Landslide -- A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover
Subject: Dr. George Nash
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
This interview* was recorded in South Hadley, Massachusetts in September 2008, as part of Landslide - A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group and Stamats Communications. Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Dr. Nash is an authority on the life of President Herbert Hoover. Between 1975 and 1995 he lived in Iowa near the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, where he prepared three volumes of a definitive, scholarly biography under the general title The Life of Herbert Hoover (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
If you could start with Hoover as a young man and then if you can work your way into what prompted his transition from private life to public life.
Well, Herbert Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa in 1874. He was the son of Quakers on the Iowa frontier, his father was the village blacksmith, turned farm implement dealer, his mother was a recorded Quaker minister. He was orphaned before he was ten years old, his father died when he was six and, when Hoover was six, and his mother when Hoover was about nine and a half. And at the age of eleven he was sent west from the village of West Branch to Oregon to live with a maternal Uncle, with whom he lived for the next six years or so in Newberg and Salem, Oregon. He was able to gain admission to the first entering class of Stanford University in the fall of 1891 and he worked himself through Stanford as a member of its pioneer class, its first four year graduating class. Became a mining engineer, started working in California and then in 1897 went to Australia and from there to China, and from there to England, with many trips all over the place to Burma, South Africa, Korea, Russia, and other places. So he lived a, a life with one pattern and that is he was living frequently on the frontier. And one of the ways of looking at his early life is to look at this man, growing up the country if you will, growing up beyond that outside the country in a profession that took him to rugged and out of the way places. As a very young man, also he became a financial success. Now it's important to point, to point out, that he did not have an easy childhood. He was not poor, but he lost his parents, he lived with an uncle who was a Quaker doctor and missionary, and school master, a Dr. John Henry Minthorne, his mother's brother, who was a successful frontier professional himself, and who I think imbued certain traits in Hoover, a desire to achieve and the like. One of the ways that one I think should look at Hoover in the first forty years or so of his life, before he became a public figure was that he was an upwardly mobile individual, not poor, but certainly not wealthy, he had to make it on his own. And he once said later in life that his objective in life was to be not dependant upon anyone. So he had a young man's urge which I think was reinforced by his orphan-hood, to make his mark upon the world, to prove that he was a person of accomplishment. The will to achieve was exceptionally strong in him, I believe, and that the first way that that took shape was to be a financial success in the world of mining engineering and finance. And he had a strong sense of himself as a professional. Mining engineering was a young profession and Hoover was proud of that and proud of engineers as people who accomplish things and people who do constructive works for others, people who leave the world a better place. Those were some of the early traits that marked Hoover, there were a couple of other factors, I think to include in this, I tend to think of them as layers of, of influence that are mutually or were mutually re-enforcing. First, I mentioned the family circumstances, the desire to achieve.
Secondly, the Quaker influence the belief that one should do good works in the world and be an asset to ones community, starting out in one's faith community, but obviously in Hoover's case, going far beyond that. Hoover also had imbued in him an ethos at Stanford University. This was a class of people, he and his classmates who entered a brand new university, who was considered to be somewhat utopian almost, to put a university out in the middle of Senator Leeland's orchards thirty miles south of San Francisco in the 1890's, but Hoover had an enormously powerful attachment to his alma mater, it really became his spiritual home and he once said that no matter where he wandered around the world, Stanford really was his home. And Stanford taught him that one should do good works in life, one should make something of oneself, one should give back as we might say. So from, from his engineering profession, from his Quaker background, from his orphan hood and from his Stanford experiences and, and educational philosophy that he imbibed from Stanford, one sees the making of a super achiever. Now, Hoover became financially very successful early on, before he was thirty he was reputedly the wealthiest man of his years in the world and by the time he was in his mid-thirties, he was a huge success as an international mining engineer, based by that time in London, which was the financial and mining capitol of the world before World War I. But Hoover by the time he was in his late thirties, began to be restless, and I think this often happens with people who achieve early financial success and then who begin to dream of a, of a second career; having done well, they want to do good or they want to do more or they want to do something different. In Hoover's case, he said he wanted to get into the big game somewhere, which is actually a phrase that they use at Stanford, the big game is the great rivalry between Stanford and California-Berkeley in football and Hoover began to think as he was making money and, and making a good life for himself, by then he was married and had two young sons, he began to think, I want to get into the big game somewhere, as he put it to a friend, just making money isn't enough. And so he started looking around, he was then in London, for ways to return to his home country. He was an expatriate, but he never went native, he always wanted and dreamed and planned, I think to come back to the United States. One possible focus of that ambition was to do good work for Stanford University and indeed in 1912 he became a trustee of Stanford University and remained one for about the next fifty years and I have written a book, Herbert Hoover and Stanford University, which documents his extraordinary role in the transformation of his alma mater. Well, that was one outlet for his energies. But he wanted somehow to get into public life but he was not a natural extroverted glad-handing political figure. The dream that he began to develop was to enter the newspaper business. Oddly enough William Randolph Hearst, the owner of many newspapers, the California magnet, was if something a model for Hoover, not for Hearst's style of yellow journalism, which Hoover I think despised. But because Hoover saw, here was a way for a man of some means to make an influence, have an influence on public life, without having to run for public office and expose himself to the slings and arrows of political mudslinging and he, he didn't like what he called political mud or smears, two words that he often used to describe attacks upon him.
So by 1914, when, the summer of 1914, when he turned forty on August 10th, by that point in his life he was a successful mining engineer, probably worth a million dollars or more, if he had sold all of his stocks and assets. By that point he was looking for a way to bring his wife and young sons back to the states and get into some form of public service. And what he began to do, through a Stanford friend was to negotiate the purchase of a newspaper in California, the Sacramento Union, which I believe still exists today. And I think that would have been Hoover's entry onto the public stage as opposed to the business professional stage, had it not been for the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. So he had a number of impulses and attitudes and philosophies that from, from various sources that led him to want to achieve but not be content with purely material success. And those impulses started to, to thrust themselves onto his mind more and more at about the time that he was approaching midlife and in 1914 that would be his fortieth birthday, we tend to think I think of midlife as being a little later now. But, I think that was the, in a sense, the psychological advent of middle age for him and he was already thinking of changing careers and moving on when quite unexpectedly the war broke out and utterly changed the nature and direction of his life.
The war obviously did change the direction and maybe if you could give us a little sense of where Hoover was, what essentially was happening with the war and how did he personally respond to World War I?
Hoover was living in London in August of 1914, as I've indicated that was the world capitol of mining finance, it was where he had his offices. And he had mining interests in far flung places, such as Siberia, Burma, Australia, as well as oil interests in the United States and so forth, but that's where he was based. When the war came, it came quite quickly and unexpectedly and there was a kind of crisis atmosphere in the first days of August 1914. Germany invaded Belgium, neutral Belgium in a stab at France and a dash for France, I think it was August 4th of 1914 and by the end of that day, Great Britain and Germany had gone to war. There had been a kind of a snowball effect as the various alliances became more taut and as each sides’ alliances started mobilizing declaring war against one another and the British were finally drawn into it. And Hoover was sitting there in London watching this. Now he's an American citizen and his country was not at war, so he was an observer, but his mining engineering empire was immediately in great crisis and more to the point, the war came so suddenly that it stranded more than 100,000 American tourists, who were traveling in Europe in the summer of 1914. And in the first days of excitement and chaos, banks closed, there were bank holidays, American Express travelers checks were not honored in the emergency, at least for a few days. There was fear of submarines on the ocean and so a passenger sailing, passenger liner sailings were called off. And suddenly, pouring into London from the continent were thousands of American travelers, trying somehow desperately to find a way out of the fighting on the continent, getting out of the way and getting to London, where they hoped they could book passage home on one of the trans-Atlantic sailings. Now there are many details that I can elaborate upon if you desire, but in brief, what happened in those early days of August was that Hoover and his wife essentially volunteered in a very spontaneous, ad-hoc way to organize efforts to come to the assistance of these stranded American travelers, many of whom did not have much money or if they did they couldn't cash their checks, they didn't know where to stay. It was an effort by Hoover and other Americans living in London, and he was well known as a leading ex-patriot in London, to come to the rescue of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.
So Hoover set up at one of the leading hotels and at the American consulate. Committees of American volunteers, mostly, as I say, residents right there in the city of London, to provide orderly assistance to the American travelers until the matter of the war could settle down. Now there are other details that are perhaps relevant. The United States government congress passed an appropriation and sent a ship over with casks of gold which could be distributed to those who needed it in the form of loans; Hoover ended up administering much of that. To make this story relatively short, over the space of several weeks, well over a hundred thousand people registered with Hoover's American Committee, as it came to be known, and I think the statistics are as follows: that over forty thousand people received some kind of financial assistance, mostly in the form of loans, small cash loans from Hoover - out of his own pocket and his friends initially - and then from the American assistance, from the government, so that they could purchase tickets home, and sustain themselves, find food to eat, hotels to stay in until they could make that return passage. Well, what that did for Hoover was a couple of things. It showed that he was capable of organizing a spontaneous localized but still highly, highly charged relief effort and it brought him to the attention of the American ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Hines Page who became an, an enormous admirer of Hoover. And Hoover proved himself in the eyes of ambassador Page as well as most people that worked with him and, and watched him. So Hoover had been dreaming of, as I said before, of entering public life in some way. Well, in this totally unexpected way he had an opportunity to be of service. Now it was in London and it was temporary in that the tourists got out of the war zone and things quieted down after several weeks. And by September of 1914, about six weeks after the war began, most of the tourists and other Americans, who were in some cases residents of Europe and anxious to get out the way had cleared the area and Hoover had successfully handled the emergency. And as he later put it, he didn't realize it, but he was on the slippery road of public life.
Now did his assistance at that point go beyond the American community or was it limited to just the Americans?
It was limited to the Americans, these were the ones in need. There were a number of Belgian refugees who escaped the neutral country of Belgium, when the Germans broke the treaty and invaded Belgium and some of them made it to Britain and needed assistance. And at one point a little later on the British government asked whether Hoover would be willing to help them out and his view was that they were not really in that much need and many of them in fact could return to their own country if they wanted now that things had stabilized. His interest was by then, and perhaps we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves, by then his interest was in the population of Belgium itself, behind enemy lines. So no, his real focus in the first few weeks of August and September was on helping, as he put it, helping the busted Yankee get back home.
How do you think, you've analyzed it I'm sure. How do think his wealth, his standing as a person who was self-sufficient and his Quakerism, how did that mold and shape him into what he became later in life as a leader? I think Hoover was always a man who admired achievement and as he said once or twice, one way of demonstrating that you are an achiever is to be financially successful. He did not despise wealth per se. He was well to do, he wasn't Rockefeller rich, but in 1914, a million dollars or so, it's hard to know precisely, but somewhere in that neighborhood, was a, was the size of his fortune that would roughly translate to about twelve million dollars today. So, he was comfortably well off and that was just before the era of the income tax. He had told people he was earning one-hundred-thousand dollars a year around 1908, that was a lot of money in 1908. He did not live an ostentatious lifestyle. He had household servants, he had a chauffer, he had a kind of country home in the Kensington part of London. I call it a country home; it has that appearance if you see the photographs. He was a frequent entertainer of any Americans traveling through London, but his lifestyle was not ostentatious. He was brought up a Quaker and part of the Quaker breeding, if you will, was to be a kind of a plain folk, one didn't dramatize one's wealth. One did not boast about one's good fortune in life, but he was, I think, comfortably well off and he was proud of that. He was not ambivalent about his fortune. But to him, accomplishment meant much more than that and in fact, I think, very revealing along these lines is a little auto-biographical essay that he wrote which I have found in my research. He wrote sometime in World War I and he said, it starts off by saying, there is little that matters to men's lives except the accomplishments that they leave posterity. That's almost a verbatim quotation and then he says, well accomplishment comes in many forms and some of them are hard to evaluate, hard to judge, they're intangible, how does one manage that. And he concludes by saying that tangible institutions are perhaps the best measure of what one has really accomplished in one's life and he says at the end when all is said and done, accomplishment is all that counts. And that, I think, was central to the personality, character, temperament, and philosophy or outlook on life of Herbert Hoover. And not just accomplishment, but accomplishment in the form of tangible institutions and, as I imagine we'll discuss as we proceed, one of the earliest of the tangible institutions that he bestowed upon the world was the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which he founded in October 1914.
I was going to ask about that so why don't you go ahead and talk about that...
Once Hoover had finished helping the American tourists and travelers escape harm’s way and return to the United States, he began to pick up the pieces of his own career, so to speak. Everything had been thrown into panicky chaos, he had been dealing with smelters in Germany, with the zinc from Australia, well now Britain and Germany were at war so that trade stopped. He had been involved in developing major mines in the Ural mountains in the czarist empire of Russia, and in exploratory work in Siberia for what would have been fabulously successful mines if they had been able to come to fruition, and he had what became really the basis of his fortune, namely a silver-lead-zinc mine in Northeastern Burma and he was the second largest shareholder in that corporation and that mine was just about ready to become successful. They knew the potential was there but it hadn't quite reached the point of production, so to speak, but it was on the verge of it when World War I broke out. All of that was now in abeyance, or up in the air, or at least it seemed for a couple of months. So Hoover began to think that he, too, would return to the United States. He sent his wife back on the Lusitania, in September or early October perhaps of 1914, with their two sons to go to school. By then his oldest boy was eleven and his younger boy Alan, was seven and they were on their way back to the states, so Hoover was stranded, you might say, in London, scratching his head and wondering what to do. Well, in essence, what happened was that the crisis on the continent impacted his life and I'll explain. The war broke out, in August 1914 on the Western front, when Germany went to war against France with England joining in. But it wasn't just Germany going to war against France. Germany decided to invade the neutral country of Belgium, a country about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, because Germany wanted to get quickly around the flank of the, of the French defenses and the French army and reach Paris and end the war quickly. And the Kaiser of Germany promised that the war would be over before the leaves fell. So there was an expectation I think on most parts of the belligerent powers that the war would be short. Germany was looking for decisive victory, went through Belgium, well as we now know, the Germans were stopped not too far from victory, but they were stopped at the first battle of the Marne at the beginning of September 1914 and the quick war turned into the trench war. And both sides started building what became about four hundred miles of trenches, that is man-, 25,000 miles of actual trenches but a line of about four hundred miles from the English channel to the Swiss frontier. Belgium, meanwhile, had been occupied almost entirely by the German Army, except for a tiny sliver on the coast. Belgium was the most highly industrialized and most populous in terms of concentration of population of any country in the world, in 1914, about seven million Belgians in that small space. More importantly, Belgium was a food importing country. It only raised about a quarter to a third of the food that it needed to consume. Historically, before the war, Belgium was a neutral country, simply traded for its food. But when the war went into the trench phase, Belgium was cut off. The Germans had occupied the country and the British had imposed a blockade on the English channel and on the Belgian ports and so forth, which the Germans had occupied, Antwerp for example. The Belgians were no longer able to import food freely as if there were no war. A deadlock ensued. The Germans said, we can open the ports, we can go along just as we did before. The British say no, no the Germans have started this war, it is the duty under international law for the occupying power to provide for the occupied civilian population. The Germans said no, all the British have to do is open up the blockade and the food will come in and so forth. Well, the deadlock continued, well the Belgians began to face severe food shortages, first in Brussels and then throughout the country. By September it was obvious that this was a crisis. And the Belgians had started in Brussels a private committee, Committee Centraal as it was first called, to try to organize food relief on the breadlines, and find food in the country side, bring it into Brussels. They realized they were going to need more. They sent an American engineer named Millard Schaeler, who was living in Brussels to London to see whether he could get a shipload of food, get something to bring into Belgium. That was at the end of September.
Well, it turned out that Schaeler knew a mining editor named Edgar Rickard, who was living in London, actually a Californian like Herbert Hoover at that point, Hoover considered himself essentially to be a Californian, as he moved along in life. Rickard brought Schaeler to the attention of Herbert Hoover. So here's Herbert Hoover just winding up his relief for the American tourist and suddenly there's presented to him, and from a fellow mining engineer and a fellow American, the, the report that there is a crisis building on the continent. Well, there were many steps in this process, but basically in the first two or three weeks of October, Hoover, I think rather on his own volition, although he liked to always say that he was asked by others to come forward, I think he rather eagerly went forward and became a player in the chain of circumstances that led to the creation of an ad-hoc relief agency that would bring food through the British blockade, to German occupied Belgium, all of German occupied Belgium and not just Brussels itself. Now this required several things to happen. First of all, the British were not going to allow food to go through into the enemy controlled territory unless at the very least, the German enemy promised not to seized the imported food. The German authorities gave the necessary assurances. That still did not make a number of the British members of the British cabinet happy about this because they are (sounds like) ute , that Germany really bore the responsibility but the Germans said look, we can't do it, we won't do it and that's that. So many things had to happen, money had to be found, an agency had to be founded and Hoover, now, now this is part of the underlying diplomatic context, Hoover was an American. He was a representative or a citizen of a neutral country. It was a country moreover, the United States, the both sides, the Germans and then on the other side, the French and the British wanted to ingratiate themselves with and keep benevolently neutral. So both belligerent sides in the war in Europe had a reason for keeping the Americans happy and Hoover very adroitly played upon that concern and very quickly built up a neutral commission or agency that was to purchase and import the food and see that it was distributed inside Belgium. So in short, on October 22, 1914, Hoover and several other American engineers, they were all mostly American engineers, several of them living in London, created what became known as the Commission for Relief in Belgium, or CRB, and it had the unofficial patronage of the American Ambassador since President Woodrow Wilson was a little concerned that the United States might kind of get drawn into the vortex here, if it weren't careful. So he didn't give this official American backing, but he permitted, for whatever the worth of the distinction, the American ambassador to Britain to be patron, as was the American minister to Belgium, Brand Whitlock.
So they provided a kind of diplomatic protection and they were joined in that, I should add in historical accuracy, by the Spanish and Dutch governments, which were also neutral, so their ambassadors provided a kind of diplomatic umbrella, a diplomatic cover, for this unprecedented operation and I must stress that, the Commission for the relief in Belgium was unique in the history of the world. There had never been an attempt to feed an entire country at war under enemy occupation by neutral representatives of a far away country. There had been the International Red Cross, had been around for a few decades handling certain kinds of disastrous relief and so on, but there was no precedent for what Hoover was attempting to do, and I have to mention one more important ingredient in all of this. The Belgians were simultaneously organizing what they call their self-help and at about the same time that Hoover founded the CRB, the Commission for the Relief in Belgium, a group of Belgian business leaders who had organized the Brussels relief expanded their operation and created what was called the Committee National de Schur an Abentacion, the Belgian National Committee for Relief and Food Assistance, roughly translated. So they were to organize every one of the cities, towns, villages, communes in Belgium and there were over 2500 of them, each would have a committee to distribute the food. So the way that this was going to work was, that Hoover in London would set up a kind of a shipping agency, that was one aspect of it, and with money that he could raise from charity or from governments, and I can elaborate on that in a minute. With that money, he could bring the food from around the world, especially the United States, Canada, South America, and Australia. Bring the wheat, the flour, the necessary basic ingredients for the Belgian food needs, bring that with British permission through their blockade, bring it to Rotterdam in Holland, neutral Holland, where it would then be shipped down by rail and canal into major points inside Belgium, then the Belgians would take over and, and distribute this in a very elaborate highly organized way, with the Germans promising at least officially that they would not touch any part of this food. That was the theory that was basically the practice. One of Hoover's great immediate challenges was to raise the money and he issued charitable appeals and was terrifically successful at it. Remember Belgium had just been violated, the poor little Belgium was a source of great sympathy and much of what we then called the civilized world, in particular in the United States. So Hoover had that kind of identification with Belgium's plight to build upon.
Alright, I'll let you finish your thought and then we'll move on to the next question.
Yes, Hoover had to raise money, one way was to appeal to the charitable assistance of the world, and that was substantial and significant, but it was only a relative small fraction of the total resources that he needed. So in brief, he was able to turn to the Belgian government in exile, which in turn succeeded in borrowing money from the British and French governments and funneling it to Hoover for the purposes of food purchase and distribution. Eventually when the United States entered the war in 1917, it absorbed most of that subsidy budget so if you look at the statistics, most of the money came, I think, ultimately from the United States in the form of loans to the Belgian government in exile. The Belgian government in exile had gone to France, had gotten out of the way so it had no tax revenue of it's own. The Germans are occupying the country, so the Belgians had to resort to borrowing. Now Hoover quickly realized that if he was going to succeed in raising money and in keeping the heat on the British and the Germans, both of whom began to have seconds thoughts about this unusual operation, he would have to build up what he would call the club of public opinion, and that meant the American public opinion. So that the British and the Germans would not dare to pull the plug on this enterprise, because the neutral Americans in particular would be outraged. So Hoover saw very quickly, masterful propagandist that he turned out to be, in the best sense, that he had to appeal for, to the sympathies of the world and to then use that as a weapon against the militarists on both sides of the lines who regarded this as a unnecessary or unwarranted or even dangerous intrusion into the conduct of the war.
Now the way you are describing him and it goes to the heart of the age-old business conflict between the entrepreneur and the manager. What you seem to be describing is an entrepreneur, somebody that sees a problem, figures out a way to solve it, whether the governments involved or not. You know it's like problem, solution, government takes charge. There's not a government backing him it's just his own will and the force of his will that's creating the success here, is that correct?
Yes, now he built up an organization called the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which I think had around two hundred people. Sanctioned by the American Ambassador with the assent of the British Government. You see he couldn't import any food through the British blockade without getting the necessary permits from the board of trade and the necessary approval, eventually of the British Prime Minister. So he had to have official British sanction to do this. He also had to have the necessary formal assurances from the Germans that they would allow him to bring in the food and that they would not seize it to the use of the German army, and it very quickly became necessary for Hoover to establish a supervisory inspection force to see precisely that, that the Germans were not secretly funneling off some of the food because if they did, and their was a certain amount of that did go on in the black market, but if they did to any great degree then the British would have pulled the plug very quickly.
Why does he care? Because it's a humanitarian gesture and we're facing a world today where you have Afghanistan or Ethiopia or so many countries that have problems with you know food, but somebody has to care. He cares, why does he care?
Hoover cared first of all because of the enormity of the challenge, and we're speaking here not of a few thousand people in a city or two, we're speaking of an entire country of seven million people whose lives are at risk and that expanded actually in early 1915 until the end of the war. I think that the human, the potential human tragedy was a part of what affected him. Now I can tell you an anecdote in that respect. He founded this before he went to Brussels, he founded it in London in October of 1914. He went to Belgium for the first time as head of the relief commission, a few weeks later, I think the end of November, the beginning of December and he went out to one of the breadlines, where people were lining up, little children, mothers, fathers, and so on and they'd get their little cup of soup and they'd bow and they'd say, “Merci, thank you.” And tears came to his eyes and he averted his gaze and I have heard it said or have seen in my research, read in my research that he found it very hard, ever to go to a breadline and actually come up close and up-front to, to suffering in that poignant form. So I do know from that kind of anecdote that he had an emotional reaction to what he was seeing, what he was doing, and a sense of burden that if he stopped now the, the suffering, the privation, even possible death by starvation would be enormous, so I think that was a burden on his shoulders. There's another psychological factor at work here, Hoover had a certain persona of being rather aloof, austere, reserved individual, not a man of bon ami camaraderie, at least in the way that we tend to think of more recent, successful political figures. But remember that Hoover was an orphan and there are many anecdotes that attest to the fact that he seemed to become more relaxed, more emotional even, in the company of children. And I think when he saw that he was doing something to, shall I say, save the children, that that had an emotionally powerful impact on him because of his own deprived childhood. I don't mean by that, that he was going to bed hungry every night as a child, he was not mistreated, but he had a somewhat emotionally deprived childhood I would say, obviously losing his parents at an early age. And I think that the bonding he had with child relief was an important part of this mix.
As a personality, when we think of entrepreneurial people who see a problem and then go solve it like this, is he the outgoing, inspirational, boisterous type that comes into a room and inspires and asks people to come with him on this mission or does he go in and tell people, this is what I'm doing and your coming along. How does he motivate the resources to follow in this effort?
First of all, he had an extraordinary cause. He was not recruiting for a mining company, he was recruiting for a humanitarian work of unprecedented proportions, I think we need to underscore that point. He was asking people to be altruistic so he could appeal to people in a very noble, with a very noble vocabulary and say, look I need you. And it's harder, I think, to say no to an appeal or to a summons like that. Hoover himself led by example. He did not take a penny in salary, most of the people in his organization, especially at the higher levels of it were volunteers. He did not even take expense money. Now you could say, of course, he could afford to, because he was already a wealthy man and he tended therefore to draw the successful people who could give of their time the way he was giving of their time, so in a sense he was drawing on a special kind of pool of personnel. But generally these would have been successful business people whose altruism was being appealed to. And that had very successful results. So Hoover didn't tend to lead by giving elaborate instructions. He would say, someone said say here's a pencil, and a paper and a wastebasket, now you go to it and work out your views and do the job, I don't really want to hear from you. He also did not reinforce people's successes by the usual backslapping, I mean he didn't give them watches, or, or whatever, he just assumed if they did the job they would find that to be intrinsically satisfying. And that mystified some of them at times, they thought, well why doesn't he show more verbalized approval of what I, his underling. am doing? And many of them, however, got to think, well he just expects us to do our best, and by golly, we are going to do our best, and look at him, he's not wasting any time. He's concentrating on this fantastically challenging and in some ways dangerous mission, because if he failed people might lose their lives. So he became a heroic figure to the people around him, a very inspirational figure without being one to verbalize that at all and it became a cause of some discussion among those who didn't know him and said why is there such hero worship of the man. Very quickly when people came into his entourage if they, even if they were initially skeptical they realized that Hoover was special. So he had a rather unusual management style, I think, because it was not one that encouraged by verbal. It was not one that encouraged people by verbal exhortation, but more by example.
You've talked a little about Quakerism and the characteristics that might come from Quakerism. We know of him as an entrepreneur, we certainly see his management and leadership skills at play here. How do these things then come to inform his notion of American Individualism and maybe you could tell us what that is? When it happens and how it grows out of these various characteristics.
First of all, Herbert Hoover lived on the frontier. He grew up on the frontier. Stanford University was a frontier in its way, just a little, little campus in the middle of orchards in 1891. He went to Australia, where by the time he was twenty-four-years-old, he was superintendent of a gold mine in the outback of Western Australia. He grew a beard to make himself look older and more authoritative, the British company that hired him wanted him to look thirty-five by that time, and so this American who recommended him, American mining engineer said you better look thirty-five by the time you're in Australia. So he grew a beard and got a silk hat and there's a wonderful photo of looking very prim and proper and as long as I'm on this anecdote I'll finish it. When he got to London on the way to Australia in 1897, this rather young looking fellow with a beard went into his British employers’ office, British employer had hired him sight unseen and the man said well you Americans sure know how to preserve your youth. (laughs) But, they sent him out to Australia anyway, where he became known as Hail Columbia Hoover. HC. His middle, his initials were HC, Herbert Clark Hoover, but he was know as Hail Columbia Hoover. He often hired his fellow Americans, he said Americans were better mining engineers than the British and the Australians. He was not an American who hid his Americanism, if you will, and he always said that Stanford was the best place in the world and yearned to go back home, he always had that kind of that extra edge to his American patriotism and was known for this. He was known as Hail Columbia Hoover in Europe, so this sometimes grated upon the British I believe. And I'll tell you another story that is relevant in terms of experience as a prelude to a full answer of your question. Sometime shortly before World War I Hoover was on a vessel, he traveled frequently to far away places and he got acquainted with a British woman of the upper classes on board and they hit it off pretty well. Finally she said to him well, Mr. Hoover what is your profession and he said, I'm an engineer. And rather involuntarily she gasped and said, oh I thought you were a gentleman. And to him that was very revealing of the limitations of the British class system and he realized that he, the son of a blacksmith, had he been born in Britain he probably would have been a blacksmith himself or something similar to it. He would not have been able to transcend his social origins the way he was able to growing up in the United States and in the frontier parts of the world.
So Hoover very early on had a strong sense of America as a special place marked by great social fluidity and that became, I think, a key to his perception of himself and the wider world. Now to jump ahead a little bit, after successfully administering the commission for relief in Belgium in World War I and serving as Woodrow Wilson's food administrator at the end of World War I, Hoover went back to Europe at the end of the war, right after the armistice, to serve as the head of American relief efforts all over Europe under President Woodrow Wilson's instructions. And Hoover became director general of the American relief administration which received a huge appropriation of a hundred million dollars from Congress in early 1919, that's over a billion today, that was a lot of money in that size budget for those days. And he was also active in various forms of economic restoration that were going on at the time of the Paris peace conference of 1919. That had a profound and disillusioning effect on Herbert Hoover, that whole experience, about a year almost from the end of 1918 to late 1919, when he was trying to restore Europe to economic safety as not just Belgium anymore but twenty countries in Europe. And he saw at the peace conference, this is what he believed he saw, a great deal of national jealousy, hatred, racial and ethnic antipathy, greed, imperialistic ambition, not a nice portrait of the world of Europe. And he began to see that, America in his opinion, lay in contrast to that. He saw in Europe, the, the failure of civilization, he said that it had grown 300 years apart from America. A very static class-oriented hierarchical society, speaking broadly, where people were born into rigid casts almost and could not escape them, not to mention all of the other things that I just mentioned in the way of ethnic rivalries and national jealousies and hatreds. So he began to idealize America even more and to admire America even more as a kind of fluid classless society. But now what he saw in addition to the difference between America and Europe was a sense that the United States had entered into a new and turbulent world, in which collectivist ideologies, social diseases as he called them, foreign social diseases were competing for the minds of men and women and if America did not defend its own society and its own ideals and its own social philosophy, it might be infected by these, these nefarious ideologies abroad. He was referring particularly to communism, the Russian Revolution, but also eventually to fascism, syndicalism, anarchism. He tended to see these as foreign challenges to what he then called American Individualism. So American Individualism was his term for what he saw as the American way of organizing our society in a way that permitted betterment of all levels of society. And so he wrote an article, actually I think it was initially meant to be a commencement address at some University in 1922, he published it in a magazine and was encouraged to turn it into a little book which he published at the end of 1922 called American Individualism. And in that book he laid out his philosophy in contradistinction to what he had just seen in Europe.
Can you just give me very briefly just the essence of it in just a couple of sentences?
He said that the essence of American Individualism was a belief in the quality of opportunity. He said that this was the touchstone of our entire philosophy. The fair chance of Abraham Lincoln as he also put it in the book, equality of opportunity and he saw this as a middle ground in a small p, progressive, forward looking middle ground, between the frozen class structures of Europe on the one hand, and the kinds of bestial ideologies that arose out of that context. And on the other hand, old fashioned, dog-eat-dog laissez-faire. He made it very clear that he did not believe in laissez-faire, anarchic capitalism, as he construed it. So he saw America, rather in the nature of a society that had, built into it, the opportunity for social improvement, but avoiding the extremes of either the extreme right or the extreme left.
Just in terms of time, I don't want to spend a lot of time on commerce, but he's appointed Commerce Secretary, if you could just give us a brief understanding of why. But also from your description of what was happening in Europe and in his mining life it also seems like a step backwards in his career because it wasn't a particularly well-known department at the time he decided to take the job.
Yes. Hoover's life really is a series of steps going up the ladder, starting, with his public life, which began about 1914. That was his second career, public service. Started with Belgian relief, then he became head of a major WWI temporary agency, the U.S. Food Administration, which affected everyone's lives food control. And then he became the relief administra-, food regulator for the world, that's the term that General Pershing gave him. And someone called him the Napoleon of Mercy and John Maynard Keynes said he was the only person to emerge from the ordeal of Paris with an enhanced reputation. So he came home at the end of 1919, a heroic international humanitarian figure who had been responsible for saving tens of millions of lives and someone has said, and I think said accurately, that Hoover as responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history. Now that's quite something to put on your resume. So in 1920 he was sought after by both Democrats and some Republicans to be Woodrow Wilson's successor. Now I can go into more detail if you need it or desire it, but in short, he eventually decided that although he called himself an Independent Progressive, he was really a Progressive Republican which really was political pre-war background. He had supported Teddy Roosevelt for President in 1912, he had grown up in a Republican context, he returned to the Republican party in 1920. Didn't have a very successful run at becoming President although he tried, and President-elect Harding who was committed to bringing in the best minds into his cabinet, decided to appoint Hoover to his cabinet. The initial plan was to make Hoover Secretary of the Interior, and if my research is correct, I would not be entirely positive without some further research, I think what Harding planned to do was to make Albert Fall, Senator of New Mexico his Secretary of State and Hoover was Secretary of the Interior. For some reason, Fall got shunted over to Interior and a place had to be found for Hoover, Charles Evans Hughes became Secretary of State. Harding appointed Hoover Secretary of Commerce, I think Hoover was initially skeptical, although I think eager, having been now on the public stage so successfully, to find a way into the Harding cabinet. And he looked at the charter, if you will, of the secretaryship of Commerce, the cabinet agency was quite young and if you read the language, it's pretty encompassing. And so he thought, well if I really can touch this and that base, if I can really make something of this rather obscure and undistinguished cabinet department. And so he accepted with Harding’s promise that Hoover could range widely, that he could define commerce, in a broad way. Now why did he want that? Because I think Hoover liked public life, liked public service. He had the taste of the possibility of becoming the President of the United States in 1920, and I do believe that at some point along in there, at the end of WWI, Hoover conceived the ambition of wanting to become the President of the United States. And part of his thinking was in 1920, was that the Democrats were going to be rejected at the polls, he wasn't comfortable with elements from the Democratic party, some of the Republicans didn't want him either but he was, he identified himself with the Progressive Republicans of that era and Hoover saw an opportunity to be of service, to achieve again, all those motives went in, into it and also to position himself on the national stage by becoming the Secretary of Commerce.
Now he became Secretary of Commerce and very quickly became as someone said, under-secretary if every other department. Hoover quite literally took his mandate from President Harding to range widely and so as we know, he became one of the four or five most influential men in American public life in the 1920's. He was not twiddling his thumbs at the Department of Commerce. He was involved in railroad regulation, the regulation of the nascent airline industry, waterway development regulation, of product standardization, of products of industrial waste and conservation. You name it, Hoover was there. He almost was the undersecretary of almost every department. Now that made him something of a bureaucratic imperialist and he made some enemies. Charles Evans Hughes didn't like all of Hoover's attempts to intrude himself into regulation or American Commerce abroad, and the State Department said that's in our bailiwick, Hoover, back off. Hoover also met some resistance from Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. On the other hand, Hoover had some allies in the cabinet whom he could dominate in the Labor Department and Agriculture eventually, not the first Agriculture Secretary, but the second. And Hoover made himself almost omnipresent, and that had its downside among some of the professional politicians that saw this as a case of bureaucratic aggrandizement and perhaps political ambition. But Harding rather liked him, he said he was the smartest gink I know, I think that is an exact quotation. And Hoover, I think, got along with Harding and there is some, some hint in the documents that Hoover would not have been unhappy to have been Harding's running mate in 1924, had Harding lived. It's hard for me to think of such an energetic individual as Hoover being willing to serve as Vice President. But it's one of a number of clues that I, at least, perceived in Hoover's record as Secretary of Commerce, that he had his eye on the biggest prize of all, the Presidency. Now Calvin Coolidge came in as we know, when Harding died in 1923 and initially, Hoover and Coolidge, I think, were rather friendly and they saw eye to eye on some important issues, particularly agriculture policy. Over time, I think Coolidge who was more conservative than Hoover, less of an activist by temperament and philosophy, began to, I think Coolidge began to find Hoover getting a little on his nerves. There was no open break, but there are some signs of tension and even ultimately exasperation on Coolidge's part. It's a complicated story, both of them were party loyalists and so this was not going to be, you know, advertised too much out in the open. But Hoover became very useful to the Republicans and, of course, after the scandals of the Harding years, Hoover was useful, too, as a good government progressive without any hint of scandal about any of his public works. He was a figure who could appeal to many, much of the more independent sector of the American Electorate.
The notion of standardization and the idea of him as a bureaucrat seem contrary to conservative Republicanism at the time, is that true? Is this the seeds of some of his later Presidential policy playing out as he's Commerce Secretary, seeing the role of government as doing maybe more than it has done before?
That's a good question. There's long been a question as to whether Hoover's been a progressive or a conservative. As it happens, I'll be giving a lecture in a couple of weeks at a local college. But to be brief, Hoover did come into office with what one would broadly call progressive assumptions about government. That is to say that government should have role for example, anti-trust laws he approved of. He also believed in inheritance taxation because he didn't want a privileged class to perpetuate its wealth in social isolation from generation to generation, so he believed that there was some measure of government involvement in the economy necessary to preserve and improve equality of opportunity. But he did not favor equality of result, economic re-distribution and he always thought that too much bureaucracy could be a hindrance to the kind of energy and inventiveness that he also admired and personified. So he was, as someone has said of him he was too progressive for the conservatives and too conservative for the radicals, so he always had this somewhat anomalous position, especially from the point of view of Coolidge Republicans who thought he was a bit of a busy body, so willing to turn to government power. But, it has to be said, and this is a complex case here, he did not want to use government for the purposes of, shall we say, socialistic direction, top down, with the state absorbing social and economic energy. He really wanted to stimulate the private sector to organize and govern itself. So one method of doing that was to have conferences, he had hundreds of conferences at the Commerce Department on the issue of standardization of product. So he'd bring in all of the leaders he could find in the field and so, for example, the number of milk bottles that were built in America, that number was standardized to four in Hoover's tenure and then bedsprings were standardized, and all sorts of things were standardized. He saw this as a way of going after waste, the waste that was a byproduct of anarchic capitalism. But he didn't want to simply pass a law and impose top down. No, he wanted the industries to come up with the best solution themselves and the government could then serve as a kind of cheerleader and catalyst, but not as controller of the whole process.
I could even see Ralph Nader liking this.
Perhaps, I haven't thought about Ralph Nader particularly...
I mean the idea of standardization that ultimately benefits the consumer...
Yes, Hoover, Hoover thought that this would be a way of decreasing the waste in industry. And this was his great crusade. When he became Secretary of Commerce, he, he said somewhere, I think he says it in his memoirs that they needed, he needed a kind of new revolution to start, revolution in an economic sense, and he thought that the crusade against waste would become the great theme of his secretariat and it was. And he, but he used particularly Hooverian methods. Get everybody in a room, the best minds, put them together, get them to cooperate, and then have them go back and organize the grass roots. Don't have Uncle Sam try to, to impose because he shared that kind of fear of socialism, which he said could not generate productivity. You had to have a stimulus to produce, you had to have reward for self-interest, but at the same time he wanted a kind of cooperative self-interest. Perhaps there is some residual Quaker source to that, but I think there are other sources as well. He was working as a mining engineer with very narrow margins. When he was out in Australia he was able to run businesses, mines that made money extracting an ounce of gold per ton of ore, that's the way he operated. So he was always looking for efficiency, he was Mr. Efficiency. He didn't see that as a repudiation of capitalism but he saw it as a purification of capitalism and as a repudiation of socialism which he thought would lead necessarily to bureaucracy without constructive result.
With the businessman in mind, or the consumer in mind, or both?
I think both. He was a believer in high wages for the consumer and he thought one way that that could be achieved was to have more, less wastefulness in the production process. So if the industries could cut down their production costs, they could keep down their sales cost and permit more and more consumers to buy the product. And he believed in that kind of stimulus to the economy through a broader prosperity. So yes he had the consumer in mind.
Now, extrapolating on that same point, the role of government, when we get to 1927 and the flood happens and the Federal Government has really never had a role in disaster relief, prior to 1927, we see a number of Hoover characteristics at work here, the great humanitarian, the great entrepreneur and organizer, the believer that government can play some sort of role and so as Commerce Secretary he goes and does flood relief. Can you tell us a little bit about how, how that played out and whether this is also formative in his ascendancy to the presidency?
Yes, if I may answer the last part of that question first. This was a highly convenient catalytic moment for Hoover, it refurbished his humanitarian credentials. This was the greatest flood, greatest natural disaster in American history up until Hurricane Katrina; something like 600,000 Americans had to flee their homes. Hoover already had a humanitarian reputation from the extraordinary feeding operations that he had done all over Europe during and after, starting with Belgium and then through much of the rest of Europe as we've discussed. So Hoover would also know by the 19-mid-20's as Mr. Efficiency, as I called him, as a highly productive Secretary of Commerce. But this was the moment when he was able to become, to get on the front pages again in his humanitarian role, but also combining the, the efficiency role. So it was very well timed for him politically. Now we could never imagine this today, but Calvin Coolidge went out to South Dakota and spent the Summer out there at the Western Whitehouse, never visited the flood region. He put Hoover and some other members of the cabinet on a committee. Hoover became dominant. Hoover went down there and almost lived there for seven months, made several trips down in the lower Mississippi Valley region. Hoover was the man on the scene and Coolidge was content to, you know, let his deputy or his lieutenant handle the matter. So Hoover worked with the army, worked with the Red Cross, worked with the local relief agencies. There was I think some federal money, but what Hoover mostly did and Coolidge did, too, and they went on the radio and did this in fact, was to appeal for money from the charitable free will donations of the American people. And raised many million dollars, in fact it was quite successful in dollar terms. And Hoover concluded that the amount of money that was raised was enough to handle the immediate relief needs. First they had to rescue the stranded people down in Louisiana and Mississippi and Arkansas where the flood was at its worst. Then after rescuing them and putting them in tent cities, on levees with National Guard Protection and all rest of it, they had to provide food and clothing and shelter for some weeks until flood waters receded. All of that in essence, I think, was done by private charitable subscription. Congress was not in session, during this whole time. Congress was out of session until December of 1927 by which time the flood was long over; it had happened in April and May.
Coolidge refused to call a special session of the congress. He was assured by Hoover that the immediate needs financially were being met through the Red Cross, a kind of quasi-public, quasi-private entity, and Coolidge had various reasons for not wanting to call the congress into session, because he thought Congress disturbed business when it was in session. It created economic disturbance, in other words, it was better for the country when Congress wasn't in session, so he was in no hurry. He also thought that if Congress came back into session it would be under enormous political pressure to engage in all sorts of expenditures to deal with the flood. Now it's very fascinating, Hoover was walking a bit if tight rope here. He was Coolidge's loyal lieutenant and Secretary of the Commerce and he knew very well Coolidge did not want to open the flood gates of Federal spending. Historically, flood relief had been done locally or by the states, and the rebuilding of the levees, which was going to be a huge expenditure, had historically been done primarily by the states and localities with a certain amount of Federal involvement. So Coolidge took a minimal approach to this. Hoover could see the gigantic need but also took a view that was more consistent with Coolidge's, namely that the relief aspects could be handled by private means. Whereas a number of Democrats in the South with Franklin Roosevelt helping to lead the charge, Roosevelt was then out of office, argued that this was far too big an emergency to be handled by traditional mechanisms. Well eventually, the Congress came back into session, and for about four or five months, into early 1928, there was a donnybrook in Congress over who was to spend the money or how the money was to be spent, or who was to raise the money to rebuild the whole flood control system. Now Hoover took the view that there was no need for rehabilitation, that that was being handled by the network of semi-private banks that he set up and by the appeals to the Red Cross. What Hoover wanted to do was to rebuild the levee system, and regarded that, at least in part, a Federal responsibility. What Roosevelt wanted to do, what Roosevelt said was and some of the Democrats like him was, what we really need is rehabilitation for the people. You know, some of this long-range, multi-year flood control legislation expenditure can wait. Well, in a nutshell what happened was that rehabilitation was passed over and Hoover argued that that was being absorbed by the mechanisms that he had in place, and the money was appropriated. I don't remember the sum off hand but a large expenditure of money, a huge expenditure of money, in fact it was the greatest public works expenditure in American history, over about a ten year period to restore the Mississippi Valley flood control system and Coolidge had to bend a bit, because he had to concede ultimately. And Congress by then was under control of a kind of coalition of Midwestern Republicans and Southern Democrats who are going to try and force this through. And what Coolidge had to concede a point on was that some of the levee boards in Louisiana and elsewhere were simply too poor to pay their traditional share of the maintenance which had been divvied up over the years at the public, state, and local levels. So some of them were, in effect, given a pass and Hoover, I think, favored that. But it's interesting to see in microcosm here, the Coolidge Republican perspective, the Hoover somewhat more progressive Republican perspective and then in embryo, the Roosevelt perspective, which was the Federal Government should come to the rescue. So that I think is the answer to your question.
To a certain extent we see Hoover dealing with seeds of what literally two years later becomes the Federal Governments role in dealing with the Great Depression.
And Hoover saw this as a success, and I think this is important in looking at his early approaches to relief as President. These were, of course, efforts in the early thirties, while he was President, that became highly controversial and we will probably be discussing that shortly. But Hoover did look upon the flood response of the Red Cross, and of himself, as an enormous American success story, and on one level it was. Money was raised at incredible amounts, unprecedented amounts, and he saw this as a proof of the goodness and great heartedness generosity of the American people at large, and also proof of the ability of people in the affected regions to organize themselves and depend upon a distant government. So Hoover saw this as a reaffirmation of American individualism, although he was willing I think more than, than Coolidge, less than Roosevelt to involve the Federal Government in certain kinds of reconstruction measures. So once again Hoover, I think, can be seen while he is in power, at least in the twenties and even into the thirties, as somewhat of a man he used to call the progressive center. Little too progressive, too much of a spender to make conservative Republicans happy, but not willing to go far enough to make proto-New Deal Democrats happy.
In 1928, shortly after the flood, he's obviously at his peak and he wins in a landslide for the Presidency. He was destined and as qualified to be President maybe as anyone in history, interesting that today we have candidates that are being criticized because they aren't particularly experienced.
Hoover was elected President of the United States without having held any other elective office, other than student body treasurer at Stanford University. So he had a highly unusual career path to the Presidency. Now we've had military men who've become President without any elective experience, such as Eisenhower for example. So there are different paths to the Presidency than simply going up the party route, but Hoover was unusual clearly among our various forty-four Presidents now, in that he never had elected office or military experience. But he had wartime experience of a most appealing sort, namely here was the man that fed the Belgians and fed all of Europe or most of Europe besides, it was said. A man who could present himself as an executive, as a do-er, as a humanitarian, as an engineer. His career up until 1928 was an unbroken trajectory of success. Now we can look at that, a little more in detail in a couple of ways. When he was food administrator in 1917 and 1918, Hoover organized the American people at the grass roots under the slogan “food will win the war,” and in particular, he mobilized the housewives of America, who didn't yet have the right to vote. The word Hooverizing came into the vocabulary, to Hooverize meant to conserve, particularly on food consumption. And he had his dispatches to the women of his food army, so to speak, and they put signs up in their kitchens, I will obey Hoover's requests, etcetera. There was a bonding between Hoover and many women and he never lost that in the 1920's, he had given them a role in significance in the wartime effort, so that apart from all the other parts of his resume, he appealed to American women. He also appealed, he also had his own kind of political organization. The volunteers who had worked for him, thousands of people in the food administration, not to mention those who had worked before for him in the Belgian relief work, or in Europe after World War I or in, in the relief work for the Red Cross or for the Mississippi River in the late 1920's. Those people were generally, independent minded, often college educated, weak party identifiers, often of a kind of progressive Republican background, people that were not partisan, in the sense of defining their votes by party. But they were a kind of cadre of Hoover workers in 1928.
Now he also picked up some of the old guard and the party prose as his popularity became manifest, but he had unusual appeal. And if I may just put a little footnote on that, in 1920 when he first was sought by the Democrats including Franklin Roosevelt to run as Woodrow Wilson's heir, he was enormously popular among the college students and college professors of America. You could, they took polls on campus after campus and Hoover was overwhelmingly popular. He was the candidate of good government. He did not have a highly partisan appeal in 1928 so he could appeal to independents and some Democrats as a kind of untainted good government Republican, a high achiever, a man of noble sentiments and so forth. He also had some other symbolic things going for him as historians have noted. He was the first President as it turned out, elected President, who was born west of the Mississippi river. He was not quite born in a log cabin, but he was born in a little two-room cottage. His father was a blacksmith, so he embodied the American dream of upward mobility from humble roots to worldly success. He was a Protestant in a campaign where the Democrats had nominated the first Roman Catholic, Al Smith, to run for President. He seemed to be in favor of prohibition; he called it a great social economic experiment. Noble in purpose and far reaching in motive. He never said noble experiment, but the press truncated it to that, so he seemed to be well disposed toward enforcement of the prohibition laws. So on some of the cultural war issues, if you will, or some of the social issues of 1928, he could appeal to the old stock, as they called it, Protestant America. I don't think that that was something that he was running on particularly consciously, some of his supporters certainly exploited those attributes, if you will. But he was presenting himself as a modern managerial-slash-humanitarian achiever and do-er. Someone who is an architect of post war prosperity and could keep prosperity going. So he had all sorts of things although he did not have one of the things that turned out to be, something lacking in his make-up as President, and that is the ability to speak in a way that bonded well on some emotional level with a lot of the American people. He was a bit of a technocrat and he was almost an unworldly presence. This got to the point that someone wrote a famous article about him in the campaign called “Is Hoover human?” and someone else wrote a book campaign biography called Who's Hoover?” And there was always a certain aura of aloofness and mystery about him so that his handlers thought that they had to humanize him so one of the popular props of the 1928 campaign was a picture of a smiling Hoover with his German Shepard dog. Well, anybody who has a dog, you know, must be a man of humane temperament. He, I think, he had that in him, but he did not project it well and he was fortunate in that he did not have to project it well, given the circumstances of that election campaign.
You also earlier, called him a masterful propagandist, did that characteristic play out in '28, it sounds like it didn't?
He was a very good organizer of his campaign and he appealed to the ethnic groups, mainly people who were of Belgian extraction, knew that he was the giver of food for the Belgians. I think there was a kind of campaign documentary made called Master of Emergencies, a silent little movie in 1928. I actually met a woman in my years working as a Hoover biographer, who came to this country in the early 20's. She was German and she had been fed by Hoover relief food after World War I and she lived in the city, near where we're being interviewed and she said that her family was the only pro-Hoover family on the block. Everyone else was I guess Irish-Catholic and wondered how could these immigrant Germans support Hoover. Well, he appealed to the German-American community obviously, so he could appeal to many ethnic groups at a time of considerable ethnic consciousness. I think that was part of his success and he had an ability to send out propaganda in a neutral sense. I'm not meaning to make it sound like type of crass or deceptive advertising, but he had a story to tell and he told it with skill and people told it with skill in the usual manor of campaign biographies with some of the themes that I've mentioned.
I'm going to ask you specifically, because I know you will have some good insights on it, and this is about the convention period in 1928.
The convention period, yes. Hoover was nominated on the first ballot, but it was not a done deal, almost till the day of his nomination. And the reason for that is while he was the front-runner, there was a number of favorite sons and others that were trying to deprive him of the majority, in the hope that Coolidge could be persuaded to run after all. Coolidge had famously said in August of 1927, I do not choose to run for President in the year 1928, and Coolidge never budged, although there were many who wondered whether he might be persuadable and that's a debate that conservative, or rather historians still have.
So up till almost the moment of the convention, there was still wistful hope on the part of some of the conservative wing of the Republican party that Hoover could be stopped and Coolidge persuaded, that Coolidge could be drafted. Well Coolidge didn't give the word and the anti-Hoover coalition started to crumble, particularly in the last big holdout state of Pennsylvania, where there was a division between Philadelphia Republicans who broke for Hoover and the Western Pennsylvania Republicans under the control of the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon and finally, Mellon had to throw in the towel and Hoover had enough votes. Hoover might have been stopped by Frank Lauden, who had been a candidate in 1920, former Governor of Illinois, except that just before the convention, Congress passed a form of agricultural relief legislation called the McNary-Haugen proposal, which Coolidge violently disliked and so did Hoover. That was one of the bonds between them, they had some temperamental differences etc., but on agriculture policy, they tended to see eye to eye. And Lauden however, as a prairie state Republican supported the McNary-Haugen bill and it has been said, and probably correctly, that if Lauden had been able to dodge that issue some way, he would have had a lot of party support against Hoover. Hoover was an outsider, remember he had not gone up the traditional party path and Hoover had made his enemies in the party. And yet, for various circumstances, Coolidge's refusal to come back in or to anoint a successor and then the McNary-Haugen farm proposal, for those reasons among others, Hoover was positioned, also he was running against a very weak field, as it turned out, some of the really big names bowed out for one reason or another, and some of the people running against them were basically non-entities, so circumstances favored Hoover.
Once he's in office, obviously all this happened very quickly, the crash being the big one. Can you give us your perspective with the wealth of your knowledge, from years of studying this man he seemed so, perhaps incapable, perhaps out of touch, perhaps unaware of the right approach to deal the depression or was he taking the right approach and we just haven't caught on yet.
Well, you have to look at Hoover in a couple of phases, I suppose I can begin that way. For the first two years of his Presidency, Hoover was not only an energetic president, but he was somewhat to the left of the consensus. In the last two years, he was fighting a defensive war, if you will, against those who wish to push further into the realm of governmental intervention. Now let me back up, for the first nine-months or so of Hoover's presidency, the economy seemed to be ok for six months or so. He had a conception of his presidency as a reform presidency. He called Congress into special session and passed his version of cultural relief legislation, for example. He was privately worried that the stock market had gotten all out of shape, that the speculation had gone hog-wild, you might say, and he was trying to find ways to pressure the Federal Reserve board to raise interest rates and reign it in. Hoover had some sense that this could not last, that there was going to be a crash or a re-adjustment of major proportions, but he felt handicapped. First, if the President of the United States comes out and says that he thinks that the stocks are too high, will that cause a crash? He's trying to avoid it or trying to find ways to, to ease back. And secondly, of course, he had gone on record during the campaign as saying that we were in sight of the day when poverty could be banished from the land and he said in his inaugural address that he, he looked upon the future with hope. And yet he was privately worried that something serious was going to happen, he had been worried for several years as Secretary of Commerce and then tried to get Coolidge and others to do something in monetary policy terms to reign in what he saw as speculative success. Well, when the crash came he reacted, and he was always proud of this and said so in his memoirs, not with laissez-faire indifference, not as Mellon, I think, had counseled him to let things liquidate and let the private sector get on its feet. But he reacted by calling in the captains of industry and finance and so-on and getting them to make pledges in the good Hooverian manner of collaboration of government with the private sector to handle the problem. And he issued, of course, various reassuring statements and I think he really did believe that while there was a financial mess to be cleared up in Wall Street, that the larger economy was fundamentally sound. And a lot of people agreed with him at that time and for the first several months of the recession, the perception was that this was a conventional downturn and Hoover was given a lot of credit for being responsive in a way that seemed high-minded and effective. So his early persona then, was not of the do nothing Hoover, but of Hoover the activist within his kind of framework of analysis. He was doing this, by the way, without Congress. He didn't want Congress mucking up the work, so to speak, by passing maybe inflationary measures or interventionists measures. He had a fear of state socialism, as he expressed during the campaign of 1928, and a little further on into his Presidency he vetoed the bill that was the forerunner of the TVA, the Mussel-Shoals bill and sustained his veto, so there were limits beyond which Hoover, could, would not go. But for the first couple of years, he saw himself as the organizer of the private sector, a kind of organizer of the expertise of the not just government, but particularly of the leaders of industry and of humanitarian work and so on in responding to the economic crisis.
Yes, just to return to Hoover's response to the Depression, it was an activist response for its time, given historical precedent, and one thing that he did, as I said, was to draw in the best minds and get them to pledge, to make pledges to certain things, one may argue whether that was the right policy, but it was certainly not a passive policy. Secondly, Hoover was an early believer in what we call, what we would now call counter-cyclical economic planning, notably by public works expenditure. And so Hoover encouraged the states and saw to it that the Federal Government undertook a great deal of public works expenditure as a form of stimulus of the economy, a kind of proto-Keynesian notion if you will. That was somewhat advanced thinking for his time.
Does FDR do the same thing?
Yes, on a much larger scale ultimately and that might be in a sense, one form of continuity between Hoover and Roosevelt.
Well, the two other things in the Presidency that I wanted to talk about cause they get us from '28 to '32 and other interview subjects we've spoken with, look at, almost universally they talked about these as being two real challenges for Hoover are Smoot-Hawley and the Bonus March. So if you could comment on that.
Hoover called Congress into special session as he had pledges very early in his Presidency in 1929. The thought was to pass the Agricultural Marketing Act which was done I believe in June, he opened the Pandora's box by suggesting a revision of agricultural tariffs. This was part of the effort he made in 1928, to keep the farm states from revolting against him, he had not been popular in WWI for some of his farm policies and the farm states had not shared the same general prosperity of the 20's, so he felt that he owed something to farm block, to the farm states. Well, once the box was opened, the limited Agricultural Tariff division that he envisaged became a bigger and bigger log rolling exercise. It was somewhat stalemated, this went on for months from the summer of '28 into the Spring of 1929 and essentially it began to look like a very major increase in the tariff would occur. Hoover kept silent during this period, a thousand economists, academic economists, asked Hoover and the Congress, I think this was in May, to repudiate the high tariff. He did not take that advice, he eventually signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which was I think the, the largest peace time tariff in American history. It was a notable increase. Now why did he sign the tariff? His rationale for the signing and some have thought that it was a rationalization but at any rate, his rationale was that the tariff law. Although raising the rates, provided him for the first time with an expanded mechanism for reducing the rates outside of the log-rolling political process, namely through the tariff commission reviewing the proposed rates and I think referring to Hoover any conflicts, so that Hoover or at least the tariff commission could lower the tariffs, there was an adjustability possibility built into the law. So Hoover in a sense, swallowed the higher rates, but he argued, well, we now can be scientific about this and this is Hoover the engineer approaching politics if you will. We can be scientific, we can be precise, we can get this out of the realm of Congressional logrolling and try to have a, a more sensible tariff. Well, the rebuttal to that was, well that would take a lot of time with all these tariff rates to make this meaningful, that's what a Democratic newspaper said in an editorial about it at the time he signed the bill. They thought Hoover was dreaming if he thought he could really bring about more scientific and lower rates. But that was I think his way perhaps of rationalizing to himself. You have to keep in mind also, that Hoover was a Republican, I don't think he was particularly a high tariff Republican, but the party was the traditional party of high tariffs, and the argument was that the tariffs protected industrial prosperity. So Hoover had party reasons for going along, rather than at that point splitting his party. One can argue certainly in retrospect that that was a policy error. There is, I would suggest more argument among historians than we realize as to how catastrophic the tariff was. The Democrats, the low tariff party immediately claimed that this was a huge policy error. And more recently, the devotees of supply side economics and the policy outcomes that flow from that have argued that Hoover exacerbated the Depression, perhaps turned the recession into a depression, by permitting the rates to go up and they site examples of diminished world trade. There is some argument among historians about whether the Smoot-Hawley tariff is a little bit more symbol and myth than true catalyst of the deepening downturn and I'm not certain what my own judgment would be on that. I tend to think that there is a failure of people to understand the context in which Hoover works, so that you might say that he made a mistake, but I don't think he should be demonized in the way the popular blogosphere analysis tends to go by saying, ‘oh he signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff’, Hoover signed the tariff, Congress passed it, there was blame to go around if it's blame and there is I think a serious argument to this day as to whether it was truly as deleterious as was said. So that would be my answer to that part of your question.
With respect to the Bonus March, we've had one subject say in his opinion, it was really the Bonus March that lost the '32 election for Hoover. That had the Bonus March not happened he may have won the election. If you could maybe give us a description of the Bonus March, but also and more importantly, what you think? How you feel the Bonus March affected his candidacy in 1932?
Yes, well Congress in 1924 had passed a form of compensation for the veterans of war, particularly to compensate them for their financial losses when they had to take Army paychecks rather than civilian paychecks during the war. The thought was that the, this adjusted service certificate or as it was popularly known, the bonus, the thought was that this bonus would become available to them in 1945 when most of the veterans would be of older age. If they died sooner, I think their widows or their heirs would have collected the thousand dollar bonus, it roughly worked out to about a thousand dollars per person. Well, then came the Depression and a movement built up in this country to force the Congress to, to award the bonus payments, before 1945 because frankly, the veterans needed the money now. The problem was that this was in the aggregate an enormous sum of money, I think over two billion dollars, the Federal budget was only about four billion dollars in 1932 or so. So all sorts of people, including I might mention, Franklin Roosevelt as well as Hoover, many Democrats in fact argued that this was simply too much for the government budget to bear. Also, some of the liberals argued that veterans as a class did not necessarily need the bonus. Some needed it, some did not and that this was not necessarily the most equitable form of relief possible under the circumstances, so there was that kind of an argument. Well the bonus movement caught on and it was pushed by the veterans of foreign wars in particular and something highly unorthodox happened, one of those spontaneous moments in American history when the course of history is changed. Out in Oregon, a number of penny less, out of job, unemployed WWI veterans, a few hundred of them said ‘we're going to go and lobby for our bonus,' so they hit the rails and started across the country. And passed the collection hat along the way and the media started to take notice, other people started coming from other directions and suddenly by late may 1932, an unknown number of veterans were marching on Washington if you will. This is a moment when there had already been a couple of protest marches on Washington a few months earlier and no one really knew what this meant, how many people would come. So they started to come into Washington at the end of May and the number of such people coming not just from Oregon, but from all over came to probably around 20 or 25 thousand. Now Congress was in session and what these veterans, many of them in their uniforms, mostly WWI veterans, so they're mostly men in their thirties or forties, what they came to do was lobby the Congress. And that's a complicated process but they had to kind of scare Congress or persuade Congress to allow the bill to be voted on. Well, Hoover took the position that this was economic insanity and unfair and he would veto any such bill to give them their bonus fourteen or thirteen years early, if by any chance Congress passed the legislation. So the veterans came and they literally started building tent cities in Washington. They were given some Government property to live on and so forth, temporarily and the police commissioner of Washington D.C., a man named Pellum Glassford tried to be sympathetic to them, but also to keep the crowd under control, lest it turned violence and that's a long and complicated story. But this was a highly, highly unorthodox, social development and it was not uniformly popular in the country, some thought that the veterans were, were asking too much for themselves, let alone going to Washington with the kind of implicit possibility that there could be social disorder if they did not get their way. And there were moments when they marched upon the Capitol and they stood by the thousands on the Capitol steps at one moment and there was fear in Washington that the Army might have to be called out.
Well, to make a long story short, the House of Representatives buckled under and it passed the Bonus by about 220 to 170, a vote like this. It then went over to the Senate and even while the veterans were marching, I think around 10,000 of them were on the Capitol steps, mid-June 1932, the Senate voted something like 60-18, that maybe not quite right, but overwhelmingly to reject the bonus and people expected that there would be a storming of the Capitol, you know like the French Revolution or something. Instead, some woman got up and sang ‘God Bless America' or ‘America the Beautiful’, one of those songs and the, tension snapped and the veterans who always saw themselves as patriotic good Americans, and not rabblerousing leftists or something like that, they didn't see themselves as radicals, most of them. They burst into song and dispersed. Well now, Congress was still in session for about another month, they had taken the decision, no bonus and Hoover had vowed he would veto it in two seconds if it got over to his office or there was that effect. So there was some milling around and the kind of utopian hope in the part of the veterans that they could somehow, by hanging around, persuade the Congress to change it's mind. Well, Congress didn't change it's mind and around July 17th or 18th 1932, Congress went out of town and went home to campaign and wasn't going to come back until after the election. At that point, the Communist element and there was a small vocal, but small minority Communist element started getting more militant and there was a jostling for control of the leadership of this now motley crew of veterans in Washington, some of them vowing to stay there until 1945 if necessary to get their bonus. And Congress had gone home, and they obviously weren't going to get it, but their leader wanted to stay around as a kind of symbolic protest in the hope that maybe Congress could reconsider in due course. And there was this Communist element that was considered to be looking for trouble and there were of course, plenty of angry veterans who were not Communists who were hanging around in a long hot summer, so there was the potential for trouble. Briefly, what happened next was that Hoover proposed that the veterans be given money, or loaned money on the strength of their bonus certificates to get tickets home and several thousand of them took up the offer and went home so that the number of Bonus marchers remaining diminished, but by mid-July or even after Congress adjourned in July 18th or so, there was probably a number of marchers, something like 10 to 15 thousand, the hard core staying on. Small number of Communists, the rest plain militant. Many of them said, they had no other place to go, they were homeless. So now comes the crisis and without going into intricate detail, Hoover decided that the time had come for these people to evacuate government property. They had been permitted for weeks to live on government land, some of which included buildings scheduled to be torn down to build what we now call the Federal Triangle in Washington, where the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art are and so forth. And the administration decided to force the issue, they had given the veterans a chance to go home, Congress had appropriated the money.
Hoover's view was anyone that rejected the offer and stayed around now was essentially a trouble maker. So the idea was to kind of get them to move. Well, it came to a critical point and on the morning of July 28th, the attempt was made to evict some of the marchers, there was violence on two separate episodes, there were police who were attacked and seriously injured, two of the bonus marchers got into a brawl with police. One of the police drew his weapon, shot one or two of them, I think dead. And now there's 5,000 people right out there at the base of Capitol hill, just all milling around wondering what's going to happen next because that's where some of the buildings were that that the marchers had illegally or at least this point were now illegally seizing. To make a long story short again, Hoover called in Gen. Douglas McArthur and the Army units to go down Pennsylvania Avenue and remove the mob and there was, certainly there had been outbreaks of true violence and certainly the potential for violence late in the afternoon when the troops arrived. Well, McArthur moved in, moved them out, the Army never fired a shot, but they did, some of the men on horseback, the Army on horseback, did swing the flat edges of their swords to kind of whack people out of the way, get the mob, which now included tourists as well as government workers going home for the day, kind of voyeurs, people watching, pushed them out of the way. There was some you know loud language, somebody starting setting fire to different tents and so on, it's an argument still as to whether the Army did it or some of the retreating marchers. McArthur was supposed to get the people out the downtown area. Well, he took a very expansive view of his authority, he had been told clear the affected area. Well, to McArthur, the affected area seems to have been wherever any of these people had their camps. So later in the evening, much to Hoover's evident consternation McArthur decided to empty the main camp, far from the scene of violence a mile away, but after dark. And it was done and they were dispersed into the night and tear-gas was used. Again, no gun shots were fired but a number of people were injured in the malaise and so forth and it looked, or it came quickly to look to a lot of people like excess. I don't think there would have been much argument that Hoover had some justification for restoring order, given what had happened downtown. It didn't look like everything was just going to peacefully go away.
The police chief seemed to hope that if he could get people out of the area into camp, a little ways out of town, maybe that could isolate the problem and things could cool down. I think that's arguable as to whether that truly would have happened, given the emotions of the time. But McArthur, evidently exceeded Hoover's instructions, there's some evidence that Hoover tried to stop him, McArthur may have belatedly done that at the very last minute, I now think that that is what he did, but by then, it was eleven o' clock at night and however it happened the last contingent of bonus marchers left or were pushed. The place was burned down, you have pictures now of a Hoover Ville, a kind of shanty town that they constructed, up in flames. Hoover's response after that was to argue very quickly, that this, basically the people left were communists and hard-core trouble makers and that became a whole subject of political dispute in the next couple of months and Hoover's statistics didn't seem to hold up very much and the remaining marchers were able to shift the perception up until Macarthur's eviction at the end. The marchers, some of them were clearly people who were hotheads who had caused trouble and you could argue that law and order required that you simply go in and disperse. Ok. But McArthur went beyond that and dispersed in a manner that included driving away women and children, tear gas and so on. So at the very end, the Bonus Marchers who had not been all that popular for their cause became victims. And it looked like the Army and Hoover had overreacted and then McArthur said this was the essence of revolution, had this gone on another week, the government would have been in danger. That looked like grandiloquence and excessive, you know concern, Hoover made some comment, I think later in the campaign, that this government knows how to deal with a mob, so Hoover was made to look hard hearted and he never upbraided publicly McArthur for evidently exceeding Hoover's order which was for a more limited operation. So Hoover in effect became identified with McArthur in this, the veterans across the country were outraged and thought that this was the way a hard hearted government deals. I think Hoover had probably lost the election even before that but this clinched the case so to speak and Franklin Roosevelt is supposed to have said to one of his aides the next morning, this would have been July 29th, 1932, ‘well that elects me.' Roosevelt was simply reading the New York Times and looking at the pictures. And this certainly made Hoover lose the lingering residual humanitarian reputation that he had earned. I mean that was already under attack, but it made him not just look distant, but almost cruel. It's a much more complicated case in terms of what actually happened, but perceptions rule and that was the perception of Hoover.
I want to move into the post-'32 before we run out of time here, but my last question on the Depression would just be, why given his humanitarian background, given the flood of '27, given his role in the Commerce Department in understanding the progressive Republican side of his philosophy, why didn't he react in a way that allowed the Federal Government to directly the American people. For example, recently there's a stimulus in our economy here, where even George Bush writes a stimulus check you know, so why didn't that happen then?
Two things, first there was enormous resistance not only in Hoover's minds, but in the general electorate to the notion of a dole. The dole was the word of the time for what we might call welfare. Giving people something in the form of an outright gift of cash or food was considered to be inherently demeaning and disruptive of character. This was not simply a Hoover point of view. I think Roosevelt shared a lot of that, and in fact one thing that Roosevelt did later on with his WPA and some of his other projects was to have people work for an income. It may have looked like making work to some of it's critics, but it was working for an income, they were not simply getting a check because they were poor but because they had done something like building a bridge or chopping down trees in the civilian conservation core. They got something, work for a work payment and this was considered to be very important and it's a broad social perception of the time, not limited to Hoover by any means. So, there was fear of the dole and Hoover said somewhere around 1931 that the dole had had enormous diminishing effects on the British population. I'm not quite sure what he was referring to but he obviously thought that was not the way to go. So one point than is the negative one. One does not hand out money promiscuously, one has to avoid doing that. So secondly, Hoover had great faith in the American traditional network of voluntary giving and that faith had been reinforced for him by the activity of the Red Cross in 1927 during the Mississippi flood, and in his view, although many have now criticized it, by the conduct of the Red Cross during the great Arkansas drought of 1930, which was an enormous natural disaster in this country. In Hoover's mind, rightly or wrongly, the system seemed to work, the traditional system of state, local volunteering aid by people who could not give you too much money, but who could kind of know your particular family situation, you could work that way and Hoover believed that that was an efficacious and successful way, the American way. And he put this in quasi-religious terms at the time, he said, ‘we are our brothers keeper.' And when he exhorted people as he often did on the radio during some of his great campaigns. He exhorted the American people to come through with money. And in the fall of 1931, he organized what was one of the last great volunteer national efforts, with all sorts of people, like Al Smith and, and famous Americans going door to door and raising money for the, for the Community Chests and so forth. He raised, I think the figure was close to a hundred million dollars, by any measurement, an enormous success, historically. The problem was, that the problem, the social problem, the economic problem was now even bigger than that.
So Hoover until a very late point in his presidency had faith in the traditional voluntary network, with the government like himself, you know, getting on the air, cheerleading, etcetera, coordinating; a favorite word of Hoover's, organizing, but not just going to the Federal Treasury which he thought was a source of corruption. Now, corruption of two kinds. Corrupting the sole of the recipient and corrupting the body politic and some of his later objections to some of Roosevelt's relief measures was that it was creating the basis for a kind of a, politicization of welfare and creating in some states and there is some evidence of that later in the 30's, a kind of political machine. And Hoover had great fear that the long range implications of this kind of government handout, would be not only to corrupt the soul of the recipient, but to turn the country into a system of corruption the likes of which we had never seen. So Hoover had strong philosophical objections as well as evidence in his own mind at least, that the traditional system held. And I think this is important in pointing out that because people started to say, ‘he could feed the Belgians, why can't he feed us?' And I've often wondered, why was it that Hoover was willing to do so much for Europe and the answer, he doesn't say it very often but the answer seems to be and I think he did address this a little as President, was that the Belgians in his eyes, and the Europeans simply were not organized to handle it. They did not have the kind of American tradition of self-help and volunteerism that he perhaps idealized a bit in the form of the Red Cross, the Community Chest, the Salvation Army, we had social networks that in Hoover's view could meet the problem. Now, towards the end of his life, and this is one of the bridges of the new deal, in the summer of 1932 he crossed the Rubicon. With the emergency relief and construction act of 1932, which among other things, provided for the Federal Government to enter the relief business in a massive scale for the first time. Not directly, but in the form of about 300 million dollars in loans to the states, which could then distribute the money as needed. By then, it was overwhelmingly apparent, to Hoover and the political class in Washington that the traditional system was at the limit of it's resources. And the turning point came in May when the conservative Democrats in the Senate who had been siding with Hoover over more radical relief measures went over to the other side and proposed huge, by the standards of the day, huge proposals for relief and people like Bernard Baruch and Owen D. Young the head of General Electric who were conservative Democrats, swung over. And Hoover realized that the center had been lost and within forty-eight hours he switched. And, but he again, Hoover being Hoover, he had limits he said. Now we've got to it this way, do it that way, we're not going to have the dole and so on. So he fought with Congress for a couple of months, before the bill was passed. But that was the moment, when in terms of relief, a Federal assumption of monetary responsibility was accepted by Hoover and the American electorate and as just a few months before that, the notion of Federal relief to businesses and banks was accepted through the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, so on two points the late '31, early '32 with the RFC and then in mid-'32 with the relief measure, Hoover did move quite a ways from the more volunteeristic ethos that he tried to hold earlier in his Presidency and you can look at those two developments as the bridges to the New Deal.
One of the areas that we have not covered extensively but I'd like to get your insights on is the interregnum period. Hoover has lost the election, but he still has a few months left to govern and he courts FDR's support and yet doesn't actually get it, so obviously a lot of their animosity comes from this period so maybe you could describe exactly what Hoover's hoping to achieve and how FDR kind of puts up a road block to that.
Yes, in essence, what was happening was that the, the war debt issue...
Could I ask you to start with after his loss in 1932?
After Hoover's loss in 1932, he still had several months as President, in those days the new President did not come in until March 4th, it was a longer interregnum period than we have today. It also was a period that coincided with a severe deepening of the recession in those final months, so that this was considered to be the most critical turning point or transition in Presidency since the Civil War. So that's the backdrop really for the transition of power from Hoover to Roosevelt. Now, Hoover about a year before had proposed a moratorium on European war debts to the Untied States, the Europeans in World War I had borrowed over 10 billion dollars, quite a lot of money, over 100 billion in today's currency. And they were supposed to be paying it back to the United States. Well, in June of 1931, Hoover proposed a year-long moratorium on the payments on the theory that this temporary release of the burdens would permit the European economies to succeed, to recover, and perhaps turn the international depression around. Well, the next actual payments for the Europeans, they were supposed to resume after the moratorium, the next actual payments were to be December 1932, just a month or so after our election. Well, just a few days after the election, the British informed the Hoover administration that they wanted to reconsider this matter and it looked like the British and the French and the others were simply not going to resume their payments of a very substantial amount of money. Also, there was talk abroad, and at home, of having a kind of world economic conference in the coming year to more or less, reorganize or stabilize or reform the world economic system in ways that would obviously improve the economy. So Hoover by this point had concluded that the major source of the trouble, the reason the United States was not recovering from it's depression was factors abroad and certainly in the last two years of his Presidency, things had gotten worse in Europe and he argues that this had undercut what he thought of at least was progress that he had been making in restoring the economy to prosperity. So Hoover now has on his plate, the issue about what to do about the world economic conference to come, and more importantly what to do about the whole war debt situation. So Hoover decides that he is a lame duck and he wants to coordinate, if you will, again a favorite Hooverian term, with the incoming President Franklin Roosevelt, and to Hoover at least, looked like a very critical situation. So without getting into the minutiae of this, Hoover sought Roosevelt's cooperation in some type of joint policy towards the war debt issue, perhaps appointing people to serve on the American Exploratory Committee for the conference etcetera. He tried to invite, some have argued, entangled Roosevelt in these matters, before Roosevelt took office and in Hoover's view, the crisis was now, we've got to cooperate and so on. So, Hoover invited Roosevelt to the White House to discuss and I think Roosevelt was rather taken aback and perhaps sensed that there was a trap, there already had been moments of disagreement between him and Hoover and the whole campaign had gotten bitter and so there was not a lot of love or trust between them by that point. So they met on November 22nd, 1932, I think this was the first time in American history that a President-elect had met the outgoing President and certainly for anything of the policy consequence that this appeared to have.
In short, Roosevelt took the position that Hoover was President of the United States until March 4th 1933 and that while Roosevelt would be happy to hear about what's going on and so forth, he could not assume any kind of joint responsibility, and Roosevelt stuck to that position. The power and authority were in Hoover's hands period. Hoover didn't feel he could get very far and certainly with anything that would go into the Roosevelt's Presidency unless he had some signal from, from Roosevelt that whatever Hoover started was going to make any sense and provide continuity off into the future. So Hoover, I think got it into his head that Roosevelt was being coy and uncooperative for base reasons, Roosevelt got it in his head that Hoover was trying to trap him in some way to curb his freedom of action. This went on for some months and matters got worse between them. At one point, Secretary of State Henry Stimpson, Hoover's Secretary of State, who incidentally was later Roosevelt's Secretary of War went to Roosevelt and tried to come up with a kind of a compromise or modus vivendi or something. Hoover was suspicious, initially hostel, but finally permitted it, and actually, Stimpson and Roosevelt, got along rather well to the point that some of Roosevelt's advisors thought that Roosevelt was being co-opted by Stimpson and Hoover, so again, there was great suspicion, mutual suspicion during this time. It basically became evident by January, when I think they met again that Roosevelt was not going to do anything significant to advance what Hoover thought was the right policy dealing with these economic, international economic issues. The crisis took another turn in mid-February when the banks in Michigan started to fall and this became kind of the final push in the stack of dominoes leading to the complete closure of the American banking system literally on the morning of the day that Hoover left office, the day that Roosevelt became President. More misunderstandings occurred here, Hoover wrote a handwritten letter to Roosevelt on February 18th, 1933, while Roosevelt's still a private citizen mind you, saying things are worse, we've got to have help, will you join me in addressing the banking problem. It was not the most diplomatic of letters because Hoover not only asked for Roosevelt's support but he had this long explanation as to why this crisis had gotten to this point and part of this explanation was that the banks were upset because of the fear of Roosevelt's policies, or, what Roosevelt's policies might be.
So Hoover in effect was saying things are getting worse because you Roosevelt, are threatening to shake the apple cart. So Hoover wanted Roosevelt to send signals that would reassure the bankers etcetera that Roosevelt was not going to do anything radical. Well naturally, Roosevelt was not going to take Hoover's explanation as to why things were suddenly becoming more tense, so that was a problem. Roosevelt simply chose to ignore the letter and not answer it. So about ten days go by now and it's now March 1st, I think, 1933, the last few days of, of Hoover's tenure, and by now the banking crisis is spinning toward a gruesome climax and Hoover tries again as he did time and again in those final few days and they could never agree on a kind of joint proclamation, Roosevelt's view by then was, we're not going to stop the free fall of the banks if I Roosevelt say, ‘Please banks, don't close.' And Roosevelt thought that he would lose political clout with his own party if he somehow associated himself with this drowning man, you might say, Hoover. So Roosevelt didn't want to squander his political capitol by associating himself with this discredited President. Well, in Hoover's eyes, this looked like the most crass of motives, it looked like Roosevelt was trying to capitalize on the emergency in ways that were not truly statesmen-like. And Hoover had some reason to think this is a little I suppose, murky still, but there were reports coming to Hoover that Roosevelt basically wanted the crisis to come to a crash so that he could come in as the man on the white horse. To Hoover, this was awesomely, wickedly, unpatriotic and wrong, and insincere and the rest. And Hoover became very bitter at what he saw as a irresponsibility of the first order on the part of Roosevelt. Roosevelt for his part thought, and one can see why, that Hoover was doing everything in his power to in a sense, reverse the course of the election, by maneuvering to get Roosevelt to abandon his so-called ‘New Deal’ and promise the public that he would adopt more conservative economic measures that Hoover thought were the proper ones under the circumstance. So you have here a case of each seeing himself as high-minded, but perceived by the other as operating from low motives and it's quite possible that there was you know, lower motivation on both sides as well.
What do you think?
I think it's probably that each was trying to maneuver the other, each thinking that he was acting in the most high-minded way, but the partisanship was running pretty high. I am, if I may say, writing a book right now on the Hoover/Roosevelt relationship and I have not completely sorted this out so what I have just said is provisional. But I do think that you can look and I've often thought of examining both Hoover and Roosevelt in the crisis of their relationship, which is the subject of my book, that there is a high motive and then there is perhaps a more envious or lower motive and that they tend perhaps to work concurrently, it's very hard to figure, to read Roosevelt's mind. One of Roosevelt's closest advisors, Raymond Moley was you know, his intimate confidant at this time, later became a friend of Hoover, and deposited his papers in the Hoover institution in Stanford, rather than the Franklin Roosevelt library, Moley became a substantial critic of Roosevelt, but he was very close to Roosevelt in '32 and '33; his key advisor on policy. He wondered later on, and said so to Hoover, whether Roosevelt sensed that it's best just to keep his skirts clear of this descending spiral of economic chaos, let Roosevelt, I mean let Hoover take all the blame and then Roosevelt can come in with a clean slate. Is that a noble motive? Is that a base motive? Is it just a realistic motive? Look why tar myself with Hoover, he's a failure, let me do my best when I have the power and of course Roosevelt always framed it in those terms. I can't be President of the United States until I take the oath. And if Hoover has the courage and he thinks he ought to do this or that, let him do this or that. So I think Roosevelt had a kind of annoyance that Hoover was always trying to, in a sense, cling to Roosevelt, come on you got to, we've got to share this and Roosevelt for reasons high or low resisted that and Hoover for reasons high or low, or maybe it's a mixture in both cases, was trying to create a joint solution. And it's very hard for me to read their minds, but I can see, given the mutual antipathy that they developed, that they could be a mixture of motives.
It makes for kind of a testy Inauguration day?
Yes. (laughs) You may have perhaps seen the films, you may have used the films in your documentary of a Hoover essentially refusing to talk to Roosevelt as they share the Inaugural parade car on the way from the White House over to the Capitol for the swearing in ceremony. And Hoover by then had been up much of the night and had been trying to get Roosevelt to sign on to some kind of solution to the bank crisis and he finally said to his secretary, Hoover did, ‘Oh well, we're at the end of our string' and I think Hoover felt that Roosevelt had behaved with manifest irresponsibility and that's why there was such a scowl on his face, Roosevelt had defeated Hoover. If you want to interpret Hoover as conducting a four-month campaign for Roosevelt's mind, Hoover lost the battle and maybe that's why he had a scowl on his face also.
I haven't read it, but our research colleague had read about Hoover speaking with his secretary in the morning of, about almost a vendetta that he would carry forward against FDR, and I may be characterizing that a little bit wrong, but he clearly grew to despise FDR over the next several years, in terms of calling him a fascist and any number of other things. We've had interview subjects that have really looked at that period of FDR's Presidency as reflecting rather badly on Hoover, despite some people also saying he had a great post-presidency. Where do you come in on this?
There was one drive behind Hoover in the last 33 ½ years of his life, a longer ex-Presidency than any ex-Presidency we have witnessed and that was the drive for vindication. Up until his Presidency his life had been on an upward arc of success and now he was perceived not only as a failure, but as an evil man, a cruel man, not a well-meaning man. That was the mood of the electorate or that was what he believed it to be when he left office and he was fearful of assassination. And during the next third of his life roughly Hoover in various ways, many different ways attempted to restore himself to the good graces of the American people. Both of his contemporaries and then later on of posterity in all sorts of ways by good works such as the boys club movement, which he spear-headed and made into a great social institution, by the Hoover Institution which he later regarded as the most important thing he had done in his life, creating the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. He strove for vindication early on by wanting to be President again. I think in 1936 in his heart of hearts, he wanted to be standing where Alf Landon stood. In 1940 I'm convinced, in fact, the record is clear that he worked for the Republican Nomination, he wanted to be the Wendell Willkie of 1940, he wanted to be the candidate of a brokered convention. This desire to restore his good name and not, not just that but to put the country on a better path. I mean he sincerely believed he thought Roosevelt was taking us in the wrong direction, that desire was upper most in his mind. And he worked at that and it's a hard act to pull off in this way because not only was he trying restore his good name through benefactions through the two Hoover commissions under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. For example, through the famine relief mission that he undertook for President Truman, through the creation of the Hoover institution and all the rest of it. Not only through benefactions was he trying to be a good, productive, useful citizen, but he was also simultaneously serving as a critic of FDR. So he was wearing a partisan hat as Ex-President at the same time, he was trying to transcend partisanship and restore his reputation. So this came out, perhaps most markedly in 1939 and '40 when America saw World War II beginning in Europe and Hoover attempted to replicate his World War I experiences of feeding Belgium and other countries. He started a Finnish relief aid project for Finland, when Russia invaded Finland in the fall of 1939, and then Hoover in 1940 and '41 attempted to force the Roosevelt administration into recognizing a way for food to be sent into German occupied countries, Belgium and other small Democracies. Hoover was stymied in that but one day he would be arguing in strong humanitarian terms for some way to be found to help the poor people of Belgium and Poland and Norway, etc. And on another day, he'd be denouncing Roosevelt for trying to maneuver us into war. So Hoover was a polarizing partisan figure at the same time he was trying to be this kind of humanitarian figure and that perhaps retarded some of the effort he made to redeem his reputation. Of course as he said later on in life that by the time you’re eighty, you’re no longer a political threat to anybody so he had kind of outlived his political enemies, and in his final years there was a certain avuncular image about him and I think a lot of people felt that while they may not have agreed with Hoover, he had tried hard and was a decent and honorable man, those were sentiments that were not largely shared when he left office.
The animosity he has for FDR by today's standards and in particular, I think of Carter as someone who has a very admirable post-presidency to some and not to others and Hoover seems much tougher against FDR for example than Carter has been against Bush for example, calling him a fascist and that sort of thing; it's not what we tend to think of as statesmanlike.
Well, Hoover convinced himself that this was the challenge to liberty, to use the title of the book that he published in 1932, which was a kind of an intellectual manifesto against what he saw as all kinds of collectivism, Nazism, fascism, socialism, and national regimentation as he called it which was his code word for the New Deal. So Hoover in his righteous indignation thought that the challenge was that deep and grave; that can be said in his defense or extenuation or at least of understanding him, that he did not feel that he could go quietly into the night and he finally, he tried for a year or so and then he burst forward in print with A Challenge to Liberty, then in 1935 he really hit the trail and became for years a very prominent and probably the most prominent critic of FDR. So they never met again, by the way, after 1933, but there was an attempt in 1939 to reconcile them, by of all people Eleanor Roosevelt. Now, you have to know as background that the Hoover's and the Roosevelt's were friends starting in World War I and Roosevelt actually wanted Hoover to run for President as a Democrat in 1920 and I am convinced that he wanted to be Hoover's running mate. And that friendship lasted at a somewhat superficial level until the Hoover Presidency, various things happened and we haven't discussed all of them, but bad blood developed between them and I think each felt the other was motivated by less than noble motives so it got beyond politics so to speak. And Hoover and Roosevelt never met after the Roosevelt inaugural, but they were much in each other's minds. Roosevelt was especially on Hoover's mind, Roosevelt had many other people to be thinking about besides ex-President Hoover, never-the-less, there was a rivalry at long distance and as I started to say, there was an attempt in 1939 by Eleanor Roosevelt to bring Herbert Hoover into the Roosevelt administration. This is at the time of the German invasion of Poland, and Eleanor's idea was that Hoover's reputation in the world, the best side of his reputation was that of the non-partisan relief administrator and why not put Hoover into the administration and send him over to Europe to do something having to do with the relief needs that would clearly arise in the new war, the second World War. And Roosevelt actually indirectly sounded Hoover out on that and Hoover was offended. He thought, if Roosevelt wants to talk to me, he can by-golly call me up and let me visit the White House. He didn't like being toyed with, or that was his perception. He also suspected, and he may have been right, that Roosevelt thought this was a nice way to co-opt Hoover, silence Hoover dissenting voice on politics and get the credit for putting Hoover in a non-partisan job overseas. Mrs. Roosevelt had a motive too, I think she wanted to be head of the women's division, she had worked with Hoover or been friendly with Hoover during WWI and I think the two of them got along better and had a more mutual admiration than Hoover and FDR did and it might be, I don't think they ever talked about it, but it's noteworthy to me that Mrs. Roosevelt was like Hoover, an orphan, her parents died young and she had a rather unhappy childhood. And I have no evidence what-so-ever that they ever compared notes so to speak and I doubt, given the morays of the time, that they ever did. But there was a seriousness and high-mindedness about Mrs. Roosevelt and her temperament in approach to public life that I think appealed to Hoover and Mrs. Roosevelt at least early on and always to some degree professed respect for Herbert Hoover, whereas I think Hoover felt that Roosevelt had a bit of the insouciant rich-boy in him and Hoover of course made it on his own and Roosevelt, I think, in turn thought of Hoover as somewhat contemptuous of him intellectually. So that perhaps helps to flesh out the picture.
Is the Inauguration day the last time they speak?
Yes, so far as I know. It's interesting, you look at the films, I think the first person to shake Roosevelt's hand as President was Hoover and then they never met again. There were some moments of contact by correspondence, I don't know of any meeting, it's rather interesting, they maintained a certain etiquette of friendship or at least mutual respect and it happened in this way. When Mrs. Roosevelt - when Franklin Roosevelt's mother died in 1941, the Hoover's sent a condolence letter. When Mrs. Hoover died in January 1944, the Roosevelt's sent a condolence letter and Hoover wrote back and as I recall it was a one-line formal thank-you to Roosevelt and a hand-written letter or something more effusive to Mrs. Roosevelt with whom as I say, always seemed to get along better. When FDR died in April 1945, Hoover wrote a rather touching, hand-written letter to Mrs. Roosevelt that's in her papers to this day and I'm not sure she knew quite what to make of it, but I find it rather heartening that for all of the, the political and personal disagreements and mistrust that grew up between the two-men and their families, there were moments when they did the right thing you might say, in moments of family loss. And I can tell you, to somewhat my surprise, in 1957, when Harry Truman, I think it was '57, when Truman dedicated his Presidential library, Herbert Hoover who had become a good friend of Harry Truman was present for the occasion, and Mrs. Roosevelt was there also and later on, either in a letter or a diary, she remarked that she was surprised how pleasant Herbert Hoover was and still more to my amazement, I think in 1962, when Mrs. Roosevelt had a significant birthday, she actually invited Hoover to the occasion. I suspect that was pro-forma, I'm not even sure she knew that the letter went out., but Hoover was on the opposite coast and said, you know I can't attend and so forth. But there was that, even though there were political differences, there were some hints of residual friendship or at least respect. I don't see those so frequently between FDR and Herbert Hoover and in fact I could tell you more stories about distasteful episodes. For example, I'll tell you one very briefly, Hoover was convinced that his mail was being intercepted and there is some evidence that somebody was doing it and he suspected that it was the Roosevelt administration. Hoover's income tax returns were investigated by the IRS in the mid-thirties and he was convinced that it was a kind of political retribution. So Hoover again, rightly or wrongly was convinced that Roosevelt was pursuing some kind of long-distance vendetta against him, never-the-less, Roosevelt I think was intrigued at the idea of using Hoover in World War II, at the start of World War II in some non-partisan way only to be turned off by Hoover and I think finally, when Hoover was busy flailing at Roosevelt for getting us into war or pursuing interventionist policies, I think Roosevelt finally perhaps got rather fed up with Hoover's criticism and lost any residual willingness to reach out and so it came to pass that after Pearl Harbor, Hoover sent out some kind of signal that he was willing to serve in some sort of non-partisan capacity and Roosevelt never invited him to do that. When Truman came into power, he rather quickly, for obvious enough reasons invited Hoover to the White House and Hoover later remarked that he thought Truman had added ten years to his life by treating him in a way that Hoover regarded as respectful. So Hoover had alas, a lot of bitter feelings I think for many years toward FDR although he tried I think to transcend it in various ways.
One of our interview subjects compared Hoover, the young Hoover to a Fitzgerald character, very much like someone out of a Fitzgerald novel and it strikes me that he certainly looks that way as a younger entrepreneurial successful you know, ‘Gatsbyesque' character, but also seems to have some of those characteristics later in life as well. How would you view him in the context of a Fitzgerald novel.
Oh my, I like the Great Gatsby but I don't think of Hoover as being a man of mystery who was indulging in some shady bootlegging or whatever it was that Gatsby did in the novel. Gatsby was one who threw big parties, Hoover hated that kind of socializing, he was a workaholic so I don't immediately see the parallels. I like to say of Hoover this, especially about his ex-Presidency, he secured his place in history the old-fashioned way, he earned it and I don't think you can say that so much of a Gatsby figure, however glamorous or mysterious or whatever Gatsby was. So no, perhaps you could persuade me that perhaps there is something to be explored there, but I don't immediately put Hoover into that category.
How do you see Hoover's legacy, what do you think his legacy should be?
Well, I think I would begin with the Hoover Institution, one of the world famous archives, now a think tank as well on War, Revolution, and Peace. Really for the history of the 21st Century, there is no other single archive I think that can compare with it for it's archival holdings. If he had done nothing else in life but create that monument, I think that would be a monument to remember. Another way by which we should remember is one I put on the record earlier, it's not original with me, I think it was a British Historian that made the remark somewhere, but it is one that I would associate myself with, that he saved more lives than any other person who lived in history. No one knows how many, I once tried to do a fairly accurate calculation based on the tons of food that he shipped to Romania and all sorts of figures, no one has done a person by person count, but we do know this, at the height of it's operations in Russia in 1921-23 his relief operation was feeding somewhere between ten and eighteen million people every day. And if you do the aggregate figures for Belgium which was seven million people per day over four years, northern France another couple million and people who were fed in Vienna and Poland and Bulgaria, etc., after the first World War. Between 1914 when the war broke out and 1923, when the Russian relief operation wound down, if you put it all together, I think a conservative estimate would be that Hoover was responsible for food relief missions and organizations and programs that fed at a minimum, at a conservative minimum over eighty million people. Of whom else could one make such a statement, that's an amazing fact and if we think of nothing else about Hoover I hope that we will not just fixate on Smoot-Hawley, or high taxes or some other episode, no matter how important they may be and not to dismiss them, but I think we ought to remember that here was a man that was in public life from 1914 to 1964, fifty years in public life having the types of accomplishments at which I just hinted, you may find his social philosophy limiting or exhilarating.
You were saying 1914 to 1964.
Yes, between 1914 and 1964 when Hoover died, he was in the public life, the public eye, a career in public service. That's fifty years and I don't know of any other American who's ever lived of whom the same could quite be said and those were years of activity, not passivity. So you can add to the founding of the Hoover Institution, the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, the relief work that literally saved the lives of tens of millions of people, you can add that datum of fifty years in the public service and finally I would say this, Hoover was unusual among American political figures in that he had a social and political philosophy. We have touched upon that in mentioning his book American Individualism and his book, The Challenge to Liberty, two books of political philosophy if you will, not too many American Presidents or politicians of any kind write such books, certainly not in their own hand, so that makes him unusual. He had a sense of America as a special place in the world, he had a strong sense if you will, of American exceptionalism and of America as a fluid society of promise and possibility with a founding touchstone of equality of opportunity which I still think resonates with many people in the world to this day, particularly those who choose to emigrate to the United States. Now most people don't know of Hoover in that context I suspect, and again he had suffered in history because four years of his long life, were the Presidency, the pinnacle of any man's life to be sure, but really only four years out of a much more comprehensive era of contribution by him. And so the tendency has been to look back on Hoover in a very stereotypical way, so select certain episodes of his Presidency and forget the rest and so the argument I would make is not to ignore the Presidency, but to remember the many other truly remarkable things that he did and also the kind of driving philosophy that for better or worse motivated him. We may not all agree on his political philosophy but I think he is unusual and deserves attention because he tended to link his career with a vision of America's promise and possibility as well as in his view, America's actuality. So he speaks to a lot of issues about our national self understanding, so for that reason too, I think he deserves recollection. He deserves to be remembered.
As much as we might think he does, because obviously you're a biographer and we're filmmakers doing a film about him, what I encounter when I mention this project to people is that many people don't see him as relevant today, they don't see him as even necessarily worth the time to watch the biography or read the book or do anything of these things. We've even had one of our interview subjects tell us that they think he's irrelevant, and which point I wondered why they sat for the interview. But how do you feel? What makes this man relevant, I mean we're the first people to do a PBS biography on him.
That's a remarkable datum in itself. Well, of course one reason is that he has long suffered under an image problem, partly his personality is not that of the traditional political extrovert. Partly his is associated with an unsuccessful Presidency, some may moralize about that more than others, but he is not looked upon as belonging happily in anyone's pantheon. He's a political orphan, neither the left nor the right today, really wants to claim him. So why should he be remembered? Well, I've given you a number of reasons already in terms of his achievement and his philosophy that he is a part of our history in ways that deserve to be noticed. But part of the enduring interest in him lies in his philosophy of government and he dealt with some issues which are still with us today, they're almost inherent perhaps in our political economy and our polity and namely to which extent is government the solution to national problems or the creator of national problems. Is it the cause or the solution? We've had that debate for over a hundred years. Reagan came, gave one kind of answer in his Inaugural speech to take one example. Government, was the source of trouble, not necessarily, the panacea for results. Roosevelt, in a sense is the polar opposite, or at least one arguing for greater possibilities for government and arguing that the private economy or the independent sector cannot succeed and survive and function on their own. Hoover is somewhere in the middle, probably closer to Reagan, than to Roosevelt overall, but one who started off as a progressive Republican, one who argued that the New Deal was false liberalism and that what he, Hoover represented, was historic liberalism, and he said that must be conservatism, in contrasts. So Hoover the progressive, in a way in his later life, became the exemplar of a kind of conservative, conservatism. We still have these debates in every election, especially when the economy becomes rickety. I sometimes say to people that Hoover is now one of our leading economic indicators, you know, whenever the economy goes south his name gets mentioned more and more in the news. So he's kind of a codeword or a symbol for certain, or shorthand for a certain kind of view of politics. But he raised those issues and grappled with those issues, in ways it seems that we are likely to grapple with indefinitely. This is still a debate in our country. How far does one try to bail out the private sector, or regulate the private sector, supplant the public sector, we have all those debates right now in this fall 2008 election campaign. Is government the problem or is it the solution, and there has been a debate back and forth that has I think pervaded every election we've ever had. So Hoover speaks to that issue I think, if one will just go and look him up.
To what extent, and this may be my own observation about this now, to what extent do the times play into this whole debate, because really, the country really starts to become the country we know today, in the early part of the 20th Century. I mean you know, partly because of the expansion, but also because you know, communication, lends itself to the East and the West and the North and the South, being able to talk to each other, newspapers are distributed, everybody's on the same page on the same day at the same time, and what I've noticed is that you can look at Roosevelt, you can look at Hoover, you can look at Reagan, and yes, there's more government intervention, less government intervention, that sort of thing, but to what extent do the times dictate that. I mean can someone make the case that part of the reason Hoover might be seen as a failure later in his Presidency is because he didn't adapt to not so much the philosophy, but to the times, to the fact that the crisis was upon us right now and it wasn't about political philosophy, it was about reacting.
Well, I'm not sure how to answer, I, in a sense, one could argue the times demanded more government intervention than Hoover was prepared to give, and he obviously held out too long to his detriment if the criterion of presidential success is popularity and re-election. So he suffered and was defeated, but he was not only defeated, but in a way he was rejected and that cut him to the quick and he attempted to regain his standing if you will. So is that a bit of an answer?
Yeah, sometimes you hear the right criticize the New Deal, you hear the left criticize Reagan but to what extent is it just that we as a government, the government reacts to the situation at the time. I mean, the New Deal wouldn't, the great society isn't necessary today, the New Deal isn't necessary today, Reagan economics isn't necessary today. We need something that fits the 21st Century.
Interesting question, obviously the battle in 1932 was partly between two, interpretations of the economic crisis that we're in. Hoover tended increasingly to place the blame on conditions abroad, which had overwhelmed what he regarded as his successful shoring up of the dyke. Roosevelt took a rather moralistic position that the failure, was the failure of the private sector, in specifically big business and the banks and that they were getting their come up-ins. If you look at Roosevelt's inaugural address, he talks about driving the money-changers from the temple, you know quasi-religious terminology. Hoover privately was referring to the bankers, some of them as ‘banksters’, as word came out of self-dealing and other corruption at some of the leading banks toward the end of Hoover's term. So Hoover and Roosevelt were perhaps not so far apart on that particular point. But then we know more about public policy than we think we do now, than we did in 1932, and so conservatives would say hey, the Federal Reserve made things much worse, by contractionary policy, Hoover made mistakes by raising taxes in '32, or persuading congress to and raising the tariff and so-on. So if Hoover's mistake was policy errors, then maybe the implication of that outline of thought is that one doesn't necessarily have to move, toward more government ala New Deal or something like it. So did the times dictate the government we have today? I don't know if people had known what we know now about policy and if Hoover had made different policy changes, perhaps we would not have turned as much to the "left" if you will, as we did. But we then now have an institutionalized welfare state that I don't see any likelihood of being dismantled and there may be some rhetoric against it and some trimming in the edges, but that does seem to be organic now to our policy, at least as far as electoral politics is concerned, so did the times lead to FDR, I don't know. The people were in a mood to turn in another direction and Roosevelt adopted a center-left approach and won the election, so he got to implement the approach. Whether that was a necessity, maybe in some sense it was a necessary turn given the level of public understanding of the issues, but in terms of what we now know about Federal policy failures, maybe it wasn't necessary, but the public didn't know what we now know.
We've had a hard time getting Lou Henry into this show, is she a footnote or does she play a role that's significant enough to have a place in a one-hour biography on Hoover?
Well, she certainly deserves mention, she was in some ways a pioneering first lady herself, she did not have the kind of public policy input that anyone can discern that Mrs. Roosevelt did for example. I don't know what Mrs. Hoover might have said to Herbert Hoover about one issue or another, there's been some speculation that she was more committed to the cause of prohibition than he was to my mind at least on the basis of present research it's ambiguous. Mrs. Hoover in her own way was something of an activist first lady but she had roles that were sort of in the Western outdoorsy way a kind of conservative feminism that we're perhaps seeing on display again right now in the current campaign. Mrs. Hoover liked to do the unconventional without thinking she was making a political statement over it. She was one of the first women in the United States to get a degree in geology. Maybe the first, I don't know how one can establish that definitively but she certainly went into a man's profession, and she used to say to her architect when the Hoover's built their home, that's now on the campus of Stanford University, when someone said, we don't really do things quite this way, ‘well it's about time somebody did.’ So she had a kind of unconventional, but not ideological feminist or proto-feminist streak in her, and she was one who loved to hike, she was the head of the girl scouts movement for a number of years, and I have a found a photograph of her and Mrs. Roosevelt in uniform shaking hands and smiling about 1938 or '39. I'm not sure Mrs. Hoover had the highest opinion of the Roosevelt's, I'm quite sure that she did not, never-the-less, there was a moment there of human, you know, meeting and so forth. So, Mrs. Hoover although she did not have a career as a professional political figure was one who I think saw that opportunity should be opened for young women and she chose maybe a somewhat conventional method of doing that through the Girl Scout movement. Never-the-less she was not one simply to stay entirely in the background. She did speak on the radio and she did a great deal behind the scenes, which like Herbert Hoover was in a sense to the detriment of her reputation in the form of benefactions. Hoover's brother once wrote, that he thought that Herbert had given away something like between one third and one half of his money in his profits in later years to help people. But he didn't advertise it and Mrs. Hoover was the same, she helped all sorts of people and she had staff go investigate when she was first lady, did this person writing into me for money, truly need it or was this a con-job, to use current slang. The Hoovers both worked, they had a whole network of people around the country they'd say check out this and so on. And then if it turned out a legitimate case, they wouldn't send the money directly, that would be demeaning, that would be the dole, but they might send it through an intermediary, or have someone contact the needy individual and provide help, this is very Hooverian, you don't advertise your benefactions, maybe Quakerish in some sense, that one does not, should not seek or be put in the position of seeking credit for the good deeds one does. So there was always a tendency on the both Hoover's parts I think to shy from that kind of spotlight, even though Hoover wanted the spotlight in some sense. As an orphan he wanted to make good, he wanted to make people recognize that as a kind of conflict in his psyche. But yes, I think Mrs. Hoover should not be thought of as an Eleanor Roosevelt in terms of public policy, but she had certain traits that I think make her noteworthy.
When he dies, is he a happy man, or is he unfulfilled? How would you describe him at the time of his death?
So far as I know, he had reached a point of public acknowledgement of his contributions to society, certainly many of the people around him felt that he had outlived his foes and the worst of his foes had lived a lot of the contumely and sarcasm and so-forth and that he had to endure. I can't think of a quotation in which he comes right out and says, yes, I'm happy. But I think he felt better about a lot of things, he certainly felt that he still had more to do, he was writing an unpublished manuscript that he called the Magnum Opus, which was a critique of Roosevelt's foreign policy, that he never quite got to publish during his lifetime, it's still not published. So some of the desire to set the record straight was still strong in him. In 1961 or '62, he wrote Harry Truman a touching letter, and Truman by the way came to Hoover's Presidential library inauguration in 1962, returning a favor that Hoover paid him a few years later. Around that time about 1961 or '62, Hoover wrote Harry Truman a letter saying you don't realize how deeply you have touched my life. It's a rather touching, poignant letter, so I think that some of the old animosities had clearly subsided and Truman in his own way, helped Hoover a lot on that. And they had something in common by the way, I think both of them had some reservations shall I say about Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman saw to it that, Hoover got a certain amount of respect, and Truman said, ‘you know, his political philosophy is Hoover's maybe to the right of Louis the XIV, but he was still President of the United States.' And Truman I think had a sense of the Presidency as an exalted office and of the inhabitant of the Presidency as one deserving respect, and I think that Truman didn't feel that Roosevelt had treated Hoover quite that way. And Truman, although he could be pretty partisan himself at times, thought that at least one would, and he was going to give Hoover the respect that a former President deserved, and I think that softened some of Hoover's feelings about what he regarded any way as a mistreatment.
Very briefly, I was invited by the foundation that built the Hoover library a number of years ago to write a multi-volume biography of him and I completed three volumes in that series. It was not an idea that I had on my own, I was just out of graduate school, looking for a teaching position of the conventional academic sort, when this all came up to work full time under contract with the foundation. They promised that they would permit me to write a scholarly biography, and it wasn't to be some kind of advertisement for Hoover in a bad way, it was meant to be scholarship and not advocacy, and I thought, this is an interesting possibility and the more I looked into him, the more interested I got. Partly because, he's not usually on many people's radar screens, even historians and again, even as I said before, there's a tendency to pigeon hole him into a fraction of his life. I ended up writing an entire volume about his mining career, about which no one had dealt in a definitive manner, some had written seriously and helpfully about it, but no one had written a volume that really sorted out this remarkable life. I ended up going to Australia for a month and to London for a number of weeks on a couple of trips because many of the records were in Australia and London. And I thought, interesting life story. And one thing that has kept up my interest in him is this, he did not live in one narrow little groove. You know, he rises as a politician, he has his moment in the sun and he disappears. He had several careers, the mining engineer, the relief administrator, Secretary of Commerce - the most important one in our history, President of course. And then this whole third of his life as elder statesmen, humanitarian, doer of good works, seeker of vindication, psychologically rather interesting. He lived ninety years of the life of the entire American republic and I still learn things about him. It's not that I think he was always right or that his character was perfect, but he intersected with so much that happened in the life of the 20th Century.
I'm going to Belgium in a few weeks to give a paper on what Hoover did for Belgium after the relief. No one has written about that. Very interesting story about the impact he had on Belgian life in the 1920's after he had made himself a heroic figure in Belgium. He had a big role in the development of the Belgian educational system. I have now lectured at a couple of different Belgian Universities in the past couple of years, and have seen the spot where he's been, if you will, in one case I've seen the bust of him that was made in 1928, and I've become very interested in the history of Belgian higher education. Not because I'm a Belgian but because Hoover had that connection and it opened a vista and of course living as he did through two World Wars and the Cold War, knowing and working for five Presidents of the United States, from Wilson to Eisenhower, he had so many things happen to him, that, well their not of equal importance, never-the-less, fascinating. And so I feel, as a historian, a professional historian, I'm learning so much about the life of Hoover's times that looking through the prism, if you will, he's a prism through which I have been able to study all sorts of fascinating episodes in the 20th Century and I have a long list of articles I still hope to write as well as a book in progress on the Hoover-Roosevelt relationship, and some of the still really unknown episodes in that long story. Now again, most people don't realize that he and Roosevelt knew each other for twenty-eight years. Is that significant? Well, I think if you're a Presidential historian then you have to take some note of that particular side of the history of the Presidency. So no, I have not gotten tired of him, I've written on other subjects I'd have to confess, and Hoover's life appeals to me partly because one of my other professional interests is the history of American conservatism and I read or I write and lecture extensively about that and I'm going to have an opportunity shortly to talk about whether Hoover was a conservative or a liberal and to whose pantheon does he belong, either, neither, or both and so forth. So I can tie in some of my interests in Hoover, it's not like I'm working 24/7 on Hoover and only Hoover, you understand, but I do a lot on the history of American conservatism, and he pops into that story too as a kind of Grandfather figure for American conservatism, patron of Robert Taft, friend of William F. Buckley etc. So it seems that almost no matter where I turn and what I would like to think is a range of interests, Hoover has had a certain imprint that continues to intrigue me. So yes, I've been asked the question in a way now and then, ‘How can you spend so much of your life on one man?' My answer in short is he's not one man or at least he's a man who's had many different dimensions and careers and impact on many different facets of life and so that helps to maintain my interest.