Herbert Hoover, Revisionist
Herbert Hoover has always been in danger of falling down the memory hole. He had the misfortune of losing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose long shadow, and the devotion of liberal historians, threatened to blot him out entirely. When he is thought of at all, the picture of him is someone who was out of temper with the times, representing some antiquated world of benignly neglectful capitalism while FDR and the New Deal were the future.
Yet that picture is unfair. Hoover was one of the nation’s most accomplished, and literate, presidents. His many books include an English translation, with his wife, of an important Latin mining treatise. He was also a highly effective organizer, leading the Red Cross’s relief efforts during World War I, and raising massive amounts of funds to relieve Finland during World War II. And of course, he was a successful politician as well. Even after being defeated by FDR in 1932, Hoover roared back with a bestseller book attacking Nazism, socialism, and the New Deal–style liberalism he saw as an antecedent to socialism. He remained a force to be reckoned with through the 1940s and in some ways for the rest of his life.
But what may turn out to be Hoover’s most important accomplishment has remained unpublished until now. Freedom Betrayed, edited by the historian and Hoover scholar George H. Nash, is a compendium of a three-volume work about the faults and flaws of Roosevelt’s foreign policy and the post-war liberalism that succeeded it. Hoover wrote it over the decades after losing the 1932 election, but for various reasons was reluctant for most of his life to publish the “magnum opus,” as he called it, and so it has waited quietly in the archives of the Hoover Institution.
Hoover represents an older American tradition, one almost eclipsed since the New Deal. Having seen the horrors of war during World War I, he had no interest in seeing American lives lost in another bloody conflict. He was anti-interventionist, even in World War II, and he was keenly aware of the Communist infiltration of the federal government, which he thought more likely given Roosevelt’s left-leaning policies. On the second point, his suspicious largely proved right, as we know from the released Venona cables and other data from Soviet Russia: the Communists indeed were actively recruiting Americans and trying to change American policy, and there were sympathetic ears even in Washington elite circles.
The former position is trickier to defend, even now in the age of the Tea Party and Patrick Buchanan. Hoover, in a detailed analysis, argues that America faced no threat from European powers, which should be left to work out problems for themselves. Hoover was no anti-Semite, nor was he indifferent to the fate of the oppressed peoples of Europe or a member of America First. Hoover favored the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would waive immigration restrictions for German Jews, and raised money to place German-Jewish scholars in American universities. But he represented a tradition, traceable to George Washington, that looks with a skeptical eye at claims for foreign entanglements and calls to become the world’s policeman. He favored letting Germany and Russia exhaust themselves first, as he stated in a public radio address in June 1941 after the Nazi invasion of Russia. His voice was ultimately drowned out by the Pearl Harbor attack, though he collects scrupulous evidence in this volume of some intelligence pointing to such an attack, a question that is still hotly debated.
As Nash notes, the question of American involvement in the wars of other nations is no less relevant in the War on Terror. In this work, as well as others, Hoover provides an alternative perspective, from within the main traditions of American political culture, with which to analyze current events. Hoover’s magnum opus, Nash writes, is “an argument that challenges us to think afresh about our past. Whether or not one ultimately accepts [Hoover’s] argument, the exercise of confronting it will be worthwhile.”
Freedom Betrayed is the work of a serious student of history, and is heavily researched and footnoted. Its publication is a monumental moment in the history of presidential writings, and Nash deserves credit for his persistence and dedication in shaping it.
Gerald J. Russello is Editor of the University Bookman.
Posted: November 20, 2011