Summer 2004, Vol. 36, No. 2
The Ordeal of Herbert Hoover, Part 2
By Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch
Hoover's presidency showed the limitations of managerial government in a time of national emergency. With his stiff-necked refusal to play the political game, the President clung to the same theories of individual initiative and grassroots cooperation that had fed and salved war-torn Europe and ministered to flood victims in this country. "A voluntary deed is infinitely more precious to our national ideal and spirit than a thousand-fold poured from the Treasury," he said. Here was the practical idealism that had raised Hoover to the presidency, only to become a ball and chain hobbling him from galvanizing a nation in extremis.
To most Americans, the President was a remote, grim-faced man in a blue, double-breasted suit. They saw none of his private anguish throughout sixteen-hour days, engaging in fruitless mealtime conferences with economists, politicians, and bankers. Hoover's hands shook as he lit one cigar after another. His hair turned white, and he lost twenty-five pounds. Holding office at such a time, said Hoover, was akin to being a repairman behind a dike. "No sooner is one leak plugged up than it is necessary to dash over and stop another that has broken out. There is no end to it."
Defensive to the point of bewilderment, he told reporters, "No one is actually starving." In fact, said Hoover, he knew of one hobo who had managed to beg ten meals in a single day. He once offered Rudy Vallee a gold medal if the popular entertainer could come up with a joke to curtail hoarding of gold. Increasingly the joke, such as it was, was the man U.S. News called "President Reject." "Mellon pulled the whistle," went one Democratic campaign doggerel, "Hoover rang the bell, Wall Street gave the signal, And the country went to hell."
Will Rogers summed up the mood of a nation: If someone bit an apple and found a worm in it, he joked, Hoover would get the blame. Desperate encampments of tin and cardboard shacks were dubbed "Hoovervilles." There were "Hoover hogs" (armadillos fit for eating), "Hoover flags" (empty pockets turned inside out), "Hoover blankets" (newspapers barely covering the destitute forced to sleep outdoors), and "Hoover Pullmans" (empty boxcars used by an army of vagabonds escaping from their roots).
Hoover adopted a bloody but unbowed stance. "I cannot take the time from my job to answer such stuff," he said. At the same time it must be said that he did little to advance his cause. Building speeches like an engineer builds a bridge, Hoover delivered his statistic-laden texts in a dish-watery monotone. His face wore the look of a condemned man, not a confident leader.
He shied away as if by instinct from the emotional aspects of modern, mass leadership. In the spring of 1932, three Detroit children hitchhiked to Washington to try to get their father out of jail. Hoover was deeply moved and ordered the father released immediately. Yet he refused to let the press be informed or the children exploited for his personal political advantage. From hero to scapegoat: Hoover's failure to dramatize himself was his greatest strength as a humanitarian and his greatest flaw as a politician.
Hoover indulged in a rare bit of whimsy during a 1931 meeting with former President Coolidge. After his successor had outlined a host of anti-Depression measures, Coolidge offered wry consolation. "You can't expect to see calves running in the field the day after you put the bull to the cows," he commented. "No," replied Hoover, "but I do expect to see contented cows."
There was precious little contentment among Hoover's countrymen. One day in 1931, ten thousand Communist demonstrators picketed the White House with placards reading, "The Hoover program—a crust of bread and a bayonet." Congress, for whom the next election seemed more important than unity in the midst of crisis, stubbornly resisted the President. "Why is it that when a man is on this job as I am," raged a baffled Hoover, "day and night, doing the best he can, that certain men . . . seek to oppose everything he does, just to oppose him?"
In the summer of 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, World War I veterans seeking early payment of a bonus scheduled for 1945 assembled in Washington to pressure Congress and the White House. Hoover resisted the demand for an early bonus. Veterans' benefits already took up 25 percent of the 1932 federal budget. Even so, as the Bonus Expeditionary Force swelled to sixty thousand men, the President secretly ordered that its members be given tents, cots, army rations, and medical care.
In July, the Senate rejected the bonus 62 to 18. Most of the protesters went home, aided by Hoover's offer of free passage on the rails. Ten thousand remained behind, among them a hard core of Communists and other militants. On the morning of July 28, forty protesters tried to reclaim an evacuated building in downtown Washington scheduled for demolition. Fighting back, police killed two marchers. Local officials sought help. Hoover reluctantly sent in federal troops, but only after limiting Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's authority. MacArthur's troops would be unarmed. Their mission was to escort the marchers to camps along the Anacostia River.
In the event, MacArthur ignored the President's orders. Taking no prisoners, the flamboyant general drove tattered protesters from their encampment. After Hoover ordered a halt to the army's march, MacArthur again took things into his own hands, violently clearing the Anacostia campsite. A national uproar ensued. In far-off Albany, New York, Democratic presidential candidate Roosevelt grasped the political implications instantly. "Well," he told a friend on hearing the news, "this elects me."
At first, Hoover himself appeared to agree with Roosevelt. Intending to make only three speeches on his behalf, as the contest heated up, the President took to the campaign trail for weeks on end. He had no illusions. "We are opposed by six million unemployed, 10,000 bonus marchers, and 10 cent corn," he remarked, "Is it any wonder that the prospects are dark?"
His arguments did little to dispel the doubts of listeners. "Let no man tell you it could not be worse," he told one audience. "It could be so much worse that these days now, distressing as they are, would look like veritable prosperity." This was hardly an inspiring message, especially at a time when the magical Roosevelt was appealing to the "forgotten man." Everywhere Hoover went he saw evidence of the nation's bitterness. He was jeered outside a Detroit arena and hooted at in Oakland. After tomatoes were thrown at his train in Kansas, he said dejectedly, "I can't go on with it anymore." But he did, warning of the threat to individual freedom posed by Roosevelt's vaguely defined New Deal.
Election Day was a Democratic sweep, as Roosevelt carried all but six states. Hoover received the bad news at his California home. A few days later, on the eastbound presidential train to Washington, a friendly journalist encountered an exhausted chief executive. The President looked up at his visitor with a one-word greeting. "Why?" he asked.
And it was far from over. In the last weeks of his term, Hoover faced a desperate crisis of confidence as uncertain investors—or so he thought—sought reassurance that the new Roosevelt administration would defend the gold standard. On February 17, 1933, the President wrote the President-elect, seeking guarantees that Roosevelt would balance the budget, combat inflation, and halt publication of loans made by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Roosevelt, sensing that his discredited predecessor was trying to tie his hands, kept silent.
Soon banks in two dozen states began to totter. Hoover denounced corrupt bankers as worse than Al Capone ("He apparently was kind to the poor"). In his desperation he proposed that the Federal Reserve guarantee every depositor's account, an idea that would eventually become law. But in February 1933 the Federal Reserve's governors preferred a general bank holiday instead. Hoover refused to take such a drastic action without Roosevelt's agreement. And FDR had his own agenda.
Twice on the night of March 3, Hoover telephoned the President-elect trying to persuade him to join in concerted action. FDR replied that governors were free to do what they wished on a state-by-state basis. A little after one in the morning, the governors of New York and Illinois unilaterally suspended banking operations in their states. "We are at the end of our string," a bone-weary President remarked to his secretary that morning, "there is nothing more we can do."
"Democracy is a harsh employer," said Herbert Hoover in recalling his 1932 defeat. Rejected by his countrymen, Hoover departed Washington in March 1933, his once bright reputation in shambles and his career in public service apparently at an end. The Roosevelt era was, for Hoover, his own purgatory, during which the former President was forced to defend himself against charges that he had somehow caused the Great Depression or done little to combat it.
Even in these wilderness years, however, Hoover's voice was not silenced. He wrote book after book, delivered countless speeches, twice reorganized the executive branch of the government, and raised tens of millions of dollars for favorite causes, such as his beloved Stanford University, where he was a member of the first graduating class in 1895. In 1941, he dedicated the towering headquarters of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, destined to become one of the world's foremost scholarly centers and a major recruiting ground for conservative Presidents and their administrations.
In October 1936 the former President found a new cause, one that would engage him for the rest of his life. The same night Hoover joined the board of the Boys' Clubs of America, he was elected its chairman. For Hoover this was only the latest, most logical chapter in the story of an Iowa orphan who had fed millions of children before he organized the American Child Health Association.
"The boy is our most precious possession," Hoover said in the spring of 1937. Unfortunately, he said, "we have increased the number of boys per acre." For the youthful resident of urban America, that meant a life "of stairs, light switches, alleys, fire escapes . . . and a chance to get run over by a truck," he added. A boy denied the pleasures of nature had to contend with the policeman on the beat. But packs need not run into gangs, said Hoover, not so long as "pavement boys" had a place to play checkers and learn a trade, swim in a pool and steal nothing more harmful than second base. Hoover determined to start a hundred new Boys Clubs in three years. He more than met his goal. Not long before his death, he was embarking on a still more ambitious plan—"A Thousand Clubs For A Million Boys."
In May 1945 Harry Truman invited America's only living former President to visit him at the White House. "I would be most happy to talk over the European food situation with you," wrote Truman. "Also it would be a pleasure for me to become acquainted with you." It was the start of an improbable, yet historic friendship between two men who formed perhaps the oddest couple in American politics. Early in 1946 Truman dispatched the seventy-one-year-old Hoover to thirty-eight nations in an effort to beg, borrow, and cajole enough food to avert mass starvation among victims of World War II. Back home Hoover appealed to his countrymen to reduce consumption of wheat and fats, saying, "We do not want the American flag flying over nationwide Buchenwalds."
Thanks to Truman, Hoover was again doing what he did best, feeding people. His relationship with Truman deepened, despite political differences. Truman restored Hoover's name to the great dam that Roosevelt's administration had called Boulder Dam. In 1947 he asked the Great Engineer to reorganize an executive branch of government bloated by war, to make it more efficient if not necessarily more conservative. It was a daunting task: not only did Uncle Sam defend the nation and shape basic economic policy—he also manufactured ice cream, helium, and retreaded tires; operated a railroad in Panama and a distillery in the Virgin Islands; and owned one-quarter of the continental United States and twenty-seven billion dollars in personal property.
Unfortunately no one could account for more than a fraction of the whole. Do more with less: that was the theme of the Hoover commission's reports, each written by its chairman to fit on a single page of the New York Times. Not all his ideas were approved, but Truman, reelected against all odds in 1948, supported enough to see more than 70 percent of Hoover's recommendations become law. All this purposeful activity had added ten years to his life, a grateful Hoover told friends. Writing to Truman in 1962, he remarked, "Yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know."
In 1953 a second Hoover Commission returned to the task of pruning big government. This time its chairman lamented that he got less support from President Dwight D. Eisenhower than from Truman. Even so, as late as 1961, John F. Kennedy's secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, was thanking Hoover for ideas that could save billions in Pentagon spending.
Over time, Hoover took a detached, even whimsical view of the shifting currents of opinion. Asked how he had survived the long years of ostracism coinciding with Roosevelt's New Deal, he said simply, "I outlived the bastards." With a twinkle in his eye, he proposed a set of reforms in American life, including four strikes in baseball "so as to get more men on bases . . . the crowd only gets worked up when somebody is on second base," an end to political ghostwriters, and the scheduling of all after-dinner speakers before dinner "so that the gnaw of hunger would speed up terminals."
The former President became a kind of national Dutch uncle, advising Presidents of both parties. A reporter who dropped by the Waldorf Towers in New York City, where he lived, in 1960 could hardly believe that Hoover worked eight to twelve hours each day. After all, said the journalist, the former President was nearly eighty-six years old. "Yes," replied one of his secretaries, "but he doesn't know that." With his unending series of books, articles, speeches, and other public appearances, Hoover reinvented the ex-presidency. Long before his death, at age ninety, in October, 1964, he had regained much of his countrymen's esteem.
Today he lies beneath a slab of Vermont marble within sight of the tiny fourteen-by-twenty-foot white frame cottage in West Branch, Iowa, where his life began. In a final demonstration of Quaker simplicity, his tombstone carries no presidential seal, no inscription of any kind, simply the name Herbert Hoover and the dates 1874–1964. It is a deliberately understated comment on a highly dramatic life.
Richard Norton Smith is the former director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum. He also served as director of the Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford presidential libraries and most recently he was executive director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. He is currently the executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library-Museum. A prolific writer, Smith is the author of An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (1984) and is at work on a biography of Nelson Rockefeller.
Timothy Walch is the current director of the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum. Prior to coming to West Branch, he served as editor of Prologue. Walch is the author or editor of many books including (with Richard Norton Smith) Farewell to the Chief: The Role of Former Presidents in American Public Life (1990) and At the President's Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century (1997). Most recently he published Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover (2003).
Note on Sources
This essay is based on many years of research in the holdings of the Hoover Library. For additional biographical information on Herbert Hoover, see Richard Norton Smith, An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (1984) and Timothy Walch, editor, Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover (2003)