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SUBJECT: Timothy G. Walch, Ph.
LANDSLIDE - The Presidency of Herbert Hoover
interview was recorded in December 2007, as part of LANDSLIDE
- The Presidency of Herbert Hoover.
The documentary is a co-production of the Duncan Group
and Stamats Communications. Iowa Public Television is the presenter
and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Dr. Walch is Director
of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum in West Branch,
This transcript has been edited due to length.)
was Herbert Hoover? For someone who knows nothing about Herbert
Hoover how would you characterize him?
would I characterize Herbert Hoover? - An enigma wrapped in a dilemma
which is trite I know, but in fact everyone who met or knew Herbert
Hoover was perplexed by who this person really was. There’s a wonderful
cartoon by Ding Darling, which says I think the tag line is, “How
will Hoover go down in history?” And it was done about 1929 at the
peak of Hoover’s authority and power. And it’s this collection of
little images of Hoover as a humanitarian, as an engineer, as a
doer, as a thinker, any number of things. And so almost everyone
who knew Hoover would draw from him a certain interest or inspiration
in one part of his life. But the pieces together make it very difficult
to understand who he was. I think it’s also true that that Herbert
Hoover kind of built walls that prevented people from getting into
his inner self. He was not a contemplative individual but he was
also a very private individual. And so this is a man who, of course,
is orphaned by the age of eleven, who says that he doesn’t want
to become dependent on anyone else at any time the rest of his life.
And with the exception of his wife Lou and his children and his
brother and perhaps a few other family members, he was a very private
individual. And this would affect the course of his life from the
time he left West Branch, Iowa in 1885 until he dies in New York
in 1964. One of the interesting questions about Herbert Hoover and
how he related to others, he would often sit at the dinner table
and say nothing, listening to all the conversation. He was an observer
rather than a participant in the conversation, but he would absorb
everything that was said and then would comment on it only later.
So it’s very difficult for anyone even somebody who studies Herbert
Hoover to know exactly who this man is. And I think that’s probably
to some extent led to the dilemma of his image. Because in many
ways Herbert Hoover accomplished enormous things and yet he’s still
in this country disparaged as a leader or an historical figure.
It’s just a real dilemma.
Can you describe his emotional and or
Hoover’s emotional character is difficult to determine because again
he kept it all within himself. This is a man who was rarely seen
in an unguarded moment. I suppose if there was any time that Herbert
Hoover would be particularly, sort of be engaged in those things
we enjoy in life, it would be when he was fishing or you know involved
somehow in nature. He was, he was unguarded. He loved to fish. He
loved to to get into the wild. He didn’t care who his fishing guide
was as long as he was the best. He didn’t care whether his politics
were Democratic or Republican. And so those few times, but I’ve
often joked that I mean this was a very formal man. At the Hoover
Library we probably have 30,000 pictures that have some image of
Herbert Hoover and I think almost all but 5 of them he’s wearing
a tie. I sometimes joke with our visitors that if you were to go
to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and knock on his door at 3:00 in the
morning, he would have shown up in a coat and tie - as if he had
slept in his formal clothing. He was just a very formal individual.
So in terms of his political or personal philosophy, his religious
philosophy it’s very hard to determine. There are those who will
say and you’ll hear this from others that he was very much of a
Quaker and that his actions reflected the philosophy of his Quaker
faith. And to some extent it you judge an individual like Herbert
Hoover by his actions, there’s no question you can see he has the
compassion that is attributed to many of the world religions. Certainly
to Christianity and more specifically to the Quaker, to the Society
of Friends. And so in that sense Hoover would have preferred to
let his actions speak louder than anything he would say about spirituality.
And again emotionally there are very few unguarded letters, no evidence
of anger except at a policy decisions, no personal animosity evens
towards somebody like Franklin Roosevelt, who Herbert Hoover in
many ways felt that Roosevelt had betrayed him after the election
but before the inauguration in 1932, 1933. There’s nothing in the
papers. Now maybe the papers and documents were expunged. It’s hard
to tell. They were in Hoover’s personal library at the Stanford
University at the Hoover Institution. Maybe somebody cleared them
out, but in going through the papers you don’t find an unguarded
thought. You don’t find the a person behind the scenes.
respect to what you call his formality what do you think that formality,
for example wearing a suit and tie while fishing, is saying?
of the difficult, the question of a person’s formality particularly
somebody in the past, and let me relate to this in a personal way
because I had a grandfather who in many ways came from a very different
background, urban and Catholic, but who lived a life in some ways
in terms of his social behavior and habits very similar to Herbert
Hoover. He always wore a coat and tie. And so I think in that generation
born in the period from say 1870 to 1890 and who grew up in the
20th century, wearing a coat and tie and a fedora and
being formal, referring to everybody as Mr. and maybe even referring
to your own wife as Mrs. Hoover or whatever, was common and typical.
It’s just that in contemporary times, in the 21st century,
it’s very difficult for us to to believe that’s the normal pattern
of behavior back in those times. So by no means do I think that
Herbert Hoover was excessively guarded. But he was not affable and
friendly and political in the manner of say Franklin D. Roosevelt
who was extraordinary in that capacity. And so there is a clear
difference between those two individuals. But I think in many ways
Hoover was a very typical reflection of the formality of his generation.
Does it say, “Take me seriously?”
think in most cases there was a belief that as President of the
United States Herbert Hoover felt, or even as a public figure, that
you were a reflection of the values in which you were raised. You
were a reflection of all that you had achieved and that to be anything
less than formal degraded what you had achieved and the office in
which you were serving. He believed that to become President of
the United States, to be a public servant, was a high calling. And
almost in the manner of a minister or a Supreme Court justice he
owed it to the people to whom he was serving to look the part. And
so to goof around even to the point, for example, Calvin Coolidge
was often seen wearing funny hats or an Indian headdress or whatever.
Hoover never wore any of the hats or those sorts of unusual gifts
that that were given to him. He was a very efficient, almost a scientific
manager and so in that sense his presentation was in the manner
of a person who was there to invoke fact, to present ideas to be
discussed. Not to draw attention to himself. And that any kind of
cult of personality should be frowned upon, so in that sense he
was a very sort of reserved individual.
would you consider Hoover’s core values especially as they relate
to money and poverty and his desire to overcome poverty? The American
Hoover’s core values are very simple. Almost the prototypical notion
that an American individual is born with an equality of opportunity
and that if he achieves as much as he can once he’s achieved all
that he needs, but only as much as he needs, he has a moral obligation
to share of anything more with others who still have needs. And
in many ways he was a cock-eyed optimist, because in an unvarnished
idealist who believed that others shared that American principle.
So that, this is an individual who would in effect live off the
resources he made by the age of forty. Who would accept no salary
for his service as President or Secretary of Commerce. And then
shared of his wealth by giving it anonymously to the Community Chest
which is today the United Way. And obviously believed that this
was the role that money served. It was there to do good things.
It was not there to be lavished on one’s self. And so this was a
man who really didn’t care all that much about, you know, what he
was eating or how well he traveled or personal possessions. Except
those gifts that were given to him by children or by families in
need. When Herbert Hoover served as Chairman of The Commission for
Relief in Belgium, he was given this enormous collection of embroidered
flour sacks as a way of acknowledging the work that he did in Europe
feeding people. When he built his home at Stanford University in
1917 or after the war, in fact. He had a special room set aside
called the Belgium alcove. It’s written into the drawings for the
house. And he displayed as many of those items. So he didn’t care
that he had won great prizes from the King of Belgium or others.
But gifts from children and gifts from families were important.
Because it showed that he cared enough to be compassionate and to
show his concern for their needs.
you see any conflict between the Hoover that was considered charitable
and humanitarian internationally and the way he was received, perceived
think there’s a great, one of the interesting questions is, here’s
a man who saved Europe and the American people in 1933 said, this
is the man who saved Europe but then turned his back on starving
Americans. The irony here is not that he ever turned his back on
anyone, because he did not. But how did he approach letting people
know what he did? When he served in Europe he served behind the
scenes. The story was feeding people. It wasn’t Herbert Hoover and
what he was doing but how America was helping those in need. Hoover
got much of the credit but he got it indirectly for having served
those people. Once he becomes President of the United States all
of the focus is on him and he is uncomfortable with that cult of
personality that comes with the presidency. But it was also true
that his friends and associates as they had in effect promoted him
for President, had as he said, made me into some kind of superman.
And so the expectations of the American people in 1929 and ‘30 and
’31 were that this man who had saved Europe, or so they had been
told, he had saved Europe. He was the Master of Emergencies should,
of course, be able to solve their economic woes during the Great
Depression. So rising expectation on the part of the American people
and an economic collapse far greater than anything that any one
individual could address, in effect, ruins or at least diminished
the reputation of Herbert Hoover not only as a Master of Emergencies,
but as a national and international leader. And so in that sense
Hoover was hoisted on the petard of his own success in Europe and
as Secretary of Commerce. He ultimately couldn’t resolve the American
people’s problems in that regard.
In your mind were there circumstances
so unique that no one could have overcome them?
think there’s an interesting premise and it’s one that you’ll hear
from others, that is, what if Franklin Roosevelt had been elected
president in 1929 facing the same problems that Hoover faced? Would
the situation or would the economic course of our history changed?
Probably not. Now certainly Roosevelt’s strategy for addressing
the Depression would have been different. But the results may well
have been the same. And so in 1932 the American people may still
have changed leaders and they may have elected a businessman like
Herbert Hoover. I think it’s quite clear that the economic collapse
in looking back on it, the economic collapse around the world starting
in 1929 but lasting really until the beginning of World War II was
so devastating that no single government or no economic policy was
going to be able to address that sufficiently to overcome it quickly.
I mean the American people became impatient. So many of them had
lost their homes. So many of them were out of work. They were in
desperate need. Hoover was spending money on public works projects
at a rate unprecedented in American history. He spent more money
in his one term on public works than all presidents before him combined.
And yet got no credit for it. He established organizations like
the National Institutes of Health and the Federal Farm Board and
the the Reconstruction Finance Corporation all to address America’s
needs. But even to this day there are people alive who blame Herbert
Hoover for their great grandfather or grandfather’s loss of a job
or the loss of a home. So that there’s almost nothing, Hoover was
virtually powerless to have done anything at that time. But with
expectations so high that this is the Master of Emergencies, that
people’s and then people’s fortunes were dashed in the aftermath
of it. They turned hostile toward Hoover. I’ll tell you a funny
story because it was told to me about Herbert Hoover. A friend of
mine, a historian who actually served at the Kennedy Library for
many years said, he was twelve-years old before he knew Herbert
Hoover’s first name. His father was a Democrat and always would
go around the house referring to son-of-a-bitch Hoover. And so my
friend thought that Herbert Hoover’s first name was Son-of-a-Bitch
because that’s all they ever referred to him as. So in truth the
hostility toward Hoover even continues to this day and there are
contemporary critics who still try to lambaste say President Bush
or any other political figure with a tar brush of Herbert Hoover.
What aspects of that criticism would
you say are justified?
Hoover’s presidency tells us is that you must first of all be a
politician who can speak to the American people. You must use the
bully pulpit of your office. It’s not enough to do good deeds or
good works. You must repeatedly tell the American people what you
are going to do. You must follow through on what you promise and
the remind them of how grateful they should be for what they’ve
been given. And so we’ve built a whole public relations enterprise
that we now refer to as spin that is completely foreign to Herbert
Hoover’s way of thinking. Mr. Hoover would have argued that good
works speak for themselves. And if you are doing the right thing
you should not worry about popular or public reaction to it. On
the other hand, Mr. Hover was sensitive to criticism and he would
bemoan the fact that if a president was trying to do the right thing
why is that others will oppose him just for the sake of opposition?
Well that’s what politics is. And it was something that other presidents
like Franklin Roosevelt seemed to understand intuitively exactly
what needed to be done and how to let the American people know what
they were doing. Roosevelt wasn’t any more successful than Hoover
in those first, in that first term but he convinced the American
people that he was doing the right thing and that he was on their
side. They both delivered the same number virtually the same number
of radio addresses, but Herbert Hoover would speak to the American
people on the radio as if he was reading a report, a stock ticker
or something to that effect. And he just did not have the requisite
skills as a public speaker, as somebody able to reach to the American
people directly. That’s what we learned from the Hover presidency.
Not about policy but about politics.
was he listening to in the administration? Was there no one who
was saying, hey we have to put some kind of publicity p.r. spin
the group of people who worked with Hoover obviously who they referred
to as the Chief. And he was the Chief. And he really did direct
programs and he was a master at public relations in the sense of
using the media, primarily the press but eventually also the radio
to some extent and film, to try to spread the word as of a particular
cause or a need. He was not particularly good at the human interaction
that comes now with the presidency. But I also want to guard against
the danger of judging Herbert Hoover through the prism either of
modern presidential politics or more specifically Franklin D. Roosevelt
who in many ways is the acknowledged master of presidential politics
certainly in the ‘30s. The kind of reserved formal style that Hoover
exhibits is fairly typical of presidents in the first thirty years
of the twentieth century. Certainly Woodrow Wilson was not outgoing
and bombastic and given revealing much in the way of his personal
side. He would be quite formal and certainly you would say the same
of Coolidge. So In many ways Hoover is an extension of those earlier
progressive presidents rather than a reflection of the later more
revealing personal presidents like Franklin Roosevelt or the ones
that have come since World War II. So yes I mean to some extent
Hoover guards himself against the opinion of others. He was a man
who was self assured. He believed that he was the most intelligent
person in the room and that might have well been the case. Was he
open to other ideas? - Without question because he believed very
much in a kind of a commission form of government. He believed in
bringing the best and the brightest to a table and sharing ideas,
embracing ideas, revising his own ideas. He was a man who didn’t
in effect write a speech from word one to the end. He would revise.
He would move things around. This is a man who would have loved
word processors. He would have loved to have moved ideas around
and share ideas. He loved to listen to others. So it’s not as if
he was completely isolated. But once he had settled on a policy,
he believed in carrying forward that policy. He opposed the idea,
for example, of a dole, of direct payments to individuals. And he
stuck with that even though it would have clearly been more popular
to have embraced that idea and gone forward in helping other people
directly. But he said no this is wrong. We really have to allow
Main Street and the voluntarism of the American people to help one
another. So in some ways he was stubborn there’s no question about
it. He stuck to his ideas. There are some who would say that’s a
good quality and others who would say that’s obstinance. So it’s
again, it could be either side depending on how you looked at it.
in a time of significant change, many might consider catastrophic
change holding to an idea might be seen as a negative?
holding to an idea in difficult times certainly did not help Hoover.
He did not get any credit for being strong in the face of adversity
or taking an unpopular position. And there is no question that a
part of Roosevelt’s success we learn after the fact is his ability
to continue to change policies as the people seemed to demand it.
So we’ve learned with hindsight that Hoover would have been better
advised to have been more flexible. But it’s hard to look at him
in his times and given the background and his previous success in
Europe, when he was obstinate in the face of challenges that the
German government placed before him, when he was trying to feed
the people of Belgium. When he had been so successful using those
policies he persisted in trying to apply those to the economic enemy
of the Great Depression. It did not succeed and he would have to
acknowledge that although he was not a man given to admitting personal
mistakes. He would have to have acknowledged that after the fact
and obviously I think that he probably knew in 1932 that his chances
of being reelected were slim.
strikes me, as he is coming into office as more of a populist, not
necessarily so much himself, as much the movement around him – as
he is so incredibly popular, who was directing the spin on that?
And creating that image for obviously the public bought it?
people around Hoover, who don’t get as much credit because, of course,
they tried to divert attention to the Chief, were to some extent
anonymous. But George Akerson his first press secretary was very
attuned to the press and was very keen on this idea on building
up Hoover’s image as a Master of Emergency. Certainly Will Erwin
the eventual playwright and who wrote Hoover’s campaign biography,
another fellow who was with Hoover throughout the commerce years.
In many ways all the people who he worked with in the Commission
for the Relief of Belgium, people like Louis Straws and others would
rally the troops. And even later after the presidency was over if
the Chief was giving a speech on radio all of the Hoover men as
they were called would call their local radio affiliates - Mutual,
CBS, NBC and say you’ve got to carry the Chief’s speech. So you
are right in the sense that spin existed not in quite the formal
or elaborate way that it exists today, but it certainly existed
in an effort to promote the ideas of Herbert Hoover, if not the
personality. Again this is a man who wanted to apply the principles
of science to politics. He believed almost taking the city manager
movement and extrapolating this to the nation. Be a good scientist,
run the country by good government engineering principles. Don’t
draw attention to yourself, the idea is most important. Stick to
your principles. And in economic times where people are suffering
and they want someone to feel their pain, they don’t want to be
told you know “things will get better we’re just going to have to
tough it out.” They wanted more compassion. They wanted more empathy.
And it was very hard for this young man who had suffered so much
early on to show that kind of empathy, to show that he had in his
heart that compassion that they wanted to see openly.
Was he in denial?
know it’s very hard for me to to psychoanalyze somebody who’s as
reserved and as formal as Herbert Hoover. And after twenty years
of study I can’t say today I understand him to the extent that I’d
like too or to say that I understand him all that much better than
I did when I started my job two decades ago. What I can say is that
in all of us there is a certain measure of denial and certainly
all presidents of the United States at some point or another become
defensive about their policies and their term in office. It’s a
very hard job and Hoover was first to admit that only former presidents
of the United States understand what their incumbents and their
colleagues are going through. I think yes it’s perfectly natural
to say that after the fact that Hoover if he could have gone back
would he have done certain things differently, I don’t think there
there’s any question that he would have. And I think he was frustrated
by the difficulty of dealing with a Congress that resisted him.
I think he would have to admit that he was overly idealistic about
what the American people would accomplish. And that he was overly
reliant on what he had learned and his successes at Commerce and
during his years in Europe. So yes without question he would have
to say, I could have done things better. But it’s very hard for
any of us to admit that.
or not you agree with the individual or you disagree, whether you
like him or don’t like him, at the very least you need to be conscious
of who they were and what are the contours of their personality
and their achievement.
have a hard time seeing Wilson handle the Bonus March the way that
Hoover handled the March. Hoover’s reaction, the way he handles
the Bonus March is a really surprise to me. It doesn’t strike me
as Herbert Hoover.
Bonus March is very much of an enigma and what Hoover did. And it’s
not so much that he would send Douglas MacArthur out there. Remember
MacArthur had led many of these veterans who had come to Washington
seeking from Congress a bonus that they felt entitled to and Congress
had said they would give them in 1945. Well it was not 1945 it was
1932 and they needed the money now. Well, of course, Pelham Glassford
the head of the police force in Washington said, “I can’t manage
this group of people, Mr. President. Could you send the army?” Well
let’s send the man who led them into battle. Let’s send them Douglas
MacArthur who took it upon himself to drive those who wouldn’t leave
out of Washington and create a public relations nightmare. What
baffles me and I’ve sometimes I’ve think in my mind at the very
least, said, “Mr. President why are you taking the blame for this
boneheaded policy that was was directed completely and in some ways
with insubordination. In some ways Douglas MacArthur was insubordinate
in over superceding the authority that he had to drive these men
out and and yet Hover takes the blame. He says this is my responsibility.
Why? Particularly at a time when he is running for reelection. And
I would agree with you and that’s something that perplexes me to
this day why did Herbert Hoover take responsibility for the Bonus
March when clearly it should have been laid at the feet of those,
boots of Douglas MacArthur? And Hoover and MacArthur remained friends.
There was no bitterness between them and yet I think as Roosevelt
said about the Bonus March, “This wins it for me.” I think that
it was certainly one serious nail in the coffin of Hoover’s political
campaign in 1932.
go back to the five or six years preceding the ’28 election. Maybe
you can describe for the viewer what’s going on in America at that
time. What’s going on that sets the stage for someone like Hoover
to come in?
like to think of the 1920s as the Jazz Age. And in some ways we
have a cartoonish image of bathtub gin and razzmatazz and girls
bobbing their hair. We get the high points of American culture.
What most people don’t realize is, of course, is that it was also
a decade of great prosperity and great technology. In 1920 only
sixty thousand American homes had radios, by 1930 nine million homes
have radios. That’s a fourteen hundred and fifty percent increase.
All of a sudden information that was restricted to newspapers maybe
to the East coast is spread across the country as fast as lightening.
And people are buying radios before they even have electricity in
their homes. They are buying automobiles that allow them to travel
the country if they choose. We tend to forget in the 19th
century most people were born and were raised and died within a
twelve-mile radius of the spot where they were born. Now they could
travel the world. They could hear what was going on. So that the
world opens up to America in the 1920s. It’s also an era when we
have a tremendous amount of disposable income so people can buy
labor saving devices like vacuum sweepers and other products. Once
they certainly get electricity in major American cities it changes
the nature of work. Women work more frequently in offices and elsewhere.
They, we have typewriters and we have other inventions. We have
elevators taking you to the upper floors. We have all types of improvements.
There’s a notion of unrestricted values, that new types of American
literature. We became sort of robust as a culture. We have a President
who basically says hey things are going fine in Calvin Coolidge.
Warren Harding the man who looked like a president who served for
three years. He’s beloved, dies of a heart attack and is replaced
by this Calvin Coolidge. Keep cool with Coolidge. Who basically
takes naps, who has a laissez-faire policy, hands off of governance.
And things are going fine. Big industries, people like Thomas Edison
and Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone and others. We admire them.
We admire the business. We also have a Commerce Department led by
Herbert Hoover that basically is, says government has a role at
the table of industry in approving standards. We’re going to have
federal highway standards. We’re going to regulate traffic by having
something called a traffic signal. We’re going to have road signs
that will help people get across the country. We’re going to regulate
radio waves to make sure that people get clear signals. We’re going
to have the school lunch programs. We’re going to have lots of things
that are going to make life better. So that things were prosperous.
Things were good. By 1928 I don’t think there was any chance that
the Democrats could be elected president because you’d have eight
years of Republican prosperity. So with all credit that is due to
Hoover if somebody else had received the nomination Frank Lowden,
for example, of Illinois he probably would have been elected president.
In fact what’s interesting I think about Hoover’s candidacy was
that he got the nomination at all. Quite frankly I’m told the Literary
Digest did a survey after the first announcement - Calvin Coolidge’s
enigmatic announcement that I choose not to run for president in
1928. They polled political leaders of the Republican Party and
said who are the top ten potential candidates to get the nomination.
Hoover wasn’t one of the top ten. But it isn’t until the Mississippi
River flood of ’27 that people are reminded of all that Hoover had
accomplished in Europe. All that he was accomplishing down in New
Orleans in the South helping people. Well, why not Hoover? And
that becomes who but Hoover? And it’s a juggernaut. I mean in effect
all that press coverage makes him the popular, the favorite to win
the nomination and, of course, he does. So he’s almost swept into
office the way a surfer’s riding a wave. And they’re riding this
reputation that in part is being fostered by the friends and associates
of the Chief but also the circumstances of the Mississippi River
flood and how Hoover responded to it.
Why don’t you tell us about the flood
and why he’s the man the nation turns to?
Mississippi River flood is one of those at the time unprecedented
calamities - rainfall in the upper Mississippi River watershed filtered
down to the lower Mississippi and flooded vast areas of the southern
part of the nation. Very poor parts of the nation in Mississippi
and Arkansas and Louisiana. And there had in, up until that time
all calamities of that sort even regional calamities, had been addressed
locally or by regions, by states. We were after all the United States
of America. It wasn’t the presumption that the federal government
would step in and relieve the crisis. So in 1927 when flooding began
to take place in the lower Mississippi, it was something of an unprecedented
calamity. And the federal government did step in, in the form of
Herbert Hoover leading resources from the Commerce Department but
also taking responsibility for the Army Corps of Engineers and the
Defense Department to address those people who had very specific
needs. Nine hundred thousand people had to be housed and fed on
a regular basis for months at a time until the flooding could be
addressed and the water could recede, and so he’s the man whose
there with the plan. He’s command and control. It’s very untypical
of the federal government in general and more specifically Coolidge’s
government Cool Coolidge’s administration to step in and and provide
this kind of assistance. And so he got enormous press, popular press.
And because it did focus on his achievement and his particular style
of leadership, and it did hearken back to what happened in World
War I, it propelled his candidacy forward. He was also helped by
film, because, of course, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army
Signal Corps were filming all of the efforts that they were documenting
this effort. Hoover is there and in fact they create a campaign
film called Master of Emergencies, which is widely shown during
the 1928 campaign. And so people begin to visualize who this man
is. There’s a popular article that’s published during the campaign
in 1928 that says. The title of which was, “Is Hoover Human?” I
mean this is superman. You know this is and this is before the comic
character. There were no Superman comics at the time. But he’s larger
than life. And, of course, so much later in 1929 when the stock
market collapse collapses why isn’t Hoover stepping in and doing
in ’29 what he had done in ’27? - Different problems, different
circumstances, different types of resources available. So fighting
an economic collapse isn’t the same thing as fighting a flooded
river. But that’s what happened in ’27 and so that propels Hoover
we talk about the flood and show the audience footage from the ’27
flood there is no question that they will be thinking of Katrina
and the response to that flood.
think there’s no question that historical comparisons between what
happened in ’27 in in the southern Mississippi and what happened
as a response to Hurricane Katrina have been inevitable. In fact
there’s been, there were numerous newspaper columns lauding the
approach that Hoover had taken which was in effect centralizing
authority for disaster response. I think without question we are
seeing an effort on the part of the contemporary Bush administration
to centralize how we respond to any kind of economic collapse. You
can’t have a Federal Emergency Management Agency doing one thing
and the Red Cross doing another thing and the Department of Homeland
Security doing a third thing - that you have to provide centralized
control. And without question Hoover gets very positive press as
a result of how he responded in 1927. And people draw those comparisons
between that effort and the effort in response to Katrina.
The interesting thing is that there is
logical order/approach to natural disasters - people have to fed,
housed, clothed. Usually that requires short-term action. Although
in the case of Katrina we blew the short-term response so now are
faced with long-term consequences. How is Hoover’s response to the
enormous fiscal emergency of 1929 different? How does this fiscal
emergency test his philosophy of American Individualism and where
does he turn?
I mean I think the real question on October 29, 1929
is, Herbert Hoover is President of the United States; the stock
market there’s a terrible panic. Is this the beginning of a long-term
change in our economy? Is this a long-term economic collapse that
is going to require a new way of governance? Without question Hoover
would have denied it at that point. In fact, what’s most interesting
to me is that the economic collapse on October 29th was
not one of the top ten news stories of 1929 as determined by the
New York Times. Everyone in the nation was in denial. It was they
called it a depression because they didn’t want to call it a panic.
They didn’t want the American people to compare this to 1893 or
some of the other periodic financial panics. And from really through
1930 and ’31 there seemed to be a mild recovery. Hoover convinced
industry leaders to keep people employed at least part-time, to
keep income flowing. He’s pumping money into public works projects.
Things are going to be okay. Nobody wants to say oh my goodness
this is a crisis. Into ’32 and ’33 other wiser people are saying
maybe there’s something wrong with our economy. Maybe there’s something
wrong with democracy. Maybe we can’t govern the way we’ve been governing.
And so in that sense you begin to see the nation’s confidence in
its economic enterprise unraveling and the responsibility is laid
on Herbert Hoover and the blame begins to build. I don’t think there
was anybody in early 1930 or even ’31 who would say well Hoover’s
to blame. It’s Hoover’s fault that we are in the predicament we’re
in. But beginning in ‘30 let’s say late ’31, ’32, ’33 when you have
more and more Hoovervilles which were a collection of shacks from
displaced people displaced from their homes. When you have Hoover
hogs, which are, people eating road kill to survive. You have Hoover
hotels, which are those cardboard shacks they are living in. It’s
all negative Hoover. And so there is a rolling blame as we begin
to learn that the economic collapse that started in ’29 is going
to get worse. Most Americans believe that on the day Franklin Roosevelt
was inaugurated the Depression ended. Why? Because Roosevelt gave
them something that Hoover couldn’t give them – a sense of hope
that better times will be coming. Happy Days are here again or happy
days at the very least will be here again. And Roosevelt kept changing
policies. If this doesn’t work, let’s try this. If this doesn’t
work, let’s try this. I mean Roosevelt when you asked him what his
philosophy was he said well I’m a Christian and I’m a Democrat.
But he had that ability to communicate that Hoover just couldn’t
marshal. And so in that sense, that shift, that paradigm shift that
we see in the Roosevelt years reflects poorly on Hoover’s presidential
style. But if you look at Hoover from the perspective of Wilson
or of Coolidge he appears very progressive and unprecedented in
his response to the economic collapse.
of the programs that Hoover does initiate do seem to fly in the
face of his philosophy as he entered office. So it does appear
that he was trying to find policies that will work. Additionally,
are there any policies/programs that Hoover began that Roosevelt
ultimately got credit for?
of the dilemmas I suppose of writing the Hoover story is that in
many ways if you look at the policies that he was presenting in
1930, ’31, ’32, they’ re quite progressive. In fact, many of the
early programs of the New Deal, the First Hundred Days, are programs
that Hoover had introduced in Congress but were being held up in
committee by a Democratic Congress. So to some extent we should
give Hoover credit for some of the early days of the New Deal. But
if Hoover were here with us he would probably deny this because
he had personal animosity toward Franklin Roosevelt and toward the
whole philosophy of the New Deal, which did not rely on the resources
of the individual, that relied more heavily on government programs.
Yes to some extent Hoover the engineer would tinker with different
types of social programs. He certainly believed in the idea that
you pumped money into the economy to get people back to work, which
was not something that was strictly relying on American individualism.
It was relying on the government to give a helping hand. But it’s
also true that it’s very hard to be completely consistent and so
in that sense Hoover would tinker. After the fact, if you were to
talk about Hoover’s perspective on the New Deal he would be quite
clearly an opponent of the New Deal. His book, Challenge to Liberty,
was in effect his critique of the New Deal. And in fact his post
presidential years are to some extent formed by his opposition to
the New Deal. But in many ways I don’t think it was his disagreement
with many of the ideas of the New Deal as stripped of their tags
- helping other people, individuals and so forth. It was the personality
of Roosevelt and the individuals that Roosevelt surrounded himself
with, maybe his opposition to Harry Hopkins or others and their
approach to individual support or support for individuals.
What about Henry Wallace?
know the relationship between the Wallace family and the Hoovers
is kind of problematic because I think there always was a certain
measure of rivalry there even during the time that Henry C. Wallace
was Secretary of Agriculture in the Coolidge years. And to the extent
to which the tension and overwork led to Henry C. Wallace’s death
and to the extent to which Henry A. Wallace blamed Herbert Hoover
to, for contributing to that tension. What I think is most interesting
is in some ways they have similar personalities in being shy, in
being scientific, in being focused on programs rather than personalities.
And yet philosophically they were very different people obviously.
To the best of our knowledge there’s only one picture of Henry A.
Wallace and Herbert Hoover together. And they both have a very pained
expression on their faces. I think it’s kind of interesting that
the two men are periodically bundled - these two Iowans who were
deeply interested in and concerned with helping others but who were
political opposites. I mean we have a Hoover Wallace dinner now
and I’m not sure that either Herbert Hoover or Henry Wallace would
attend the dinner in their honor or their namesake dinner, because
of political differences. But it is interesting. That book Challenge
To Liberty interestingly enough was a Book-of-the-Month Club
selection. And Hoover was very pleased that it was going to appear
before the 1934 political campaigns. And only after the fact did
he learn that it was a dual main selection of the Book-of-the- Month
Club with a book by Henry Wallace. So once again Hoover and Wallace
were bundled together. And they reflected different perspectives
in some ways of Iowa’s political philosophy.
worked on a documentary on Wallace I see more in common than just
the science and policy because they both understood food and the
enormous power of food not only politically but in diplomacy. I
think they both saw the potential of the United States to use food
for the common good, which is not a Republican or Democratic idea.
question of food and famine and how you change people’s views of
the United States, views of the world, how do we ensure prosperity
and peace? We have engraved on the floor of the Hoover Library a
quote, which I can’t read for you because I can’t remember it, but
it in effect it says, that Hoover’s core philosophy, these are words
that he used in his last speech at the Hoover Library when he dedicated
the library, is that what people wanted most in this world to ensure
peace was economic security that came to the relief of famine. And
it is the value of food as a sort of, a part of our diplomatic policy
that he embraced. In fact, to the extent that he very much wanted
to unify Germany after World War II because he saw Germany as the
kind of the breadbasket of western Europe that could ensure peace
and prosperity throughout western Europe for the coming generation.
And I think there’s no question that Henry Wallace shared that philosophy.
Now whether it has to do with political rivalry or personal differences
I don’t know, but I think the observation that Henry Wallace, Henry
A. Wallace, Henry C. Wallace and Herbert Hoover had far more in
common than they had differences I’m sure would be disputed by some
people. But I would agree that most historians see that commonality
of purpose and that commonality starts with food.
Do you think Iowa as a place has impacted
real impact of Herbert Hoover, the real impact of Iowa on Herbert
Hoover is hard to determine. If you go back to Hoover’s memoirs
they comprise about 1500 pages - to be sure it’s a rich life of
ninety years. But if I’m right I think there are only eleven pages
on Iowa. And it’s a basically the chapter he has on Iowa is a rehash
of a speech he gave in 1927 to the Iowa Society in Washington, DC
and its idyllic. You know it’s sliding down Cook’s hill. It’s picking
potato bugs to buy firecrackers. It’s political rallies. It’s fishing
in a stream. You know it’s hanging around his father’s blacksmith
shop. In many ways it doesn’t really reflect the real hardship that
he faced. The real challenge a young boy is going to face first
losing his father and then his mother and then being divided from
his brother and sister. I think is some ways the world of Iowa,
and Iowans were very proud of Herbert Hoover, don’t get me wrong.
And they always invited him back. And he was pleased that he had
unqualified love here in Iowa. But I don’t think that he had that
much of a memory of Iowa. Once he had left Iowa and went to Oregon
his values are shaped by a uncle who one might say applied tough
love. And then more directly I think by Stanford University. I think
if you are looking for the heart and soul of Herbert Hoover you
find him not specifically in Iowa, but you find him at at Stanford.
Where he met his future wife. Granted Lou was born in Iowa and they
always had Iowa roots. Again, don’t get me wrong he was proud of
having come from Iowa and that link with food and Iowa is very important
to him. But he, but his best friends people like Ray Lyman Wilbur,
his brother goes to Stanford. He builds the Hoover Institution Tower
at Stanford. He always spent a week each year at Stanford before
he went to the Bohemian Grove encampment. So Stanford is a vital,
vital part and yet, of course, people from Iowa would invite him
back. And when he had the opportunity to establish a presidential
library in after 1955 he kind of resisted the notion at first. He
had the Tower. He thought well let’s build a museum at Stanford
to go along with my documents. But the people at Iowa said, oh
but of we’ve preserved the cottage where you were born. We’ve built
a reproduction of the blacksmith shop where your father worked.
We but we want to preserve other things here - we have picnic shelters,
won’t you let us build a roadside museum? And so Hoover says, okay.
The museum we have there now would have been one that I think Lou
would have loved because it focuses on Hoover as a person. But I
think Mr. Hoover would have preferred a museum that had focused
on his ideas. And so the idea of his youth in Iowa, although an
historical fact, wasn’t as strong in his memory as I think those
those Stanford years.
talk about the 1928 election. Who was Hoover running against? What
were the political issues at the time? And how/why did Hoover win?
1928 political campaign is interesting because, of course, Hoover
comes as a dark horse. I had mentioned earlier that he wasn’t among
the top ten potential candidates. Somebody like Frank Lowden of
Illinois or the sitting Vice-President, Charles Gates Dawes, might
have been a more logical candidate for president when Coolidge says
he’s he intends not to run. But nobody believed that Coolidge wasn’t
going to run. So lots of candidates were sitting by the side. Hoover
poses the question to Coolidge, if he’s going to run again, and
a typically enigmatic Coolidge doesn’t say yes or no. So really
late in the political process, Coolidge is still talked about as
a viable political candidate. When Coolidge in effect has to fish
or cut bait to use a Hoover analogy. He doesn’t. He cuts bait.
He doesn’t run for reelection and Hoover because he has a kind of
a group of followers and associates who were prepared to in effect
to promote him and sell him if I can use that term as a candidate,
jumps to the front of the pack and wins the nomination on the first
ballot. Lowden and there’s a I’ve forgotten the name of a candidate
in Ohio the first political camp or the first primary that Hoover
enters is Ohio and he’s running against a favorite son. So I believe
he loses, I’m not an expert on the ’28 campaign. But, but again
Hoover’s record of achievement and this film Master of Emergencies
becomes such a compelling story, it’s hard to deny him the nomination.
He was no favorite of Coolidge. Coolidge referred to him as the
wonder boy. What’s the wonder boy doing next? And so there was a
fair amount of animosity I think within the Republican political
establishment to this fellow Hoover whose ideas seem to wander off
the Republican agenda from time to time. Who didn’t have any specific
loyalties to any Republican political machine, what’s he going to
do next? But it it was hard to deny him.
talks about poverty in his inaugural. To what extent does poverty
and income disparity in general play a role in that election and
in Hoover’s whole philosophy about how to approach the presidency?
know one of the interesting things about all the Presidents of the
United States in the 20th century is how many of them
come from small towns. And how many of them come from relatively
impoverished backgrounds. One of the sacred beliefs of the American
political system is that anyone can grow up to be president of the
United Sates. And that coming from a small town is is a wonderful
thing. And the values that you learn from your aunt and your uncle
as well as your parents and your next-door neighbor are to values
to be cherished. And so in the sense that Hoover always pictured
himself as this poor little boy from Iowa who made it big as an
international mining engineer, was sacred to him too. I think preserving
the cottage was important. It was gift really to him from Lou after
the presidency to preserve that little two-room cottage. Because
it underscored how poor his background was. He was no rich kid.
And yet he embraced the Republican principles or principles of the
Republican Party. He wasn’t truly a populist in the manner of the
Democratic Party. He was I think as he defined himself a Teddy Roosevelt
Republican. And Roosevelt had actually been a rich kid. But he loved
the belief of helping others. And that he had come from such an
impoverished background and so understood poverty. When Ding Darling
the cartoonist of the Des Moines Register use to picture Hoover
he was always in a in a pair of overalls, tattered overalls with
just one strap you know hauling wood and what used to irate Franklin
Roosevelt was that Darling always pictured Roosevelt as this little
boy with a peter pan collar and a Lord Fauntleroy suit. So the idea
of electing a rich kid president is something that doesn’t sit well
with the American people. Hoover depicted himself, liked to think
of himself, as a poor kid who was doing the right thing, who made
all this money and was turning to public service.
talk about Hoover’s philosophy of American Individualism. He went
from poor to rich and poor to the presidency of the United States.
Some how he believed that anybody can. I think people today might
dispute that. So why does he think this personal philosophy can
carry over into an American philosophy?
own obviously political philosophy is shaped by this book or is
reflected in this book American Individualism. And it really
in many ways is his personal testimony to what he believes. Now
where that comes from is hard to determine. I mean clearly this
is a young man who was willing to kind of gamble to some extent
– not take the safe route. He could have chosen at college, for
example, to become a geologist, a scientist as opposed to becoming
a mining engineer. He leaves college and the only job he can find
is as a pick and shovel miner and so that’s hardly a a reflection
of what he thought his life was going to be finishing college –
that he was going to be in a mine for a year. But he persists. And
if there’s anything that is I suppose a real reflection of his philosophy
is persistence – persistence, keep at it, keep at it and he takes
a job as a consultant to a mining engineer and that leads to a job
in western Australia and then to China and so forth. And always
willing to take the risk. And so this is a man who clearly, whose
political philosophy is such that if you persist like the fabled
ant that moves the rubber tree plant – that you can reach your goals
or your dreams. The biggest challenge Herbert Hoover faced was in
1914 he had reached all of his personal goals in terms of wealth
and family and achievement. What are you going to do now Bert? You’re
forty years old. And in effect the opportunity to help people in
Belgium really was a major career shift for him. And so in that
sense then it’s the opportunity that opens up. He then applies persistence
in that regard which carries him forward into American politics
and then to the presidency.
philosophy is predicated on opportunity and opportunity is in pretty
short supply by the middle of his presidency so how did this change
him and change the conservative notion?
of the challenges I think every individual faces when prophecy fails
so to speak, when, in fact, the individualism and the small town
commitment that he had hoped for diminishes. Do you abandon the
philosophy and in effect say well I guess the reality that I thought
was going to take hold or to continue is gone or do you cherish
it more? And that’s where in effect this problem of in effect denial
that things were not going well probably does come into to play.
He really did not want to abandon his belief that the American people
could help one another. It was almost in his fiber, in his bone.
And I can’t tell you why he clung to this so dearly in the face
of a greater need to provide food to people and housing to people
who clearly were living in shacks, were eating what what they could.
He was applying everything he felt to the limit of the way he could
do it applying everything he could to help those in need through
indirect means. Mrs. Hoover was in effect sending letters to the
Red Cross to help individual families because she was hearing from
individual families. It’s not that they were heartless or that they
turned their backs on this or saying things will get better systemically.
But in effect he said there’s only so far we can go. That to to
change our philosophy of governance or to change my philosophy of
governance and my philosophy of living is not something I’m prepared
to do even in the face of this economic collapse.
How was it affecting his life? First
of all what changes was he making in how he lived?
Hoover in some ways was isolated in the White House during his presidency.
There was only two state visits – one the Prime Minister of France
and one the King of Siam. He really worked sixteen-hour days. People
thought he was doing nothing but he was something of a prisoner
in the White House – calling people, working with individuals, trying
to in effect work behind the scenes. This is the way he had worked
in Europe; in much of his work at the Commerce Department was behind
the scenes. Let the idea or the program carry itself forward. And
so in many ways the stress level increased. The one time, the times
I should say when he could relax and could get away was to Rapidan
– the cabin and the complex he built near Rapidan in Virginia in
the Shenandoah Mountains. Incidentally he also helped to start
the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Mountains which is now interstate
but that was one of the public works projects. But again he could
relax. He could fish in a stream. He took his grandkids up there.
He took the Prime Minister of Britain. It was unguarded but when
he was back in Washington he was full bore working sixteen-hour
days and it was physically taxing. I think in a way once he knew
that he wasn’t going to be reelected president and he could lay
the burden down. It wasn’t as if he was ready to give up he told
Ted Joslin, who was his Press Secretary toward the very end, I think
it was March 3rd, Ted we’re at the end of our string.
I think he felt exhausted. He felt there was nothing more that he
could do particularly to resolve the bank crisis. I’m sure he was
depressed. I mean I think you would have to be to some extent be
depressed in response to this unprecedented economic collapse and
angry and frustrated with Franklin Roosevelt. Although you won’t
find any words to that effect or any document that says as much.
When you say depressed did he break down?
know every so often we will hear stories of people saying I saw
President Hoover when he visited Harry Truman and he had tears in
his eyes. Or I saw president Hoover I have no evidence of Herbert
Hoover ever crying in public that any one would have seen him other
than Mrs. Hoover or maybe the boys under any circumstances. I have
no, again this reserved quality of Hoover’s in which he kept his
emotions to himself were such that tears or outward emotion of anger
or laughter - there are relatively few pictures of Herbert Hoover
smiling. And that in some ways hurts our ability to try to to drill
down into the individual to say what are your really feeling? Because
we live in a world where it is 24/7 media attention to people’s
private lives. But Hoover had this very private life and he just
didn’t reveal himself. So I don’t, I’m sure that a man who did as
much for people who were starving in Europe and compassionate in
so many other ways through the Boys Club and so forth must have
deeply felt the suffering of others. But you’re hard pressed to
find it in any visual or documentary evidence.
terms of contemporary relevance, as you are describing Hoover –
the 16-hour days, the Depression, the very personalized response
to crisis – it’s President Carter that comes to mind. So maybe you
can talk about that.
often the case that people think of who are the engineers who have
been our presidents and there have been two – Herbert Hoover and
Jimmy Carter. Both served one term as president, both face unprecedented
economic collapses that they seem to be powerless to control. Both
have extraordinarily productive post presidencies around the world
in so many different ways. And so it’s quite logical to link the
two together. Both in some ways were micromanagers. They were very
much active in their administrations. They didn’t delegate authority
well. And yet I’m told that President Carter, I don’t know this
for a fact, but I’m told President Carter doesn’t like the comparison.
There are few men in this world who want to be compared to Herbert
Hoover. And certainly I would imagine that Jimmy Carter is not one
of them. That’s not to say that Jimmy Carter doesn’t appreciate
what Herbert Hoover accomplished certainly as a former president
or maybe even as a certainly as a before he was president. It’s
just that I think each president likes to be judged as himself.
He doesn’t want to be compared to others with the possible exception
it seems that all Republican candidates want to be compared to Abraham
Lincoln and Ronald Reagan and all Democratic presidents want to
be compared to John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. So you
know in most cases these two engineer presidents don’t like to be
linked together. I think if you look at the two presidents though
you can see one commonality and that is they both were outsiders.
They both believed that you could apply a certain amount of of scientific
management principle to the office of president and to leadership.
And that it did not succeed in the sense that politics and being,
having strong political instincts and strong communication skills
seems to be paramount among the credentials you need to be a successful
president. By successful I mean not what you accomplish but by the
image that history seems to accord you.
you mentioned the idea of spin – that if Hoover had been better
about spin he would have been better at pointing out the good things
he had done that the public may not have been aware of and certainly
irony of history is that we look back on any number of administrations
and we say this is a man of courage. We’ve looked back, for example,
on Gerald Ford and at the time he pardoned Richard Nixon people
thought the fix is in, how cowardly, how low. But here it is just
before he dies he wins the Profiles in Courage Award from the Kennedy
Library as doing something that was important for the nation. So
history has a way of mollifying our criticism at the time. And I
think without question people look back on the Carter presidency
and some people, historians certainly, on the Hoover presidency
with with a more subtle approach to the nature of their governance
and leadership. The hostility that Hoover felt, the people in line
shouting we want bread, and the references to him as son-of-a-bitch
Hoover or whatever are generally gone, not completely. There are
people who will still not come to the Hoover Presidential Library
because they blame Herbert Hoover for the suffering in their family.
But for the most part historians look back on Herbert Hoover and
they will say you know a blemished presidency to be sure, but many
important accomplishments and lays the groundwork for much of what
is later accomplished in this country. So it is in part successful.
The public has a very limited notion of Herbert Hoover that’s based
in large part on what they learned in the 11th grade.
And they judge Hoover based on contemporary standards of presidential
intervention. Why didn’t he do more? Why wouldn’t he give direct
aid in the manner that we give through social security? We judge
Hoover and find him wanting because he isn’t a mini version of Franklin
Roosevelt. Rather than saying in effect, wait a minute, no one individual
Democrat or Republican and, in fact, if you look at the ’28 campaign
and you look at Al Smith’s programs versus Herbert Hoover’s programs
they’re very similar. I mean and, in fact, in 1932 when Franklin
Roosevelt runs against Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt says he’s going
to balance the budget. Hoover is a spendthrift spending too much
money on those public works projects. Roosevelt’s going to balance
the budget. Well of course that was about as far from the truth
when we got to it as as you can imagine. So in point of fact philosophy
versus circumstance it’s a difficult mix.
comes out of the Hoover presidency, talking about foundational things
that do continue, that we might look back on today and say I had
no idea that originates with Hoover? Radio is certainly a big thing.
you look back on the Hoover presidency and you want to say well
this is a difficult time what sort of accomplishment, what bright
moments are there in the Hoover administration that anyone that
says well you know maybe I should take another look. Well let’s
look at some of the institutions that Hoover established during
his time in office. Very few people remember that The Veterans Administration
was established during the Hoover Administration. Very few people
realize that the beginning of the St. Lawrence Seaway the canal
that allows us to get products all the way to Chicago by ship started
in the Hoover Administration. People forget that the Golden Gate
Bridge started in the Hoover Administration. People forget that
the Federal Triangle in downtown Washington, DC, the Justice Department
and so forth started in the Hoover Administration. Very few people
realize that the school lunch program was started by actually a
private nonprofit program started by Herbert Hoover. That the National
Institutes of Health, the people who protect us against disease,
was started as legislation a collaboration between the Congress
and the president and the legislation was signed by Herbert Hoover.
Heck even the Star Spangled Banner was made our national anthem
during the Hoover Administration. And the Purple Heart was made,
reinvigorated as the medal given to soldiers wounded in battle in
the Hoover Administration. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation,
which helped industry. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which continues
to this day, started in the Hoover Administration. So there’s an
enormous list particularly in the first two years of the Hoover
years Hoover Administration that he could point to in pride. But
they’re caught up in this enormous tidal wave of economic need and
suffering that we call The Great Depression that continues on from
1929 really until 1941 until we enter Word War II. And what people
forget is that in 1945 economists were predicting that we were going
to go back into depression. So the the enormity of the Depression
has casts its shadow along with Roosevelt’s success cast a shadow
on any positive assessment of the Hoover presidency.
Why does he decide to run again in 1932?
decides to run again in ’32 because he felt that he was on the right
path. Yes times were hard but he had an unqualified belief that
the programs and ideas that he was championing were going to work.
And to some extent that was true. What he didn’t realize was how
impatient the American people were. I think he felt that in effect
there was a sizeable number of people who accepted what he had to
say. Keep in mind he still won 40% of the popular vote in the 1932
campaign. Yes he lost in the greatest landslide. He had won in the
greatest landslide I think up until that time and lost in the greatest
landslide the following term, but at the time he felt that the people
would stick with him, stick with Hoover. And of course he’s listening
to those people who are around him who are positive in his support.
So to some extent being in the White House he’s not necessarily
hearing or seeing the kind of suffering that might have caused him
to to have doubt. But he’s not a man who had self doubt or at least
we have no way to document that self doubt if he had it he kept
it in his heart.
What does America look like in 1932?
in 1932 is hurting there’s no question about a third of our workforce
is out of work, 11 million people I think. And they’re suffering
and it’s people who in many ways are suffering not just economically
but almost spiritually in the sense that there’s a crisis of confidence.
There are many, many people, many reasonable people Nicholas Murray
Butler who had been given the Nobel Peace Prize, as I recall, the
President of Columbia University, who says in effect democracy is
at an end. And this is causing chills up the spine of the American
body politic. So what you have is a crisis of confidence. You have
a lack of confidence in this man in the White House. Who in spite
of the fact that he’s using the radio. He used the radio almost
as many times as Franklin Roosevelt – he used nearly 100 times,
a 100 speeches during the time he was president, that is Hoover.
He couldn’t convince the American people that they were on the right
track with the right person. He spoke in a flat kind of a monotone
voice. He tend when he gave speeches to kind of bounce on the soles
of his feet as if he wanted to be someplace else. Whereas Roosevelt
had the wonderful tone to his voice so by comparison in the ’32
campaign Hoover’s giving these rather rushed speeches. In fact it’s
only after Franklin Roosevelt decides to tour the country in a train
that Hoover late in the campaign after Labor Day begins to tour
the country delivering speeches. So he’s a defensive president at
that point and he just didn’t want to believe that the American
people would abandon the man who had saved Europe. He felt he had
earned the right to a second term. I think he would say it I again
I have no documentation from him saying this is why I would why
he wanted to run a second time or why he felt he could carry forward.
this time did Hoover have a false perception of who he was, believing
that the American people would not abandon him; was he out of touch
with the American public at that point?
know it, when one is President of the United States, when one is
living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and you’re living off of your
own economic means and the result of your hard work, you are not
getting the opportunity to get out of Washington. You’re not touring
the kind of slums and so forth. To some extent yes he is isolated.
But I would argue that virtually every President of the United States
is to some extent isolated, that to, yes, they’re surrounded by
people who tend to agree with them, that there is an absence of
negative criticism that get’s into the White House. I think also
without question that Hoover felt he was doing his very best. And
he didn’t like criticism so he probably avoided it. And so yes to
to some extent there is an isolation that prevents you from seeing
what is actually happening. But there is also an omniscience. I
don’t think Franklin Roosevelt understood how much suffering was
going on in ’32. He saw it as a political opportunity and a political
advantage but I don’t think that he had personal experience in seeing
the suffering. He was blessed to some extent with the political
philosophy of his wife who was eager to travel the country and see
what was happening and would regularly report to her husband. And
it’s not that Lou didn’t show compassion, she did. In many ways
she was an extraordinary First Lady. And she did provide food relief
through the American Red Cross. But she was not as active or travels
as much as as Eleanor Roosevelt.
In that ’32 election what stands out
for you in both the Hoover and Roosevelt campaign?
think the most amazing thing about the ’32 campaign is when there
was discussion and this is documented in part in Ted Joslin’s diary,
when there was discussion about who Hoover would run against in
1932, he wanted to run against Franklin Roosevelt because he felt
that Roosevelt wasn’t particularly intellectually engaging. He wasn’t
even sure that Roosevelt was healthy enough to run for president
of the United States. He felt that Newton Baker would be a stronger
candidate, a more difficult candidate to run against. So to some
extent clearly Hoover was out of touch with what was going on in
the Democratic Party. I don’t think Hoover realized that the press
would cooperate in not telling the American people about Franklin
Roosevelt’s disability, that he was a paraplegic. That in effect
the press would only show Roosevelt standing or kind of game fully
walking by using crutches and the arm of his son Jimmy. Or that
Franklin Roosevelt would engage in such a vigorous campaign in ’32.
You know in spite of his paraplegia Roosevelt flew to the Democratic
National Convention to accept the nomination in person – a first.
He traveled the country by train. He seemed vigorous. So clearly
that’s a surprise for a man who I think often understood his enemies
or understood his rivals I should say. I think Herbert Hoover underestimated
Franklin Roosevelt and his ability as a political candidate. I think
the Bonus March remains a political enigma for me. Why Hoover would
have accepted the blame during a time where he politically was weak
during the campaign would accept this debacle, and accept responsibility
for it, I still don’t understand that to this day? What still surprises
me to this day, not so much about the ’32 campaign, but in general
about Hoover’s reputation is the fact that his reputation continues
to be mired in the lower ranks if you assess presidents in a linear
fashion as from best to worst. That people implicitly and historians
implicitly have not forgiven him for not doing more during the Depression.
When they know intellectually that it wasn’t, that he didn’t have
the ability to do more. So those are some of the things that surprise
me. I suppose what disappoints me most about the Hoover presidency
is the inability of Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover to build
a rapprochement after the election. I think it was inevitable that
Roosevelt was going to be the next President of the United States
but the country was truly hurting after the election but before
the inauguration in March. And Hoover reached out to Roosevelt on
several occasions to come to the White House to build a common response
to the Depression. And Roosevelt refused. I mean he felt politically
it was not wise to do that he would be tarnished with the Hoover
policies. And he probably was right politically but was wrong in
terms of what was best for the public welfare. And so that’s a surprise
and a disappointment to me that Roosevelt wouldn’t respond and I
think that it lead to the anger and animosity that Hoover always
had for Roosevelt after that fact. Hoover would not come back to
Washington if FDR was in town. If Roosevelt had gone to Warm Springs
or gone up to Hyde Park Hoover would come to to Washington. But
he he just wouldn’t, he wouldn’t respond to that man.
didn’t know that – the idea of Hoover reaching out to Roosevelt.
You do read or hear a lot about Hoover’s outspoken, cranky attitude
towards Roosevelt; perhaps you can talk about that.
I mean I think after Hoover leaves Washington in March of ’33 he
becomes somewhat bitter obviously about the way he felt he was treated
by the Roosevelt team, by the kind of negative political campaigning
alluded to by Charlie Michelson and the fact that the Democrats
had used Hoover as a foil. So he becomes bitter and it begins, becomes
an opponent of the New Deal and he doesn’t trust Roosevelt. He
doesn’t trust the Democrats in Washington and what they’re doing.
And he begins to write about it in his book Challenge to Liberty.
But even efforts later, much later, 1939 Roosevelt wants to bring
Hoover back into the government to help with the the needs of Europe
during the times where Europe is at war in late ’39, we’re neutral.
Hoover will have none of it. Norman Davies the head of the American
Red Cross comes to Hoover as an emissary from Roosevelt trying to
bring him back into government. Hoover will have none of it. The
Red Cross can, does this. Why? He doesn’t trust Roosevelt. The same
is true quite frankly of even efforts to invite Hoover to social
functions. We have at least two invitations in the Hoover Papers
to return to social functions at the Roosevelt White House. Hoover
declines both. Declined it says in his bold pencil handwriting on
the card. When Sara Delano, President Roosevelt’s mother dies, Hoover
doesn’t send a letter of condolence to Franklin Roosevelt. He sends
a letter of condolence to Eleanor Roosevelt. And when Lou Henry
Hoover dies and Hoover gets a telegram from President Roosevelt
– a telegram of condolence. Hoover doesn’t respond. He does get
a letter, a personal letter from Eleanor Roosevelt and he responds
to that. But he does not respond to the President. After the two
men part on March 4. 1933, Inauguration Day there is no evidence
of any communication between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And these were two men who were colleagues in the Wilson Administration.
These are two men who worked together during the Commerce years
when Franklin Roosevelt was head of the American Construction Council
and Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce. They’re kind of co-parents
of the two-by-four because housing construction standards were fostered
by these two organizations. They weren’t pals but they were colleagues
and after ’33, no communication at all.
What did Roosevelt do that made Hoover
know it’s one of the interesting issues that one has to deal with
is obviously Herbert Hoover’s continued animosity toward Franklin
Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s refusal to come back to the White House after
the election to help Hoover deal with the bank crisis and other
challenges of the Depression, which so angered Herbert Hoover. One
would assume that Hoover would you know get over it, if it was a
political response, but there’s something deeper there that I can’t
quite fathom, that touched Hoover. And I suppose it was his belief
that the American people were suffering and that Franklin Roosevelt
was using politics for personal gain at that time. Because I contrast
that with the way Harry Truman treated Herbert Hoover in 1948. Truman’s
back is against the wall. He’s running for re-election and running
hard against Tom Dewey. And actually he’s using Herbert Hoover as
his foil. Well Hoover doesn’t like it but after Truman wins re-election
Hoover continues to work with Truman. He sets aside the political
decisions that Harry Truman made to continue to work with Harry
Truman. He couldn’t set aside FDR’s political decisions in 32 and
’33 and just refused to meet with the man. And it began it really
defined his life in the 1930s as an opponent of the New Deal.
talk to Hoover’s post-presidency and his legacy.
propels Herbert Hoover to seek the presidency or think that he can
become a significant president and in effect what allowed the American
people to embrace him and in part it’s built on his reputation as
this extraordinary individual who seems to emerge out of an engineering
career in 1914 to take an enormously important role feeding the
people of Belgium. He really establishes the first international
NGO, non-governmental organization for humanitarian relief. I mean
what most people don’t realize is before World War 1 there weren’t
international organizations doing this sort of thing. He’s invited
by Walter Hines Page the U.S. Ambassador to help the people of Belgium
and northern France, which he does. This propels him into a job
as Head of the U.S. Food Administration working for Woodrow Wilson
in a Democratic administration. Mind you at this point Hoover has
never, he’s now 45 years old, he has not voted in a national election.
So he, nobody knows what his political philosophy is and interestingly
enough in 1920 Walter Lippmann the great columnist said that only
Herbert Hoover among all of the major figures in World War 1, only
Herbert Hoover emerges from the war with his reputation enhanced.
In 1920 both parties seek Herbert Hoover as a potential nominee
for the office of President of the United States. In fact, interestingly
enough, we’ve talked about the relationship between Franklin D.
Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. And we talk some times about counterfactual
history or what might have been, if only. Well in 1920 I believe
it was in March before the election Franklin Roosevelt goes to the
home of Herbert Hoover on S Street and tries to convince him to
declare himself a Democrat. And at that point Roosevelt says he
will run Hoover’s campaign for president because he thinks so highly
of this man Hoover. So interestingly enough had Roosevelt succeeded
and Hoover ran for president in 1920 you’d have a completely different
political structure today because Hoover would have been president
from 1920 on. There was no question he wasn’t going to get the nomination.
The Republican Party didn’t know who this fella Hoover was. Wasn’t
going to trust him and so forth. But it made Hoover begin to think
and it’s all a direct result of this compassionate relief that he
showed for the people of Belgium and northern France and then later
on as the Head of the U.S. Food Administration. We tell the kids
he became so well known in America that his last name becomes a
verb -to “hooverize” meaning to help find food for people in need.
And so he becomes well known around the world and particularly in
the United States and that propels him into to the role of Secretary
of Commerce and doing so much to make life better for the American
people. So the presidency was a logical next step for a man who
believed that he wanted to spend the rest of his life helping people.
other bookend Herbert Hoover leaves office in Washington as President
Reject as Time Magazine called him. What is this man who is about
58 years old, doesn’t know how much longer he has to live, what
is he going to do to be meaningful? So this is a man who builds
triumph out of tragedy. He turns to social causes like the American
Red Cross, The Boy’s Club, other organizations. He begins to write
books. So he remains a Republican. He remains an active opponent
of the New Deal. But he also turns to voluntary social causes. And
then what changes his life once again, interestingly enough, what
ends his sort of isolation from Washington is the passing of Franklin
D. Roosevelt on April 12th of 1945. Now as I said Roosevelt
dies in April by the end of May Herbert Hoover is back in the White
House at the invitation of Harry Truman. The relationship between
Hoover and Truman is an interesting one because, although they are
the first two presidents born west of the Mississippi River, and
both really forged on the anvil of World War 1, they were as different
politically as one could imagine. Hoover eschewed politics, whereas
Truman embraced politics. And yet the two men needed one another
because they lived in the shadow of FDR. Truman needed Hoover to
come back to the White House to give him a certain measure of political
cover in the years after World War II to help feed Europe. Hoover
was eager to come back in a useful role, a presidential role, a
high visibility role, and they agree that he is going to become
Honorary Chairman of The President’s Famine Emergency Committee.
So there’s no question this is President Truman’s committee but
the Chairman is Herbert Hoover. And he travels to 35 different countries
on an unpressurized DC 3 airplane. It blows out his eardrums. The
plane was called the Faithful Cow. He travels all over the world.
He begins to find food to feed people. It really in many ways is
the beginning of the Marshall Plan. It is the beginning of the salvation
of Europe. And both Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman share in that
credit. They turned then to reorganizing the Executive Branch of
government with Truman agreeing Hoover would chair a bipartisan
commission. Dean Acheson more of a partisan than Truman in this
case, Dean Acheson is Vice-Chair. Hoover is the Chair and they basically
come up with a blueprint to reorganize the Executive Branch of government
that we live with to this day. The Defense Department is the result
of recommendations of the Hoover Commission. Health and Human Services
a direct result of the Hoover Commission. So this man who as he
ages begins to define a useful role for former Presidents of the
United States that really continues to this day. Presidents like
President Carter and President Bush, President Clinton all owe a
debt of gratitude to Herbert Hoover who in effect said just because
you’ve been voted out of office, or just because you’ve completed
the end of your second term, doesn’t mean you can’t be a useful
counselor to the Republic. And that’s really what Hoover became
after he was President of the United States.
Can you speak more about Black Tuesday
also the Smoot Hawley Tariff?
of the interesting sidelights about October of 1929 that come to
mind, of course, I mean it was an extraordinary day to say the least.
One hotel clerk at the time when one stressed out person came in
to check into a room, the clerk asked if it was for sleeping or
jumping. So many people were committing suicide on that day. It
was a horrible, horrible day. People saw their fortunes vanish.
So in that sense the crisis was extraordinary. But I don’t think
that anyone believed at the time it was that serious. Smoot Hawley
- Hoover I’m told reluctantly signed the Smoot Hawley Tariff, which
exacerbated the Great Depression. I don’t think, I mean, people
have to remember it did pass Congress. I mean it was in fact a majority
that that did pass the Smoot Hawley Tariff. And, of course, it was
signed by Hoover so Hoover gets often blamed for it. But it was
a collaborative effort between the President and the Congress.
do you think makes Hoover relevant today? Why is it important that
this film be done now in the context of crises that exist today?
think that what makes this film important or what makes Hoover’s
life matter is that it does show that life doesn’t always give you
an unqualified measure of success. That periodically we are all
forced to address circumstances well beyond our control. So that
it isn’t necessarily that one points to the Hoover presidency as
you know an unfortunate crisis. But how does Hoover respond to the
crisis? And in for each of us when we face these personal conflicts
how do we respond? Hoover rebuilt a very useful live after the presidency.
He served a very useful role before the presidency. It does show
how important politics is in the political process. That if you
avoid being political focusing more on public service as Hoover
said he did that you find yourself often facing a dilemma. So that
politics and the ability to communicate directly with the American
people, to again, tell them what you’re going to do, follow through
on your promises, and explain to them why it was important for you
to have done that and to some extent take credit for it. Don’t presume
that the American people understand all that you’ve done or are
doing on their behalf.
do you think most Americans don’t have a very favorable impression
of Hoover? And what do you wish people would understand about Hoover?
suppose if one was to look at the life of Herbert Hoover I would
hope that they would look beyond just the four years as President
and take the life as a whole. Which is not typically the way American
people look at their presidents. They judge an entire life based
on the time that the individual serves at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And I think that’s unfortunate because those aren’t the four best
years of Hoover’s life or the most significant achievement that
he made in world history. The fact that one person can make a difference.
That he along with other people like Henry Wallace and Norman Borlaug
saved the lives of billions of people is to be acknowledged. Attention
must be paid. The fact that he was President is important. The fact
that he found a crisis of leadership is something to be acknowledged
and recognized as something less than the success he might want
to have achieved. And other in other times, in another decade or
in a different order his presidency would have been completely different.
But he made a difference in the lives of so many other people and
that’s why Herbert Hoover is still revered in places like Brussels
and Helsinki and Warsaw but not in New York and Chicago and Los
Angeles. Ironical is it that in his own own country he’s revered
to some extent in Iowa because he’s Iowa’s only president, but the
rest of the country either doesn’t know who he is or remembers him
as the man who was responsible for having taken away Great-Grandpa’s
farm. And that that’s a tragedy. That’s unfair to, not only to him
personally but it’s unfair to history because it doesn’t carry the
nuance and the nature of who this man was.
What do you think Hoover’s legacy should
Hoover’s legacy is one person can make a difference and no matter
what you face in terms of adversity you can overcome it. Those two
messages come forth clear. And we tell students who come through
the Hoover Library look at all that this man who came from this
little cabin accomplished. It’s not all roses. There were hard times
there and you can see it in the presidency and certainly in his
response to the Depression and the life he had to live after the
Depression in terms of public repute. But he did not withdraw. He
refused to slink away and he made a difference. And all of us are
going to face adversity and all of us can recover from it. And that’s
what the life and the message of Herbert Hoover is.
What makes the state of Iowa such a Petri
dish for American politics?
is it about Iowa that makes it sort of a Petri dish for American
politics? Well I’d sure like to know that answer to that question.
I think one of the things that underscores or is woven through Iowa
culture is this willingness and ability to communicate with one
another and to share ideas without recrimination or reproach. And
I think the New Hampshire town hall, like the Iowa caucus, is evidence
of the ability of people to come together and solve common problems
together. And whether that’s the rocky granite of New Hampshire
or whether it’s the rolling farm fields of Iowa, these two states
seem to have resonated well. Now there are those who will say well
we are not representative in terms of the population. On the other
hand it seems that at least in these rare moments, these months
before the beginning of the the silly season – the political season,
that people are willing to listen to Iowa and New Hampshire. And
we’re pleased to have them listen. We’re pleased to have them come
and visit. We’re pleased to have them participate.
Did Roosevelt visit Hoover in the White
House after the election?
relationship between Herbert Hoover and FDR, which is endlessly
fascinating - we’ve, the Hoover Library did a book on it. And, in
fact, Jonathan Alter has a wonderful new book on the first days
of the Hoover Administration that talks a little about the Hoover
Roosevelt relationship. After the election Franklin Roosevelt did
visit the White House on I think actually two times between I think
once in November and maybe once in December to kind of both plan
for the transition and but also to talk about common economic issues
that needed to be addressed. That moratorium, for example, the World
War I nations still owed the United States money. And we were going
to have a moratorium on the debt payments and so forth, but as the
crisis worsened, the economic crisis, leading to the bank crisis
of ’33, Hoover wanted Roosevelt to come back and and that’s when
in effect I think Roosevelt’s people begin to advise him hands off.
The there’ll be time enough after March 4th was the response
that Hoover got and that’s the the source of the bitterness. Is
the unwillingness to take those the two meetings and build a stronger
bond in those weeks just before the Inauguration.
Is there anything you want to add?
don’t want to say that I’m a partisan voice but I think the presumption
would be that you know to some extent the Director of the Hoover
Library is going to be a champion of Herbert Hoover. But I think
you’ll get some, actually what I think you’re going to hear from
a lot of the others are many of the things that I’ve said.