Commentary Magazine

The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer, 1874-1914, by George H. Nash

What Made him Run

The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer, 1874-1914.
by George H. Nash.
Norton. 768 pp. $25.00.

Herbert Hoover’s early life was a romance, but no one, then or after, ever mistook Hoover for a romantic. In this first installment of a projected multivolume biography, George H. Nash leads us, by way of prodigious research and careful analysis, through the first forty years of Hoover’s life, but in the end his subject eludes him and us. Hoover’s was a flat and unresponsive personality, the stuff non-heroes are made of, and Nash, for all the high adventure and undeniable accomplishment he records, has a difficult time bringing his subject to life or getting the reader to care very much what happens to him.

This is not to say that Nash has labored in vain. Hoover remains one of the major figures of Ameriican political history in the first half of the 20th century, and it is past time that he received the same full-scale treatment that has been accorded Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Nash, moreover, is a talented historian, and this first volume gives every promise that the completed biography will stand as the definitive scholarly work on Hoover. But scholarly virtue and measured, unobtrusive analysis do not always translate into captivating reading, especially with so veiled, inward, and undramatic a subject as Herbert Hoover. Hoover lived out the American dream, but he did it as if he were conducting an exercise in scientific management.

His life began idyllically in West Branch, Iowa, where Hoover, the son of a blacksmith (but a blacksmith with an entrepreneurial itch), spent his early years in a comfortable village atmosphere that he would later recall with great affection. But the idyll was short-lived: his father died in 1880 when Hoover was only six, and his mother succumbed to typhoid fever less than four years later. Hoover, along with an older brother and a younger sister, was left an orphan. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Oregon, where he was brought up by an uncle with whom he had somewhat strained relations.

It was no doubt the early loss of his parents that accounts for the attitude of “protective reserve” (the phrase is the author’s) that Hoover adopted toward the world. If being orphaned so young forced on “Bert” Hoover the lessons of self-sufficiency, it also seems to have induced an emotional distancing that left him, as Nash indicates, something of an outsider in every environment. His was to be a strong but stunted personality.

Beginning in 1891, Hoover worked his way through the newly-opened Stanford University, aided by a small legacy from his mother. Hoover loved Stanford and had a successful undergraduate career both in and out of the classroom. Characteristically, his victories in student politics—he was elected treasurer of the student government on a ticket that rallied the non-fraternity students against the fraternities—owed more to his reputation for efficiency and his organizational talents than to his personal popularity. His education was utilitarian: he focused almost exclusively on courses in engineering and science, with hardly a venture into the humanities or social sciences. (His written English was atrocious; he barely satisfied the English-language competency requirement.)

Graduating with a degree in geology in 1895, Hoover quickly began to make a name in mining engineering. Most of his career was spent abroad, although residence outside the United States did nothing to dampen his intense nationalism (if anything it deepened it). By the eve of World War I, where Nash’s account leaves off, Hoover had become one of the best-known—and wealthiest—men in his field.

His foreign career began in 1897 in the outback of western Australia, where he inspected, evaluated, and managed gold mines for the London firm of Bewick, Moreing, and Company. It was hard and demanding work in a barren outpost, but Hoover, intensely ambitious and highly—almost ruthlessly—efficient, prospered in an environment that put a premium on personal initiative and shrewd economic and technical judgment. He did not always get on well with his co-workers. His reserved, even brusque, personality and his insistence on having things his own way made Hoover a difficult man to work with throughout his career. But his enormous energy and considerable resourcefulness more than made up for his difficulties in personal relations.

In 1899, newly married, Hoover was sent to northern China, where he served both as technical assistant to the Chinese director of mines for the area and as representative of his employer’s mining interests. The two roles inevitably came into conflict, and when they did, the interests of the former gave way to those of the latter. Hoover spent an eventful two-and-a-half years in China and he did well enough for Bewick, Moreing to make him a partner in 1901, but he was also involved in some stormy and controversial episodes. His efforts to reform and rationalize Chinese mining operations often met with frustration; as Nash puts it, Hoover found himself “an aggressive modernizer in a highly traditional society.” Chinese resentment of foreign economic exploitation and cultural arrogance had reached a high point (the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900) and Hoover’s customary blunt-spokenness and lack of tact made him something of an ugly American.

The most contentious of Hoover’s Chinese adventures—it eventuated in a major law suit in England—involved his role in the efforts of European investors to obtain management and control of the Kaiping coal mines, an episode of sinuous complexity that Nash sorts out with characteristic clarity (and sometimes numbing detail). Hoover was not a direct defendant in the suit, but he was deeply involved in this dubious attempt to wrest control of Chinese natural resources from Chinese hands. Years later, when political opponents attempted to use the incident against Hoover, he went to considerable lengths to excuse and obscure his participation in the scheme. As Nash shows, this was not the only time that Hoover rewrote the historical record to suit his own purposes.

After 1901, Hoover lived and worked in London, though he traveled constantly on behalf of his worldwide business interests. For the first seven years, he stayed with Bewick, Moreing; after 1908 he worked on his own. (The split with his old firm aroused bitter feelings on both sides; it too wound up in court.) He made a great deal of money. “If a man has not made a fortune by forty,” Hoover liked to say, “he is not worth much.” Reckoned in such terms, Hoover was worth a lot. He was now more financier than engineer. In retrospect, he liked to stress the technical and scientific aspect of his work; in his memoirs he referred to himself as an “industrial doctor.” The reality, as Nash describes it, involved him mainly in “creating, floating, financing, and refinancing” various mining enterprises. He acted primarily as a middleman between mine owners in search of capital and potential investors. As an engineer/promoter, he frequently engaged in stock-market speculation. In a high-risk business, Hoover won considerably more often than he lost.

But Hoover was never interested simply in making money. He wanted to achieve and accomplish, and money was only one measure of success. He was also a genuine professional, anxious to improve the status of his trade, and he wrote a number of articles and books in his field, including a scholarly translation and annotation (done in collaboration with his wife) of a classic 16th-century treatise on mining, De Re Metallica. He thought of himself as a reformer, bringing order, efficiency, and higher technical and ethical standards to a field sorely in need of all of them. The establishment of techniques of scientific rationality and commonly-held ethical norms, Hoover hoped, would elevate mining engineering from a trade to a profession.

By 1914, however, even that was not enough. Eager to return home, financially secure, casting about for new challenges to his energies and ambitions, Hoover at forty began to consider a new career in public service. He had already become active as a member of the Stanford Board of Trustees (he was appalled to learn that assistant professors were so badly paid as not to be able to afford even a single servant), and he gave thought at one time to becoming a newspaper publisher. In political terms, he identified with the progressive wing of the Republican party led by Theodore Roosevelt, though his social views, as described by Nash, remained entirely traditional.



Public life seemed, in some ways, an unlikely choice for Hoover. For all his managerial and executive abilities, his dealings with people were often awkward and uncomfortable. He was, on the one hand, aggressive, accomplished, able to work his will. Yet he remained an introverted personality, sensitive to criticism, repressed in emotion, possessed of no small talk and few social graces. He always preferred to work behind the scenes, out of the public spotlight. Generous and loyal to those close to him, he was combative when crossed and found it difficult to acknowledge failure or error. He was so ill at ease in the presence of others that he habitually averted his gaze from those he talked to. Yet for all that, his native talent and sheer force of will marked him as a man to reckon with. A lifetime of success had left him with apparently untroubled confidence in his own capacities.

George Nash lays this all out with admirable frankness. He clearly identifies with his subject, and he tends, in most situations, to cast Hoover’s actions and personality in the most favorable light. Yet he has been scrupulous as well as exhaustive in his researches, and he presents evidence which those less sympathetic than he is to Hoover can use to arrive at conclusions considerably at odds with his own. One wishes at times that he would be more forthright in his own interpretative judgments, more inclined to assess the meaning of the massive body of information he has accumulated and organized so effectively. Perhaps more of that will emerge in the volumes yet to come.

We may reasonably expect that Hoover’s life in politics and public service after 1914 will offer more general interest than his prior private career as engineer and businessman, but it is probably too much to hope that he will come alive to us as a human being. One concludes, though Nash would presumably not agree, that Herbert Hoover, for all his extraordinary ability and all the excitement of his life, must have been an utterly dull man to know.

About the Author

James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

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