Herbert Hoover as
Secretary of Commerce
Kendrick A. Clements
For a historian considering Herbert Hoover’s career as secretary of commerce, the Great Depression looms large. Recognizing that no secretary of commerce—even one with such prodigious energy and such an extraordinary range of activities as Hoover—was in a position to control completely federal economic and monetary policy in the 1920s, his central position in the administrations of the decade nevertheless forces us to consider him in broader terms than is usual for political biographies. Sooner or later it will be necessary to grapple with a series of difficult questions. To what extent did Hoover recognize the weaknesses that ran through the economy of the 1920s? Did the policies he followed tend to counteract or increase those weaknesses? Were better options available to him?208
Because the story of Hoover’s service as commerce secretary is a complex one, with activities and interests that reach out into nearly every area of government in the 1920s, it is easy to get bogged down in details. To avoid that it may be helpful to think broadly about what was happening to America in those years. Hoover was the first major political leader to understand that the United States was undergoing a huge transition, from dependence on primary production to an emphasis on consumption. As he said in a 1925 letter to a Wisconsin banker, it seemed to him that “we are in the presence of a fundamental shift under which consumers increase faster than producers.”209 The implications of that simple statement had an enormous impact on his approach to economic issues.
Hoover’s recognition that the United States was becoming a consumer economy helps us make sense of much of what he tried to do during the 1920s. Among other things, it explains his emphasis on industrial relations; his concern with conservation and environmentalism; his interest in housing, education, and child welfare; his focus on stabilization of the economy; the importance he assigned to safeguarding foreign markets and sources of