Herbert Hoover: The 31st President, 1929-1933

By Hartman, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2009 | Go to article overview

Herbert Hoover: The 31st President, 1929-1933


Hartman, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


In July of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to rout the so-called "bonus army": US veterans who had come to Washington, D.C., seeking advance bonus payments.

During the night, MacArthur used tanks to drive the veterans and their families out of their makeshift settlements, after which infantry prodded them with bayonets, fired tear-gas canisters, and torched their shelters.

No episode, writes William Leuchtenburg in Herbert Hoover: The 31st President, 1929-1933, "so fixed in the mind of Americans the conviction that Hoover was cold and heartless."

Leuchtenburg, an emeritus professor of history at the University of North Carolina and a Franklin Roosevelt scholar, argues convincingly that Hoover wasn't responsible for the Great Depression, but was in fact a "more complex, more interesting man" than many caricatures of him have suggested.

However, as much as Hoover was a captive of the Great Depression, he also unwittingly perpetuated it.Born in 1874 to an Iowa Quaker family and reared an orphan in Oregon, Hoover knew deprivation first hand. Yet he went on to become a Stanford University-educated engineer and self-made millionaire.

Following World War I, he chaired President Woodrow Wilson's Commission for Relief in Belgium, which provided that country with food. Without a man of Hoover's daring, declares Leuchtenburg, "many thousands would have starved to death." Hoover later headed similarly successful humanitarian efforts in Britain and Russia.

But Hoover also possessed darker qualities, such as insistence on total deference to his will. Incapable of accepting criticism, he was seen by many as an "empire builder" who routinely exceeded the boundaries of legality and his authority. As President Warren G. Harding's Commerce secretary, Hoover issued "edicts that he had no authority to issue or that were forbidden by an act of Congress ... ordered all amateurs off the airwaves; empowered himself to issue licenses; and in contravention of both U.S. and international law ... assigned frequencies."

In seizing bureaus from his fellow cabinet members, he gained greater influence in both US domestic and foreign affairs, but also earned much enmity.

After a 1927 flood in Mississippi, Hoover, then Calvin Coolidge's Commerce secretary, "sparked a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million; gathered an armada of six-hundred vessels, and put together 150 tent cities as havens for multitudes of evacuees." Widely praised for his actions, Hoover easily won election as America's 31st president. …

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