Herbert Hoover and the Historians—
Recent Developments: A Review Essay
Ellis W. Hawley
Reprinted from “Herbert Hoover and the Historians,” by Ellis Hawley, The Annals of Iowa 78 (Winter 2019), 75-86. Used with the permission of the publisher.
THE NEGATIVE IMAGE of Herbert Hoover created in the 1930s in American political and popular culture continues to be widely invoked and accepted. And professional historians continue to rank Hoover relatively low in presidential evaluations. Since the 1960s, however, particularly since the opening of the Hoover Papers in 1966, a wave of scholarly revisionism has challenged that image and sought to give him an important place in America’s political, cultural, institutional, and intellectual development. In the 1970s a more positive image emerged not only from mainstream political historians but also from new leftists, students of American modernism and consumerism, and articulators of an organizational synthesis alleged to explain modern American institutions. As one of that period’s newly inspired re- searchers, I was amazed both by the richness of the sources that had become available and by the breadth of interest in utilizing them.
In two previous articles in the Annals of Iowa, published in 1981 and 1988, Patrick O’Brien and Philip Rosen summarized and commented on the main outlines and features of this scholarly revisionism.1 By 1981, they noted, a revised Hoover had many of the characteristics that had made him attractive to con- temporaries in the 1910s and 1920s. While recognizing certain frailties and failings and discounting Hoover’s defense of himself, revisionist scholars were now depicting a man of decency, integrity, and humaneness, a man deserving respect and historical study for his roles as a humane reformer, idealistic visionary, and institutional developer. For new leftists he had become some- thing of a prophet, and other revisionists now saw him as having been a major figure in the evolution of progressivism, the rise of a new managerial elite, and efforts to develop a substitute for statist controls through new structures and new forms of leader- ship and cooperation in the private sector. His life prior to 1929 had been one of huge successes: as a mining engineer, business organizer, wartime administrator, Secretary of Commerce, and presidential candidate. As president he had continued to push reforms and had been an innovative activist in efforts to promote recovery from the Great Depression.
In the 1980s, O’Brien noted, the ongoing revisionism tended to become less positive, as historians pointed out various failures and weaknesses in Hoover’s prepresidential career and focused more on his political ineptitude and intellectual rigidity as president. Yet despite that tendency, much of the earlier revisionism remained intact and was now being filled out and added to in a variety of areas. A huge biographical gap in Hoover’s early life was now being closed, particularly in the work of George Nash. Fuller accounts were appearing of his work in shaping the emergence of new industries and new regulatory structures. And greater attention was now being given to his relations with racial minorities, his conduct of foreign policy, and his post presidential achievements. Differences among revisionists persisted, but most continued to agree that Hoover had not been the hard-hearted reactionary, financial charlatan, and do-nothing president depicted in the earlier derogatory portrait.
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