A conversation with George H. Nash

The University Bookman is pleased to present this interview with George H. Nash. George holds a doctorate in history from Harvard University and is both a historian of American conservatism and a well-known scholar of Herbert Hoover. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. We recently asked him about his new book, The Crusade Years, 1933–1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath (Hoover Institution Press).

George, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us a bit about how this book was written by Herbert Hoover but never published until now?

The Crusade Years is a previously unknown memoir that Hoover composed and revised in the 1940s and 1950s and then put aside. It is part of a massive series of memoirs that he began to write in earnest in 1940 and worked on intensively for years. At one point the page proofs probably exceeded 3,000 printed pages! It became undoubtedly the most prodigious set of memoirs ever written by a U.S. president.

Hoover eventually arranged them into six volumes. Four were published before his death in 1964. But two, including his Crusade Years manuscript, were not.

book cover imageHere is what happened. In the final years of his life Hoover drove himself to complete the segment of his memoirs that was known informally to him and his staff as the Magnum Opus. (An apt label, by the way: it was three-volumes-in-one in its final form.) Part memoir and part diplomatic history, it was a scathing and comprehensive indictment of President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy during World War II. Hoover ultimately titled the volume Freedom Betrayed—a reflection of his didactic and polemical intent.

In 1963 Hoover essentially completed the Magnum Opus, which he referred to as his “will and testament” to the American people. It was undergoing fact checking and copyediting when he died. His heirs then had to decide what to do with it. It appears that they became concerned that its publication might reopen old political wounds and ignite an unseemly controversy, especially so soon after Hoover’s death and dignified burial. So they put the Freedom Betrayed manuscript and related papers in storage, where these remained out of view and unavailable for scholarly research. Perhaps without realizing it, the heirs included in the stored documents the various drafts of Hoover’s other “opus”—The Crusade Years—which he had stopped revising in 1955 in order to concentrate on other book projects. So The Crusade Years book became lost among the voluminous and inaccessible files of the Magnum Opus.

Well, time passed—more than forty years, in fact. Then, in 2009, with the permission of the Hoover family foundation, I was invited to edit Freedom Betrayed for publication. The Hoover Institution Press published it for the first time in 2011. While examining the hitherto closed Magnum Opus files (which are now open to researchers), I discovered the drafts of The Crusade Years—a book scholars did not know existed. Again with the permission of the Hoover family foundation and the cooperation of the Hoover Institution, I have edited this “lost memoir” for publication. It was released a few weeks ago.

What does the new book add to our understanding of Hoover?

Freedom Betrayed focuses on foreign policy and what Hoover termed Roosevelt’s “lost statesmanship.” The Crusade Years concentrates on much the same time period on the home front and makes three distinct contributions to our understanding of him.

First, it gives us Hoover in his own words—always a valuable thing to have for study of a noted person. The book is what historians call a primary source We are able to read, unfiltered, what he himself thought about certain events and people. We also get, in this volume, a better sense of his private life—a side of his existence he rarely permitted the world to see.

Second, the new book enhances our understanding of Hoover’s political philosophy and mission during his lengthy ex-presidency. Although Hoover covered many subjects in The Crusade Years, the main one was what he called his “crusade against collectivism” after he left the White House. His chosen title for his book is revealing. He saw himself in his later years as a crusader-prophet battling against the “philosophic error” of utopian statism, including for him the variant known as the New Deal. He became a hyperactive ex-president, but always he was active for a reason. He was seeking not just his own vindication (though that was part of it) but also the rescue of his country from what he considered to be pernicious public policies and dangerous wrong turnings. We see this quite clearly in the new book. Reading its pages, we can understand how he became the Republican Party’s intellectual leader and Franklin Roosevelt’s most formidable critic from the Right.

Third, The Crusade Years brings into sharper focus the remarkable breadth of Hoover’s nonpolitical accomplishments during his postpresidential years. He was an extraordinarily dedicated philanthropist and patron of civic and educational institutions, such as the Hoover Institution, which he founded and came to regard as his greatest benefaction to the American people. There is an entire section of the book devoted to what Hoover termed his “Crusades for Benevolent Institutions.” This dimension of his life, and the voluntarist credo that underlay it, deserve to be better known. His book helps to do that.

What was the most startling or memorable item in the book?

For me it was Hoover’s account of the raucous presidential campaign of 1940 and his role in it. Although he never publicly admitted it, Hoover hoped in 1940 to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, once the party’s small fry had fallen by the wayside. More than that, he energetically but covertly maneuvered to win the nomination, only to be thwarted by a charismatic newcomer named Wendell Willkie and by some very suspicious occurrences at the Republican national convention. Hoover’s story of the convention, and of his dealings with Willkie and of other Republican leaders in the Thirties and Forties, adds spice to the saga of his “crusade against collectivism.” Hoover had little respect for Republican politicians who evaded the ideological issues posed by what he saw as the “regimentation” and “creeping socialism” of the New Deal. In The Crusade Years we learn exactly what he thought of these individuals.

There has been a recent mini-renaissance in looking at Hoover as a conservative figure, whose prime years of course were before the modern conservative movement that arose after World War II. How do you place him as a conservative thinker?

Some years ago I described him as a political orphan, unwelcome in liberal and conservative pantheons alike. To a large degree this remains true, although I see signs that it is starting to change.

One reason for Hoover’s political “orphanhood” is that he is hard to pigeonhole. And one reason for that is the sheer magnitude and duration of his career. Think of it: when he died in 1964 he had spent roughly fifty years in one form or another of public service. Fifty years! Early on, he was a friend of Woodrow Wilson, Walter Lippmann, Louis Brandeis, and (for a time) Franklin Roosevelt. Toward the end, he was a friend of Richard Nixon, William F. Buckley Jr., Joseph McCarthy, and Barry Goldwater. In 1920 the New Republic and FDR wanted him to run for President as a Democrat—as Woodrow Wilson’s heir. By the 1950s he was a proud supporter of numerous conservative causes and an admired grandfather figure on the Republican Right.

Obviously Hoover’s record is complicated and resistant to easy stereotyping. And clearly there are elements of it that will not appeal to some on the Right today. He explicitly repudiated the doctrine of laissez-faire, for example, and during the 1920s had a reputation as a governmental activist (although always within self-imposed limits).

Nevertheless—and here The Crusade Years provides powerful evidence—Hoover decidedly was not a modern liberal. As a tireless exponent of voluntarism in civil society, he emphatically repudiated the statist ideologies of the 1930s, including the New Deal. He railed at burgeoning bureaucracy and the stifling and authoritarian impulses of the centralized, regulatory state he perceived to be arising under Franklin Roosevelt. He was an ardent American exceptionalist who inveighed incessantly against the “planned economy” and noxious collectivist ideologies emanating from Europe.

And so, when the New Deal, in Hoover’s judgment, launched the nation in 1933 on a dangerous lurch to the Left, the former president and onetime, self-styled “independent progressive” became a man of the Right. In 1937 he told a friend in a very revealing letter: “The New Deal having corrupted the label of liberalism to mean collectivism, coercion, [and] concentration of political power, it seems ‘Historic Liberalism’ must be conservatism in contrast.”

And that is where Hoover ended up in the final one-third of his life: as an unabashed defender of what he called “historic liberalism”—or, as we might say, the classical liberal strand of modern American conservatism.

Russell Kirk recounts in his memoir The Sword of Imagination a breakfast he had with Hoover; there was some thought that Kirk would be asked to run the Hoover Institution when Hoover was looking for a new director. Although Kirk believed Hoover to be a good man with the right instincts, he thought that at bottom Hoover lacked a certain historical imagination and cited Hoover’s belief in large-scale international projects as an example, perhaps, of Hoover being too overly confident in rationalist amelioration schemes. How would you address Kirk’s concern?

In assessing Hoover we must remember that he started out in adult life as a mining engineer. He was also endowed with tremendous energy and stamina. By temperament and professional training he was inclined to be—and entered politics as—a “doer,” a technocrat, and (within certain boundaries) a reformer. These are not traits that traditionalist conservatives generally celebrate.

But here again The Crusade Years helps us to see Hoover more fully. For all of his activism while in public office, he unequivocally drew the line at collectivism. As Dr. Kirk correctly notes, he was no “economic leveller.” He abhorred overweening statism and government “dictation” of business. Government as umpire and impartial enforcer of rules: this, to former President Hoover, was its legitimate role. But a “planned economy” and government administration of business: absolutely not. Hoover saw these as the path to fascism or socialism and the death of liberty.

Another thing to keep in mind: wherever possible, Hoover the reformer searched for noncoercive, decentralized, cooperative approaches to social betterment and for volunteer efforts to strengthen the mediating institutions of civil society. He did this by personal example as well as public policy. One of his favorite benevolent undertakings after 1933 was the Boys Clubs of America, which he headed and expanded successfully for nearly thirty years.

Also, most of the vast international projects that made him an international hero were not meliorist or rationalist in the sense of trying to redesign society from above. They were emergency responses—humanitarian responses—to the staggering catastrophe of World War I. After the war broke out in 1914, Hoover, as a private citizen, soon organized the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which supplied daily food to more than 9,000,000 Belgian and French citizens in German-occupied territory for the rest of the war. It was a gigantic humanitarian enterprise without precedent in world history. After the war, Hoover expanded his food relief efforts to more than twenty war-ravaged nations, as part of a multitude of governmental and private endeavors which he either directed or facilitated. Tens of millions of people—perhaps eighty million or more—owed their lives to his exertions. It has been said of him that he was responsible for saving more lives than any person in history.

There was undoubtedly a rationalistic, reformist side to Hoover, especially before 1933. But as readers of The Crusade Years will see, blended in with these early tendencies was a consistent loathing of socialism and Communism and a love of what he extolled as the traditional American system of ordered liberty and limited, constitutional government. In his later years he was quite eloquent on the subject of “the glory of America” as a land of freedom and “wide-open opportunity.” Although he sought ways to improve America, he did not attempt to remake it, in the sense of radically changing its social structure or constitutional order. All of this tended to draw him into what became known as the conservative camp in American politics.

Incidentally, one of Hoover’s associates in the latter part of World War I and its aftermath was Robert Taft, whom he vigorously supported for president in 1952. In 1967 Russell Kirk co-authored an admiring study of Senator Taft, who for years was one of Herbert Hoover’s confidants and staunchest friends. So perhaps Hoover as an ex-president was not as far apart from traditionalist conservatism as his adoption of the label “historic liberalism” might suggest.

What lessons can Hoover teach contemporary conservatives?

First, the importance of reasoned argument and not just sloganeering.

Before nearly anyone else, Hoover discerned the intellectual challenge of the New Deal and began to formulate his case against it intellectually, in terms that still resonate today. At the climax of the presidential campaign of 1932, he warned the American people that they faced more than a choice between two men and two parties. It was a contest, he said, “between two philosphies of government,” and an election that would determine America’s course for “over a century to come.” He came to regard this speech as one of his most prophetic.

But Hoover did not stop there. For the next thirty years he “crusaded against collectivism” on the terrain of historical experience and ideas. He even wrote a book of political philosophy called The Challenge to Liberty. He believed he was engaged in a fateful contest for the American mind and political soul. And unlike many men in politics, he understood the supreme importance of constructing a proper narrative of past events as a weapon in the ongoing war of political ideologies. He sought to instruct his audiences and educate them, even as he exhorted them. Successful political preachers must also be teachers. Hoover knew this, and so must conservatives today.

Second, the importance of perseverance in adversity.

Before he became president in 1929, Hoover’s career had been a classic American success story. His presidency destroyed his popularity, and he left office a pariah. But then, remarkably, he rose from the ashes of political disaster and lived to influence the nation again. He could, I suppose, have retreated to the wilderness and faded into comfortable obscurity. Instead, he returned to the public arena and remained there. Even in his eighties he refused to slow down more than age and infirmity compelled. Between the ages of 85 and 90 he published seven books! Seven books, not counting Freedom Betrayed and The Crusade Years. Like Winston Churchill in his wilderness years, Hoover never gave in—never.

Third, the importance of keeping the faith, when more than a few around you have abandoned theirs.

As I mentioned earlier, there has long been a tendency on the Right and Left to treat Hoover disparagingly as a political orphan. But in the larger sweep of the twentieth century, Hoover the unflagging anti-New Dealer contributed mightily to the critique of ever-aggrandizing statism, a critique that is now integral to American conservatism. It was one of his most enduring legacies, and one worth pondering today.