Biography for Herbert Hoover
Brilliantly successful as an engineer and humanitarian, Herbert Hoover failed as a president to lead the United States effectively during the Great Depression because, in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., he was "a man of high ideals whose intelligence froze into inflexibility and whose dedication was smitten by self-righteousness." Born on August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa to devout Quaker parents, Herbert Clark Hoover was orphaned at age nine. He worked his way through Stanford University, graduating in 1895 with a degree in engineering. By 1914, he was a well-known international engineer. He had discovered major gold and coal deposits in Australia and China and had accumulated a substantial fortune. He wrote, "To feel great works grow under one's feet and to have more men constantly getting good jobs is to be the master of contentment." During World War I, Hoover, living in London, headed the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which managed to save millions of people from starvation. When the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson asked Hoover to return to the United States to serve as director of the Food Administration. While at the bureau, Hoover introduced the concept of standardized sizes for packages in order to prevent waste; to "Hooverize" meant to save food. At the end of the war, Hoover returned to Europe, first to head the Inter-Allied Food Council and then to become the director of the American Relief Administration. He also served as an adviser to Wilson at the peace conference that drafted the Versailles Treaty, which officially ended the war. His relief work significantly eased the threat of famine in war-torn Austria and Germany in 1919. After his return to the United States in September 1919, Hoover conducted an unofficial and unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for president. When Warren Harding was nominated instead and elected in 1920, Hoover accepted an appointment as secretary of commerce. At the Commerce Department, the frugal and energetic Hoover worked to reduce waste and eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies. He counseled moderation in dealing with the new communist government in the Soviet Union and secured the shipment of food to that country with no political strings attached. Hoover believed in a doctrine of "associationalism," by which he meant the voluntary association of bankers with bankers, farmers with farmers, manufacturers with manufacturers, and so on, regardless of such factors as nationality or religion. Such economic associations, he was convinced, would spur economic growth, encourage a wholesome spirit of cooperation and commonwealth in economic activity, and preclude the need for direct government interference in economic affairs. These views, along with his international relief work and his good performance as commerce secretary, made him an attractive choice for president in 1928. With peace and prosperity on his side, Hoover felt confident that he would defeat anti-Prohibition and Catholic Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith. During the campaign, the stock market soared, and that August, Hoover said in a speech, "We are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation." "The Great Engineer and Humanitarian" won 444 electoral votes to Smith's 87. In October 1929, less than a year after Hoover took office, the stock market crashed and killed Hoover's dream of presiding over a period of increasing prosperity. At first, through a tax cut and in meetings with business leaders, Hoover tried to encourage the expansion of public and private construction—"the greatest tool which our economic system affords for the establishment of stability"—in order to deal with what he viewed as a temporary economic collapse. He was convinced that the cause of the depression lay not in domestic affairs but in the structure of international finance. With what appeared to be a ruthless disregard for human suffering, Hoover remarked, "The sole function of government is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise." When he vetoed a proposal to have the government build a huge electrical project in the Tennessee Valley at Muscle Shoals, he said, "I am firmly opposed to the Government entering into any business the major purpose of which is competition with our citizens." Relief activities belonged, he believed, to state and local governments. To tamper with that principle would "have struck at the roots of self-government." From the perspective of those in need of immediate relief, it appeared as though Hoover was helping the rich instead of the poor. Hoover's name became associated with the misery of the Great Depression. Shantytowns of the homeless and unemployed were called Hoovervilles, while the newspapers people used to keep warm were known as Hoover blankets. As the economic depression deepened, however, the dynamic Hoover, who was genuinely interested in resolving economic tensions, actually started many of the innovative programs the New Deal later received credit for. In 1932, for example, he supported the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), through which the government lent money directly to companies and banks. This innovation shifted the financial power from private institutions to the federal government. Still, as the election of 1932 approached, Hoover appeared to cling to his worn-out, "meanspirited" convictions. He authorized the RFC to grant money to state governments for direct relief programs, but it was too late. The RFC had $500 million available for local relief but had spent only $37 million before the end of his term in office. Renominated in 1932 by the Republican Party, Hoover, appalled at the dangers the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt portended, vigorously campaigned across the nation against "changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of the American system." The American people rejected his arguments and elected Roosevelt, 472 electoral votes to 59. A gloomy and depressed Hoover retired to Palo Alto, California in 1933 to work at the Hoover Institute for War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. After World War II, he returned to Europe at President Harry Truman's request to help organize food relief programs. In 1947, again at the request of Truman, and in 1953 at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Hoover headed commissions that studied ways to improve the efficiency of the executive branch of the federal government. Hoover lived an active and vital life until his death on October 20, 1964 at age 90. By the time of his death, the image of Hoover as inflexible and out of touch with the feelings of the people had been modified by a growing appreciation of his more dynamic and innovative efforts to cope with the overwhelming economic problems of the Great Depression. Even New Dealer Rexford Tugwell conceded, "We didn't admit it at the time, . . . but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs Hoover started." A combination of Hoover's deeply held principles and a crisis of unprecedented magnitude made it impossible for Hoover to carry his reform impulses far enough.