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Meltzer Jon D. Michaels Andrew A. Moe Charles S. Olsen Charles G. Palm Meaghan E. Parker R. Eugene Parta Bertrand M. Hoover's downfall was partly of his own making: the Great Engineer turned out to be a peculiarly artless politician. Yet Hoover's struggle against the Depression, like Roosevelt's after him, was circumscribed by the institutional and intellectual limitations of the day.
The federal government was a scanty, Jeffersonian structure with limited resources. Hoover would play no small part in its radical transformation. To a degree uncommon among presidents, Hoover was a man of scholarly bent, even something of a political philosopher. Born in West Branch, Iowa, in , he bore the imprint of his rural, Quaker origins all his life.
He dressed plainly, spoke simply, faced the world with a serenely impassive demeanor and listened gravely to the voice of his conscience. The early loss of his parents and his upbringing among near-strangers forged the growing boy's natural aloofness into the mature man's glacial reserve. After graduating with a degree in geology in Stanford's "pioneer class" of , Hoover worked briefly as a day-laborer in the nearly spent Sierra mines. In , Bewick, Moreing, a London-based mining concern, sent the intense young engineer to Australia to scout for gold. He soon found it and quickly thereafter helped develop more efficient extraction technologies.
Bewick, Moreing made Hoover a partner in , and for the next 14 years, he supervised operations in Australia, Asia, Africa and Latin America. In , he published Principles of Mining, a manual that advocated collective bargaining, the 8-hour day and serious attention to mine safety. The book helped spread Hoover's reputation as an unusually progressive, enlightened businessman. His Quaker conscience prodded him toward good works. So did his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, a fellow Stanford geology graduate he had married in She was a formidable woman who was his lifelong shield against the intrusive world, the organizer of punctiliously correct dinner parties at which Hoover took refuge behind a mask of decorum.
When the Great War broke out, Hoover volunteered to organize international relief efforts for Belgium, then suffering under German occupation. His success earned him a global reputation as a great humanitarian. He returned to the United States in to serve as food administrator in Woodrow Wilson's wartime government and accompanied Wilson to the Paris peace talks at war's end.
As much as any one man could, he got the credit for reorganizing the war-shattered European economy. Progressives of both parties courted him after the war; but before long, he declared himself a Republican, campaigned for Warren G. Harding and was rewarded with an appointment as secretary of commerce, a post he held for eight years.
Hoover demanded the creation of a Federal Farm Board to oversee agricultural cooperatives and stabilization corporations. The cooperatives were to sustain orderly markets by promoting voluntary agreements among producers; the government-funded corporations would stand ready to buy unmanageable surpluses. Awed by Hoover's aura of command, Congress swiftly obliged, and on June 15, , the president signed the Agricultural Marketing Act.
In just 60 days, the Great Engineer had wrung from Congress a bold remedy for the agricultural depression. The measure embodied the principle of government-stimulated voluntary cooperation that lay at the heart of Hoover's social thought, even while it provided for direct government intervention in the private economy if voluntarism proved inadequate.
Hoover gave voice to a concept of individualism that embraced regard for others and attachment to the community as a whole. In his lexicon, the word that captured its essence was service. Government might indeed step in where voluntarism had manifestly failed, but it was decidedly not the government's role to substitute coercive bureaucracy for voluntary cooperation. That way lay tyranny and the corruption of America's unique political soul. Hoover had seen his vision work in practice. As food administrator during the war, he relied on massive educational and propaganda campaigns to spur production and limit domestic consumption.
In the sharp recession of , as secretary of commerce, he organized the unprecedented President's Conference on Unemployment to publicize the plight of the nation's nearly 5 million unemployed workers and goad management to take corrective measures. Two years later, Hoover shamed the steel industry into abandoning the man-killing hour day, again without resorting to formal legislation.
Throughout the s, he had promoted trade associations with the purpose of stabilizing prices, protecting employment and rationalizing production in various industrial sectors, all through enlightened, voluntary cooperation among businessmen. As president, Hoover's mastery of the legislative agenda was short-lived. He had shepherded an agricultural measure through Congress, but he proved far less able to control tariff legislation, and Congress proceeded to raise import duties to their highest level in American history.
Economically, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff signaled the world that the United States, as the Depression lowered, was moving toward the same autarkic, beggar-thy-neighbor protectionist policies with which many other nations were also dangerously flirting. One thousand economists signed a petition urging him to veto the bill, but Hoover possessed neither the political power to stop the congressional steamroller nor the political will to veto the final legislation.
The implications of Hoover's failure on the tariff were only faintly visible in the first weeks of Most commentators were much more impressed by his vigorous response to the stock market crash of October Orthodox economic theory held that business downturns were inevitable parts of the business cycle.
Orthodox political theory prescribed that government should refrain from interfering in the natural course of recovery in the economic organism itself. Hoover would have none of it. He believed the federal government should use "all of its powers" to prevent bank panics and ease the plight of the unemployed and the farmers. Accordingly, over a two-week period in November , he summoned banking, railroad, manufacturing and public utilities leaders to the White House. On December 5, he announced the results of those meetings.
The Federal Reserve System had eased credit to ensure the availability of investment capital for legitimate business needs.