Steven Peterson's Reviews > Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg
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Sep 25, 2009

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Read in September, 2009

This biography of Herbert Hoover represents yet one more entry in “The American Presidents” series of books, originally under the editorial direction of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., before his death (since, Sean Wilentz has come on board as editor). Hoover, of course, suffered greatly in the estimation if history by presiding over the Great Depression. The interesting twist in this book is the contention that Hoover may well have failed anyway, as a result of his rigidity, lack of empathy, and his engineering bent of mind.

Hoover grew up in modest circumstances and lost both of his parents early on. The author details his transfer to an Uncle, described as akin to a character right out of Dickens. His childhood was hard. He caught a break and ended up attending Stanford as an engineering student, an environment in which he did well, even though he was socially awkward and introverted.

As his life unfolded, he became a major player internationally, amassed a small fortune, and found people coming to dislike working with him. His rigidity, certainty in his decisions, and near authoritarian bent were turn offs for many. During World War I, he performed heroically in getting humanitarian aid to victims of the war. His personal iciness and top down style continued. He extolled the virtues of voluntarism in aiding war victims (although the reality is that most of the money was from governments—indicating his overconfidence in voluntarism as a means of dealing with crises, an almost instinctive idea to him that did not help his Depression policies succeed).

Then, he served with the government for a number of years, finally succeeding Calvin Coolidge as President in 1929. There was some promise in his decisions early on, but as the Depression hit, problems increased. His overdependence on voluntarism, his rigidity in working with others, his fear of inappropriate government intervention did not work. At times, he seemed almost paralyzed. His departure from the presidency as FDR replaced him is a poignant to read about.

After his departure, he had some major service left in him. But he was bitter for decades about being underappreciated as president.

Another nice entry in the series. This is different from most other works in one respect; the author is much more overtly critical of Hoover as a person and as a leader than are most other authors. All in all, a good, brisk introduction to Herbert Hoover.
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