Herbert Hoover's Road Not Taken

Friday, April 6, 2012
George H. Nash cartoon
Image credit: 
Taylor Jones

Hoover Press author George H. Nash, editor of Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath, spoke with Iowa Public Radio about his new book and how it might change views about the thirty-first president. Thomas Schwartz, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, joined the discussion.

Charity Nebbe, Iowa Public Radio: President Herbert Hoover worked hard after he left office. In the thirty years between his presidency and his death, he accomplished a great many things and received many well-deserved honors. The first role he adopted after leaving office was that of vocal opposition to the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. He let it be known at the time that he disapproved of how President Roosevelt handled the diplomacy leading up to World War II and he continued to criticize the president during the war. Later, he devoted twenty years of his life to writing his magnum opus, a history of World War II and its aftermath from his perspective. That book was not published during his lifetime and it lay in the archives for nearly fifty years. Now Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath has been published for the first time. Historian George Nash edited the book and he is with me today. Thank you so much for being here.

George Nash: It’s a pleasure.

Nebbe: Also with us today is Tom Schwartz. He is the director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch. Hello, Tom.

Thomas Schwartz, Hoover Presidential Library: Hi.

Nebbe: Let’s go back to the time when Hoover left office, 1933. He leaves office and he’s a very unhappy man. Of course, the country is in great crisis, President Roosevelt has been elected. How did he see himself as he left office? What was his role in the country at that point?

Nash: Herbert Hoover left office having been rejected by a landslide at the polls. And then there was an interregnum between the time of the election and the time that Roosevelt actually took the oath of office. During that time, there was a run on the banks and the banking crisis, leading to the closure of all of the banks in the United States. Hoover had attempted to avoid that crash—that final outcome—and felt that Roosevelt had not cooperated with him to avoid it. Hoover ever after thought that this final banking crisis was an unnecessary catastrophe.

“Hoover argued that the Nazis and the communists were both alien and evil ideologies.”

So he left feeling that Roosevelt had not behaved in a statesmanlike manner during the transition. Now Roosevelt had his side of the story, too, but I am just describing Hoover’s. Hoover left a comparatively young man, fifty-eight years old. He went into a kind of quiescent period out in Palo Alto at his home on the Stanford University campus, and began to watch what was happening in the New Deal. He watched with mounting dismay and alarm. One early sign of his dismay was the publication of a book by Hoover in 1934 called The Challenge to Liberty, in which he argued that historic liberalism (as he defined the term) was under assault in the world from Nazism, communism, and socialism, and what he called “regimentation,” which was his term for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

George W. Nash cartoon

Thus very early on, Hoover became (starting really in 1935) a public critic of the direction of the New Deal, which he saw as a fundamental shift in values and direction in American life and which he argued actually undermined the economic recovery. As the 1930s proceeded and as war clouds gathered in Europe, Hoover turned some of his attention to what was happening over there with the rise of Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, and so forth. And Hoover became concerned that Roosevelt was going to maneuver the United States on the world stage away from its historic role of aloofness from Europe and possibly intervene with consequences that Hoover thought would be dire, both at home and abroad.

Hoover became fearful that Roosevelt would, with his strong executive power, take the United States in a foreign-policy direction deleterious to the country. So on both foreign- and domestic-policy issues, Hoover saw Roosevelt as very much antithetical to Hoover’s preferences.

Nebbe: We need to make it clear that President Hoover did understand that Nazism and Adolf Hitler were a grave threat, that Josef Stalin was a grave threat. But at the same time, he was drawing parallels between Josef Stalin and President Roosevelt.

Nash: Yes, Hoover argued that the Nazis and the Communists were both alien and evil ideologies. He referred to Hitler and Stalin both as evil dictators, as Satans even, from time to time. So he loathed both regimes and both ideologies, as well as what he thought were milder variants of them—that is, variants in the sense of wanting state control of people and government control of the economy. He thought the New Deal was a kind of soft socialism or, as he called it, “creeping collectivism.” So he opposed the New Deal because he thought it was being infected by these alien (in Hoover’s view), un-American ideologies.

“He thought . . . it would be better for us to preserve our resources and intervene ultimately in a more humanitarian manner.”

Hoover, therefore, did not want the United States to be in alliance with the Communists against Hitler—and maybe we are jumping ahead here, but once the war came, Herbert Hoover took the view that this was a European war. The Nazis could not reach our shores; we had the moat of the Atlantic Ocean (as he put it) to protect us. And America’s role in the world should be to defend itself from external aggression in the Western Hemisphere, but we should not try to impose ourselves on a Europe that has had ethnic rivalries and tensions for a thousand years, as he put it. Hoover felt that Europe could be helped by America, as he had helped Europe himself after World War I, as a great humanitarian. So he wasn’t, strictly speaking, an isolationist, but a noninterventionist (his term) or anti-interventionist, which is the way he preferred to see himself. He thought the United States lacked the power, resources, and ability to transform the world or make the world democratic, and it would be better for us to preserve our resources and intervene ultimately in a more humanitarian manner.

Nebbe: Let’s parse that language out a little bit, because his views of what he felt the United States should and should not be doing, leading up to the war, were very much in line with isolationists’ views. But he just wasn’t comfortable fully aligning himself with those voices?

Nash: He never joined the America First movement, for example, which was the leading so-called isolationist opponent to Roosevelt’s foreign-policy direction before Pearl Harbor. I think Hoover liked to play a more independent role; he didn’t want to be responsible for other people’s decisions in an organization. He thought he should have his own free hand. I think he sensed that isolationism was a pejorative term. And Hoover in the past had supported American entry into the League of Nations, for example, and had favored in 1919 the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, and as president had pursued international disarmament conferences. It wasn’t as if he was just turning his back on other things going on in the world. So, at least in his mind, the word isolationism did not properly describe his philosophy. But he obviously shared many of the geopolitical views of those who were also on the same side of the big battle of whether to intervene militarily, perhaps, or with foreign aid in the European conflict prior to Pearl Harbor.


Nebbe: As the world watched, things escalated in Nazi Germany; as the world watched Hitler’s rise, of course, nobody wanted war. People wanted to believe that there was another way. How did Hoover place himself into this world of international diplomacy, because he tried very hard to exercise his influence to stop what he thought of as the movement toward war?

Nash: In early 1938, Hoover took a trip to Europe and visited about a dozen countries. Officially, this was for the purpose of receiving awards that the countries wanted to bestow upon him as a humanitarian, for what he had done after World War I.

Nebbe: Tremendous aid effort that he led after World War I.

Nash: It has been said, and I think correctly, that Hoover saved more lives than any other person in history: tens of millions of people owed their lives to the relief works that he administered and facilitated from 1914, starting with Belgium, through the early 1920s, with the Russian famine. So Hoover had an immense reputation in that realm and that was partly the reason that he was elected president of the United States, the great humanitarian. He also used this trip to Europe to literally find out what was going on. I can’t prove this, but I think he may have been already thinking of running again for president, and this was a way to be current about what was happening in the world.

This trip to Europe, incidentally, becomes a major segment of this book we are discussing today, Freedom Betrayed. In the course of that trip, he met all sorts of world leaders: he met Neville Chamberlain, he met Adolf Hitler, he met the number two, Hermann Göring, in Germany, and the presidents of Poland and various other states. Hoover wrote up his thoughts and reactions to the conversations, and he came back thinking that Europe was in a morass and, as he called it, “a maze of forces,” and that the United States should be very careful not to become embroiled in it. I think he considered that Europe was almost a hopeless case for transforming itself out of the kinds of power politics, rivalries, and warfare that had been the European fate for many, many generations and even centuries.

His argument was that the United States should refrain from entanglement or embroilment. Now, you have to understand that at the time he wrote this, it looked as if there was a balance of power between France and Britain on the one side, and the Nazis and the Italians under Mussolini on the other. It wasn’t a clear-cut case of knowing, as we now know, that the Nazis would sweep through in 1940. So Hoover, while opposed to Nazism and critical of it and feeling oppressed by the atmosphere in Germany on his visit, nevertheless felt that the United States could be most helpful in the world, as he put it, “lighting its lamp of liberty.” To be an example to the nations, rather than a kind of warrior state itself. That, I think, reinforced his sentiments and made him suspicious as Roosevelt started to take steps short of war to align the United States with the democracies, particularly after war broke out.

Nebbe: But he firmly believed that Hitler would move to the east and not to the west.

Nash: Yes.

Nebbe: Why did he believe that?

Nash: Hoover believed that from the time of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s secret ambition in his heart was to destroy Bolshevism and move east. Also for Lebensraum—living space for the German people. Historians continue to debate how much Hitler wanted to move west. We know that he definitely did move west, but Hoover argued and Hitler certainly made statements to that effect that the thrust of the German ambition was to colonize Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and ultimately destroy [Soviet] Russia.

“Hoover . . . felt that the United States could be most helpful in the world, as he put it, ‘lighting its lamp of liberty.’ ”

So Hoover’s geopolitical vision, which he discussed with Neville Chamberlain in 1938, was that a war was likely to break out somewhere. And Hoover put it bluntly, saying, “I would rather have it occur on the plains of Russia than the frontiers of France.” He argued that the Western democracies, Britain and France, were really not the target of Hitler, that it was the Russians or the Communists.

Nebbe: So he believed that Hitler should be allowed to move east without intervention from the West?

Nash: Basically, yes. He thought that in that way the two great Satans would confront each other. He said it was inevitable: both ideologies were bound to clash. Both competing tyrannies, if you will. He said, “Let the two tyrants fight it out.” And they will inevitably, in Hoover’s view, exhaust each other, and that will leave the Western democracies (and of course, the United States) in a relatively better position. So he was upset when the government of Neville Chamberlain changed its general appeasement policy in 1939 and issued a statement of support for Poland, basically pledging or guaranteeing to go to war if the Germans attacked Poland. Hoover’s view was that this was astonishing. He said they would have been better not to do that, that there’s no way the allies could save Poland under those circumstances. And without having an alliance with Stalin already, they were not in a good bargaining position.

In Freedom Betrayed he lays out what happened—that Stalin sold his alliance to the highest bidder. Stalin wanted to grab Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and several other territories. The British were not going to grant that to him, just give away countries to Stalin as the price of an alliance. But Hitler was willing to do so because that secured his eastern front. And then when Hitler turned west, as Hoover argues it, it was just to brush them out of his way. But the real ultimate objective was to go east, which of course Hitler did do, without trying to land on British soil in 1940.

“He did not think that the Germans or anybody could really secure that vast territory and all those populations.”

Let me preface my next remark by saying that I approached this book as an editor, not a commentator, and not an advocate or critic of Hoover’s views. I think I would still be writing the introduction if I had to research and evaluate all these points he makes. But I think there is a certain plausibility to the Hoover view that the German thrust was really intended toward the east, although Hitler at times would fantasize about world domination. And Hoover’s view was that neither tyrant could probably totally conquer the other, even if one side won. And I think he thought in 1941 that the Germans would win temporarily . . . what would that mean? That they would be bogged down for years trying to deal with the subject peoples they had conquered in the east, and that this absorption of energy would free Great Britain from being invaded and would certainly keep the United States from being under any near-term military threat.

Hoover put it at one point, “Conquest always dies of indigestion.” So he did not think that the Germans or anybody could really secure that vast territory and all those populations. While it sounds like realpolitik to let them exhaust each other, his thought was, well, they will take a lot of casualties on both sides and that will weaken them relative to the more democratic parts of the world. This was not a viewpoint unique to Hoover.

One more point: when Hitler invaded Russia on June 21–22, 1941, Hoover thought that that transformed the character of the war. He thought that this was Roosevelt’s great chance to be a peacemaker by standing aside and letting them battle it out in a fratricidal war, which would weaken them both. Instead, to Hoover’s horror, Roosevelt rushed in essentially with lend-lease and other support to be an ally, without any reservation, of the Soviets. Herbert Hoover thought that this would be disastrous for the United States in the long run. He went on the radio on June 29, one week later, and begged the American people not to make an uncontrolled alliance with the Stalinists. He said that we would rue the day if we bailed them out and ultimately made the world safe for Stalin. He pounds away at this point in his magnum opus.

Nebbe: When did he decide that he needed to write his version of history? Because he felt that people didn’t understand what had led to war, what had happened during the war, and the mishandling of the aftermath of World War II.

Nash: This book was originally meant to be an installment in a multivolume set of memoirs of Hoover’s life. He started the larger memoirs project in the summer of 1940, just after his last chance to be the Republican presidential nominee again. Hoover hoped to be that nominee, but Wendell Willkie came out of the woodwork and was the charismatic newcomer and the Republican selection for president. So Hoover turned to his memoirs. In fall 1944, he began to write what he called his “war book,” which was really volume five of this six-volume set he conceived of. And he said of it—I will paraphrase a bit—that “not until we know the real inner history of how we got into the Second World War can we truly write the history of it.” And then he said, “If I live long enough, I propose to write that history.” He kept his word.

“Why upset that apple cart by publishing a book bound to reopen the old political wounds and the old political battles?”

He thought that with all of his experience, his trip to Europe, the documents that he collected at the Hoover Institution that he founded, that he was in a unique position to put it all together in a rather contrarian way. This is a revisionist history that he wanted to write; this is not the pro-Roosevelt version of events, as we surely understand by now. He thought he could and should be the person to write this dissident version of history, what he thought ultimately was his will and testament to the American people.

Nebbe: And why wasn’t it published after he died?

Nash: I don’t know. I can’t interview the people who made the decision, his two sons and their associates at the time. My understanding from all sorts of collateral reading is that they felt the time was not right. Hoover had just died [in 1964] on a plane of national recognition: a state funeral, buried in West Branch, a dignified exit from the public stage, along with more respect than he had had earlier in his life. So why upset that apple cart by publishing a book bound to reopen the old political wounds and the old political battles?

“Historical actors make choices that have lasting implications. What Hoover’s pointing to is the road not taken.”

Nebbe: So here we are in 2011. Tom Schwartz, what does it mean to have this book published now? What does it mean to Herbert Hoover at this point? The man that we think we know?

Schwartz: Researchers coming to the Hoover library have known about this book. It’s mentioned in his correspondence. So the question is why it has been sequestered for so long. What could it possibly contain? What’s interesting to me as a historian is how Hoover, because he was so careful and so systematic, points to Roosevelt’s speeches where Roosevelt talks about having documentation, proof positive, of Hitler’s designs of attacking the Western Hemisphere. And yet when Hoover searches the archive, he can’t find it. It’s simply not there. He is very good at looking at the record and then trying to find a source in terms of written documents, and it’s just not there.

I think the problem most people will have is that they know the ending. Hoover didn’t know the ending. Hoover was looking at much of this moving forward in time and it’s interesting to note how prescient he is in being able to read things.

One other thing I think the listeners need to keep in mind: it was the Japanese who bombed us at Pearl Harbor. Four days later, the Germans declared war on the United States, in keeping their treaty obligations with the Japanese. However, leaders were ignoring treaty obligations left and right at this time. If Germany had not declared war on the United States, one wonders what Roosevelt would have done to get us into war in Europe. Because even though the Japanese bombed us, U.S. leaders had decided to make the decision Europe first, Japan second. Which, again, is something Hoover was trying to point out, that FDR was taking steps to get us into war. And it wasn’t Hoover alone. Many respected academics were making the same arguments.

Nebbe: I want to know from each of you very briefly: why is it important for us to understand this version of history now?

Schwartz: People need to know that we make choices. Historical actors make choices that have lasting implications. What Hoover’s pointing to is the road not taken. The alternative choices that could have been made and the options that it might have led to. I think that is really the greatest value of this book.

Nash: I agree with what Tom has just said so well, and would add that Hoover was an American exceptionalist and believed the United States had a role to play as an exemplar to the nations, lighting and keeping alight its lamp of liberty. Hoover was very cautious about the ways in which the United States should project its power into the world. And that has a certain resonance at this time, in the wake of the past ten years’ events in wars abroad. A number of people interviewing me have tried to draw quick parallels. I don’t pretend to speak for Herbert Hoover, but he had a certain view of America’s place in the world that I think still tugs at our hearts and minds. And he develops that in the course of his critique of the foreign-policy roads that were taken, pointing out that the roads not taken might have made us better off.

“Hoover became concerned that Roosevelt was going to maneuver the United States on the world stage away from its historic role of aloofness from Europe.”

So I think he causes us to think a lot about our role in the world today, as we look back upon the events that made the world what it is today.

Nebbe: Tom, do you think this is going to change how people think about President Hoover?

Schwartz: Not immediately, but I think this will add to a rehabilitation of Hoover’s image in the larger public’s mind. Over the years, academic historians have been discovering Hoover and seeing him as an important figure that needs wider recognition for his thinking and his contributions. I think this helps add to that advance of rehabilitating Hoover’s reputation.

Nash: I think we need to look upon Hoover as a political thinker and analyst and even political philosopher, and not simply as a politician or even as a humanitarian. This is a dimension of Hoover that deserves to be better known.