Hoover; An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

Hoover; An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte. Knopf, 2018.

Herbert Hoover was the first U.S. President to be born west of the Mississippi, in the small Iowa town of West Branch. Kenneth Whyte, author of this biography, makes him succeed in nearly every endeavor in his complicated and busy life. Those successes began with the fortune he made as a mining engineer, geologist, and consultant for mining activities around the world. Some, however, would disagree about a claim for the success of his Presidency, 1928-1932.

Hoover’s early successes involved his responsibility for getting the 120,000 Americans caught in Europe when the war broke out in 1914 out of harm’s way. He then organized food relief during and after the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1914.

The German army had occupied Belgium and imposed a blockade interrupting food shipments from the U.S. The blockade was enforced by submarine warfare in the sea approaches to Great Britain, France, and Belgium.  Our efforts to provide food were prompted by a genuine benevolence. But in addition, U.S. agricultural exports stood to gain ground on other potential exporters.

Kenneth Whyte, like other biographers of Hoover, face a dilemma. Was Hoover a progressive, intervening in capitalist markets and the policy of laisse faire to obtain a humanitarian goal? Or was he a conservative? Latter in his political career, Hoover revealed his conservative side, attempting to limit the intrusions of the state into a self-regulating market?

What did Herbert Hoover think of Woodrow Wilson (President 1912-1920)? An idealist, Wilson swept into the Paris peace talks in 1918 with his own peace-keeping proposals and ignored sage advice from the more experienced Hoover, or so Hoover thought.

Wilson was now in his second term as President, and traditionally Presidents were limited to two terms. There was talk about Hoover making a run for the White House, but he held back on joining the race. Instead he watched as Warren G. Harding won the Republican nomination and the election. Followed by Calvin Coolidge four years later. The Harding and Coolidge Presidencies are mostly known for the scandals toward the end of the Harding Administration and the first year of Coolidge’s Presidency.

In the American political tradition, candidates for high office did not typically make campaign appearances. Had Hoover campaigned for office in 1920, he might have won the Republican nomination, and likely also the election. He eventually won the Presidency in 1928, but only for one term.

Hoover continued to be loyal to the old school of battening down the hatches and waiting for better times. His belief in private philanthropy rather than government handouts, according to Whyte, seemed to be the tune for the time.  At least that was the tenor of Hoover’s presidency.

A second term? But history intervened. The Wall Street crash in October 1929 happened during the first year of Hoover’s administration. Banks began to fail and the lines of the unemployed lengthened. Hoover waited for the counter-cyclical policies that he had advocated to take hold. He is remembered mostly for this inactivity. He did favor tax reforms and job-creating projects that he thought would help lift the country out of the Depression.

Although he couldn’t get their approval, he also favored a collective of the healthy banks to extend private aid to their weakened brethren. Hoover believed this initiative on the part of the banks was more desirable than government intervention. They declined.

There were, however, some pro-active moves. The Glass-Steagall Act and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation were two. But there were numerous Presidential vetoes of other relief legislation as Hoover waited for the business class to take over the leadership. (Now days, the wait would be for entrepreneurial activity to fight economic slowdowns.)

Two other issues contributed to Hoover’s being defeated for a second term. He leaned toward the ‘dries,’ and hence opposed the repeal of the Prohibition amendment when the country was going wet.

And perhaps most harmful to that second term was the fight with the Bonus Army. Given the difficulty that many World War I veterans were experiencing in the 1920s, there were calls from many sides to allow the veterans to collect their bonuses for service in the Great War ahead of time. To press the point, large numbers of veterans arrived in Washington, occupying government buildings and demanding that they be paid their bonuses early. Hoover’s refusal, and sent in the army to oust the veterans – led by General Douglas MacArthur, ending with certainty, his chance for a second term.

Herbert Hoover never quite understood why the country rejected him in 1920 and again in 1924. It gulled him that his failed efforts to pull the country out of the Depression were thrown back in his face. But his successor, FDR, was given credit for Hoover’s efforts that succeeded.

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