When Herbert Hoover left the White House in March 1933, at the worst moment in the worst economic disaster of the 20th century—the Great Depression—the country, naturally enough, blamed him for that disaster.
The disappointed ex-chief executive moved to New York's Waldorf-Astoria, where set himself to the task of straightening out the record of who caused the Great Depression and plotting a political comeback. He apparently found comfort in the ritual of writing. Hoover's wife, Lou Henry, noted that, after a while, Hoover—often in the company of doting clerks and secretaries—"got quite interested in it and has spent quite a little time arranging, rearranging, deleting and what not."
The ritual was dedicated, always, to proving that the world had wronged Hoover and not the other way around. So certain was Hoover about the injustice that had been done to him that his post-retirement mission could be summed up by the title of a Trollope novel: He Knew He Was Right.
The economy eventually recovered from the Depression, but the Hoover name did not. Decade in, decade out, short blasts of angry prose from the Waldorf or from Hoover's Stanford, Calif., home attested to the former president's dissatisfaction.
When it came to his longer works, Hoover did not write so much as spew, first thousands and then hundreds of thousands of words aimed at limning the aspects of an efficient food-distribution process in war, correcting the New Deal record, or critiquing the labor policies of Harry Truman. He gave years to what he called his "magnum opus," a work that would trace Franklin Roosevelt's foreign-policy mistakes, the "19 gigantic errors," as Hoover described them.
Perversely, as it must have seemed to him, Hoover's reputation only worsened over the long period of his post-presidency. His last decade brought the final insult, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s much-admired three-volume work—"The Age of Roosevelt"—elevating FDR and damning Hoover as a bumbling capitalist. The Schlesinger opus placed over the fading ex-president the epitaph he dreaded most: We Knew He Was Wrong.
Hoover had indeed erred often and spectacularly, starting with his manhandling of the U.S. economy after the October 1929 crash. Unlike previous presidents, Democratic or Republican, Hoover responded to a market downturn by calling for "action" from Washington. He backed Smoot-Hawley, a tariff that intensified world-wide Depression even though, as a former international businessman, he knew the value of trade. Worse, Hoover insisted that employers pay higher wages than they could afford, thereby helping to sustain high unemployment. On bad days, the president vied with populists in the competition to vilify Wall Street's markets, in reality mere messengers.
And it wasn't only during the presidency that Hoover went astray. In the 1930s, after he had left the White House, he backed isolationism too long and proved blind to the extent of the Nazi threat. In 1938 he made a trip to darkening Europe, meeting with Hitler and dining with Hermann Göring at Göring's estate, Carinhall. Hoover's main conclusion, aside from underrating the Wehrmacht, seems to have been that Americans should emulate Europe's policy on "public health and housing for the lower income groups."
Despite such a record, a few historians, after Hoover's death in 1964, gradually began to ask whether the man known as the Great Engineer had been judged too harshly. In 1979, reviewing some books on Hoover and his era, Schlesinger himself allowed in the New York Review of Books that the much-maligned president might be making a comeback. Since then authors such as Burton Folsom and Kendrick Clements have spotlighted parts of Hoover's career that warrant praise, and George H. Nash has brought out several volumes of an admiring biography, taking Hoover's life up to 1918.
We now have "Keeper of the Torch, 1933-1964," the last volume in Gary Dean Best's full and impressive biography of Hoover. And Mr. Nash has meticulously and masterfully cut back to a still-hefty 908 pages the Chief's magnum opus, now titled "Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath." Though giving special attention to the years just after the presidency, both books, in their different ways, cover the rest of Hoover's life as well.
Paging through them, one is reminded of why Hoover was elected president in the first place: This was a man of extraordinary talent and acuity. Of all the members of the American delegation at Versailles in 1919 it was Hoover, the mining whiz and venture capitalist, who most acutely discerned that the demands for reparations placed on Germany would destabilize the country and force the very war that the conference aimed to preclude. It was also Hoover who led the great food-aid project at the war's end, preventing mass starvation. In "The Economic Consequences of the Peace" (1919), John Maynard Keynes wrote: "The ungrateful governments of Europe owe much more to the statesmanship and insight of Mr. Hoover and his band of American workers than they have yet appreciated or will ever acknowledge."
Of course, Hoover's talents and accomplishments meant little a generation later, when the American economy had collapsed. Yet his post-presidency writings, however shrill, were not without insight and even wisdom. His diagnosis of the mysterious duration of the Depression will strike us today as shrewd, for instance. His own experience in business helped him to discern that the dramatic policy experiments that FDR promulgated impeded recovery by their very unpredictability. In 1933, Roosevelt took the dollar off the gold standard and the next year put it back. Such arbitrary policy actions, Hoover claimed, "make a venture in business or even an investment a bad bet on what Washington will do next."
The former president perceived that the high-minded reform language of the New Deal hid simple rent-seeking, whereby organized political blocs like labor won key concessions like the Wagner Act. A kind of financial favoritism, Hoover said, had converted the U.S. Treasury into "a national grab bag." He also perceived that attacks on "the rich" could do damage: The New Deal speeches of Roosevelt and his supporters, he noted, "don't scare the wicked," but they do "take the heart out of the upright." Later, Hoover would see through John Kennedy's nuanced rhetoric, some of it crafted by Schlesinger, concluding that Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson hoped to "set up a new and greater New Deal." Toting up the cost of Medicare today, we can see the truth of such a claim.
In his magnum opus on World War II, Hoover claimed that the Roosevelt administration needlessly antagonized Japan, probably true. He argued, rightly, that China, near the war's end, was a "sea of misery" vulnerable to Mao. He charged that our own government's greatest error came "when Roosevelt put America in to help Russia as Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. We should have let those two bastards annihilate themselves."
Even for the many readers who will not agree with such a sentiment, Hoover's 1941 analysis of the danger of the U.S. joining Russia in the war looks downright prophetic: "If we go further and join the war and we win, then we have won for Stalin the grip of Communism on Russia and more opportunity for it to extend in the world." In the 1950s and early 1960s, Hoover's aversion to negotiating with communists seemed extreme. Today, looking back on Soviet perfidy and the misery that communism caused during the Cold War years, we can only wonder why we did not follow Hoover.
During his lifetime, Hoover assembled what he called a "war library" at Stanford University, consisting of 25 million documents, many relating to the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, when Russia's archives were inaccessible, Western scholars found there crucial details about communist history and ideology. The Hoover Institution, the archives' official home, has also served as a congenial host to eminent scholars of markets, from Milton Friedman to Gary Becker. Such scholars, in turn, have provided the kind of analysis that enabled politicians like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to adjust or reverse some of Roosevelt's policies, not to mention Kennedy's and Johnson's. Mr. Best contends that "the victories of Ronald Reagan and the conservative Republican sweep of Congress in 1994 could probably not have occurred had not Hoover kept the torch of traditional American liberalism alive from 1933 to 1964."
To make Hoover the hero of modern Republicans may be pushing it. Still, overall, Mr. Best offers a gratifying distillation of a complicated and gifted elder statesman. Why then did the true picture of Hoover remain obscure for so long? The answer has something to do with the outlook of so many historians and public intellectuals. They are eager to absolve a hero of government expansion, Roosevelt, from responsibility for the Depression that plagued his first two terms. If Roosevelt was good, they reason, then those who preceded him—Hoover especially, but also Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding—must be bad. But there is no need for us to follow these progressive historians' lead and judge presidents in such extreme terms, to worship or vilify them. In the case of Hoover, the picture is now clearer. He knew he was right, and, sometimes, he was.
Ms. Amity Shlaes is author of "Coolidge"(HarperCollins) and directs the Four Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Center.