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

Senator George Norris
Senator George Norris; drawing by David Levine

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…

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