The timing of George Hawley’s book is almost perfect. Questions raised over the past decade about the conservative movement’s survival have never been more pressing. Indeed, developments in the 2016 presidential campaign, combined with now-undeniable demographic, cultural, and sociological trends running against the Republican Party, may have shifted the burden of proof from naysayers onto anyone who is more optimistic.
George Nash, the dean of Herbert Hoover scholars, wrote about our 31st President most recently in the Wall Street Journal, commemorating the centenary of Hoover’s heroic World War I disaster-relief efforts in Europe. Nash described how, in 1914, a young and successful London-based mining engineer made his move “to ‘get in the big game’ of public life.”
Nash’s words capture a do-gooding impulse, but one that is mixed with personal ambition. This interesting alloy should be familiar. It puts Herbert Hoover in a long line of Americans in whom self-improvement and world-improvement seem inextricably tied—a line stretching back in our history, at least to Benjamin Franklin, and forward into our time.
Editor’s note: Stephen Schuker, a first-time contributor to Law and Liberty, assesses in this post the lengthy volume Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War. Published in 2011, the book contains Herbert Hoover’s arguments that America’s commitments to individual and economic liberty and restrained foreign policy were betrayed by the Roosevelt administration and in subsequent postwar domestic and foreign policies. For a conversation with George Nash, editor of Freedom Betrayed and author of the book’s excellent introduction, about Hoover’s political and humanitarian career and his motivations in writing this grand book see this Liberty Law Talk podcast.
On 4 March 1933 Herbert Hoover accompanied his successor to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. The two men maintained a frosty silence. As the economy spiraled down during the presidential interregnum, Franklin Roosevelt had refused to cooperate with the outgoing chief executive in any way. Hoover then left for Union Station, rejected by the American people, seemingly a broken man. Worse was to come. When Hoover boarded the train, his secret service detail melted away. A mob assailed him when he reached New York. Taking up residence at the Waldorf-Astoria, he found his phones tapped, his mail opened. Several members of his administration would shortly receive unwelcome scrutiny from the IRS. Even more galling, Roosevelt adopted some of Hoover’s policies, but accorded him no credit. The Republican Treasury secretary stayed on sub rosa and reopened the banks, but no one appeared to notice who had expertise and who did not. A lesser man than Hoover would have collapsed. Instead, Hoover rallied, sustained by his indomitable spirit and iron self-discipline. Over the next thirty-one years, he published more than thirty books. When Roosevelt’s biographer inquired about the secret of his productivity, Hoover replied simply: “I outlived the bastards.”
Except when giving speeches or supervising the growing collections of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, the ex-president sat tethered to his desk twelve or thirteen hours a day. After his wife died, he often rose in the middle of the night to labor two more hours. He kept six secretaries and a Ph.D. research assistant fully employed. Having caught the spirit of the age in his 1922 volume, American Individualism, a paean to the country’s exceptionalism and voluntarist tradition, Hoover followed in 1934 and 1936 with trenchant analyses of what he called New Deal collectivism. As Hoover saw it, the intrusion of the Leviathan state into every corner of American life would lead sooner rather than later to a curtailment of personal liberties and economic freedom. He thus anticipated the critique of central planning that Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom would later embed in a formal methodology. Hoover also churned out three thick volumes of memoirs, a four-volume chronicle of his efforts to provide food relief during and following the world wars, two studies of Woodrow Wilson, innumerable collections of speeches, and even a book on fishing.