Hoover was born into a Quaker family in West Branch , Iowa , but after
his parents' deaths lived in Newberg, Oregon .
In the summer of 1885 eleven-year-old Bert Hoover boarded a Union Pacific
train headed west to Oregon. Sewn into his clothes were two dimes; he also
carried a hamper of his Aunt Hannah's homemade delicacies. Waiting for
him on the other end of the continent was his Uncle John Minthorn, a doctor
and school superintendent whom Hoover recalled as "a severe man on the
surface, but like all Quakers kindly at the bottom."
Hoover's six years in Oregon taught him self-reliance. "My boyhood ambition
was to be able to earn my own living, without the help of anybody, anywhere."
As an office boy in his uncle's Oregon Land Company he mastered bookkeeping
and typing, while attending business school in the evening. Thanks to a
local schoolteacher, Miss Jane Gray, the boy's eyes were opened to the
novels of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. "David Copperfield," the
story of another orphan cast into the world to live by his wits, would
remain a lifelong favorite.
In the fall of 1891 Hoover entered the new Leland Stanford Junior University
at Palo Alto, California . Cutting a wider swath outside the classroom
than in, Hoover managed the baseball and football teams, started a laundry
and ran a lecture agency. Teaming up with other poor boys against campus
swells, the reluctant candidate was elected student body treasurer on the
"Barbarian" slate, then wiped out a student-government debt of $2,000.
Hoover earned his way through school by doing typing chores for Professor
John Casper Branner , who also got him a summer job mapping the terrain
in Arkansas' Ozark Mountains. It was in Branner's geology lab that he met
Lou Henry , a banker's daughter born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1874. Lou shared
her fellow Iowan's love of the outdoors and self-reliant nature. "It isn't
so important what others think of you as what you feel inside yourself,"
she told college friends.
Hoover graduated three months before his 21st birthday in May 1895.
He left Stanford with $40 in his pocket and no prospects for employment.
But from this college in a hayfield he had derived much more than a degree
in geology. Stanford gave Hoover an identity, a profession, and a future
bride. Most of all, Stanford became for the orphan from West Branch a surrogate
family--a place to belong.
In 1899 he married his Stanford sweetheart, Lou Henry. They went to
China , where he worked for a private corporation as China's leading engineer.
In June 1900 the Boxer Rebellion caught the Hoovers in Tianjin . For almost
a month the settlement was under heavy fire. While his wife worked in the
hospitals, Hoover directed the building of barricades, and once risked
his life rescuing Chinese children.
Hoover's Humanitarian years
Bored with making money, the Quaker side of Herbert Hoover yearned to be
of service to others. In August of 1914 he got his chance, when the assassination
of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand touched off long-simmering rivalries
among the jealous nations of Europe. World War I was at hand, and few Americans
were prepared. An estimated 120,000 of Hoover's countrymen, penniless and
confused, were trapped on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
On August 3, Hoover received an urgent request for help from U.S. Ambassador
to Britain Walter Hines Page. Within twenty-four hours, five hundred volunteers
were assembled and the grand ballroom of the Savoy Hotel was turned into
a vast canteen and distribution center for food, clothing, steamer tickets
and cash. "I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914 my
engineering career was over forever. I was on the slippery road of public
During the next few weeks Hoover assisted Chief White Feather of Pawhuska,
Oklahoma, and dowagers in jewels to get home. When one woman angrily insisted
on a written pledge that no German submarine would attack her vessel in
mid-ocean, Hoover readily complied.
Together with nine engineer friends Hoover loaned desperate travelers
$1.5 million. All but $400 was returned, confirming the Great Engineer's
faith in the American character. The difference between dictatorship and
democracy, Hoover liked to say, was simple: dictators organize from the
bottom down, democracies from the bottom up.
Trapped between German bayonets and a British blockade, Belgium in the
fall of 1914 faced imminent starvation. Hoover was asked to undertake an
unprecedented relief effort for the tiny kingdom dependent on imports for
80 percent of its food. This would mean abandoning his successful career
as the world's foremost mining engineer. For several days he pondered the
request, finally telling a friend, "Let the fortune go to hell." He would
assume the immense task on two conditions--that he receive no salary, and
that he be given a free hand in organizing and administering what became
known as the Commission for the Relief of Belgium.
The CRB became, in effect, an independent republic of relief, with its
own flag, navy, factories, mills and railroads. Its $12-million-a-month
budget was supplied by voluntary donations and government grants. More
than once Hoover made personal pledges far in excess of his total worth.
In an early form of shuttle diplomacy he crossed the North Sea 40 times
seeking to persuade the enemies in London and Berlin to allow food to reach
the war's victims. He also taught the Belgians, who regarded cornmeal as
cattle feed, to eat cornbread. In all, the CRB saved ten million people
Every day brought new crises. The British investigated charges that
he was a German spy. Germans deported youthful CRB workers, including a
Salvation Army major, on similar charges. At home, Senator Henry Cabot
Lodge wanted to prosecute Hoover for dealing with the enemy. Theodore Roosevelt
promised to hold Lodge at bay, informing Hoover that "the courage of any
political official is stronger in his office than in the newspapers."
Despite the obstacles put before him Hoover persisted, purchasing rice
in Burma, Argentine corn, Chinese beans and American wheat, meat and fats.
Long before the Armistice of 1918 he was an international hero, in the
words of Ambassador Walter Hines Page "a simple, modest, energetic little
man who began his career in California and will end it in heaven."
After the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed
Hoover head of the Food Administration. He succeeded in cutting consumption
of foods needed overseas and avoided rationing at home, yet kept the Allies
After the Armistice, Hoover, a member of the Supreme Economic Council
and head of the American Relief Administration , organized shipments of
food for starving millions in Central Europe . He extended aid to famine-stricken
Bolshevist Russia in 1921 . When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping
Bolshevism , Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever
their politics, they shall be fed!"
After capably serving as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Warren
G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge , and leading relief efforts in the wake
of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 , Hoover became the Republican Presidential
nominee in 1928 . He said then: "We in America today are nearer to the
final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land."
Within months the stock market crashed , and the nation's economy spiraled
downward into what became known as the Great Depression .
After the crash Hoover announced that while he would keep the Federal
budget balanced, he would cut taxes and expand public-works spending. However,
he signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which raised tariffs on over 20,000
dutiable items. This act is often blamed for deepening the depression,
and being Hoover's biggest political blunder. The Hoover administration's
tightning of the money supply (for fear of inflation ) is also regarded
by most modern economists as a mistaken tactic given the situation.
Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury was Andrew Mellon . Hoover adopted
Mellon's trickle down theory of economics.
Hoover and the economy
In 1931 , repercussions from Europe deepened the economic crisis, even
though the President presented to Congress a program asking for creation
of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to aid business, additional help
for farmers facing mortgage foreclosures, banking reform, a loan to states
for feeding the unemployed, expansion of public works, and drastic governmental
economy in 1932 . The agency advanced $2 billion in loans to state and
local governments, to banks , railroads , farm-mortgage associations, and
other businesses. It was too little too late and did not stem the mass
unemployment of the Great Depression .
At the same time he reiterated his view that while people must not suffer
from hunger and cold, caring for them must be primarily a local and voluntary
Since 1930, the Hoover administration had seldom let a month go by without
public announcements that the worst of the economic downturn was over (although
the first was on December 3 , 1929 ). Such proclamations were invariably
soon followed by more news of stock-market falls and rises in unemployment
proving these assessments wrong. Hoover became the scapegoat for the Depression,
and shanty towns of unemployed rising across the country became known as
Due to the RFC's limited success, Hoover called for construction of
a new dam on the Colorado River , named the Hoover Dam . This 12-year project
was to provide thousands of jobs and electricity, and generate income to
stimulate the economy. Hoover's government-operated RFC program and Hoover
Dam marked a shift away from laissez-faire governmental policy and paved
the way for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
Bonus Army incident
World War I veterans and their families demonstrated in Washington, DC,
during June 1932, seeking immediate payment of a "bonus" that had been
promised by the Bonus Law of 1924 for payment in 1945. Hoover used military
force to remove the campers from the capitol and was criticised as this
was a possible violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.
His opponents in Congress, whom he felt were sabotaging his program for
their own political gain, painted him as a callous and cruel president.
Hoover was badly defeated in the 1932 presidential election . After
Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency, Hoover became a critic of the
New Deal , warning against tendencies toward statism .
In 1947 , President Harry S. Truman appointed Hoover to a commission,
which elected him chairman, to reorganize the executive departments. He
was appointed chairman of a similar commission by President Eisenhower
in 1953 . Many economies resulted from both commissions' recommendations.
Over the years, Hoover wrote many articles and books, one of which he was
working on when he died from intestinal cancer at the age of 90 in New
York City on October 20 , 1964 .