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Herbert Hoover’s Long-Awaited Magnum Opus

Our 31st President's secret history of World War II is now available.

By and From the February 2012 issue

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Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath 
Edited with an introduction by George H. Nash
(Hoover Institution Press, 957 pages, $49.95) 

"I have not got too far to go [in writing my Magnum Opus] and this is the most important job of my remaining years." Thus wrote former President Herbert Hoover in 1963, after almost 20 years of work on his secret history of World War II. During that war, Hoover watched in dismay as events unfolded; he went on a mission to collect the evidence to reveal the real story of the mishandled war—the mistakes of statesmanship, the lost opportunities for peace, and the disastrous consequences of this most devastating war in the history of the world. Yet, despite requests from eager publishers, Hoover never released his book during his lifetime, and neither would his family after his death. Until now.

We will analyze the contents of this remarkable book, but first, what is the story behind it? In 1933, Hoover left the White House, thrashed in his reelection bid by Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover, as a trained engineer in Stanford's first graduating class, had been a world traveler and a statesman of the first rank. He served as Food Administrator under Woodrow Wilson during World War I and Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover was a major player on the world stage and a logical candidate for the Republicans to nominate for president in 1928. His easy victory in that election, however, was followed by stress, setbacks, and the Great Depression. Roosevelt's triumph four years later was hardly surprising, but Hoover did not leave quietly. After a year of silence, he wrote Challenge to Liberty, a sharp criticism of the growth of government under FDR. Six years later, rejected by Roosevelt and ignored by Republicans, Hoover watched as an "avoidable" second world war emerged, sucking in the U.S., and then eroding liberty and threatening to destroy the victors as well as the vanquished.

In 1944, Hoover began collecting documents that would help explain the causes and consequences of what he considered to be the mishandled war. He started with newspapers and, over time, added accounts of the war published by participants. Then came the secondary sources, books about Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, and Joseph Stalin. Hoover's Magnum Opus, as he called it, was more than a passive account of what happened, because Hoover himself was involved directly in the war relief of Finland and Poland. He also wrote letters to major players in the war and conducted interviews with them to discover the truth about how the war had originated and evolved. Hoover did not do archival research, but he knew key leaders throughout the world and tried to use their letters and conversations with him to fill in gaps. Thus, the book is unique—part primary source and part secondary source. Close to half of the book is a reprinting of documents and letters that Hoover assembled.

During the 1950s, when the world war was still a dominant topic, several publishers, such as Henry Regnery, eagerly sought to print Hoover's book, but he could not let it go. Interestingly, Hoover was a workaholic and published his memoirs and other books on topics ranging from politics to fishing. For his Magnum Opus, however, he hired a platoon of typists and researchers to do draft after draft, swelling the manuscript to 1,400 typed pages. But he never released it.

George Nash, the nation's foremost Hoover scholar, gingerly speculates that Hoover became a perfectionist, rewriting, editing, and adding new information on the war as it became available. Nash notes that Hoover, whose reputation was somewhat rehabilitated during the 1950s, may have been reluctant to suffer the almost certain negative reaction that would flow from the friends of FDR and intervention.

The fear of negative reaction probably did influence his heirs to pack the manuscript into storage in 1964, after Hoover's death that year. And maybe those fears haunted Hoover as well. During his career, we should note, he often suffered criticism willingly for what he thought was right. For example, in 1932, President Hoover confronted about 10,000 or so veterans who had descended on Washington, D.C., to lobby for a special federal subsidy for those who had served their country in war. Hoover, and the Senate, said no, and when many veterans remained, Hoover became alarmed at their protests. Then, concerned about violence because the veterans camped so close to the Capitol, Hoover dispatched General Douglas MacArthur with troops to remove the raucous veterans from the Capitol area. But Hoover explicitly told MacArthur to use diplomacy, not firepower. MacArthur, for whatever reason, did attack the veterans, injuring some, and chasing them with infantry and cavalry supported by six tanks all the way to Maryland. The press excoriated Hoover, but the president took full responsibility and was mum on MacArthur's disobedience. Duty prevailed over political self-interest. And that was in the midst of Hoover's reelection campaign. Roosevelt, when he heard about the slaughter of the veterans, reportedly announced to Felix Frankfurter, "Well, Felix, this will elect me."

The man who would suffer such criticism surely would not cave in to critics who would fault his history of World War II. But maybe he would. In 1952, with Hoover's reputation on the rise, he published a volume of his presidential memoirs and for the first time revealed MacArthur's duplicity. Hoover, historians would now have to write, was not to blame for the massacre of veterans. At almost the same time as Hoover tattled on MacArthur, he was refusing to publish his sensational, but controversial, history of World War II. Perhaps, as Hoover approached the age of eighty, his concern with posterity was outweighing his concern with wartime analysis.

WHATEVER THE CASE, the Hoover Institution has at last published Hoover's remarkable book. It was initially titled Lost Statesmanship, but Hoover changed it to Freedom Betrayed. George Nash has exquisitely edited the book and has provided a long and lucid introduction to it. Hoover organized his book chronologically into three "volumes." The first volume covered the breakout of war in Europe until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The second volume centered on the war itself, with the focus on political negotiations and the conferences held by the Allies. The third volume includes case histories of Poland, China, Korea, and Germany during and after the war. At the end is an Appendix of selected documents related to Hoover's research and to the war itself.

Hoover's book is indeed controversial because most histories of World War II stress the positive—the fall of Hitler, the triumph of the Allies, and the creation of a United Nations afterward to preserve and enforce peace after the guns of war became silent. These historians call it "the good war": the U.S. finally grew up as a nation among nations, ceased its isolationism, and spearheaded the war effort, with the founding of the UN afterward. True, the peace proved to be fragile. The Russians aggressively marched into Eastern Europe, the Cold War emerged, and a new "limited war" erupted in Korea. But that was not the fault of FDR and others, who fought the good war, won it, and tried to give peace to the next generation.

Freedom Betrayed disputes this popular view on almost every point. Hoover argues that a major war may have been avoidable, and should have played out with much less damage. Hitler, of course, was a dangerous tyrant, but his ability to expand was limited. The U.S., in particular, was in no danger—if Hitler couldn't conquer Britain 22 miles across the English Channel, Hoover quipped, he certainly couldn't take his second-rate navy across the Atlantic to challenge North and South America. Even much of Europe would have been safe. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Hoover stressed, should never have guaranteed aid to Poland from German attack. Eventually Germany and Russia would have been the chief warring nations. "We should have let those two bastards annihilate themselves," Hoover said privately after the war.

Hoover singles out FDR for special blame. He became a war hawk in 1939 "to divert public attention from the failure of the New Deal.…" Then he pretended to be the candidate of peace in order to win a third term in 1940. But after he was safely reelected, "the tone changed; there was no more 'short of war' or promises to keep out. On the contrary, soon in 1941 there began a series of provocations and actions by the administration which amounted to an undeclared war upon Germany, and a few months later upon Japan." Specifically, FDR pushed Lend-Lease, which allowed him extra-constitutional powers to ship arms to England; soon, contrary to his promises, the president was convoying British ships to pick up and deliver loads of military equipment from the U.S. The president also provoked the Japanese by refusing to trade oil and scrap iron with them. Hoover believes that FDR bungled by allowing a devastating surprise attack at Pearl Harbor: by sending so many fighter planes and antiaircraft guns to foreign governments through Lend-Lease, Roosevelt left Hawaii without a means of adequate defense.

Hoover has special scorn for FDR's decision to give billions of dollars of Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union, "one of the bloodiest tyrannies and terrors ever erected in history." As Hoover said at the time, "Joining in a war alongside Stalin to impose freedom is a travesty." After the war, Stalin used American planes, guns, gas, and food to help conquer Eastern Europe. Furthermore, when Roosevelt endorsed "unconditional surrender" for the Germans, he gave them incentives to keep fighting to the death, extending the war unnecessarily and costing thousands of American lives.

HOOVER VIEWED NOT ONLY World War II but war in general very differently from Roosevelt. Hoover, for example, was appalled by war—and saw firsthand its devastating effects on everyone involved. Under President Wilson, Hoover visited Europe regularly during the First World War. He headed food and relief efforts throughout Europe, but was always saddened by war's devastation. Aside from the destruction of property and lives, and the "spiritual degradation" as well, Hoover studied the financial burdens. In the U.S., for example, national debt increased from $1.2 billion in 1916 to $24 billion in 1920. That included almost $10 billion in loans to European countries, almost none of which (except for Finland) was repaid. Tax rates on income skyrocketed from 7 percent in 1913 to 73 percent in 1921, when Hoover took office as secretary of commerce. "Those who would have us again go to war to save democracy," George Nash quotes Hoover as saying in 1938, "might give a little thought to the likelihood that we would come out of any such struggle a despotism ourselves."

Hoover's fears were partly realized when America entered World War II. Franklin Roosevelt used the wartime emergency to become an imperial president; through executive orders, he gained the power to close any stock exchange, order the military to take over any land, disregard tariffs, and control radio stations. FDR's War Production Board (WPB) directed the allocation of raw materials and fuel during the war for all segments of the economy. Roosevelt also set up dozens of other regulatory agencies, and the American people generally went along with these intrusions on their liberties in the patriotic fervor of "let's win the war!"

Roosevelt also pushed to have Japanese Americans interned in relocation camps, even though J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI found the Japanese on the West Coast to be no threat to national security. FDR knew that he would gain votes in California and other states by such a move. In regard to taxes, Roosevelt expanded the federal income tax until 65 percent of Americans were paying into government coffers by 1943. Before World War II, only 5 percent of Americans had paid any income tax at all.

To Roosevelt, World War II was a unique and exciting chance to centralize authority and remake the world—quite a different view from that of Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt had no battlefield experience, and only viewed World War I sites after the war was over. As we point out in FDR Goes to War, Roosevelt exaggerated his accomplishments as assistant secretary of war under Wilson. When campaigning for Vice President in 1920, for example, he boasted to two audiences that he wrote the Haiti constitution—but he had never been to Haiti, or had any part in writing its constitution. As president, in 1942, he told Churchill that he (Roosevelt) could "personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department." That same year, as Hoover discovered, he told General John J. Pershing that he (Roosevelt) was better informed on war strategy than anyone in the Army "including you, General." Roosevelt believed he could charm Stalin, lead the Allies to victory, and then, with Stalin's help, set up the United Nations and establish world peace for a generation. Thus for Roosevelt, eagerly entering and then fighting World War II was a small price to pay for such a great reward.

Hoover, by contrast, saw carnage and destruction. Always a humanitarian, Hoover tried to help war refugees from the earliest days of World War II. In 1940, even before the U.S. entered the conflict, he drew attention to a plan to get food to the starving masses in Poland; his plan was rebuffed by the British and other powers, because such supplies would simply wind up in the hands of the Nazis. Hoover's plan showed that at times he could certainly be very naïve, but he also was more of a realist than Franklin Roosevelt about the ultimate cost of war. "I was opposed to the war and every step of policies in it," he wrote in Freedom Betrayed. He even opposed dropping atomic bombs on Japan to end the war. "I have no apologies, no regrets." He added, "The victors in modern war are in reality the vanquished."

NOW THAT WE ARE at a distance of seven decades since World War II, historians may be in position to take a more balanced view of both Herbert Hoover and FDR. During Hoover's lifetime, he was hamstrung by his failures to cope with the financial crisis that deepened into the Great Depression. Much of that was his own fault. For example, against the advice of one thousand economists, he signed into law the highly restrictive Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Nations all over Europe refused to buy American if the U.S. would not buy European. In fact, Smoot-Hawley, the highest tariff in U.S. history, gave England and France the perfect excuse to stall on repaying their debts to the U.S.: If Americans will not import our products, how can we gain the cash to repay what we owe them from World War I?

After a failed presidency, Hoover's views on both foreign and domestic policy were lumped together and ridiculed; FDR ignored him. When Truman assumed office, he met with Hoover and appointed him to lead with food relief for Europe. Hoover helped to feed millions of starving Europeans with free American food after the war. Historians, however, have painted Hoover as a cold, remote president, a far different picture from the humanitarian benefactor that he was after both world wars.

In the wake of the Cold War, which quickly followed World War II, and the U.S. lack of success in limited wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, the world may be readier for Hoover's Magnum Opus. Freedom Betrayed may not have improved with age, but Americans today may be more willing to believe it than they were during Hoover's last years.

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About the Author

Burton Folsom Jr. is professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of New Deal or Raw Deal? (Simon & Schuster, 2008). His latest book, co-authored with Anita Folsom, is FDR Goes to War: How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America (Simon & Schuster, 2011).