The First New Dealer

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review of Herbert
Hoover: A Public Life
, by David Burner was first published
in Inquiry magazine on April 16, 1979.

who grew up before World War II remember Herbert Clark
Hoover as the most reviled man in public life. Whenever any of
the New Deal's court historians or writers tackled the history
of the 1930s, the country was treated to a thoroughly Manichean
interpretation of that epoch. The more historians and publicists
worshipped and adored the greatness and the majesty of Franklin
Roosevelt, the more they scorned his predecessor as the dour man
in the high collar who tried but failed to thwart the nation's
ascension to paradise. Just as Roosevelt was hailed as the compassionate
friend of the common man who brought the new order of government
control and planning to America, so Herbert Hoover stood in the
dock as the last representative of the bad, uncaring old order
of individualism and laissez-faire. Their very images seemed to
symbolize their respective ideologies: Hoover, terse, unsmiling,
outmoded; Roosevelt, the affable patrician with the mellifluous

In the rush
of intellectuals and scholars to embrace New Deal liberalism during
and after the 1930s, it seemed that there was no one to even attempt
to redress the imbalance. Apart from the maverick journalist John
T. Flynn
, there was no historian to treat FDR as anything
less than (as H.L. Mencken said of Woodrow Wilson) a candidate
for the first vacancy in the Trinity. As for Hoover, his defense
was entrusted to a devoted crew of old reliable aides and hagiographers
who would cluster around his suite in the Waldorf Towers, refer
to him as "The Chief," and laud his infinite wisdom,
sagacity, and lovability. Ironically, by insisting on Hoover's
undying faith in individualism and voluntarism, and his opposition
to the New Deal, this group of conservatives reinforced the myth
propounded by Hoover's New Deal enemies.

To his credit,
Hoover himself never claimed to be an exponent of laissez-faire.
Indeed, at every Republican convention until his death the old
man would be trotted out to give a speech that no one ever bothered
to listen to: In this speech Hoover would insist that he himself
was the father of numerous measures the New Deal got credit for,
and he would proudly go through the list. But everyone, friend
and foe alike, was too busy making myths to hear him.

There was
little that historians could do to penetrate this fog, however,
until Hoover's papers were released to the scholarly public in
the 1970s. Before that, only friends and loyalists authorized
by Hoover could do much work on his biography. But even under
this considerable handicap, the light of historical truth began
to penetrate the mists of the Hoover legend. Apart from such journalists
of the day as Flynn and Walter Lippmann, the first historian to
revise the legend was the economist Benjamin M. Anderson, who,
in 1949, wrote a trenchant economic history of the interwar period,
and the Public Welfare
. Anderson pointed out that, far
from being the last embattled defender of laissez-faire, Herbert
Hoover founded the New Deal in virtually all of its aspects.

But Anderson
went unread. Partly because much of his treatment was a personal
memoir, more because he himself was an advocate of laissez-faire,
he was not read by economists; as an economist he was, of course,
not read by historians.

In the 1960s,
however, the fresh and bracing air of New Left historiography
began to hit the historical profession. Led, as in so many other
areas, by William Appleman Williams, these historians pointed
out, from their own particular perspective, that Hoover originated
the New Deal and that he had in fact been one of the leading pioneers
of the corporate state in America. Actually, to the New Left,
disenchanted with the welfare-warfare state built by the New Deal,
Hoover's relative voluntarism and reluctance to enlist in the
great crusades of World War II and the Cold War looked
pretty good in comparison. Thus, in what they took to be Hoover's
emphasis on cooperation among private associations, these historians
began to see a more congenial role model than in the aggressively
centralist big government constructed by FDR and his successors.

Since the
mid-1960s, historians have been able to transcend the fierce partisanship
of the first wave of Hoover studies, and they have been greatly
aided in this task by the opening of the Hoover papers. We have
had the thorough and insightful researches of Ellis W. Rawley,
and, in 1975, the first full-length biography of Hoover to use
the released papers, Joan Hoff Wilson's Herbert
Hoover: The Forgotten Progressive

Despite the
bitter-end opposition of a few New Deal stalwarts, the revisionist
view of Hoover has pretty well swept the historical profession.
It is now firmly established that, far from being the last of
the laissez-faire individualists, Hoover was an ardent progressive
and the originator of the New Deal.

In all his
years in public office — from his post as autocratic food administrator
in World War I through his service as secretary of commerce under
Harding and Coolidge and then as President — Herbert Hoover pushed
for a corporate state system of cartelized associations in industry
and agriculture, all enforced, governed, and coordinated by big
government. Before the great depression struck, Hoover vowed that
in any such economic crisis, he would immediately deploy the massive
powers of government to end it. He put that vow into effect as
soon as the stock market crashed in October 1929, and he invoked
every measure that would become even more visible in the New Deal:
propped-up wage rates, massive public works, heavy federal deficits,
huge federal loans to shaky businesses, unemployment relief, inflationary
monetary policies, etc. There was no need for FDR to install
a farm price support program to combat the Depression; Hoover
had already carried out his pledge to the farm bloc to establish
one as a permanent fixture of the economic scene, a fixture that
would generate huge and unusable food surpluses in the midst of

The major
differences in current Hoover studies are over the significance
of his much-trumpeted "voluntarism." How different was
it from the overt coercion exercised by the later New Deal? The
answer is, not very much. Hoover's voluntarism was essentially
a rhetorical gimmick, designed to cloak governmental coercion
in a sentiment more suited to traditional American values. Hoover
pioneered in one form of voluntarism in his days as World War
I food czar, when he mobilized volunteer citizens' groups to snoop
on neighborhood stores to enforce his price control decrees. Roosevelt's
NRA built on this tradition by forcing every store put a blue
eagle symbol on its window and then recruiting neighborhood groups
to help in the enforcement.

Another example
of Hooverian voluntarism came right after the crash. Leaders of
industry and finance were corralled into private White House conferences
in which Hoover told them they had to act "voluntarily"
to keep up wage rates even if profits should collapse, warning
that if they failed to obey he would get Congress to force compliance.
Hoover's form of voluntarism, in short, was much like the age-old
system the army uses to recruit "volunteers" for unwanted

David Burner's
new biography of Hoover is unquestionably the best and
most thorough to date. Although it only goes up to 1933, it covers
all of Hoover's official public life and therefore the most important
years. It is impressively researched. In particular, it provides
the only full account in print of Hoover's entrepreneurial years
before he emerged as a public figure in 1914. This was a period
of much sharp practice quickly glossed over in Hoover's egregiously
self-serving Memoirs
and neglected heretofore by biographers.

There are
numerous problems with this book, however, and the definitive
Hoover biography remains to be written. Burner's viewpoint is
very moderately revisionist, and moderately sympathetic toward
his subject; as a result the analysis is bland and fuzzy, and
the carefully judicious tone is scarcely calculated to fire the
interest of the reader. And since Burner's economic insight is
minimal, he often does not know what to look for, or gets confused
along the way.

Thus, in
creating the Federal Farm Board, the precursor of New Deal schemes
to prop up farm prices, Hoover appointed leading farm group representatives
to the board, and named Alexander Legge, head of International
Harvester, as its chairman. To Burner this was an anomaly, and
he writes in some wonderment of the altruism Legge displayed in
his new job: "Although he was an important businessman, Legge's
sympathy lay with the farmers," and he pushed aggressively
for farm price supports. The fact that International Harvester
was the country's largest manufacturer of farm machinery and therefore
benefited from these supports does not seem to register with Burner.

trying to justify their image of Hoover as a "voluntarist"
have a difficult time explaining his role as secretary of commerce
in driving through the Radio Act of 1927, which nationalized the
airwaves and set up a Federal Radio Commission. This commission
— which later became the FCC — had the right to assign and license
frequencies, in this way establishing a powerful censorship over
radio and later over television. The usual excuse for this crucial
piece of statism is the one given by Hoover himself: There would
have been a "chaos" of stations interfering with one
another if the airwaves had remained in private hands.

Yet Hoover
then, and almost all historians since, ignore the fact that the
courts were rapidly reducing such chaos by establishing common
law "homesteading" property rights in the airwaves for
whichever station first used a given frequency in a given geographical
area. In fact, it was precisely because the courts were adopting
such a homesteading position (especially in Tribune Co. v.
Oak Leaves Broadcasting Station, Cir. Ct., Cook County, Ill.,
1926) that Hoover rushed to push through the Radio Act to prevent
private rights from being established.

How does
Burner handle this complex and highly important question? He does
it in one paragraph. He begins by pointing out that Hoover as
secretary of commerce held four annual government-industry conferences
on radio regulation, and "cooperated" with industry
by setting up a commercial wireless news service. He then notes
the illuminating fact that Hoover worked closely with his old
friend Owen D. Young, head of the Morgan-affiliated General Electric
Company, to rush through "the completion" of national
radio networks.

Burner could
have used this fact to explain Hoover's promoting the Radio Act
as a way of preventing free competition and of cartelizing radio
by imposing national networks. But no. Instead, he proceeds to
create confusion all around, first by claiming that Hoover "did
not want the new instrument of communication in the hands of the
government" and that instead he wanted industry "to
regulate itself"; and then by writing in the next sentence
that "the Radio Act of 1927 established ultimate public ownership
and limited regulation of the airwaves" and neglecting to
point out that the driving force in passing the Radio Act was
Herbert Hoover. Nor does Burner so much as mention the Illinois
court case nor the researches of Ronald H. Coase that brought
it to light.

It becomes
even more difficult to maintain a pro-Hoover stance when faced
with the role of the "Great Humanitarian" (as he liked
to be called) in starving post-World War I Europe, where he served
as American relief administrator and President Wilson's proconsul:
He threatened to and actually did withhold food from starving
countries that failed to adopt the centrist governments demanded
by Wilson, using food as a weapon against "reactionary monarchist"
as well as Bolshevik or radical regimes.

Burner preserves
his admiration for Hoover by minimizing the importance or extent
of such practices. Thus, Hoover's forcing of the Polish-American
pianist Ignace Paderewski on the Pilsudski government as premier
of Poland is disposed of in a few mealy-mouthed sentences. Burner
doesn't mention that Hoover did so because Pilsudski was a revolutionary
socialist and Paderewski and his cabinet were Wilsonian tools;
nor does he mention that Hoover won his way by threatening to
withhold food from that starving country if the Poles did not
accept Paderewski. And Burner says not one word about the dramatic
saga in which Hoover employed Allied warships to crush the revolutionary
Bolshevik government in Riga, and to impose upon Latvia the government
of a particular Hoover favorite, Karlis Ulmanis, who in the thirties
was to come to power again by a coup d'tat and to impose
a fascist regime.

we come, as in so many other areas of modern American historiography,
to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Reviewing the Burner book in the
august pages of the New York Review of Books (March 8,
1979), this dean of ultra-New Deal historians does not presume
to stick to the old line that Herbert Hoover was a paladin of
laissez-faire. (But he does refer to the recent work of the last
of the bitter-enders, Elliott Rosen, in typical terms as "stimulating
and combative.") Instead, Schlesinger performs a shrewd salvaging
operation, in two parts. First, he plays up the associative and
supposedly "voluntary" parts of Hoover's cartelizing
program. Thus he stresses Hoover's one veto of a government dam
while ignoring all of his previous encouragement and support for
such dams. And second, he claims that while Hoover may have been
some sort of corporatist, Schlesinger's hero Franklin Roosevelt
was not a corporatist or cartelist at all.

no: Instead of the "business syndicalism of which Hoover
dreamed," opines Schlesinger, Roosevelt took us into "a
system of democratic control based on law." And so, when
the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural
Adjustment Administration (AAA) demanded by the higher
business circles brought us the fully cartelized corporate state,
and when World War II entrenched the military-industrial complex
in permanent control of American life, there was nothing left
to do but cheer. After all, we are the government, aren't we?
It was elected by the people, wasn't it? Despite his seeming sophistication
and the cleverness of his rescue operation, it's clear that in
the ultimate analysis Arthur Schlesinger, like the Bourbons, learned
nothing and forgot nothing.

If Hoover
was the real founder of the New Deal, how did he come by his reputation
as champion of laissez-faire? Because, like so many other pioneers
of revolutions, Hoover was overtaken and cast adrift by the speed
and extent of the changes that occurred. All his life, Herbert
Hoover had pushed for cartelization of industry promoted and coordinated
by government. But in 1932, in the depths of the Depression, business
leaders began to call for an accelerated and more thorough revolutionary
change in this direction than Hoover was willing to accept. What
they wanted was the NRA, a plan that was simply too coercive and
too candidly statist for Hoover's taste. The times were such that
business leaders could no longer be content with the Hooverian
trappings of voluntarism. When Henry I. Harriman, head of the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce, came to Hoover and said that big business
would support Roosevelt in the election if Hoover did not accept
what would later become the NRA, Hoover astonished many
of his progressive supporters by drawing back in horror, rejecting
it, and calling it "fascism."

Edging back
from an abyss that was to a great extent his own creation was
perhaps Herbert Hoover's finest hour. But this trauma did not,
alas, bring him any awareness of the logical consequences of what
he himself had wrought. For the rest of his life, Hoover believed
that all of what he had done to take us down the corporate-state
road was wise and justified to the last iota, but that Roosevelt
had gone too far in some respects. Hence much of the confusion
about Hoover on the part of both the public and the historians.
Even though our knowledge of Herbert Hoover has come very far
since this confusion first arose, he still awaits his definitive

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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