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Justice to Herbert Hoover

In response to:

What This Country Needs… from the November 5, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Williams’s reappraisal of Herbert Hoover [NYR, November 5] attempts to do justice to a vastly underrated and misread man. The “great engineer” was one of the more impressive and influential of twentieth-century Americans. But the particular claims Williams advances for Hoover may rescue him beyond usefulness; Williams “yeses” Hoover to death when Hoover was in fact a complicated historical character.

Williams emphasizes Hoover’s attack on the corporate liberal state at home and the American empire abroad. He tells us that Hoover was willing to “let the system come apart at the seams rather than violate the system for the people.” Yet this emphasis fails to make clear that in many ways Hoover’s “system” is Williams’s violation. It tends to blur the clarity of a career whose thrust over fifty years was to establish in American life the reality of a “corporate-liberal” state, the domestic foundation and beneficiary of an empire of commerce and good works.

Williams’s Hoover attacks and dreads the consequences of government bureaucracy and social elitism: “If government per se took over—an elitist, bureaucratic, and community-destroying hell-on-earth.” But Hoover emerges as our most articulate prophet of technocratic elitism. In his 1909 engineering classic, The Principles of Mining, Hoover presents a model of mine organization:

The human units in mine organization can be divided into officers and men. The choice of mine officers is the assembling of specialized brains. Their control, stimulation, and inspiration is the main work of the administrative head. Success in the selection and control of staff is the index of executive ability. There are no mathematical, mechanical, or chemical formulas for dealing with the human mind or energies.

The emphasis is on managerial technical abilities as the key to problem solving. And Hoover extended this model to the management of American society. In his inaugural address as president of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers in 1920, Hoover told his fellow engineers that

The profession of engineering in the United States comprises not alone scientific advisers or industry but, in great majority, is comprised of the men in administrative positions. In such positions they stand midway between capital and labor …the engineers want nothing for themselves from Congress. They want efficiency in government, and you contribute to the maintenance of this department out of sheer idealism….

America’s problems are to be solved by a technical elite: “they require quantitative and prospective thinking and a sense of organization.” Standing outside of interest or class struggle, “midway between capital and labor,” asking nothing for themselves but the right to run things with neutral efficiency, Hoover’s engineers are the prototype for the modern technocracy he is supposed to have dreaded. Hoover’s attack on bureaucracy springs from the technocrat’s professional disdain for its old style corruption and unwieldiness. As for the people, Hoover’s conception remains cold and vague—without even the particularity of bitterness of Nixon’s silent legions. The people become, as Williams says, “the public per se,” to be controlled, stimulated or, should the occasion arise, inspired (by a great poem?) by a new class without wants or ties, except to the efficient operation of the system.

As President Wilson’s “food czar” during and after World War I, Hoover showed how efficient management might function to defuse radical threats to social order, short of armed intervention. In a letter to Wilson, he said, “The problem of sustaining life and maintaining order in enemy territories revolves primarily around the problem of food supplies….” As Wilson put it with Hoover’s advice (according to Hoover in The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson) to the Council of Ten:

Therefore, food should be supplied immediately, not only to our friends but also to those parts of the world where it was to our interest to maintain a stable government.

Hoover’s sensitivity to the roots of revolution in human suffering enabled him to see that the preferred way to oppose revolution was not military intervention but efficient managerial intervention (see his own history of the Bela Kun affair in The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson). To call Hoover a Quaker humanitarian and to leave it at that is vastly to underestimate the man.

As Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge, Hoover presided over the burgeoning American commercial empire (whose most penetrating historian is Professor Williams). Williams’s Hoover “was against the Empire”—just a good old American believer in the higher naïveté of barter. In 1920 Hoover told the engineers that

…we are faced with a new orientation of our country to world problems. We face a Europe still at war; still amid social revolutions; some of its peoples are still slacking on production; millions are starving; therefore the safety of its civilization is hanging by a slender thread. Every wind that blows carries to our shores an infection of social disease from this great ferment; every convulsion there has an economic reaction upon our own people. If we needed further proof of the interdependence of the world, we have it today in the practical blockade of our export market.

To this export market, the guarantee of American social order, Hoover turned his attention. It wasn’t supposed to be a political or military empire—Hoover didn’t think it would have to be. When he received the John Fritz Gold Medal (engineering’s highest professional honor) an admiring biographer wrote:

…with the voluntary aid of thousands of engineers, businessmen and industrialists, he developed the Department of Commerce into a powerful factor in industry and business through collection and convenient dissemination of information, through simplification, waste reduction and research—all carried on cooperatively.

This, one presumes, is what Williams means by the government as “leader of the public in coming together in cooperative action.” Cooperation is the key, but it is difficult to see the “beauty” of it all—or to see how Hoover differs from his imperial fellows in all of this.

Williams emphasizes President Hoover’s reluctance to abandon his principles of American individualism and community even in the face of the Depression, although he admits that the President proposed much of the New Deal’s solution. According to Barry Karl, the most exciting recent writer on Hoover, Hoover’s advocacy of the corporate liberal state as a means of social progress went rather further than Williams allows. He commissioned a research committee on social trends whose report “Recent Social Trends in America” appeared in 1933. “Financially the Rockefeller Foundation under a mandate from the President of the United States, the Committee was to provide the data with which to draw up blueprints for a peaceful revolution to make prosperity permanent.” And, it must be remembered that Hoover’s last contribution to American government was the commission bearing his name which rationalized the bureaucratic machinery of the previous twenty years and legitimized the directing social agency of the federal government.

Hoover did have misgivings. His prescient fears of the modern American state and its role in the world must be taken seriously. He was rightly concerned about America’s moral center. But he offered no coherent alternative; his articulated positions were creative of a nation he condemned only in moments. His fears were second thoughts. Williams tries to locate in these second thoughts a serious critique of American empire. Whatever his present success, the resulting pastoralization of Hoover fails. “You have to take Hoover whole.”

Robert Dawidoff

Instructor of History, Cornell University

Ithaca, N.Y.

W. A Williams replies:

I have reread the essay and I think it is clear (from several kinds of evidence) that I was not primarily concerned either to “rescue” Hoover or to offer a definitive judgment on his career. My central purpose was to challenge a complex of assumptions and attitudes and clichés and stereotypes that are revealed very clearly in the treatment of Hoover by large numbers on the left, as well as by most liberals.

That was relevant and useful, at least in my view, for two reasons: however implicitly or obliquely, Smith’s book does raise that issue; and the assumptions, et al., limit our ability to deal effectively and creatively with our present unhappy condition. Nor do I think that the careful and thoughtful reader will miss my criticisms of Hoover. Someone else might well have done it more effectively, but I will be content if Robert Dawidoff’s letter involves those readers that I put off.

As for his specific remarks, permit me a few observations:

1.) I think he seriously underestimates (especially for a historian) the process of development in Hoover’s thought. I think it mistaken, for example, to project Hoover’s 1909 remarks about mine organization down through his entire public career and present him at the end as an Acheson or Kennan kind of elitist. Or, to put it another way, I consider it far too facile to dismiss Hoover’s misgivings as mere “second thoughts.” For by that logic all changes in outlook (by anyone) can be disregarded: once you find the man you want to unzip, you set aside all else as incidental. I submit that Hoover’s second thoughts were more numerous and consequential than those entertained by the vast majority of his peers.

2.) I explicitly stated that Hoover opposed the Bolshevik Revolution. The point I was making is documented in these remarks to President Woodrow Wilson (March 28, 1919):

It simply cannot be denied that this swinging of the social pendulum from the tyranny of the extreme right to the tyranny of the extreme left is based on a foundation of real social grievance. The tyranny of the reactionaries in Eastern and Central Europe for generations before the war, and the suffering of their common people is but a commonplace to every social student. This situation was thrown into bold relief by the war and the breakdown of these reactionary tyrannies. After fighting actually stopped on the various fronts the famine which followed has further silhouetted the gulf between the lower and upper classes. The poor were starved and driven mad in the presence of extravagance and waste.

It is to be noted that the Bolshevik ascendency or even their strong attempts so far are confined to areas of former reactionary tyranny. Their courses represent the not unnatural violence of a mass of ignorant humanity, who themselves have learned in grief of tyranny and violence over generations. Our people, who enjoy so great liberty and general comfort, cannot fail to sympathize to some degree with these blind gropings for better social conditions….

3.) I think Dawidoff oversimplifies the question of Hoover and The Empire. Two points must be kept in mind: international trade will be an essential part of a drastically reformed or a revolutionary America (check the generation of 1776); and the problems of controlling the political ramifications of major trade patterns are not unique to capitalism. Hoover was trying to deal with the fact of international economic interdependence within a capitalistic framework; and was struggling to do so, as Dawidoff admits, in a way that would avoid the creation of a political and military empire.

To dismiss this, as Dawidoff does, with the remark that Hoover did not think such empire was necessary is not to the point. For if you think you can create such a network of interdependence without the political and military empire, and are also against such empire, then you avoid such action. That was precisely what Hoover undertook to do. His behavior thus presents a rather striking contrast with that of such predecessors as Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson—as well as with that of those who came later. The Empire (and I did capitalize both words) is by definition a political and military empire, and Hoover did oppose it in practice as well as in theory.

One can say that Hoover was too optimistic about the chances of preventing the expansion and consolidation of The Empire so long as capitalism was retained, but one cannot hold him responsible for the ideas and actions of other American leaders who did not follow his example.

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