For conservatives, the presidency of Herbert Hoover remains a controversial one.
Those of us who read Paul Johnson’s Modern Times when it came out have it etched into our brains that Hoover was a bad guy, the engineer who prepared Americans for the New Deal by offering them the dime store New Deal. That villainous Hoover also makes an appearance in Amity Shlaes’s recent biography of Calvin Coolidge, as Hoover comes across as the wettest member of Coolidge’s cabinet.
The truth about Hoover is more complicated. He started off as a Progressive Republican and became more conservative as he got older. After his defeat in 1932 he became a solid conservative and remained so until his death in 1964. As president, Hoover governed according to principles that were halfway between his left-wing youth and his right-wing old age.
What is clear is that one component of Hoover’s philosophy is his view of charity and philanthropy. A newly unearthed memoir of Hoover’s substantially adds to our knowledge of what Hoover’s views on charity were.
We’ve known that Hoover had a strong belief in the importance of private giving. Consider his views on the American Red Cross, which I discuss in a long article the Capital Research Center published in 2005. In 1927, when Hoover was Secretary of Commerce, he had no problem convincing the Red Cross to be a junior partner in a giant government effort to help victims of the Mississippi River floods.
But in 1931, Hoover resisted an effort by Congress to allocate $25 million to the Red Cross for general poverty fighting. Hoover successfully held a $10 million private fundraising effort for the Red Cross, which included Thomas Edison’s eighty-third-birthday cake, for which a donor paid $107. But Hoover was adamantly opposed to additional government aid for the Red Cross. “For Hoover, the issue comes down to fundamentals,” Secretary of State Henry Stimson wrote in his diary. “If Congress makes this precedent of donating money to the Red Cross for charity, it will be the beginning of the dole in this country and will also mean the end of the wonderful activities of the Red Cross.” The congressional effort, which was also opposed by the Red Cross, never made it out of committee.
Herbert Hoover was a former president for thirty-one years, a record that lasted until 2012 when Jimmy Carter surpassed it. (Carter, however, became president at 53, while Hoover began his presidency at age 55.) Once out of office, Hoover produced a great many books, including six volumes of memoirs. Four of these volumes were published in Hoover’s lifetime, and the remaining two were not completed before Hoover died. The unpublished works remained in files closed to researchers until 2009, when the Herbert Hoover Foundation allowed publication. George H. Nash, the distinguished historian and Hoover’s biographer, was hired to edit the manuscript, which was published as Freedom Betrayed in 2011 and The Crusade Years: 1933-1955, published in 2013.
The Crusade Years is a thick book of nearly 500 pages. There’s quite a lot in it, and anyone interested in the history of the Republican Party between 1933-50 should examine it closely. Among other things, the book shows that Hoover unsuccessfully maneuvered to try to get the presidential nomination in 1940. But what concerns us is Hoover’s chapter called “Crusading for Benevolent Institutions.”
“I realize former Presidents are a kind of menace because people must at times listen to them talk on public questions,” Hoover wrote before explaining his interest in nonprofits. He worked with a lot of them, most notably Stanford University. (An earlier book by Nash discusses Hoover’s giving to Stanford.) Hoover was such a devoted Stanford alumnus that after he left the White House he built a home on the Stanford campus, which is now the official residence of the Stanford president. He also of course founded what is now the Hoover Institution, and discusses here how the Hoover Institution got its start as an archive of European political documents.
Hoover includes in this chapter a speech he gave in the mid-1950s about why a voluntary society is necessary. “Many citizens ask themselves: For what reasons should we support the voluntary agencies? Why not let Government do it all?”
He gives six answers, including that “morals do not come from government” and “governments and bureaucracies cannot build character in our youth.” But to my mind, his first answer is the best:
You cannot retire from the voluntary field if you wish our American civilization to survive. The essence of our self-government lies by cooperation in self-government outside of political government. Ours is a voluntary cooperative society. The fabric of American community life is woven around our tens of thousands of voluntary associations. That is, around our churches, our professional societies, our women’s organizations, our businesses, our labor and farmers’ associations—and not least, our charitable institutions. That is the very nature of American life. The inspirations of progress spring from these voluntary agencies, not from bureaucracy. If these voluntary agencies were to be absorbed by government bureaus, this civilization would be over. Something neither free nor noble would take its place.
One final point concerns Hoover’s efforts as chairman of the Boys Clubs of America. In 1950, he wrote a speech supporting the Boys Clubs that includes this paragraph:
The normal boy is a primitive animal and takes to competition and battle. If he doesn’t have much of a chance to contend with nature, and unless he is given something else to do, he is likely to take on contention with a policeman.
Compare Hoover’s views with the official statement of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, as gleaned from their website, where they say their goal is “helping youth become responsible, caring citizens and acquire skills for participating in the democratic process.”
I cannot imagine any teen today, fidgeting in seventh period, saying to himself or herself, “I can’t wait for school to end, so I can go to my safe haven and, under the supervision of caring, nonjudgmental adults, acquire skills for participating in the democratic process.”
The Crusade Years reminds us that Herbert Hoover was a serious thinker—and a significant philanthropist.