Herbert Hoover: Life in Brief

Herbert Hoover: Life in Brief

Upon accepting the Republican nomination for President in 1928, Herbert Hoover predicted that "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us." Hoover won the presidency that year, but his time in office belied his optimistic assertion. Within eight months of his inauguration, the stock market crashed, signifying the beginning of the Great Depression, the most severe economic crisis the United States had ever known. Rightly or wrongly, Hoover's efforts to combat the Great Depression have defined his presidency and his place in American history.

Born in 1874 into a Quaker family in rural Iowa, Hoover was orphaned by the age of nine. Determined to go to the newly established Stanford University in California, Hoover worked hard to improve his mediocre grades. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in geology, Hoover became a mining engineer, traveling the world to evaluate prospective mines for potential purchase. He married the brilliant Lou Henry, the only female geology student at Stanford. Lou Hoover quickly mastered eight languages in their travels; later, she and the President would often speak Mandarin when they wanted to avoid being overheard by the White House staff. By 1914, Hoover was a millionaire, securing his wealth from high-salaried positions, his ownership of profitable Burmese silver mines, and royalties from writing the leading textbook on mining engineering.

Skilled Administrator

World War I brought Hoover to prominence in American politics and thrust him into the international spotlight. In addition to running the U.S. Food Administration, which allocated America's food resources during the conflict, Hoover organized and administered several private relief efforts before, during, and after the war. He thus became an important war-time adviser to President Woodrow Wilson even though he was a Republican. Wilson, in turn, made Hoover part of the American delegation to the Versailles peace conference that concluded the war.

During the 1920s, Hoover rose steadily in Republican politics, serving with great ability and distinction in the Harding and Coolidge administrations as secretary of commerce. Owing to his record and an effective public relations effort by his supporters, Hoover was the most prominent Republican in the United States when President Calvin Coolidge announced, in August 1927, that he would not seek another term.

Hoover easily won the 1928 Republican nomination for President. His platform rejected farm subsidies, supported prohibition, pledged lower taxes, and promised more of the same prosperity Americans had enjoyed during the Coolidge years. Hoover's opponent in the presidential race would be Democrat Al Smith of New York, a Catholic who railed against Prohibition. Smith was a distinct underdog, however. His religion and his anti-prohibition position alienated many southern Democrats, a key constituency in the party. Hoover, on the other hand, was an extremely attractive candidate, the man who would help Americans attain new levels of prosperity—or, as a 1928 Republican slogan claimed, put "a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage." On election day, Hoover won an overwhelming victory, claiming more than 58 percent of the vote.

Hoover and the Great Depression

Hoover came into the presidency as one of the foremost proponents of public-private cooperation—what was termed "volunterism"-- to maintain a high-growth economy. Volunterism was not premised on governmental coercion or intervention, which Hoover feared would destroy precious American ideals like individualism and self-reliance, but on cooperation among individuals and groups. Hoover did not reject government regulation out of hand, however; in fact, he supported regulating industries such as radio broadcasting and aviation that he believed served the public good. But he preferred a voluntary, non-governmental approach to economic matters, the better, he reasoned, to protect what he called the "American character."The economic crisis that struck the United States in the late 1920s was all- encompassing, however. Having both domestic and international causes and effects, the Depression afflicted almost every sector of the American economy (although some more severely than others), revealing serious structural weaknesses that resulted in high unemployment, low economic growth, and financial instability. Most important, the Depression sapped the American people's confidence and will.

The Great Depression was a stern test for Hoover's approach and one that proved too difficult to manage. His voluntarist-inspired persuasion and programs failed to stimulate the consumption and production needed to jump-start the economy. Some policies, like the Hawley-Smoot Tariff bill that Hoover signed, retarded growth and recovery by raising tariffs (especially on agricultural products) and stifling international trade. His Agricultural Marketing Act had little impact on the prospects of American farmers.

Hoover eventually did support some interventionist government programs aimed at combating the Depression. Though undersized, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation used federal money in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to stabilize the nation's banking and financial sector. The RFC was also aimed at corporations rather than at the growing ranks of the suffering poor, a policy that reflected Hoover's own beliefs. Fearing that government aid would breed a sense of dependence among the poor, Hoover largely refused to extend such assistance to millions of the nation's unemployed and hungry who were overwhelming private relief agencies.

In the public eye, Hoover seemed uncaring, unwilling to admit that people were starving and that his ideas were failing. He lost significant public support in the summer of 1932 when General Douglas MacArthur— in defiance of Hoover's orders—removed the World War I veterans (known as Bonus Marchers) who had massed peacefully in Washington, D.C., to petition Congress for early receipt of their veterans bonuses. MacArthur was brutal in his treatment of the marchers, using cavalry, tanks, and bayonet-bearing soldiers. In the riot that followed, U.S. troops clubbed women and children, tear-gassed the marchers, burned their shacks, and forcibly drove them across the Potomac River.


Hoover ran for reelection in 1932, anxious to prove that his policies could still ameliorate the economic crisis. Americans, though, rallied around Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "New Deal," with its vague promises of a "crusade to restore America to its own people." Roosevelt won the contest handily, ushering in decades of Democratic dominance in presidential elections. Hoover left the White House in disgrace, having incurred the public's wrath for failing to lift the nation out of the Great Depression.

Hoover in Perspective

Hoover's reputation has risen over the years. He is no longer blamed for causing the Depression; instead, scholars note that Hoover's efforts to combat its effects were extraordinary when compared to federal anti-depression measures invoked during previous economic crises. These efforts, moreover, flowed logically from the President's unique brand of social, economic, and political progressivism. Nonetheless, the nation's economy continued to sink during the Hoover presidency. With the public losing confidence in the President's abilities, leadership, and policies, Hoover paid the ultimate political price for these failures in November 1932.