They say there are no dull subjects, only dull readers. So, accepting that Herbert Hoover, the subject of Kenneth Whyte’s seven-hundred-page biography, is not a dull subject, where, exactly, does his relevance for readers lie?
There are two ways to go here. Do we follow the logic of “no dull subjects”—every human life is worthy of attention—and immerse ourselves in the life of Herbert Hoover for its own sake? Hoover lived ninety years—from president Ulysses Grant’s administration to Lyndon Johnson’s—and was engaged throughout with the great issues of his times. How can he fail to be interesting? Or, do we conclude that this pear-shaped, tight-necked worthy’s only interest today comes from his role in the Great Depression of the 1930s? Should we simply make his fate into a mirror for how our leaders deal with our own economic perils and pitfalls?
Ken Whyte, no dull writer, has mostly opted for the first choice. He takes almost four hundred pages to get Hoover to the presidency. That is, he gives us a full life, as engaged with Hoover’s pre-political career and long post-presidential eminence as with his four-year humiliation in the White House, 1928-1932.
Yet the Depression looms throughout. It made Hoover, until then the master of all he touched, into the great failure among twentieth-century presidents. No one succeeded against the Depression in the early 1930s, but it was particularly cruel to Hoover’s reputation. In 1928 he seemed to most observers a financial wizard, a master planner, and a leader devoted to the common good. He left office four years later looking not just inept but remote and uncaring as well. Whyte’s account of Hoover’s long apprenticeship and long struggle for rehabilitation suggests how both policy choices and character traits brought him down. (There is a comparison to be made here to Canadian prime minister R.B. Bennett, who suffered a similar fate and has been the subject of two biographies, John Boyko’s Bennett (2010), and Peter Waite’s 2012 work In Search of R.B. Bennett.)
Born into a poor and joyless Quaker family in the rural village of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover was orphaned young. Didn’t need no welfare state: he was soon separated from his siblings and farmed out to labour for distant and uncaring relatives in Oregon. Whyte finds in Hoover’s loveless youth the roots of the lifelong social awkwardness of a politician who never slapped a back, and indeed may never have kissed his own babies, let alone anyone else’s. That cold childhood also produced a young man who never expected support from anyone but himself and put his trust instead in prodigious work habits and powerful ambition.
To make his own way, Hoover seized on engineering. As Whyte puts it, engineering in its late-Victorian heyday “required a sharp and disciplined mind, and nothing in the way of fortune, breeding, family connections, or social confidence”—Hoover to a tee. He enrolled at Stanford, then a brand new university with no tuition fees and few entry requirements. (Those were the days.) He was an indifferent student but a relentless organizer and promoter.
Five years out from Stanford, Hoover was rich. He called himself a mining engineer, but his talents were more like those of a modern MBA: identifying opportunity, organizing capital, and managing projects—always securing himself a handsome ownership share. A man who in the thick of the Second World War would argue for isolationism, Hoover, it emerges from Whyte’s book, had a remarkably internationalist life. His first successes came in the hot, hardscrabble mining towns of Western Australia. Later he would acquire vast mining concessions in China, narrowly surviving the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in the process. Soon he was circling the globe relentlessly, from Australia to San Francisco, New York to London, London to Shanghai—five times around the world long before air travel. Gradually making his home and headquarters in London, he lived so long abroad that later his right to be American president would be questioned. Hoover had an experience of the world matched by few presidents before or after.
The book paints a portrait of a young Hoover who was a quick study, a hard worker, and astute in finding profit potential in a cut-throat business, but was also without scruples in securing his fortune. He was ruthless in exploiting his employees (“Men hate me more after they work for me than before.”) and contemptuous of less driven colleagues. He was hardly alone in manipulating journalists, betraying friends and partners, and ignoring the law, but he was highly successful at doing so. Western courts would not enforce the breached contracts over which his Chinese partners haplessly sued. By the time his City of London backers realized how he had used them, he was too well established to be vulnerable. There was no retribution. In the global capitalism of the late nineteenth-century mining industry, there was little regulation and almost no enforcement. Guys like him, they had it made.
During his rapid ascent, Hoover had acquired a wife. Lou Henry was the hunting, shooting, tree-climbing “daughter of a banker who had given her a single name of a single syllable and raised her as a son.” They met in a Stanford geology class in which she was the only female, “comfortable as one of the boys.” They married in 1899, remained married until her death in 1944, and raised two sons. Whyte calls them compatible, sharing a love for travel, the outdoors, and fishing, but observes “neither was demonstrative in any sense of the word.” They lived contentedly apart for long stretches; as Hoover built a political career in Washington in the 1920s, Lou kept a home of her own in California. When Hoover seemed at risk of being caught in the financial scandals of the Harding administration (he was not), she quietly looked into separating her assets from his. Girls were girls and men were men, perhaps, but I wondered how a feminist biographer—or novelist—might imagine the emotional life of Lou the California girl whose distant husband somehow turned out to be president. While Whyte gives us the intriguing details, he does not ponder the Hoovers’ marriage deeply.
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Hoover had become bored with making a fortune. His mother’s Quaker conscience seemed to reawaken in him, and his ambition shifted from relentless enrichment to high-minded public service.
The First World War created Hoover’s opportunity. “Gallant little Belgium” is often treated in First World War historiography mostly as the PR front used by war hawks to push a reluctant British government into war in August 1914. Whyte reminds us that upon occupying Belgium, Germany appropriated almost all of the country’s capacity to produce food and materials. The likelihood of a great many Belgians rapidly starving was very great. Hoover’s response was the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, a private non-governmental charity. In short order the committee, and mostly Hoover, persuaded the British to relax their blockade, the Americans to provide food and finances, and the Germans not to pillage the relief supplies. Until the United States joined the war in 1917 and other neutrals took over the relief mission, Hoover, his cargo fleet, and the millions he raised from governments and private citizens kept seven million Belgians alive and fed.
Belgian relief highlighted Hoover’s administrative skills at their best. He developed the relief plan himself, applying his ability to master vast amounts of information and anticipate contingencies. He also insisted on absolute control, destroyed every competing charity, and relied almost exclusively on a small team of devoted young acolytes. His methods offended many potential allies in London and Washington along the way, but his plans worked. Belgian relief established Hoover’s American and international fame as a planner and administrator fit for any emergency. He joined president Wilson’s war cabinet, then returned to his Republican roots and served as commerce secretary in the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Here, too, he was an unreliable colleague and subordinate, always seeking to amass control in his own hands, but an effective administrator with an almost apolitical style. His organization of Mississippi River flood relief in 1926 burnished his reputation amid mostly lacklustre cabinets. When Coolidge retired unregretted in 1928, Hoover had an easy path to the Republican nomination and the presidency.
Just in time for the Great Depression.
Ken Whyte makes a strong case that Hoover, a voracious reader with a deep faith in data and expertise, came into office as a progressive Republican president. During the Mississippi floods he had been appalled at the mistreatment and marginalization of black Southerners, and he argued for accommodation rather than suppression of workers’ interests. Social conscience, or just a planner’s disdain for suboptimal social organization? It is never entirely clear. On the international front, he had early grasped that the Versailles Treaty’s punitive terms would prevent European recovery and destabilize the world economy. Domestically he remained skeptical of the economic boom times that had served the Republican Party so well, and he liquidated most of his own stock market investments well before the crash. As a planner by nature and experience, he was immunized against Republican laissez-faire economics, and he had long been convinced that the growing scale and complexity of the American economy called out for planning and rationalization.
Yet Hoover, the proven master of crisis management, failed spectacularly to respond to the Depression, and the Depression destroyed his reputation, probably forever. Even in a book devoted to the whole life, not a single episode, here is the central Hoover mystery that needs to be addressed. Will Ken Whyte explain what happened?
Whyte is too good and honest a writer to claim Hoover succeeded against the Depression, but he is loyal enough to his subject to seek to mitigate the devastation wrought upon his reputation. He observes that Hoover sought to restrain the excesses of Wall Street and tax-averse millionaires before the crash, and that his new data-gathering agencies generated the statistics on which future economic planning would rely. It was Congress, including the Republican caucus, that imposed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariffs—and besides, Whyte argues, Smoot-Hawley was not so damaging as has been claimed. Hoover had good policies, but Congress blocked most of them and the results of those implemented were not seen until Roosevelt’s term. Finally, Whyte’s contention is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no coherent plan for the Depression, either, and that many of the remedies he applied were ones Hoover had initiated but never got credit for.
There is merit in all these qualifications, but Hoover’s failure was very real, and very much related to his own character and beliefs. Hoover believed in planning and spending, but not much in government as the planner or spender. Starving Belgium and flooded Mississippi had been saved by private charity, not government agencies. Hoover’s faith continued to be in community efforts: everybody pulled his weight, inspired in the common cause by a visionary planner and shared dedication to the public good. Hoover’s government would spend, but he could never commit himself to big government or centrally, politically directed solutions. It was too little. Whyte is right that Roosevelt did not have the answers in 1932, either—he actually campaigned on balanced budgets and restraint—but Roosevelt was much less trapped by fixed principles than Hoover. He would try anything and seize on what worked. Hoover could not go far beyond orthodoxy.
Nor was Hoover the leader America needed in 1930. Whyte paints a moving portrait of Hoover wrecking his health and straining his eyesight, agonizing all night over masses of information and statistics in search of answers. But he was still following the model of the expert and his small loyal team, when fighting a global recession needed the harnessing of a whole government and political finesse, too.
Hoover always preferred the authority of expertise to politics. He was an indifferent speaker who considered it beneath the dignity of a president to campaign for congressional or public support. In the 1928 election he promised to call a special session of Congress, to which he would offer his solutions. But then he ignored the legislators and they ignored or hobbled his proposals. The special session went off the rails, he shouldered the blame, and Congress made economic policy as it pleased. He seemed remote because he was—as isolated as president as he had been as an unloved boy. Roosevelt by contrast was a ruthless and intuitive politician alert to every man’s price and every man’s weakness, and brilliant at public relations as well. He too started with a special session—but he got his Congress to implement almost every item of his Hundred Days promises. The Depression ground on, but Roosevelt’s constant publicity conveyed the message that someone was trying.
Hoover’s ideological and political limitations would be highlighted by the way he, a one-term failure, responded to Roosevelt, a four-term giant. No president survives defeat unscathed, but Hoover would spend the rest of his life as a vicious and restrained foe of Roosevelt, whom he accused of corrupting the American people into slaves of government, and of the New Deal and everything it stood for. He became an ideologue and to the end of his life worked to create the modern Republican ideology: opposition to big government regimentation, denunciations of creeping socialism and punitive taxation, and insinuations that all Democrats were fundamentally un-American and disloyal. He despised Hitler, whom he met in 1938, but the once globe-circling businessman wrote an isolationist tract that was published on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Late in life Hoover was a mentor to William F. Buckley, and Whyte rightly calls Hoover a “father of the new conservatism.”
Somewhere Paul Krugman has observed that there may be conservative dentists and liberal dentists, but they likely agree on how to drill a tooth, and one wishes it was the same for conservative and liberal economists: they should agree on the tools to treat a cratering economy, call it revised Keynesianism or the new neoclassical synthesis or what you will. Broadly these are what Roosevelt groped towards, and what Hoover opposed long after the evidence had come in. Some of Hoover’s failures in the crisis of the Depression were a personal tragedy, the fruits of the youth and upbringing Whyte evokes in this long book. But his inflexible values mattered too. A man like Herbert Hoover again? No.