We’ve only elected two businessman presidents, so I was curious to see what happened under the first one. Herbert Hoover, like Richard Nixon, was a Quaker. Like Nixon, he was not born to a family of wealth and privilege. In fact, he was born inside his father’s blacksmith shop.
Hoover studied engineering at Stanford University and became a highly-successful mining engineer and consultant. He made a fortune in the coal business and worked on projects across the globe. Before becoming president, Hoover never served in the military or held elected office. But he did serve as head of the FDA and as Commerce Secretary.
Hoover campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” He ran as a “dry” candidate supporting Prohibition. His Democratic opponent, Alfred E. Smith, was not only a “wet,” he was Roman Catholic. Hoover owed his victory to a strategy that appealed to southern white voters. By assuring them that race relations would remain status quo, he cracked the Democratic stranglehold on the South. He was the first Republican to take Texas and won the presidency with 58% of the popular vote.
When Hoover was elected in 1928, Republicans held the majority in Congress. The economy was robust but wages were stagnant and there was vast income inequality. There was also a growing economic bubble, as lending increased, enabling Americans to buy houses and cars. Hoover encouraged Americans to save and believed in balancing the federal budget by raising taxes on the wealthy.
After the stock market crash, Republicans pressured Hoover to slap tariffs on imports to help struggling farmers. Hoover believed in international trade but reluctantly signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930. The name of the act may sound funny but its consequences were not. The act caused other countries to retaliate. It hurt international trade and led to increasing nationalism overseas. Ironically, it hurt American farmers the most.
Economists had warned Hoover not to sign the act. Henry Ford called it “economic stupidity.” Protectionist policies led to 10 years of economic pain and kept Republicans out of the White House for the next 20 years.
Hoover was a populist president. He blamed Mexicans for the country’s economic problems and started the Mexican Repatriation program. It caused the forced migration of 500,000 to 2,000,000 Mexicans, 60% of whom were birthright citizens.
In other ways, Hoover was progressive when it came to minorities. His vice president, Charles Curtis, was the first Native-American to hold that position. His wife, Lou, also set an example by inviting the wife of the only African American serving in Congress to dine at the White House. Hoover was internationally praised as a humanitarian. He headed relief programs in Belgium during World War I. After the war, he led the American Relief Administration to help the people of other European countries.
With his domestic policies, Hoover was well-intentioned. He thought he could engineer peace and prosperity. However, unemployment peaked at 25 percent during the Great Depression and Americans blamed him for the mess. FDR defeated him by a landslide, following his one term. After his defeat, Hoover opposed FDR’s New Deal policies and was against the U.S. entering World War II.
He had better relations, though, with Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S Truman. In the play Give ‘Em Hell Harry, there is a memorable scene in which Truman warmly welcomes Hoover to the Oval Office. Praising Hoover’s humanitarian background, he appoints him to help with post-war relief efforts in Europe. The former president starts crying.
Hoover believed he could apply business principles to running the government. Will a businessman president be successful the second time around?