Reappraising Herbert Hoover

Editor’s note: Stephen Schuker, a first-time contributor to Law and Liberty, assesses in this post the lengthy volume Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War. Published in 2011, the book contains  Herbert Hoover’s arguments that America’s commitments to individual and economic liberty and restrained foreign policy were betrayed by the Roosevelt administration and in subsequent postwar domestic and foreign policies. For a conversation with George Nash, editor of Freedom Betrayed and author of the book’s excellent introduction, about Hoover’s political and humanitarian career and his motivations in writing this grand book see this Liberty Law Talk podcast.

On 4 March 1933 Herbert Hoover accompanied his successor to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony.  The two men maintained a frosty silence.  As the economy spiraled down during the presidential interregnum, Franklin Roosevelt had refused to cooperate with the outgoing chief executive in any way.  Hoover then left for Union Station, rejected by the American people, seemingly a broken man.  Worse was to come.  When Hoover boarded the train, his secret service detail melted away.  A mob assailed him when he reached New York.  Taking up residence at the Waldorf-Astoria, he found his phones tapped, his mail opened.  Several members of his administration would shortly receive unwelcome scrutiny from the IRS.  Even more galling, Roosevelt adopted some of Hoover’s policies, but accorded him no credit.  The Republican Treasury secretary stayed on sub rosa and reopened the banks, but no one appeared to notice who had expertise and who did not.  A lesser man than Hoover would have collapsed.  Instead, Hoover rallied, sustained by his indomitable spirit and iron self-discipline.  Over the next thirty-one years, he published more than thirty books.  When Roosevelt’s biographer inquired about the secret of his productivity, Hoover replied simply: “I outlived the bastards.”

Except when giving speeches or supervising the growing collections of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, the ex-president sat tethered to his desk twelve or thirteen hours a day.  After his wife died, he often rose in the middle of the night to labor two more hours.  He kept six secretaries and a Ph.D. research assistant fully employed.  Having caught the spirit of the age in his 1922 volume, American Individualism, a paean to the country’s exceptionalism and voluntarist tradition, Hoover followed in 1934 and 1936 with trenchant analyses of what he called New Deal collectivism.  As Hoover saw it, the intrusion of the Leviathan state into every corner of American life would lead sooner rather than later to a curtailment of personal liberties and economic freedom.  He thus anticipated the critique of central planning that Friedrich Hayek in ­The Road to Serfdom would later embed in a formal methodology.  Hoover also churned out three thick volumes of memoirs, a four-volume chronicle of his efforts to provide food relief during and following the world wars, two studies of Woodrow Wilson, innumerable collections of speeches, and even a book on fishing.  The list does not count the twenty-odd volumes put out by the postwar Hoover Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government.

Somewhat unrealistically, Hoover aspired to win renomination for the presidency in 1940.  After the Republican party turned instead to the interventionist Wendell Willkie, Hoover renounced electoral politics and began working in earnest on what he called his magnum opus—a multi-volume and ever-expanding critique of Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policies.  The ultimate result is the posthumous publication, Freedom Betrayed, which carries on the story of American intervention abroad through the second Truman administration.  George Nash, who crafted the first three volumes of the standard Hoover biography as well as widely admired accounts of the conservative movement since 1945, put the book together and contributes a superb scholarly introduction.

Time hung heavy on Hoover’s hands during World War II.  Notwithstanding the ex-president’s restless energy, Roosevelt categorically barred him from any sort of national service, even in a relief organization like UNRRA.  All the same, Hoover managed to stay relatively well informed owing to his numerous contacts in the Washington bureaucracy and foreign embassies.  As the war ground on, Hoover became steadily more pessimistic.  He feared that the United States could hardly escape a species of friendly Fascism at home, whatever happened on the battlefield.  He also developed a premonition that, contrary to the winged words of the Atlantic Charter, more people would live under totalitarian regimes after the war than before it.

Hoover conceived the “War Book” as a prosecutor’s brief.  He leaves no stone unthrown.  Yet despite two decades of unremitting labor, the study remained in draft form at his death in 1964.  Hoover considered the manuscript his last will and testament.  His executors, however, thought the book too intemperate to enhance his reputation and decided, probably wisely, to adjourn publication.  The ex-president seems never to have heard of the historian A.J.P. Taylor’s dictum that no book should be longer than the Bible.  Even the slimmed-down text of Freedom Betrayed tips the scale at close to 1,000 pages and contains much trivia now rendered obsolete by archival releases.  Still, Mr. Nash had good reason to maintain the present length.  Contemporary readers will employ the book not so much to ascertain the truth of what happened as to understand why Hoover and those who shared his assumptions thought American participation in the war a mistake.

Foreign affairs had never figured as Hoover’s strong suit.  Despite the decades he had spent abroad as a mining engineer, he neither liked nor understood Europe.  He sympathized with the Belgians and admired German efficiency from afar, but he distrusted the British and positively despised the French.  Noting the expansion of the Commerce Department under Hoover’s leadership in the 1920s, free-market Coolidge Republicans tagged him as a big-government man in drag.  Yet the eastern internationalist wing of the party also worried what he would do abroad when his nomination for the presidency turned into a coronation.  Andrew Mellon’s right-hand man privately rated Hoover “the worst possible president from the standpoint of foreign affairs” because he would follow his personal prejudices and preconceived ideas.  Although not a dogmatic pacifist, Hoover took a moralistic Quaker approach to international relations.  As the record of his presidency suggests, he placed excessive faith in paper treaties, regarded disarmament as the alpha and omega of statesmanship, and never surmounted discomfort with the unedifying realities of power.  Hoover’s life trajectory does much to explain the tenor of Freedom Betrayed.  The book bears witness at once to his scrupulous mastery of detail, his abhorrence of diplomatic realism, and his unrelenting animus against a White House successor who dissimulated his own diplomatic objectives.

Right through the end of the 1930s, as Hoover points out, the New Deal had failed to restore prosperity.  In order to divert the public mind from that failure, he charges, Roosevelt began “sticking pins into tigers” both in Europe and Asia.  Through what Hoover deems a sequence of intellectual dishonesties, lies, intrigue, manipulation of public opinion, and violations of the Constitution, FDR eventually led the country into the “monstrous catastrophe” of World War II.  Having personally interviewed Hitler in 1938, Hoover felt sure that the Führer had no intention of attacking the Western democracies if they did not seek to block his measured eastern expansion.  Egged on from the White House, however, Britain and France made “the greatest blunder in the whole history of European power diplomacy” by guaranteeing Polish independence.  That error protected Stalin from Hitler at a time when the West should instead have encouraged the two dictators to exhaust their resources fighting each other.  In any event, nothing that happened in Europe menaced the security of the Western hemisphere.  The United States should have restricted itself to providing financial help, succor for civilians, and good offices at the end of hostilities.  What’s more, Britain no longer stood in danger of defeat when Roosevelt, contrary to his 1940 election promises, launched his undeclared naval war in the Atlantic in order to convoy Lend-Lease supplies.  Influenced by a procession of Communists and fellow travelers in his entourage, FDR compounded the earlier error of recognizing the U.S.S.R. by extending Lend-Lease to Russia in June 1941.  Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the administration purportedly provoked Japan by imposing economic sanctions and then rejecting the peace proposals of Prince Konoye in September of that year.  Knowing that the Japanese could not withdraw from China, the Roosevelt team (as Secretary Stimson more or less admitted at the Pearl Harbor hearings) maneuvered Japan into firing the first shot.  Hoover attributes to FDR a “madman’s desire to get into war with Japan.”

Hoover continues his chronicle of “lost statesmanship” and unnecessary concessions to the U.S.S.R. after America entered the war.  The United States, he asserts, needlessly prolonged hostilities by insisting on unconditional surrender.  The ex-president reserves his strongest opprobrium for Roosevelt’s concessions to Stalin at the November 1943 Tehran Conference.  Without informing the State Department precisely what he had done, FDR tacitly agreed that Russia could annex all the areas that it had seized in 1939-40, including Poland up to the Curzon Line.  It could also refashion eight friendly states in Eastern Europe.  Hoover describes those twin concessions, made without reference to the Atlantic Charter stipulations against territorial aggrandizement, as the two “greatest blows to human freedom” in the twentieth century.  Interestingly, he does not spare Churchill, whom he considers complicit through both the Tehran Conference abandonments and his subsequent Percentages Agreement with Stalin.  Hoover rises to a further pitch of exasperation against his primary nemesis when he treats the February 1945 Yalta Conference.  He denounces the formal confirmation of the Tehran agreements and adds that destroying German militarism would inevitably ensure Soviet dominance over the European continent.  He likewise deplores the decisions to employ Wehrmacht POWs for forced labor and to expel some twelve million ethnic Germans from reconfigured Poland.  He hurls his strongest thunderbolts, however, at the secret (and in his view militarily otiose) agreement to retrocede southern Sakhalin and the Kuril islands, and to internationalize the port of Dairen, in return for Russian entrance into the Far Eastern war.

Hoover embraces the post-hostilities “China Lobby” view of events in Asia.  He maintains that the United States gave insufficient aid to Chiang Kai-shek during the war and afterward.  He blames a “cabal” of State Department radicals around Dean Acheson for selling out the Kuomintang.  He likewise portrays General Marshall as utterly beyond his depth during his 1946 China mission and considers State Department maneuvers to foster a coalition between Nationalists and Communists as somewhere between traitorous and naive.  An adept of consistency might struggle to discern a policy principle that would require accommodating one maleficent Asian hegemon in 1941, yet resisting another just a few years later.  But Hoover would doubtless have objected to such a value-neutral framework for analysis.

The ex-president ends the book with passionate case studies of what took place after the war in Poland, China, Korea, and Germany.  In some instances he leaves the terra firma of plausible interpretation entirely.  Although in the first part of the book he describes the 1939 Polish guarantee as a blunder, now he paints the plunge of this “able and courageous people” into the Communist pit in lurid colors.  He neglects to say that no one had ever guaranteed specific prewar Polish frontiers, that the Curzon Line represented the true ethnic border and no international body had recognized Polish conquests east of it, and finally that the Poles directed their July 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Russians rather than the Germans.  Having nurtured close relations with the exile community in the United States, Hoover maintains that the American people should feel “ashamed” at the betrayal of Poland.  He doesn’t explain what the United States could have done about it short of parachuting troops into the Russian sphere of influence.

Hoover’s case study of postwar Germany takes a similar partisan line.  The Germans figured as a “race of great genius.”  The vast majority of them had “no part in Hitler’s Nazi conspiracy.”  Wielding a broad brush, Hoover stigmatizes not only the 1944 Morgenthau Plan, which he thinks carried over until 1947, but also the “follies” of denazification, dismantling, and restrictions on German industry.  All of these formed part of a program of “vengeance” and “economic slavery.”  President Truman asked Hoover, as an expert on relief, to study West German food supply in early 1947, and the ex-president made sensible suggestions for improving nutrition and production.  The vehemence of his retrospective analysis appears linked as much to his sentimental predilections as to his indignation at Soviet exploitation of East Germany and determination to “spread Communism over the world.”

Hoover attracted admiration from many quarters during his twilight years because of his articulate defense of the market economy and a free society.  On the showing here, however, he would not have made an effective wartime president.  He industriously compiles evidence indicating that his White House nemesis often misled the American people, flouted constitutional limitations on presidential power, and exhibited unwonted hubris in thinking he could out-manipulate Stalin.  The release of the Venona intercepts in the 1990s lent some support to his surmises about the influence of Communists in the wartime bureaucracy (although the most prominent spies at State, Treasury, and the White House remained mere executors of policy).  Still, none of these points rises to the level of grand strategy.

Hoover’s unwillingness to confront the realities of power repeatedly led him into fundamental misjudgments about the ultimate possibilities and circumscribed purview of foreign policy.  He erred in thinking that Hitler had no designs on the Western hemisphere.  His argument that England would have survived without American aid in 1941 fails to persuade.  Admitting his moral insights about the evils of Communism, one cannot conceive of the Western allies mustering the military strength (or the landing craft) to counter Russian designs on Eastern Europe and the Balkans.  At Tehran and Yalta, Stalin held the high cards.  He controlled most of the boots on the ground.  U.S. forces likewise lacked the muscle to intervene on the Chinese mainland.  American society would no more have tolerated endless intervention for the sake of a peripheral national interest in Asia than in Europe.  Given the endemic corruption and misgovernment of the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-shek himself stands out as the man who “lost” China.  Hoover’s finely calibrated moral sensibilities did him honor.  But this book shows that he lived in Woodrow Wilson’s ideal world, not in the cruel, real world.