Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Hoover and the Great Depression

The Great Depression was an international economic catastrophe that lasted for a decade, 1929–1939. Its end came because of a second world catastrophe that caused a burst of industrial development and employment, a second Great War, in which 75 million died, two-thirds of them civilians, many of them victims of genocide. It was a high price to pay for full employment.
None of this was foreseen in 1928, when Herbert Clark Hoover (1874–1964) was elected the 31st President of the United States, succeeding the lackluster Calvin Coolidge. He won by a landslide, winning 60% of the popular vote, 40 of the then 48 states, and receiving 444 electoral votes, almost five times the number won by his Democratic opponent, Alfred E. Smith. 
He entered office with a record of outstanding public service. During the First World War and its aftermath he headed up a commission to provide food and relief to Belgium and other European nations ravaged by the war, and he carried out his duties with efficiency and compassion. During the Harding and Coolidge administrations, he served as Secretary of Commerce with distinction, an odd man out in otherwise very undistinguished and corrupt administrations; his reputation as a Progressive was well deserved. Like Wilson, he worried over the ill effects of industrial growth on the working class and the social effects of income inequality. 
Born in Iowa into a Quaker family of humble origins, he was a “scion of the common man”; Aaron Copland’s fanfare is a fitting accompaniment to his early life. Orphaned in early childhood, he had little formal education; in 1885 he went to live with his uncle, a physician in Oregon, whose only son had died the year before. In 1891 he was admitted to Stanford University, where he studied geology and trained to become a mining engineer. After graduation, he found employment with a British mining company, eventually becoming a partner. He gained an international reputation as an expert on mining techniques and metallurgy, and for his expertise in managing large, complex industrial processes. He wrote what became the standard textbook on mining practices. From all of this, he acquired a great fortune and an international reputation as a principled technocrat. 
He was also a political philosopher; he lectured at Stanford and Columbia. In 1922 he published “American Individualism,” which provides a clear, concise summary of his thinking, and a classic expression of what has come to be known as American exceptionalism. 
Hoover wrote that what distinguishes this nation from all other nations of the world — that is, what makes it exceptional — is American individualism. He observed that ever since the Enlightenment, individualism had become the ruling principle of European society. However, European individualism was selfish; its rule was “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” He contended that European nations based their foreign policies on it, and that it was the ideological cause of the Great War and the vengeful peace that followed it, which created resentment and fueled cruel political fantasies, perhaps more cruel in their consequences than any the world had ever seen.
However, Hoover wrote, American individualism is radically different. It is based on the premise that every individual is obliged to serve others, to strive for the common good. Service to others was for him the first rule of the moral life of individuals, and through them of government, and of every public institution. He labeled his doctrine “progressive individualism,” and it did indeed have a progressive ring to it: it required complete social equality, a classless society; universal education; equal opportunity and the promise to provide the means to all to develop to the fullest their native capacities, and to live by the dignity of their accomplishments. His presidential campaign even had progressive slogan: “a chicken in every pot.”
And yet, in spite of his progressive agenda, four years later, in his bid for reelection, Hoover was defeated by an even greater majority than what he had attained in 1928. Why did this happen? No doubt, many voters believed that the Great Depression, which began with the Stock Market Crash six months after he took office, was his fault. But that was not so. More likely it was due to a loss of confidence is his ability to deal with the crises that followed, in spite of his record of bringing food and relief to war ravaged Europe. 
The usual explanation is that Hoover looked with disfavor on direct government action, preferring to rely instead on the voluntary efforts of private initiative to reverse the downward course of the economy; but it was not forthcoming. He did propose that government initiate programs of public works — one instance of this is the construction of Hoover Dam, begun in 1931 — but he left it largely up to the states to implement these programs and to find the means to pay for them. One obstacle in his way may have been his very principle of individualism, which demanded of every citizen a large measure of self-reliance, and which made him reluctant to provide direct relief to individuals, in spite of the hard times they endured. 
After he left office, Hoover did not abandon his principles or his capability, or his desire to render some public service. In 1946, President Truman sent Hoover to Germany to recommend measures to provide food and relief, and measures for the reconstruction of Germany. A year later, Truman appointed Hoover to a commission, which came to be known as the Hoover Commission after he was elected chair, to make recommendations for a complete reorganization of the executive branch of U.S. government. He performed these duties with his usual competence.
Yet, reading his memoirs, one feels that his political defeat left him deeply saddened and resentful, and one cannot help but feel his pain. It must be said that no man displayed the character of an American conservative better than he; this may be his legacy.
Postscript: Hoover’s “American Individualism” is available in a paperback edition, and is worth reading. In preparing this essay, I have relied on “The American People in the Great Depression” by David M. Kennedy, and John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Great Crash, 1929,” both in paperback. Consult your local bookshop. 

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