Obit of the Day (Historical): President Herbert Hoover (1964)
When former president Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964 he had seen his reputation ebb and flow from worldwide war hero to Depression-era failure to honored statesman. The first president born west of the Mississippi River, and the only from Iowa, would live a life that earned him five Nobel Peace Prize nominations as well as the derision of a vast majority of the U.S. electorate.
Mr. Hoover was born on August 10, 1874 and was an orphan by the time he was ten. Raised by a variety of aunts and uncles across the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, young Mr. Hoover eventually landed at Stanford University, a member of the university’s first-ever class. (Mr. Hoover liked to brag that he was he was, in fact, the school’s first student since he slept in the dorms before any others had.)
While earning a bachelor of science in geology he met his wife-to-be, Lou Henry, who graduated with the same degree. The couple then traveled the world following Mr. Hoover’s career prospects as a mining engineer. In 1900 the Hoovers found themselves in China in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion. During the Rebellion Mrs. Hoover worked in the local hospitals while Mr. Hoover organized barricades and lead Marines around the city of Tianjin. (Their knowledge of Chinese, learned during their two-year stay, later came in handy while in the White House when the two would discourage eavesdropping by speaking in Mandarin.)
After leaving China, Mr. Hoover established himself as a mining consultant, traveling the world. Simultaneously he and Mrs. Hoover tapped their intellectual curiosities by publishing articles and various translations. The couple were best known for translating the 1554 mining treatise De re metallica by Georgius Agricola - a translation of such value that it remains in print more than 100 years later*.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, Mr. Hoover’s life changed forever. It began while he was living in London and the U.S. asked him for help in arranging the evacuation of Americans from Europe as hostilities erupted. Mr. Hoover’s organized efforts help get 120,000 U.S. citizens home.
Not long after Mr. Hoover established the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, a non-governmental organization, tasked with getting food to citizens of Belgium while besieged by the German army. Mr. Hoover made over 40 trips from England to the Continent to speak with German liaisons to ensure food got to starving Belgians. Later the organization expanded to include all of Western Europe and was renamed the American Relief Administration, which fed 10.5 million men, women, and children daily during the war.
When the U.S. finally joined the war effort militarily in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Mr. Hoover as the head of the U.S. Food Administration. Mr. Hoover worked to modify food consumption nationwide in order to provide enough supplies to the U.S. military as well as European war victims. He created “Meatless Mondays,” “Wheatless Wednesdays,” and similar programs to encourage the saving of food without forcing Americans to ration.
His work during World War I made him a hero both in the U.S. and around the world. His fame was at such a level that President Wilson and then-Asst. Secretary of War Franklin Roosevelt, thought he could be the 1920 Democratic candidate for president. Unfortunately for them, Mr. Hoover chose to be a Republican in part because, according to him, the only Democrat in his hometown was the town drunk.
When Warren Harding was elected to the presidency in November 1920, he asked Mr. Hoover to join his cabinet as Secretary of Commerce or Interior. Mr. Hoover chose the former and would hold the position longer than any other person in U.S. history, nearly seven-and-a-half years.
In the rather pro-business environment of the Harding, and then Coolidge, administrations, Mr. Hoover pushed for greater partnerships between government and private business - a vast departure from the previous two decades of progressive politics under Wilson, Taft, and Roosevelt. The economy seemed to like the idea, though, and it boomed throughout the 1920s with Mr. Hoover gaining greater visibility in his cabinet role. By 1928 he was seen as the forgone Republican nominee.
Mr. Hoover won the 1928 election in a landslide over Democrat Alfred Smith. Although there was some strong anti-Catholic sentiment conncted with Smith’s candidacy, voters simply elected the man they considered most likely to continue the economic prosperity. President Hoover was only the second man to serve as Chief Executive without previous electoral experience (Taft) and is the last cabinet member to move directly to the White House. Unfortunately just six months after his inauguration, the 1929 stock market crash destroyed it all.
Although President Hoover was blamed for the Depression and accused of inaction, his record belies that notion. Pres. Hoover asked Congress to spend millions on public work prorgams, including the building of the Hoover Dam. He also supported the greatest peacetime tax increase in 1932 which raised the top income tax rate from 13.5% to 63%. He did refused to provide direct payments of aid to citizens worried that it would lull the populace to inaction which some see as prolonging the worst of the Depression. He also made a somewhat questionable policy decision to repatriate Mexicans to their home country in the hopes of clearing out jobs for U.S. citizens - it did not work (but FDR also continued the policy). It was all for naught. By the time of the 1932 election, U.S. unemployment was nearing 25%.
When he lost handily to Franklin Roosevelt in November 1932, Pres. Hoover was somewhat bitter. He felt he was not given a fair chance and that Pres. Roosevelt’s campaign was unfair. (Mr. Hoover also accused Democrats of hindering his economic proposals and purposefully damaging the economy in order to help their electoral prospects. A similar complaint would be lodged by Democrats against Republicans 75 years later.)
For most of Pres. Roosevelt’s three full terms, including World War II, Mr. Hoover was kept on the sidelines. Although he volunteered his services to the American war effort, Pres. Roosevelt’s animosity towards his predecessor was such that he refused to consult with him on any issue.
It wasn’t until President Harry Truman took office that Mr. Hoover was once again called upon to act in service of his country. In 1947, Truman asked Hoover to visit West Germany (the country having been divided by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the first move of the Cold War) to assess food needs. Mr. Hoover saw a civilian population in desperate need to supplies and the U.S. delivered over 40,000 tons of food to German children which we known as “Hoover meals.”
Next Mr. Hoover was called upon to reform the offices of the executive branch of government by the president. Known for his desire for increased efficiency and elimination of waste, back from his time as Secretary of Commerce, the Hoover Commission helped save millions in public money. In 1953, President Eisenhower asked Mr. Hoover to form a second commission which reduced unnecessary spending even further. It was his last major public work.
Mr. Hoover lived long enough to rebuild his reputation. By the 1940s he was an honored guest at Republican National Conventions, speaking at his last in 1960. He would end up spending more than 31 years out of office, the most of any former president until Jimmy Carter surpassed the record in September 2012. He also had the honor of being one of only four men in U.S. history to be the only living current or ex-president for a period of time, joining George Washington, John Adams, and Richard Nixon. (Hoover was by himself only for two months following the death of Coolidge in January 1933 and the inauguration of FDR in March of that year.)
When Pres. Hoover died on October 20, 1964, at the age of 90 years and 71 days, he was the second oldest president ever. Only John Adams (90 years, 241 days) had lived longer. (Since President Hoover, Presidents Reagan, Ford, Carter, and H.W. Bush have all become nonagerians. Ford and Reagan are, for now, the two longest lived.)
(Image of Herbert Hoover in San Francisco taken in 1899 when Hooever was only 25 years old. The image is copyright of Arnold Genthe and courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum located in West Branch, Iowa.)
* Lou Hoover, who died in 1944, was a force in her own right. She assisted her husband in his work in Belgium and was honored by King Albert I after the war. She was the first First Lady to broadcast regularly on national radio. She was also president of the Girl Scouts twice (1922-1925 and 1935-1937). At Stanford she was very involved in athletics and designed the “Lou Hoover House” which was originally for her and Herbert and is now the official residence for the president of Stanford.
Other presidents featured on Obit of the Day:
Today in 1931, the King and Queen Prajadhipok of Siam arrived at the White House for a state visit with President Herbert Hoover.
For the state dinner that was held in their honor, President and Mrs. Hoover started a new tradition that continues to this day - hosting a musical concert for a visiting head of state. Harpist Mildred Dilling played for the concert following the formal state dinner on April 29.
-from the Hoover Library
Lou Hoover in China
While living in China on June 17, 1900, the Chinese army joined the Boxer Rebellion and attacked the city of Tientsin. The Hoovers and other foreigners found themselves under siege until June 23.
Lou was fearless, writing her friend, “you should have been here, at the most interesting siege and bombardment of the age.”
-from the Hoover Library
"That we have the vote means nothing. That we use it in the right way means everything. Our political work has only begun when we have the ballot. And that work should be carried out exactly as our college work is — as any good work which we undertake is — it must be thoughtful, idealistic, clean, effective."
-Lou Henry Hoover, April 10, 1920
Before she was First Lady, Lou Henry Hoover spoke at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. At the time of her speech, the 19th Amendment had been passed by Congress. On August 18, 1920, the amendment was ratified, guaranteeing American women the right to vote.
-from the Hoover Library
It’s Girl Scout Cookie Day, so in honor of this delicious “holiday,” we’re sharing this photo of First Lady Lou Hoover.
Lou was very involved with the Girls Scouts. She was a troop leader and later a board member. Lou received her investiture pin from Girl Scout Founder Juliette Gordon Low in 1917 when she was installed as the Acting Commissioner of the Washington, DC, Girl Scout Council.
In this photo from the Hoover Library, Lou is speaking from the President’s Study in the White House on a special Girl Scouts program. Lois Kuhn (left) and Peggy Starr were also there to talk about what Girls Scouts had done to help the Woman’s Division of the President’s Emergency Committee (March 23, 1931).
For more on Lou Hoover’s adventurous life: http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue/?p=8369
-from the National Archives