A Few Words About Herbert Hoover

Jon Roesser’s piece in the August Shuttle has left me with a faint taste of dismay. To be sure, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the effects of the Great Depression with both energy and imagination. These were not qualities that President Hoover lacked; that he did not have them in equal measure to his successor would be hard to argue. What troubles me here is that there is no mention of Hoover’s formidable, fundamental humanity — feeding huge numbers of the victims of World War I, principally in German-occupied Belgium and then, following the war, the victims from both sides, including revolutionary Russia. The end of World War II saw the former president once more feeding the hungry, principally in Poland. Who knows how many thousands owed their survival to his efforts? 

During Hoover’s time as Secretary of Commerce (1921-1928), he warned not once but many times about the dangers lurking in the orgy of speculation in the world’s financial markets. But who listens to a secretary of commerce?

As president during the Great Depression, he involved the federal government more deeply in our economy than had ever been the case in peacetime. That his efforts did not meet the needs of the time were not character defects. He grew up in tiny West Branch, Iowa — have you ever been there? Downtown West Branch would fit into Pastorius Park with room left over. When his parents died, the neighbors looked after him until he could be sent to relatives in Oregon.

He needed to respond to the crisis of the early 1930s by taking into account the needs of individuals first and institutions second. Free fodder for animals would not corrupt stock, but he believed free meals on the table would corrupt people. And please, how many times have we asked ourselves why the government doesn’t do something instead of wondering what we could do ourselves?

My purpose here is not to reconsider policies that are now the better part of a century behind us but to offer a corrective to the idea that Hoover was a bad man.

I am neither a Republican nor a conservative. In Faust, we read that when a man strives with all his might that man can we redeem. Hoover strove. He did the best he could, something that cannot be said so readily about some of his successors.

Edward Sargent