Herbert Hoover and American Individualism

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In this season of political and ideological upheaval, the Hoover Institution Press is to be commended for reprinting a provocative book entitled "American Individualism", published by Herbert Hoover in 1922.  Most people know that Hoover was President of the United States in the early years of the Great Depression. But few know that he was among just a handful of American presidents who have ventured self-consciously into the realm of political philosophy and have tried to explain the sources of American greatness.

     Born in Iowa in 1874 and orphaned in boyhood, Hoover entered the pioneer class at Stanford University in 1891. Upon graduation he embarked on a spectacularly successful career as an international mining engineer—a vocation that took him around the world five times before he was forty years old.   Everywhere he lived and traveled, he observed and evaluated the social systems of the Old World and the New. Although he admired the high cultures of Europe and Asia, he disliked their oppressive social rigidities and preferred the freedom, dynamism and openness of his native land.

       When World War I broke out in 1914 and quickly bogged down in the trenches, Hoover, living at the time in London, established a neutral relief organization to procure and deliver desperately needed food supplies to the entire civilian population of German-occupied Belgium, trapped between a hostile invading army and a British naval blockade.  His Commission for Relief in Belgium was an unprecedented undertaking in human history. It kept more than 9,000,000 people alive for the duration of the war.  In the process, Hoover became an international humanitarian hero. 

    After serving as U.S. Food Administrator in Washington under President Wilson in 1917-18, Hoover returned to Europe at war’s end.  There, as head of the American Relief Administration, he organized and directed the distribution of  vast quantities of foodstuffs to hungry people in more than twenty nations, in the process checking the advance of Communist revolution from the East.  Tens of millions of people owed their lives to his exertions. Thus did he earn his later epithet the “Great Humanitarian.”

     In September 1919 Hoover returned to America to stay.  Despite his immense humanitarian achievements, he was not a contented man. Every day at the peace conference in Paris, where he had served as one of Wilson’s senior advisors, he had witnessed a depressing display of national rivalries, vengefulness, and greed. He had also seen attempts by leftist revolutionaries to construct a new economic order in Europe on the premises of Marxist socialism.  And increasingly he had seen America in contrast.  More and more he sensed what he called the “enormous distance” that America had traveled from Europe during 250 years of nationhood.  He hoped that the United States would never become a “laboratory for experiment in foreign social diseases.”

     In 1921 Hoover joined President Harding’s cabinet as secretary of commerce.  But the old questions continued to haunt him:  How could America avoid the follies of the Old World?  Why was America different? Why was America unique?   He decided to distill from his extraordinary experiences abroad a coherent understanding of the exceptional American social system he cherished.  The result was his book "American Individualism".

     By “American individualism” Hoover did not mean unfettered laissez-faire. He was not a doctrinaire Social Darwinist. Although he prized individual initiative, he believed that “individualism run riot” could lead to domination of government and business by the powerful. “The values of individualism," he argued, must therefore be “tempered” by “that firm and fixed ideal of American individualism—an equality of opportunity.”

     For Hoover, equality of opportunity—“the fair chance of Abraham Lincoln”—was quite simply “our most precious social ideal.” And while he deemed government–as-umpire to be essential for economic and social progress, he emphatically  rejected outright socialism and other statist ideologies. Government ownership of business, he declared, was the “negation” of “our social foundations.”

     "American Individualism" received a generally friendly reception.  A dozen years later, however, Hoover –  now an ex- president – found himself and his political philosophy outflanked on the left by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  To Hoover the New Deal was a dangerous form of collectivism that, unchecked, would “destroy the very foundations of the American way of life.”  American individualism versus “sheer socialism”:  this, he prophesied in 1933, would be “the great political battle for some years to come.” Until his death in 1964, Hoover the political philosopher relentlessly conducted what he called a “crusade against collectivism:" a crusade that in some ways had its inception in American individualism.

      Of all of our presidents to date, Hoover was the most profoundly and extensively acquainted with foreign peoples and their social systems.  His perception of contrast between the Old World and the New was the experiential core of his social philosophy, and it made him into a fervent expositor of what we now call American exceptionalism. It gave him an understanding of America as “one of the last few strongholds of human freedom” – committed more fully than any other to liberty, social mobility and equal opportunity for all.

     Today, as Americans grope for our philosophical moorings in an ever more turbulent world, we might well ponder Herbert Hoover’s “American individualism” and his vision of America. And we might also remember something else.  From a lifetime of comparative social analysis Hoover derived this lesson: in the destinies of nations, ideas – and ideals – have mattered. 

     They still do.



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