Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, succeeded at almost everything he did. Yet he is best remembered for one failure: the Great Depression. Is that legacy justified? Historian Kenneth Whyte examines the evidence.
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Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, succeeded at almost everything he did.
And not just succeeded. He succeeded in spectacular fashion — as a mining executive in Australia and China, as a humanitarian in Europe, and as a politician in the United States.
But he is best known to history for his role in one failure — the Great Depression, a decade-long economic collapse that impoverished millions in America and across the world.
He didn’t cause it. And he made superhuman efforts to reverse it. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop it.
If a single individual could have, it might have been this remarkable man.
Born in Iowa in 1874, he was orphaned at the age of nine. His father, a blacksmith, died when Hoover was just six; his mother a Quaker preacher, three years later. Unhappy, sullen, and painfully shy as a teenager, he came into his own at Stanford University, then tuition-free. Hoover was in the university’s very first graduating class, his field of study being geology.
On graduation, he talked himself into a job with a prominent English mining company. They sent him to the Australian outback. Conditions were so harsh, and disease so rampant, it was almost a suicide mission. But young Hoover was not deterred. He reorganized the company’s mines, made them much more profitable, and scouted for new ones. A gold mine he acquired, largely on his own initiative, turned out to be one of the richest in the world.
He was on track to become fabulously wealthy when World War I broke out and he abruptly abandoned his business career.
In a matter of months, he transformed himself into an internationally recognized humanitarian. Almost single-handedly, he arranged to feed eight-million Belgians threatened with starvation when the war cut off their food supplies.
In 1919, with the guns finally silenced, Hoover was charged by President Woodrow Wilson to lead the rebuild of Europe’s devastated economy. He tackled the job with usual ferocious energy and saved tens of millions more from starvation. The New York Times described him as “the nearest approach to a dictator Europe has had since Napoleon.” They meant it as a compliment.
In 1921 the newly elected Republican President, Warren Harding, tapped Hoover to be Secretary of Commerce. He stayed on when Calvin Coolidge took over following Harding’s sudden death in 1923. During his tenure, Hoover laid the groundwork for America’s commercial aviation industry. He also organized the building of the Colorado River dam that now bears his name and made possible the rapid economic development of the American southwest. And when disastrous flooding struck the Mississippi River Valley in 1927, it was Hoover who managed the massive and successful relief effort.
By the time he won the Republican presidential nomination in 1928, he was hailed as a man “whose wisdom encompassed all branches, whose judgment was never at fault, who knew the answers to all questions, and who could see in the dark.” His election was never in doubt. He won easily.
Yet just six months after Hoover’s inauguration, in the autumn of 1929, the stock market crashed. Slowly and inexorably, the United States followed the rest of the world into the Great Depression. However qualified he was for the presidency, Hoover was no match for the worst economic collapse in modern history, an international phenomenon rooted in the still-unresolved upheavals of the First World War, and far beyond the capacities of any one leader to solve.
His political opponents would later claim that he sat on his hands through his four years in office. Hoover, in fact, fought the Depression with vigor and imagination. He expanded the federal government’s toolkit for managing the economy and made far more progress in limiting the Depression’s damage than is generally recognized.
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