The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

Hoover, Herbert
George H. Nash - 02/02/11
Lifespan: (1874–1964)

Engineer, humanitarian, and statesman, Herbert Hoover is a problematic figure in the history of American conservatism. A hero of libertarians in the 1950s, he is today castigated by libertarians as the true father of the New Deal interventionist state. Acclaimed in his day on the Right as “the greatest Republican of his generation,” he has been stigmatized in conservative circles since the 1970s as a cheerless apostle of balanced budgets and high taxes. An examination of his life and political philosophy may help to explain the historical haze that envelops him.

Born in a little farming community in Iowa, Hoover was orphaned before he was ten. By the time he was twenty-one he had worked his way through Stanford University and had entered his chosen profession of mining engineering. By 1914, at the age of 40, he was an extraordinarily successful engineer and financier with a fortune exceeding a million dollars and business interests on every continent except Antarctica.

With the outbreak of World War I, Hoover rose to international prominence as founder-director of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, a humanitarian agency that ultimately brought food to 9,000,000 French and Belgian civilians a day—an unprecedented undertaking in world history. After serving as head of President Woodrow Wilson’s wartime Food Administration, Hoover returned to Europe following the armistice as Director-General of the American Relief Administration. Thanks in considerable measure to the Herculean efforts of Hoover and his staff, perhaps one-third of the population of postwar Europe was saved from privation and death. Between 1921 and 1923, he orchestrated American assistance to multitudes of Russians suffering from famine; at its height the project fed at least 10 million people a day. Similar, if smaller, ventures further enhanced his stature in later years.

Returning to America late in 1919, the humanitarian hero soon entered politics. A Bull Moose supporter of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and more recently one of President Wilson’s ablest advisers, Hoover at first labeled himself an “independent Progressive.” But before long he formally identified himself with the Republican Party and unsuccessfully sought its presidential nomination in 1920.

From 1921 to 1928 Hoover served as secretary of commerce in the cabinets of Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. In short order he became one of the three or four most important men in American public life. In 1922 he articulated his political philosophy in a book called American Individualism. According to him the revolutionary upheavals of World War I and its aftermath had produced a world in ferment. In this cauldron, collectivist ideologies alien to America were competing for the minds of men and women. To Hoover the need for a definition of the American alternative was urgent. He called it “American Individualism.”

By this term he did not mean unfettered, old-fashioned laissez-faire. As a self-made man himself, Hoover admired individual initiative. Progress, he said, depended on “creative minds,” which must be free to “rise from the mass.” But “the values of individualism,” he argued, must be “tempered” by “that firm and fixed ideal of American individualism—an equality of opportunity.” Equality of opportunity, “the demand for a fair chance as the basis of American life”—this, in Hoover’s words, was “our most precious social ideal.”

In the context of 1921–33 Hoover was a governmental activist. As secretary of commerce he took the initiative in national waterway development, radio regulation, the elimination of industrial waste, and many other projects of postwar reconstruction. He was one of the foremost exponents of governmental public works expenditures as a form of countercyclical economic policy. Nominated for president in 1928 over the opposition of many Republican conservatives, he conceived his term of office as a reform presidency. And when the Great Depression began in 1929, the federal government under his leadership responded with unprecedented intervention in a peacetime economy. This, he said later (and approvingly), “is hardly laissez-faire.”

But if Hoover was no free-market purist, neither was he a proto–New Dealer. Time and again he insisted that the form and extent of governmental involvement in the economy must be carefully defined and kept consistent with the broad American tradition of voluntary cooperation, local self-government, and individual initiative. For all his reforming impulses, he had a conserving purpose: the preservation, in an urban, industrial society, of the American tradition of equal opportunity. He sought to use governmental power to facilitate the growth of nongovernmental mediating institutions, and he resisted proposals he deemed socialist or fascist.

Defeated for reelection by Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover soon became a trenchant critic of the New Deal. The election of 1932, he had warned beforehand, was an ideological contest that would determine the nation’s course for “over a century to come.” Now he saw his dire prophecy fulfilled. “The impending battle in this country,” he declared in 1933, would be between “a properly regulated individualism” and “sheer socialism.” Discarding the term “American Individualism,” Hoover increasingly identified his own philosophy as that of “historical liberalism” and excoriated the collectivist, “false liberalism” of the New Deal. “The New Deal,” he said, “having corrupted the label of liberalism for collectivism, coercion, concentration of political power, it seems ‘historic liberalism’ must be conservatism in contrast.” In The Challenge to Liberty (1934) and other writings, he tirelessly expounded his message. Thus, in the last third of his life, Hoover, the erstwhile progressive Republican, became a counterrevolutionary: a defender of what he called “true liberalism.”

During his lengthy ex-presidency Hoover enthusiastically supported many conservative organizations and causes, including Human Events and the Young Americans for Freedom. He was the “principal founder” (in John Chamberlain’s words) of the Freeman in 1950 and an ally of William F. Buckley Jr. in the founding of National Review in 1955. Congressional anticommunists and right-wing newspaper columnists were among those who revered him as “the Chief.” As chairman of the two so-called Hoover Commissions (1947–49 and 1953–55) he attempted to streamline and even roll back the sprawling, post–New Deal federal bureaucracy. He assisted his protégé Robert Taft’s campaign for the 1952 presidential nomination. And he nurtured his Hoover Institution in California as an unequaled center of research and documentation on international communism.

There are elements of Hoover’s record in office that do not appeal to contemporary conservatives: his energetic expansion of the federal government’s role in economic life in the 1920s, for instance, and his assent to the Smoot-Hawley tariff (1930). Yet it is also evident that he was not a modern liberal. As a tireless exponent of voluntarism, he emphatically rejected the statist philosophies of communism, socialism, fascism, and the New Deal, and never abandoned his aversion to the overweening regulatory state. Moreover, unlike many latter-day liberals, he did not believe that government exists for the primary purpose of redistributing wealth. Equality of opportunity, not equality of result, was his governing principle. “The human particles,” he wrote, “should move freely in the social solution.”

Finally, more than any other man who has held the American presidency, Hoover was profoundly acquainted with the social systems of the Old World. He had seen, as he put it, “the squalor of Asia, the frozen class barriers of Europe.” He had seen the terrible consequences of imperialism, war, and revolution as few Americans ever had. And he had seen America in contrast.

This perception of contrast between Old World and New was the experiential core of Hoover’s social philosophy, and it had a profoundly conservative effect upon him. It gave him a lifelong understanding of America as a uniquely free, humane, classless society that had come closer to implementing its ideals than any other nation on earth.

In 1964, by then an admired pillar of the American Right, Hoover died at the age of ninety, following an astounding fifty years in public life. In sheer scope and duration it was a record without parallel in American history.

Further Reading
  • Best, Gary Dean. Herbert Hoover: The Postpresidential Years, 1933–1964. 2 vols. Stan-ford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.
  • Nash, George H. Herbert Hoover and Stanford University. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1988.
  • ———. The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer, 1874–1914. New York: Norton, 1983.
  • ———. The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914–1917. New York: Norton, 1988.
  • ———. The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917–1918. New York: Norton, 1996.
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