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Hoover, Herbert Clark
(August 10, 1874–October 20, 1964)

–mining engineer, humanitarian, U.S. secretary of commerce, and 31st president of the United States—was the son of Jesse Hoover, a blacksmith, and Hulda (Minthorn) Hoover, a seamstress and recorded minister in the Society of Friends (Quakers). Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa. By his own account, he lived an idyllic childhood; he enjoyed playing and fishing in the local creek and working in his father's blacksmith shop. He often told the story of stepping on a hot piece of iron in his bare feet and stated that he carried the "mark of Iowa on his soul forever."

    Hoover lived in Iowa only for the first decade of his life. Orphaned at the age of 10, he began an odyssey that would make him a multimillionaire, international humanitarian, cabinet officer, and president of the United States. Although he visited Iowa periodically over the next 80 years, he never again lived in the state.

    He left Iowa by train in November 1885, bound for Newburg, Oregon, and the home of his maternal uncle, Henry Minthorn. There Hoover completed his elementary and secondary education and made plans for college. His uncle preferred that Hoover attend a Quaker school, such as William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, or Earlham College in Indiana. Set on pursuing a science degree, Hoover chose instead to apply to a new school—Leland Stanford Junior University, set to open in 1891.

    In September of that year, Hoover joined the first class at Stanford, where he studied geology. At Stanford, he made lifelong friends, found a mentor in Professor John Caspar Branner, and met his future wife, Lou Henry, formerly of Waterloo, Iowa. He was active in extracurricular activities, serving as student body treasurer and as manager of both the baseball and football teams.

    Hoover graduated in 1895 and devoted the next two decades to making his fortune as an international mining engineer. By 1914, however, he yearned for more than wealth. World War I provided him with an opportunity for public service. Initially, he aided Americans stranded in Europe. Later he established the Commission for Relief in Belgium to feed the civilian population of war-torn Europe.

    Hoover's compassionate humanitarianism led to an invitation from Woodrow Wilson to become U.S. Food Administrator in 1917. In that capacity, Hoover rationed domestic food supplies to feed the allied armies as well as the American people. In the years after the war, Hoover was director general of the American Relief Administration, an agency established to address the widespread famine in Europe. As a result of his humanitarianism, he was widely admired in the United States and sought by both political parties as a candidate for president in 1920.

    Hoover eventually declared himself a Republican and accepted President Warren Harding's invitation to serve as secretary of commerce. He remained in that position through both the Harding and Coolidge administrations. In that capacity, he established a wide range of industrial standards for consumer products, developed new theories on the control of the national economy, and encouraged the growth of new industries such as radio and aviation.

    Although widely admired, Hoover was not thought to be a viable candidate to succeed Coolidge. His name vaulted to the top of the list in 1927, however, because of his extraordinary service assisting the victims of the Mississippi River flood that year. Hoover eventually won the Republican nomination and proceeded to defeat Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic governor of New York, in a landslide. Hoover's victory signaled the country's desire to continue the prosperity of the previous decade.

    Hoover embraced both Iowa and California as his native states. In fact, during the 1928 campaign, Hoover delivered only six major speeches, beginning the campaign in West Branch and ending it at Stanford. During his Iowa stop, Hoover visited his friend Howard Hall at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids and posed for pictures in front of his modest birthplace in West Branch.

    As president, Hoover had hoped to govern in the progressive tradition of Theodore Roosevelt. True to his dream, he devoted the first eight months of his presidency to a variety of social, economic, and environmental reforms. In subsequent years, he promoted social action through a series of conferences and commissions on topics such as prohibition, child welfare, and unemployment.

    Following the stock market "crash" of October 1929, the president became increasingly preoccupied with the collapse of the American economy. He established new agencies such as the Federal Farm Board, the Federal Drought Relief Committee, the President's Emergency Committee for Employment, the President's Organization for Unemployment Relief, and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The single purpose of these programs was to stimulate the economy and get the nation back to work. The president would not, however, provide direct federal relief to the unemployed. For Hoover, direct relief—even in hard times—undermined the principles of American liberty. As an alternative, he promoted indirect relief through public works projects, eventually spending more than $3.5 billion on such projects between 1930 and 1933. It was to little avail, however, as the number of unemployed workers increased from 7 million in 1931 to 11 million in 1933.

    The president's political reputation as the "master of emergencies" plummeted in the face of rising unemployment. Hoover himself exacerbated the problem by refusing all efforts to tell the American people what he was doing to help them. He nonetheless mounted a vigorous campaign for reelection in 1932 and traveled the country by train defending his policies at every stop. The campaign took the president to Des Moines on October 4 for a major speech, and along the way he made brief stops in Davenport, West Liberty, Iowa City, and Newton.

    It came as no surprise to Hoover that he lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the general election. Hoover continued to fight on, however, and attempted to enlist Roosevelt in common cause during the months between the election and the inauguration. Roosevelt would have none of it. Hoover departed Washington with a heavy heart on March 4, 1933. He had been frustrated by a political system unable or unwilling to respond to his calls for volunteerism and community action.

    In the years after his presidency, Hoover returned to Iowa every few years. He visited his hometown in 1933 and again in 1937, delivered a commencement address at Drake University in 1935, and spoke to a joint session of the Iowa state legislature in 1943.

    In late May 1945, only six weeks after Roosevelt's death, Hoover met with President Harry Truman, and the two men planned for the recovery of postwar Europe. At Truman's request, Hoover traveled the world to provide the president with a personal assessment of world food needs. More important, Hoover also lobbied his fellow Republicans to support Truman's food relief programs. Hoover and Truman also joined forces in 1949 on a commission to reorganize the executive branch of the federal government. The commission's recommendations led to a streamlined, more efficient postwar government.

    Hoover's next three visits to Iowa were celebrations of a sort. In 1948 he returned to West Branch for a community birthday party. Three years later Hoover was in Des Moines to accept the first Iowa Award. In 1954 it was back to West Branch for another birthday party, this one his 80th, as well as a stop at the Iowa State Fair with President Dwight Eisenhower.

    Hoover had been pleased to see the Republican Party back in the White House in 1953 after a 20-year absence. Hoover agreed to Dwight Eisenhower's request to chair a second Hoover Commission from 1953 to 1955, but he was later frustrated by the president's apparent lack of support for the commission's recommendations.

    In addition to public service, Hoover devoted his postpresidential years to social causes, such as the Boys Clubs of America, and to the Hoover Institution, a research center he had established on the Stanford University campus in 1919. He also wrote more than 40 books of political philosophy and a memoir during those years.

    Hoover's attention returned to Iowa late in the 1950s, when he agreed to allow friends and associates to construct a presidential library near the site of his birthplace. Hoover insisted that the building be modest in size in accordance with the scale of the other buildings in the community. The former president made his last visit to Iowa on August 10, 1962, to dedicate that building to the American people.

    Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964, after having served the longest tenure of any man as a former president of the United States. After a brief ceremony in New York, his body lay in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. On October 29, the body was interred in a simple grave on an Iowa hill overlooking the cottage where he was born.
Sources Hoover's personal papers and memorabilia are in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, West Branch, Iowa. For information on Hoover's career, see the library's Web site: Among the best biographies of Hoover are David Burner, Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1978); Richard Norton Smith, Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (1984); Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (1975); and Timothy Walch, ed., Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover (2003).
Contributor: Timothy Walch