Herbert Hoover The American Presidents Series: The 31st President, 1929-1933

The American Presidents

William E. Leuchtenburg; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

Times Books




208 Pages



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Herbert Hoover, the Republican efficiency expert whose economic boosterism met its match in the Great Depression, was first catapulted into national politics by his heroic campaigns to feed Europe during and after World War I. An engineer by training, he exemplified the economic optimism of the 1920s. As president, however, Hoover was sorely tested by America’s first crisis of the twentieth century: the Great Depression.

Renowned New Deal historian William E. Leuchtenburg demonstrates how Hoover was blinkered by his distrust of government and his belief that volunteerism would solve all social ills. As Leuchtenburg shows, Hoover’s attempts to enlist the aid of private- sector leaders did little to mitigate the Depression, and he was routed from office by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. From his retirement at Stanford University, Hoover remained a vocal critic of the New Deal and big government until the end of his long life.

Leuchtenburg offers a frank, thoughtful portrait of this lifelong public servant, and shrewdly assesses Hoover’s policies and legacy in the face of one of the darkest periods of American history.


Praise for Herbert Hoover

"During the presidency of Herbert Hoover, Congress appropriated funds for the mothers of soldiers killed in World War I to go to Europe to visit their graves. The government then divided the women by race. 'White mothers sailed to Europe in style while black mothers whose sons had been killed in their country's service were assigned to "cattle ships."' This is from William E. Leuchtenburg's forthcoming Herbert Hoover, a wonderful and instructive biography."—Richard Cohen, The Washington Post

"As historian William Leuchtenburg reminds us in his timely study of Hoover’s life, the man who presided over the hardest of hard times in the early 1930s was, until that moment, one of the most admired figures in the world. It could and indeed should be said of Herbert Hoover that few people in the 20th century did more than he to save other human beings from starvation and deprivation. His work as a relief administrator during and after World War I earned him the title of the 'Great Humanitarian,' as well as the respect of muckraker Ira Tarbell, union organizer John L. Lewis and, wouldn’t you know, an ambitious New Yorker named Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Leuchtenburg writes of Hoover’s efforts during the war, 'At its peak, his organization was feeding nine million Belgians and French a day . . . Under a "soupe scolaire" program, some two million children got a hot lunch of filling vegetable soup with white bread, and, thanks to Hoover, cocoa too' . . . Mr. Leuchtenburg, a prolific author best known for his studies of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal, shows how Hoover’s carefully constructed fictions left him unprepared for a catastrophe that should have seemed familiar. While he may have been an aloof know-it-all who made himself few friends in Washington (Mr. Leuchtenburg is persuasive on this score), Herbert Hoover understood something about human suffering, and not just from observation. Orphaned at age 10, separated from his two siblings and reared by a humorless uncle, Hoover was on far more intimate terms with despair and poverty than his future antagonist, Roosevelt, ever was. F.D.R. needed his wife, Eleanor, to show him how the other half lived; Hoover experienced it firsthand. Mr. Leuchtenberg notes that only once did Hoover refer publicly to his childhood, telling an interviewer in 1928, 'You see, I was always hungry then' . . . [A] slim but powerful study . . . Herbert Hoover is the latest in a series of short presidential biographies edited at first by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and now by Princeton University’s Sean Wilentz. Like the other books in the series, Mr. Leuchtenburg’s biography reminds us that the personalities, actions and beliefs of political leaders have a profound effect on the rest of us. That concept, which may seem like common sense to most lay readers, is well nigh heretical among many academic historians. Presidential historians are a dying breed on campus today; graduate students are encouraged to examine the lives of the voiceless—the enslaved, women, the nonwhite poor—rather than focus their research on politicians. In some ways, this is a necessary corrective to the Great Man narrative of old-fashioned history, but it doesn’t bode well for those cable television programs that depend on academic drop-ins to provide gravitas and perspective. Mr. Leuchtenberg has been writing presidential history for more than a half-century, and he remains one of the finest interpreters of our nation’s past. His new book is a superb example of the vitality and importance of political history. What a shame, for all of us, that it’s also spot-on relevant."—Terry Golway, The New York Observer

"Timely."—The Bloomsbury Review

"As inhabitants of the United States suffer through an economic downturn reminiscent of the 1930s, a new biography of Herbert Hoover inevitably will remind readers of George W. Bush as he leaves the presidency riding waves of failure and mistrust. Hoover (1874-1964), like President Bush, was an interesting character to those who knew him well but a stereotyped buffoon to those who depended upon second-hand accounts. The new, vivid account of Hoover comes in a small package—an intentionally brief biography accompanying the 39 others (so far) in the American Presidents Series. Hoover's chronicler, William E. Leuchtenburg, is a retired University of North Carolina history professor who writes like an angel and spices his narrative with trenchant judgments about a president who seemed like Superman when he took office in 1929 but who quickly lost his magical powers in the face of the Great Depression . . . According to Leuchtenburg, Hoover might have failed as a president even if blessed with first-rate economic conditions. He notes his lack of eloquence as a communicator, terrible temper when questioned about his decisions and inability to admit error. The descriptions of Hoover are memorable. Discussing his work in Australia, the biographer notes how 'Hoover's frigid demeanor and his Yankee brag earned him as much animosity as his hard-nosed procedures. Many found him abrasive, abrupt and overbearing as well as solitary . . . A journalist observed that the only subject Hoover took any pleasure in discussing—in a “dull, toneless voice”—was work, "if his harsh staccato 'yep' and 'nope' could be elevated to the level of discussion."'”—Steven Weinberg, The Dallas Morning News

"In 1932, the parents of a 4-year-old went to court to change his legal name. Christened Herbert Hoover Jones in 1928, when the commerce secretary and Republican presidential nominee was a national hero, the boy deserved relief, said his parents, from 'the chagrin and mortification which he is suffering and will suffer' for sharing a moniker with the now-disgraced chief executive. His new name: Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones. No president has ever suffered a reversal of political fortune as sudden and complete as the fall from glory to ignominy that was the sum and substance of Herbert Hoover's presidency. Elected in a landslide in 1928 to nurture the prosperity of the buoyant Coolidge era, Hoover proved unable and unwilling to lift America out of the Great Depression. Worse, he declined to palliate the misery of the millions cast into homelessness, unemployment, and hunger. Keeping up with the Joneses, Americans felt their admiration for Hoover curdle into hatred. Cascading boos spoiled his appearance at the 1931 World Series; chants of 'Hang Hoover!' resounded at a Detroit campaign stop the next summer. Faced with writing a new biography of such a figure, the average historian might perversely attempt a rehabilitation. In fact, over the years several such efforts have come and swiftly gone. But William Leuchtenburg, author of Herbert Hoover, is not your average historian. Still prolific at 86, he is one of the foremost authorities on the 1930s, the New Deal, and FDR. In this meaty little book, he brings to the life of Hoover his own lifetime of study of this watershed moment in the American past."—David Greenberg, Slate

"Herbert Hoover accomplished a great deal during his lifetime. He was an engineer, a humanitarian and our 31st president. He was born in West Branch, Iowa, in 1874. In 1921, be became secretary of Commerce and seven years later was nominated by the Republican Party to heads its national ticket. All went well until the stock market crash of 1929. The economic wealth of America was replaced by high unemployment, bread lines and a sense of hopelessness. He was blamed for the dire conditions and defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In the latest title in the American Presidents Series, Leuchtenburg, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and author of more than a dozen books, re-examines both Hoover and the turbulent times in which he lived. In this frank, thoughtful literary portrait, readers are confronted by the fact that Hoover was a decent, compassionate, rather likable man. The Wall Street meltdown of 1929 began well before he took office and when the unthinkable happened, Hoover believed the downturn was short term and self-correcting. He took little or no action and this miscalculation and his later criticism of both the New Deal and big government helped define the man and his legacy. According to Leuchtenburg, Hoover's failure to act in a meaningful way during the early years of the Great Depression is only a small part of his story. He adds that only by looking at Hoover's life in its entirety can we offset the mistakes he made with the good things that he did during the early years of the last century. This is a fair and balanced reassessment of Herbert Hoover and his legacy that is long overdue."—Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen

"Thoroughly satisfying account of the president overwhelmed by the Great Depression. Veteran historian Leuchtenburg makes no attempt to rehabilitate Hoover (1874-1964), though he acknowledges that the brilliantly successful entrepreneur quickly became a worldwide celebrity after turning to public service at age 40. In London at the outbreak of World War I, Hoover agreed to organize relief for the famine that followed the German advance into Belgium and performed superbly. Widely touted as a 1920 presidential candidate, he offended Republican leaders with a self-serving statement announcing that he would join their party only if it fulfilled certain conditions. Newly elected Warren G. Harding appointed Hoover Secretary of Commerce even though colleagues resented his dictatorial manner, and his nonstop energy made him a media icon. When Coolidge declined to run in 1928, the fact that he and his cabinet detested Hoover did not prevent him from easily winning the nomination. Leuchtenburg disagrees with historians who feel that Hoover would rank among our better presidents if it were not for the Depression. Even before the 1929 crash, his lack of political acumen and terrible relations with Congress had soured most supporters. He made genuine attempts to alleviate the Depression but opposed federal relief programs, insisting that this was the responsibility of local government and private charities, which were doing a good job. (In fact, they were bankrupt.) Leaving office, he was so widely hated that Republicans considered him political poison and kept him away from conventions until after WWI. A brilliantly written cautionary tale for those who believe a hard-nosed businessman would bring a breath of fresh air to the American presidency."—Kirkus Reviews

"Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) would have satisfied anyone who believed a businessman would make an ideal president. In this outstanding addition to the American President series, Bancroft Prize–winning historian Leuchtenburg points out that while writers describe Hoover as a mining engineer, he was really a promoter and financier who traveled the world and made a fortune. He vaulted to fame after brilliantly organizing relief for the Belgian famine during WWI. Appointed secretary of commerce in 1920, he operated with a dictatorial manner that infuriated colleagues, but his dynamism and popularity made him a shoo-in for the Republican nomination in 1928. As president, his political ineptitude offended Congress and discouraged supporters even before the 1929 crash. Afterward, he backed imaginative programs to stimulate the economy but insisted that direct relief was socialistic and that local governments and charities were doing fine. In fact, they weren't, and this insistence combined with a dour personality made him a widely hated figure. A veteran historian of this period, Leuchtenburg brings vivid prose and strong opinions to this richly insightful biography of a president whose impressive business acumen served him poorly."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Herbert Hoover
1The Great EngineerLittle wonder that David Copperfield was Herbert Hoover's favorite tale. Like Charles Dickens's hero, Hoover was orphaned at an early age, and, like David too, he had a harsh youth. If none of the men to whom his care was entrusted after his parents' deaths was quite so mean as Mr. Murdstone, his kin were a mirthless lot. His boyhood experiences left Hoover permanently scarred--reclusive and wary to a degree that not even decades of success could erase, and they would have unfortunate political consequences when he sought to lead the nation. Yet Hoover was also
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  • William E. Leuchtenburg; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

  • William E. Leuchtenburg, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a noted authority on twentieth-century American history. A winner of both the Bancroft and Parkman prizes, he is the author of numerous books on the New Deal. In 2008, he was chosen as the first recipient of the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award for Distinguished Writing in American History of Enduring Public Significance.

  • William E. Leuchtenburg
  • Sean Wilentz Denise Applewhite
    Sean Wilentz