Herbert Hoover is possibly one of the most misunderstood presidents in US History. What he accomplished before becoming president was incredible and as soon as he entered the White House, the markets crashed, leaving him to pick up the pieces. A man who could be loyal to a fault, fed Europe during and after World War I and sought to modernize US infrastructure and committed to early environmental activism, is often blamed in pop culture for the 1929 Depression and then the Great Depression. But the blame hardly lies with him.
Herbert Hoover’s memoirs are largely interesting. Volume I: Years of Adventure 1874-1920 quite naturally cover his early years. We never get a strong idea of his youth but we are introduced to his initial love affair with nature which would fundamentally shape his future involvement in US environmentalism.
Hoover has a very simple beginning. Volume I has very eloquent writing and flows quite naturally. The bulk of the content of the book revolves around his pre-World War I action in beginning his business ventures and getting involved in mining, especially his work in China. While his engineering practice grew into Russia, Mongolia, Burma, Penang, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Chile, Canada and the United States, he eventually shed this to work for the United States and with both sides in order to attempt to feed Belgium, among other countries during and after World War I.
There are a number of interesting anecdotes as well, especially when he recounts an incident which occurred in China. During a dangerous exchange and violence, a shell had blown out the front door of his home. Perhaps showing the consistency of the danger they were in, Hoover noted that this shell’s explosion couldn’t separate his wife from her game of solitaire.
For his work, astronomers tried to name a planet after Hoover. While Hooveria turned out to be an asteroid, there are currently three other celestial bodies named after him by affectionate Europeans who appreciated what he tried to do for the European civilian population. Hoover himself likely saved many thousands, or even millions, of lives.
There’s also detailed accounts of Hoover’s pacifism. Within the first volume its said a few times about his view against sending the United States into World War I. But in spite of this, he aided the people to his best ability. Having to deal both with Lloyd George’s whining about Americans while trying to get into Germany to have discussions with their government to feed the desperate, Hoover managed the best he could.
The content and information contained here is excellent. There are a number of great and interesting details and the movement of this first volume is top tier. This first volume is the most interesting of the three volumes. It isn’t merely because it involves war or out of the three includes the era which interests me most, but Hoover doesn’t get bogged in needless details or petty arguments. He simply states what happened, his views and moves on from there which is exactly how a memoir ought to be written.
Volume II: 1920-1933 The Cabinet and the Presidency
The Second and Third Volumes of Hoover’s memoirs are much weaker than the first. Both the second and the third volumes suffer from some of the same issues. They both feel like a technical writer tried to describe what happened in Hoover’s life. The writing is both lifeless and largely boring. Additionally there are a number of copy and paste moments within these final two volumes which unnecessarily slows down the works and adds deeper detail which isn’t necessarily needed. At the same time, it is better to have too much detail in such historical works than it is to have too little.
But the second volume follows Hoover’s involving in beginning the ARA, his apparent friendship with presidents Harding and Coolidge and how he remained loyal to them, so much so that Hoover didn’t even want to run for president in case Coolidge changed his mind at the last moment. There’s also some detailing of classic campaigning if one should be interested in it in the 1920s but Hoover’s involvement for aiding Coolidge was very limited in his descriptions.
The bulk of the book is about Hoover’s work with the infrastructure and interior of the United States, particularly discussions about pollution, wanting dam construction and other public works. Incidentally, his family during this volume is virtually forgotten and they aren’t included very often in any of the volumes. They certainly exist and are mentioned, but these memoirs are not personal accounts of his immediate family.
It’s also not laid out chronologically, instead favoring an alternate view from the first volume in that the second volume follows ideas. This isn’t helped when Hoover describes the bureaucracy in detail. Cutting through red tape, how to accomplish certain thoughts and getting through the 1920s is a herculean effort. It certainly picks up over time as the Presidency comes around but there isn’t much there when he campaigns or tries to run, which, in his mind, seems all but assured.
Hoover then uses the latter half of the book to describe his presidency, how he formed his cabinet and worked his way through the depression. Most noteworthy is that he does recognize and calls the fascist movement as one of the left, noting its collectivist philosophy.
Volume III: 1929-1941 The Great Depression
Volume III picks up from the second although its a volume which could almost be cut in half from its original 400+ paged size. The work begins with the Great Depression and while Hoover tries to explain it as best as he can, he simply isn’t a great enough writer. Much of this book could be ignored in the first half in exchange for a better written book on the Great Depression.
Here Hoover largely tries to defend himself, citing many sources which note that the depression was rebounding by mid 1932 and the worst was over. He talks about the issues and flights of gold from the United States and the problems exacerbating the depression.
In this final volume he talks in some detail about the bonus army and the communists and agitators within it, cites FDR’s flirtations with fascism, outright calling some of Roosevelt’s policies fascist and rightfully so.
Hoover defends himself against many of Roosevelt’s false allegations and Hoover went into great detail on how Roosevelt chose to ignore Hoover’s requests to work together during the transition to keep the United States on a rebounding course. Instead, Hoover was rebuffed at every turn and what followed was a rebounding economy was soon turned into a Great Depression under Roosevelt’s dangerous leadership.
The main problem of the book, aside from its stale writing, is that it is very repetitive. Hoover does belabor his points especially in his defense and this is understandable to some extent due to the beating he took with many observers and the seeming love affair many media types and even modern historians have with Roosevelt. But Hoover doesn’t shy away from citing FDR’s brand of fascism and if we’re being fair considering many of FDR’s policies and desires, FDR did have his very own brand of fascism. And we see how the generations have adapted to this dangerous trajectory over the last 90 years.
All three volumes of Hoover’s writings are very important for history if not to show some facts then to at least show how Hoover had viewed the facts. His rise was incredibly interesting but his meanderings in the 1920s were rather eye-glazing considering the content and his work in the third volume was largely a defense and attacks on Roosevelt while occasionally giving him credit where it was due. Hoover was a practical man with an engineering based mind which explains his views and writing style. It may also be why his family is largely excluded from these volumes.
But to obtain a deeper understanding of Hoover and his years, there aren’t better options. It seems fairly clear that he wrote this these books himself and when one wants to obtain primary sources and personal experiences, there’s nothing better than getting actual quotes, beliefs and ideas directly from the person in question. Herbert Hoover’s Memoirs certainly aren’t literary nor are they always interesting, but there are moments which will stick with the reader. It’s a great source to get into when trying to understand the man, Herbert Hoover.