The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

Hoover Institution
George H. Nash - 01/03/11

The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace is an internationally acclaimed research center, library, and archive situated on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Founded in 1919 by Herbert Hoover, thirty-first president of the United States and a Stanford alumnus, the institution has evolved into an extraordinary repository of documents on twentieth-century history as well as a home for some of the nation’s most distinguished conservative scholars.

Early in World War I, while directing a gigantic humanitarian relief enterprise in Europe, Hoover happened to read the autobiography of Andrew D. White, the first president of Cornell University. In it White described how he had assembled a vast collection of documents on the history of the French Revolution, including books, pamphlets, and other “fugitive publications.” Reading this passage, Hoover realized (he later remarked) that he was “in a unique position to collect fugitive literature” about another revolution: the global cataclysm that he himself was witnessing. He thereupon resolved to undertake an audacious project similar to White’s: the systematic collection of contemporary documents on the Great War before they were lost to history.

It was not until the war ended that Hoover could devote his energies to his dream. In 1919 he again found himself in Europe, as a member of the American mission to the Versailles peace conference. Seizing his opportunity, he provided $50,000 of his own money to Stanford University for the purpose of sending a representative to Europe to collect historical material on the war for the university library. Soon Hoover-financed representatives were scouring the continent for historical treasure and sending it back in torrents to his alma mater.

Once begun, his ambitious collecting program never ceased. Although originally focused on World War I and its aftermath, the venture gradually broadened to encompass virtually every twentieth-century social upheaval and every facet of international relations. By the mid-1920s, this library held the greatest assemblage of documents on the Russian Revolution in the noncommunist world. As the scope, value, and volume of acquisitions expanded, the repository underwent several renamings, assuming its present designation in 1957.

Throughout these decades Hoover contributed indefatigably to the development of his prestigious library-archive. The philanthropic founder, however, did not want it to become what he called “a dead storage for documents.” Particularly during the early years of the Cold War, he sought to enlist his institution’s incomparable resources on communism in an effort to awaken the American people and influence public policy. He hoped by a program of research and publications to demonstrate the evils of Marxism and to “reaffirm the validity of the American system.” In this the most famous son of Stanford found himself at ideological odds with his alma mater. Repeatedly during the late 1940s and 1950s he was embroiled in disputes with an increasingly liberal Stanford faculty and administration over his institution’s status, programs, and personnel. A bitter struggle for control of the entity developed. For more than a decade, to his chagrin and consternation, the institution he founded was largely staffed and administered by university appointees whose political views were antithetical to his own.

In 1958–59, after a climactic battle, Hoover wrested the institution from his antagonists and took steps to ensure its independence within the frame of the university. As part of this reorientation he selected a conservative economist, W. Glenn Campbell, to become the new director. During Campbell’s tenure (1960–89), the Hoover Institution grew rapidly into one of the nation’s most influential conservative “think tanks.” In 1960, its scholarly staff comprised a few curators; today, its resident fellows and visiting scholars number approximately 100. In 1960, the institution’s endowment was $2 million; today it is around $250 million. While Campbell continued the institution’s traditional commitment to foreign policy studies, he also increasingly emphasized domestic policy analysis from a free-market perspective. As the conservative political movement coalesced in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Hoover Institution scholars provided intellectual guidance, notably to Governor Ronald Reagan of California.

Under the directorship of John Raisian since 1990, the Hoover Institution describes itself as “one of the world’s leading research centers for the study of public policy.” Its library contains more than 1.6 million volumes; its archives include more than 50 million documents. Among its notable holdings are many relating to modern American conservatism, including the papers of James Burnham, Friedrich A. Hayek, Henry Regnery, Eric Voegelin, and the Mont Pelerin Society. The Hoover Institution Press regularly publishes scholarly monographs, documentary collections, and other works. The institution also produces a weekly public television program, Uncommon Knowledge.

It is the “think tank” feature of the Hoover Institution, however, that is most visible to the nation’s political elites. During the 1980s a significant number of its scholars served the Reagan administration in various capacities. Although by no means monolithically conservative, the institution remains celebrated on the American Right as the home of such individuals as Martin Anderson, Robert Conquest, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell. As a generator and purveyor of conservatively oriented scholarship and policy analysis the institution continues to excel.

Before he died in 1964, Hoover remarked that the founding of the Hoover Institution was probably the most important thing that he had done in his life. Certainly, the establishment of the California institution bearing his name was arguably his greatest gift to American conservatism.

Further Reading
  • Duignan, Peter C. The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace: Seventy-five Years of Its History. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1989.
  • Nash, George H. Herbert Hoover and Stanford University. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1988.
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