Herbert Hoover in the White House
I was a journalist before I became an author, and all my books tend to reflect the journalistic impulse to discovery. That is, I tend to avoid the beaten path, and choose instead subjects who have been overlooked. That is a rare circumstance for a person who reaches so high an office as the presidency of the United States, but that was the case with Herbert Hoover.
That is not because Hoover’s presidency was insignificant. He led the country in the teeth of the most dire economic crisis in American history, a trauma that, in cause and result, might well be considered the labor pains attendant to the birth of the modern era. At the same time, all of the civilized world was wrestling with the allure and the dangers presented by the isms of the left and the right—communism, fascism, and every stripe of the spectrum in between. In this titanic struggle, Hoover found the resolve to stay off the shoals and steer by his own lights.
Still Hoover remains very much unknown to most Americans. When he is recalled at all, it is in defeat and in caricature—the clay-footed conservative who preached the old dogmas of laissez-faire while the false idols of capital came crashing down; handmaiden to the elite, scourge of the huddled masses.
Hoover himself must take some responsibility for this thin and misleading depiction, by dint of his stinting approach to public life. He disliked speeches, made few public appearances, and never formed that bond to the American people that has been the foundation for every successful presidency. More than that, Hoover’s successor in office was the twentieth century’s most important president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Inevitably, Hoover was overshadowed, his travails ignored, and his moments of success
forgotten. In the version of the story written by the winners, Hoover played the foil, the stooge to the princely Squire of Hyde Park.
Certainly Roosevelt joined in this concerted effort to paint Hoover in the most unflattering tones. In the years after he first trounced Hoover, FDR used him repeatedly as the straw man to knock down again. “Back in 1932” became a campaign refrain; nor did Roosevelt confine his hostility to elections. When Democratic chieftain Bernard Baruch proposed drafting Hoover to help organize domestic production during World War II, Roosevelt dismissed the notion.
“I’m not Jesus Christ,” the president told Baruch. “I’m not going to raise him from the dead.”
And so Hoover remained buried, condemned as a relic of the past by a forward-looking nation. He was a convenient touchstone, a benchmark by which a new generation could measure its politics and its progress, how far they had come and how much they had changed.
But that time, too, has now passed by, or at least arrived at an uncertain maturity. The confidence of the postwar era, the bland acceptance of government intervention and large-scale public spending, has been replaced by ambivalence, with doubts about the efficacy of government and perplexity over mountainous debt. With America and Europe bound together in protracted economic stagnation, the idea of some alternative strategy takes on a new urgency. With so many predictions turned sour, denizens of this modern moment might want to look back.
This book is not an effort to resurrect Hoover as a forgotten hero ready for a new turn in the sun. His was a failed presidency, and not just because of fate, or poor timing. But I do hope in this work to fill in gaps papered over by homilies and assumptions that are now wearing thin. Not all that’s been discarded in the headlong rush to the future has been trash; not all that we have acquired along the way has been gold.
The passage of time has wrought another, inevitable effect that makes this book unique, and I hope useful. Until now, every portrait of Hoover has necessarily been colored by the passions and polemics of the era. His biographers were all partisans—committed either to his defense, or, more common, to showing his error, and thus burnishing the reputation and legend of Franklin Roosevelt.
That is not the case here. This is the first portrait of Hoover’s presidency to be drawn at a remove, from published documents and oral histories that can be weighed in the scales of time and experience rather than partisan political belief.
Consider, for instance, the question of who started the Depression, and where it began. For those who lived through those difficult years this was a defining issue, freighted with the burden of blame. In the instant, Hoover insisted that the roots lay abroad, that the economic dislocation of the 1930s began with the Great War and the peace settlement struck at Versailles. To the opposition, it was just as obvious that the Depression was homegrown, the product of Republican policies that were implemented in large part by Hoover himself.
Both sides played this game. It seems apparent that Hoover’s insistence on locating the onset of the Depression in Europe was at least in part defensive, and it is equally clear that those who blamed the Republicans—who dominated the boom years but were reviled thereafter—sought to score political points.
In the decades since, studies by a generation of economists reached a rough consensus that the Depression was a global phenomenon rooted at Versailles and exacerbated by the efforts of all the Western democracies to resurrect the prewar gold standard. This rendering certainly does not exonerate Hoover—his great error was to fight to the last in defense of gold. But nor does it condemn him the way the New Deal intellectuals would have it. In fact, adherence to the gold standard was one of the few policies to enjoy a real consensus at the time; even those who abandoned gold did so only reluctantly, and only because they saw no way to hold on. Hoover was wrong, but he was not stupid, and he was certainly not the hidebound dullard of popular myth.
Hoover is certainly not obscure. His name pops up frequently, albeit usually as the prototype of a failed president, or leading the pack in a worst-president contest. But the actual Hoover, once hailed as the exemplar of the Progressive era, elected in a landslide, embodiment of the ideal of the nonpolitician elevated to high office—that Hoover has been lost to the modern era.
I knew little of Hoover when I began this project. My previous books dealt with the nation’s founding era, and with postwar crime and politics—for me
the Great Depression was a blank, memorialized solely in my grandmother’s pronouncements about thrift and toil. I began with just one assumption—that there was more to Hoover’s story than the historical caricature marked out above.
At first pass I learned the broad outlines of Hoover’s official portrait—the well-meaning Quaker overwhelmed by historical circumstance, the economic conservative who stood by as the ship of state foundered. Eminent historians vied for the most eloquent condemnation of his tenure; summarizing the consensus version, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., dean of the New Deal interpreters, wrote that Hoover
“was portrayed as the embodiment of the illusions and complacencies of the New Era, a cold, self-righteous president who misconceived the problems of his age and determinedly sacrificed human beings on the altar of dogma.” It was a resounding and conclusive verdict.
But as I delved into the books and plumbed contemporary sources to follow the course of his presidency a new Hoover emerged, a character and an executive who contradicts the historical Hoover in two fundamental ways. First, Hoover was not the mild Quaker soul that his friends liked to portray, simply unfortunate to have entered the White House at such an unpropitious moment.
That was a whitewash, the product of the more common arts of hagiography, and of a kind of journalistic decorum no longer practiced today. Hoover was a kindly enough man in person and to his friends, but in the capacity of his office he was surly, easily frustrated, and sometimes vindictive. He regarded enemies and often his friends with suspicion, allowed few to get close to him, and proved inconstant in his alliances. A look inside his White House sanctum found him seething with anger; his advisors counseled that he use fear as a weapon and Hoover embraced it, winning some legislative battles but losing the war for hearts and minds.
The presidency was the first elected office Hoover ever held, and it showed. His status as a political novice served him well in his race against New York governor Al Smith, who was the quintessential politician of the time, a garrulous backslapper who embodied the spirit and the pluck of Gotham’s tenements. But in office Hoover’s nature betrayed him. Through
a curious combination of arrogance and personal pique he managed to turn much of his own party against him, and within a year, well before the Depression had fully revealed itself, Hoover had shown himself to be hapless and inept as president.
When the Depression arrived, then, Hoover was already feuding with Congress and with the press. He retained the nominal powers of his office, but not the sinews of popular and political support. The traditional first-blush honeymoon of his presidential term had already been squandered.
This set the stage for the second principal surprise of my research. That was that, contrary to so much written at the time and after, Hoover made an active and energetic response to the economic tsunami that hit the nation. No other officer in his administration was so quick to recognize the implications for employment when the stock market crashed in October, and none was more creative in fashioning a response.
That is not to say Hoover was right in the particulars of his program. And he was hamstrung in his policies by his distinctly antidemocratic tendencies, his penchant for secrecy, and his fearful, even paranoid view of those who might disagree with him. But Hoover was not the complacent, clueless stooge of the moneyed classes that his critics derided then and for a generation after.
More than that, Hoover was right about some of the most critical questions posed by the historic breakdown in the global economy. The first was the most fundamental—was this crisis a death blow to the whole idea of capitalism? Was the economic system that had raised up Western civilization, and which had reached its fullest flower in America, was that system doomed?
For peoples and nations around the globe the answer was yes. The crisis brought on a wave of revolution, and the advent of socialist and fascist alternatives to liberal capitalist democracy. Many Americans reached the same conclusion, and calls for a new order built around a central economic directorate arose from the left and the right. But in the White House Hoover never wavered, rejecting the idea of a planned economy as inimical to personal liberty and insisting that individual initiative remained the mainspring
of economic progress. The passing decades have confirmed Hoover’s instinct in the most graphic terms.
Beyond the watershed question of capitalism per se, Hoover made the further judgment that the primary systemic malfunction exposed by the Depression was the collapse of credit. Here again his powers of perception surpassed those of most contemporary observers in or out of government. And while he proved unable to surmount the breakdown brought on by the credit crunch—it is fair to say that, given the scale of the calamity, no single prescription could have overcome it—he did mobilize a creative, even daring institutional response.
That response was creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a multibillion-dollar agency established to thaw frozen assets and open channels of credit by supporting banks and other private institutions with public funds. It was a step that violated Hoover’s closely held proscription against government action in the marketplace, and it engendered stiff opposition in Congress. But Hoover recognized the need and pushed it through.
The RFC stood for decades after as a historical anomaly, a curio from the early days of the Depression, until American policymakers faced a similar crisis in 2008. Then, with the global financial system on the verge of another massive seizure, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama instituted the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a latter-day reprise of Hoover’s RFC. Economists and politicians still debate whether TARP was the appropriate policy, but it should at least earn Hoover a reprieve from the early verdict that he failed to grasp the significance of the Depression, or to formulate a response.
There are other aspects of the Hoover presidency that have been lost to American political discourse by his historical eclipse, elements less critical to Hoover’s reputation and legacy but still quite relevant to questions of policy and governance. Hoover was, for example, perhaps the greatest pacifist ever to occupy the White House, and his record of amity to the international community, and hostility to the arms industry at home, could stand as a beacon to later generations frustrated with the seemingly inexorable rise and application of American arms.
Similarly, Hoover carved out a subtle and useful thesis on the role of
government as a facilitator but not a director in the capitalist system. His guiding principle was “cooperation,” a mode that eschewed equally the antagonism of the left and the determined inaction of the right. Hoover was full of contradictions and often obtuse—he built a bureaucratic empire at the Department of Commerce while counseling against big government—but in this case his preachments fostered an ethos of comity that current-day bureaucrats would do well to emulate.
My sense of Hoover’s progress from the scene of action to the pages of history does not mean I did not rely on prior works of biography and commentary in preparing this book. I did so freely, as the source notes to this volume will attest. The facts and events remain the same, after all; the difference between this version of Hoover and those that came before lie in matters of emphasis and nuance, not in outright revision.
Still, much of the material presented here is being published for the first time. When I began writing there was just a single volume in print devoted to Hoover’s term in the White House, and that a fairly academic summary, rather than the sort of internal and chronological account presented here. This gave me the opportunity to offer a fresh look at a presidency marked by action, conflict, and momentous crisis.
I strove at the same time to fashion a more personal portrait of Hoover than was previously available. Hoover was an intensely private individual—an unfortunate trait in such a public man—and always careful to keep his personal thoughts and feelings out of the public record.
I was fortunate, then, both in recounting Hoover’s presidency and exploring his character, to have at my disposal several texts that were either unavailable or largely overlooked in prior Hoover scholarship. They are the diaries kept by several key friends and associates, documents maintained at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, in West Branch, Iowa, and in the archives at the Hoover Institution, founded at Stanford in 1919 by Hoover himself.
These extensive diaries include those kept by Hoover’s presidential physician, Navy Lieutenant Joel Boone; Hoover press secretary Ted Joslin, whose daily entries enhance the account he gave in his 1934 memoir Hoover
Off the Record; Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, also augmenting a published memoir; the daily diary of Hoover’s associate and longtime personal financial manager Edgar Rickard; and the exceptionally detailed journal maintained by James MacLafferty, a former congressman who entered into Hoover’s service as a covert liaison with lawmakers and party activists.
I also had the benefit of the personal letters Hoover’s wife, the former Lou Henry, wrote to her son Allan. Both Lou and Herbert Hoover agreed that they would keep all personal correspondence out of the public realm, but sometime after the death of his mother Allan Hoover decided it would serve the interest of history to place his correspondence with his mother in the collection at West Branch. Lou’s reflections on her husband’s feelings and motives provide the most intimate possible insights into her husband’s trials in high office.
Together with an extensive historical record, these personal diaries allowed me to portray an embattled chief executive wrestling with some of the greatest challenges ever to confront any American president. It is a story that has remained hidden from view, overshadowed by the natural resentments of a people who suffered through stunning, unprecedented privation, and by the masterful performance of the far more gifted politician who followed Hoover in office.
I endeavor here to restore Hoover to a new generation as a person and as a leader, a man beset by personal contradictions that compromised his tenure in office, but who remained a person of integrity, principle, and even wisdom. He presided over the nation in a time of crisis that may feel all too familiar; in his successes and in his failures, modern readers will find much that resonates today.