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Book Review: Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

Review by Philip R. Devlin. 
My interest in Hoover came about in high school when one of my history teachers—Joe Dolan—told our class an interesting anecdote about Hoover. Mr. Dolan was serving as a history teacher in school year 1964-65 in West Berlin, Germany. He taught the sons and daughters of NATO personnel there. On one October day in 1964, he left school and emerged onto a street in West Berlin. He immediately noticed a group of elderly German women openly weeping. He asked why they were weeping. He was told that they just heard that Herbert Hoover had died. Mr. Dolan was entirely amazed. Like most Americans, he had grown up thinking that Hoover was responsible for the Great Depression and was, therefore, poorly regarded. You know, “Hoovervilles” and all of that.
Mr. Dolan soon learned that there was more to Hoover—much more. Herbert Hoover was regarded as a hero in Europe. His intervention as the American Food Administrator was so successful that he is credited with saving the lives of at least 100 million people!
Maxim Gorky—the famous Russian writer—said this in a letter to Hoover:
In the past year you have saved from death three and one-half million children, five and one-half million adults. In the history of practical humanitarianism, I know of no accomplishment which in…magnitude and generosity can be compared to the relief you have actually accomplished.
Hoover, who loathed Communism, said this about starving Russians: “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.” (p. 273)
Hoover was no pencil-pushing administrator holed up in an office. He used some of his own considerable fortune made in mining to pay for more than 40 trips between England and the continent to cajole and to convince political leaders of various stripes to allow his food to be distributed. His powers of persuasion were considerable, and his dogged determination and work ethic bordered on the incredible.
“Those new to his orbit marveled at his stamina and powers of concentration.” (p.200)
American Ambassador to England Walter Hines Page:
Life is worth more, too, for knowing Hoover. But for him Belgium would be starved…He has a fleet of thirty-five ships, flying the Commission’s flag—the only flag that all belligerents have entered   an agreement to respect and to defend. He came to me the other day and said, “You must know the Commission is $600,000 in debt. But don’t be uneasy. I’ve given my personal note for it…” He’s a simple, modest energetic little man who began his career in California and will end it in heaven; and he doesn’t want anyone’s thanks. (p. 172)
Early in the Great War, Hoover headed up the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB). One ambassador said this about the CRB: “The CRB is one of the modern wonders of the world…” (p.163)
“Although aloof from his associates at a personal level, he impressed them with the integrity of his work and his passion for his cause, and he commanded a high degree of loyalty. One journalist credited Hoover with exercising a strange, mesmerizing low-voltage magnetism A diplomat, after meeting him, said: “Somehow I feel like doing what that man asked me to.” (p.172)
Hoover, like John Maynard Keynes, thought the Treaty of Versailles a disaster, calling it “a document of hatred and revenge.” His words proved prophetic.
In 1938 Hoover returned to Europe where frenzied crowds in 14 nations embraced him and honored him for saving their lives during and after World War I. Whyte uses the phrase “round-the-clock adulation” to describe Hoover’s 1938 trip to Europe. (p. 558)
Following World War II, President Truman tapped Hoover’s managerial skills once again to feed starving millions in war torn Europe. Once again, he delivered masterfully.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Whyte’s book is the degree to which he goes to connect original Hoover proposals for Depression relief to FDR’s New Deal:
                “…A pattern was established that would play out time and again over the next four years, with New Dealers taking applause for initiatives that had been fathered by Hoover. ”When we all burst into Washington,” wrote Raymond Moley, “we found every essential idea of the New Deal anticipated in whole or in part, by the previous administration.”
Glass-Steagall banking reforms of the New Deal? A Hoover initiative brought to fruition by FDR. FDIC? Another Hoover initiative. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation? Another Hoover idea. FDR insider, Rexford Tugwell, “later traced a long list of New Deal ventures to Hoover’s years as Secretary of Commerce and as president and concluded that the New Deal owed much to what he had begun.” (p.537).
When being interviewed by David Frost just months before he was assassinated in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was asked by Frost in a live interview which historical figure he admired most. Answer: Herbert Hoover.
This is an insightful and interesting book—beautifully written and well documented. It goes a long way toward reappraising the life of this extraordinary American, who ought to be remembered and honored more than he is for his long list of exceptional achievements.
When Hoover’s coffin was brought to the Capitol rotunda in October of 1964, the Reverend Frederick B. Harris, chaplain of the Senate, recalled Hoover’s humanitarianism with these words:
“The daring projects he assumed threw bridges across the gulf of misery—bridges of mercy and help…food, clothing and medicine for millions, including huddled armies of children who otherwise would have perished. And so it is ours today to gratefully salute one who brought sustenance to more starving humans than any other man who has ever walked this earth.”

One Response to Book Review: Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

  1. Stew Gillmor

    January 11, 2018 at 9:49 am

    In a broad sense, it was Herbert Hoover, not Al Gore, who “invented” the Internet. As Secretary of Commerce about 1922, Hoover envisioned an electronic communications system linking U.S. universities and colleges and set aside the 1,290-meter wave band (230-235 KHz)for U. S.educational institutions. (A half century later saw the beginnings of such a network with the development of the ARPANet.