David A. Quigley
For the first generation after the election of 1932, the primary work of challenging pro-New Deal orthodoxies fell to Herbert Hoover himself. In fact, he devoted much of his post-White House career to defending his own legacy in a series of more than forty books and hundreds of speeches and articles.
But after his death in 1964, a new generation of scholars was allowed access to the Hoover papers and began to assess the Hoover presidency from the critical remove of three decades. By the mid-1970s, a full-scale Hoover revival was under way, with various sides putting forth particular Hoovers for very different purposes. Hoover came to life a generation ago as a political orphan, appropriated by a wide range of historians, from the New Right to the New Left.
It is this last strange invention, the “New Left” Hoover, that merits discussion here. As a range of scholarly voices on the Left challenged the New Deal’s social and political arrangements in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was only natural that an attack on Franklin Roosevelt would lead some radical thinkers to embrace Herbert Hoover. It fell to William Appleman Williams to articulate, in a number of essays, this disorienting defense most passionately.
In a 1970 New York Review of Books essay, Williams rejected conventional liberal critiques of Hoover and chose instead to portray Hoover and John Quincy Adams as two tragic heroes of the American past. In a rousing conclusion, Williams quoted Julius Lester: “If we concentrate on destroying Hoover, then ‘ultimately we will destroy ourselves.’” Williams pointed to Hoover’s 1931 musings “that what this country needs is a great poem.” Here, for Williams, lay the heart not only of Hoover’s tragedy but also of America’s. For, he closed, “if you kill a Quaker engineer who came