In November 1951, a public relations executive named John W. Hill met Herbert Hoover at a dinner in New York City. It was an unhappy time in the United States, especially for conservative Republicans. Abroad, the Korean War had turned into a bloody stalemate that President Harry Truman’s administration seemed unable to end. Earlier in the year, the president had abruptly dismissed General Douglas MacArthur, a conservative hero, from America’s Far Eastern military command, to the consternation of Hoover and millions of others. At home, Truman’s liberal Democratic administration was under furious assault from conservative critics of its policies toward communist regimes overseas and communist subversion within our borders.
How quickly the world had changed since the close of the Second World War a few years earlier. Then the future had seemed bright with promise. Nazi Germany and imperial Japan had been crushed; fascism as an ideology had been discredited; the birth of the United Nations had appeared to presage an era of global peace. Now, a mere six years later, in Asia and along the Iron Curtain in Europe, a third world war—this time against communist Russia and China—seemed a distinct possibility.
“Mr. Hoover,” said Hill that November evening, “the world is in one hell of a mess, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is,” Hoover replied.
“It has always occurred to me,” Hill continued, “that we are in this mess because of the mistakes of statesmen. Somebody ought to write a book [on the subject] like [E. S. Creasy’s] ‘Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World’; I think it would be a classic.”
“You are absolutely right,” Hoover responded. “That should be done, and I am going to tell you what should be the first chapter.”
“What is that?” asked Hill.
“When Roosevelt put America in to help Russia as Hitler invaded Russia in June, 1941. We should have let those two bastards annihilate themselves.”
Hill was delighted. “That would be a great book. Why don’t you write it, Mr. Hoover?”
“I haven’t the time,” Hoover countered. “Why don’t you write it?”
What Hill did not know—and what Hoover, that evening, did not tell him—was that for several years Hoover had been at work on a book with a similar theme: a comprehensive, critical history of American diplomacy between the late 1930s and 1945, with emphasis on the misguided policies of President Roosevelt. It was a volume in which the Roosevelt administration’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union would be subject to withering scrutiny.
Twenty years later, in 1971, in a conversation with an interviewer, Hill lamented that no one had ever written the book he had once proposed to Hoover on “The Fifteen Decisive Blunders of Statesmen.” “I have always wished somebody would do it,” he added. “It would be controversial because every one of the decisions the author stated would cause trouble, would cause somebody to come up and defend it, and the book would sell like hotcakes.”
What Hill did not realize was that nearly eight years earlier Hoover had completed his own book of diplomatic blunders. Unlike the scattershot collection of essays that Hill had envisaged, Hoover’s tome was tightly focused. Originally conceived as the section of his memoirs that would cover his life during World War II, the “War Book” (as he called it) had morphed into something far more ambitious: an unabashed, revisionist reexamination of the entire war—and a sweeping indictment of the “lost statesmanship” of Franklin Roosevelt.
Hoover ultimately entitled his manuscript Freedom Betrayed. More informally, and with a touch of humor, he and his staff came to refer to it as the Magnum Opus. The label was apt. For nearly two decades, beginning in 1944, the former president labored over his massive manuscript, producing draft after draft, “edition” after “edition.” He finished the final version (save for some minor editing and additional fact-checking) in September 1963 and prepared in the ensuing months for the book’s publication. Death came first, on October 20, 1964. A little over two months earlier, he had turned ninety years old.
After Hoover’s passing, his heirs decided not to publish his Magnum Opus. Since then, for nearly half a century, it has remained in storage, unavailable for examination.
The new volume Freedom Betrayed presents the book in its final, author-approved edition of 1963–64. It is published—and its contents thereby made available to scholars—for the first time.
This essay is adapted from the Editor’s Introduction to Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath, just published by Hoover Institution Press.