Herbert Hoover

Biography 31st President (1929-1933)

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Fast Facts

Born: August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa

Died: October 20, 1964, in New York, New York

Nickname: "The Great Engineer," "Mr. Prosperity," "Mr. Depression"

Married: Lou Henry (1875-1944), on February 10, 1899

Religion: Society of Friends (Quaker)

Education: Graduated from Stanford University (1895)

Political Party: Republican

Career: Mining engineer; author; Chairman of American Commission for Relief Committee, 1914-15; Chairman of American Commission for Relief of Belgium, 1915-18; Director of U.S. Food Administration, 1917-19; Chairman of American Relief Administration, and Russian Relief, 1918-23; Director of Supreme Economic Conference, 1919; Chairman of European Relief Council, 1920; Secretary of Commerce, 1921-23 (under Harding), 1923-28 (under Coolidge); Coordinator of European Food Program, 1926; President of the United States, 1929-33; Coordinator of Food Supply for World Famine, 1946; Chairman of Committee for Reorganization of the Executive Branch, 1947-49, 1953-55

Domestic Policy Highlights: Great Depression, Federal Reconstruction Corporation, Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1930, Bonus Expeditionary Force

Foreign Policy Highlights: Protectionist tariffs, Gold Standard, Stimson Doctrine of Non-Recognition

A Life in Brief

Herbert Hoover came to office promising Americans "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage," and "a final triumph over poverty." He would soon regret these promises. The year following his inauguration, the stock market crashed, sending the U.S. economy into the Great Depression, the most desperate times Americans have ever known.

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 self-made millionaire several times over, wealthy from high salaried positions, profitable silver mines he owned in Burma, and royalties from the leading textbook on mining engineering that he had authored.

Skilled Administrator

World War I thrust Hoover into the international spotlight when he pooled his money with several wealthy friends to organize the Committee for the Relief of Belgium. Hoover clearly had an organizational genius, raising over a billion dollars for food and medicine. Under President Wilson, Hoover ran the U.S. food administration during the war and after armistice, channeling 34 million tons of American food, clothing, and supplies to war-devastated Europe. His name became a household word—everyone knew that to "hooverize" meant to ration household materials for the war effort. Hoover served capably in economic posts under Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge, building a reputation for vision and efficiency.

Hoover easily won the 1928 Republican nomination for president. His platform rejected farm subsidies, supported prohibition, and pledged lower taxes and more of the same prosperity Americans had been enjoying in the Coolidge years. Opposing him was Democrat Al Smith of New York, a Catholic who was against Prohibition and whose career had been molded by the Tammany Hall political machine in New York. Smith never had a chance. Protestant preachers in rural America warned their congregations that a vote for "Al-coholic" Smith was a vote for the devil. Smith failed to carry his own state of New York, and Hoover swept the election.

Poor Manager of the Great Depression

In keeping with the pro-business philosophy of the era, Hoover's cabinet looked like a corporate gentlemen's club and included six millionaires. In Hoover's view, the marriage of private enterprise with science and technology would end poverty and usher in a new humane social order. Government programs, in Hoover's opinion, were obstacles to this goal; therefore, he vigorously strove to reduce taxes on corporations in order to stimulate growth and free the economy from government influence.

Tragically, given the circumstances of 1929, Hoover felt that the ups and downs of the business cycle were natural phenomena that should not be tampered with. He staunchly stood by and refused to provide direct federal assistance when the market crashed, forcing millions of Americans into poverty. As the Depression dragged on, Hoover's name remained a household word, but this time it had entirely different connotations. Nearly two million men, women and children roamed the nation, riding the rails and living as "hoboes" in dirty shantytowns called "Hoovervilles." For warmth, they wrapped themselves in newspapers, or "Hoover blankets," and the jackrabbits they ate were called "Hoover hogs."

While Republicans and Democrats alike began to plead with Hoover for federal relief, his newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) was secretly channeling millions of dollars a day as handouts to business. He vetoed one relief bill after the next, waiting for his "corporate welfare" program to work. In the public eye he seemed uncaring, unwilling to admit that people were starving and that his ideas were failing. In the summer of 1932, he lost significant public support when he called in General Douglas MacArthur to drive out the frightened, angry and desperate protesters who were camped on the capital lawns. MacArthur was brutal, using cavalry, tanks, and bayonet-bearing soldiers. In the riot that followed, U.S. soldiers clubbed women and children, tear-gassed the marchers, burned their shacks, and forcibly drove them across the Potomac.

Hoover's foreign policy decisions worsened the crisis. Against the advice of economists, Hoover passed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which furthered the Great Depression by undermining the ability of foreign nations to earn American dollars by the sale of their products in the U.S. Suddenly, countries such as Germany could not afford to buy American products or pay their World War I debts. Trade walls sprang up blocking the entry of American products into Europe and Japan. In 1931, when Japan attacked Manchuria, the northern-most province of China, the U.S. could do little but issue an angry statement, since no resources were available to back up threats of war.

A Vision Lost

Though Hoover ran again in 1932, anxious to prove that his policies could work, Americans rallied around Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and the "New Deal" he offered, a "call to arms" in a "crusade to restore America to its own people." Hoover left the White House in disgrace, suffering the public's wrath for having caused the Great Depression.

Hoover is no longer blamed for causing the depression, but he is faulted for perpetuating it, and for failing to relieve Americans' pain and suffering through federal relief. A man of great vision who tried to do what he thought was right, Hoover's unbending commitment to "trickle down" economics, rather than activist government intervention in the economy, held firm at the worst possible time and doomed his presidency and the fortunes of millions. He is remembered as a tragic failure.


' The Engineer President '

Herbert Hoover, Engineer and Former President of USA