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November 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-8


Herbert Hoover and the Transformational Election of 1932


The Elder Statesman



In the aftermath of the 1932 election Herbert Hoover remained for a short time silent on national political affairs, but the bold, persistent experimentation promised by Roosevelt during the campaign led him to reenter the public debate. Hoover’s “crusading against the New Deal and advocating national policies” as well as his many philanthropic endeavors dominated his very active post-presidential career until his death in 1964.[52] Hoover also participated in the major domestic and foreign policy debates of post-war America. “Hoover was a leader” of many fundamental debates including American involvement in World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Cold War diplomacy, and the major domestic economic policy debates over the New and Fair Deals.[53]


Gary Dean Best argues that “Hoover’s post-presidential years were kaleidoscopic — filled with activity of a man constantly on the move, both physically and mentally.”[54] “He rarely turned from one activity to another, tending instead to work at a variety simultaneously.”[55] Perhaps Hoover’s most fundamental post-presidential accomplishment was his support and defense of conservative principles, policies, and ideas that shaped both the Republican Party and the conservative movement at large. As Best wrote:


Much to the distress of liberals in his party (and of liberal historians ever since), Hoover exerted his considerable influence in the Republican Party to maintain the GOP as the bulwark of conservative principles in American politics between 1933 and 1952. The survival of conservatism in the Republican Party of the 1990s owes more to his stubborn adherence to the conservative creed (or traditional liberalism, as he would have put it) than to any other single factor or individual.[56]


During the “wilderness years” of the Republican Party, which began in the aftermath of the Roosevelt victory in 1932, Hoover became the titular leader of the Grand Old Party.[57] For a Republican Party which was trying to reemerge against the popular Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition, Hoover served as voice of leadership and reason within the GOP, although not all Republicans supported his conservative ideas. As a former President, Hoover still commanded loyalty and respect from those who referred to him as “Chief.”


Conservatives in the Republican Party saw him as a source of wisdom and a voice of one calling in the wilderness against the tide of New Deal liberalism. Best argued that Republicans looked to Hoover for leadership because of “his intellectual leadership as the principal exponent of a philosophy of traditional Americanism that was threatened by the policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal.”[58] In addition, Best argues that Hoover took up a leadership role to defend and vindicate his record as President.[59]


Hoover argued that Roosevelt distorted “true liberalism,” and he stated that:


the American people did not believe that hideous dangers to their freedom lurked in generous looking but distorted use of such phrases as ‘Liberalism,’ ‘New Deal,’ ‘Economic Planning,’ ‘Planned Economy,’ ‘Production of Use,’ and ‘Redistribution of Wealth.[60]


As Hoover wrote, “what had been, up to the election, an ideological debate was now transformed into a reality of national experience.”[61]


The enormous legislative activity that stormed through Congress during the infamous first “100 Days” of the Roosevelt administration became the “bold experimentation” of the New Deal policies. The various alphabet soup programs created by the New Deal frightened both conservatives, such as Hoover, and libertarians. Hoover argued that “the period from 1933 to 1941 may be viewed from two angles: first, as an attempt to revolutionize the American system of life, and second, as a mere continuation of the Great Depression...”[62]


Hoover’s first major argument against the philosophy of the New Deal appeared in his book The Challenge to Liberty in 1934. This philosophical treatise against the New Deal was also a defense of traditional limited government. The Challenge to Liberty launched Hoover’s crusade against liberalism which continued until his death in 1964. His book outlined the dangers of ideologies such as socialism, communism, fascism, and Nazism, while at the same time warning Americans about the dangers of New Deal liberalism and regimentation.


Hoover argued that “not only in the United States, but throughout the world, the whole philosophy of individual liberty is under attack.”[63] He believed in American exceptionalism and that a defense of American principles was needed against the onslaught of the New Deal and the various poisonous ideologies that were plaguing Europe. Hoover described the American system:


Out of our philosophy grew the American Constitutional system where the obligation to promote the common welfare was mandatory and could be made effective; wherein was embodied in its very framework the denial of the right of the government itself or of any group, any business, or any class to infringe upon essential liberties; wherein the majority was to rule; wherein government was to be ‘of laws and not of men;’ whereby the individual was guaranteed the just protection of these rights by its tribunals — the structure of American Democracy. Out of these ideals, under this philosophy, and through this structure we have developed the principles and forms of our social, economic, and governmental life — the American System.[64]


The Challenge to Liberty stood as a fundamental defense of Americanism and a strong explanation of conservative philosophy, or what Hoover called “true liberalism.” Hoover, along with other conservative and libertarian critics of the New Deal, failed to convince voters that Roosevelt’s approach was leading the nation astray from constitutional principles and economic recovery from the Depression. The 1934 midterm congressional elections went in favor of Roosevelt, but the Republican setback did not stop Hoover’s campaign against the regimentation of the New Deal.


Whether it was the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), or New Deal policies, Hoover criticized Roosevelt for increasing the power and scope of the federal government. He lamented the increased regulatory activity, the growth of bureaucratic power, the Roosevelt tax and spending policies, and the general centralization of power in the federal government — especially in the power of the presidency.


Entering into the presidential campaign of 1936, Republicans had hope that perhaps Roosevelt and his New Deal would be halted. Republicans did have some reason to be hopeful, because the United States Supreme Court had struck down some of the flagship programs of the New Deal, namely the AAA and the NIRA. For Hoover, the situation still was bleak, even though he welcomed the decisions of the Supreme Court, which he said “saved us temporarily.”[65]  He even stated that “the American people should thank Almighty God for the Constitution and the Supreme Court.”[66]


Although Hoover thought about running for the Republican nomination for President in 1936, he was still seen as the “Depression President” and Republicans looked to Alf Landon, the Governor of Kansas. During the campaign, Hoover argued that “the New Deal repudiation of Democracy has left the Republican Party alone the guardian of the Ark of the Covenant with its charter of freedom.”[67]


During the 1936 convention Hoover provided a stirring address to Republican delegates denouncing the New Deal and issuing similar warnings to those he made during the 1932 campaign. As Hoover stated:


The New Deal may be a revolutionary design to replace the American System with despotism. It may be the dream stuff of false liberalism. It may be the valor of muddle. Their relationship to each other, however, is exactly the sistership of the witches who brewed the cauldron of powerful trouble for Macbeth. The product is the poisoning of Americanism.[68]


Hoover not only urged a return to conservative policies, but he also defended his own record as President:


Our people did not recognize the gravity of the issue when I stated it four years ago. That is no wonder, for the day Mr. Roosevelt was elected recovery was in progress, the Constitution was untrammeled, the integrity of the government and the institutions of freedom were intact.[69]


The campaign season of 1936, even featuring the infamous Literary Digest poll predicting a victory for Landon, resulted in a landslide victory for Roosevelt and his New Deal, which also ushered in a political realignment in favor of the Democratic Party. It would not be until General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s victory in the 1952 election that the Republicans would win back the White House for the first time since Hoover.


During Roosevelt’s second term Hoover’s campaign against New Deal liberalism did not cease and he was especially opposed, as were many others — including Democrats — to Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court with his Court Reform plan. Roosevelt argued that the Supreme Court, especially the conservative Justices on the Court, were obstacles to New Deal progress and that their view of the Constitution was obsolete. Hoover rejected Roosevelt’s power grab as well as his unconstitutional plan to pack the Court with pro-New Deal Justices. He argued that the Constitution was not “a shackle on progress.”[70]


Hoover’s sharp criticism of Roosevelt’s New Deal was persistent, but he did acknowledge that some good reforms were brought forth:


Further needed authorities were given to the RFC [Reconstruction Finance Corporation], the Home Loan Banks and the Federal Farm Banks. Mortage Relief was expanded. Among the new acts urged during my administration were the Banking and Stock Exchange reforms and the regulation of electric power companies.[71]


Hoover even provided some praise to the landmark Social Security Act, saying, “the broad objective in this act was meritorious,” but he criticized “the method of financing of old-age pensions.”[72]


Hoover’s campaign against New Deal liberalism became a long-term defense of constitutional limited government and this did not just apply to domestic policy alone, but also to foreign policy. During the 1930s war clouds were gathering over Europe and Asia because of the rise of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and the aggressive Empire of Japan in Asia. While Roosevelt was a committed internationalist in foreign policy, the Republican Party was divided between isolationists (non-interventionists) and internationalists such as Republican presidential nominees Wendell Willkie and Thomas E. Dewey. Hoover belonged to the non-interventionist camp in Republican foreign policy with notable others such as Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who later became the leading advocate of an internationalist bi-partisan foreign policy.


When England was under siege from Nazi Germany, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was anxious for the United States to get involved in the conflict, which would become World War II. Roosevelt, who was walking a fine political line because of the “isolationist” tendency of the nation, called on Congress to support England’s defense with the Lend-Lease Bill. Hoover opposed Lend-Lease because he believed it strengthened Roosevelt’s powers at the expense of Congress, and he described it as a “war bill.”[73] In 1941 Hoover recommended that the United States “should provide aid to Britain and China” while not involving American soldiers in the conflict.”[74]  Hoover also criticized Roosevelt’s policies toward Japan by stating that he was “only sticking pins in a rattlesnake.”[75]


The December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan changed the diplomatic landscape as the non-interventionist voices in the nation now rallied to support Roosevelt’s declaration of war. Hoover also offered Roosevelt his willingness to serve in any capacity, but Roosevelt opposed this and stated, “well, I’m not Jesus Christ, I’m not going to raise him from the dead.”[76]  President Harry S. Truman utilized Hoover’s past humanitarian experience during the Great War to serve in a capacity to organize food relief for a war-torn world. Truman, who developed a fond friendship with Hoover, brought him back onto the stage of public service.


Hoover was highly critical of the Roosevelt and later Truman foreign policies. He urged the American people to be patient and to allow “the two evil dictators — Hitler and Stalin — to fight it out on their own.”[77] Hoover argued that the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was just as evil and dangerous as Hitler’s Germany and perhaps the two dictators would kill each other off.


The diplomatic aspect of World War II was also a concern for Hoover as he saw signs of the impending Cold War with the Soviet Union. George H. Nash wrote that “to Hoover the ‘calamity’ of the Cold War was the direct result of misjudgments by American leaders between 1933 and 1953 — failures that enormously strengthened our postwar enemy, the Soviet Union.”[78] This included the diplomatic conferences at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam, which resulted in the enslavement “of hundreds of millions of people behind the iron curtain.”[79] As Hoover wrote:


In the Second World War, we, with our Allies, crushed militarily the forces of Nazism and Fascism. But we have no peace. During the war one of our Allies, Stalin, expanded the Communist dictatorship and empire of Russia to endanger freedom in the whole world. We are now deeply involved in the ‘Cold War’ which imperils our very existence.[80]


Hoover believed that the Soviet threat was significant, and it forced the United States to “carry the major burden of defending the free nations of the world.”[81] He further argued that the Cold War “burden itself imperils our future.”[82] As the Cold War unfolded, Hoover also joined his fellow conservative Republicans and others who saw a domestic threat of Soviet espionage inside the United States. Hoover supported Representative Richard M. Nixon’s case against the Soviet spy Alger Hiss as well as the investigations of Senator Joseph McCarthy. 


The foreign policy views of Hoover reflected the Republican Asia-first nationalist view of foreign policy that was held by Senator Robert A. Taft and General Douglas MacArthur as opposed to the Europe-first internationalism of Thomas E. Dewey, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John Foster Dulles. Hoover, just as with Taft, criticized Truman’s foreign policies. He was also growing more concerned about the fiscal impact of foreign policies such as the Marshall Plan and burden of bearing the load of supporting NATO. Hoover also argued that the United States should “arm to the teeth for the defense of the Western Hemisphere...”[83] When the Cold War turned hot in Korea he strongly supported and later defended General MacArthur when President Truman relieved him from command.


Just as much as he opposed the New Deal, Hoover saw the Roosevelt foreign policies to be dangerous, and he spent much of his post-presidency writing and speaking about foreign policy. George H. Nash has edited Hoover’s magisterial magnum opus, Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath. Freedom Betrayed was Hoover’s major project which researched American foreign policy from the debate over American involvement in World War II to the post-war foreign policy debates.


Although Hoover was a prolific writer in his post-presidency, his work on Freedom Betrayed was not just a crucial project but an endeavor that took him through several revisions, which he never saw published. His objective was to point out not only the failure of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, but also the danger that the Soviet Union and communism represented to the “free world” in the aftermath of the Second World War. Freedom Betrayed is impressive in its depth and research, but Hoover’s revisionist account of American foreign policy reflects the conservative Republican nationalist foreign policy led by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and General Douglas MacArthur. For historians, Hoover’s Freedom Betrayed provides an interesting ground for further debate and investigation into American foreign policy of the Roosevelt and Truman eras. Historians of American foreign policy will find much value in this rich historical account written by a former President of the United States.


During the Truman administration Hoover also found himself on the defensive continuing his fight for limited government in opposing the administration’s Fair Deal. He cheered the conservative 80th Congress under the leadership of key Republicans such as Senator Robert A. Taft. In the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Hoover sided with Taft over Dewey and the moderate-internationalist wing of the Republican Party. He continued his efforts to downsize the federal government when President Truman selected him to chair the Hoover Commission, a commission established to reorganize the executive branch of government.


In 1952 Hoover enthusiastically backed Senator Robert A. Taft’s efforts to secure the Republican presidential nomination over the more moderate and internationalist General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although Taft lost the nomination to Eisenhower, Hoover saw some hope with the new Republican administration. Just as with Truman, President Eisenhower selected Hoover to chair a second Hoover Commission in an effort to bring efficiency and economy to the executive branch. Hoover came to be disappointed by what conservatives referred to as the “dime-store New Deal” and the moderate Republicanism of the Eisenhower administration.


Hoover also became an early supporter and leader of the post-war conservative intellectual and political movement. His campaign against New Deal liberalism paved the way for future conservatives to fight for the restoration of limited government. Hoover supported conservative candidates such as “Mr. Republican” Senator Robert A. Taft and “Mr. Conservative” Barry M. Goldwater. He also supported numerous conservative causes, organizations, and publications such as William F. Buckley’s National Review, which became the flagship publication of the conservative movement.


One of Hoover’s most important accomplishments in his post-presidency was the creation of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, which became, and still is, a leading think tank on public policy issues. Hoover began the organization by collecting documents pertaining to World War I, and his collection grew to become a vast archive of materials. George H. Nash has also written Herbert Hoover and Stanford University, which tells the history of Hoover’s relationship with the university. This work is more specific, but it is also essential to the Hoover story because of the important role Stanford had in his life.  As Nash wrote, Hoover regarded the Hoover Institution “as the greatest achievement of his life.”[84] The Hoover Institution, even today, plays an important part in promoting and defending public policies rooted in the traditions of liberty and constitutional limited government. The Hoover Institution archives house a variety of papers pertaining to the major conflicts of the 20th century and the philosophies and ideologies that still impact our nation and world today.


The Hoover Institution was one example of Hoover’s many philanthropic endeavors. A significant aspect of Hoover’s life was his moral belief in public service. He demonstrated this, often secretly, through his numerous charitable contributions. One notable example from his post-presidency was his active service in the Boys Clubs of America, which Hoover served as Chairman. This organization brought support to numerous boys, especially those living in the urban cities.


Hoover’s defense of conservative policies and his criticism of liberalism is still part of the national political debate even today. Gary Dean Best argues that “the problems that Hoover warned of during the three decades after he left the presidency were perceived by only a minority of Americans then, but they are real to more of his countrymen today.”[85] Best describes some of Hoover’s public policy concerns:


His concerns with the effects of government deficits, inflation, the growth of bureaucracy, waste in government, centralization of power in Washington at the expense of state and local and individual initiative, the growth of power in the presidency at the expense of the legislative branch, the rise in welfare costs, the loss of morality in government, the stultifying effects on economic growth of government over-regulation of business, the loss of individual liberty, and the pernicious effects on America and its image in the world produced by the role of self-appointed international policemen have all increasingly become the concerns of Americans since the 1960s.[86]


The conservative principles that Hoover fought for impacted not just the political debate, but also the conservative movement. Gary Dean Best argues that “the victories of Ronald Reagan and the conservative sweep of Congress in 1994 could probably not have occurred had not Hoover kept the torch of traditional American liberalism alive from 1933 to 1964.”[87] Best as well as other scholars have correctly described Hoover as a successful “elder statesman.”[88]  Hoover’s public policy concerns are exactly the same as today’s conservatives and libertarians are having with the policies emerging from President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.


George H. Nash in his book, Reprising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism, offers a highly valuable chapter for today’s conservatives in placing Hoover within the conservative movement. Today, Hoover is rejected by most Republicans and Democrats, who still view him as the “Depression President.” Hoover, who was a hero and champion of the conservative cause, is often rejected by today’s conservatives and libertarians. Many conservatives and libertarians see Hoover as either a pre-New Deal progressive or an out-of-date disciple of balanced budgets and protective tariffs. Nash’s essays on Hoover offer a balanced study on an important political leader of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Hoover became an important leader of the conservative movement during the Republican exile during the New Deal and in post-World War II America.    




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