficiency and profitability of existing mines, and discovered a new vein of gold that made his employer an enormous amount of money. The Chinese government, hearing of his work, poached Hoover to manage its state-owned mines. This job was cut short by the Boxer Rebellion, which saw Hoover personally lead a detachment of American Marines to break a siege laid by Chinese rebels. He returned to America a rich man and a “legend in his profession beyond his own time.” He then turned 30.
Hoover’s broader public reputation, though, rested on his role in coordinating relief efforts during and after World War I. In Britain when war broke out, the American ambassador asked him to head a voluntary organization that would provide food to Belgium, which was near famine. The Commission for Relief in Belgium operated for the rest of the war and provided food to millions of Belgians. President Wilson later expanded Hoover’s remit to much of Europe by appointing him head of the U.S. Food Administration, which helped feed both American troops during the war and, at the war’s conclusion, European civilians. Hoover’s efforts earned America enormous goodwill throughout Europe, and he remained revered across the continent until his death.
Despite his service in the Wilson administration, Hoover was a Republican. After winning election in 1920, Warren Harding offered Hoover the choice of heading either the Interior or Commerce Departments. Hoover chose the latter. He stayed there for almost all of the Harding and Coolidge administrations, promoting American business overseas, encouraging production efficiencies, and helping to expand the Farm Credit System, which coordinated the provision of low-interest loans to small farmers. He also garnered great public acclaim through his direction of relief efforts for survivors of the massive 1927 Mississippi flood.
Hoover’s performance in the aftermath of the flood, Jeansonne writes, “padded his resume at an opportune time.” Newspaper editorials and party officials began mentioning him as a possible candidate for president. Hoover wasn't the most natural politician, however. As Jeansonne observes, Hoover didn't relish campaigning. Nor did he have the institutional relationships with local and national party officials that other candidates possessed. Hoover’s reserved demeanor and general lack of political experience would be his undoing in a few years time.
But in 1928, it didn't matter. Hoover secured the crucial endorsement of Calvin Coolidge, and the GOP nomination soon after. His Democratic opponent, New York Governor Al Smith, was too New York for Middle America—too Catholic, too loud, and too left-wing in his social assistance policies. In his first run for elective office, Hoover won the presidency with 58.2 percent of the vote.
Entering the White House in March 1929, Hoover intended to improve relations with Latin American countries—he, not Roosevelt, inaugurated (and named) the “Good Neighbor Policy”—and had plans for a means-tested federal pension program. Instead, with the onset of the Depression six months later, he became, in the words of writer William Allen White, the “greatest innocent bystander in history . . . a brave man fighting valiantly, futilely, to the end.”
Hoover realized that the root cause of the Depression was not the American economy, but Europe’s, which had been distorted by the settlement of World War I. At great political cost, he provided the Allied nations breathing space by placing a moratorium on their debt payments. And, as Jeansonne notes at length, he initiated a radical set of programs to pump money into the domestic economy. These included the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which made loans to banks and private industry, and direct funding of public infrastructure projects. This spending created a (then-massive) budget deficit of $2.7 billion. If this sounds a lot like the New Deal, that's because it is: the leader of FDR's “Brain Trust,” Rexford Tugwell, noted: “practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.”
If an FDR adviser was willing to compliment Hoover's efforts, the man himself had no such generosity. During the 1932 campaign, FDR attacked Hoover's character, assailed his deficit spending, and promised to balance the budget. Following suit, lower-level Democrats portrayed Hoover as a tin-eared tool of big business and big finance, indifferent to the suffering of ordinary Americans.
The president's own earnestness and sense of duty prevented him from effectively rebutting these falsehoods. Hoover, who took great pride in writing his own speeches, wasn't a great communicator. And his acceptance of responsibility for the violent clearance of the “Bonus Army” from Washington—despite the fact that General Douglas MacArthur and the local D.C. police chief were to blame—cemented many Americans' impression of him as heartless and uncaring. Hoover’s loss in 1932 was as sweeping as his victory just four years earlier.
It's difficult to finish Jeansonne's chapters on Hoover's presidency without feeling both sad and unsettled. The sadness comes from the fact that Hoover, for all his private agony over the public's suffering, was blamed by many Americans for an economic crisis he did not cause and did much to alleviate.
The unsettling bit is the ultimate lesson of Hoover's political career, at which Jeansonne hints: personal virtue can be a liability for democratic politicians. Leaders like FDR, who possess qualities that are morally questionable—an economical approach to the truth, a tendency to smear others without cause, and a lack of guilt about either of these things—are, if not necessary attributes for a politician, characteristics that might help him in political life. Hoover's defeat thus serves as a vivid illustration of an observation first made by Socrates: democratic societies rarely give power to the best men.
Hoover himself recognized this insight, writing that he “knew from the experience of all public men from George Washington down that democracies are fickle and heartless.” Nonetheless, the focus of his post-presidential life was the promotion of ideas he thought would make democracy thrive.
In the 1930s, Hoover made prescient criticisms of the New Deal (for institutionalizing federal social assistance he believed should have been temporary) and Stalin (who he felt was "equally a reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible and Lenin"). Though he sat out World War II—owing to his support for a "fortress America" before Pearl Harbor, and FDR's refusal to let him serve the government afterward—he reentered public life at its conclusion.
In addition to managing his namesake institution at Stanford, Hoover helped to found Human Events. This became the favorite newspaper of a certain actor in California, who went on to win the Republican nomination for president in 1980.
In his convention address, Ronald Reagan, a great admirer of FDR, quoted Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign speech on the virtues of a balanced budget and the dangers of deficit spending—and used the issue to help defeat Jimmy Carter. Roosevelt, who used his powers of persuasion and political skill to defeat Hoover, now had his words used against his ideological heirs by an equally powerful communicator and skilled political operator—to advance the ideas Hoover stood for. Hoover would have appreciated the irony.