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Surprisingly editorial, noticeably hostile, and sketchy
on March 3, 2010
On the topic of Herbert Hoover, it's really hard to get straight information. Those who hate Roosevelt and the New Deal tend to think he was a golden martyr and paragon of good sense. Those who love Roosevelt and the New Deal tend to view him as a flint-hearted, stingy, evil man.
Now, this is not an outright "hit piece" -- many positive aspects of Hoover's career are included -- but nonetheless, I'm afraid William Leuchtenburg falls solidly into the latter camp.
Before I go on, I need to let you know where I'm coming from, because this is such an important question with Hoover stuff. My interest in the man centers on his work in famine relief, particularly the Commission for Relief in Belgium. This was all work he did before anyone knew what his politics were. Frankly, I don't care about the New Deal or the politics thereof, except to be really annoyed with the fact that as a result of his involvement in it, Hoover is known more as a political symbol than as a historical figure. And while certainly no angel, Hoover was quite a historical figure. No one in the history of the world has ever saved as many lives -- not even close. The way I see it, that really ought to count for something, whatever the guy's politics.
That said, here's my take on this book:
Touches of unprofessional editorial commentary and de-contexted quotes come up from the very beginning of the book. On Page 4, Hoover's uncle John Minthorn is described as "avaricious." This may be true, but no other source I have read has described him so, and Leuchtenburg provides no source notes beyond a general bibliography. On the next page, Hoover -- who was 13 at the time -- is described as a "full-time hustler," which is a startlingly editorial statement and, unless he's got a credible source I've never seen, an unsupported extrapolation.
By Page 7, he is on to outright misinformation: "On returning to campus in the fall, Hoover, who had been largely clueless about his career, switched his major to geology." (Emphasis mine.) Hoover was at Stanford, instead of some Quaker divinity school back east, specifically _because_ he was not clueless about his career.
I could go on. In the margins of my copy of the book, I did. Just a few highlights ... on 17, we have "he sang the praises of 'insiders' like himself while denigrating small-fry investors not in the know as 'idiots.'" If you've read this particular source text, you know what's wrong with this statement. It's simply not an accurate description of the communication, which was a criticism of mine hucksters. The next page says he "flew into rages" when he didn't get his way. No other source that I have seen describes Hoover having tantrums.
I also always find it annoying when scholars describe Hoover as emotionally detached, as Leuchtenburg does through a quote from one of Hoover's Washington, D.C. enemies saying "he seemed to regard human beings as so many numbers." Studying the man's early life makes it pretty clear he was socially inept and unexpressive. Extrapolating that to an assumption of lack of feeling is, again, profoundly editorial and logically unsupportable.
I was also flabbergasted to find Winston Churchill's famously calling Hoover an S.O.B. ascribed to "his (Hoover's) lack of sympathy" (page 27). The historical record is quite clear -- Churchill wanted the Belgian relief stopped in order to increase pressure on Germany to either feed them or suppress the resulting riots when they starved. From a military-strategy standpoint, this is not an unreasonable position, but it's hard to fathom how it can get spun into something that should command "sympathy."
My interest in Hoover ends when he became secretary of commerce, so I did not continue reading the book past Chapter 6, in which his presidency is described. I can't speak for the second half of this book. I will leave that for someone who knows about that part of Hoover's life.
Again, there are parts of this book that do present Hoover sympathetically. But they feel an awful lot like the kind of concessions that are made by someone arguing an opposite point, in order to bolster his/her appearance of fairness.
In conclusion: Hoover scholars who want to get a feel for how aficionados of the policies of FDR view his predecessor will find this a useful bit of gestalt, and a quick read. As a source of credible information, though, I would definitely steer clear of this work. Most of it is accurate, but much of it is transplanted into deceptively different contexts and a few things are flat-out wrong. If you're really interested in Hoover's early life, spend a bit of time with George Nash's books. Nash in person is actually a serious right-winger, but he wears his politics on his sleeve and I've never seen his personal views get in the way of his scholarship.
By the way, if you want to get a better idea of where I'm coming from, more info on my project is at [...]