New American Library, New York, 2016, 464 pages
Book Review published on: May 19, 2017
President Herbert Hoover is often depicted as a do-nothing who, through inaction, single-handedly created the conditions that led to the Great Depression and allowed it to continue until the country was saved by the New Deal. In this meticulously researched work, Glen Jeansonne shows Hoover instead to be a dynamic and thoughtful leader who cared deeply for the poor and suffering.
Orphaned at a young age, Hoover was raised by relatives and attended Stanford University at its founding. After graduating, he became a successful mining engineer—a multimillionaire at a young age—before turning to philanthropy and public life. Hoover organized a massive effort to feed millions in war-torn Europe during World War I and its aftermath. In his organizational skills, he had few equals.
With relief work completed, he turned his attention to domestic challenges and became secretary of commerce under President Warren Harding. In accepting this role, he struck an unusual deal with the president that gave him input on all economic policy. “He was secretary of commerce and undersecretary of everything else,” Jeansonne writes, quoting an earlier biographer. Hoover avoided the scandals of the Harding administration and had a good relationship with President Calvin Coolidge following Harding’s death.
Jeansonne credits Hoover’s lobbying for disarmament during the Harding administration and the subsequent Washington Naval Conference as an accomplishment. It is likely that not all military historians would concur with this characterization. Flood relief work during the Coolidge administration enhanced Hoover’s prestige.
In 1927, Coolidge declined to pursue reelection, and Hoover easily defeated New York’s Al Smith in 1928. As his inauguration approached, the country had high expectations. The economy, however, intervened. At the onset of the Great Depression, Hoover attempted to minimize job losses by voluntary agreements with industry. He wanted to avoid creating additional government bureaucracy to deal with the economic downturn. His programs were generally successful in retaining jobs but did little for those who were already unemployed. He launched public projects such as the Boulder Dam, new public buildings, and work on highways. Jeansonne provides a cogent explanation linking Hoover’s past experience with relief operations, upbringing, religion, and political philosophy to explain his reticence to heavily involve the federal government in attacking the depression. He argues the broad-based New Deal also failed, validating the limited actions of Hoover.
There is little question that Hoover made significant efforts to alleviate suffering, combat unemployment, and improve economic conditions. The overall argument that no president in Hoover’s circumstances could have successfully altered the course of the depression is convincing and well supported. Hoover argued the depression could not be cured by the legislation of executive actions: “Economic wounds must be healed by the actions of the cells of the economic body.”
The election of 1932 was anticlimactic, as Americans were ready for change. The democrats and Franklin Roosevelt recognized this, defeating Hoover in a landslide. The transition was not Roosevelt’s bright spot, as the new president’s refusal to work with Hoover resulted in further economic deterioration.
For the thirty-one years following his presidency until his passing, Hoover turned to writing as his main avocation. His relationship with Roosevelt was poor due to misunderstandings between the two, and his service during World War II was mainly philanthropic. He had a complicated relationship with Harry Truman, but they developed a mutual respect over time. Truman dispatched Hoover around the globe to evaluate food and relief issues. Hoover chaired a commission established to study reorganization of the executive branch and a second similar commission under Dwight Eisenhower.
Hoover’s pace did not slow; even when he was in his mid-80s, he continued writing, speaking, and traveling. He supported much of Eisenhower’s agenda. A close friend of Joseph P. Kennedy, Hoover had a cordial and respectful relationship with President John Kennedy.
Herbert Hoover died in 1964 in the midst of the presidential campaign, which came to a halt in order for both candidates to pay their respects. Through his prolific production of books and articles, he ultimately became the conservative voice of his generation. The regular blame that he was responsible for the depression, utilized like clockwork every four years into the 1950s by democratic candidates, was an impossible-to-remove stain, regardless of its untruth. Glen Jeansonne has produced a masterful work on a brilliant man who deserves a higher place in history than he has received.
Book Review written by: Gary Ryman, Scott Township, Pennsylvania