Herbert Hoover

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As the president whose presidency ushered in the Great Depression, Hoover has long been castigated as a failure. Nevertheless, his career both before and after his presidency and the accomplishments of his administration give final judgment of Hoover as a great American.

Early Life

Herbert Clark Hoover, or “Bertie” as he was known to his family, was born in West Branch, Iowa, on August 10, 1874. He had an older brother, Tad (Theodore), and a younger sister, May (Mary). His father, Jesse Hoover, was a businessman who worked as a blacksmith and operated a farm implement store. He died in 1880, at the age of thirty-four. Herbert’s mother, Hulda Minthorn Hoover, worked as a seamstress to pay the family’s debts after the death of her husband and was vigorously active in the Quaker Church, speaking at meetings throughout the area. She died of pneumonia in 1884, at the age of thirty-five.

The three orphaned children were separated and parceled out to other family members. Herbert stayed briefly with his uncle Allan Hoover and his aunt Millie before moving to Oregon at the age of eleven to live with Laura and John Minthorn. John Minthorn was a medical doctor and a businessman, and the family provided a more cultured environment for young Hoover than he had found in Iowa. In 1891, Herbert became the youngest member of the first class to attend the newly established Stanford College in California. Nearly six feet tall, thin, and muscular, with thick, light hair, Hoover had the brusque, retiring manner which also characterized him as an adult. Even as a youth he had the plumb cheeks, which, as an adult, became the familiar jowls that dropped down to the stiff white collars he wore, long after they had gone out of style. He worked his way through the University, where he met his future wife, Lou Henry, who, like Hoover, was majoring in geology.

Hoover was graduated in 1895 and the following year left for a mining job in Australia, where he began a highly successful career in mining. In 1899, he married Lou Henry, who accompanied him to China, where they were both actively involved in aid for those civilians caught in the Boxer Rebellion. Hoover moved up the ladder of success, returning to Australia and then to London, where his son Herbert, Jr., was born in 1903, followed by another son, Allan, in 1907. By 1908, Hoover had built a home in Palo Alto, California, developed mines in Burma, and established a consulting business which allowed him to exercise his managerial and organizational talents as well as enlarge the fortune he had already earned. In 1909, Hoover published his Principles of Mining, which was the standard textbook in the field for many years. In 1912, he was named a trustee of Stanford University, an institution to which he was always loyal. He later established the Hoover Institute on their campus.

Hoover was in Europe at the outbreak of World War I and immediately plunged into the organization of Belgian relief. His committee was credited with saving more than several hundred thousand persons from death. After the United States entered the war, Hoover turned his organizational talents to directing the United States Food Administration with remarkably effective results. He next accompanied President Woodrow Wilson to Paris, where Hoover acted as head of the European Relief Program and as one of Wilson’s economic advisers at the Paris Peace Conference.

Life’s Work

At the end of World War I, Hoover had both a national and an international reputation. As the Great Humanitarian and as the Great Engineer, Hoover seemed to combine the best of both worlds, a practical idealist. In 1920, both the Democrats and the Republicans considered him to be a presidential possibility. When he declared himself to be a Republican, he allowed friends to pursue his possible candidacy, but the Republican leadership was cool, and he did not do well in early primaries. In 1921, he accepted the position of secretary of commerce in the cabinet of President Warren G. Harding, and he remained there under President Calvin Coolidge as well. He was an activist secretary, certainly one considered a Progressive in the context of the 1920’s.

Under Hoover’s direction the Commerce Department made major gains in gathering and distributing information on a wide variety of subjects of interest to the business community. Hoover was also reasonably sympathetic to labor unions. He effectively used two tactics which had served him well in his earlier activities—voluntary cooperation and widespread publicity for his goals. Once again responding to crisis, Hoover directed relief efforts for victims of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. In that program, and throughout the Commerce Department, Hoover began an effective program of racial desegregation.

When Calvin Coolidge chose not to run again in 1928, Hoover became a candidate for the Republican nomination—which he received and accepted on his fifty-fourth birthday. His campaign focused on progress through technology and, on major issues, differed little from that of his Democratic opponent Alfred E. Smith. Hoover, his reputation enhanced by his Cabinet years, and the country ready to continue the prosperity which seemed tied to Republican leadership, was a comfortable winner in 1928.

As president, Hoover was more progressive than most contemporaries recognized. He supported both civil liberties (as a good Quaker should) and civil rights. The Wickersham Commission on Crime and Prohibition gave a mixed report on the constitutionally mandated abstinence from alcohol. Hoover chose to enforce the law, though he was apparently not in full agreement with it. Although Lou Hoover would tolerate no alcohol nor, while in the White House, would the Hoovers attend functions where alcohol was served, after leaving the presidency, Hoover was partial to one martini after dinner. Hoover, as president, supported conservation of natural resources, aid to the economically distressed farmers, and, in 1930, supported the Hawley-Smoot Tariff. A high tariff had long been a Republican tradition, but the Hawley-Smoot Tariff became highly policitized as the Democrats charged that it had helped to spread the Depression.


(The entire section is 2577 words.)