Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

March, 2016

Dr. Alister Chapman
Professor of History, Westmont

Hoover the Hero?

Sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Herbert Hoover must have felt that way. Less than eight months after his inauguration as President of the United States, the Wall Street Crash pushed the country into the worst economic crisis in its history. Hoover’s inability to lead a convincing recovery has ensured that the thirty-first president ranks among the most disappointing.

Most people, however, know little about Hoover’s extraordinary career before he moved into the White House. On the basis of that record, he should be considered one of the most impressive and admirable American leaders of the twentieth century.

A Stanford graduate, by his thirties Hoover had built a global mining business. He was at his London office when the First World War broke out in 1914, and took on the responsibility of getting more than 100,000 American citizens out of Europe.

Hoover then turned his talents to alleviating the suffering caused by the war. He began in occupied Belgium, negotiating with the Germans to allow food relief through. After the war, he headed up the American Relief Administration, which used government and private money to feed millions in Central and Eastern Europe. When Russia’s Communist Revolution led to civil war and famine, Hoover’s organization fed up to ten million Russians a day. This was the world’s first major international humanitarian relief effort.

In the U.S., too, Hoover built a reputation as an administrative mastermind. When the Mississippi burst its banks in 1927, residents of the affected states asked the federal government for Hoover to oversee the response.

Hoover was therefore just the right man, it seemed, when downturn turned to Depression in 1929. But this was a challenge of an entirely new magnitude. Often portrayed as sitting on his hands, Hoover fought the slump actively and innovatively. He provided federal loans to stimulate investment in industry, he stabilized the rural economy, and he put more government money into public works than anyone before him (the Hoover Dam is just one example). Roosevelt built on these initiatives, with mixed success. In the end, it was only when the Second World War led to increased demand for American manufactured goods that America climbed out of the Depression. Hoover may have done too little, but he arguably did more to fight want than any president before him had done or would have done.

History may not have been kind to Hoover, but some Europeans still remember his kindness. There are squares named after him in Belgian and Polish towns. Thousands of children wrote thank-you notes, many of which survive in the archives of the Hoover Institute at Stanford. “We are among the thousands of children,” wrote one, “in a Europe soaked with blood, children who were miserable orphans during a war in which all of Europe became a killing field, when everyone waited for death. Only with your help were we saved from death.”

Herbert Hoover reminds us that one’s reputation and one’s legacy can often be very different.