Herbert Hoover – “The Great Engineer”

August 10, 2016 — Leave a comment

Herbert Clark Hoover was born on August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, he was the first United States president to be born west of the Mississippi River. His father, Jesse Clark Hoover (1846-80), worked as a blacksmith and his mother, Hulda Minthorn Hoover (1848-84), was a teacher, a seamstress and recorded minister in the Society of Friends (Quakers). Herbert was the second of three children in a family who valued honesty, industriousness and simplicity. He enjoyed fishing in the local creek and working in his father’s blacksmith shop.  His father suffered a heart attack and died when Herbert was six years old and three years later his mother passed away from pneumonia, orphaning Herbert, his older brother Theodore, and little sister Mary.

The children were passed between relatives for a few years with Herbert eventually living with his uncle, Dr. John Minthorn, in Oregon. Having lost both his parents at an early age and then living with relatives, resulted in young Herbert to be shy, sensitive, introverted, and somewhat suspicious.

Herbert left school at 15 and worked as an office helper for Minthorn’s Oregon Land Company. In the evenings he attended the Capital Business College and applied for the newly established Leland Stanford Junior University in California to become an engineer. Unfortunately he failed the school’s entrance exam, but a professor noticed he had potential and Herbert was accepted into Stanford’s inaugural 1891 class.

He served as class treasurer and managed the school baseball and football teams. To pay his tuition, Herbert worked as a clerk in the registration office and showed entrepreneurial skills by starting a student laundry service. He majored in geology and met his future wife, Lou Henry (1874-1944), in geology lab, she was the sole female geology major at Stanford.

After majoring in geology at Stanford and graduating in 1895, Herbert struggled to find a job as a surveyor and went to work pushing ore carts at a gold mine near Nevada City, California. He moved to Australia to work as a mining engineer. As he prepared to move to China Herbert cabled Lou to propose marriage, she accepted by return wire.

On February 10, 1899, Herbert and Lou Henry were married, the couple had two sons, Herbert (1903-69) and Allan Henry (1907-93). The day after their wedding the couple set sail for Tientsin, China, where they got caught in the Boxer Rebellion. Lou strapped on a revolver for self-defense, ignored flying bullets and helped nurse wounded Western diplomats and soldiers. By the time the couple returned home to America in 1917, Lou had learned to shoot a gun and had mastered eight languages. Herbert and Lou worked alongside in Australia, Russia, Mandalay, England and France. By the time their youngest son Allan turned three he had traveled around the world three times.

Herbert become a giant in his field and he opened his own mining consulting business in 1908. His consulting firm eventually employed 175,000 people in offices located in England, France, Russia, San Francisco and New York City. He soon became known as the “Great Engineer,” and became a multi-millionaire in his early thirties.

By 1914 he had accumulated a personal fortune around $4 million (about $95 million in today’s money), but he wanted more than wealth and World War I provided him with an opportunity for public service. One week before Herbert celebrated his 40th birthday in London, Germany declared war on France. The American Consul General asked for Herbert’s help in getting stranded tourists home.In six weeks his committee helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. He then started to serve as chairman of the American Relief Committee in London and organized to feed starving masses in occupied Belgium, at great risk to his own life. Herbert even pooled his money with several wealthy friends to organize the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, raising millions of dollars for food and medicine to help desperate Belgians.

During this time Herbert read, and was influenced by, an autobiography of Andrew White, who had assembled a vast collection of documents pertaining to the French Revolution. He realized that he was in a unique position to collect information about the Great War. It was this idea that would lead him to develop the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, becoming the largest private repository of documents on twentieth-century political history.

The United States entered the war in 1917 and Herbert was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to lead the newly created U.S. Food Administration. He succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas, avoided rationing at home, and kept the Allies fed. Herbert became a household name during the war with Americans knowing that the verb “to Hooverize” meant the rationing of household materials.

After World War I ended, Herbert lead the European Relief and Rehabilitation Administration which channeled 34 million tons of American food, clothing, and supplies to war-torn Europe. He earned worldwide acclaim for his humanitarian efforts, as well as thousands of appreciative letters from people across Europe who benefited from the free meals known as “Hoover lunches.”

Pursuing his vision of a Great War repository he pledged $50,000 to Stanford University in 1919. The collection grew and in 1922 was renamed the Hoover War Library. By 1926, it was legitimately described as the largest library in the world dealing with the Great War and by 1929 contained 1.4 million items. The Hoover Tower, reaching a height of 285 feet, was completed in 1941, the fiftieth anniversary of Stanford University.

Herbert and his family had returned to his alma mater in 1920 and built a house on campus. Shortly after President-Elect Warren Harding recruited Herbert to become secretary of commerce, he continued his service under President Coolidge.

Herbert’s reputation peaked in 1927 when he took charge of relief efforts following disastrous floods along the Mississippi River. When Coolidge announced he would not seek reelection, Herbert became the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Herbert ran a risk-free campaign, making only seven well-crafted radio speeches to the nation; he never even mentioned his opponent Al Smith by name. The Republicans portrayed Herbert as an efficient engineer in an era of technology, he was even the first person to appear on a long-distance TV broadcast. He was a successful self-made man, a skilled administrator in a new corporate world of international markets, and a businessman with a vision for economic growth that would, in the words of one GOP campaign circular, put “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

Religion and Prohibition quickly emerged as the most volatile and energizing issues in the campaign. No Catholic had ever been elected President, a by-product of the long history of American anti-Catholic sentiment. Vicious rumors and openly hateful anti-Catholic rhetoric hit Smith hard in the months leading up to Election Day. Numerous Protestant preachers in rural areas delivered Sunday sermons warning their flocks that a vote for Smith was a vote for the Devil. Smith’s anti-Prohibition politics, dubbing him “Alcoholic” Smith, spreading rumors about his own addiction and linking him with moral decline.

Herbert won 58.2 percent of the popular vote compared to Smith’s 40.9 percent. The Electoral College tally was even more uneven, 444 to 87. His election seemed to ensure prosperity and he declared in his inaugural address, “I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.” He was the first president to have a telephone on his desk and to hire an executive staff. His wife Lou was the perfect White House hostess. She started to catalog the White House antiques and restored furniture which she paid for herself. The Girl Scouts were her chief interest, and she served as their president. True to form, Herbert tried to keep his own family shielded from public view.

On October 24, 1929, only seven months after Herbert took office, a drop in the value of the U.S. stock market sent the economy spiraling downward and signaled the start of the Great Depression. Banks and businesses failed and unemployment soared. It was a national crisis with no precedent, and Herbert was vilified.

Between 1929 and 1933, 5,000 American banks collapsed, one in four farms went into foreclosure, and an average of 100,000 jobs vanished each week. By 1932, over 12 million Americans, nearly one-quarter of the workforce, was unemployed. For tens of millions, it was a time of panic and poverty, hunger and hopelessness. Many people were forced to wait in bread lines for food and to live in squalid shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles.”

Herbert tried a number of programs to stimulate the economy, and a few of them became key components of later relief efforts. However, Herbert’s response to the crisis was constrained by his conservative political philosophy. He opposed federal intervention in the economy or the construction of a welfare state, he believed that voluntarism and individual effort would solve the country’s economic woes. He believed in a limited role for government and worried that excessive federal intervention posed a threat to capitalism and individualism. Accordingly, Herbert vetoed several bills that would have provided direct relief to struggling Americans. He explained in his 1930 State of the Union address, “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury.”

In an effort to help war veterans Herbert signed the bill founding the Department of Veterans Affairs on July 21, 1930. He also signed a law on March 3, 1931 that made the 1814 poem by Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as America’s national anthem.

Herbert would not provide direct federal relief to the unemployed, he promoted indirect relief through public works projects and loans to the states. He presented to Congress a program asking for creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to aid business. He also supported helping farmers facing mortgage foreclosures, banking reform, a loan to states for feeding the unemployed, expansion of public works. His programs proved inadequate and the number of unemployed workers increased from seven million in 1931 to eleven million in 1933.

Herbert won passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act, which mandated the construction of a massive dam (later named the Hoover Dam) to provide power for public utilities in California. He also placed nearly two million acres of federal land in the national forest reserve, demonstrating his belief in the conservation of national resources.

Herbert would relax doing one of his favorite hobbies, fishing. He built a fishing camp in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with $120,000 of his own money. He would bring congressmen and economic advisers to the cabin and held front-porch conferences. Herbert said, “I have discovered that even the work of the government can be improved by leisurely discussions out under the trees.”

At the White House Herbert adapted a game of medicine ball he had first played during a Latin American journey. For thirty minutes each day, seven days a week, Herbert and his “Medicine Ball Cabinet” heaved a six-pound medicine ball back and forth over a volleyball net. The game was scored exactly like tennis, and played in a similar fashion. It was a game that burned three times as many calories as tennis and six times that of golf as the players tried to throw a six pound ball over an eight foot high net.

The Depression reshaped American family life, birth rates dropped along with divorce rates, couples simply split up rather than going through legal channels for a costly divorce. The average annual family income dropped by 35 percent between Herbert’s inaugural speech and his retirement from office, from $2,300 to $1,500.

The word “Hooverize,” which in 1917 carried positive images in the public mind, had undergone a similar transformation and by 1932, “Hooverville” represented the dirty shacks in which the unemployed and homeless lived, with “Hoover Flags,” denoting the turned-out pockets of men’s trousers as they stood in bread lines. All the things about Hoover that had sounded positive during the 1920s became negative in 1932. Words like “rationalize,” “efficiency,” and “technocrat” spoke of heartlessness and a cold-minded concern with an industrial process that had devastated the nation.

Will Rogers summed up the mood of a nation when he joked, “If someone bit an apple and found a worm in it, Hoover would get the blame.” Comedians told the story of Herbert asking the treasury secretary for a nickel so he could call a friend and the treasury secretary replying, “Here, take a dime and call all your friends.”

Generous to a fault, Herbert was one of two American Presidents to give away his salary (John F. Kennedy was the other). He anonymously donated $25,000 a year to aid victims of the depression and raised $500,000 toward the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Welfare.

“The Great Engineer” shied away from the emotional aspects of modern, mass leadership. In the spring of 1932, three Detroit children hitchhiked to Washington to get their father out of jail. Herbert was deeply moved and ordered the father released immediately, yet he refused to let the press be informed or the children exploited for his personal political advantage. From hero to scapegoat, Herbert’s failure to dramatize himself was his greatest strength as a humanitarian and his greatest flaw as a politician.

The most politically damaging event of Herbert’s presidency was the Bonus March, staged by World War I veterans in 1932. Several years earlier, Congress had passed the Soldiers’ Bonus Act, which granted veterans Adjusted Compensation Certificates, payable in 1945. In May 1932, the “Bonus Army,” with more than 17,000 desperate veterans, gathered in Washington to force passage of the bill. Herbert had already made generous provisions for veterans and felt that the bill was a huge expense that wouldn’t help the countries neediest, veterans’ benefits already took up 25 percent of the 1932 federal budget. In July, the Bonus Bill was defeated in the Senate, the government offered to pay the fare home for each of the veterans who had traveled to Washington.

Thousands accepted the offer, but thousands more remained encamped across the Potomac from central Washington in a ramshackle shantytown. Herbert secretly ordered that its members be given tents, cots, army rations, and medical care. Although the Bonus Army had behaved remarkably peacefully, the police were called in to evict the veterans. A riot broke out and Herbert ordered that federal troops be dispatched to contain the veterans. The commanding general, Douglas MacArthur, did much more than “contain” the veterans, he ordered the use of tear gas, tanks, and bayonets, and commanded soldiers to set fire to the veterans’ shacks. Several veterans and even an infant were killed in the chaos. Herbert never publicly criticized the general for his excessive conduct, and thus the American people blamed Herbert as well as MacArthur.

Upon hearing the news, the Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt told a friend, “Well, this elects me.” By the time of the 1932 presidential election, Herbert had become a deeply unpopular, even reviled, figure across much of the country. He carried only six states and was soundly defeated by Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York. The Great Depression officially became Roosevelt’s problem in March 1933, he promised to enact progressive reforms and economic relief programs that he called “A New Deal,” for the American people.

“Democracy is a harsh employer,” Herbert said when recalling his 1932 defeat. Rejected by his countrymen, Herbert departed Washington in March 1933, his once bright reputation in shambles and his career in public service apparently at an end. The Roosevelt era was, for Herbert, his own purgatory, during which the former President was forced to defend himself against charges that he had somehow caused the Great Depression or done little to combat it.

Defeated and still a relatively youthful man, the fifty-eight-year-old former President and his family moved to their home in Palo Alto, California. Herbert emerged as a critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. He wrote about his conservative political views and warning about the dangers of investing too much power in the federal government. His books, ‘The Challenge to Liberty’ and the eight-volume ‘Addresses Upon the American Road,’ attacked Roosevelt’s government policies.

Herbert traveled extensively in his post-presidential years and in 1938 he met with Adolf Hitler. The former U.S. President dressed down the German dictator, irritated at Hitler’s shouting in their private audience. Herbert opposed U.S. entry into the European conflict that broke out in 1939 after Germany attacked Poland. Although when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he changed his mind. He opposed the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, he wrote to a friend in August 1945, “The only difference between this and the use of poison gas is the fear of retaliation. We alone have the bomb.”

Herbert’s organizational and humanitarian skills where once again needed and President Roosevelt put aside his personal antipathy towards his predecessor and supported Herbert’s appointment to chair an international relief organization for Poland, Finland, and Belgium. Herbert was unsuccessful in getting food relief to nations occupied by the Nazis.

In 1944, after returning from an afternoon concert, First Lady Lou Hoover died of a heart attack at the couple’s suite in New York’s Waldorf Towers. She was a skilled linguist who was distinguished by her prematurely white hair, she shunned cosmetics, jewelry and frilly clothes.

In 1945 President Roosevelt died while still in office making Vice President Harry Truman President. In May 1945, President Truman invited America’s only living former President to visit him at the White House. “I would be most happy to talk over the European food situation with you,” wrote Truman. “Also it would be a pleasure for me to become acquainted with you.” It was the start of an improbable, yet historic friendship between two men who formed perhaps the oddest couple in American politics. Early in 1946 Herbert served as the coordinator of the Food Supply for World Famine and the 71 year old Herbert visited 38 nations in an effort to beg, borrow, and cajole enough food to avert mass starvation among victims of World War II.

Herbert returned to public service in the 1950s, serving on commissions aimed at increasing government efficiency for presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

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

The former President continued to advise Presidents of both parties into his eighties. A reporter who dropped by Herbert’s home at the Waldorf Towers in New York City, in 1960 could hardly believe that Herbert worked eight to twelve hours each day. After all, said the journalist, the former President was nearly 86 years old. “Yes,”replied one of his secretaries, “but he doesn’t know that.” With his unending series of books, articles, speeches, and other public appearances, Herbert reinvented the ex-presidency. Long before his death he had regained much of his countrymen’s esteem and became the nation’s respected elder statesman.

Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964 in New York, NY at the age of ninety from colon cancer. More than 75,000 people attended the funeral service. On October 29, the body of Herbert was interred in a simple grave beside his wife Lou on an Iowa hill overlooking the cottage where he was born.

In a final demonstration of Quaker simplicity, his tombstone carries no presidential seal, no inscription of any kind, simply the name Herbert Hoover and the dates 1874–1964. It is a deliberately understated comment on a highly dramatic life that impacted millions of people.


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Quotes by Herbert Hoover

“Whatever doubt there may be as to the quality or purpose of our free speech we certainly have ample volumes in production.”

“We must not be misled by the claim that the source of all wisdom is in the government.”

“The durability of free speech and free press rests on the simple concept that it search for the truth and tell the truth.”

“The imperative need of this nation at all times is the leadership of Uncommon Men or Women.”

“No great question will ever be settled in dollars and cents. Great questions must be settled on moral grounds and the tests of what makes free men.”

“Truth alone can stand the guns of criticism.”

“No public man can be just a little crooked. There is no such thing as a no-man’s land between honesty and dishonesty.”

“The budget should be balanced not by more taxes, but by reduction of follies.”

“We are now speeding down the road of wasteful spending and debt, and unless we can escape we will be smashed in inflation.”

“Freedom requires that government keep the channels of competition and opportunity open, prevent monopolies, economic abuse and domination.”

“There is no more cruel illusion than that war makes a people richer.”

“We cannot change ideas in the minds of men and races with machine guns or battle ships.”

“One of the primary necessities of the world for the maintenance of peace is the elimination of the frictions which arise from competitive armament.”

“Truly every generation discovers the world all new again and knows it can improve it.”

“The advancement of knowledge must be translated into increasing health and education for the children.”

“Every generation has the right to build its own world out of the materials of the past, cemented by the hopes of the future.”

“Children are the most wholesome part of the race, the sweetest, for they are the freshest from the hand of god.”

“National character cannot be built by law. It is the sum of the moral fiber of its individuals.”

“Many women are now holding posts of grave responsibility in city and country and state and nation, and their number must be greatly increased.”

“It is obvious that while science is struggling to bring Heaven to earth some men are using its materials in the construction of Hell.”

“Next to religion, baseball has had a greater impact on our American way of life than any other American institution.”

On Engineering

“It is a great profession. There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege.

The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope the people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned…

On the other hand, unlike the doctor his is not a life among the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his purpose. Unlike the lawyer, quarrels are not his daily bread. To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort, and hope. No doubt as years go by the people forget which engineer did it, even if they ever knew. Or some politician puts hs name on it. Or they credit it to some promoter who used other people’s money . . . But the engineer himself looks back at the the unending stream of goodness which flows from his successes with satisfactions that few professions may know. And the verdict of his fellow professionals is all the accolade he wants.”

On Fishing

“Tis the chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of the sun on the blue water.

It brings meekness and inspiration from the decency of nature, charity toward tackle makers, patience toward fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week.

And it is discipline in the equality of men, for all men are equal before fish.”

 What Is A Boy?

“You can absolutely rely on a boy if you know what to expect.

A boy is Nature’s answer to false belief that there is no such thing as perpetual motion. A boy can run like a deer, swim like a fish, climb like a squirrel, balk like a mule, bellow like a bull, eat like a pig, or act like a jackass, according to climatic conditions.

The world is so full of boys that it’s impossible to touch off a fire cracker, strike up a band, or pitch a ball without collecting a thousand of them. Boys are no ornamental; they’re useful. If it were not for boys, the newspapers would go undelivered and unread and a hundred thousand picture shows would go bankrupt.

The boy is a natural spectator; he watches parades, fires, fights, football games, automobiles and planes with equal fervor. However, he will not watch a clock. A boy is a piece of skin stretched over an appetite. However, he eats only when he’s awake. Boys imitate their Dads in spite of all efforts to teach them good manners. Boys are very durable. A boy if not washed too often and if kept in a cool quiet place after each accident, will survive broken bones, hornets nests, swimming holes and five helpings of pie.

Boys love to trade things. They’ll trade fish hooks, marbles, broken knives and snakes for anything that is priceless or worthless.”

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