Public service above all: Remembering the remarkable life of President Herbert Hoover

August 10, 2021 8:00 am

President Herbert Hoover signs a bill Dec. 20, 1930, to help unemployment. (Photo courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)

In fact, Hoover was one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century.

– Ed Feulner, former president and founder of The Heritage Foundation

August 10 marks President Herbert Hoover’s 147th birthday. Today, Herbert Hoover is often forgotten or if he is remembered, it is usually in the context of the Great Depression. However, the story of Herbert Hoover is remarkable, and it is symbolic of the spirit of the United States.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people and businesses across Iowa exemplified Hoover’s belief in service as they carried out many acts of charity and humanitarianism, both seen and unseen.

On Aug. 10, 1874, Herbert Hoover was born in the small, quiet Quaker village of West Branch, Iowa. Hoover was orphaned at a young age and sent to live with his uncle in Oregon. Hoover was a graduate of Stanford University, where he met his wife, Lou Henry, who also lived a remarkable life. After his graduation from Stanford, Hoover worked as a mining engineer and would eventually build a successful career that brought him to several continents.

The Great War (WWI) started Hoover on “the slippery road of public life.” On the eve of the Great War, Hoover and other Americans living in England helped aid those Americans who were stranded because of the war. During the war, Hoover also organized the Commission for Relief in Belgium that worked to provide humanitarian and food relief to save millions of civilians from starvation.

During and after World War I, he fed much of Europe and the Soviet Union. Of the latter, he said, ‘I detest communism, but I detest starving children more.’ After World War II, Hoover helped President Truman assess and feed needy nations worldwide. He is credited with saving more humans from starvation than any human being in recorded history.

– Glen Jeansonne, late historian and Hoover biographer

Hoover was referred to as the “Great Humanitarian” and his commitment to public service did not just include the feeding civilians who were caught in war-torn Europe. President Woodrow Wilson called on Hoover, a Republican, to serve in his administration as head of the Food Administration. Americans were encouraged to plant victory gardens and to “Hooverize.”

Hoover’s public service would continue with the election of Ohio’s Warren G. Harding as president of the United States in 1920. President Harding selected Hoover to serve as secretary of commerce. After Harding’s tragic death in office, Hoover continued to serve as secretary of commerce under President Calvin Coolidge. Hoover was considered a progressive Republican in comparison to the more conservative Harding, Coolidge, and Andrew Mellon who served as secretary of the treasury. Hoover had supported Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign in 1912.

In 1927, Hoover’s humanitarian and organization skills were called upon again as the mighty Mississippi River flooded, creating devastation. “I suppose I could have called in the whole of the army, but what was the use? All I had to do was to call in Main Street itself,” stated Hoover in response to the call of Americans that helped provide relief to those who were suffering as a result of the flood.

Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch, both historians and Hoover scholars, wrote that Hoover “developed a unique philosophy – one balancing responsibility for the welfare of others with an unshakable faith in free enterprise and dynamic individualism.”

President Herbert Hoover delivers his inaugural speech March 4, 1929. (Photo courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)

Hoover’s public service and humanitarianism made him the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1928 after President Coolidge announced he would not seek another term. Hoover would be elected in a landslide in the presidential election of 1928. As president, Hoover was confronted with the worst economic crisis in American history, the Great Depression.

Hoover responded to the Depression with unprecedented action, and he is often criticized by both progressives and conservatives from either doing to much or to little government intervention to fight the Depression. It is often assumed that Hoover was uncaring 0f the suffering of millions of Americans, but this is untrue. Hoover never showed his emotions publicly nor did he allow his acts of charity to be publicized for political purposes.

“As President, he declined to spend any of his salary on himself. Instead, he gave it away to charities or as income supplements to his associates. During their long marriage, he and his wife extended charitable assistance to countless needy recipients, usually anonymously and through surrogates. In the 1930s, Hoover’s brother concluded that he [Hoover] had given away more than half of his business profits for benevolent purposes. Characteristically, however, Hoover concealed most of his benefactions, with the result that their full extent may never be known,” wrote historian and leading Hoover scholar and biographer George H. Nash.

After his defeat in 1932 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hoover’s post-presidency was marked by continued public service. President Harry S. Truman, who developed a close friendship with Hoover, called him back to service to lead relief efforts after World War II. Hoover also led two Hoover Commissions during the administrations of Presidents Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to reorganize the executive branch.

Hoover’s humanitarianism continued with numerous charitable works. Hoover, the progressive Republican of the 1920s, became a conservative leader within the Republican Party. Hoover’s conservatism influenced Republican leaders such as Sens. Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater. In addition, he supported numerous conservative causes and organizations such as supporting William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine.

Before and after the presidency Hoover was a prolific writer. He wrote over 30 books including two that focused on political philosophy, “American Individualism” and “The Challenge to Liberty.”

Perhaps one of his greatest legacies was the founding of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. During the Great War, Hoover and his associates collected numerous documents and other resources related to not only the cause of the war, but also various ideologies such as communism. It was these documents that started the vast archival collections.  The Hoover Institution is not only a leading archive, but also a prominent public policy think tank.

Historians will continue to debate Hoover’s legacy and people may disagree with his political philosophy and how he confronted the Great Depression, but Hoover led a remarkable life that was based upon public service, humanitarianism, and a belief that America is an exceptional nation.

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John Hendrickson
John Hendrickson

John Hendrickson is policy director for Tax Education Foundation of Iowa, a public policy think tank. He also serves as an adjunct professor of history at Regent University.