Assess the public life and career of Herbert Hoover.

Herbert Hoover was not treated well by his near-contemporaries and nor has he been treated well by history. He has been described as ‘inflexible’, and pilloried for his self-confidence. His numerous attempts to draw a recovery from conferences with businessmen during the early stages of the depression have been seen as pointless, and his promotion of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was the model for many of the later ‘New Deal’ programmes has been largely ignored or forgotten. Hoover’s beliefs in the gold standard, self-reliance, and tariffs have been taken by some to suggest economic illiteracy, despite being the bedrock of Republican beliefs since 1856. It is almost as though Calvin Coolidge’s faults of indolence and do-nothing politics, and Harding’s buffoonery, had been projected onto Hoover.

Such obloquy is undeserved. Hoover was an activist president who tried his best to manage an unfolding and multi-faceted crisis, and who by the end of his time in office was poised to see results. It was Hoover, for instance, who established and encouraged the Grain Stabilisation Corporation to strengthen agricultural markets, the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, the Federal Home Loans Act, and the RFC. It was Hoover’s administration that jailed Al Capone and cracked down on mobsters, whilst setting aside federal land for the nation, free of oil contractors. Hoover tried to rebuild relations with Latin America in a way that laid the basis for the Good Neighbor policy, reorganised the Bureau of Indian Affairs, proposed a variant of social security pensions for the old that meshed with the later Townsend proposal, ran on a ticket with a president of recent native American extraction, and tried to take the government out of Labour disputes.

It is necessary to rehearse these achievements, which are in their own way remarkable for a first-term president, if only to emphasise that the popular, and somewhat vague, picture of Hoover as a continuation of his two immediate predecessors is mistaken. Hoover was, in fact, a natural (and registered) Progressive, and his presidency reveals much about how the Republican-Progressive split of the early twentieth century was resolved. Progressives were ‘bootstrappers’ who promoted democratic structures, meritocracy, and an intense frontier commitment to American values which tended to fit with their largely lower-middle class and evangelical Midwestern backgrounds. Many were German in language, and Liberal, in the Gladstonian sense, as Carl Schurz had been in the Reconstruction period. 

Hoover typified the better Progressive values, whilst lacking some of the worst (like racism). He was a self-made engineer, who had distinguished himself as the post-war Administrator of Belgium. His Quaker values precluded him, in this capacity, from failing to extend food and aid to both Germany and Soviet Russia by 1921. Like Eisenhower later, he was sought by Democrats and Republicans (though not by establishment figures such as Henry Cabot Lodge) for the 1920 ticket, but whilst attracting support in the Midwest, lost it in California and was thereby kept off the Republican ticket.  Hoover’s subsequent service as Secretary of Commerce established the grounding for a presidency built on western optimism and concern for technology, such as radio and the film industry, as well as Midwestern practicality.

After Belgium, Hoover served in two otherwise 'do-nothing' administrations. To the extent that Presidents Harding and Coolidge did anything at all, the guiding energy and intelligence belonged to Herbert Hoover. It was Hoover's 'associationalism' that promoted the growth of American industry in the 20s, helped by low federal reserve interest rates, the inflow of European gold, and the development of a supply side based on capital investment and economies of scale.

Hoover made himself so indispensable to Harding in fact that it was he who called a doctor when the president became ill, who witnessed Harding's death, and who brought the president's body back to Washington. Hoover spent the 1920s co-ordinating industrial policy, promoting the radio industry, and in 1927 was instrumental in the 'clean-up' operation of the Mississippi floods. Outside of office, he did more than many have done within it. He was, for instance, the initiator of most American traffic laws, and both small towns and large cities tended to copy their rules from the originals of a conference he sponsored.

There is one mark against him in this period, and it is do do with the societal shame of race; Hoover abused the labour of black people during the Mississippi flood relief effort, and then engaged in a cover-up of the negligence and deaths involved. However, the people he worked with were the African-American leadership of the Tuskegee Institute, on the basis that he would if elected president the following year work hard to improve the lives of black people. This adds an element of complexity to the personal sin, though it ultimately detracts from the man.  

Optimism, practicality and a modernizing concern for technological innovation were in fact the virtues that he demonstrated in office. Counterfactuals are rarely of use in history, but in the case of 1928, they may be revealing. If Al Smith had been elected in 1928, the dustbowl and boll weevil crises in agriculture would have been ongoing; the Smoot-Hawley tariff would still be in place; the debts of the 1920s would still have hung over the American economy. Given Smith’s later support of the Liberty League and his condemnation of the New Deal, however, it is unlikely that the activist institutions of Hoover’s time, let alone the Boulder dam and the electrification of the South, would have proceeded. The only real difference, given Smith’s attitude to the gold standard (he called paper money ‘baloney’) might well have been an even tougher downturn in 1930, as US spending was cut back, and therefore a quicker European banking crisis, as Europeans would have had to sell even more gold to make higher reparations payments in dollars because Smith would not have issued the Hoover Moratorium on European debt.

At least when Hoover raised taxes in 1932, he sought to recycle the money, to make bankruptcy easier, and to replace the (doubled) federal expenditure on public works that he had paid out during his first three years with generous grants to states so that they could make targeted fiscal contributions to demand. It was until 2008 also often forgotten that, of Hoover’s $1 billion RFC spend (of an authorised $1.5 billion), 60 percent went to banks so that they would not collapse. A further 20% went to railroads, which were major employers and the arteries of commerce and trade. 

By the end of 1932, the RFC had bought or guaranteed $2.3 billion worth of bonds, and prevented a total market collapse. This was ‘quantitative easing’ on a grand scale, and it is notable that it has attracted opprobrium not from the Left but the Right, who, as the followers of Ludwig Von Mises point out, view such spending as simply encouraging future inflation. Even if this were true, Hoover had essentially hedged the depression to the future, and inflation would have destroyed the 1920s debts far less painfully than mass unemployment and traditional bankruptcy under FDR did.

Hoover also worked with the Federal Reserve in an asset development programme which arose out of the Glass-Steagal Act. This involved government discounting of bonds and the use of those bonds as collateral for government notes alongside gold, essentially expanding the monetary base without causing a financial panic. This mechanism, more than the exploitation of the sixteenth amendment’s income tax, was responsible for the growth without high taxes but with future debt that characterised the American state until 1971. It is an achievement of sorts, although a slightly dubious one, and undoubtedly changed the nature of American government much more than any tariff or tax change did because it provided the Federal Government with a mechanism to vastly extend its reach without presenting electoral discomfort.

Hoover’s problem, however, was that his actions, which were energised after the banking crisis of 1931 and proposed as legislation in the election year of 1932, were complicated by cyclical, structural and contingent factors that derailed his presidency. Economic cycles lag political initiatives, and so the tide of unemployment built by the crash was yet to fully break. America was also in need of a correction, because the economy had become unbalanced, overleveraged, and riddled with malinvestment. The combination of ongoing agricultural crisis with European political storms after the banking crisis (and the lack of stable governments to deal with the storms) could not be blamed on the president. Ultimately, Hoover found that he stood at the eye of the troubles and suffered in the face of Franklin Roosevelt, James Farley, and Louis Howe’s Machiavellian brilliance.

He also suffered from an unwillingness of voters to hear him, despite an unprecedented re-election speaking tour which managed to win him four states and forty per cent of the vote (a higher percentage than George HW Bush in 1992 and more states than many well-remembered challengers). Hoover also suffered from the campaign of the Bonus Marchers and its denouement (which was not his fault), and from a general upsurge of radicalism which defined him. This was reflected in the general rhetoric of, for example, Huey Long, Eugene Talmadge, Upton Sinclair, and Charles Townsend, and then magnified in the general bias of the ‘first wave’ academic left such as Arthur Schlesinger, who wrote very much in the vein of the New Deal.  

Despite this, Hoover helped feed Germany after the Second World War, and reorganise government in the Truman and Eisenhower Commissions. He dealt with his national limbo, admittedly from the comfort of the Waldorf-Astoria, with not a little grace, and managed to leave his goodbye ceremony at the 1960 Republican Convention with some real laughter. Herbert Hoover deserves much better treatment from history than he has had. He was a man who rose well above his nevertheless impressive presidency and who seems to have managed not to be defined by politics.