Herbert Hoover

One final presidential site for this summer: the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, just west of Iowa City. We stopped in while en route from Minneapolis to St. Louis. To my annoyance the management has reinstated limited opening hours on account of the latest COVID surge (as though this will actually do anything to prevent the spread of the disease), so we only got a half hour to look at it. They did let us in free, though.

Hoover was a remarkable individual. He was born into a Quaker family in West Branch, but moved to Oregon at age ten to live with an uncle after the death of both of his parents. He worked throughout his teens but took enough night school courses that he was accepted as a member of the inaugural class of Stanford University. There he worked numerous jobs, acted as class treasurer among other activities, and studied geology, in pretty much that order. However, he did eventually land a job with Bewick Moreing, a mining company active in the gold fields of Western Australia, where he was astoundingly successful at discovering new sources of ore and negotiating with the company’s workers. Stints in China and elsewhere followed, although he sold his shares in the company in 1908 and went into business for himself in London as a mining consultant and financier.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hoover created and chaired a committee to repatriate thousands of Americans trapped in Europe, and then organized the Commission for the Relief of Belgium to provide food for the citizens of that occupied country. When America declared war on the Axis powers in 1917, President Wilson appointed Hoover to lead the U.S. Food Administration, which shipped millions of tons of food to the allies in Europe. Following the war, the Food Administration became the American Relief Administration and continued to send aid to Europe, including former enemies like Germany and Bolshevik Russia, and after public funding ran out for the ARA, Hoover continued its work by soliciting private donations! This competent and energetic activity earned him a position as Secretary of Commerce in the cabinets of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and even though Coolidge was a firm believer in a minimalist government and laissez-faire economics, Hoover had enough latitude to continue his essentially Progressive program of technocratic intervention in regulating such things as traffic safety, commercial air travel, product standardization, and radio communication. All this set him up for a successful run for the presidency in 1928.

But starting in October of 1929, it all went awry. The big question with Hoover is: why was he unable to deal with the Great Depression effectively? He was no Coolidge, sitting back and waiting for economic problems to work themselves out (which is not necessarily a bad thing, although the Great Depression was likely too great a problem to be ignored in this way). Hoover had no problem with an activist government, and he tried various things like lowering interest rates, establishing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and sponsoring the Emergency Relief and Construction Act. Yet it is Hoover’s successor Franklin Roosevelt who gets credit for the New Deal, and whose campaign propaganda that Hoover “did nothing” is still with us. 

Hoover did approve the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which famously dampened international trade at a time when it desperately needed stimulating. He also refused to abandon the gold standard to the same effect. He called out federal troops against the Bonus Army, which did not go over well. Most important, Hoover retained a belief in volunteerism and in state-level or local efforts to alleviate the Depression, and that “the Dole was a cure worse than the disease.” A majority of voters in 1932 disagreed, and Hoover lost his bid for reelection. 

Hoover lived until 1964 and had an active post-presidency, during which time, as usually happens, his reputation improved somewhat, although it never reached the heights that he enjoyed in the 1920s.