Herbert Clark Hoover was the 31st president of the United States (1929–33). During his first year in office the Wall Street crash of 1929 (see Great Crash ) occurred. He was blamed for the resulting collapse of the economy, and his unpopular policies brought an end to a brilliant career in public office. After the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, however, Hoover remained a leading critic of the New Deal and a spokesperson for the Republican party .
Born on Aug. 10, 1874, the son of a blacksmith in the Iowa village of West Branch, Hoover was orphaned at the age of eight and sent to live with an uncle in Oregon. The uncle became wealthy, enabling Hoover to study mining engineering at Stanford University; he graduated in 1895. It was at Stanford that he met his future wife, Lou Henry (see Hoover, Lou ); the couple were married in 1899. The influences of his engineering training and his Quaker upbringing (see Friends, Society of ) were to shape Hoover's subsequent careers.
Initially employed in California mines as an ordinary laborer, Hoover soon obtained a position in Australia directing a new gold-mining venture. During the next two decades he traveled through much of Asia, Africa, and Europe as a mining entrepreneur, earning a considerable fortune. At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 he was in London.
As a Quaker, Hoover passionately believed in peace; he was appalled by the human costs of the war, and he determined to devote his life to public service. He volunteered to direct the exodus of American tourists from war-torn Europe and then to head (1915–19) the Commission for Relief in Belgium. This position brought him public attention as the "great humanitarian," a well-earned reputation that he lost only after the 1929 Wall Street debacle. The commission fed 10 million people during the war and left funds for Belgian postwar reconstruction.
When the United States entered the war in April 1917, Hoover was called to Washington to serve as food administrator. This was a special wartime office, created to encourage American agricultural production and food conservation and to coordinate a rational distribution of food. When the war ended in November 1918, President Woodrow Wilson sent Hoover back to Europe to direct the American Relief Administration; this agency's goal was to relieve the suffering in Europe caused by the war's destruction.
Hoover's public reputation was enormous as a result of his activities in these offices; in fact, some persons looked on him as a presidential candidate in 1920. He had never participated in partisan politics, but he did declare himself a Republican while refusing to seek the presidency that year. In 1921, Warren G. Harding appointed him secretary of commerce. Hoover held this post in both the Harding and Calvin Coolidge administrations until he began his own presidential campaign in 1928.
As secretary of commerce, Hoover made his most important contributions to public policy. He was so able and active in the administrations of Harding and Coolidge that observers often referred to him as "secretary for domestic affairs." Hoover directly confronted a dilemma central to American values: the conflict between the tradition of individualism and the impersonalism of large corporations and big cities. He deeply believed in the traditional worth of the individual, the value of personal initiative, the rights of self-expression, and the legacy of freedom of opportunity. These beliefs were firmly rooted in American society and in his personal Quaker faith.
Hoover the engineer, however, was also profoundly impressed by the virtues of science. Rational principles could, he thought, accomplish the following: point the way to disinterested fairness in public policy; bring about greater efficiency in the economy and in society; and, if applied dispassionately, cause an end to the bitter conflicts in an America populated by persons of different creeds, races, and social classes. He believed that greater rationality in public life could be combined with respect for the tradition of individual rights. In this belief Hoover conformed to the mainstream of progressive social thought in the early 20th century.
As secretary of commerce Hoover was concerned with applying rational principles in order to end conflict between labor and business. He was mostly preoccupied, however, with trying to bring the benefits of cooperative action to business owners and farmers without destroying individual initiative. To this end his department encouraged firms to join together in trade associations and thereby develop and share vital information about costs of production and distribution and about available markets.
Hoover's views and policies were popular in the 1920s. In 1928, after Coolidge announced that he would not seek reelection, Hoover launched a successful presidential campaign: he easily defeated the Democratic contender, Al Smith . Hoover expressed the belief that ways had been found to eliminate the scourges of poverty and that America was entering a future of peace and ever-increasing economic prosperity. After his election he turned his attention to America's most noticeable economic problem, the agricultural depression that had been chronic for nearly a decade. The resulting Agricultural Marketing Act, passed by Congress in 1929, promoted the idea of marketing cooperatives among farmers to increase their efficiency while the government purchased surplus commodities until—it was intended—individual cooperative action could maintain farm prosperity without government intervention.
The Wall Street crash of October 1929 and the onset of the Depression of the 1930s shattered Hoover's dreams and his popularity. He refused to mobilize fully the resources of the federal government to save the collapsing economy. What actions he did take, such as approving the creation (1932) of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to lend funds to ailing corporations, seemed too little too late. Hoover feared that too much government intervention would destroy the integrity and initiative of the individual citizen. The "great humanitarian" lost his reputation as millions lost their jobs and some were actually starving by the winter of 1932–33. Franklin Roosevelt easily defeated Hoover in 1932 by promising Americans a New Deal.
In semiretirement Hoover criticized the policies of the New Deal, saying that they made Americans dependent on the government. He remained an important ideologist for the Republican party. After World War II he served as coordinator of the European Food Program (1946–47). He subsequently headed two Hoover Commissions (1947–49 and 1953–55) on the organization of the executive branch of the government. He recommended structural changes to make the government more efficient and the executive branch more accountable to the Congress and the public.
In retirement Hoover thus remained true to his principles of efficiency and individual integrity. He died in New York City on Oct. 20, 1964.K. Austin Kerr
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Jeansonne, Glen, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928–1933 (2012).
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Wert, Hal Elliott, Hoover, The Fishing President: Portrait of the Private Man and His Life Outdoors (2005).
Wilson, Joan H., Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (1975; repr. 1992).
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