Herbert Clark Hoover (August 10, 1874 – October 20, 1964) was the 31st president of the United States—serving from 1929 to 1933, between Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt—and the twelfth from the Republican Party. A good person who got stuck in an unworkable situation, he had The Great Depression begin during his watch, but—contrary to widespread sentiment at the time—he didn't cause it.
Ironically enough, prior to his presidency Hoover was known as something of a miracle man, especially with his humanitarian aid. Originally a mining engineer, he rose up the corporate ranks at a British mining firm in Australia, Russia,note and China. While in the latter country—inspired in part by his Quaker faith—he began to take up humanitarian causes, striving to improve the lot of his workers and the Chinese in general. (He and his wife Lou Henry also learned some Mandarin; they would later use it to keep from being spied on in The White House.) He eventually started his own mining consulting firm; by his 40th birthday in 1914, Hoover had investments in every continent but Antarctica, offices in six cities around the world, and a personal fortune of $4 million (that's about $122 million in 2023 dollars). At the same time, he lectured and wrote about mining and—with Lou Henry (a noted Latinist and geologist in her own right)—translated and annotated the massive 16th-century mining guide De re metallica from Latin (the first time ever into English and still highly regarded; it remains in print as the authoritative English translation, and influenced translations into other languages).
During World War I, he led an American program to distribute food to needy people, first and foremost those living in those allied to America. And his humanitarianism was such that it was reported a letter addressed to "Miracle Man, Washington DC" was delivered straight to him. He served as Secretary of Commerce under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, further increasing his popularity with the public. Due to the economic prosperity of the time, he won the election of 1928 rather easily. He's the last person to be elected President after having been a Cabinet member, and one of only three men to ascend to the White House without having either been a general or ever gotten elected to public office before, the other two being William Howard Taft and Donald Trump.note (By the way, Hoover's equivalent up north was Richard B. Bennett, another one-term head of government who also has the misfortune of being known mainly for his lack of success in fighting the Great Depression.)
During the Depression, his public image went very far south, very quickly. Starting with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the American economy chaotically saw the prosperity of the 1920s turn into the worst economic crisis in world history. From beginning to end, Hoover's presidency saw unemployment rise to an astounding 25% of the workforce, over 60% of the population falling into poverty, the once-prosperous farms of the Great Plains becoming the desert of the Dust Bowl, and the Dow Jones losing over 88% of its value in four years.note America needed to blame somebody, and he was the most prominent and easiest target available. The actions pursued by the administration usually made it even worse: for example, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, a 60% tariff that was meant to protect American businesses from foreign competition, only caused a trade war as other countries raised their tariffs in response, crippling international trade and deepening the economic crisis. In fact, over 1,000 economists signed a petition begging Hoover not to sign the tariff bill. There was also some spectacular mishandling of the Federal Reserve, which prevented it from doing pretty much anything it could have done to help the economy while inadvertently leading it to do everything it could to worsen it. Damn near every major sign of poverty a person could have around them was branded irrevocably with Hoover's name — empty turned-out pockets were "Hoover flags", rabbit or squirrel meat was "Hoover steak", newspapers used by the homeless to keep warm were "Hoover blankets", cardboard inserts to replace worn-out shoe soles were "Hoover leather", and shanty towns set up for the influx of homeless (like a well-known example in Central Park in New York City) were called "Hoovervilles." Most infamously, when a "Bonus Army" of 20,000 World War I veterans marched on Washington demanding that their military bonus certificates be paid out early, since they couldn't get work, Hoover sent General Douglas MacArthur and the regular Army to clear them out forcefully. MacArthur went further than planned and used tanks, bayonets, and tear gas to expel the marchers, outraging the public.note Hoover had been a humanitarian, sure, but he was also a Self-Made Man who was less than thrilled about giving public handouts.
With no end to the Depression in sight, Hoover and the Republicans easily lost the election of 1932 to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats. However, towards the end of his term, Hoover switched positions and admitted that the economy genuinely needed the government's help. Some of the actions that he then took, such as increased corporate taxes and public works projects (most famously the Boulder Dam near Las Vegas, which is now called, fittingly enough, the Hoover Dam), served as the blueprint for Roosevelt's (comparatively) successful New Deal, though Hoover felt that Roosevelt went too far in that direction.note Additionally, Hoover's treatment of Latin American nations during his presidency was an important influence on Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy towards America's southern neighbors during World War II. It was Hoover who finally withdrew American troops from Haiti and Nicaragua after years of occupation. Hoover's nomination of Charles Evans Hughes as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court caused FDR some trouble for the rest of the 1930s because he usually opposed the most ambitious New Deal proposals.
Hoover tried to meet with Roosevelt following the latter's election to work together on programs to help the country (Hoover didn't want to start a program that FDR would have to carry out without getting Roosevelt's buy-in on it), but Roosevelt rebuffed all such attempts. It has been suggested that he didn't want to be forced to share credit with Hoover. Despite the ignominious nature of his departure from office, Hoover was still considered to have a good chance of making an immediate comeback in 1936, as it was thought that the Democratic vote would be split by Senator Huey Long pulling a Start My Own and running as a third-party candidate... until Long was assassinated in late 1935, after which Hoover threw in the towel and supported the candidacy of Alf Landon.
After his presidency, Hoover rehabilitated his reputation through further charity work (both in poor Third World countries and in Germany after World War II), his work with the Boy Scouts of America, and by publicly denouncing the draconian Morgenthau Plan.note He also worked with two of his successors, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, as leader of a board that advised the president on how to make the federal government more efficient. By the time of his death he was again one of the most admired men in America, but few seem to know or remember this today.
He lived a very long time; Hoover was the first former president since John Adams to live to 90 years. He had the longest retirement of any former president until he was surpassed in 2012 by Jimmy Carter (who, coincidentally, is also far more acclaimed for what he did outside the Oval Office rather than in it), dying 31 years after his term expired, in 1964. Not only did he outlive FDR by nearly 20 years, but he also just barely outlived John F. Kennedy, who was 43 years younger and elected over 30 years after him.note With Roosevelt and Kennedy having died in office, Hoover’s death was also the first death of a former president since Coolidge’s all the way back in 1933.note And he lived through three of the four presidential assassinations (in addition to Kennedy, he was also alive when James Garfield and William McKinley met their respective ends, and indeed was born only nine years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated). He is also the only President to outlive every member of his Cabinet.
Just before the 1928 election, Hoover led recovery efforts after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. More humanitarian laurels, but he also struck an unfortunate deal with African-American leaders where he promised to champion Black causes during his upcoming presidential run and expected presidency in exchange for patience with the (lack of) assistance going to Black flood victims. Hoover never delivered on his promise; this, combined with clever Democratic position and maneuvering, is how the Party of Lincoln lost the Black vote. To be fair to him, he had the whole Depression thing to deal with while he was in office, and that affected Americans of every color to some degree.
The naming of Hoover Dam was originally rather controversial, as it was his own Interior Secretary, Ray Wilbur, who first coined the name in 1930. Wilbur justified his decision by citing other such public works named for presidents, but none had been named for a sitting president, much less one whose popularity was in steep decline. Despite efforts by the FDR administration to have Boulder Dam be its official name, "Hoover Dam" had gained enough popular usage that both names were used interchangeably. It wasn't until 1947 that Hoover Dam became its official, legal name; by then, Hoover's image was sufficiently rehabilitated (and he was removed enough from his term of office) for the name to be well-received.
He's also the only president born in and native to Iowa, although when elected he legally resided in California (making him the first of three Californian presidents, Richard Nixon—a Southern California boy born and raised, and incidentally also the only other president to have been a Quaker—and the Illinois-born Ronald Reagan being the other two; and of the three, Hoover is the only one whose connections were to Northern California—his mining firm's offices were in San Francisco). Either way, he was the first president born in and elected from a state west of the Mississippi River. Also, "The Star-Spangled Banner" officially became the country's national anthem, and the Empire State Building was completed, both in 1931. Alongside his predecessor Coolidge, he is one of only two presidents to be sworn into office by a former president.note
His Vice President, Charles Curtis, was close to half Native American, specifically having three of his eight great-grandparents coming from the Kaw Nation, and was the first non-white person to hold the position, a distinction he held alone for nearly a century until Joe Biden's veep, the half-Black, half-South Asian Kamala Harris, took it in 2021.
And in case you were wondering: no, he and longtime FBI head J. Edgar Hoover were not related in any way. Nor did either man have anything to do with the manufacture of vacuum cleaners (although two different men named "Herbert Hoover" were in charge of the company of that name during its history). Margaret Hoover, a staffer in the George W. Bush administration and the current host of the political series Firing Line, is his great-granddaughter.
Herbert Hoover in fiction:
- In the 1990s The Untouchables, the series' premiere story used the urban legend that it was Al Capone's noisy partying one night which disturbed Hoover's sleep and convinced the President to sic Eliot Ness on the gangster.
- All in the Family famously references him in its Theme Song ("Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again").
- A brief "imagination" gag in Arthur places class clown Buster in the role of Hoover, attempting to appease the starving and out-of-work Americans with a "rubber chicken in every pot" routine. It doesn't go over well.
- There's a song in the musical Annie titled "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover". Sarcasm Mode abides.
- In Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191, Hoover is elected as VP for Calvin Coolidge, but Coolidge dies before taking office and thus Hoover becomes President. Though the Depression started before his rule, he's essentially condemned as a do-nothing and unseated by the Socialists at the next election.
- His portrait can briefly be seen in the background of the scene in It's a Wonderful Life where the townspeople run on protagonist George Bailey's building and loan. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance.
- In Transformers (2007), Hoover is established as having founded Sector Seven, and arranging for Hoover Dam to be built to house the AllSpark (as well as the frozen form of Megatron). In the Expanded Universe media of the film franchise, his involvement with the discovery of Cybertronian tech on Earth dates back to his time in China.
- Bill Bryson writes a great deal about Hoover in his book One Summer: America, 1927. He focuses a lot on negative traits of the president, both before and during his time in office, though he also admits that his accomplishments during the Great War were impressive.
- In Home Alone 2, the bellhop at the Plaza Hotel namedrops Hoover in what is obviously a standard line for the staff.
Bellhop: You know, Herbert Hoover once stayed on this floor.
Kevin: The vacuum guy?
Bellhop: No, the, uh, president.
- In the Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg Alternate History mods for the Hearts of Iron series, Herbert Hoover has been reelected in 1932 and is the leader of USA when the game starts (1 January 1936).
- In the movie version of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the emcee Rocky quotes his "Prosperity is just around the corner" (which Hoover never actually said) during his spiel at the start of the dance marathon.
- Hoover was portrayed by Larry Gates in the 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House.