A decade after he was turned out of office by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 31st president, Herbert Hoover, paused to take stock of the nation and its place in the world.
It was the early 1940s. Political centralization was on the rise in the United States, with a corresponding loss of personal freedom. And within a single generation, a second world war was raging, the culmination of many years of political failure and diplomacy based upon wishful thinking, naivete and seemingly willful stupidity by the West’s best and brightest minds. On the domestic front and in the area of foreign policy, voices of realism, experience and reason were systematically ignored or belittled by the attuned intelligentsia. Deeply troubled as he looked back upon this turn of events, Hoover began writing what he called his magnum opus.
He secretly worked on this ever-lengthening volume on and off for the rest of his life. Upon his death in 1964, there existed archive boxes full of drafts and notes for the work. The scope of the untitled book now covered not only the events leading up to World War II and its progress, but the Cold War as well. In the 20 years after Hoover began writing it, Americans saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a superpower, the rise of communism in China and the steady growth of bureaucracy and statism on these shores. “The purpose of this memoir,” he wrote at the outset, “is to analyze step-by-step when, where, how, and by whom we were plunged into the Second and Third World Wars, with the resulting betrayals of freedom.”
The book remained unpublished until now. Having sifted, organized and edited its contents for many years, distinguished historian and Hoover authority George H. Nash has now edited and published a polished edition of the work.
The result - a remarkably well-researched, heavily footnoted revisionist history - seems destined to become one of the key historical documents of the mid-20th century, challenging many long-accepted interpretations of events. It is strongly to the credit of Mr. Nash that he has persevered to craft this work, knowing that he worked with a daunting disadvantage looming over him.
For Mr. Nash well knows that for many people today, conditioned by simplistic presentations of American history, Herbert Hoover will forever be seen as a failure: the chief executive whose policies allowed the nation to drift into the outer rings of the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929. Then, turned out of office in 1932, he sulked throughout the inauguration of his successor - or so the story goes. In light of that, could Hoover's magnum opus be anything other than a bowl of sour grapes?
Hoover himself seems to have anticipated this reaction. Using his unique position as a respected world statesman and former president, he consulted the papers and reports of historians and individuals within high places in the American military and government, letting the experts do much of the talking throughout. “Freedom Betrayed” is thus permeated with key quotations by other players in a cast of giants, supported by reasonable context and interspersed with Hoover's own words. The result is a work in which the men who were present in Washington and many other meeting venues speak for themselves, indicating the precise particulars that influenced this or that course of political or military action.
We see firsthand what led to the debacle at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the theft of America’s atomic secrets and the transferal of that information to the Soviets, the division of Europe into two bristling armed camps for many years, and much else besides. The reader is confronted by a sometimes-startling portrait of world diplomacy during the mid-20th century, one that may result in the rethinking of some historical assumptions. But then, as one distinguished American military leader once wrote, “the history of the world is a record of judgments reversed.” Or as Hoover himself asserts, “The aim of this memoir will be fulfilled if historical truth is better established, and if the lessons to be learned from the millions who died because of lost statesmanship are not forgotten.”
Hoover's history surely reveals the truth of a claim he makes of the 20th century’s crucial middle decades: “I believe that throughout this period,” he writes, “the fate of mankind has been determined less by military action than by the decisions of political leaders.” Those political decisions were made not by philosopher-kings or demigods, but by flawed human beings who were subject to the same temptations to self-aggrandizement, personal advancement, garden-variety blame-shifting, expediency, hopefulness against hope and other motives as any other man or woman of their era. It is their stories that are so fascinating in “Freedom Betrayed.”
• James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books, 1999).