For some of us, the name Herbert Hoover will forever be synonymous with the musical Annie, thanks to the song "We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover." It's not the most flattering portrayal, since it's a really sarcastic song about how Hoover ruined their lives.
It's also very catchy. But is it accurate? Let's see…
Hoover was born into a Quaker family in Iowa, but his parents both died before he turned nine and he went to live with his aunt and uncle in Oregon. By the time he was old enough to attend college, he'd gotten interested in becoming a mining engineer. Despite his crummy grades, he barely eked out a pass (totally flunking the entrance exams the first time) to go to the brand-new Stanford University (source).
(Note to potential Stanford applicants: that was then, this is now.)
Like so many of us, he had some trouble finding his way after college. Instead of moving back in with his parents, which was obviously not possible, he ended up pushing ore carts in a Nevada gold mine for 70 hours a week.
Finally, Hoover got his big break with a job in San Francisco, which then got him a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman—um, we mean a mining engineer. The work took him to Australia and China. In fact, he and his wife Lou were in China for the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, where they helped wounded and stranded foreigners (source).
By 1914, the Hoovers were well-set financially. Besides his high-salary engineering work, Hoover had written the standard textbook for mine engineering—oh, and he owned a couple of Burmese silver mines (source). He made a pile of money going around the world consulting with businesses whose mines were failing.
As an engineer, Hoover believed that applying scientific principles and reasoning to everyday life was the key to human progress. His Quaker upbringing also helped foster a belief in the power of the individual and the importance of charity, something that would motivate his humanitarian work in the next decades.
Hoover was in London when World War I broke out and was tasked with evacuating the 120,000 or so Americans who were stuck in Europe. He pooled together his own money with friends to help get food to 9 million Belgians after Germany invaded (source 1, source 2).
Once the U.S. entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to head the U.S. Food Administration, and soon Americans used the term "Hooverize" to refer to the rationing that Hoover enforced to conserve resources. After the war ended, Hoover worked hard to supply food to millions of people in Europe as head of the American Relief Administration.
He even insisted on getting food to Soviet Russia, despite the U.S. stance against Bolshevism. When criticized, he replied, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!" (source).
Like Wilson, Hoover supported the U.S. joining the League of Nations after the war. He was the only Republican Wilson trusted, and was a crucial member of U.S. team at the Versailles Peace Conference. Hoover thought that Wilson's stubbornness was what motivated Congress to reject the idea of the League (source).
Unlike other Republicans, Hoover wasn't an isolationist. In fact, right after the war he founded the Hoover Library on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford to store the archives of the war. The library still survives today as the Hoover Institution, and if you're ever on campus, there's an awesome view from the top of its tower.
Hoover's support for the League of Nations cost him the presidential nomination in 1920, but Warren Harding made him Secretary of Commerce and he stayed on in that role right through Coolidge's presidency.
Under his leadership, the Department of Commerce became a much more powerful department. Hoover strongly encouraged research and collaboration between industries in an effort to make business more efficient and less wasteful. He hoped to avoid the boom-and-bust of the 19th century by stabilizing the way manufacturers and businesses operated.
By this point, Hoover was still a pretty popular guy. He hit peak fame in 1927, when he organized relief for the devastating flooding of the Mississippi River, which Coolidge had been very reluctant to provide because of his belief in limited government (source).
When Coolidge abruptly announced he wasn't going to run for president again in 1928, Hoover's moment had come.
The Republican party big-wigs weren't all that keen on Hoover, but they supported him anyway for the presidential nomination.
Hoover's campaign kept it simple. He made a few speeches, none of them even mentioning his opponent, Al Smith. His platform was more of the same kind of stuff that had been working so well through the 1920s: lower taxes, high tariffs, enforcement of Prohibition, and no subsidies for the farmers facing a decade-long agricultural depression. A famous Republican campaign slogan said that Republican policies had resulted in "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" (source).
He was definitely gonna lose the vegan vote.
In one of his seven speeches, Hoover himself proclaimed: "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land" (source). This was about a year before the stock market crashed.
Once he was president, Hoover passed legislation to improve conditions on Native American reservations, passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act to build what is now known as the Hoover Dam, and set aside two million acres of land to be preserved as national forest reserve.
His attempts to fix social issues like child welfare and food safety generally involved solutions that avoided involving the federal government, which was great for the small-government Republican party (source).
Hoover's problems as POTUS started with debates over agricultural aid and tariffs. The "farm bloc" of congressmen from the agricultural states kept pressing for subsidies, as they'd been doing throughout the 1920s. They never got them, but Congress fought for a long time to come to that conclusion. Even worse, Congress came to a relative standstill over the issue of what products should have high protective tariffs.
The president had a tendency to remove himself from the congressional debates over important legislation, which just led to stalemates and disorganization. He did all the research but didn't really fight for people to use it. (source)
Hoover recognized that there were problems with the stock market, and took some steps to try and curb speculative investing and raise interest rates (which would also discourage irresponsible lending). Unfortunately, others didn't worry so much. By October 29, 1929, the stock market had completely collapsed (source).
The reason that Hoover became the poster boy for the Great Depression—and the inspiration for that song from Annie—is because of how he dealt with the financial crisis. He cut taxes, created some public works projects, and instructed businesses to maintain wages and jobs. He founded the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to lend money to struggling institutions (source). He stopped short of aggressive government intervention, though, for a few reasons.
First, he firmly believed that people shouldn't go without food or shelter, but any other help should come from local governments and organizations (source). Second, experts kept telling him he was doing the right thing. Cabinet members told him the worst had passed in 1931. Congress rejected bills to increase government assistance.
By 1931, it was clear that all those guys were wrong wrong wrong. Hoover finally called for more government aid, and in 1932 he signed the Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act, which helped protect workers by stopping employers from using so many strikebreakers to replace them. But Hoover's political star was already falling, and it just got worse. His attempts at tax reform to generate revenue caused furious debates in Congress.
During the depression, shantytowns sprung up all over cities, full of people who'd lost their jobs and their homes. The towns became known as "Hoovervilles". If you've ever seen a production of Annie, you might remember that the characters who sing "We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover" live in one of these Hoovervilles.
The final nail in his political coffin was pounded in later that year.
Hoover allowed World War I vets, known as the "Bonus Army," to march through Washington. The veterans had been given bonus certificates for their service in the war, redeemable in 1945. In the midst of the Depression, they marched to demand those bonuses immediately, fearing they'd never actually get them. Some of the homeless vets ended up camping in abandoned buildings in D.C. Hoover eventually ordered their quiet, peaceful removal, but the instruction was passed on to General Douglas MacArthur, who instead removed them violently, and even killed one of the veterans (source).
No one else was willing to take the blame, so Hoover did. You can imagine that being responsible for the death of a World War I vet didn't help his image.
The Republican party tried to run Hoover for president again in 1932, defending his strategy for managing the Great Depression, but the damage was done. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the election handily, with the promise of a "New Deal" for America.
Hoover retreated to Palo Alto, and spent the rest of the 1930s railing against the New Deal, even publishing a few books about it. He also toured Europe and met with a certain Adolf Hitler, who apparently was annoyingly shouty even in private (source). He (Hoover, not Hitler) even wrote a popular book about fishing. Hitler wrote a popular book, too. But it wasn't about fishing.
Despite Hoover's constant hating on FDR and the New Deal, FDR brought Hoover back at the beginning of WWII to help manage food supplies to the Allies like he did in World War I. Hoover found it more difficult this time around to get aid to the countries occupied by Nazi Germany (source).
After the war, Hoover once again became a significant voice in politics. He was put in charge of the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, known as the "Hoover Commission," which Republicans hoped would conclude that small government was the answer and bring an end to all those New Deal programs. Surprisingly the Commission reached other conclusions: that the problems of the modern world required an even stronger executive branch.
Hoover became good buds with President Harry Truman, but opposed Truman's use of the atomic bomb to end the war. He was cool with Truman's post-war approach to rebuilding Germany and containing communism, but he was suspicious of further involvement in foreign countries, like the Korean War.
Hoover had a long post-presidency, living until the ripe old age of 90. Nowadays, he's still best remembered by most Americans as the president who let the Great Depression stay, well, great. But there was still a little nostalgia for those pre-New Deal days when government was small and traditional values reigned.
Just ask Archie and Edith Bunker.