Never has the United States elected a more accomplished man to the presidency than Herbert Clark Hoover, whose organizational genius saved millions of lives from famine and destitution. Never has the ensuing presidency been marked by worse disasters.
That paradox has energized every biographer of Hoover, from William Leuchtenberg’s brilliant brief study to the massive six-volume collective effort headed by George Nash (which I must confess from the start to having “read in,” but never to have actually “read”).
The paradox again energizes the latest of the biographies, by Kenneth Whyte, released last month. (I should mention here that Whyte was the founding editor of a newspaper to which I contributed a column between 1998 and 2013.)
The central question in assessing a new contribution to Hoover studies is to ask, “What new contribution does it offer to resolving the Hoover paradox?”
Or perhaps I should say paradoxes, for there is more than one. Here’s the first:
Almost as soon as he entered office, Hoover was presented with the severest economic crisis of modern times, the Great Depression. The U.S. economy slipped into reverse in August 1929, not even five months after Hoover took office. Counter to later partisan mythmaking, Hoover did not passively submit to the crisis. He worked tirelessly and creatively to mitigate its pain and reignite economic growth. But his efforts largely failed, and often made things worse. The greatest problem-solver ever to enter the presidency miserably failed to solve the greatest problem ever presented to a president.
Now the second:
Few if any Americans have dedicated more of their lives to the service of others than Hoover. A wealthy man by age 40, he turned his back on opportunities to earn more—and dissipated much of what he had gained—to devote himself to humanitarian work. As a private citizen, he organized food relief for German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. He undertook an even more ambitious task of rescue in Russia and Ukraine during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power. Then, as commerce secretary, he took charge of the response to the devastating flooding of the Mississippi Valley in 1927: floods that drove hundreds of thousands from their homes to temporary camps and left the region in economic shambles.
It wasn’t just that Hoover did these things well. He invented the idea that these things could be done at all, or at least done on any large scale.
Yet this hugely compassionate person was also a high-handed authoritarian, morbidly sensitive to criticism. Undemonstrative and withdrawn, the hyperactive Hoover perversely presented an image of indifference to a society that—thanks to the spread of radio—had just for the first time been introduced to the appearance of direct personal contact with its president.
Kenneth Whyte addresses both these paradoxes with scholarship, insight, and verve—even as he chafes against them. Whyte summons us to see Hoover as a human personality, more than just a walking embodiment of Great Depression studies. Hoover’s personality was the product of origins and early career that Whyte attentively details. Hoover lived for 30 productive years after losing office in 1932, and Whyte does just to those years too. Hoover would be called back into public service by President Truman to rationalize and reshape the U.S. government. The creation of the Department of Defense out of quarreling armed services owes much to Hoover, as does the Office of Management and Budget, a president’s most powerful tool for setting priorities. Hoover’s non-disaster work at the Commerce Department would constitute an honorable career in its own right. From the collection of unemployment statistics to the standardization of sizes for industrial parts, from the encouragement of aviation to the creation of property rights in radio frequencies—even had Hoover quit politics in 1928, he would still have shaped the modern American economy more than any cabinet secretary since Alexander Hamilton.
But the Great Depression is always there, at the center of the story. It’s critical to Hoover’s place in history—and his legacy to American politics.
Beneath the opening credits of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, actors Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton sing a song that includes the lyric, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” In a big country, almost anything is statistically possible. But as a matter of probability, it’s exceedingly unlikely that a working-class New Yorker born in 1924, Archie Bunker’s biography, would have had anything good to say about Hoover. The political drama of the 1970s was the movement of people like Archie away from their inherited loyalty to Franklin Roosevelt’s party into Richard Nixon’s, Ronald Reagan’s—and now Donald Trump’s.
To encourage and hasten that movement, the conservative intellectual world of the time condemned Hoover fully as fiercely as any Democratic partisan had ever done. He had signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff. He had raised taxes in 1931. Calvin Coolidge and even the intensely mediocre Warren Harding were championed and rehabilitated. Hoover was blamed for wrecking their prosperous legacy. When Ronald Reagan, always conscious of himself as the great historic bookend to Franklin Roosevelt, ordered a portrait of a precursor for his Cabinet room, he selected Coolidge, not Hoover.
None of this made intellectual or historical sense. The Republicans of the 1920s had passed—and Warren Harding had signed—a much more burdensome tariff than Smoot-Hawley in 1922. It was the 1922 tariff that barred European exports from the U.S. marketplace. That tariff compelled nations rebuilding themselves from the First World War to obtain dollars by piling peacetime borrowing atop wartime borrowing, rather than by running trade surpluses, as economic theory would recommend. If tariffs caused the Depression, Harding and Coolidge should have shared it.
Hoover did indeed raise taxes in 1931. He did so because the alternative was to quit the gold standard, as Britain would do in September 1931. Under the gold standard of the time, the United States promised to sell an ounce of gold for $20.67 to anyone who wanted to buy it. In times of budget deficits, more speculators would buy gold—confronting the United States with the risk of running out. The only way to stop such runs on the bank was by raising interest rates and balancing budgets. Hoover’s critics are right that this was precisely the wrong thing to do in 1931. But many of them also passionately championed a gold standard that required the policies they opposed. This was not tenable.
The conservative attack on Hoover in the 1970s originated not in his actual record, but by an ideological hunt for usable heroes. Since Harding and Coolidge occupied the presidency in sunnier days, they were adopted—even though their policies had much more to do with bringing on the Depression than anything Hoover did. Hoover was assigned the villain’s part, to punish him for his bad timing.
Yet it’s also true that the embittered post-presidential Hoover self-harmed his own reputation. Hoover commenced his political life as a progressive-leaning Republican. Terms like “progressive”—and, worse, its antonyms like “Old Guard”—artificially impose an order that may have been lacking in real life. But speaking very broadly, progressives like Hoover championed scientific expertise and disliked patronage politics; accepted some increased government regulation of industry; preferred lower tariffs to higher; favored more U.S. involvement to keep the postwar peace rather than less; and were more open to forgiving war reparations and war debts rather than insisting on full payment. Hoover could fuse those attitudes with a very individualist appreciation of the free enterprise system. But—a truly self-made man—Hoover disliked hereditary advantages and endorsed heavier taxation of inheritances. In a different world somehow bypassed by the Great Depression, it’s possible to imagine a Hoover presidency that signed into law some kind of Social Security system—a concept endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt when he ran for president on a progressive line in 1912.
But the Depression did happen, and Hoover was left against the machinations and defamations of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was the last president to be inaugurated in March rather than January. Hoover sought to involve his successor in decision making over the five months between election and inauguration—in particular, in negotiations to resolve the international debt problem and to stop the competitive devaluations by which the major economies sought advantage over one another. Perhaps it was not yet too late to save German democracy.
Roosevelt refused all cooperation, while simultaneously sabotaging Hoover’s own ability to lead during the interim. Hoover and his wife Lou to the end believed that Roosevelt had intentionally sought to aggravate chaos over the winter to make himself look better in the spring. Via that resentment, Hoover reached more radical politics in his post-presidential years. He urged U.S. isolation from the coming war between Nazi Germany and the European democracies. He hoped for a war between Stalin and Hitler by which each would destroy the other—and half of Europe as well, presumably—without the United States having to involve itself. His economic individualism—hitherto balanced by his social conscience—became more extreme. Whyte calls Hoover “the father of the new conservatism” that was born after World War II, the conservatism of Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and Paul Ryan, a conservatism that sustained the fight against the New Deal order through a second depression that could easily have proved as destructive as the first. The tribute seems both apt and ironic, given how those same conservatives would eventually defame him as badly as his Rooseveltian rival ever had.
But everything changes. Whatever else the Trump presidency is doing and has done, it has closed the book on that old “new conservatism.” It’s early to perceive what will succeed it, but it won’t be that. And when the time for succession comes, Hoover’s old party could learn things from his impressive career of public service. Among the great services of Ken Whyte’s elegant, lively, and witty biography is its unceasing reminder of this other Hoover. “If we want this civilization to march forward toward higher economic standards, to moral and spiritual ideals,” Hoover argued in a 1926 speech, “it will march only on the feet of healthy children.” The father of the new conservatism had earlier been also the founding president of the American Child Health Association, the exhorter of state governments to build state health clinics and hospitals for children, like Oregon’s Doernbecher hospital, established that same year.
Hoover’s astounding accomplishments and generous impulses have been effaced by polemical narratives written to serve polemical political purposes. Such distortions are offenses against historical memory. Yet it would prove an interesting irony if justice is finally done to Herbert Hoover not for historical reasons alone, but also because in the unceasing ideological quarrying of the American past, this great man and execrated president has proven himself useful again. To understand Hoover’s life, career, and his legacy in full, this rich new biography will certainly prove indispensable.