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The Man of Many Identities

A Review of Joan Hoff Wilson’s Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive

Joan Hoff Wilson is currently the Research Professor of History at Montana State University. She earned her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1966. Joan Hoff was also the former executive secretary of the Organization of American Historians and in 1995 was the editor of the Journal of Women’s History and president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency.


Herbert Hoover was a man of many identities—the Quaker, the Great Engineer, the Great Humanitarian, the Chief, the Progressive, the Voluntary Corporatist, the Associationalist, and the Great Depression President. Joan Hoff Wilson’s Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive depicts the tragedy of Hoover’s political career. Hoover’s meteoric rise in the early 20th century and the publicity of his great works created such an exaggerated image of Hoover that he could not possibly have lived up to them with his public handicaps. At the pinnacle of his popularity—after his victory in the election of 1928—Hoover “feared a negative reaction, a backlash of resentment against him if he could not live up to his inflated reputation.”1 He was a shy and uncharismatic introvert who preferred to work behind the scenes, staying out of the limelight. This approach to politics worked in the times of prosperity during the 1920s when he was Secretary of Commerce, but not when he was the President during the Great Depression. As President, his public disabilities became a serious problem, and he quickly gained the unpopular reputation with the general public as a cold-hearted president; as a result, he was not able to pass his many idealistic programs and create his American System—an ideal centered on “voluntary organizations, decentralization at all levels of society, and administrative reorganization.”2

From humble origins, Hoover would quickly rise to fame and power in the early 20th century United States. He was born in 1874 in the small Quaker town of West Branch, Iowa. His Quaker upbringing would forever shape his view on the world and how it should be run; his idea of “Progressive Individualism” stemmed from his Quaker “sense of the harmony and unity of voluntary community cooperation… whereby all members of the community did their best in their particular ‘callings’ in life for the good of everyone.”3 In this way Hoover emphasized voluntary cooperation of individuals for the common good, rather than ruthless individualism. Hoover’s definition of American individualism took a middle road between the conservative and liberal extremes, promoting “a compromise between the individual’s advantage and that of society at large.”4 This started Hoover’s lifetime trend of taking the middle of the road policies exemplified by his beliefs in independent internationalism and cooperative individualism—which can seem paradoxical if not interpreted by Hoover himself. Hoover, after attending the newly opened Stanford University in California, began his meteoric rise as an engineer, finding much success at the Bewick Moreing Mining Company and later on his own, marrying Lou Henry and becoming a father along the way. By 1914 Hoover was a millionaire and had risen to the pinnacle of engineering, gaining the titles The Great Engineer and The Chief. Soon after, he became bored with his profession, and—perhaps because his Quaker morals told him to give back to society—began his career of public service and politics. From humbly starting as the ambassador to Europe for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, Hoover soon became famous as a result of World War I and his leadership of the food relief services of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium and the postwar American Relief Administration. Hoover’s great success in running these programs had shaped his public persona into that of The Great Humanitarian, who had given up his pursuit of millions of dollars to help the needy in Europe during WWI. Hoover’s vast array of experiences early in his life had helped mold his ideas into the unique set of beliefs—“Hoover’s Quaker background had instilled in him… a belief in the legitimacy of equal opportunity and cooperative individualism. His engineering days had convinced him first of the material rewards of hard work, and then of the need for scientific expertise to improve socioeconomic conditions. Finally, the war had confirmed his humanitarian belief in voluntary decentralization and in the efficacy of public-relations techniques.”5

After becoming famous through his successes as an engineer and humanitarian, many people from both political parties wanted Hoover to announce his candidacy and run for President in the election of 1920. Hoover however, saw his public disabilities and took “a calculated risk. First by cultivating a nonpartisan image and then by making an ill-timed, nominal commitment to the Republicans, he made himself an attractive contender for a cabinet post under either party’s leadership”—the perfect job for a shy, uncharismatic politician who preferred to work behind the scenes.6 As Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge Hoover sought to restructure and expand his own department. He sought to make sure that “Americans [were] able to compete for overseas trade” and create a “nation to be economically self-sufficient, by consuming most of its gross national product.”7 It is in this way that, once again, Hoover’s middle of the road policies caused confusion with the American public on where he stood on key issues—making his public persona one which appealed to many people with many different views. This contributed to Hoover’s overinflated image and thereby fueled his intrinsic drive to succeed wherever he went, just as he had done in engineering and in humanitarian work. Because Hoover felt obligated by his Quaker ethics to give back to society and change things for the better, he worked on many projects simultaneously. Although he did not desire to be famous in the eyes of the general public—fame did not suit his personality well—“[his] unceasing activities were so farflung, so impressive in their own right, and so well publicized, that his fame was inevitable.”8 This was the driving factor in Hoover’s announcement of his candidacy for the 1928 election.

Hoover, at the height of his power and popularity, was a public phenomenon. He was thought of as being a typical example of Horatio Alger’s “rags-to-riches” model for ascension, and the fact that he chose to give back to society through humanitarian aid and public service rather than continue to accumulate vast riches made him a celebrity during the 1920’s. Because of Hoover’s unique public image, “a highly successful blend of modern and traditional themes,” Hoover was an unstoppable candidate for President and seemed to be “ten candidates in one.”9 As a result of his general appeal to people of all philosophies across the political and socioeconomic spectrum, Hoover won the 1928 election by a landslide. After the onset of the Depression, Hoover tried to be an activist president and start programs that followed his ideals but was met with opposition from the Democrats and the Old Guard from his own party. Therefore, he was unable to pass anything that created change—or any change great enough to please the public. While the American people wanted was direct relief programs, Hoover saw them as limited and temporary solutions to the problem of the unbalanced budget. Perhaps Hoover’s greatest political blunder of the time was his handling of the Bonus March incident in 1932. Even though General MacArthur disobeyed Hoover’s direct order to keep the veterans in check and instead drove them out with tanks, the public held Hoover responsible for this seemingly callous and cold-hearted act. The Bonus March incident “brought out all of [Hoover’s] worst weaknesses at the very time when he so desperately wanted to instill confidence and trust. It confirmed [his] public image of his insensitivity to depression victims.”10 As well as domestically struggling with federal policy, Hoover struggled with foreign policy issues as well: most notably never solving the problem of Europe’s unpaid war reparations. During the Depression, Hoover failed in domestic policy in several ways: after the onset of the Depression, he had gone into a state of withdrawal, appearing callous by deeply entrenching himself in his own ideas and thereby isolating himself from fellow party members—losing all hopes of ever installing his American System.

After Hoover was out of office—having lost to Roosevelt in a landslide in 1932—he became an active anti-New Dealer. Hoover had trouble making any significant difference on the way people viewed the New Deal because “he now suffered from a tremendous handicap he had not had in the 1920s: a reputation as a heartless reactionary who would not aid his own people in times of duress.”11 It now seemed that people had forgotten his great works as the Great Engineer and Humanitarian, and Hoover’s negative reputation as the Depression President would be something that he could not escape for the rest of his life. Over the next thirty years of Hoover’s life, most of his calls to action and change were unanswered and ignored by most politicians and the presidents of the time. After Hoover’s death in 1964 at the age of 90, many historians began to study Hoover’s personal and political life and have found that Hoover’s “lack of charisma and oversold public image, combined with his asocial personality and the secrecy surrounding his family life, have led most of his biographers to conclude that Hoover’s career represented a paradox, an enigma, disturbingly enticing and undecipherable.”—much like his views on foreign and domestic policy.12

Joan Hoff Wilson, in writing Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive, attempts to depict Hoover’s turbulent political career in a new light—showing Hoover as the flawed man who was never able to act upon his good intentions due to his public disabilities, failing to live up to his overinflated reputation, and expounding on his inability to live down his callous and cold-hearted reputation as the “Depression President.” Wilson also contends that throughout Hoover’s life he followed the same patterns of action and never deviated from his centered beliefs. Wilson points out that Hoover’s biggest flaws—other than his inability to speak in public well—were that he “never admitted failure and exaggerated the successes of most of the projects he undertook during his long and varied life” and he was “always overly sensitive to criticism, respond[ing] not with direct counterattacks but rather with a stoic withdrawal, refusing to openly discuss crucial economic issues” or even provide information to let the reporters know what was going on.13

Two major reviews of Wilson’s book come from Robert F. Himmelberg in volume forty nine of The Business History Review released in the winter of 1975 and Martin L. Fausold in volume 62 of The Journal of American History released in March of 1976. Himmelberg, Associate Professor of History at Fordham University at the time he wrote his review, gives Wilson a lot of credit for the extensive research she did in writing the book but points out that the opening chapters reflect the relative deficiency of her research on Hoover before 1921—a time that was not very well documented to her credit. Himmelberg also points out that the fact that Hoover’s failure to solve the United States’ economic problems in the 1920’s is underscored, and notes that Wilson’s flaw is seeing Hoover’s approach to basic reform during the Depression as a prelude rather than an alternative to the New Deal. Overall, however, Himmelberg is very positive in his review of Wilson’s book in saying that “Professor Wilson unquestionably has written a skillful synthesis and has produced the first integrated and balanced account of the overall career of a complex and historically very important American.”14 Martin Fausold, Professor at the Geneseo State University College at the time of writing his review, is also very positive in his review of Wilson’s book, stating that “Wilson has written a superb book [and] very few historians who know the period and the man will disagree with her basic analysis.”15 Although very complementary of Wilson’s book, Fausold does caution to not ignore Hoover’s political ineptitude which seems to be somewhat overshadowed in her book.

Overall, Wilson’s Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive, is really balanced. As Wilson shed a new positive light on the life and ideals of Herbert Hoover, she kept herself in check by noting Hoover’s flaws and mistakes as well. Wilson avoids making Hoover seem too perfect, unlike “the available documents [that] create[d] an almost too perfect picture of the ideal statesman.”16 Wilson also does not make Hoover seem like “a superman” as his publicity advisors had during his campaign in the 1928 election and how the documents he released to the general public made him out to be. Wilson depicts an accurate picture of Hoover by blending his personal accomplishments and good intentions with his public flaws and failures that he made in domestic and foreign policies.

Hoover’s rise to power and presidential administration was a watershed moment in American history because Hoover’s ideals that he tried to incorporate into American society were way ahead of their time and opened the door for Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hoover was president during the economic downturn known as the Great Depression—an era which would forever reshape Americans views on politics and economics. Hoover’s administration had fundamentally changed America indirectly by opening the door for the New Deal—exemplified in a statement by Roosevelt’s aide, Rexford Tugwell, who said that: “We didn’t admit it at the time… but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from the programs that Hoover started.”17 Hoover was the one who laid the groundwork for the New Deal, but he could not implement the ideas of the New Deal because he was restrained by his ideals of volunteerism and decentralization of government power.

Hoover’s ideas are relevant in today’s society because many people are trying to implement them in to combat the Great Recession the United States is currently in. This is proof that Hoover’s ideas were way ahead of their time. Hoover’s ideals of voluntary associationalism and castigation of the New Deal did not alter the mindset of many people at the time—due perhaps to Hoover’s bad reputation and poor public speaking skills—but experts “are questioning today, as Hoover did then, how progressive it was to extol materialistic values almost exclusively, and to condone the use of centralized, public power based on impersonal expertise without regard for some sense of the concept of community that had been so important to one segment of the progressive movement.”18 In this way people today are beginning to look at economics from the mindset and perspective of Herbert Hoover and question the New Deal.

Herbert Hoover was a man with many identities and many good intentions and set out to change Americans’ fundamental view on economics, foreign, and domestic policies. Hoover was unsuccessful for many reasons: stemming from his uncharismatic way of speaking and his asocial personality to his inability to live up to his overinflated reputation. In addition, most Americans did not share his voluntarily cooperative and tempered materialistic Quaker ideals. Although he was a workaholic and applied himself fully to his work, “by his own standards of success, Hoover failed.”19



1: Wilson, Joan Hoff. Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive. Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1975. 128.
2: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 62.
3: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 6.
4: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 7.
5: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 52.
6: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 76.
7: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 101.
8: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 118.
9: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 133.
10: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 165.
11: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 210.
12: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 273.
13: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 15, 138.
14: Himmelberg, Robert, comp. The Business History Review. Cambridge: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1975. 527-529.
15: Fausold, Martin, comp. The Journal of American History. New York: The Organization of American Historians, 1976. 1037-1038.
16: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 272.
17: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 158.
18: Wilson, Joan Hoff. 214.
19: Wilson, Joan, Hoff. 282.

Student Bio

Eric Pittaluga was born in Irvine, California on May 18, 1993. He currently attends Irvine High School and is planning on going to college after he graduates. He plays football and enjoys playing video games and hanging out with his friends in his spare time.


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