Grateful American® Foundation

Herbert Hoover

Special to the Newsletter
by Michael F. Bishop

On Christmas Eve in 1929, the president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, was hosting a party in the gaily decorated White House, the grounds of which were covered with snow. The Wall Street Crash of that year had just ended the previous month, and the party was a welcome distraction from the economic chaos engulfing the nation. But the festivities were interrupted when Hoover was alerted that the West Wing was on fire. The president raced over to supervise the removal of documents and other items, while the First Lady, Lou Hoover, serenely entertained the guests. The blaze raged for hours and the interior of the West Wing, which had been built by Theodore Roosevelt less than three decades before, was in ruins.

The West Wing fire was an apt metaphor for the presidency of Herbert Hoover, one of the most intellectually gifted American presidents, and a man of energy, dynamism, and courage, who nonetheless was overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control. He entered the White House after a glittering career in business and politics, but the Great Depression wrecked his presidency as completely as the Christmas Eve fire had ruined the West Wing.

Herbert Clark Hoover spent most of his life on the East and West coasts, but he was born in the small town of West Branch, Iowa, in 1874. His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in by relatives in Oregon. He was hardworking and ambitious from an early age, and in 1891 traveled to California to attend Leland Stanford Junior University. He was among its first graduates and helped organize the first “Big Game” between Stanford and the University of California. Athletics and other extracurricular activities often distracted him from academics, but a geology internship sparked a lifelong passion for the field.

The business of mining would lead him to fame and fortune. His early career saw him travel the world to work in difficult and dangerous conditions in Australia, China, and elsewhere. He became one of the world’s most distinguished mining experts and was a multimillionaire by the time he was forty. With his wife, Lou, who had been a fellow geology student at Stanford, he published an English translation of De re metallica, a classic 16th century text on mining.

But even more spectacular achievements were to come. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 threatened Belgium–through which the German armies destructively marched on their way to invading France-with starvation. Hoover, a natural organizer, created the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which helped save countless Belgian lives. His administrative genius and diplomatic tact made it clear that a life in politics likely beckoned.

President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to direct the United States Food Administration, to ensure that soldiers and civilians would have the food they needed amid the upheaval of war. Even after the guns fell silent in November 1918, the specter of starvation in Europe remained, as the economies of the victors and losers lay in ruins. Hoover was appointed to lead the American Relief Administration, and again masterfully organized a relief effort that saved millions of lives.

Hoover enjoyed the taste of leadership and began to entertain thoughts of the presidency. Wilson’s Republican successor as president, Warren G. Harding, appointed Hoover Secretary of Commerce. The latter’s progressive inclinations aroused opposition in the Senate, but Hoover remained at Commerce for eight years, serving under both Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He dramatically expanded the department’s role and involved himself in an astonishing range of domestic policy issues.

Coolidge declined to run for another term as president in 1928, creating an opportunity that Hoover seized with gusto. He easily won the Republican nomination and defeated the Democratic candidate, Governor Al Smith of New York, by a huge margin. The mining engineer and millionaire who had saved Europe from starvation had won the nation’s highest office, and the future looked bright.

But Hoover would enjoy only six months in the White House before the Wall Street Crash made his presidential dream a nightmare. An energetic activist, he nonetheless was reluctant to employ direct governmental intervention to combat the Great Depression. As he would later say with heavy irony, “Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.”

However wise a policy this may have been, the political consequences were disastrous. He made matters worse by reluctantly signing protectionist legislation that led to an agricultural trade war. Unemployment rose to catastrophic levels; by 1932 nearly one in four Americans were out of work. Even Hoover felt compelled to pursue more interventionist policies, including a public works program, but nothing worked. Homeless camps filled with unemployed and desperate Americans were dubbed “Hoovervilles.”

Hoover was a man of extraordinary ability, but as a showman he was no match for Franklin D. Roosevelt, governor of New York, who won the Democratic nomination in 1932 and pledged a “New Deal” to combat the Depression. Promising an array of new government programs, Roosevelt exuded confidence and captured the imagination of a weary, frightened public. Hoover was swept from office in a landslide and returned to private life, a widely reviled figure.

Herbert Hoover was a frustrated ex-president and yearned for a return to power, but Roosevelt’s long dominance made that an impossibility. Instead, he channeled his energy into writing books, traveling, and speaking out against the New Deal. And indeed, it was World War II, which Hoover deplored, that ended the Great Depression, not Roosevelt’s government programs.

Hoover was destined to remain in the political wilderness, but he did not retreat from view. After his wife’s death in 1944, he left California and settled into a luxurious suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. He was a prolific author and commentator and filled his long retirement with activity. He even learned to joke about his political fate, saying, “I am the only person of distinction who’s ever had a depression named after him.” The end came in 1964, when he died aged 90 of intestinal disease. His body lay in state in the Capitol.

At the heart of Stanford University’s sylvan campus is a tower that houses the Hoover Institution, a prestigious think tank and historical archive. Founded by Hoover in the wake of World War I, it is the most prominent memorial to the greatest failed president in American history, one whose pre-presidential achievements were epic but whose White House tenure was undone by events.

Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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