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Hoover, Herbert Clarkfree

(10 August 1874–20 October 1964)
  • Joan Hoff

Herbert Hoover.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-24155 DLC).

Hoover, Herbert Clark (10 August 1874–20 October 1964), engineer, philanthropist, and thirty-first president of the United States, was born in West Branch, Iowa, the son of Jesse Clark Hoover and Hulda[h] Minthorn, farmers. Orphaned at the age of nine, he lived with a variety of relatives in Iowa and finally spent his teenage years in Newberg and Salem, Oregon. Although his parents belonged to a “progressive” branch of Quakers who permitted some organ music and gospel hymns at their meeting house, Hoover’s religious training was quite rigorous under the tutelage of his mother, an ordained Quaker minister.

Except for his conservative style of dress, Hoover retained few outward signs of his boyhood faith. Not only was his personal and professional aggressiveness as an engineer inconsistent with the Quaker idea of moderation, but Hoover also could swear with the roughest of the miners he directed after graduating with an A.B. in geology from Stanford University’s first class in 1895. Moreover, he was a habitual smoker, enjoyed alcoholic drinks, and often fished on Sundays, albeit wearing a high collar and necktie. During his early engineering career he was aided and accompanied to all parts of the world by the equally independent-minded Stanford geology graduate, Lou Henry (Lou Henry Hoover). Although born into a Quaker family less than 100 miles from West Branch, Henry moved with her parents to California in 1884, where they became Episcopalians. Consequently, Henry and Hoover did not meet until college. Married in 1889, they had two sons.

Hoover had phenomenal success as a mining engineer, becoming a millionaire between 1895 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when he was forty. The years between 1890 and World War I represented the “golden age” of American foreign mining exploits as well as the time when some engineers became involved reformers in the search for a new corporatist economic order in the United States. Hoover specifically endorsed the brand of progressivism that stressed cooperative economic organization, self-regulation by business, and voluntary activity through American society.

Hoover’s philanthropic and government work during the First World War confirmed his progressive beliefs and brought him wide public notice at home and abroad. Serving as head of the Commission for the Relief in Belgium, as President Woodrow Wilson’s U.S. Food Administrator (1917–1919) in charge of voluntary rationing, and director general of the American Relief Administration in Europe (1919–1920) made him such a popular figure that both parties courted him as a presidential nominee in 1920. Refusing to run for the presidency, Hoover served as secretary of commerce in the administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, transforming that department between 1921 and 1928 into one of the most important and well-publicized federal departments. As commerce secretary he encouraged and helped to develop some of the most advanced economic theories about business cycles and industrial standardization, promoted government regulation of the nascent radio and aviation industries, and supported federal supervision of foreign loans.

Thus in 1927, when President Coolidge enigmatically announced that he “did not choose to run” again, Hoover decided to try for the first elective office of his career against the seasoned New York politician and Democratic governor Alfred E. Smith. Probably no Democrat could have rivaled the popularity that Hoover had established with the press and public by 1928 as a postwar superman. Smith, an Irish Catholic, had the extra disadvantage of being a “wet” from an ethnic New York City neighborhood. Moreover, the prevailing sense of prosperity that most areas of the country were enjoying further helped the Republicans prevail in this classic 1928 contest between two self-made men, neither of whom used the radio successfully as a new campaign tool. In the long run Hoover’s victory proved less impressive than Smith’s defeat, because the Democratic vote indicated a new partisan and demographic realignment was in the making.

Immediately after his inauguration, Hoover took up the “uncompleted tasks in government” that remained from his cabinet days. Convinced that it was only a matter of time before he could achieve his progressive dream for the United States, he promoted labor legislation that resulted in the 1932 Norris–La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act; set limits on oil drilling; ordered that all large government rebates on income, estate, and gift taxes be made public; reformed downward the graduated income tax; took action against corrupt patronage practices; tentatively reached out to African Americans with the first Republican “southern strategy”; refused to give any government backing to proposed “red hunts” against communists; improved the civil and economic rights of Native Americans through appointments and by acting on advisory committee reports; and pursued conservation by appointing Horace Albright commissioner of the National Park Service and creating the Commission on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain.

Unfortunately, Hoover’s progressive dream also called a special session of Congress to consider chronic agricultural problems of the 1920s. Although as secretary of commerce he had opposed subsidized agricultural production (known as McNary-Hauganism), Congress passed his Agricultural Marketing Act during the special session on 15 June 1929, and Hoover had to fight to prevent the farm bloc from attaching an export debenture (payback subsidy) to it. Ultimately the Federal Farm Board created by this act lost approximately $345 million, trying to support falling farm prices between 1929 and 1931 with loans to cooperatives and stabilization corporations for the purchase of basic crops. This loss, due largely to the depression that began less than six months after the act was passed, was nonetheless a bitter disappointment for Hoover. It meant the failure of an “almost perfect illustration” of his faith in cooperative associations to regulate the economy.

His other emergency session objective—a revision of the 1922 tariff to benefit farmers—met a similarly dismal fate. It took fourteen months to obtain passage, on 17 June 1931, of the protectionist Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which pleased no one, including the president. While this tariff did not cause the Great Depression, which was already well under way when it passed, it has been widely criticized for contributing further to contracting world trade.

What began as a “dazzling” eight months in foreign as well as domestic affairs ended almost before it began with the stock market crash in October 1929, dashing Hoover’s hopes for a progressive transformation of the United States. His methods remained essentially what they had been throughout the previous decade of prosperity: reliance on persuasion to raise private funds voluntarily, educational conferences, and fact-finding commissions. Hoover expanded his cooperative programs to obtain decentralized voluntary cooperation among businesspeople during the crucial depression years of 1930–1931 and the early months of 1932. He attempted to revitalize trade through the Emergency Committee for Employment; encouraged the Cotton Textile Institute’s attempts to end destructive competition and thus keep prices up; and appointed a privately financed Timber Conservation Board and the Federal Oil Conservation Board. He created many other agencies to facilitate decentralized, cooperative action without resorting to government coercion or business cartels, including the Federal Drought Relief Committee, the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief, the National Credit Corporation, the Citizens’ Reconstruction Organization, the Federal Employment Stabilization Board, the Federal Power Commission, and a new network of business and industrial committees. Far from losing faith in voluntarism and associationalism, Hoover tried to expand both in the face of economic adversity.

Against this background Hoover entered his first or “offensive” phase as a depression president. He began by playing an extremely independent, active role, calling conferences of industrial and labor leaders and obtaining from them voluntary pledges to avoid strikes and to maintain current employment, wage, and production levels. At the same time, he asked the states and cities to speed up their public works in order to maintain employment and increase construction activity. Although Hoover had intended to expand public works when he entered the White House, he did not ask for additional funds for this purpose in his 1929 budget message, because he never thought of his $3 billion reserve fund as an emergency measure.

In very guarded language Hoover’s State of the Union address on 4 December 1929 only briefly referred to the six-week-old stock market crash. By the end of 1929 he still thought the economic situation was merely an American recession (refusing yet to use the term depression) caused by “overspeculation in securities.” Believing the crash to be domestic in origin and scope, Hoover reasoned that the solution should also be indigenous. Therefore, his initial decision to urge voluntary state and local expenditures over federal ones is understandable: the national government played a relatively small role in the economy in the 1920s and was not the source of expansion that it has since become. Hoover did, however, request from Congress in April 1930 an additional appropriation of $150 million for public buildings. In fact, through Hoover’s encouragement of state and local spending, federal increases for public works, and congressional authorization (over the president’s veto) of payment up to 50 percent on veterans’ certificates, the total fiscal stimulation at all levels of government—federal, state, and local—was larger in that year than for the remainder of the decade. Despite increased federal, state, and local expenditures on public works, private construction fell off drastically in 1930, and so did government revenue at all levels.

By the fall of 1930 the president was publicly admitting there was a worldwide depression, not simply an American recession. Partly to counter congressional Democrats, partly because of foreign developments, but primarily because of his lifelong inability to admit to failure or mistakes, Hoover changed his mind about the origins of the Great Depression. Rather than confess publicly or privately that his cooperative policies were not effective, he became convinced that the worldwide crisis had foreign origins, making European recovery a prerequisite for permanent American recovery. When the European credit structure collapsed in the summer of 1931 and England abandoned the gold standard later that fall, Hoover turned to Congress for approval of several international agreements, including a one-year moratorium on Allied debts and German reparations and a London “standstill” agreement stabilizing short-term German credit. Both were necessary, he said, for world recovery from the depression. At the same time he took steps to try to ensure that the United States would remain on the gold standard, obtaining an increase in the discount rate of the Federal Reserve Board and raising taxes to balance the budget.

While both Democrats and Republicans in Congress passed all his major pieces of remedial legislation, the major bone of contention between the president and legislators became direct relief to the unemployed. Direct relief to Hoover meant the dole, while indirect relief meant public works projects. As president he never changed his mind on this question, even though unemployment figures soared from over seven million in 1931 to over eleven million in 1933, when he left office. Hoover’s insistence that locally financed self-help programs were more worthy of Americans than going on the dole through direct federal aid eventually antagonized many voters.

The simple fact was that, as state and local funds disappeared, the people wanted federal relief, and Congress responded for political as well as humanitarian reasons. Most of the relief proposals from the Seventy-second Congress were in the form of public works bills, which Hoover rejected throughout 1931. From June 1930 through June 1933, however, his administration approved $3.5 billion for various forms of public works. He also reluctantly supported the Federal Employment Stabilization Bill of 1931, which technically created a board with the power to control job fluctuation through public construction projects.

The Emergency and Relief Construction Act, signed on 21 July 1932, appropriated $2 billion for public works and $300 million for direct loans to the states “to be used in furnishing relief and work relief to needy and distressed people.” Though Hoover claimed it conformed to his requirements, its passage and signing were tacit admission that private and public works programs at the state and local levels had failed, that emergency rather than long-term public works programs had to be started, and that some direct federal relief was necessary.

The Emergency and Relief Construction Act pushed Hoover’s principles on direct and indirect relief to their limits and pushed him into a defensive posture. That he would have been forced to approve direct relief projects, such as those later endorsed by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), remains highly doubtful, given all the restrictions Hoover placed on the implementation of this 1932 relief act. However, the widespread support in congressional and business circles for more federal action to rationalize the depressed economy did prompt Hoover to propose several other defensive pieces of legislation in the spring of 1932. For example, the Federal Farm Board, created during the special session of the Seventy-first Congress, began emergency operations when it launched a large wheat price stabilization effort through the purchase of surpluses. After it became evident during the summer of 1931 that the board was losing money on such purchases without achieving price stabilization, the project was abandoned. Instead, farmers were asked voluntarily to destroy a portion of their staple crops.

On 4 October 1931 Hoover persuaded reluctant bankers and insurance executives to form the National Credit Corporation (NCC) with a capital of $500 million, representing his last attempt to save the country’s credit structure through purely voluntary means. Cautiousness on the part of the bankers involved resulted in the NCC’s failure as an effective credit pool by the end of November. The president was forced to fall back on the World War I model of the War Finance Corporation (WFC) by recommending the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) with Eugene Meyer, who had also headed the WFC, as its chairman. Thus, the ill-fated Hoover administration became the first in American history to use the power of the federal government to intervene directly in the economy in time of peace. Voluntarism had failed. Simultaneously and for the same reason, he pressed for passage of the Glass-Steagall Act of 27 February 1932, which made about $750 million of government gold available for industrial and business purposes.

RFC legislation became effective on 22 January 1932 with a $2 million appropriation from Congress earmarked for endangered financial institutions. Hoover hoped the RFC would increase confidence, stimulate employment, and aid foreign trade. Nonetheless, he looked upon it, as he had on the WFC during the First World War, as a temporary and emergency agency whose functions would end with the economic crisis and whose purpose was to liquefy the nation’s frozen assets by loaning only to large businesses and financial institutions rather than to average citizens. Not only did his personal philosophy and experiences with the WFC during World War I prevent him from allowing the RFC to make massive loans for direct relief of unemployment, but in creating the RFC he also indicated that his first concern remained the national credit structure.

Historians and economists now agree that it made more economic (albeit not political) sense to save the country’s credit apparatus from further paralysis by extending RFC loans exclusively to leading financial institutions than it did to use such loans to tackle the growing unemployment problem, which was never resolved by New Deal work programs—only U.S. entrance into the Second World War did that. Together the RFC and the Glass-Steagall Act “helped the country get through 1932 without collapse,” according to the latest economic evaluations. With the signing of these two acts, the expansion of capital for Federal Land Banks, and the Creation of Home Loan Banks, all economic indices temporarily shot up in the late summer of 1932, and Hoover precipitantly declared that the depression was under control.

To make matters worse, Hoover mishandled the Bonus Expeditionary Force—10,000 ex-servicemen who marched on Washington demanding full and immediate redemption of their 1924 veteran certificates, which Hoover considered the equivalent of a dole. Even the Senate refused to grant this request, and all but 2,000 of the veterans accepted an offer of free railroad tickets home. The remaining ex-servicemen, some with their families, continued to camp in Bonus City in the Anacostia flats outside of Washington, D.C. General Douglas MacArthur routed these veterans and burned their camps on 28 July 1932 in violation of Hoover’s specific orders. The president took full public responsibility for MacArthur’s insubordination, and by the fall presidential election rumors were rampant that Hoover had authorized “murdering veterans,” when no one had been killed by federal troops. Hoover left office in disgrace, falsely blamed for both the depression and the Bonus March fiasco.

Ironically, some of Hoover’s ideas for combating the depression, such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, aid to agriculture, and long-term public works and relief appropriations, were popularized by his successor, Roosevelt, who also capitalized on the public relations practices that Hoover had set in motion in the 1920s. “We didn’t admit it at the time,” Roosevelt’s aide Rexford Tugwell finally revealed in a 1974 interview, “but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.”

Drawing on his early Quaker training, Hoover dealt with U.S. foreign relations by relying on the power of negotiation rather than use of force, especially in Central America and the Caribbean, and by his support of arms limitation, international arbitration, and moral suasion. Even before becoming president he had exhibited an enlightened internationalist attitude on foreign affairs, recommending cancellation of the Allied debts resulting from World War I (and later debt reductions), U.S. entrance into both the World Court and League of Nations, and disarmament agreements in the 1920s. As president-elect Hoover had toured Latin America and had begun to use the term “good neighbor,” emphasizing reciprocal cultural and economic interests over the previous policy of U.S. military interventionism and arbitrary supervision of elections. Hoover’s approval of the 1929 Pan American Treaty of Arbitration, the League of Nations investigation of a dispute between Peru and Colombia in 1933, and his plans for removing the marines from Haiti and Nicaragua laid the foundations for what became the Good Neighbor policy toward Latin America under Roosevelt.

Hoover also refused to sanction the use of force in crisis situations, not only in Russia during its civil war after World War I and in Latin America but also in the Far East, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931–1932. The Manchurian crisis resulted in the Stimson Doctrine (named after his secretary of state Henry L. Stimson), stating that the United States would not recognize the fruits of aggression. However, at no time did Hoover support the use of force, economic boycotts, or even his secretary of state’s bellicose language to implement the Stimson Doctrine.

Noncoerciveness characterized Hoover’s approach to U.S. foreign relations from the time he was elected president until his death. Throughout the 1930s, World War II, and in the 1940s and 1950s he supported various ways to avoid military conflict or to disengage the United States from wars without becoming either an isolationist or anticommunist Cold Warrior. His belief in the superiority of American capitalism made him impervious to ideological fears posed by either fascism or communism. His first major attempt to influence foreign policy as an ex-president came in May 1945, when he sent President Harry Truman two confidential memoranda, recommending ways to end the war against Japan (by abandoning unconditional surrender as a condition for peace) and to improve relations with the Soviet Union (by accepting its military dominance in Eastern Europe). Truman and his advisers ignored these common sense suggestions, but the president and Secretary of War Stimson did consult with Hoover about food relief policy in 1940–1941 and again in 1948. As the Cold War emerged in the late 1940s, Hoover moved into open opposition to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to the Korean War, maintaining, as he had since the 1920s, that ideologies could be successfully combated not with force but by example. For Hoover the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was unconscionable. “It revolts my soul, he confided to John Callan O’Laughlin, editor of the Army-Navy Journal. “The only difference between this and the use of poison gas is the fear of retaliation. We alone have the bomb.”

As a result, the ex-president stressed the desirability of national economic self-sufficiency and a hemisphere “Gibraltar” concept of military defense based largely on air power. In a famous address on 20 December 1950, he launched what has been called the “Great Debate” over the early Cold War policies of the Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower administrations—a debate he and all other anti–Cold Warriors would lose until its resurrection in the 1960s by those opposing the war in Vietnam. Originally referred to as Hoover’s Doctrine, this speech was misunderstood and greatly criticized at the time. What most people did not perceive, according to diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams, was that Hoover was trying “to make foreign policy a means rather than an end. He was struggling to define America primarily in terms of America rather than in terms of an American world.” Hoover also refused to endorse the rampant anticommunism that accompanied the emerging Cold War by not participating in the initial session in March 1947 of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—the committee that gave rise to McCarthyism—and by turning down an offer to become chair of Truman’s bipartisan commission “to report on the question of the infiltration of communists in the Government.”

Hoover lived thirty-one years as an ex-president, criticizing the New Deal and the early foreign policy of the Cold War. Personal animosity between Hoover and Roosevelt meant that Hoover was ignored not only by his own party but also by the Democratic party until President Truman and later Republican president Dwight Eisenhower decided to use his organizational skills as head of the Commissions on Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, known now as the Hoover Commissions. They also spawned similar reorganization attempts at the state level, known as “little” Hoover Commissions. The need to reorganize the executive branch arose out of expansions that had taken place during the Second World War and the Korean War. Truman instituted more of Hoover’s 1949 report than Eisenhower did of the 1955 one, largely because the former did not make as many policy recommendations. Before, during, and after his presidency, Hoover was a transitional figure: a self-made, ruthless engineer who turned into a philanthropist and progressive reformer; a chief executive who practiced certain features of the modern presidency later associated with Roosevelt; and finally, a private citizen whose criticisms of both the New Deal and the Cold War would be resurrected in the 1960s among the “New Left” and again in the 1990s among the “New Right.” Hoover died in New York City and was buried in West Branch, Iowa.


Hoover’s papers, those of many individuals associated with his career before and after he became president, as well as those of his wife are housed in his presidential library at West Branch, Iowa. In addition to his own books and memoirs, the best sources about his life and ideas are William J. Barber, From New Era to New Deal: Herbert Hoover, the Economists and American Economic Policy, 1921–1933 (1985); Gary Dean Best, The Politics of American Individualism: Herbert Hoover in Transition (1975); Ellis Hawley, The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order: A History of the American People and Their Institutions, 2d ed. (1992); David Burner, Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1979); Martin L. Fausold, The Presidency of Herbert C. Hoover (1985); David E. Hamilton, From New Day to New Deal: American Farm Policy from Hoover to Roosevelt, 1928–1933 (1992); Donald Lisio, Hoover, Blacks, and Lily-Whites: A Study of Southern Strategies (1985); James S. Olson, Herbert Hoover and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (1931–1933); Jordan A. Schwarz, Interregnum of Despair: Hoover, Congress, and the Depression (1970); Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (1975). Also of value are the following collections of essays: Marint L. Fausold and George T. Mazuzan, eds., The Hoover Presidency: A Reappraisal (1974); John N. Schacht, Three Progressives from Iowa (1980); Hawley, ed., Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, 1921–1928: Studies in New Era Thought and Practice (1981); Mark O. Hatfield, ed., Herbert Hoover Reassessed (1980); and Lee Nash, Understanding Herbert Hoover (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times, 21 Oct. 1964.