By Aaron Bauer
Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, lives in the popular memory as an unmitigated failure. The stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression began just six months after he took office and the calamity deepened throughout his time as president. Though his leadership and policies did not measure up to the greatest economic disaster in the nation’s history, Hoover deserves to be remembered as more than a failure. By the time of his election in 1928, he had accomplish so much, and on such a grand scale, that he was called the “most useful American citizen now alive” in the press. So, in honor of his 144th birthday on August 10th, let’s take a look at the extraordinary life of Herbert Hoover.
His had humble and tragic beginnings. Born in the tiny Quaker settlement of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover lost both parents to illness by age 10. Shuffled between various relatives, he eventually landed with a cold, disciplinarian uncle in Oregon. Hoover showed an aptitude for business as a teenager and rose to an important role in his uncle’s real estate company before leaving to study geology as a member of Stanford University’s inaugural class.
At 22, Hoover passed himself off as 35 and landed a job in Australia as an agent of the famous London mining firm Bewick, Moreing and Company. He proved to be something of a wunderkind. With a good instinct for a mine’s prospects and a ruthless ability to improve an operation’s efficiency, Hoover was a tremendous asset to his employers and enjoyed a rapid series of promotions. After just two years on the job, Bewick, Moreing & Co. recalled him to London, made him a junior partner, and sent him to supervise a massive mining operation in China. When he made full partner at age 27, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.” He was also one of the most well-traveled—Hoover would circumnavigate the globe five times before his 35th birthday.
The outbreak of World War I found Hoover in London, running his own mining consulting company with offices in cities across the world. Hoover was horrified by the events of the war, and not just on the battlefield. As part of its invasion of France, Germany had occupied Belgium. This had brought the British in against Germany, and the British fleet set up a blockade to prevent food and arms from reaching their enemy. Belgium, a nation of 7.5 million people, depended on imports for more than 70 percent of its food. With the Germans and the British blaming each other for the situation, Belgium faced starvation within two weeks. Hoover felt a moral obligation to act, and threw his prodigious administrative talents into providing food to millions of Belgians.
The organization Hoover set up, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), faced a problem of breathtaking scale. It needed to raise at least $1 million a week, buy tens of thousands of tons of food from all over the world, transport it across dangerous waters, and make sure the food reached the right people. As the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium said, the undertaking was “a piece of temerity that no one but a set of God’s own fools would ever have undertaken.” Yet Hoover and his associates were equal to the challenge. Hoover negotiated with foreign ministers and heads of state from all the great powers and rapidly built the CRB into, as one British Foreign Office functionary put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” By early 1915, the CRB operated several dozen cargo vessels flying the CRB’s own flag (the only flag that all belligerents entered into an agreement to respect and defend) and coordinated a network of tens of thousands of volunteers raising money and distributing food.
His work with the CRB made Hoover a prominent figure on the world stage. President Woodrow Wilson took notice. Upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the newly-created U.S. Food Administration. As “Food Czar,” Hoover had unprecedented authority to set prices, direct production, and punish violators in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for America and her allies. Hoover pressed Americans to conserve food during the war to such extent that Hooverize became a household word. It even found its way onto a Valentine’s Day card in 1918:
I can Hooverize on dinner,
And on lights and fuel too,
But I’ll never learn to Hooverize,
When it comes to loving you.
By war’s end in 1918, Hoover was hailed as an international hero and credited with helping sustain the war effort against Germany. Hoover continued to play a important role in Europe’s food supply as the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Administration, focused on helping the war-torn continent rebuild. Accused of supporting Bolshevism with food shipments to Soviet Russia, Hoover pounded his fist on the table and shouted, ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’”
Hoover’s career in public service continued as Secretary of Commerce under the next two presidents: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover exercised influence far beyond the traditionally limited purview of the department he led. As the quip at the time went, Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of everything else.” To the annoyance of his cabinet colleagues, his appetite for responsibility was endless. Hoover lobbied to get commissions and agencies from across the government transferred to his department, and headed up a diverse portfolio including environmental conservation, water rights, agriculture policy, labor disputes, and regulating the new spheres of aviation and radio. His unusually central role was hard to miss. As a New Republic columnist put it in 1925:
“There is reason to doubt whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground. The plain fact is that no vital problem, whether in the foreign or the domestic field, arises in this administration in the handling of which Mr. Hoover does not have a real—and very often a leading—part. There is more Hoover in the administration than anyone else…more Hoover…than there is Coolidge.”
One final demonstration of his abilities amidst an emergency cemented Hoover’s reputation. In early 1927, months of torrential rains sent the Mississippi River surging over and through the levees built to keep it in check. Tens of thousands of square miles across a half dozen southern states were inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. Coolidge, perpetually reluctant to do anything, relented to pressure for federal assistance and put Hoover in charge of flood relief. “When a man is sick he calls a doctor,” said columnist Will Rogers, “but when the United States of America is sick they call for Herbert Hoover.” With his characteristic hard-charging style and administrative acumen, Hoover pulled together a massive and highly effective operation. He started a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million, organized a fleet of 800 boats along with two dozen planes to find and rescue people from flooded areas, and oversaw the creation of 150 tent cities that housed and clothed hundreds of thousands of displaced people, complete with electric lights, sewer lines, and dining halls.
With his sterling track record of success, it should be no surprise Hoover won the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1928. He also benefited from the roaring economy and despite private concerns about a stock market bubble, campaigned on continuing the economic good times begun under the previous Republican presidents. Sadly for Hoover and the country, the good times came to a screeching halt just as he ascended to the pinnacle of public life. For all he had to offer, his inflexibility, his exaggerated faith in volunteerism, and, most importantly, the sheer size of the catastrophe, rendered Hoover unable to stem the tide of depression. His was not a successful presidency, and it’s fair to view him as a model of failure in that office. But he was far from a failure in life. Tomorrow, on his birthday, let us remember not just Herbert Hoover the president, but Hoover the world-renowned mining engineer, Hoover the superb administrator, and Hoover the towering humanitarian.
Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg
Hoover: an extraordinary life in extraordinary times by Kenneth Whyte
Herbert Hoover in the White House: the ordeal of the presidency by Charles Rappleye