This biography of Herbert Hoover corrects commonly held views of the man who occupied the American presidency during the Great Depression. Hoover received the censure of the electorate for his failure to pull the nation out of the Depression, and his reputation never recovered. This biography salvages his place in history to some extent and reveals that he was a far more complicated individual than the failures of his presidency would indicate and that he did try to come to grips with problems of twentieth century American development that have yet to be solved.
Hoover graduated as a member of Stanford University’s first class (1895) and went on to a career as a mining engineer. Most of his jobs were overseas, and eventually he toiled on four continents. He lectured and wrote on his work and thereby acquired a considerable reputation in engineering and business circles. He established himself as a consultant on the problems of managing and operating corporate businesses and from offices in London and various American cities advised concerns around the world on their financial and managerial problems. He was a very wealthy man by the time of World War I.
Hoover had a Quaker upbringing which manifested itself in a lifetime of strong social concern. Caught in the Boxer Rebellion in June 1900 in China, he organized relief work for the foreign community there; in London, when World War I broke out in 1914, he plunged into relief activities for Americans fleeing the European Continent. This work branched out into attempts to do something for the people of Belgium who had been overrun by the German armies. Hoover became chairman of a privately organized Belgian relief commission which fed the Belgians in spite of severe obstructions on the part of both the Allies and the Germans. After the United States entered the conflict in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson selected Hoover to head America’s food effort, and, under Hoover’s leadership, the United States fed not only itself but the Allied armies and peoples as well. Half a million tons of food and aid worth a hundred million dollars was delivered to thirty European countries during the war and its aftermath, all under Hoover’s direction and administration. In 1927, when Hoover was Secretary of Commerce, he directed relief efforts necessitated by the Mississippi River floods, and after World War II he again directed European famine relief programs.
Hoover’s mobilization of American food resources and his European relief work made him the foremost American hero of World War I; he could have had the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination, but sensing the Democratic Party to be doomed by its association with Wilson, the problems stemming from the conflict, and the peace, he declared himself a Republican and supported the Harding-Coolidge ticket. After the election he was offered the position of Secretary of Commerce in the Harding-Coolidge Administration, which he accepted and held from 1921 to 1929. This position gave Hoover the opportunity to undertake on a national and even an international scale what he had previously done in private business and war relief work. He proceeded to reorganize and expand the Department of Commerce, so as to rationalize major segments of the American economy. Little escaped Hoover’s reforming hand; domestic and international business activities were grouped under appropriate Commerce sections and elaborate studies undertaken to determine what the government could do to aid and regulate these businesses in their orderly growth and development. Appropriate government programs were then instituted.
Hoover’s reputation as food administrator during the war was enhanced by his work at the Department of Commerce during the prosperous 1920’s, and he could not be denied the 1928 Republican presidential nomination. In that year Hoover reached the zenith of his popularity; perceived to be the epitome of an American success story—the poor orphan lad who had become a professional and business success, a millionaire, and a public...
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