Saturday, November 14, 2009

Herbert Hoover, by Joan Hoff Wilson

Herbert Hoover is one of my favorite presidents. Hoover often is blamed for a depression that was caused by international monetary valuations, widespread equities speculation, and punitive war reparations. Meanwhile, his successor often is created with ending the depression, even though he took over a decade to do it, and only accomplished it by starting a war with Japan.

The subtitle of this book is "Forgotten Progressive," and Wilson's point in writing it is to show what aspects of Hoover's politics were progressive. Because of the Depression he is (wrongly) remembered as a reactionary, but in fact he was at the cutting-edge of progressive economic thought. In his tenure at Commerce he pioneered government intervention in capitalist markets, and much of the New Deal was really just Hooverism without Hoover's regard for the Constitution. Hoover is often said to have done nothing, but the argument is sometimes made that he did too much, that the Depression would have played itself out more quickly without the economic recovery schemes. What recovery there was by late 1932 was destroyed by Roosevelt who wanted the advantage of taking office at the bottom of the trough. The opening chapter of The Roosevelt Myth shows an unbelievably heartless man who somehow has made it through history as the champion of the little guy.

I don't know that I would read this book again. It didn't tell me much I didn't already know from my other readings on Hoover and the Depression. But for someone unfamiliar with the subject, it might be worthwhile. I have read Hoover's memoirs, and Wilson is pretty critical of the favorable treatment Hoover gives himself therein. One thing I did learn from Wilson, though, is that Hoover wrote an unpublished manuscript entitled Freedom Betrayed detailing the way in which the Reds ran circles around American foreign policy in the first decade after World War II, but the book is so highly libelous that it has never been published. It is the property of the Hoover Institute at Stanford, and I now have a new goal in my life: I have to read that manuscript.

I'll end this review with my favorite Hoover story, which comes from his memoirs, and which Wilson doesn't mention at all. During his summers at Stanford, Hoover was an assistant on geology expeditions in the Sierra Nevadas. On one expedition he was quartermaster, having to account to government overseers in Washington for the use of funds and materials. One night a tied-up mule tried to scratch its nose with its hind leg, but got the leg tangled in its tied-up reins. Trying to yank its leg free, it broke its own neck and died. When Hoover wrote East to tell of it, he was told in reply that mules don't ever do that, and he was personally responsible for the cost of the mule. (The expedition's leader, who knew the truth of it, covered the mule's cost.) But this instance led to Hoover taking a life-long interest in artwork that showed mules scratching their noses with their hind legs. He even once bought a small statuette of a mule doing just that.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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