This is the grave of Herbert Hoover.
As the semester ends, I am overloaded with grading, so I don’t have time to provide a full biography of Hoover. It’s easy enough to look up. But a few general points to spur conversation:
1) Two things I will always cherish about Hoover’s early years. First, he’s one of only two presidents to have lived in Oregon, along with Grant, spending his teenager years in Newberg and Salem. Second, he was in student government on an explicitly anti-fraternity ticket. I’d vote for that. Of course, I would also vote to make joining the Greek system on college campuses a criminal act.
2) Hoover really was as close to a self-made person as you can see in America. He didn’t exactly grow up poor, but was relatively unloved as an orphan living with his uncle. He managed to get into Stanford without even attending high school. He then became a wildly successful mining engineer, traveling the world finding and managing mining claims. He also became extremely anti-labor during these years, busting an Australian miners’ strike by bringing in Italian immigrants and opposing things such as minimum wage and workers’ compensation laws. The roots of his response to the Great Depression were already set. He spent time in China finding ways to send labor to South African mines and becoming one of the world’s leading zinc suppliers.
3) By 1914, Hoover was very wealthy, a multi-millionaire with holdings around the world. He was only 40 years old but one of the nation’s most successful people. Hoover had a very strong belief in voluntarism, framed by his Quaker upbringing, even if he hated government actions to change the structural conditions of poverty. So during World War I, realizing how rich he was, he started organizing relief efforts, first to get Americans out of France and Belgium, then to feed Europe. And to be fair to Hoover, this was heroic work. Thanks to his wealth and international connections, he could talk directly to all governments and get ships through blockades to feed people. His work greatly impressed the Wilson administration, who tapped Hoover to run the U.S. Food Administration upon U.S. entry into the war in 1917. Still disliking government coercion, he tried to convince people to voluntarily give up food for the war effort, creating the famous Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays, for instance. This all did cause no small resentment in a nation that really didn’t support the war or even understand why we were in it and suffered an enormous rate of draft avoidance, not only from radicals or German-Americans, but rural white southerners. But he definitely succeeded.
4) Hoover may have worked for Wilson but he was always a rock-ribbed Republican. He would diverge from Republicans at times, such as when he organized hunger relief for the Soviets in 1921 at a time when Henry Cabot Lodge pretty much rooted for them to all starve to death. His experiences had changed him to some extent–he had come around on the minimum wage and other basic labor issues, but still was very hesitant of government intervention. He fit into the Progressive movement but by 1920, that was in decline and the return of the Harding-Coolidge era of Republicanism was nigh. Hoover was interested in becoming president but did poorly in the California primary as the party’s main operators wanted someone far more conservative. He was disappointing but fully supported Harding and was rewarded by being named Secretary of Commerce. But Commerce was a minor post and he simply didn’t have the power over the government like Andrew Mellon at Treasury. He did what he could with the agency, mostly smoothing over relations between business and government. He also was asked to coordinate relief after the Mississippi River’s catastrophic 1927 flood. This also brought him back into the national spotlight. He won the Republican nomination in 1928 by saying he would simply continue Coolidge’s policies. Republican kingmakers didn’t trust him and would have preferred the odious Mellon, but Hoover was simply very popular. He defeated Al Smith that fall.
5) There’s no way around it: Hoover’s response to the Depression was terrible. It’s kind of tragic. He would have been a much better president than Harding or Coolidge during the 1920s, but he simply was not a man for a national crisis like the Depression. He responded to the crisis with his traditional emphasis on voluntarism. When that proved ridiculously impossible–when certain mill towns lost their main employer, unemployment could be 75 percent or higher–he simply had no real answer. He fully supported the deportation of Mexicans to clear jobs for whites and had no interest in civil rights or anti-lynching legislation demanded by the black community. After all, Hoover was a committed eugenicist who made the claim that “the white race cannot survive without dairy products.” He completely burned his bridges with the remnant Progressives by signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which led to higher tariffs on American goods abroad and only deepened the Depression. He was far more concerned with a balanced budget than hungry Americans. Only very late did he finally and reluctantly move toward government action on the Depression with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the 1932 public jobs bill, but it was far too little and far too late. The naming of homeless camps “Hoovervilles” shows just how hated the formerly popular Hoover was by 1932. And then the Bonus Army debacle, whose vile eviction was really more on the vile Douglas MacArthur than on Hoover, but then again Hoover had refused to even meet with them, gave the public another reminder of how the Republican Party felt about poverty, even among veterans.
6) Hoover became an incredibly bitter man after 1932. He reelection campaign was a disaster. He was a terrible public speaker in any case, but now, he was openly heckled during campaign speeches and his campaign train frequently had eggs and fruit thrown at it. There were even assassination attempts foiled by the Secret Service. And he could simply not handle the New Deal. To Hoover, this was the betrayal of everything he believed in. He moved back to Palo Alto until his wife died in 1944, when he moved to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. He bitterly denounced the New Deal and FDR, but no one cared what he had to say. He was unfortunate enough to live until 1964, watching the government continue to expand, the New Deal not being overturned by Eisenhower, and the rise of the civil rights movement and union power. He desperately wanted to run against FDR in 1940, but to say the least, the Republican Party was not going to let that happen, not that Willkie was any great shakes. He openly and publicly opposed FDR’s actions toward Nazi Germany and Lend-Lease, arguing that he was opening the door to Stalin’s domination of Europe. Even though he was not pro-Nazi and wasn’t entirely wrong about Stalin, he simply was so massively out of touch and so hated FDR that he couldn’t see anything the government did outside of that framework. Truman finally brought him back to the White House and they became friends. Truman created the Hoover Commission to reorganize the executive branch. But then Hoover personally disliked Eisenhower and was furious that he wasn’t more right-wing. He finally died in 1964, a respected senior figure in the Republican Party but widely thought of as one of the worst presidents in American history.
Herbert Hoover is buried at the Hoover Presidential Library in Museum in West Branch, Iowa, where he was born. Unfortunately, I was running late, as you can see from the sunset-level light in the picture, and didn’t have time to see the museum. Next time, I guess.
If you would like this series to cover more bad Republican presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Calvin Coolidge is in Plymouth, Vermont and Benjamin Harrison is in Indianapolis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.