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Hoover Got a Bum Rap, Historian Tells Seminar

February 05, 1989|PETER RAPALUS | United Press International

STANFORD — A historian fascinated with Herbert Hoover's bad reputation recently called Stanford University's most famous alumnus "the most misunderstood and misinterpreted" American President.

Hoover, President from 1929 to 1933, has been "shrouded in an intellectual fog that even now impairs a clear perception," historian George Nash said at a Hoover Institute seminar recently.

"Hoover remains a political orphan and an elusive figure--unwelcome in liberal and conservative circles," Nash said.

Because he believes that Hoover's presidency was unfairly judged, Nash has been working since 1975 on what he hopes will be the definitive, multivolume biography of the 31st President.

Nash, who divides his time between Iowa and Stanford, is now working on the third volume, which will deal with Hoover's career in politics.

The first two volumes, "The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer, 1874-1914," and "The Humanitarian, 1914-1917," were published in 1983 and 1988, respectively. They depict Hoover as, in Nash's words, "the personification of the American dream."

As an orphan with no bankable assets but his brains and determination, Hoover excelled at Stanford and was a self-made millionaire by the time he was 40. When World War I broke out, Hoover rose to international prominence as director of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. The relief agency fed 9 million French and Belgian civilians a day.

Because of his leadership of the project, Nash said, it could be said that Hoover was responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history. When the war was over, Hoover was internationally acclaimed as a 20th-Century hero.

Hoover later served as secretary of commerce and in 1928 was elected President, handily beating Democrat Al Smith.

Even the most casual student of history knows that in a single term Hoover fell from grace, primarily because the Great Depression was thought to be his doing. Franklin D. Roosevelt overwhelmingly defeated the incumbent in the 1932 election, and Hoover returned to Stanford.

The reason Hoover continued to be the object of scorn and derision, Nash said, was because modern-day scholars knew little of him until two years after his death at the age of 90.

"It was only in 1966 that the bulk of his papers, comprising millions of documents, became available to scholars for the first time at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa," Nash explained. Also, new Hoover-related collections became available at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford. "Only now is the real Herbert Hoover emerging from obscurity," Nash said.

Activist, Progressive

The real Hoover was much more an activist, progressive President that his critics would admit, Nash said. For instance, in 1920 Hoover had identified himself as an independent progressive and strongly considered a third-party run for President.

Ironically, he received strong support from Roosevelt.

"I wish we could make him President," Roosevelt said at the time. "There could not be a better one."

(Roosevelt became a 1920 vice presidential nominee, and Hoover served in the Cabinets of Warren Harding, who won the presidency that year, and later under Calvin Coolidge.)

In a 1920 statement, Hoover said: "I do not believe that this country is either reactionary or radical. I believe that the country at heart is progressively liberal. . . . I believe that the better way to secure reforms in political, social and economic conditions is through the progressive element in the Republican Party."

Calls for Reconsideration

Nash said that instead of blaming Hoover for the Depression, historians should consider Hoover as a governmental activist. As secretary of commerce, Nash maintained, Hoover took the initiative for national waterway development, radio regulation, aviation registration, stabilization of the coal and railroad industries, elimination of the 12-hour work day in the steel industry and the curtailing of industrial waste.

Hoover, Nash cautioned, was neither a "free market purist" nor a New Dealer.

"His goal in limited government regulation was to strengthen and preserve American individualism," Nash said. "The fundamental role of the federal government was to stimulate the private sector to organize and govern itself."

After leaving the White House, Hoover became a defender of what he called "true liberalism"--which he defined as striving not to spread bureaucracy but to set bounds for it.

'Economic Fair Play'

Hoover, unlike many modern liberals, did not believe that government exists for the primary purpose of redistributing wealth, but he supported "economic fair play" and the belief that the economically more successful should be taxed to help bear the burden of providing for the poor.

"Everyone should be free, he believed, to rise in the world, as he had done," Nash said. "Equality of opportunity, not equality of result, was his governing principle. Fundamentally, he was interested in multiplying wealth, not dividing it."

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