Hoover and FDR: What History Got Wrong

History is unfair. More than that, it is cruel. It dispenses accolades to the undeserving and harsh judgment to those who deserve better. There is perhaps no better example of this than in the way Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt have been remembered.

We all know the story. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. Herbert Hoover, a staunchly laissez-faire president, sat idly by, unconcerned with the human suffering that ensued and content to allow the nation to struggle through the Great Depression.

Then, one bright March morning, a kind and generous man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took the presidential oath, promising the huddled American masses that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. In the ensuing years, Roosevelt, with his charitable nature, implemented an economic program that restored prosperity to the nation.

Yes, we all know this story. We know it because we learned it in elementary school. The problem is that it’s not true.

Americans now know that the New Deal was an economic failure. Despite (or rather, due to) record amounts of government spending, the nation’s unemployment rate never dipped below 14 percent throughout FDR’s first eight years in office. By 1939, it had once again risen near 20 percent. Furthermore, while millions of Americans were struggling with joblessness and hunger, the Roosevelt program destroyed tons of food in an attempt to keep prices high.

What’s more, in much of his New Deal, FDR was merely continuing and expanding the programs that Hoover had started. In fact, Roosevelt’s platform in his 1932 campaign against Hoover was that the Republican president was a profligate spendthrift, and that only a balanced budget and conservative economic program could bring back prosperity.

Indeed, Hoover’s economic reputation, which would have been a significant improvement over his actual policies, is a lie. Hoover not only encouraged massive increases in public spending, he elicited promises from business owners to keep wages high even though sales and profits were falling, thus exacerbating the country’s unemployment problem.

While the economic facts and realities of the Great Depression have slowly come to light, the respective personal legacies of Hoover and Roosevelt have remained in tact. Hoover is still seen as the cold, unrepentant capitalist and Roosevelt is still seen as the sympathetic humanitarian. But these two men are as undeserving the reputations that history has handed them as their economic legacies are of their historical judgments. And while their economic programs had noticeable similarities, their characters were starkly different.

In reality, Roosevelt, the allegedly warm and affable statesman, turned to politics after repeatedly washing out of jobs in the private sector. As president, he was ruthless and paranoid, using his position of power to turn the resources of the FBI and IRS against his political opponents, including private businessmen, newspaper owners and even recalcitrant members of his own party.

Hoover, in contrast to his reputation, was a humanitarian of the first order. During World War I he not only worked to secure the safe return of approximately 120,000 Americans from war-torn Europe, but he also embarked on a campaign of humanitarian aid that “saved literally tens of millions of people from privation and death,” according to historian George Nash.

Hoover’s humanitarian activities facilitated his entry into federal politics when he was named by Woodrow Wilson to be the head of the U.S. Food Administration in 1917. After the war he served as Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge before becoming president in 1929, the year of the crash.

Hoover’s encouragement of public spending after the onset of the Depression is likely attributable to a combination of his humanitarian nature and a poor understanding of economics, and in this latter condition he had plenty of company. But even as he encouraged government action to combat the Depression, he expressed concerns about the growth of federal power and bureaucracy. After seeing the growth of government under Roosevelt, he became a staunch opponent of the New Deal.

When World War II broke out in Europe, Hoover again engaged in relief work, heading and fundraising for economic relief for beleaguered Finland, which was under attack from Roosevelt’s soon-to-be ally, Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt, upon seeing the nationwide acclaim this generated for Hoover, and concerned that it might give Hoover or the Republicans an advantage over him in the 1940 election, stayed true to his nature and set his attack dogs in the press against Hoover. FDR and his administration leaked stories to the press that called Hoover’s motivations into question, which not only threatened to undermine any momentum Hoover might have had for a renewed run for the White House, it further threatened to undermine Hoover’s humanitarian aid to the needy Finns.

Ultimately, Hoover would not run in 1940 and Roosevelt would go on to an unprecedented third term. Hoover would spend the next two years battling not only to assuage European suffering, but to keep Americans out of what he thought was as an unnecessary war. Once that war came, Hoover was eager to help the war effort, but Roosevelt’s paranoia about his predecessor remained. After adviser Bernard Baruch recommended bringing Hoover to Washington to address manpower and food shortages, Roosevelt responded, “I’m not Jesus Christ. I’m not going to raise Herbie from the dead.” Hoover spent the rest of the war meticulously documenting Roosevelt’s diplomatic failures.

On libertarian grounds, there’s a lot to dislike about Herbert Hoover the president, although obviously not for the falsified reasons he gets low marks from historians today. Had Hoover actually held to laissez-faire, the Depression would not only have ended sooner than it ultimately did, it would have likely been over by the time of the 1932 election.

Regardless, the life of Herbert Hoover proves two points: that a good person can be a terrible politician and that a person’s political legacy is not necessarily a good indicator of his private character. Thus Herbert Hoover, by all accounts a kind and generous man, has endured decades of derision by the same historians who heap mountains of praise upon a petty, philandering partisan like Roosevelt.

On the character of these two men, as on the legacies of their presidencies, history has gotten it wrong.