Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), America’s 31st president, took office in 1929, the year the U.S. economy plummeted into the Great Depression. Although his predecessors’ policies undoubtedly contributed to the crisis, which lasted over a decade, Hoover bore much of the blame in the minds of the American people.
As the Depression deepened, Hoover failed to recognize the severity of the situation or leverage the power of the federal government to squarely address it. A successful mining engineer before entering politics, the Iowa-born president was widely viewed as callous and insensitive toward the suffering of millions of desperate Americans. As a result, Hoover was soundly defeated in the 1932 presidential election by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).
Herbert Clark Hoover was born on August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa–the first U.S. president to be born west of the Mississippi River. He was the second of three children in a family of Quakers, who valued honesty, industriousness and simplicity. His father, Jesse Clark Hoover (1846-80), worked as a blacksmith, and his mother, Hulda Minthorn Hoover (1848-84), was a teacher. Orphaned at age nine, Hoover was raised primarily by an uncle in Oregon.
After attending Quaker schools, Hoover became part of the first class to enter Stanford University when it opened in 1891. He graduated four years later with a degree in geology and launched a lucrative career as a mining engineer. Intelligent and hardworking, Hoover traveled all over the world to find valuable mineral deposits and establish business enterprises to extract the resources. His work made him a multimillionaire. On February 10, 1899, Hoover married his college sweetheart, Lou Henry (1874-1944), and the couple had two sons, Herbert (1903-69) and Allan Henry (1907-93).
At the start of World War I (1914-18), Hoover dedicated his talents to humanitarian work. He helped 120,000 stranded American tourists return home from Europe when the hostilities broke out and coordinated the delivery of food and supplies to citizens of Belgium after that country was overrun by Germany.
When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) appointed Hoover head of the Food Administration. Hoover encouraged Americans to reduce their consumption of meat and other commodities in order to ensure a steady supply of food and clothing for the Allied troops.
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Once the war ended, Hoover, as head of the American Relief Administration, arranged shipments of food and aid to war-ravaged Europe. He earned worldwide acclaim for his humanitarian efforts, as well as thousands of appreciative letters from people across Europe who benefited from the free meals known as “Hoover lunches.”
Hoover’s success earned him an appointment as secretary of commerce under President Warren Harding (1865-1923), and he continued in this position under President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933). During the fast-paced modernization of the 1920s, Hoover played an active role in organizing the fledgling radio broadcasting and civilian aviation industries, and also laid the groundwork for the construction of a huge dam on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada. (Named after Hoover, the dam opened in 1936.)
The Great Depression
In the U.S. presidential election of 1928, Hoover ran as the Republican Party’s nominee. Promising to bring continued peace and prosperity to the nation, he carried 40 states and defeated Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944), the governor of New York, by a record margin of 444-87 electoral votes. “I have no fears for the future of our country,” Hoover declared in his inaugural address. “It is bright with hope.”
On October 24, 1929–only seven months after Hoover took office–a precipitous drop in the value of the U.S. stock market sent the economy spiraling downward and signaled the start of the Great Depression. Banks and businesses failed across the country. Nationwide unemployment rates rose from 3 percent in 1929 to 23 percent in 1932. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes and savings. Many people were forced to wait in bread lines for food and to live in squalid shantytowns known derisively as Hoovervilles.
Hoover undertook various measures designed to stimulate the economy, and a few of the programs he introduced became key components of later relief efforts. However, Hoover’s response to the crisis was constrained by his conservative political philosophy. He believed in a limited role for government and worried that excessive federal intervention posed a threat to capitalism and individualism. He felt that assistance should be handled on a local, voluntary basis. Accordingly, Hoover vetoed several bills that would have provided direct relief to struggling Americans. “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury,” he explained in his 1930 State of the Union address.
The Depression worsened throughout Hoover’s term in office, and critics increasingly portrayed him as indifferent to the suffering of the American people. By the time of the 1932 presidential election, Hoover had become a deeply unpopular–even reviled–figure across much of the country. Carrying only six states, he was soundly defeated by Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York, who promised to enact a slate of progressive reforms and economic relief programs that he described as a New Deal for the American people.
After leaving office, Hoover emerged as a prominent critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. He wrote articles and books outlining his conservative political views and warning about the dangers of investing too much power in the federal government. Hoover returned to public service in the 1950s, serving on commissions aimed at increasing government efficiency for presidents Harry Truman (1884-1972) and Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969).
By the time Hoover died at age 90 on October 20, 1964, in New York City, assessments of his legacy had grown more favorable. Noting that after Hoover left the White House the Great Depression continued for eight more years despite Roosevelt’s active intervention, some historians have argued for a more sympathetic appraisal of Hoover’s presidency.