Herbert Hoover is probably the most unfairly maligned great man in American history.
Herbert Hoover: A Life
By Glen Jeansonne
(New American Library, 455 pages, $28)
Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, may be, in common public perception, the most inaccurately characterized man in the history of the republic. He’s way down on the list of esteemed presidents, because of circumstances almost certainly beyond anyone’s control. Historian Glen Jeansonne’s fine biography, the first to treat the man’s entire life, may help bring perceptions more in line with reality, some of which reality is quite splendid.
Those who successfully painted Hoover as a remote, privileged, ultra-conservative man unmoved by the privations brought on by the Great Depression during the beginning of which he had the ill luck to serve as president did a competent, concerned, and good man a great disservice. They also abuse the more complicated truth about a man who led one of the most remarkable lives of the last century.
Far from a privileged beginning, Hoover was born into a Quaker family of modest means in rural Iowa. An orphan by nine, Hoover came up with no-nonsense relatives in California, where he learned the virtues of honesty, responsibility, hard work, self-reliance, concern for others, and humility. The combination of these virtues — along with talent, energy, and ambition — allowed this poor Quaker boy to work his way through Stanford University, graduating with that now-famous school’s first class in 1895 with a degree in geology. With this credential, he began a remarkably successful career as a mining engineer and entrepreneur, both in America and across the world. He became honored in his profession and became a very rich man, not by privilege but by achievement. The term self-made man seems to have been coined to describe the young Herbert Hoover.
When Hoover turned 40 in 1914 and the world turned to war, he had amassed a great fortune as one of the most successful engineers and entrepreneurs on the planet and could have kept adding to that fortune. But Hoover the Quaker, who many would later call insensitive, moved on to the truly remarkable Good Samaritan phase of his life. The relief efforts he organized and oversaw — beginning in Belgium during the Great War and later in the whole of Europe, including even the new Soviet Union — saved the lives of millions who would have otherwise starved or died of disease in the absence of the food and other relief Hoover and those he mobilized caused to be delivered. This was no easy trick, involving extreme problems of finance, diplomacy, and logistics, the warring parties being far more interested in taking the lives of their enemies than saving the lives of bystanders.
It’s likely that Herbert Hoover saved the lives of more people than anyone who ever lived. He has always been greatly honored in the countries he helped sustain during the worst of times. Had he not turned to politics — a vocation for which his honesty, humility, and preference for substance over ballyhoo made him less than ideally suited — he likely would have been canonized rather than vilified. As it was, he became the target of a Democratic Party under the leadership of a charming, aristocratic dilettante with neither principles nor program to suit the challenges he inherited but with a lot of ruthless political skill.
Jeansonne’s latest — he’s written several other political biographies — not only gives readers a detailed look at an American politician and humanitarian who was much more than the prevalent public view of him but also is a trip through American history during the first two-thirds of the most eventful and tragic century since man first stood up and walked. Readers will be reminded that little changes in the game of politics. The iron-clad rule is that the other party is wrong about everything and your party has all the right answers. So even though Hoover had warned that the stock market and the economy were overheating years before the Great Depression arrived and even though he advanced various measures to head off the dive, all of them requiring less bureaucratic bloat than the New Deal alphabet soup, he was still successfully characterized by FDR & Associates as insulated, uncaring, incompetent, and the total cause of everything that was wrong with the country.
The idealistic Hoover relied on the voting public to sort fact from fiction, to see that the Great Depression was a world-wide phenomenon that had gotten under way elsewhere before things crated here, and certainly was not of his making. He also relied on others to defend his policies and his character. Neither happened. So the man who had won the presidency in a landslide in 1928 on the basis of his proven competence and achievement was cashiered in a landslide in 1932, presumed a total failure.
Those who watched Barack Obama, deep into his second term, still blaming George W. Bush for the economy not being robust will not be surprised that, in 1940, two presidential election cycles after he left the White House and after FDR had exhausted the entire alphabet in an unsuccessful effort to vanquish the Great Depression, the Democrats were still blaming Hoover for the bad times, which by then gave every appearance of being permanent. The casual observer of the political scene in 1936 and 1940 would think FDR was running against Hoover rather than against Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie. But if you have a good boogey-man, no point in letting him go.
It’s hard to pin Hoover down ideologically up through the White House years. He had his liberal and progressive elements and attempted to use government to make American life better. But he was temperamentally a conservative with no illusions about what the government, especially government bureaucracies, could accomplish. He always wanted the private sector to be the dominant partner in any endeavor, and when the mission was complete, he dismantled the government structure erected for the purpose.
Hoover stayed active in politics, though never running for office again, until his death at 90 in 1964. He wrote books and articles, and the formerly awkward speaker and ham-handed campaigner gained enough polish to be highly sought after on the speakers’ circuit. He even developed a late-in-life sense of humor. In the process, he gained back some of the respect he earned early on but not all.
Jeansonne, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has given us an exhaustively researched, balanced, and thorough treatment of an American life very much worth knowing about. And don’t let the professor part worry you. Jeansonne writes clearly. In this worthy book, he is free of the professorial plagues of theory, academic language, or political agenda.
Photo credit: Herbert Hoover’s birthplace in West Branch, Iowa (Willjay/Creative Commons)