We don’t need to find an earlier American President that we can compare Obama to, as we plan Obama’s retirement in 2012.
Our 31st President Herbert Hoover is mentioned in comparison, with all his mistakes in office that “caused” the Great Depression. And it is true that he made mistakes. He believed that government help for the poor was un-American; the government could only act as an advisor. He raised taxes. Then there was the Smoot Hawley Tariff bill, that almost destroyed international trade.
Still, we need to consider the man in the context of his times. When we do, a fairer picture emerges.
In history, there are known facts, and there are interpretations that go far beyond what is verifiable. Political spin takes over; truth gets lost. Credit is claimed for the good, while the bad is laid on the doorstep of a rival.
These are facts: Herbert Clark Hoover was born August 10, 1874. He died 90 years later, on October 20, 1964. He was our country’s 31st President of the United States, from 1929 to 1933. Going back in time, we see much more.
Hoover was born less than ten years after the Civil War. Although he was born in Iowa, a northern state, the country was only starting to rebuild. Times were hard.
Hoover’s father died in 1880. His mother died just four years later. Hoover was left an orphan at the age of nine. He was raised by relatives in various places, including California, where he grew up.
Hoover never attended high school. He attended night school and learned bookkeeping, typing, and math. He worked. Eventually he found his way to Stanford University, where he graduated in 1895 with a degree in geology. He began a career as a professional mining engineer and author just before the beginning of the 20th century. He was only 21 years old.
His early life shows drive, intelligence, and great organizational talent. He found work with a London-based mining company, which sent him to Australia in 1897. Good things followed.
He was appointed mine manager at 23, married his college sweetheart in 1899, had two sons, and moved to China as China’s leading engineer. There, he and his wife learned Mandarin Chinese - a tough language - and used it later in his Presidency when they wanted to elude eavesdroppers. In 1901 he returned to Australia as a partner in the same company he started with. He invented a way to mine zinc and started a corporation to develop it.
In 1908, he became an independent mining consultant, travelling worldwide until the outbreak of World War I. During those years, his lectures at Stanford and Columbia formed the basis of a standard textbook on mining. Hoover and his wife also translated a 1556 book on mining written in Latin, successful enough to become a primary source for many due to its cultural and historical descriptions. It is still in print. This was not an ordinary man.
It was during and after World War I that his humanitarian drive combined with his organizational talents to reveal a side of him few know about today. It should have gained Hoover a place in history for that alone.
He was in Belgium when war broke out. First, he organized an “American committee” that helped 120,000 stranded American tourists get home, leaving only 300 dollars of unpaid bills. His success there got him “drafted” to head an international group known as Belgian Relief.
The population of Belgium was starving. What food they could grow was often confiscated by occupying German forces. Under Hoover’s leadership, Belgian Relief spent $895 billion, which bought and distributed 5.7 million tons of food to 9.5 million civilians. Hoover spent two years of 14-hour days, working from London, crossing the North Sea 40 times in “shuttle diplomacy.” Much of his funding was from private sources.
After the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, President Wilson appointed Hoover head of the US Food Administration. Hoover was enormously successful. His motto: Food will win the war.
After the war, he helped feed Central Europe, Germany and even Russia. “Twenty million people are starving,” he declared. “Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.”
Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce under both Harding and Coolidge. He was so influential that after the war, the New York Times named Hoover “One of the Ten Most Important Living Americans.”
Maybe his biggest mistake was being unable to refute Roosevelt’s charge that Hoover was personally responsible for the Depression. He wasn’t. The Stock Market crash on Black Friday in 1929 happened only eight months after Hoover’s inauguration. Even Obama can’t work that fast.
It is common to think of the stock market crash and the Depression as one thing. But there is some evidence that they simply happened at the same time, and one did not cause the other.
And Hoover did institute public works like the Hoover Dam. He worked to feed the unemployed, through cooperative efforts with private and church organizations. Critics see this as too little, too late.
Maybe it was inexperience. The Presidency was Hoover’s first elected office.