Are American voters ready to elect a President who openly questions the relevance of the Constitution (or who live-streams his dental hygiene visit)?
In 1964 Herbert Hoover died at the age of ninety. He had lived a phenomenally productive life, including more than half a century in one form or another of public service. It was a record that in sheer scope and duration may be without parallel in American history.
His life had begun in humble circumstances in 1874 in a little Iowa farming community, as the son of the village blacksmith. Orphaned before he was ten, Hoover managed to enter Stanford University when it opened its doors in 1891. Four years later he graduated with a degree in geology and a determination to become a mining engineer.
From then on, Hoover’s rise in the world was meteoric.
By 1914, at the age of forty, he was an internationally acclaimed and extraordinarily successful mining engineer who had traveled around the world five times and had business interests on every continent except Antarctica.
During World War I, Hoover, residing in London, rose to prominence as the founder and director of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, an institution that provided desperately needed food supplies to more than 9,000,000 Belgian and French citizens trapped between the German army of occupation and the British naval blockade. His emergency relief mission in 1914 quickly evolved into a gigantic humanitarian enterprise without precedent in world history. By 1917 he was an international hero.
When America declared war on Germany in 1917, Hoover returned home and became head of the United States Food Administration, a specially created wartime agency of the federal government. At the conflict’s victorious close in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched Hoover to Europe to organize food distribution to a continent careening toward disaster. There, for ten grueling months, he directed American-led efforts to combat famine and disease, establish stable postwar economies, and in the process check the advance of Bolshevik revolution from the East.
A little later, between 1921 and 1923, Hoover’s American Relief Administration administered a massive, emergency relief operation in the interior of Soviet Russia, where a catastrophic famine—Europe’s worst since the Middle Ages—had broken out. At its peak of operations, his organization fed upwards of ten million Russian citizens a day.
All in all, between 1914 and 1923 the American-born engineer-turned-humanitarian directed, financed, or assisted a multitude of international relief endeavors without parallel in the history of mankind. Tens of millions of people owed their lives to his exertions. It was later said of him that he was responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history.
During the Roaring Twenties Hoover ascended still higher on the ladder of public esteem. As secretary of commerce under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he quickly became one of the three or four most influential men in the U.S. government. In 1928 the “master of emergencies” (as admirers called him) was elected president of the United States in a landslide—without ever having held an elective public office.
Then came the Crash of 1929 and the most severe economic trauma this nation has ever experienced. During his tormented presidency, Hoover strained without stint to return his country to prosperity while safeguarding its political moorings. His labors—even now misunderstood—seemed unavailing, and in the election of 1932 his fellow citizens’ verdict was harsh. Before his single term as chief executive, Hoover’s career trajectory had curved unbrokenly upward. Now it headed pitifully down. On March 4, 1933 he left office a virtual pariah, maligned and hated like no other American in his lifetime.
And then, astonishingly, like a phoenix, he slowly rose from the ashes of his political immolation. Now came the final phase of Hoover’s career: his remarkable ex-presidency. For the next thirty-one-and-one-half years, in fair political weather and foul, the former chief executive became, in his self-image, a crusader—a tireless and very visible castigator of the dominant political trends of his day. He behaved as an ideological warrior more persistently and more fervently than any other former president in our history.
Why? Most of all, it was because Hoover perceived in the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt not a moderate and pragmatic response to economic distress but something more sinister: a revolutionary transformation in America’s political economy and constitutional order. Having espied the unpalatable future, Hoover could not bring himself to acquiesce.
It is this eventful period in Hoover’s career—and, more specifically, his life as a political pugilist from 1933 to 1955—that is the main subject of a long forgotten manuscript recently published for the first time. The Crusade Years: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath is a previously unknown memoir that Hoover composed during the 1940s and 1950s—and then, surprisingly, set aside. Placed in storage by his heirs after his death, the manuscript lay sequestered—its existence unsuspected by scholars—until 2009, when it was discovered among the files of another hitherto inaccessible Hoover manuscript being readied for posthumous publication.
This other tome, known informally as the Magnum Opus, addressed American foreign policy in the 1930s and 1940s. Part memoir, part diplomatic history, part polemic, it was a scathing indictment of what Hoover termed Franklin Roosevelt’s “lost statesmanship” during World War II. Hoover ultimately titled the book Freedom Betrayed. It was published in 2011 by the Hoover Institution Press.
The Crusade Years—a companion volume of sorts to the Magnum Opus—covers much the same time period on the American home front. It recounts Hoover’s family life after March 4, 1933, his myriad philanthropic interests, and, above all, what he termed his “crusade against collectivsm” in America life.
When Hoover left the White House in 1933, he was not yet fifty-nine years old and had no intention of receding mutely into the shadows. At the climax of the bitter election campaign of 1932, he had portrayed the decision facing the American electorate as more than a choice between two men and two parties. It was a “contest between two philosophies of government,” an election that would determine the nation’s course for “over a century to come.” The proposed New Deal, he had warned, was nothing less than a form of collectivism that would destroy the very foundations of the American system of life. In 1933 he forecast to a friend that the “impending battle in this country” would be between “a properly regulated individualism” (which he called “American Individualism”) and “sheer socialism.” He had no doubt as to which direction the New Deal was taking.
In September 1934 the former president published a book of political philosophy with the militant title The Challenge to Liberty. According to Hoover, the traditional American system of liberty, a system infused with the philosophy of historic liberalism, was under fundamental assault. Where liberalism championed the individual as master of the state and possessor of inalienable rights, alternative philosophies were now boldly advocating “the idea of the servitude of the individual to the state.” Among these philosophies—all sharing this fundamental premise—were Nazism, fascism, socialism, communism, and “regimentation” (his term for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal).
Anxious, in the new political environment, to clarify his own position, Hoover increasingly identified his political philosophy as “historic liberalism,” in contrast to what he scorned as the regimenting “false liberalism” of the New Deal. In 1937 he declared: “The New Deal having corrupted the label of liberalism for collectivism, coercion [and] concentration of political power, it seems ‘Historic Liberalism’ must be conservatism in contrast.”
With these words of recognition, Hoover’s political odyssey was complete. The one-time Bull Moose Republican and Wilsonian food regulator, the self-described “independent progressive” of early 1920, the assertive and reformist secretary of commerce whom Old Guard Republicans tried to block from the party’s presidential nomination in 1928: he, Herbert Hoover, had become a man of the Right.
The publication of The Challenge to Liberty marked Hoover’s emergence from a year-and-a-half of political exile. More importantly, it announced his postpresidential debut as a crusader-prophet: a role he did not relinquish until his death. Crisscrossing the country in the mid and late 1930s, he delivered an unceasing barrage of verbal fusillades against the New Deal and its defenders. In the process he became the Republican Party’s intellectual leader and President Roosevelt’s most formidable critic from the Right.
Hoover’s fight to save America from the curse of collectivism forms the centerpiece of The Crusade Years. In its pages readers will find fresh and sometimes caustic accounts of the great election contests of the New Deal era and of such upheavals as the Republican national convention of 1940. Here they will read candid appraisals of Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Harry Truman, and others with whom Hoover crossed paths (and sometimes swords).
But Hoover, one suspects, would be disappointed if we were to read The Crusade Years solely for its anecdotes. Although his book has the flavor of an apologia pro sua vita sua, plainly he intended it to be more.
His chosen title provides the critical clue. “Crusade”: how he savored this word as he scribbled away at his desk in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The stirring persona of a crusader, with its connotations of dynamism and idealism, was his cherished self-image, at a time when many of his enemies had dismissed him as a curmudgeon whom Roosevelt and history had passed by. Undaunted, Hoover fought on as a man with a mission, seeking not just the recovery of his reputation but the intellectual and spiritual rescue of a nation gone astray. In The Crusade Years he knew he was not just recording political history but waging a fateful battle of ideas.
And therein lies much of the book’s significance. In the 1930s and 1940s, both Hoover and his archrival Franklin Roosevelt knew that they were engaged in a contest for the American mind and political soul. What had gone wrong since the Crash of 1929? Was the Great Depression a crisis of capitalism, a product of Hooverian mismanagement, or a catastrophe brought on by uncontrollable happenings abroad? Was the New Deal a humane and pragmatic reform movement or a muddled and meddlesome experiment in collectivism? Did the traditional “American System” of limited government, private initative, and volunteerism apotheosized by Hoover fail disastrously in 1929-1932, or did his successor in the White House launch America on a dangerous and unnecessary spiral into socialism? Did the New Deal actually save American capitalism, or did it delay economic recovery and damage the wellsprings of future prosperity?
As Hoover foresaw in 1932, the answers to these questions would determine the nation’s course for generations to come. Unlike most men in politics then or since, he realized the supreme importance of constructing a compelling narrative of past events as a weapon in the ongoing war of political philosophies. Hence the fervency and persistence of his efforts in The Crusade Years to establish what he considered to be the proper narrative of the causes and course of the Great Depression. Hence his intellectual embrace of “true liberalism,” his trenchant assault on New Deal nostrums, and his anger at Republican politicians who evaded the ideological issues. Unless Americans had a correct understanding of their recent past, he feared, the future would belong to the advocates of statism.
Reading The Crusade Years, one is struck by how resonant Hoover’s arguments continue to be. As an unapologetic believer in American exceptionalism, he unceasingly resisted what he saw as the insidious “Europeanization” and “collectivization” of American society. To him the American system of ordered liberty was ineffably precious and must be preserved from the “gigantic poison” and “philosophic error” of utopian statism. Today one could easily take passages from The Crusade Years and convert them into blog posts: so current are the problems of political and economic philosophy that he addressed.
Fifty years after his death, Hoover remains, for many, a political orphan, unwelcome in liberal and conservative pantheons alike. It has been said of him that he was “too progressive for the conservatives and too conservative for the radicals.” But in the larger sweep of the twentieth century, Hoover the unflagging anti-New Dealer contributed mightily to the critique of ever-aggrandizing statism, a critique that has become integral to American conservatism. It was among the most enduring of his legacies—and one well worth pondering today.
This essay is adapted from the Editor’s Introduction to The Crusade Years.