Herbert Clark Hoover (18741964), was an American businessman, humanitarian, and the 31st President of the United States of America (19291933). An arch-conservative, Hoover is best remembered for his perceived inaction in responding to the Great Depression, as compared to the almost frenetic interventionism of his popular successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is somewhat unfortunate, because although Hoover was somewhat of a failure as President, outside of those four years of his life he was a very successful humanitarian.

Early Life

Born the son of a Quaker blacksmith in the small village of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover grew up in Oregon. He enrolled in the newly founded Stanford University in 1891 and graduated with the first graduating class in 1895 with a degree in mining engineering. Hoover married his Stanford sweetheart, Lou Henry, and spent the next several years traveling the world as a mining engineer.

The Hoovers found themselves trapped in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, blockaded in the beseiged city of Tientsin. Hoover helped direct the construction of the defensive barricades, and once even risked his life to save several Chinese children.

Humanitarian Efforts

In the first decade of the 20th century Hoover returned to the US and established himself as a highly successful mining consultant, eventually opening offices in New York, San Francisco, and London. By the time World War I broke out in 1914, Hoover was a highly prominent businessman with many international connections, a position that led him to be named chairmen of the American Relief Commission that helped 150,000 stranded Americans return home from war-torn Europe.

In 1915 Hoover helped found and chaired the Commission for Relief in Belgium, with which he secured food and clothing for innocent civilians in German-occupied Belgium. With US entry into the war in 1917, Hoover was named US Food Administrator, served on the War Trade Council, was chairman of the Interallied Food Council - organizations involved with maintaining and supplying the Allied war effort.

After the Paris Peace Conference ended the war, Hoover was appointed a chairman of the Supreme Economic Council and director of the European Relief and Reconstruction Commission. In these posts, he coordinated the relief efforts of several agencies to restore and rejuvenate war-devastated Europe, and was given direct control over the transportation systems of Eastern Europe to achieve these ends. When famine struck Russia from 1921 to 1923, Hoover organized the transport of food to help feed millions of starving peasants. When asked if his efforts weren't aiding the rise of Bolshevism, Hoover famously responded, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!"


In the 1920s Hoover served ably as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, working to reduce unemployment, encouraging the growth of trade associations, and supporting public works projects, most notably the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Hoover Dam. By 1928 Hoover was a national figure of great fame and popularity, and he easily won the Republican Presidential nomination and defeated Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith in the election that year, taking office in the spring of 1929. Upon election he proudly declared: "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." That October, the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression.

Although Hoover was not to blame for the crash of '29 or the Depression that followed, having just taken office a few months before, his response to the crises caused many to view him as callous and uncaring. Hoover was a man of great personal integrity and humaninity who was genuinely concerned with the suffering of his nation's people, but he was also an extreme fiscal conservative - a Republican's Republican - and thus retained a profound and unshakeable faith in the abilty of big business to regenerate the economy on its own. He practiced what we now call trickle-down economics, targeting tax cuts and economic relief to large corporations, confident that this was the best way to help the nation as a whole. Through it all he insisted on maintaining a balanced budget, although he did allocate more money for public works projects in an effort to create jobs for the astoundingly high numbers of unemployed.

After three years of a deepening cycle of economic woe, during which he steadfastly held to his conservative policies, Hoover was overwhelmingly defeated by FDR in his 1932 reelection bid. Roosevelt would go on to establish his New Deal policies and revolutionize the American federal government, employing a massive public works program, large-scale deficit expenditure, and a host of other programs in a concerted effort to have the nation spend its way out of Depression. Hoover's measured, passive approach will always suffer in comparison to the activism of FDR, but the truth is that Roosevelt's policies, for all their glitz and fancy names, were hardly any more effective than Hoover's, and after a brief period of improvement, by 1937 the economy was a bad as it was in 1932 when Hoover left office (Ultimately it would take Hitler and Japan to end the depression through blood and steel). However, what Roosevelt was able to do, which the reserved Hoover was not, was give Americans hope again, and make them feel like the government was at least trying, and thus economic woes didn't hit quite as harshly as before. Average Americans felt that Roosevelt was on their side, rather than just helping big business like Hoover did.

Later Career

Except for a few speeches a Republican conventions and a 1938 European tour, Hoover retired from public life until after World War II. In 1946 he returned to his humanitarian efforts, organizing shipments of desperately needed food supplies to devastated Europe. Then from 1947 to 1949, he headed the Hoover Commission, a committee created by Congress to study and suggest reforms to the executive branch of the federal government. Many of the Commissions's recommendations were adopted, including the establishment of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Under President Eisenhower he headed a second Hoover Commission (19531955), which made recommendations on policy as well as organization.

The Herbert Hoover Library was dedicated in his home town of West Branch, Iowa in 1962. Hoover also has his name on the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University, which he had founded at his alma mater in 1919 to house his papers on his World War I relief efforts. Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964, in New York City.

Herbert Hoover ill-deserves the reputation that history has bestowed upon him, and even the doyen of radical historians, William Appleman Williams, said that he "may be one of the few truly tragic figures in American history". Damned for inaction in the face of the Great Depression, Hoover was damned again by the towering reputation enjoyed by his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet this ignores the fact that FDR couldn't generate recovery from the Depression either; that it took WW2 to cement his reputation; and that Hoover declined to take the path trodden by FDR for reasons that proved prescient.

Nearly every programme that eventually became part of the New Deal was foreshadowed in the Hoover presidency; far from being a doctrinaire fiscal conservative, he ran up historically large deficits to try to combat the Depression (fiscal conservatism is like chastity: that one preaches it is not so relevant as whether one practices it), and a mainstay of FDR's election campaign in 1932 was an attack on this. As one economist said, "given later developments, the campaign speeches often read like a giant misprint, in which Roosevelt and Hoover speak each other's lines."

Hoover declined to involve corporations or organized labour in policy-making to the extent that FDR did because he feared the dominance of organized pressure groups over politics, and an over-powerful executive. And just these developments were some of the things that resulted from FDR's presidency. Yet the same people who disapprove of such developments - which include the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of - tend to hold Hoover in contempt. It may be that FDR's policy was necessary, and we must accept the good with the bad; but it is a little rich to condemn Hoover in the same breath.


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