Happy Birthday, Herbert Hoover: The Lost Legacy of a Hated President

Villainized in the Depression, he shaped global humanitarianism and America's role in the world

Villainized in the Depression, he shaped global humanitarianism and America's role in the world

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Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Herbert Hoover, our nation's 31st president. Where other presidential birthdays are cause for public holidays (see: Washington, Lincoln) or public reflection (see: Reagan's centennial), this one is likely to pass without notice. That's not entirely surprising: Hoover is the president America loves to hate. His name is a staple on the regular lists of "history's worst presidents." And there's little wonder why: The Great Depression that reduced the country to rubble is laid, fairly or not, at Hoover's feet.

These days, because of America's brush with a second such Depression, Hoover has enjoyed something of a revival, if only as a cautionary tale, the epitome of what not to do in an economic crisis. Liberals delight in using Hoover to demonstrate what happens when government does too little during tough times; for them, Hoover was the American Nero, playing the fiddle and refusing to dispense relief as more and more penniless Americans crowded into makeshift "Hoovervilles." Conservatives, for their part, can use Hoover to argue the opposite: Because Hoover insisted on signing Smoot-Hawley, the tariff act that pushed an already ailing economy over the brink, he is the finest example of what happens when government falsely believes it knows best.

If posterity has been unsparing (and bipartisan) in its critique of Hoover, it's still mild compared to the open hostility he faced in his own time. Hoover's reelection campaign launched in the darkest days of the crisis: Unemployment hovered at roughly 25%; over 5,000 banks were under water; a drought ripped through the heartland. The campaign was over before it started. Heckled mercilessly, pelted with rotten produce, Hoover wasn't even safe on his campaign train. In Wisconsin, a man was caught pulling up railroad spikes ahead of the Hoover express, and in Nevada, two more men were discovered attempting to sabotage the tracks with dynamite. "A walking corpse" by the end, Hoover slouched through Election Day, the loser in 42 out of 48 states.

It was his first and final elected position, and the defeat must have stung all the worse for the contrast with his glittering, pre-presidential triumphs. For Hoover, the presidency was the culmination of a storybook career that had taken an orphan boy to the pinnacle of business success, then into international humanitarian work, and only then into politics. Hoover, it can be said, came to the White House fully formed--and already wildly famous around the world.

The man who left office a national pariah was, only a decade and a half before he entered politics, a genuine international hero. His early career gave rise to present-day crisis response and helped form America's modern approach to conflict--although that legacy remains buried by economic wreckage.

Two weeks shy of Hoover's 40th birthday in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia, and Europe erupted into war. A week later, Germany invaded neutral Belgium in an effort to cut through to France. Though the Belgians resisted, the Germans outmatched and overpowered them. Britain, meanwhile, blockaded Belgium's ports in an effort to squeeze the Germans into submission.

At the war's outset, the Belgians imported three-quarters of their food, but between an occupying army and a blockading navy, supplies began to run dangerously low. Whatever stocks of food Belgium had in reserve were either destroyed or commandeered by the German army, and that year's harvest was ruined. Before long, it was clear that Belgium was descending into a starvation crisis--and that neither the British nor the Germans were going to offer succor.

For Hoover, the crisis couldn't have come at a better time. A self-made, prosperous mining engineer with almost 100,000 people in his employ, he was living in London, helping Americans abroad return home, and growing increasingly antsy about how to spend his days. He had achieved private success but ached for public significance. "Just making money isn't enough," he sighed to a friend. He was desperate to find some way onto what he later called "the slippery road of public life." The Belgian crisis, he could see, was tailor-made for him.

Belgium, in Hoover's view, had been "the most innocent sufferer and the most acutely tried." And so Hoover launched a campaign wholly without precedent in the history of warfare: a large-scale humanitarian effort to rescue a conflict-stricken country from starvation in the middle of a war, led by a private citizen of a neutral nation. The organization Hoover created, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), was expected to remain in existence for a few months and wind down after hostilities ended. It ended up consuming a full four years of Hoover's life--a period in which, at times through sheer force of will, he managed to convince and cajole reluctant diplomats, heads of state, almost 50,000 Americans, and as many private citizens across Europe to donate and distribute food to starving Belgians.

Even by today's standards, the sum of distributed aid was staggering. The CRB spent almost $1 billion in assistance, issued 5 million tons of concentrated food, and fed over 9 million people in Belgium and northern France, all with an administrative overhead of less than 1 percent. In the heart of war-torn Europe, Hoover essentially assembled his own country: The CRB had its own flag and negotiated its own treaties. Granted diplomatic immunity, Hoover was one of the few Americans to travel freely in the war zone.

One observer referred to the CRB as a "piratical state organized for benevolence"--and another referred to its chief executive as "the Napoleon of mercy."

His fellow Americans saw him in those years as an almost frightening force of nature. President Wilson's secretary of war, Newton Baker, wrote this about Hoover: "Terrible to the Germans, terrible to the British and French, terrible to most of his American associates, terrible because of his relentless and unconquerable determination to keep the Belgians from starving, he scolded, threatened, and out-bullied every human obstacle; changed the policies of nations; and thwarted the most resolute determinations of cabinets, governments, and military establishments. He squeezed money out of stones and gathered food from the deserts."

Indeed, most accounts of this period show Hoover utterly oblivious to anything that wasn't connected to feeding Belgium. He lost a disturbing amount of weight and wore rumpled clothing--but the object of his devoted attention, the CRB, flourished. "There never was anything like it in the world before," American Ambassador to Britain Walter Hines Page told a crowd, "and it is all one man and that is Hoover." By some estimates, that one man was responsible for saving more lives than any other individual in human history.

Long before America conceived of itself as a benevolent superpower, Hoover, though acting in the private sector, decisively pushed the boundaries of Americans' thinking about their role in the world. Today, it's easy to take for granted the recurrent American impulse to involve itself, for better or worse, in humanitarian crises. But that impulse was not a given in the early days of the "American century": Herbert Hoover helped to invent it.

And that impulse may not be a given for much longer. Budget cutting, a post-Iraq and Afghanistan hangover, and the general sense that America needs to tend to its own troubles may make it more difficult to justify expensive overseas humanitarian missions, at least where there's no clear alignment between U.S. ideals and interests. If and when the budgetary axe falls on security spending, we can safely bet that it will chop disproportionately from those programs regarded as "nice-to-haves"--USAID, the Peace Corps, and disaster relief. Such programs descended from Hoover's efforts, and their defenders would do well to study Hoover's daunting task of selling a skeptical nation on humanitarian engagement.

Budget hawks might also enlist the CRB as an example of the private sector succeeding where governments had failed. As a believer in the power of private philanthropy to shape public policy, Hoover is a forerunner of modern mega-donors like Bill Gates.

But there are no simple historical analogies. If anything, Hoover's fall from humanitarian hero to "walking corpse" is a prime instance of the cost of bad analogies. He believed--reasonably, it must have seemed--that his feats in feeding Europe ideally suited him to tackle the collapse of the American economy; but whatever the lessons he learned in Belgium, they failed to transfer to the American Depression. As much as he is and was reviled, Herbert Hoover's story is classically tragic: His success planted the seeds of his historic failure. Convinced that he already had the wisdom and will to meet disaster, Hoover failed to adapt to a new kind of crisis, in contrast to the "bold, persistent experimentation" of his successor, FDR. Hoover's triumph in Europe must be counted among the sources of his rigidity.

Reflecting on the zenith of a great general's career, before the betrayals and disappointments that darkened his last years, the Greek and Roman historian Plutarch wrote: "How happy it would have been for him if he had died then." We would never wish a premature death on anyone; but if Herbert Hoover's public life had ended early, had he never run for president, he would be ranked among the greats in American history, and the story of the Depression--though perhaps this is too much to ask--might have been less bleak.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons