Herbert Hoover in the White House; The Ordeal of the Presidency by Charles Rappleye. Simon & Schuster, 2016.


Charles Rappleye has written a corrective to the general notions we have of the presidency of Herbert Hoover from 1928 to 1932. Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover in the White House is obviously not a full-scale biography, but an introduction to Hoover’s life and character as mirrored by his term in office.


Born in Iowa and orphaned at nine, Herbert Hoover grew up with an uncle in Oregon and then went on to Stanford University where he joined its first freshman class. He gained his reputation during World War I organizing food relief for Belgium, then occupied by German troops and starving. He headed the U.S. Food Administration after our entry into the war and was Secretary of Commerce in both the Harding and Coolidge Administrations. A Progressive Republican, he received the party’s nomination for the presidency in 1928 and won the election against Al Smith in a landslide.


Rappleye’s careful account of Hoover’s presidency considers it to have been a failed term in office. Hoover was not a doctrinaire conservative who preached the dogma of laissez-faire capitalism, caring little about the suffering of the common folks. Nor was he the handmaiden of the American elite and out to protect their interests. This becomes clear as Rappleye explains Hoover’s responses to the stock market crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression in the last two years of his Presidency.


President Hoover and his Cabinet never really decided on a coherent response to the sequence of economic and social disasters, partly because they couldn’t decide on what had caused them. Was it speculation on the stock market and the inevitable correction that followed a rise in stock prices? Was it an adjustment resulting from a decline in demand for industrial goods following the Great War? Was it a consequence of the agricultural depression of the 1920s (Over 50% of the gross national product in the U.S. was from American farms)? Income disparity? Mismanagement of the money supply?


One cause of joblessness was the substantial technological progress that made manufacturing and agriculture less labor intensive. That should be considered a blessing in a capitalist economy.


Given Herbert Hoover’s background and ideology, it is understandable that he would look first to private charity to deal with economic distress and unemployment, organizations such as the American Red Cross. It would be appropriate for the federal, state, and local governments to funnel funds for relief through the Red Cross and other charitable institutions once they had exhausted their resources. However Hoover feared dependence on government assistance and saw it as a threat to American liberty.  He joined with others in both parties in abhorring the “dole,” as threatening our moral fiber.


Hoover was an organizer and the author describes the various efforts to gain coherence in the organization of the various activities of the federal Government, first as the head of the Commerce Department and later as President. The expansion of the federal bureaucracy became necessary as its relief programs multiplied.  A B C s, began with the Hoover Administration, rather than with Franklin Roosevelt after 1933.


Hoover has been accused of neglecting unemployed. But his Administration sponsored a public works projects (the Hoover Dam) and urged cities and states to undertake roadbuilding and other infrastructure enhancements. He thought it important to have a systematic plan of action.


However appropriate or inappropriate President Hoover’s responses were to hard times, they were not what defeated him in his run for a second term in 1932. Rappleye suggests two significant issues: ending Prohibition and his Administration’s response to the Bonus Army, the demonstrations of thousands of WWI veterans and their families who gathered in Washington in the summer of 1932.


By the end of the 1920s, it was clear that Prohibition was a disaster. And there was a substantial swing of public opinion toward ending it, but Hoover could not bring himself to join the “wets.”


A bonus had been promised veterans of the Great War payable in 1945. But they needed it in 1932. They were given some satisfaction by Congress, but many stayed around and, the author contends, out-stayed their welcome. D.C. police failed to maintain order so the U.S. army, led by General Douglas MacArthur, was sent in to deal with the demonstrators. MacArthur pushed the veterans into a clash. Hundreds were injured. Hoover, unwisely ordered that their encampment be moved across the Potomac.


Images of the forceful removal of these veterans found their way onto the silver screen (the early newsreels shown in movie theaters before the main feature). It was disastrous to Hoover’s reelection prospects.


Perhaps the most significant act of President Hoover’s term was his proposal in 1931 for a moratorium on the repayment of wartime loans owed by our former allies if they would agree to the moratorium on German reparations. His acting on his own authority was not popular. However, it confirmed his reputation as an American statesman.


Most everyone would grant Herbert Hoover’s status as a statesman after reading Rappleye’s fine book. The author asks that we also acknowledge the successes as well as the failures of the Hoover Presidency.

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