Why is Herbert Hoover so reviled?
How should history rate Herbert Hoover, the nation’s 31st President? By today’s standards, Hoover was an anomaly. He rose, in Horatio Alger fashion, from being orphaned at age nine to the pinnacle of self-made success in business and finance. Although he was a Quaker, Hoover’s martial adventures in China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900—at one point leading a detachment of U.S. Marines against Chinese rebels—rival the fictional exploits of Indiana Jones. In an era before ghost writers, Hoover was an accomplished author; his 1922 book, American Individualism, cemented the fame he had earned as a global mining engineer and international humanitarian relief administrator.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been justly attacked for their recent inflammatory rhetoric. But these criticisms miss the mark unless they are seen in the context of how, in their ways, the Democratic President and leading Republican contender reflect the presidential politics of their respective parties.
How much do you know about the inflationary financing, in which the then-new Federal Reserve led the parade, that backed America’s participation in World War I? How about the high-inflation postwar aftermath? How about the steep and painful, although brief, depression (that’s depression, not recession) of 1920-21? The report of a congressional joint commission of the day concluded that “the debacle of 1920-21 was without parallel”—without parallel but now forgotten. Most importantly, how much do you know about the general lack of government interventions in that depression, but the rapid recovery and renewed growth that followed it? If you are an…
George Nash, the dean of Herbert Hoover scholars, wrote about our 31st President most recently in the Wall Street Journal, commemorating the centenary of Hoover’s heroic World War I disaster-relief efforts in Europe. Nash described how, in 1914, a young and successful London-based mining engineer made his move “to ‘get in the big game’ of public life.”
Nash’s words capture a do-gooding impulse, but one that is mixed with personal ambition. This interesting alloy should be familiar. It puts Herbert Hoover in a long line of Americans in whom self-improvement and world-improvement seem inextricably tied—a line stretching back in our history, at least to Benjamin Franklin, and forward into our time.
Eighty years ago this week, Herbert Hoover published a book of political philosophy entitled The Challenge to Liberty. Although little remembered today, it deserves scrutiny, especially by those interested in the history and theory of classical liberalism in its American context.
When President Hoover left the White House in 1933, he and his wife returned to Palo Alto, California to live. At first he maintained a public silence about the new chief executive and his shimmering New Deal. He did not wish, by any premature, partisan outburst, to jeopardize or appear to jeopardize economic recovery during a national emergency. At any rate he doubted that comments of his would have an effect in the current public atmosphere, poisoned as he considered it to be by the incessant “smearing” of his record by the opposition. He hoped also that, as New Deal measures failed (which he expected them to do), the American people would learn from disillusioning experience and return to their traditional values.
Books reviewed in this essay:
The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, by Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath, ed., George H. Nash (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).
New power emerges out of confusion—and ours is a confused age. No dominant historical narrative supplies us with a common story, and without a common story we belong neither to each other nor to shared ideals. When a people are unscripted by history, the past becomes raw material, to be processed via key moral and political vocabulary by those who would willfully impose “new modes and orders,” to quote Machiavelli.
Disordered times produce the search for order and the desire to impose order. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport are in the former category. Their book The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism seeks to revise our historical understanding of the rise and development of American conservatism by tracing it to Herbert Hoover.
Herbert Hoover's legacy is perhaps forever linked with the failure of the American economy under his presidency after the stock market crash of 1929 and his ensuing defeat by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the election of 1932. Further adding to his difficulties is the charge that he was progressive-lite in his policies before and after the Great Depression. The proper foundation, it follows, for advocates of a renewed conservative focus is Calvin Coolidge, a President who cut budgets and taxes. This discussion with Hoover scholar George Nash begs to differ. Nash, who previously appeared on Liberty Law Talk to discuss the…
In 1964 Herbert Hoover died at the age of ninety. He had lived a phenomenally productive life, including more than half a century in one form or another of public service. It was a record that in sheer scope and duration may be without parallel in American history.
His life had begun in humble circumstances in 1874 in a little Iowa farming community, as the son of the village blacksmith. Orphaned before he was ten, Hoover managed to enter Stanford University when it opened its doors in 1891. Four years later he graduated with a degree in geology and a determination to become a mining engineer.
From then on, Hoover’s rise in the world was meteoric.