Miller Center

Herbert Hoover: Impact and Legacy

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For many years, both scholars and the American public held Hoover in extremely low esteem, blaming him for the Great Depression and criticizing his efforts to solve the crisis. Beginning in the 1970s, however, Hoover's reputation began to recover. Historians pointed out that Hoover's embrace of voluntarism, his faith in social science expertise, and his encouragement of cooperation between and among different segments of the American economic order was rooted not in heartless and reactionary conservatism but in the progressive social thought of his time. Hoover hewed to these approaches during his presidency, especially with commissions like the White House Conference on Health and the Protection of Children and the President's Committee on Recent Social Trends.

Even as the nation spiraled into the Great Depression, Hoover's faith in voluntarism and cooperation remained steadfast, leading to innovative and unprecedented government-inspired efforts such as the President's Emergency Committee on Employment, the President's Organization for Unemployment Relief, and the National Credit Corporation. Hoover also consistently lobbied state and local governments—and the U.S. Congress—to increase public works spending. At the same time, historians now acknowledge that Hoover sometimes abandoned voluntarism in favor of government interventions into the nation's economic affairs in the hope of ending the Depression with efforts like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Emergency Relief Construction Act. Finally, many historians, with the benefit of hindsight, argue that Hoover in reality could have done little to solve the Depression. They correctly assert that American entry into World War II—and not Roosevelt's New Deal—lifted the United States out of its economic doldrums.

Nonetheless, many scholars still criticize Hoover's refusal to authorize large-scale relief programs that might have alleviated suffering and hunger, his unwillingness to use significant federal spending to stimulate the economy, and his general failure to recognize the all-encompassing nature of the Great Depression. Quite simply, Hoover seemed never to have grasped the grave threat that the economic crisis represented to the nation—and that solutions to the Depression might have required abandoning some of his deeply held beliefs.

Hoover compounded these missteps, each of which had political implications, with inept political maneuvering. Hoover proved unable to handle Congress, the press, and the public—or difficult situations like the Bonus Army—in ways that built confidence in his leadership. It should also be noted that Hoover's questionable political judgment and leadership was not brought on by the "Great Crash." In the early months of his presidency, Hoover displayed little political acumen during debates about agricultural and tariff policies. The Great Depression, though, brought these political failures, as well as Hoover's ideological and policy limitations, into sharp relief, exaggerating their effects and paving the way for Franklin Roosevelt's victory in the 1932 presidential election. What emerges, then, for Hoover is a mixed and perhaps still damning verdict, but one that takes a more accurate measure of the President, his policies, and his politics.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

David E. Hamilton

Professor Hamilton is an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky. His writings include:

From New Day to New Deal: American Farm Policy from Hoover to Roosevelt, 1928–1933 (University of North Carolina Press, 1991)