His enemies will claim that he is misunderstood by his supporters, and vice-versa. As is often the case, the truth is likely found somewhere in the middle.
The same can’t be said for former President Herbert Hoover. He is widely known as the president who caused the Great Depression through his calloused laissez faire economic policies. His standing is just as low amongst academics as it is in popular conception. In C-Span’s recent presidential survey, he was ranked as the 8th worst president. Of the seven beneath him, two died in office (William Henry Harrison and Warren Harding) and one ran for re-election on a platform of white supremacism (Andrew Johnson).
Professor Glen Jeansonne challenges this conventional stereotype of Hoover with his new biography, Herbert Hoover: A Life. From the outset, Jeansonne humanizes Hoover by describing his poor Quaker upbringing, filled with suffering. Orphaned by the death of his parents at a young age, Hoover was then raised by a loving and demanding uncle in the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, Hoover developed a capacity for resilience and compassion that would serve him well later in life.
It also didn’t hurt that Hoover was brilliant. He wasn’t a pioneer in political philosophy like Woodrow Wilson—rather, the Stanford-trained student became a pioneer in the field of engineering. In early life, he climbed to unparalleled heights for someone his age due to his technical prowess. In remote regions of Australia and China, he turned virtually bankrupt mining operations into world-class operations. His ability to envision the profitability of a location and extract materials using methods of his own conception was awe-inspiring. Along the way, he literally wrote the book on certain mining techniques.
One might imagine how ridiculously rich Hoover may have become if he had continued in this field for the duration of his life. Instead, he was faced with the twin terrors of war and mass starvation. As World War I beset Europe, the entire population of Belgium was at risk of starvation through German occupation and British blockade. Enter Herbert Hoover. He convinced the British to let his volunteer force through and the Germans not to requisition the food and consequently sustained the lives of some 7 million people.
After the U.S. entrance in the war and the conclusion of the war, Hoover oversaw the delivery of some 11 million metric tons to countries throughout Europe, saving approximately 10 million lives in total. Many rightly called him “The Great Humanitarian” as a result. He also later helped alleviate the suffering and starvation of the Ukrainian region of the Soviet Union under the devastating rule of Lenin and Soviet communism.
Feeling the call to public service, Herbert Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Employing his engineering prowess in that role, he expanded its importance to the same level as the State and Treasury Departments. He helped standardize domestic industries in order to make them more efficient and increased foreign trade. Up until his presidency, he was considered a marvel of American ingenuity.
To blame Hoover for the Great Depression would be a mistake. As with all economic downturns, many factors were in play. Rapid scientific and technological advancements invited too much economic speculation. Most importantly, war-ravaged economies throughout the world were struggling to recover and the vindictive policies against Germany after the war hindered one great engine for economic growth. In fact, a number of these countries slipped into economic decline well before the United States.
President Hoover did push forward some flawed policies, including a number of tariffs on foreign trade. But the worst mistakes he made were mild precursors to similar, but more dramatic, actions by President Roosevelt later. Far from being a laissez faire free trader, President Hoover was a progressive of a more mild version than the president after him. Later, watching the ravages of the Roosevelt economy worsen and the evils of communism proliferate, he became much more conservative.
Hoover’s legacy deserves a reassessment and his place as a hero of American history needs to be established. We would all benefit from his example. Of course, this would necessitate greater reflection by academics and more-nuanced teaching more broadly. Until such things occur, Glen Jeansonne gives us something (and someone) great to tide us over.