A fair-handed, surprisingly sympathetic new appraisal of the much-vilified president who was faced with the nation’s plunge into the Great Depression.
Reading Rappleye’s (Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, 2010, etc.) engaging account of Herbert Hoover’s (1874-1964) one-term presidency, readers may find themselves thinking that maybe the Depression wasn’t really Hoover’s fault after all. Indeed, considering Hoover’s extraordinary managerial skills—he was a self-made businessman, head of the postwar food-aid program Belgian Relief, eight-year secretary of commerce under President Calvin Coolidge—his engineering background, and his reputation as a problem-solver, why couldn’t he devise a way out of national misery? His landslide election against Alfred Smith in 1928 seemed to usher enormous optimism, as the well-intentioned Hoover declared confidently that “we in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.” Yet the bad news was only just beginning, including the wildly unrestrained Wall Street speculation and the global agricultural recession. The president ultimately seemed to show an indifference to national suffering, rejecting a $60 million drought loan program, which would have “defended the notion of volunteer aid and private relief as America’s core mode of emergency response.” Rappleye valiantly portrays all facets of this conflicted character, who “preached his gospel of recovery until he almost believed it himself” and, as a leader, had some visionary early progressive programs, such as the Federal Farm Board, expansion in public works, and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. However, increasing unemployment, bank failures, a credit crisis, hunger marchers, and the Bonus Army converging on the capital—as well as the government’s dogged adherence to the “grim logic” of the gold standard—all competed to create Hoover’s “Gethsemane.”
Concluding with the rise of Franklin Roosevelt, this study is finely focused and fills an important niche in presidential scholarship.