Profile - Herbert Hoover: Businessman in the White House
An engineer, noted scholar, pacifist, and humanitarian, Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) became president at a time of unprecedented prosperity, but left office in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history.
Originally named “Huber,” the Hoover family originated in the German Palatinate, and settled in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. The President’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Andrew Huber, who had moved to North Carolina, supported the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War, but did not himself serve, having become a Quaker. This seems to have set a precedent, for there is no record of any subsequent member of the family having any military experience.
Herbert Hoover never served in uniform. But he did have some informal military experience. As a young man he studied engineering at Stanford. When he was 23, Hoover took a job as a civil engineer at Tientsin (Tianjin), China. A couple of years later he found himself caught up in the Boxer Rebellion. On June 10, 1900, some thirty thousand Boxers and Chinese imperial troops approached the city. They began a desultory siege that lasted for more than a month, punctuated by occasional artillery bombardments and attempts to take the city by storm. Defended by a few hundred foreign troops, and many Western and Chinese volunteers, Tientsin held out. Hoover played an active role in the defense of the city. He planned and supervised the construction of barricades to strengthen the defenses, directed firefighting efforts, organized the distribution of food, and ran the city’s water purification system, which actually required him to leave the defenses and slip through the Boxer lines. During these forays behind Boxer lines Hoover regularly carried a rifle or pistol. He was several times under fire, and during one artillery bombardment reportedly rescued a Chinese child from a house that had been hit. Meanwhile his wife Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944), a fellow-Stanford graduate, worked as a volunteer nurse, while packing a revolver, just in case.
In mid-July an international relief force reached Tientsin by sea. A few days later the international force undertook an offensive that drove the Boxers away from the city. Hoover took part in this attack, guiding into action a battalion of U.S. Marines under the legendary Col. Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller (1856-1926). During this operation, Hoover carried a rifle, later writing that although he did not use it, he found having it most comforting.
During the period prior to America’s entry into World War I (1914-1917), Hoover headed a volunteer effort to provide relief to war-torn Belgium, then largely under German occupation. After the United States became involved in the war, in the Spring of 1917, he became head of the National Food Administration, inspiring the word “hooverize,” to mean conserving food. Following the war Hoover administered food relief in Europe, ultimately helping to feed literally tens of millions of people. During the Harding and Coolidge administrations Hoover held a variety of administrative and cabinet posts. In 1928 he was elected president. Hoover came into office only seven months before the Crash of 1929.
Although Hoover’s administration was dominated by efforts, largely ineffective, to cope with the Great Depression, there were also important military developments as well, not all of them positive.
Hoover’s principal approach to fighting the Depression was to cut taxes and spending. Since the armed forces were the principal item in the federal budget, although already rather under-funded after years of economizing administrations, they came in for drastic cuts. During Hoover’s administration, the Navy fell from 356 commissioned vessels (including auxiliaries) to 311, while manpower fell to a fewer than 89,000, the Marine Corps to just over 16,000, and the Army to about 135,000. Procurement of new equipment for all services was severely restricted, although the aviation branches of both services were less drastically affected by the cuts. Overall, of course, the capabilities of all the services were reduced, but the cuts particularly affected the Army, as virtually all formations became skeletal. In contrast, the Marine Corps, though reduced, was still able to maintain regimental sized units in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Navy was able to continue its “Fleet Problems,” testing new strategic ideas, tactics, and technologies, notably the aircraft carrier. And while several battleships were placed in reduced commission to cut operating costs, when a Congressional Committee asked whether aircraft carriers were worth their great expense, Chief of Naval Operations Charles F. Hughes (1866-1934), albeit an old battleship sailor, stated that they would be the “last ships I would remove from the active list.” A number of heavy cruisers already under construction when Hoover assumed the presidency entered service during his term in office, but the only new ships actually begun during his administration, an aircraft carrier, some heavy cruisers, and a few destroyers, were already on order: the Hoover administration is the only one during which not a single major warship was ordered for the fleet.
The severe austerity imposed on the Army and Navy during the Hoover years did have something of a silver lining. During the boom-time ‘20s, the services did not get the best recruits. As the Depression deepened, unemployment rose markedly, and the number of men attempting to enlist rose. This permitted much greater selectivity; In some years only about 10 percent of those attempting to enlist were accepted, so that by the mid-1930s more than 85-percent of enlisted men had completed some high school, at time when most Americans had barely completed 9th grade. The Depression also made for a much more stable force. In 1933, for example, the Navy’s reenlistment rate was 93.25 percent, while desertion fell to a few dozen men.
Hoover’s inability to cope with the Depression destroyed his presidency. Although nominated for a second term, he was defeated in 1932.
Herbert Hoover’s retirement was a very active one. He continued to support humanitarian causes, was appointed chairman of several government commissions, particularly during World War II, and created an endowment and institute to further the cause of peace and international cooperation. His funeral, at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York, was notable for the lack of a military presence, highly unusual in the case of a former president.
The president had two sons. Herbert, Jr. (1903-1969) did pioneering work in radio communications for the aviation industry, and later became an important international business planner and advisor. Disqualified for military service by reason of a hearing impairment, he served as Under-Secretary of State under Eisenhower, 1954-1957. His brother Allan (1907-1993), also did not serve. A career businessman, for most of his life he was active in various Hoover family charitable and education foundations.