The Magazine

The Greatest Ex

Herbert Hoover and his post-presidential triumph.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
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With the outbreak of World War I, he founded and directed the Commission for Belgian Relief, which brought “desperately needed food supplies to more than nine million Belgian and French citizens trapped between the German army of occupation and the British naval blockade.” This operation morphed into “a gigantic humanitarian enterprise without precedent in world history. By 1917 he was an international hero, the embodiment of a new force in global politics: American benevolence.” In the war’s aftermath, Hoover would administer health and food aid to Europe, and famine relief to Russia, that saved further millions. Returning home, he became secretary of commerce under both Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and was then elected president by a landslide in 1928. The 1929 crash led to his political scapegoating and vilification—and his electoral defeat in 1932.

For most men, this would have marked the end of public life; for the remarkable Hoover, it was just the beginning, the political equivalent of a latter-day Lazarus bringing himself back from the dead. Leafing through the pages of The Crusade Years, one appreciates just how hard—and how effectively—Hoover labored to achieve his goals. Described as a “lost memoir” in its subtitle, this book is a tribute to both Hoover and George Nash, the distinguished scholar and biographer who painstakingly assembled, edited, and annotated it. Nash’s introduction, actually a succinct biography of Hoover as well as an overview of the memoir itself, lends significant added value, and will reacquaint readers with the life and achievements of an important, but neglected, American leader.

Begun in the 1940s, and meant to serve as finial piece to his earlier autobiographical writing, The Crusade Years evolved into one of those open-ended literary projects that never quite make it to completion. Indeed, there are moments reading some of the more fragmentary passages when one is reminded of Edward Casaubon, the learned drudge in Middlemarch who dedicated his life to a never-completed masterpiece that turned out to be a loose collection of scraps, tatters, and ephemera. Unlike Casaubon, however, Hoover brought a unifying theme to his work, lending it a contemporary power and timeliness.

American Individualism, the title of an earlier Hoover book and the leit-motif here, is a ringing declaration of the concept of American exceptionalism and an important part of the unifying theme—one that Hoover never lost sight of and that is being rediscovered and re-articulated today. Hoover correctly recognized that the overarching struggle in American politics during his lifetime, and beyond it, would be the conflict between individualism and collectivism. “Creeping socialism”—a term Hoover helped to popularize in the 1940s and ’50s—may have been dismissed as alarmist by liberals, but it is exactly what led to today’s bloated, expanding welfare state, with its accompanying debt, taxes, and social deterioration.

But this is more than an extended polemic against the megastate. The Crusade Years contains personal accounts of marriage, family life, and the joys of camping, fishing, and fellowship that are both moving and amusing. There are also some sharp insights into historical figures. Truman, who respected Hoover and chose him to head a commission on reform of the the executive branch but also vilified him on the campaign trail, is defined as “a dual personality. On one hand he was a man of amiability and goodwill, without malice or vindictiveness, with great loyalty to his friends and often with great political and moral courage. He apparently had little ideological conviction but when acting on his own instincts was more right than left.” But “his other personality was a Pendergast inheritance—Votes at any price .  .  . with the boys participating in the good fruits of office.”

His evaluation of Thomas Dewey, after a long private conversation in 1944, was confirmed not once but twice, when Dewey was defeated as the Republican presidential nominee that year, and again in 1948:

I came out of the long discussion with confirmation of my high esteem for Dewey’s intellectual capacities, his energy, and his political ability, but in some way I have a reservation as to his character. .  .  . He is seemingly convinced of his own intellectual superiority and abilities.