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Hoover Makes a Comeback

George W. Norris: The Triumph of a Progressive, 1933-1944

by Richard Lowitt
University of Illinois Press, 493 pp., $20.00

Young Bob” La Follette: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr. 1895-1953

by Patrick J. Maney
University of Missouri Press, 338 pp., $18.00

David Burner’s able biography of Herbert Hoover raises anew the ever diverting problem of the fluctuation in historical reputations. For many years Hoover’s standing was as low among historians as it had been among voters during the Depression. He was portrayed as the embodiment of the illusions and complacencies of the New Era, a cold, self-righteous president who misconceived the problems of his age and determinedly sacrificed human beings on the altar of dogma.

In recent years, Hoover has made an astonishing comeback. Far from having been a dour conservative, he was, some scholars now contend, the leading progressive of his day. Far from having been the enemy of the New Deal, he was its true begetter. Far from having a mind frozen in the past, he was prophetic in his anticipations of the American dilemmas of the twentieth century—a man who “understood the necessity of accepting the Future,”1 who is “emerging as a major twentieth-century prophet.”2

The work of rehabilitation has followed two rather incompatible lines. One approach emphasizes the continuities between the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations—a proposition expounded originally by Walter Lippmann. “If there has been anything in the nature of a sharp break with the past,” Lippmann wrote in 1935,

the break occurred not in March, 1933, when Mr. Roosevelt was inaugurated, but in the autumn of 1929 when, with the collapse of the post-war prosperity, President Hoover assumed the responsibility for recovery…. The policy initiated by President Hoover in the autumn of 1929 was something utterly unprecedented in American history…. He intervened at every point in the national economy where he felt that something needed to be done. For that reason, it may be said, I believe, that his historic position as a radical innovator has been greatly underestimated and that Mr. Roosevelt’s pioneering has been greatly exaggerated…. All the main features of the Roosevelt program were anticipated by Mr. Hoover.3

A generation later some historians started to embrace Lippmann’s position, as in Carl Degler’s influential essay of 1963, “The Ordeal of Herbert Hoover.” It was, Degler said, Hoover, not Roosevelt, who deserved credit for “breaking precedent to grapple directly with the Depression.” Hoover’s principles, according to Degler, “were distinctly and publicly progressive.”4

The other approach also claims Hoover as a progressive but accepts the traditional view of a sharp break between Hoover and Roosevelt, and asserts that in general Hoover was right and Roosevelt wrong. This approach has particularly attracted the anti-liberal historians of what used to be called the New Left. The Hoover revival was slow to take hold here too. In his book of 1950, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947, William Appleman Williams had dismissed Hoover as one more miscreant in his rogue’s gallery of American leaders charged with attempts to increase American foreign trade. But by 1960, in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, he discovered great virtue in Hoover as the advocate of cooperation at home and isolationism abroad. By 1976 rehabilitation was turning almost into sanctification. Hoover, Williams wrote in America Confronts a Revolutionary World, understood

that the possessive individualism of the capitalist marketplace would give way to some other principle of organization and action…. His preference was to revive the concept and practice of active citizenship which would lead people to come together in cooperative ventures to build a better America.

In the 1970s the Hoover rehabilitation project entered the collective phase. A conference of Hoover scholars of diverse faiths gathered at Geneseo, New York, and produced in 1974 a valuable volume of essays, edited by Martin L. Fausold and George T. Mazuzan, The Hoover Presidency: A Reappraisal. The 1975 biography by Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive, was warmly endorsed by Appleman Williams, and provided an intelligent and informative summary of the revisionist case. In his new biography David Burner now argues this case with minor variations and at greater length.

Herbert Hoover: A Public Life has many excellences. It is diligently researched and generally well written. (Burner is, however, too good a writer to use, as he habitually does, the future conditional in place of the past tense: thus “Hoover’s second Secretary of Labor, William Doak, would spend much time tracking down and deporting aliens” instead of “spent much time.” He should also forgo the horrid usage “convince…to.”) The tone is incisive and dryly detached, and the text has sensitive and subtle insights into character and politics. The account of Hoover’s career as engineer, promotor, and speculator before the First World War is especially fresh and authoritative.

At the same time, the text displays evidence of haste or carelessness. Quotations are repeated. Charles Michelson is transmuted into Michaelson. Alfred M. Landon receives the wrong middle initial. Burner writes of Hoover and FDR, “Both were capitalists, Roosevelt probably being the wealthier of the two.” Actually they were not capitalists in at all the same sense. Roosevelt was a country squire, a lawyer, a rentier; Hoover was a businessman; and Hoover was almost certainly the wealthier of the two. Burner writes that Hoover “seriously considered” George W. Norris as his running-mate in 1932, a statement for which he offers no evidence and which is wholly unlikely.5

Burner’s attitude toward Hoover is sympathetic without being defensive. On occasion, though, sympathy leads to giving Hoover most of the breaks in the controversial passages of his life; in the matter of Hoover’s signing of the fiercely protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, for example, or of Hoover’s suppression of the Bonus March in 1932, where Burner seems to accept the idea that Communists were a significant element in the Bonus Army. It is instructive to compare Burner’s enthusiastic account of Mrs. Hoover’s White House tea party for Mrs. Oscar de Priest, the wife of a black congressman, with the acidulous description of Hooverian vacillation and anguish provided by the White House usher, Irwin H. Hoover, in Forty-two Years in the White House.

Burner disputes the view that Hoover was reluctant about signing the Norris-LaGuardia Act designed to protect workers by outlawing yellow-dog contracts and restricting labor injunctions. Norris himself later said, “We never received any assistance of any kind from the Department of Justice in the Hoover administration. There was that impenetrable wall of opposition, an opposition not voiced, not out in the open, but under cover, silent and effective.” Hoover, Norris wrote, had no choice but to sign the bill, since the overwhelming vote in its favor in both houses showed that it would have been passed over a presidential veto.6

Burner’s attempts at rehabilitation follow, if at a distance, the Williams-Wilson rather than the Lippmann-Degler line. Albert U. Romasco had earlier destroyed the thesis that Hoover’s Depression effort represented “unprecedented innovation when compared to the tradition of prior recession presidents, who, in effect, waited passively for recovery.” After close examination of the three major twentieth-century economic disruptions before 1929—the banking panic of 1907, the recession of 1914, and the depression of 1920-1921—Romasco showed that Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Harding had established precedents on which Hoover drew in 1929-1932. All had issued statements of exhortation and reassurance. T. R. had provided direct federal aid to the banks, expanded the currency and facilitated the reduction of interest rates; Wilson had intervened to put a floor under stock prices and to relieve pressure against the banking system; Harding had met depression by programs of agricultural credit, tariff protection, and tax reduction (the last, alas, not a precedent for Hoover). “The long-standing contention that no president, prior to Hoover, accepted federal responsibility for assuring the economic well-being of the nation,” Romasco concluded, “needs to be considerably modified, if not abandoned altogether.”7

Burner goes on from this to stress the fundamental differences between the Hoover and Roosevelt approaches. “It is too much to claim,” he writes,

that the Hoover administration anticipated the New Deal and that Roosevelt just filled in the cracks. The New Deal was so broad in scope, such a panoply of measures came out of it, that the average citizen was made to feel the presence of the federal government for the first time. Hoover’s response to the Depression, in contrast, was characterized—and deeply marred—by his tenacious adherence to a philosophy of voluntarism. The experiences of his administration forewarned its successors that an attempt to reduce government spending did not end depressions and that voluntary agencies and businessmen would not sacrifice to end them either. After Hoover, no one could say that the federal government had rushed in before private agencies had been given a chance. The way was clear for a New Deal.

The sharp break with the past did in fact occur in March 1933, and the nature of the break, as Burner recognizes, lay in the change from voluntarism to law as the means of ordering the economy. Elliot A. Rosen elaborates this view in his stimulating and combative Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust. “Hoover was no progressive,” Rosen writes, “nor was he the precursor of the interventionist policies of the New Deal. His depression measures were designed to preserve existing institutional relationships, not to alter them…. As he viewed the programs unfolded in the New Deal era in 1936, the former Republican president labelled them manifestations of socialism and fascism, ideologies that had come to infest much of the Western World and which needed to be kept from our shores.”8 Hoover was in dead earnest when he cried at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1932:

This campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government…. They are proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of our American system.

Or at least of his American system: the system based on the principle of voluntarism, by which it was left to each individual to choose whether or not he would perform his social duty. Those who claim Hoover as the father of the New Deal must contend first of all with Hoover himself. The Williams-Wilson line, on the other hand, has only to take Hoover at his word. Burner is not so certain as Williams that Hoover’s reliance on voluntary action presented a live option. Still he has no doubt that Hoover was a progressive—“an engineer’s progressivism, stressing efficient organization, sensible ways to progress, and a morality centered on workmanship.” It was, according to Burner, “a robust, balanced progressivism” that had “a good deal in common with that of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt.” The content of this “progressivism” turns out to be a scheme by which “various units of the economy could regulate themselves under some degrees of supervision.” Such progressivism would avoid “not only the power of government over business but the syndicalist power of business in government.”

Hoover’s, Burner concedes, was “a ‘corporatist’ ideology, a concept of society as organized into functionally independent economic units—voluntarily decentralized while self-governing and self-regulating.” Hoover’s chosen instrument was the trade association: as Lenin had said “all power to the soviets,” Hoover (almost) said “all power to the trade associations.” In the words of Murray Rothbard, “Throughout his career culminating in the Presidency, Herbert Hoover sought to transform the American economy into one of collaborating, self-regulating monopoly groups, all under the benevolent aegis and central direction of the federal government.”9 Hoover’s “guiding vision,” writes Ellis W. Hawley, “seemed to be a structure of semiformal guilds or estates, each represented in a larger economic community and each having positive social obligations.”10

  1. 1

    William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976 (Morrow, 1976), p. 180.

  2. 2

    Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (Little, Brown, 1975), p. 275.

  3. 3

    Walter Lippmann, The New Imperative (Macmillan, 1935), pp. 12-13, 20.

  4. 4

    Carl Degler, “The Ordeal of Herbert Hoover,” Yale Review, Summer 1963.

  5. 5

    One can understand Burner’s desire for “every possible economy in annotation”; but students will find his system of annotation mystifying. There are many references to the papers of Walter Liggett, for example, but no indication where the papers are to be found. Arresting quotations are made from Rexford G. Tugwell (p. 244), Walter Lippmann (p. 251), Henry Pringle (p. 255), Thomas W. Lamont (p. 298), and others, but the footnotes do not indicate where the quotes are from.

  6. 6

    George W. Norris, Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris (Macmillan, 1945), pp. 314-315.

  7. 7

    Albert U. Romasco, “Herbert Hoover’s Policies for Dealing with the Great Depression: The End of the Old Order or the Beginning of the New?”, Martin L. Fausold and George T. Mazuzan, eds., The Hoover Presidency (State University of New York Press, 1974), pp. 69-86.

  8. 8

    Elliot A. Rosen, Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust: From Depression to New Deal (Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 40.

  9. 9

    Murray Rothbard, “The Hoover Myth,” James Weinstein and D. W. Eakins, eds., For a New America (Random House, 1970), p. 174.

  10. 10

    Ellis W. Hawley, “Herbert Hoover and American Corporatism, 1929-1933,” in Fausold and Mazuzan, The Hoover Presidency, p. 104.

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