Herbert Hoover, the only Iowan to be elected a U.S. president, is a bit of a “political orphan,” says George Nash, the man who’s made the 31st president his life’s work.
Liberals, he says, paint Hoover as “austere, maybe uncaring,” a president who didn’t do enough to combat the Great Depression, in contrast to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who replaced Hoover in 1933 and began the New Deal.
“It has been said of Hoover than he was ‘too progressive for the conservatives and too conservative for the radicals,’” Nash notes.
But in reading the newest Hoover memoir, “The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath” (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 568 pages, $39.95), there’s little doubt Hoover would be pitching his tent on the right bank these days.
In it, Hoover delivers blistering critiques of New Deal programs and “collectivism” and warns about big government, deficit spending and the welfare state.
His observations and criticisms are remarkably timely.
“You could put his words in a blog post and be current today,” says Nash, who edited the memoir and wrote an introduction to Hoover’s manuscript.
One reason Hoover resonates today, Nash says, is that the United States has been debating the role of government in a free-market economy for 100 years.
Hoover had strong opinions about that issue, which he put down in the memoir he wrote in the 1940s and 1950s but then set aside in 1955 to work on his “magnum opus” — a mammoth critique of U.S. foreign policy. He finished that before he died in 1964 at the age of 90, but the family foundation stored those papers rather than publish them.
Fast forward to 2009. The family foundation asked Nash if he would edit Hoover’s “magnum opus.” He did, titling it “Freedom Betrayed.”
But in the process of digging through 200 boxes of papers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Hoover library in West Branch, Nash found the unknown memoir Hoover had written about domestic policies and his life after the presidency.
Nash knew what he’d found.
“It is the ‘missing link’ in Hoover’s memoirs: the final brick in a literary edifice that he began to build in a summer of sorrow nearly 75 years ago,” Nash writes. “In its pages we learn of his later life, of his abiding political philosophy, and of his vision of the land of liberty that gave him opportunity for service: a remarkable saga told in his own words, his way.”
The memoir also offers chapters on Hoover’s family life. Though he hated losing the 1932 election, he writes about how he and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, relished not having to set an alarm clock after decades of 14-hour days. He and Mrs. Hoover, also an Iowa native, would eventually move from their Palo Alto home to an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria Towers in New York City, where Mrs. Hoover died in 1944.
Nash, now 67 and living in Massachusetts, had no idea Hoover would be such a large part of his life when he finished his Ph.D. in history at Harvard University. His dissertation on the conservative intellectual movement in America attracted the attention of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, which hired him to write Hoover’s biography.
Nash would move to Iowa and live near the Hoover library in West Branch from 1975 to 1995, producing a scholarly, three-volume biography of Hoover.
At the time he started that work, Nash says, Hoover had been a “rather neglected figure” for scholars, despite having lived a varied and productive life.
“Someone remarked a number of years ago that Herbert Hoover was responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history,” Nash notes.
And while there may be “a more nuanced appreciation” of Hoover, Nash says, “it’s still an uphill challenge for Hoover historians to bring a more balanced perspective to the public sphere. The stereotype lingers.
“Maybe,” he adds, “this new book will help advance that reconsideration.”