THE LIFE OF HERBERT HOOVER: FIGHTING QUAKER, 1928-1933
By Glen Jeansonne
Palgrave Macmillan, $60, 539 pages
For years, many accepted the thesis that Herbert Hoover was the worst president of the 20th century and justly deserved the reputation of tipping the United States into the Great Depression. Moreover, the line went, he did nothing to set things right thereafter.
The fact is, most "conventional wisdom" about Hoover, both taught in college classrooms and coming through "historians," is flat-out wrong. Such is the inescapable conclusion one must draw after reading Wisconsin academician Glen Jeansonne's richly detailed account of the Hoover presidency, 1929-1933.
When "Bert" Hoover won the White House in 1928, the orphan boy from Iowa was one of the more popular men in America. He had overcome financial adversity to earn a huge fortune as a mining engineer. He ran hunger programs in Europe and the Soviet Union after World War I. As secretary of commerce, he directed relief in the Mississippi Valley when floods in 1927 left 700,000 people homeless. He won the presidency with 58.1 percent of the vote, carrying 40 states, "one of the most lopsided victories in American history up to that time." The Republicans had large numerical leads in both the Senate and House.
Unfortunately, Hoover took office just as the economic boom of the 1920s lost steam. Foremost among the victims were farmers, who had increased output during the war to sell to Europe. The heart of the problem was continued overproduction "and the resistance of farmers themselves to controlling it." Instead, they wanted the government to set prices or give them some form of direct cash payments. Farm bankruptcies surged. Foolish market speculation shook the financial world.
As Hoover struggled to find feasible long-term solutions, he fought opposition not only among Democrats but also within the GOP, notably the so-called "progressives" from small states who were bent on protecting their rural constituents.
An even larger factor was a vigorous Democratic propaganda machine, funded by financier John J. Raskob, the party's national chairman, and crafted by hatchet-man journalist Charles S. Michelson, the publicity manager. Lacking a program of their own, the Democrats set about demonizing Hoover as responsible for the country's economic woes.
Using what Mr. Jeansonne termed "scathing invective" and "scurrilous venom," Michelson was to "skewer Hoover personally for all four years of his administration, a job he relished. Michelson ghosted speeches for senators, representatives and other public figures, which they lip-synced." Thus became "the process of cementing Hoover's place in history as an inept, uncaring president." (Mr. Jeansonne correctly writes that Michelson's boasting memoir, "The Ghost Talks," "could have served as a primer for Machiavelli.")
But how much responsibility did Hoover actually bear? Here is where university professors -- plus uncountable historians -- have led students astray for six decades. Prominent in their indictment of Hoover is the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, blamed for accelerating the Depression by increasing import duties. As Mr. Jeansonne observes, "Making tariffs is a messy business, less akin to surgical precision than to hog butchering, with congressmen hovering like vultures to pick up road kill for their districts."
Hoover's aim was a moderate revision -- that tariffs be levied based on what it cost to manufacture any specific item domestically and overseas. But the putative progressives -- acting in the name of their farmers -- created a nightmare of a bill, with 1,253 amendments added in the Senate alone.
Mr. Jeansonne argues that Smoot-Hawley "did not cause the crash or the Depression because the crash had occurred before its enactment and the economy was already spiraling downward by the time it was law. More than 40 nations had already increased tariffs before it became law, so it did not initiate trade wars."
Contrary to Democratic mythology, Hoover indeed sought a number of relief programs to help individuals, drawing upon his vast experience in relief operations. In 1931, he proposed a Public Works Administration to nationalize public construction under a single agency. Congressional Democrats gleefully added pork-barrel provisions they knew would be vetoed, killing the measure.
Hoover also suffered from a lack of regulatory authority over banks, which then were under state jurisdiction, and such institutions as the New York Stock Exchange. When he suggested that the New York legislature move, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt "not only declined to intervene but dabbled in stocks himself -- though he did not need the money," Mr. Jeansonne observes acidly. (Despite such occasional asides, Mr. Jeansonne's book for the most part is studiously objective.) Nor could Hoover stir the states (including Roosevelt's New York) to assert more vigorous policing of banks, even as bankruptcies littered the country.
Unfortunately, Democratic obstructionism did not stop at the water's edge. On the eve of an international conference to deal with the debt issues tormenting many countries, FDR blithely rejected the president's appeal that he tell other nations of his planned economic policies.
The debt crisis, he said, was Hoover's responsibility, not his, and he would "leave that baby on Mr. Hoover's lap." (The Detroit Free Press, among many newspapers that criticized Roosevelt's unwillingness to talk with the president, charged that the statement "revealed pettiness and a disturbing lack of vision.")
Once in office, of course, Roosevelt quickly moved to assert federal control over the banks, starting a proclaimed "banking holiday." But the damage had been done: Americans would suffer a decade more of economic hard times until World War II defense spending broke the cycle.
The damage to Hoover's reputation had been done, chiefly through the efforts of Michelson, a man Mr. Jeansonne rightly terms a "character assassin." Herbert Hoover deserves a recount in history. Perhaps Mr. Jeansonne has made a start.
Joseph C. Goulden is author of "The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English" (Dover, 2012).