The Man Who Weathered the Storm
A Review of Edgar Eugene Robinson and Vaughn Davis Bornet’s Herbert Hoover: President of the United States
Edgar Eugene Robinson and Vaughn Davis Bornet are prestigious Stanford graduates. Robinson is a professor who helped establish Stanford’s Anthropology Department. Both authors spent twenty years collecting data and information to complete this book.
BY TRENT BAXTER
The book Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive, written by Edgar Eugene Robinson and Vaughn Bornet, serves as a biographical recount of the trials, tribulations, and many successes of our nation’s 31st president. The book chronicles Hoover’s years in office chronologically, beginning with his run for office and continuing through his defeat of a second term by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The book also details the troubles within the Republican Party, Hoover’s leadership at the start of the Great Depression, and the creation of federal programs attempting in hopes of repairing America’s financial instability. While the authors’ writing shows favoritism for Hoover and his administration, their work provides an interesting and detailed account of his one term in office. Hoover’s refusal to authorize large-scale relief programs and utilize federal dollars in order to alleviate the most extended economic downturn in our Nation’s history, mark him as a President who failed to recognize the all encompassing nature of the Great Depression.
Hoover’s approach to government and politics was unique; “To him, politics was not the basic concern of Americans; government was. He believed that only as the problems of government were comprehended by the people could there be a functioning democracy.”1 This belief stemmed from Hoover’s experiences dealing with a variety of governments throughout the world, particularly during World War I. As the United States Food Administrator during World War I under Woodrow Wilson, Hoover had complete control over what farmers produced, how much they were paid, and how the produce was distributed. He became an important wartime advisor to Wilson and served as a part of the American delegation to the conference of the Treaty of Versailles. Hoover also served as Secretary of Commerce for seven years under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and was the logical choice for the Republican presidential nominee in 1928. When Coolidge decided not to seek a second term, Hoover became the leading Republican candidate, despite the fact that Coolidge was unenthusiastic about the possibility of Hoover as a candidate. With the Republican Party in discord after President Coolidge left office, there was no clear frontrunner for the next nominee. The eventual selection of Hoover came with much criticism because it was widely believed that Hoover was more of a progressive than a true Republican. The Democratic Party had earlier viewed Hoover as a possible candidate at the end of World War I, but Hoover declined affiliation, believing 1920 would be a Republican year. Despite party misgivings, Hoover secured the Republican nomination and was elected by an overwhelming majority. Having spent the last several years as the Secretary of Commerce, Hoover became aware of the “weaknesses of the vast bureaucracy that had come to the United States government,” which included the financial difficulties beginning to face the nation.2 In 1925, Hoover had warned President Coolidge about the hazards of excessive bureaucracy. He had also expressed concern to Coolidge about the potential consequences of excessive stock market speculation, expressing this same concern again while running for office. Hoover saw that it was important to “build a new economic, social, and political system on the basis of equality and opportunity.”3 He believed that the protection of initiative and confidence lied within the “creativeness of the individual citizen.”4 In the middle of June 1929, Hoover reached the peak of his “assertion of leadership.”5 Hoover worked diligently to pass legislation that would protect farmers. He created a commission to set aside millions of acres of land for national forests and parks. He also increased the number of veteran’s hospitals and facilities and proposed a federal Department of Education. His efforts to preserve resources expand civil service were a few of the innovative initiatives by an individual able to see a broad perspective. It was a time in our nation’s history, however, when looking toward the future could not be appreciated.
During his presidential campaign, Hoover had publicly supported the 18th Amendment and Prohibition in the United States. After his arrival in office, Hoover realized that enforcing the law would not be so easy. In hopes of effectively ensuring enforcement, Hoover transferred the Bureau of Prohibition to the Department of Justice. He also created the National Law Enforcement Commission in an attempt to curb prohibition violence, which included the murder of a number of police officers trying to enforce the law. Unfortunately, the commission’s board members were divided between the repeal, modification or further trial of enforcement on the amendment. This indecision embarrassed Hoover and other public supporters of the commission. That being said, this setback for the President was minor when compared to the challenges created by the financial catastrophe that hit the United States in the autumn of 1929. The stock market crash was not only shocking, but devastating for every aspect of American life and business. Although Hoover had reported the possibility of economic danger to congress years before, he never expected anything of such magnitude to occur. He was now faced a national financial crisis. Immediately following the stock market crash, Hoover held a press conference in an attempt to placate the nation. During one of many such press conferences, Hoover affirmed that our economy was “fundamentally on a sound basis because…the average prices of commodities, taken as a whole, had shown no increase in the proceeding twelve months.”6 He believed that the financial crisis was to a degree psychological, that it was “a question of fear,” according to an off-the-record statement.7 On March 7, 1930, Hoover issued an optimistic prediction, telling Americans that the worst effects of the crash would subside in the next 60 days. He was certain that unemployment, with the cooperation of businesses and the help of the government, would serve to relieve the effects of the catastrophe. This belief by the President would prove to be doomed to failure. Efforts to fix the nation required not only the cooperation of industry and commerce, but also the support and cooperation of party leaders and legislators. Unfortunately, at this critical time, Hoover’s own Republican Party was on the verge of self-destruction. Both longstanding Republican leaders and emerging party leaders alike began to withdraw their already wavering support for Hoover. A large majority of party members continued to maintain the position that Hoover was more of a conservative than a true Republican. Hoover felt that his opponents in the senate and congress, as well as adversaries within his own party elected to sabotage his programs for their own political gain. It was during the winter of 1929-1930 that the divisions within the Republican Party truly became public. During the tariff session, where senators voted on Hoover’s proposed tariff bill, “eleven Republican senators voted against the majority of the party members more than one third of the time.”8 As a result of this struggle between the President and his party, the Republicans ended up losing control of the majority in the November 1930 congressional elections. Not only was Hoovers’ own party “abdicating,” voters also seemed to be turning away from him.9 Political surveys taken during the spring of that same year, focusing on Hoover’s first year in presidency, reflected that the American people felt the economic situation had not changed since the beginning of November 1929. Magazine articles now frequently criticized Hoover and his political missteps. John Pell, a writer for the North American Review, wrote an article published in Readers Digest that discussed how Hoover was making the mid-term elections more personal than solely political. Pell attributed Hoover’s 1928 election to several factions, such as bankers and brokers, the “drys,” those proponents of prohibition, the internationalists, the farmers, and the millions who hoped for prosperity.10 All of these factions and the entire country were now focused on one issue: unemployment. Hoover had previously held a press meeting concerning the unemployment rate where he speculated that the number of unemployed was somewhere around 3.5 million. He also asserted this number could easily be reduced. Throughout 1931, Hoover conducted a series of conferences with financiers and industrialists at the White House to entice them to maintain wage rates and expand their investments. Such artificially induced expansion could only bring losses to business and thereby aggravate the depression. Undeterred, Hoover maintained the belief that this course of action would result in lowering the number of unemployed Americans. He insisted that the first shock of the depression must fall on profits and not on wages; precisely the reverse of sensible economic policy, since profits provide the motivation for business activity. Hoover maintained the position that wage rates should not be reduced and industry should maintain its construction work. Industrialists agreed to carry out the Hoover program, which only served to aggravate rather than settle any economic issues.
Between March 4 and December 7, 1931, a period of crises occurred around the world which called for the President’s help. During these nine months Hoover made it clear that “(a) He had a domestic program of relief and reconstruction and (b) he had a program in foreign relations, especially with nations in economic distress.”11 Although relief and reconstruction was a significant aspect of the President’s plan to deal with the economic crisis, this would be a difficult task to execute because of now well publicized divisions within the Republican Party. Moreover, Democrats “let it be known that during this period they had no intention of letting the president run the country.”12 Hoover’s longstanding fears of a European economic crisis soon became a reality; in July of 1931, banks in Germany and several other European countries began to close. The collapse of the gold standard system – where the monetary unit is associated with circulating gold coins – in Europe served to prolong the Depression. The gold standard limited the control of central banks over monetary policy. As a public means of lessening the financial burden on European countries, it was proposed that the United States postpone repayment of war debts it was owed as a result of World War I. Steps leading up to a freeze on war debts had to be taken with secrecy; otherwise Hoover’s attempts to avoid further American economic collapse would be in jeopardy. This proposed moratorium on debt repayment was not simply an act of kindness on Hoover’s part. He recognized and feared that the international economy was on the brink of a severe slump that would only serve to exacerbate America’s economic woes. Confidence in the nation’s economy was sure to plummet if Americans knew the real reason behind the debt moratorium. On June 18, President Hoover made his final decision on the moratorium. He talked to the leading members in the House of Representatives and the Senate. He then proceeded to present the final stage of the plan to his cabinet members. After realizing the precariousness of America’s economic situation, both parties’ congressional leaders agreed to follow the president’s plans. Hoover’s leadership continued to be undermined by the continuing decline of the nation’s economic conditions made particularly evident through Bonus Marches on the nation’s capital during the summer of 1932. The Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), a group of unemployed war veterans, assembled in Washington to demand the immediate payment of cash bonuses they were set to receive in 1945. 25,000 veterans, along with about 7,000 family members, gathered in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for early payment as a means of survival during continued bleak economic times. An immediate payment bill failed to pass in Congress on June 17, 1932. The veterans had lost any hope of possible economic assistance for their families. Although two-thirds of the veterans left the city, approximately 7,000 remained another six weeks, until, in an unprecedented clash with police, two veterans were killed. This gave President Hoover the pretext to run the veterans out of town. He called on the U.S. Army to assist with this unpopular task. Rather than focusing on attacking discontent within the country, Hoover focused his attention on the upcoming election. Americans did not approve of the U.S. Army attacking its own citizens and Hoover’s cavalier attitude toward those veterans remaining in Washington D.C. after the march. It is widely believed that this event factored largely into Hoover’s defeat. Although the Republican Party remained in shambles and he had come to hate the presidency, Hoover felt that his experiences in office would provide for a stable re-election platform. He also feared another candidate might enact radical reforms as a means of dealing with the economy. Nevertheless, Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election in a landslide victory. As a result of serving during one of the worst economic periods in history, voter confidence plummeted as Americans felt Hoover was unable to reverse the economic collapse, let alone resolve smaller scale issues such as prohibition.
The authors state that, “President Hoover in the White House years was, above all, a determined spokesperson for the traditional American virtues, hopes, and ideals of individual opportunity, personal freedom, and love of country.”12 The authors also affirm Hoover’s good intentions. Furthermore, they believe that Hoover’s programs helped the country, despite continued economic decline. The authors, however, do concede that Hoover’s refusal to approve federally funded programs or to utilize federal dollars to stimulate the economy left the nation frozen in economic disaster. Despite unanimous historical sentiment, the authors view Hoover as a leader who could do no wrong. Moreover, they view Hoover’s contemporaries as utterly mistaken in their belief that Hoover did little to facilitate recovery of the country’s economy. This belief comes from the fact that they are with the consensus school of thought. This book contains some questionable interpretations; the authors rely on Hoovers own memoirs, his other published writings, or statements made by some of his most loyal defenders, instead of analyzing his actions by using primary and un-biased documents. In two professional criticisms of this book, critics talk both about the admiration and bias the authors possess for Hoover and his presidential term. A review by the Journal of American History, states that, “Some questionable interpretations in the work arise from too much reliance on Hoover’s own Memoirs, his published writings or statements made by some of his most loyal followers instead of analyzing his actions by using primary documentation from the Hoover Papers.”13 Furthermore, Robert H. Zieger stated in a review of the book that, “The authors perceive Hoover as a man so uniquely capable and so profoundly knowledgeable as to dwarf his contemporaries.”14 As we can see, the author clearly sides with Hoover.
The book definitely contains both strengths and weaknesses. One of its major weaknesses is that it is too one sided. This opinion was confirmed by a majority of reviews. If the authors had obtained more information from primary documentation, the book would have proven a rich study of Hoover’s tenure in office. The book’s strengths are in the details. In spending two decades researching information across the country, the authors create a detailed account of both Hoover’s term in office and a particular period in American history. This meticulous examination of Herbert Hoover as president provides for a book that is comprehensive and worthy of note.
The administration of President Herbert Hoover definitely marks a watershed in American politics, since Hoover served during the most devastating financial crisis in our nation’s history. The decisions, programs and ideas generated during this crisis serve as guideposts for future leaders potentially facing the same circumstances. Although the Harding/Coolidge administration oversaw a booming economy, overproduction and over speculation led to a precarious balance of supply and demand that could not logically continue. While Hoover saw crisis looming, he failed to effectively utilize his authority as President when the financial storm finally arrived. After the Great Depression, American businesses became more cautious with the issues of overproduction and over speculation. In turn, our government created federal programs to regulate how our country conducts business and the stock market in hopes that history would not repeat itself.
President Herbert Hoover served during one of the worst economic crises ever faced by our nation. Initially, President Hoover attempted to organize national optimism by proclaiming that conditions were sound and that there would not be wage cutting. When Hoover’s public relations efforts did not work, he became inactive, allowing the country to slide into its worst depression ever. When Hoover did take action, it was too little, too late. Although Hoover had many innovative ideas, his failure to unite his party and the government at large prevented him from rescuing Americans and their country from financial devastation. Hoover’s inability to see beyond his fear of big government prevented him from putting solutions into place. While his reputation as a heartless, ineffective President may not be accurate, it is understandable.
1: Robinson, Edgar Eugene and Bornet, Vaughn Davis. Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive. Hoover Institution Press: Stanford University, 1975. 11
Trent Baxter was born in Irvine, California. His hobbies include playing volleyball and listening to Tim Conway Jr. and the John and Ken show on KFI. He hopes to attend Pepperdine University.
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