The Presidents of the USA



Herbert C. Hoover
A qualified executive who failed to provide effective leadership in the most severe crisis. He could not halt and manage the Great Depression. His beliefs prevented him from taking drastic steps. When he stepped down, the country was paralyzed and he was universally hated.

Born Aug. 10, 1874, West Branch, Iowa
Political partyRepublican
EducationStanford University, B.A., 1895
Military service none
Previous public office♦ U.S. food administrator, 1917-19
♦ U.S. secretary of commerce, 1921-29
Subsequent public office ♦ administrator, civilian relief in Europe, 1945-47;
♦ chair of two Commissions on the Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, 1947-49, 1953-55
DiedOct. 20, 1964, New York, N.Y.
picture of Herbert C. Hoover

Early Life

On Aug. 10, 1874, Herbert Hoover was born at West Branch, Iowa, of Quaker ancestry. His father died when he was 6 and, after his mother's death less than 3 years later, he went to live with an uncle in Oregon. In 1891 he entered Stanford University, where he specialized in geology.

After graduating, Hoover worked as a mining engineer in the western United States, Australia, and China. In 1901 he became a junior partner in a London-based mining firm and 7 years later set up on his own. During these years he amassed a fortune estimated at $4 million. In 1899, he married his college sweetheart, Lou Henry and they had two sons.

He and his wife, Lou, became fluent in Chinese and were active in the relief of foreigners trapped in the Boxer Rebellion. The Hoovers traveled all over the world on business. By 1908 Herbert Hoover was the head of his own engineering and oil exploration company. In 1909 his lectures at Columbia and Stanford Universities were published as Principles of Mining, which became a standard textbook.

In 1914 Hoover was asked by the U.S. consul general in London to supervise the evacuation of 120,000 Americans trapped in Europe at the outbreak of World War I. That same year he became chairman of the privately organized Committee for Relief in Belgium, with the mission of preventing famine in that nation. In three years he raised and spent $1 billion for food relief in Europe

Political Career

He was so successful that in May 1917 President Woodrow Wilson called him back to head the U.S. Food Administration. After the armistice he was placed in charge of the American Relief Administration, organized to feed war-ravaged Europe. When the congressional appropriation ran out, Hoover successfully appealed for private contributions to keep the work going.

Hoover was talked of as a possible 1920 presidential candidate by admirers in both parties. Although he publicly declared himself a Republican, the party's Old Guard disliked him because he was a late convert, and its isolationist wing disapproved of his advocacy of the League of Nations. Republican president Warren G. Harding, however, appointed him secretary of commerce, a post he held through the following administration of Calvin Coolidge.

Hoover transformed the Commerce Department into an effective instrument for implementing his philosophy -individualism, equal opportunity for all. He fostered the growth of trade associations to bring improved efficiency and stability to industry, promoted American foreign trade, and expanded the Department's information and statistical services. He also set up a Division of Housing to encourage home building, built the Bureau of Standards into one of the country's leading scientific research institutions, and successfully pushed for stronger government regulation of the commercial aviation and radio industries.

Believing that management and labor must cooperate for the good of all, he favored collective bargaining (though not the closed shop), worked behind the scenes to resolve labor disputes, and encouraged development of privately financed unemployment insurance. For relief to farmers he opposed government price-fixing of agricultural products, instead favoring increased Federal assistance to farm marketing cooperatives.

After Coolidge decided not to run again in 1928, Hoover was the popular choice of the party rank and file and won the Republican presidential nomination on the first ballot. In the election he defeated Democrat Alfred E. Smith by over 6 million votes, even breaking the "solid South."

Hoover's campaign slogan was “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” His promise of continued prosperity ensured his election.


At first Hoover tried to modernize government by creating national commissions on conservation and law enforcement and study groups to improve management of Indian affairs, veterans hospitals, and federal prisons. He got Congress to create a new Federal Farm Board, which helped farmers market their products at stable prices.

But Hoover's administration was soon preoccupied with the effects of the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday. Following the crash, industrial production plummeted, the gross national product (the total amount of goods and services produced) fell by almost a third, and unemployment soared from 3 to 25 percent by the end of his term.

Hoover responded with a tax cut to stimulate demand for goods and $400 million in public works projects. He also got the Federal Reserve Board to increase the supply of money, which resulted in lower interest rates and enabled corporations to borrow money cheaply for new projects. In 1930 he signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which raised tariff rates and depressed international trade. Though designed to protect U.S. industry, it further weakened the position of American companies by reducing their exports and led to even higher unemployment, especially in the farm sector, because of foreign retaliation against U.S. farm exports.

By May 1931 the crash of European stock markets and the resultant depression in Europe made the situation in U.S. industries dependent on foreign trade and investment even worse. Hoover vetoed a bill passed by the Republican Senate to provide $1 billion in veterans' bonuses, an action Democrats seized upon as an indication of his callousness.

In 1932 his administration convinced Congress to create and fund the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to lend money to new enterprises, banks, and city and state governments, but Hoover initially balked at the large amounts Congress was willing to appropriate. The nation viewed his efforts as too little, too late.

When more than 100,000 unemployed veterans of World War I marched to Washington in 1932 to ask for early payment of their bonuses and other federal assistance, two of the Bonus Marchers were killed in clashes with local police. On July 28, Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to use the army to disperse the marchers. MacArthur went beyond Hoover's orders and sent his troops in to destroy their tent city as well. Hoover had turned the military against the very soldiers who had fought for the flag in 1918. The "Bonus Army" incident and accepting responsibility for MacArthur's burning of the veterans' camps was his worst blunder and made him even more unpopular.

Hoover's record in international affairs was not much better.

The London Naval Treaty of 1930 acceded to the Japanese naval preeminence in the Pacific. In September 1931 the Japanese embarked on a course of aggression by attacking Manchuria, in northern China. Hoover refused to respond with economic sanctions.

The European depression made it difficult for Germany to pay World War I reparations to Allied nations or for those nations to pay back their war loans to the United States. Hoover refused to support proposals to cancel some debts, coordinate monetary policy with Europeans, or lower tariffs to stimulate trade. All the European nations except Finland were not in position to pay their debts.

In 1932, although renominated by his party, Hoover was defeated by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. His defeat was the worst suffered by an incumbent President since William Howard Taft's in 1912.

In his last months in office, unemployment climbed to more than one-quarter of the work force. Banks failed in record numbers as people panicked and took their money out.

When Hoover left office in March 1933, nearly the entire United States economy was paralyzed.


Hoover wrote 30 books after he retired from the White House, including three volumes of memoirs and The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, a study of Wilson's failure to obtain Senate consent to the Treaty of Versailles. It was the first time one former President had written a book about another former President.

During World War II Hoover tried unsuccessfully to organize food relief efforts to nations occupied by Nazi Germany. After the war he served as coordinator of the European Food Program, advised the U.S. government on occupation policies in Germany and Austria, and chaired two Commissions on the Organization of the Executive Branch of Government that made recommendations for greater efficiency.

Throughout the 1920s, World War II, and into the 1940s and 1950s, he supported various ways to avoid military conflict. His belief in the superiority of American capitalism made him fear neither fascism nor communism

He remained associated with the conservative wing of the Republican party, and he was asked for advice by leading politicians from his party, including Richard Nixon.

When he died on Oct. 20, 1964, Hoover was widely respected as one of the nation's foremost elder statesmen.

He was 90; John Adams was the only President who lived longer.


Hoover became President just as the Great Depression put millions of Americans out of work.

He had made his reputation as an engineer and business entrepreneur and then had been one of the most effective cabinet secretaries in the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Yet Hoover made minimal efforts to end the depression because he was convinced that the business cycle would take care of economic recovery with minimal intervention and that “prosperity was just around the corner.”

His failure to provide effective leadership doomed him to a one-term Presidency and gave the Democrats an opportunity to dominate national politics for a generation.

When Hoover left office, he was probably the most hated president in American history. Only the passage of time led to a fairer judgment.

In his personal relations Hoover was affable and genial, a sensitive and humane idealist - qualities he was unable to project to the public. His sensitivity to criticism led to poor relations with the press, and his resistance to direct Federal relief made him appear callous to the suffering around him.

The bottom-line is that he failed. He could not halt the severest economic depression in American history. His governmental theories prevented him from taking drastic steps.

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