A contemporary once described Herbert Hoover as the sort of man “to whom the incredible was forever happening.” Following a tragic childhood in which he was orphaned at the age of nine, he graduated (barely) with the inaugural class at Stanford University, made a name for himself in the rich goldfields of the Australian outback, and, still in his twenties, pulled off the biggest mining transaction in the history of China. The deal closed months after he had been given up for dead in the Boxer Rebellion. Settling later in London at the height of the Edwardian era, he raised a family, established himself as a global mining tycoon, and gained international acclaim as a humanitarian in the early years of the Great War. After almost single-handedly resurrecting the European economy during the Versailles peace talks, he returned to America, where he knew every president from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, serving five of them in important roles in addition to fulfilling his own term in the White House. He remained a momentous and controversial figure through the New Deal, the Second World War, and into the Cold War, ending his days chasing bonefish in the Florida Keys and writing books, several at a time, in a luxurious suite in the Waldorf Towers with Cole Porter and the Duke of Windsor for neighbors.
The challenge for Hoover biographers has never been a lack of exploit. Rather, it has been to find a coherent personality amid the nonstop action. As historical figures go, Hoover is a blur. He shielded himself from the scrutiny of journalists, independent biographers, and other strangers. Allergic to introspection, he rarely registered his thoughts and feelings in private conversation, let alone in diaries or journals. Wanting only to be remembered for his achievements, he destroyed an unknown quantity of his family’s correspondence. His three volumes of autobiography reveal little of personal significance and what is divulged is often unreliable.
Fortunately, much of Hoover’s life was lived in public, and he was often closely observed despite his reticence. Many of those working with him realized they were in the company of an extraordinary man and recorded honest and intimate impressions of him in their notes, letters, diaries, and memoirs. As well, important family correspondence escaped Hoover’s purges. The portrait that emerges here is largely constructed from these sources, many of them not previously utilized.
Helpful as the sources are in locating elements of Hoover’s personality, making sense of what is found is another matter. His capacities and achievements are obvious and awe-inspiring. Among the forty-four chief executives, he stands with the most intelligent and erudite, and none worked harder. He was the only president to have enjoyed two brilliant careers before the White House, and next to John Quincy Adams he was its most cosmopolitan inhabitant, having lived two decades abroad and circled the globe five times before the age of aviation. He was also a man of enormous goodwill, supporting with countless acts of charity his needy friends and relatives, not to mention the family of a colleague who was jailed for swindling him out of a large sum of money. The number of lives Hoover saved through his various humanitarian campaigns might exceed 100 million, a record of benevolence unlike anything in human history. Yet at the same time he bristled with more than the usual array of eccentricities, tics, tempers, neuroses, failings, and contradictions. He carried through his days the scars of his miserable boyhood, and he seems to have been determined in certain phases of his existence to prove points and settle scores of interest only to his bruised psyche. A man of force, quick-minded and brusque, he could be dangerous in pursuit of his interests, and he would rightly be concerned during his political years to obscure certain records from his business career. Tormented by guilt and paranoia, he twice broke down when his least honorable deeds came under public scrutiny.
The cracks and tensions in Hoover’s personality expressed themselves in curious ways. When frustrated in pursuit of a righteous cause, he could fight with the heart of a saint and the conscience of a robber baron. He had a habit of crushing individuals and organizations who shared his objectives. Disliked, as a rule, by other politicians, including many Republicans, he disapproved of them in turn yet sought to lead them as head of state. Somehow he inspired fierce loyalty in chosen colleagues and employees without going to the trouble of forming normal human relationships with them. He knew thousands of eminent personages around the world yet related better to children. Genuinely modest, he had an almost biological compulsion to see his name in the papers. An introvert, he rarely ate a meal alone. A faithful family man, he was for decades almost a bystander in his family’s life.
Hoover’s political nature is also difficult to pin down. He does not fall neatly into any of the familiar political categories—Democrat or Republican, progressive or reactionary, populist or establishment, nationalist or internationalist. Pragmatic by temperament, he seldom thought in terms of labels or ideologies. He preferred to be true to himself and his thoughtful, in many ways commendable conception of America. This outlook, together with his perseverance, his unflagging willingness to serve, and the tumultuous years in which he lived, led him all over the political map. By his retirement, and despite his essential pragmatism, he had reasonable claims to paternity of the two main ideological currents of the American century: New Deal liberalism and the modern conservative movement born in opposition to it.
If his reserve and his complexity make Hoover hard to know, the Great Depression, which began months after he was sworn in as America’s thirty-first president (1929–33), and which stands as the worst domestic tragedy to befall the United States in the century and a half following the Civil War, adds enormously to the problem. Generations of historians and economists have been preoccupied with the questions of how the Depression started, how it ended, its consequences for domestic and international policy, and the relationship of Americans to their government, among much else. Naturally, they have studied Hoover for his contributions to the Depression, his efforts to fight it, and his failure to reverse it. His biographers have tended to adopt this same lens in treating him. One, for example, has prosecuted him as a man whose deficiencies of character and leadership rendered him insensitive and inept in his nation’s hour of need, and another has defended him (the minority position) as a man of unexampled virtue whose life was an “almost unbroken record of success” and who did all that might reasonably have been done to combat the Depression.* Either way, the Depression, or more particularly, Hoover’s management of it, is the essence of the story, the trial toward which everything in his life proceeds, and by which everything is measured. Indictment and advocacy shape and often overwhelm the story of the man.
I do not wish to diminish the contributions of any of these works to an important debate on Hoover’s role in a crucial historical event. I have learned from them, and I join their conversation in parts of this book. Hoover, as Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote, was “the pivot of the dizziest turn of the wheel in this permanent revolution called America,” and it would be odd to avoid discussion of it. I nevertheless find the Depression a problematic lens for the purposes of biography.
For starters, it is only in the vast sweep of history that the Great Depression appears as a single reference point. As Hoover knew it, it was not a discrete event but a maddeningly unpredictable series of emergencies of varied origin and severity—what he called “a battle upon a thousand fronts.” What’s more, the Depression had political, economic, social, and international dimensions, many of which had histories of their own dating back decades, and many of which would continue to haunt the nation through future decades. Hoover is a part of the whole story, and, as we will see, his profile shifts markedly at different points in the narrative.
Not only is the Great Depression large and complicated, but it is still in litigation. Its nature and its causes have been under dispute since its inception, not surprisingly given that it changed the course of American history and raised questions of policy that are still with us today. New facts and arguments are continually brought to bear in its discussion as others are reordered, reinterpreted, or shot to pieces. Our knowledge of the stock market crash and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, of the roles of fiscal and monetary policy and the gold standard, have all been substantially revised over time. Great swaths of the Depression story are reconsidered in these pages, including the Bonus Army episode, the Republican collapse of 1932, and the Hoover-Roosevelt interregnum. All this pleading is fair game. It is how we learn. Let it continue, recognizing that courtrooms are useful for testing evidence, scoring points, and rendering verdicts, but they are no place to learn someone’s life story.
Notwithstanding my own contributions to the Great Depression debates, I have made a deliberate effort to privilege understanding over judgment in this narrative. It is the right approach for biography, and it seems only reasonable when one acknowledges that none of the policy makers, regardless of partisanship, ideology, or nationality, had a tight grip on what needed to be done with the economy after it crashed in 1929. It seems more reasonable still when we admit that our own expertise in managing such crises remains imperfect after ninety years of intensive study and additional practice.
My intention with this book is to spring Hoover from the Depression and present him in another context, that of his full life. This is not simply to say that he had a life beyond the Depression. It is to recognize that he was molded by a series of experiences stretching from the Gilded Age to the Cold War. His boyhood shaped his business experience, which informed his humanitarianism, which fashioned his approach to public service and his philosophy of American life, which in turn dictated certain attitudes to the challenges of his presidency, to the New Deal, to the next war, and so on. One thing leads to another and helps to make sense of the other, and it is only by following Hoover through his days as he lived them, one adventure at a time, without foreknowledge of outcomes or benefit of hindsight, that we can arrive at a faithful portrait of the man in his times.
His times are crucial because the United States was on a momentous journey of its own throughout Hoover’s adulthood. The long road from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy wound through booms, busts, cataclysmic wars, uneasy peace, and all manner of political and social upheaval. For the American people, as for Hoover, the Great Depression was not an island in time but one of a series of closely entwined events that combined to transform their nation in stunning and irreversible ways. These events are inexplicable without reference to one another: the Depression would not have happened as it happened, or at all, without the Great War, and the Second World War would not have happened as it happened, or at all, without the Depression. I do not pretend that this is a revelation. I mention it only because we can get locked into reading history one episode at a time when, in many instances, as with a biographical subject, a longer view helps us to see things afresh. Indeed, by following the journeys of Hoover and the nation together through these decades, we gain a deeper appreciation for how each evolved, and how they affected each other. We notice the many ways in which they are mutually illuminative.
One of the wonders of Hoover is that he was incomparably a man of his times. He shows up not just at one dizzying turn of the wheel but at all of them in the most consequential half century in American history. He participated in and often embodied crucial national conflicts between traditional and modern, rural and urban, east and west, individual and collective, local and national, rich and poor, wet and dry, isolationist and interventionist. His involvement was consistently at a high level, and he always represented a strong point of view shared by some considerable portion of the American public. His prominence and ubiquity make him an invaluable guide to the epoch. This applies at a high level: he sharpens our insight into how the bucolic, wood-smoked America of his youth became the centralized, citified global powerhouse of his maturity. It also applies to particulars, for instance, the development of the nation’s leadership. Through Hoover we see how a new class of professional managers emerged during and after the Great War, how the minds of these men (they were all men) were opened and haunted by that conflict, how they came to believe that they could manipulate the nation’s economy for the betterment of its people, how they tentatively assumed stewardship of a broken system of international finance, how they laid years of groundwork for what in retrospect looks like a sudden leap from the austerities of the Coolidge era to the unbridled activism of the Roosevelt years.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm called the twentieth century “the age of extremes,” and although he had world history in mind the phrase is appropriate to American experience. In Hoover’s time, bloody international wars, unparalleled privation, and intellectual provocation lived in close quarters with massive economic expansion and social progress. He shared the extremes in his public and private lives, notching a range of achievement and failure unmatched by any American of his era, and perhaps any era. His highs, of which there were many, were wondrously high, his lows, also numerous, were unbearably low, and there were few points in his life at which reversal, in one direction or the other, did not beckon, whether by his own actions or by circumstances beyond his control. Any complete portrait of Hoover needs to embrace these ups and downs, volatility being a constant of the age.
Despite the extremes, the welfare of most Americans improved strikingly between Hoover’s youth and his old age. The same cannot be said for him. His presidency was more interesting and impressive than is generally acknowledged, but there is no getting around the fact that he was bounced from office in 1933 with the economy in pieces at his feet and one in four Americans unemployed. This inglorious political defeat at the pinnacle of his career is a fact, one it took him many years to absorb, and one from which he never entirely recovered. He would campaign doggedly for his vindication and adopt a brooding, obsessive animosity toward the political virtuoso who trounced him, Franklin Roosevelt. Both pursuits yielded modest results.
To his enormous credit, Hoover did not allow his defeat and his enmity to destroy him. Nor did he let his battered prestige discourage him from pursuit of his admirable vision of American life, or interfere with his dedication to the service of the American people. He continued to work, to strive, to squeeze all he could from his existence, displaying toward his countrymen a magnanimity, seldom reciprocated, that deserves to be considered among his greatest achievements.
Copyright © 2017 by Kenneth Whyte. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.