Richard Norton Smith

In the summer of 1813 a gnarled, nearly toothless old man sat in his study trying to reconstruct with his pen a once precious friendship. "You, and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other," wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. The ensuing correspondence provided abundant explanation of each man's philosophy and outlook. More than that, however, it bequeathed a crackling intellectual repartee to succeeding generations. When the two patriots, Federalist and Republican, Yankee and Virginian, died within hours of each other on an unforgettable Fourth of July in 1826, their partnership assumed legendary dimensions.

Nearly one and a half centuries after the second president undertook to explain himself to the third, Herbert Hoover opened his heart to a most unlikely correspondent. "Yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know," he told Harry Truman in December 1962. I gave up a successful profession in 1914 to enter public service. I served through the First World War and after for a total of about 18 years. When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, I at once supported the President and offered to serve in any useful capacity. Because of my various experiences . . . I thought my services might again be useful, however there was no response. My activities in the Second World War were limited to frequent requests from Congressional committees. When you came to the White House, Hoover continued, "within a month you opened a door to me to the only profession I know, public service, and you undid some disgraceful action that had been taken in prior years."

Never before had Hoover so completely set aside his habitual reserve. So moved was Truman by his friend's cri de coeur that he had it framed and placed near his desk in the Truman Library. At the start of 1963 the man from Independence responded to the sage of New York's Waldorf Towers. "You'll never know how much I appreciated your letter . . . In fact I was overcome, because you state the situation much better than I could. I'll quote you . . . 'For . . . your friendship, I am deeply grateful.'"

For the reader admitted to such intimacy, it is hard to avoid a lump in the throat at the thought of these two doughty warriors enjoying an Indian summer reconciliation. Certainly there is nothing in the annals of American history to equal the Hoover-Truman relationship. Even the historic bonding between Adams and Jefferson, intellectual soul mates for a quarter century who fell out over politics, does not compare. Their parting in 1800 proved only a trial separation. After Jefferson's presidency the way was cleared for both men to resume their natural affinity and rebuild a shattered trust. Even so, their friendship never reached the level of practical cooperation that marked the Hoover-Truman partnership.

Memory endowed the Hoover-Truman relationship with unique poignancy, but it would be a mistake to sentimentalize what started out as an understandably wary courtship by two virtual strangers with every reason to be antagonists. Harry Truman was thrust into the presidency by Franklin Roosevelt's sudden death on April 12,1945, on the eve of a World War II victory made possible in no small measure by FDR's charismatic leadership.

The stroke that ended the Roosevelt era simultaneously ended the political ostracism of Roosevelt's controversial predecessor. Once lionized as the Savior of Belgium, the embodiment of American generosity and know-how, Hoover went from feeding war-ravaged Europe to become president in 1929. But within months of his inauguration, Wall Street collapsed, a recession became a depression, and the hero was transformed into a scapegoat. In four national campaigns between 1932 and 1944, the dour, sometimes apocalyptic Republican served the Democratic opposition as a most convenient whipping boy for the sins of the so-called New Era.

Not even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could bring Hoover back into the mainstream of official Washington, D.C. Within days of the attack, Roosevelt summoned Bernard Baruch to the White House for a discussion of how best to organize the home front for victory. Courageously, Baruch said that the best man for such an effort was Herbert Hoover. What's more, Baruch knew him to be available. FDR shot down the idea with devastating sangfroid. According to one who was there, the president said, "I'm not Jesus Christ. I'm not raising him from the dead."

Hoover himself managed that unlikely feat, but hot without a large assist from Roosevelt's successor. The letters, diary entries, memoranda, and other primary source materials in this book carry us through some of the most tumultuous years in our turbulent century. They trace an unlikely friendship from its pragmatic, even cynical, beginnings to its triumphant close, and in the process they allow us to know as never before what may well be the oddest couple in the annals of American politics.

It is a curious fact that with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover worked more harmoniously for Democratic than Republican presidents. Under Woodrow Wilson he led the United States Food Administration as it whipped up wartime enthusiasm for Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays. Hoover never lost his admiration for Wilsonian idealism. Late in life he would crack the bestseller list with The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, a highly sympathetic account of the World War I leader whose vision of organized peacekeeping was killed by the practical men of Versailles.

Harry Truman had, if anything, an even more extravagant admiration for the nation's twenty-eighth president under whom he had fought in the trenches of France. Wilson's liberalism, like his commitment to industrial democracy and state intervention to correct social abuses, prefigured Truman's Fair Deal.

Other qualities bonded Hoover and Truman. Both men shared a zest for history, for reading and interpreting as well as making it. Both hailed from the middle of America, with its cultural disdain for ivory towers and what Truman derisively labeled "professional liberals" of the sort who had flocked to the towering figure of Franklin Roosevelt.

Fittingly, it was Roosevelt's death that brought the two men into contact for the first time. "All Americans will wish you strength for your gigantic task;" Hoover wrote the new president on April 12, 1945. "You have the right to call for any service in aid of the country." Truman could easily have brushed this off as a mere courtesy; certainly he was under no obligation to the man who had served as a perfect scapegoat for a full generation of Democratic office holders.

Yet Truman did the unconventional thing. Early in May, using Bernard Baruch and Henry Stimson as back channels, he sought out Hoover's advice. Deeply suspicious, the former president said that if his counsel was really desired, it was worth an invitation from the president himself. Given all that had been said about him by political rivals since 1933, "my own inclination was to tell them to all go to Hell." At the same time, Hoover told friends that he expected Truman to make a better president than Thomas E. Dewey, the GOP's once and future nominee for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

On May 24 Truman broke the deadlock with a warm, characteristically forthright note. "If you should be in Washington, I would be most happy to talk over the European food situation with you;" he wrote Hoover. "Also it would be a pleasure for me to become acquainted with you." Much has been written over the years concerning this initial meeting, the first time in more than twelve years that Hoover had set foot in the White House. Late in life, Truman described an almost embarrassingly emotional scene, complete with a teary-eyed Hoover struggling to compose himself in the president's office. Hoover's recollections, not surprisingly, were a good deal more prosaic.

In response to the president's questions, Hoover set forth his view of the famine threat in Europe and of the role to be played by the allied occupiers in combating the specter of mass starvation. There was much more at stake than filling empty bellies. In Hoover's view a million tons of wheat per month until the next harvest would make it possible to lift bread rations and keep the Communist camel from poking his nose under the tent. For good measure Hoover outlined for Truman his own expansive role following World War I when the Big Four, meeting at Versailles, had been able and willing to entrust him with virtually complete control of relief efforts.

If this was a hint, Truman failed to take it. Hoover plowed ahead: The next ninety days were of critical importance. Truman should summon an economic council to remove obstructions and slice through bureaucratic delays. He should designate an army man like General Lucius Clay to represent the victorious forces in rushing desperately needed supplies to the war's human fallout. Not that the United States could or should assume total responsibility, Hoover hastened to add; coal and transport must be largely left to the Europeans. But food was a special case. Americans had it, Europeans did not, and posterity would be a harsh judge of any people who did not share their abundance with the destitute.

The president listened thoughtfully. Henry Stimson, his inherited secretary of war (and formerly Hoover's secretary of state) had at one time opposed the involvement of the military, but Truman thought Hoover sufficiently persuasive to urge him to make his case with renewed urgency. The conversation shifted to the domestic food situation, and Hoover said something surprising: far from the laissez-faire conservatism with which his critics associated him, the former president now insisted that the secretary of agriculture required more, not less, authority to control U.S. production, buying, and distribution.

The two men covered the globe in a far-ranging discussion that included Hoover's caustic assessment of Stalin's Russians as Asiatics, who did not have the West's reverence for keeping agreements. Yet war with Moscow was unthinkable. "A war with Russia," claimed Hoover, "means the extinction of Western civilization or what there is left of it." Besides, Hoover had no patience with politicians or diplomats who were forever sticking pins in rattlesnakes. Those who formulated policies "short of war" almost al-ways led nations into war in the end. Here he raised the subject of Japan, unveiling a plan to end the war in the Far East that Henry Stimson had called "very interesting, rather dramatic and radical."

It was that and more. After describing Stalin's enormous gains (thanks to a tenacious army and his negotiating skills, the Soviet dictator had added at least 200 million subjects to his empire), Hoover warned of Soviet attempts to annex Manchuria, northern China, and the Korean peninsula. These annexations, in turn, would serve as base camps from which to extend Soviet ideological tentacles over all of China and a prostrate Japan. Ultimately Britain's Asian outposts would be endangered.

The threat grew with every day the Japanese war continued. The Russians were unlikely to enter the fighting soon because, as Hoover had told Stimson, "She can take what she wants after we have defeated Japan." In order to battle the Japanese military on its home ground, the United States would require a million troops. And for what? "We are likely to have won the war for Russia's benefit just as we have done in Europe." Hoover had a better idea. Suppose Chiang Kai-shek, "in order to assure the preservation of Manchuria to China and ascendancy of his own government . . . should make peace on these terms:

1. That Japan withdraw from all of China, including Manchuria, and hand the government of China to Chiang Kai-shek.

2. That the Chinese government receive all of the Japanese government railways, ports, mines and factories in Manchuria as reparations.

3. That Japan be confined to Korea and Formosa. Neither of these people are Chinese and China has no particular moral rights in these countries."

Such a plan, thought Hoover, would save American lives, preserve Japanese honor, and forestall Russian expansion. Now, in his meeting with Truman, Hoover went one step further. "I said I would like to see . . . a statement that the United States had no desire to exterminate the Japanese people, had no desire to destroy the Japanese form of government, that it had every desire to see Japan return to the family of nations and build itself into a prosperous nation." Truman invited his visitor to write out his ideas on the subject. Could Hoover provide him with a more detailed memorandum?

Fifty-five minutes after it began, the meeting ended. Neither man seemed transformed by their encounter. Hoover hurried back to New York to prepare four separate memoranda on the European situation and his scheme to bring the Asian war to an early end. But he was not sanguine about the future, much less his role in feeding the war's victims. He told his intimate friend Edgar Rickard that Truman's invitation was, in fact, "strictly partisan;" a shrewd gesture designed to show the new president's broadmindedness. Yet even if disappointed in the immediate outcome, Hoover said that he had gained something from the session. From now on, he suggested to Rickard, those who had made a pastime out of smearing him for the Great Depression might think twice; whatever else he might be, Truman was no Roosevelt.

Truman responded more casually and with far less emotion. He had larger fish to fry, a war that would not end, obstreperous allies in Europe and a potentially horrendous weapon to unleash in the skies over Hiroshima. It is interesting that in his brief diary entry Truman made no reference to Hoover's plan for making peace with the Japanese. Instead he recounted "a pleasant and constructive conversation on food and the general troubles of U.S. Presidents, two in particular." According to Truman, "we discussed our prima donnas and wondered what makes 'em. Some of my boys who came in with me are having trouble with their dignity and prerogatives. It's hell when a man gets in dose association with the President. Something happens to him . . . "

On that pungent note, the first phase of the Hoover-Truman relationship came to an end.

Herbert Hoover thought of Harry Truman as a split personality. Many years later, one Hoover associate recalled Hoover's comments about Truman: "One day I find Truman a devoted public servant who really comes from the people and who is not putting on a show when he stops in a store and talks with the employees and the customers, because he likes the average man and likes to mingle with him." Hoover went on, "The next time I find him to be a Pendergast-machine politician who will do anything for a vote."

Although grateful for Truman's personal gestures -- his hanging a portrait of Lou Henry Hoover in the White House, for example Hoover bristled when Truman continued the longstanding Democratic custom of blaming the thirty-first president for the collapse of the American economy that began in 1929. Shortly after the 1948 Republican Convention candidate Truman praised Hoover's speech there as the "utterance of a statesman." Yet just a few weeks later the embattled president, fighting for his political life against GOP nominee Thomas E. Dewey, launched equally fervent and no less sincere personal attacks upon the "Great Engineer under whose leadership America had backed into the Great Depression." Truman later sought to disarm his sensitive friend by assuring him that the offending text was "a damned canned speech" released to the press before he had a chance to revise it.

Shrewd as he was in diagnosing Truman's contradictions, Hoover turned a blind eye to his own, hardly less numerous ones. Embittered by twelve years in the political wilderness, the former president approached the post-Roosevelt era with a combination of Old Testament fierceness and New Testament compassion. When the first week of August 1945 brought news of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Hoover was appalled. The A-bomb "revolts my soul," he said. Far worse, it had besmirched America's moral standing in the world. Six weeks passed and Hoover's anger had not yet cooled. The new superbomb, as he described it, was "the most terrible and barbaric weapon that has ever come into the hand of man. Despite any sophistries its major use is not to kill fighting men, but to kill women, children, and civilian men of whole cities as a pressure on governments. If it comes into general use, we may see all civilization destroyed."

There is no evidence, either documentary or anecdotal, to suggest that Hoover and Truman ever discussed the bomb, although implicit in Hoover's May 30,1945 memo was a radically different path to peace. In the aftermath of V-J Day, Hoover cautioned Japan's new shogun, Douglas MacArthur, against remaining too long in Tokyo in a post likely to bring "only routine and embarrassment." MacArthur, needless to say, did not take the advice of his former commander-in-chief. It fell to Truman four and a half years later to summon the difficult warlord home amidst circumstances that were anything but routine.

By the start of 1946 Truman's honeymoon with the American electorate was a bitter memory. The initial glow of peace had been replaced by domestic restiveness and rising global tensions. Wartime price controls chafed and inflation lay coiled up, ready to spring out of its cage the moment artificial ceilings were raised. Overseas, "Uncle Joe" Stalin was consolidating a vast new empire, annexing nations in violation of wartime promises made to his allies. Hoover, not surprisingly, took notice of events and felt both alarmed and vindicated. "Did you ever notice that at every meeting with the Russians," he told a friend at the dawn of the Cold War, "Cordell Hull in Moscow, Roosevelt at Teheran and Yalta, [Texas Senator] Tom Connolly at San Francisco, Truman at Potsdam and [James F.] Byrnes at Moscow -- we have appeased every time at the expense of the liberty and freedom of more and more human beings?" For Hoover this was no rhetorical question.

Everywhere Truman looked in the bleak early weeks of 1946 he saw economic and social recovery buried under the rubble of war. Berliners, putting survival before, esthetics, chopped down the leafy sentinels that stood along the ruined city's main thoroughfare, the Unter den Linden. Ninety percent of Warsaw's housing was destroyed, and defeated Italy counted barely one month's supply of grain in its granaries. Much of Holland lay under water, the destructive legacy of dams exploded in the penultimate days of fighting. Drought accentuated the usual miseries in China and India; although the warehouses of Shanghai bulged with food, there was no adequately organized transport network to move it to desperately hungry people in the countryside.

Early in February 1946, Truman publicly appealed to the American people to conserve food in hopes of averting mass starvation in Europe and Asia. Hoover rallied to his side, partly in anger over the policies of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which under former New York governor Herbert Lehman was concentrating efforts in eastern Europe to the neglect of Germany and much of the rest of the continent.

During the last week of the month Hoover interrupted a Florida fishing vacation to take a phone message from Secretary of Agriculture Clinton Anderson. Would the former president be willing to lend his name to a blue ribbon commission formed to grapple with the emergency? Hoover's response to Anderson was reminiscent of an earlier food crisis in the summer of 1914 when Belgians trapped between the Kaiser's army and a British naval blockade were threatened with imminent starvation. Then the unknown American engineer had agreed to abandon his international mining enterprises and undertake the feeding of occupied Belgium on two conditions: that he be given a free hand to run things his way and that he serve without pay.

Now, thirty years later, Hoover delivered a similar ultimatum to Secretary Anderson. Committees, whatever the color of their ribbon or the pedigree of their membership, were ill-equipped to mobilize the resources needed to avert mass famine. "Single-headed leadership" was called for; it would not take Truman long to guess Hoover's candidate for the job. On March 1, the former president was back in the president's office for the second time in nine months. Truman's greeting was effusive. Indeed, Hoover later told a friend that Truman had lavishly praised him as the man who knew "more about feeding nations than anybody in the world." Compliments aside, Truman asked his predecessor to circle the globe and see the hunger problem firsthand in all its dimensions. To assist him, the president offered a U.S. Army transport plane, nicknamed The Faithful Cow, and a staff of Hoover's choosing.

The former president accepted on the spot; under the circumstances, he told friends, he could hardly refuse. Yet he also displayed a less than gracious streak by characterizing Truman as "really dumb" for failing "to grasp the vital points on any issue." For the moment the new honorary chairman of the Famine Emergency Committee estimated the world's immediate needs at eleven million tons of cereals and three million tons of fats. On March 14 he told a national radio audience that as many as half a billion lives were hanging in the balance. Americans must eat less so that Europeans and Asians could eat at all. "If your neighbors and their children were hungry, you would instantly invite them to a seat at the table," said Hoover. "These starving women and children are in foreign countries, yet they are hungry human beings -- and they are also your neighbors . . . Will you not take to your table an invisible guest?"

Not everyone applauded Hoover's crusade. Herbert Lehman took the occasion to quit UNRRA with an angry blast at Truman's administration for failing to adopt a stringent course of food rationing. Publicly, the president labeled the former New Deal governor of New York "very much mistaken." Privately, the peppery Truman castigated Lehman as a dilettante who had "sat on his fanny for years," failed at UNRRA, and now hoped to win a Senate seat in the 1946 mid-term elections.

During the next three months Hoover traveled 50,000 miles on an itinerary that included visits with seven kings and thirty-six prime ministers. He delivered two dozen speeches and held more than forty press conferences. In the rubble of Warsaw's Jewish ghetto, now tomb to 200,000 victims of Nazi oppression, he saw horrors that haunted his dreams for years. But he did not tarry. For fifteen hours a day he calculated the precise number of calories in a pound of corn, the population of Yugoslavia, or Scandinavia's fish surplus. In Athens he took three minutes out of his schedule to receive a university degree and honorary Greek citizenship. He accepted an offer from Look magazine to write a five-thousand word article on his travels, stipulating that the $5,000 check be sent to the Baghdad Boys School.

Hoover's charitable feelings did not extend to the bureaucrats left behind in Washington. Even now he harbored suspicions about the man in the White House. From Cairo, Hoover protested a request that his mission be curtailed so that he could promote domestic food conservation. Truman responded with an expression of concern; he had heard that the 72-year-old Hoover was tiring. But if the former president wished to continue his trek, he was more than welcome to do so. The next day Hoover was back with another warning, this time against "a very active propaganda campaign" being waged to credit nations other than the United States with feeding the Old World. As for himself he took pains to set journalists straight.

On May 10 he arrived in San Francisco; three days later he strode into the president's office and received a warm greeting from Truman. If excess grains from surplus producing countries were pooled, Hoover claimed, the world's cereal shortage could be reduced by two-thirds. But when he presented a draft telegram to Stalin that sought Russian grain for Finland, eastern Europe and the Far East, Truman held out little hope. Relations with the Soviet bear were deteriorating, and Hoover urged a hard line. "Truculence" was the only posture appreciated in Moscow -- even if Truman were to present his Soviet counterpart with a gold watch, he should do so "in a truculent mood." That way, said Hoover, "it would be more highly appreciated."

Within days the former president was back on the radio, appealing to his countrymen to reduce their weekly consumption of wheat and fats. "We do not want the American flag flying over nationwide Buchenwalds," he asserted. On May 25 he left on a second relief mission, visiting South America after Truman overrode State Department objections. Striped-pants obstructionism would find its way into Hoover's reports to the president. In Venezuela, Hoover fell in a bathtub and cracked several vertebrae, but patched up and only slightly the worse for wear, he continued on to Argentina, where he persuaded dictator Juan Peron to release critically needed food stuffs. Hoover refused to stand on dignity in Bueno Aires, telling a friend, "I was resolved . . . to eat even Argentine dirt if I could get the 1.6 million tons" needed.

"Yours was a real service for humanity;" Truman wrote in the aftermath of Hoover's dual mission. "Without your efforts . . . the suffering abroad would have been much greater during those dread months last spring and summer when so many nations had exhausted their own food supplies. In expressing my thanks, I also express the appreciation of all those who benefited by your efficient service."

Yet even as the two men worked out a modus operandi to balance political obligations with personal friendship, there were bound to be awkward moments. Neither held back from partisan combat in the fall of 1946, when Republicans capitalized on domestic unrest and fears of communism abroad to take control of Congress for the first time in sixteen years. Behind the scenes Hoover criticized Truman for clinging to the Rooseveltian notion "that it is possible to have totalitarian economics and at the same time preserve other freedoms." This did not prevent the Democratic president, early in 1947, from dispatching his predecessor to Europe for yet another relief mission. Hoover spent the frigid month of February touring the devastated remnant of Hitler's Reich. It was one thing to feed Germany, he said; providing more than modest assistance in enabling the Germans to rebuild their industrial economy was quite another.

His reaction to George Marshall's sweeping blueprint for continental reconstruction, first revealed in Marshall's June 1947 Harvard commencement address, was decidedly lukewarm. "Why issue an invitation to Europe to gang up on the United States?" Hoover asked plaintively. Americans ought not sentimentalize the recipients of their aid, he said, much less deny the economic poisons of "socialist nationalization and fascist regimentation" being introduced to the postwar continent. Asserting that Asia and Latin America were equally at risk, Hoover proposed that Marshall's reconstruction plan be limited to a fifteen-month trial period.

His attitude toward Marshall's "gigantic experiment" mellowed over time, until he was able in March 1948 to endorse the final program as "a major dam against Russian aggression." Eventually the Marshall Plan bore a few of his fingerprints, but it would be overstating his influence on the secretary of state and congressional Republicans for Hoover to claim more.

Other satisfactions greeted him. On April 30,1947, Truman approved a measure restoring Hoover's name to the great dam straddling the Colorado River that Roosevelt's curmudgeonly Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, had christened Boulder Dam. Just ten days later, attending his first Gridiron Dinner in fifteen years, the conservative Republican paid high tribute to the Democratic president. After lauding Truman's "high service to our country," Hoover said, "amid the thousands of crises which sweep upon us from abroad, he has stood firm with his feet rooted in American soil." Deeply moved, Truman reached over for Hoover's program and scribbled and inscription straight from the heart: "With esteem and keen appreciation to a great man."

Truman reacted more saltily when twitted by his unlikely friend about devoting so many days to his Key West vacation getaway. According to Hoover, none of the other presidents he had known could have spent so much time at play. "I guess I'm a damn sight better manager than my predecessors whom you have known," replied Truman.

That story may be too good to be true, but Truman and Hoover did share an authentic concern about the crazy-quilt proliferation of agencies spawned by the New Deal and World War II. Hoover's whole career had been built around organizing people to serve the larger good, whether inventing relief administrations or cobbling together fragments of existing agencies at the Commerce Department. In 1930 he became the first president to ask congressional authority to restructure the federal government subject only to legislative veto. Less well known is the fact that administrative reform had been a leitmotif running throughout Truman's career. In the 1920s as a Missouri judge, Truman had campaigned for greater efficiency in the state's counties. A decade later he was a strong supporter of FDR's executive reorganization program. Truman had gained intimate knowledge of the federal establishment as chairman of the Senate committee bearing his name and charged with oversight of wartime government operations. In his first message to Congress, President Truman asked for renewed authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy. Under terms of the Reorganization Act of 1945, the president could submit plans to take effect automatically unless vetoed within sixty days by both houses of Congress.

Of course, after 1946 Truman's party no longer controlled Congress, and government reorganization became a political football. As noted by historian William E. Pemberton, Truman based his administrative overhaul on more than simple economies. His chief goal was a more effective government, not necessarily a smaller one. This aim ran headlong into the opposition of conservatives on Capitol Hill who, led by the doughty Robert Taft, saw their 1946 triumph at the polls as a mandate to dismantle much of the New Deal. Truman disagreed strenuously, telling one southerner on the Hill, "There isn't any use endeavoring to put the operations of the Government back to twenty years ago for it simply won't go:"

Thus the stage was set for an executive-congressional standoff. Indeed, several of the new president's early plans were rejected by Congress. Heading into a difficult campaign season, Truman had good reason to be wary when Taft and his allies established the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government. Their reasoning was obvious. Republicans in Congress expected to retake the White House in 1948, and the new commission would allow them to get a headstart on taming the federal beast. Twelve members were divided equally among the two parties, but the commission was less bi-partisan than it appeared. While several Democratic conservatives, like Joseph P. Kennedy and Arkansas's Joseph McClellan, lined up with the Republicans, Truman's operatives, captained by Dean Acheson and veteran New Dealer James H. Rowe, fought a rearguard action to protect activist government.

Both sides agreed that Hoover should chair the new organization. (Not surprisingly, the former president had made his involvement conditional on his holding the top slot.) How did the recent pariah of American politics become the inevitable choice to review the functions of the executive branch? A major factor was his close ties to congressional Republicans. Scarcely less important were his cordial relations with the Truman White House. More than a few Democrats looked askance at permitting this particular fox into the liberal chicken coop. But Truman held firm. The story is told that when Sam Rayburn raised doubts about giving such a prominent place to the perennial Democratic whipping boy, the president put his foot down. Hoover, he declared, was "the best man that I know of, and he'll do the job for me . . . You politicians leave him alone and we'll get an organization in the government. Now Sam, that's all -- you help!"

From start to finish, the Hoover Commission was cast in the image of its chairman. In his spare time, when he wasn't speedreading thick volumes of theory and statistics or inventing his own rules for gin rummy, Herbert Hoover liked to take apart radios and telephones. His engineer's mind found pleasure in the intricacies of machinery -- even the government's. But the reorganization efforts launched in the autumn of 1947 were deadly serious to a former president hoping to roll back much of a New Deal that neither he nor his party had been able to defeat at the polls. Aiding him initially was a near universal belief that Harry Truman would not be in office to receive, much less implement, any of the commission's recommendations.

Hoover had no difficulty containing his enthusiasm for Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey. Asked why women in particular seemed suspicious about Dewey, Hoover said the answer was simply: "Because he is arrogant, ruthless and supersensitive," In this, at least, Harry Truman would have agreed. Nevertheless, the liberal internationalist from New York seemed a sure bet to win in November; and if Hoover needed any spur to press on with government reorganization, he had only to listen to Truman's mounting attacks as the campaign entered its homestretch. "You remember the Hoover cart," the president shouted on October 19, 1948, "the remains of the old tin lizzie being pulled by a mule, because you couldn't afford to buy a new car, you couldn't afford to buy gas for the old one. You remember. First you had Hoovercrats and then you had the Hoover carts." When Dewey blundered by insulting a railroad engineer who accidentally backed his campaign train into a crowd of onlookers, Truman joyously seized the opportunity to link past and present GOP vulnerabilities. After all, Hoover "was one engineer who really did a job of running things backward . . . And the great engineer we elected backed the train all the way into the waiting room and brought us to panic, depression and despair."

Harsh words, even in the closing days of a hard-fought campaign. More important than the rhetoric, however, was the psychological climate in which Hoover and his hand-picked staff were preparing their sweeping recommendations. For most of 1948 the chairman was supreme, his mastery subject only to occasional dissent from liberals like Acheson and Rowe. But after Truman's unlikely victory, Vice Chairman Acheson and like-minded colleagues became thorns in Hoover's side. "I concluded that the order of the double cross might be generously awarded to all of them, " recalled Hoover a year later.

Of course, Truman's partisans on the commission saw things differently. It was one thing to examine closely the bureaucratic form of government, they maintained, and quite another to challenge its basic functions. Yet that is exactly what Hoover and other conservatives on the panel were hoping to do by challenging public power programs, privatizing government activities, opposing Truman's national health insurance plans, and giving the whole federal apparatus a pro-business slant.

While the form versus function debate played itself out against the backdrop of the presidential campaign, Hoover's task forces found no shortage of waste and duplication to prune. To most Americans, this was the raison d'etre of the Hoover Commission, high-minded crusade to bring logic, efficiency, and fiscal prudence to a government that not only collected taxes and maintained the nation's defenses but also ran paint factories and sawmills; manufactured ice cream, helium, and retread tires, operated a railroad in Panama, 366 laundries, a distillery in the Virgin Islands, and a $20 million a year fertilizer plant in the Tennessee River Valley.

From around 600,000 employees distributed among 350 agencies and bureaus during Hoover's presidency, the federal establishment had swollen to more than two million workers staffing five times as many offices. Uncle Sam was the nation's biggest landowner, claiming title to one-fourth of the continental United States. He owned $27 billion in personal property, including one million motorized vehicles, but no one could account for more than a fraction of the whole. The Army alone had five million items in its various warehouses -- and no inventory. Because there was no central agency responsible for government purchases, the resulting paperwork often cost more than the items and services bought with taxpayer dollars. More than seventy government divisions operated storage facilities in and around the capital; if a central records facility were established, the mountain of useless paper work might be cut in half. In all, the General Services Administration called for by the Hoover Commission could save a quarter billion dollars annually, while shrinking federal inventories by ten times that amount.

Do more with less -- so most Americans assessed the commission's fundamental message. Hoover fed this popular view himself through sixteen separate reports he wrote, each designed to fit on a single page of The New York Times. "Definite authority at the top, a clear line of authority from top to bottom, and adequate staff aids to the exercise of authority do not exist," he declared in his first report. If Congress adopted all 273 of his recommendations, Americans might save $4 billion a year. What could be simpler, or more bipartisan, than that?

Yet there was much more to the Hoover Commission than a reshuffling of boxes on Washington's organizational chart. Perhaps most surprising of all, as political scientist Peri Arnold has noted, Hoover built a bridge over which congressional conservatives could migrate into the camp of a strong presidency. For most of American history the executive-congressional tug of war was a political staple, as predictable as the liberal-conservative split that it occasioned. Twentieth-century chief executives aggrandized themselves and their office at the expense of Capitol Hill. Presidents (especially those named Roosevelt) delighted in the personal pronoun and the loosest possible interpretation of presidential authority.

Yet as power necessarily flowed to the White House its occupant needed more staff authority, without which accountability could be blurred beyond recognition. This was all the more critical given. America's increased responsibilities around the world. Hoover quoted Hamilton's Federalist Paper 70: "An energetic and unified executive is not a threat to a free and responsible people." In an age when nearly eighty bureaus, agencies, commissions, and departments reported directly to the man in the Oval Office, a president was lucky to have time to think, let alone fashion policy in a rational way. Nearly as bad, Congress over the years had attached strings to many executive functions.

"The idea that Congress is the board of directors and the President the executive seems to have been lost somewhere," said Hoover in a statement that might have spread panic among congressional Republicans if made by anyone else. Before he was finished, the former president had tested and discarded the idea of a Cabinet secretariat patterned after Great Britain's. His personal preference was for an administrative vice president, entrusted, among other tasks, with oversight of the budgetary process. This did not fly with other commissioners, forcing Hoover back to an executive branch agency for policy clearance and departmental coordination -- a forerunner of Richard Nixon's Domestic Council and the present Competitiveness Council, among other executive branch initiatives.

Meanwhile, something astonishing happened: Harry Truman won the 1948 election. Originally tailored to the administrative specifications of "President Dewey," Hoover's product would almost certainly have to be altered to fit Truman's more ambitious view of government.

Don Price, then a young staff assistant, called one of the commission members on the historic "morning after" and asked the question on everyone's mind. "What are we going to do?" Price's friend hung up, dialed the victorious Truman in Missouri and received assurances that the commission's recommendations would not be ignored. Price conveyed this news to Hoover in New York.

On November 12, the president formally stated his support for the commission's efforts. In exchange, Hoover redefined the scope of his project. "Our job is to make every government activity that now exists work efficiently . . . It is not our function to say whether it should exist or not" The liberals had won, but so had Hoover. In February 1949 the first of the commission's reports was released to the public. Hoover grumbled about inadequate support for his reforms from the Truman administration, but in fact, some seventy percent of the commission's program was adopted; as late as 1961, JFK's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was thanking the elderly Hoover for inspiring savings of billions of dollars in the Pentagon budget.

Don Price, by then a distinguished professor of public policy at Harvard, would credit Hoover with contributing "something approaching a workable theory on the fundamental nature of the Presidency," with reorganized line agencies and enlarged staff. The newly expanded executive office was accepted even by its most vociferous critics among congressional Republicans. After all, if Herbert Hoover could put his seal of approval on a vigorous presidency, why shouldn't they go along? Eventually, they did -- particularly after GOP presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush drew heavily upon the resources of the managerial presidency -- an office haphazardly improvised by FDR, continued by Truman, but refined and institutionalized by Herbert Hoover.

Hoover's reorganization efforts impressed Truman, but they did little to change the president's view of his predecessor's politics. "He's a nice enough old man;" Truman told David Lilienthal in August 1949. "Of course, he's to the right of Louis XIV." The tables were turned eight months later, when Hoover conducted a wide-ranging survey of U.S.-Soviet relations before the annual meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. Citing thirty five "solemnly signed agreements" violated by the Soviets since American recognition was first granted in Moscow in 1933, the former president defined a morally bipolar globe: "One world is militaristic; atheistic, and without compassion. The other world still holds to a belief in God, free nations, human dignity and peace."

At a time of national alarm over alleged domestic subversion in the early 1950s, Hoover proposed to reinvigorate the United Nations, claiming that "by collective action we could much more effectively keep . . . conspiring agents and bribers out of our borders and out of our laboratories."

Three times before leaving the dais on the evening of April 27, 1950, the speaker was told of an important phone call. When finally he responded, he found himself talking to Harry Truman. The President, it seemed, had heard Hoover's tough talk over the radio and wanted to discuss these ideas further. When two Puerto Rican terrorists tried to shoot their way into Blair House on November 1, 1950, Hoover promptly wired his relief at their failure. Truman replied just as warmly that such sentiments meant more than words could express "especially because they come from you."

Within days Truman sent a fresh appeal for help to his predecessor. Amid swirling controversy over the alleged infiltration of Communists into the U.S. government, the president wished to appoint a bipartisan investigative commission with Hoover as its chair. The request left Hoover "greatly troubled." Nine months after Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy set off a furor by claiming the U.S. State Department was riddled with subversives, Hoover told Truman, "I doubt if there are any consequential card-carrying Communists in the government, or if there are, they should be known to the FBI." More worthy of investigation, Hoover went on, was the disastrous foreign policies pursued by non-Communists during the New Deal. Truman, not surprisingly, refused to take the bait, and both probes died aborning.

Hoover's next encounter with the Truman administration was more confrontational. On December 20, 1950, the former president ignited what later historians dubbed the Great Debate by taking to the airwaves to oppose Truman's plan to send four divisions of U.S. soldiers to aid the collective security efforts of NATO. Borrowing a page from Britain's historic policy of conserving its manpower and relying on shrewd diplomacy to prevent continental domination by any single hostile power, Hoover proposed to convert North America, "this Gibralter of Western Civilization," into an impregnable fortress. Hoover questioned the prospects for a United Nations victory in the Korean War. He also prophesied economic collapse at home should the United States voluntarily assume the defense burden of a selfish, self-centered Europe.

The argument carried little weight at a time of record prosperity. Indeed, the state of New York was forced to lay off five hundred workers in its state unemployment office in August 1950, so buoyant was the domestic economy. Yet Hoover persisted, insisting that no amount of American aid could purchase the willpower necessary to Europe's successful defense. The real enemy was in Moscow, and all the talk of collective security barely masked UN indecision "on whether to appease or not to appease." Europe must erect its own defenses," he said, "a sure dam against the red flood . . . before we land another man or another dollar on their shores."

When a White House correspondent asked President Truman whether Hoover's speech smacked of isolationism, the president replied that it was nothing but. Secretary of State Acheson went a step further, charging that it was an engraved invitation to Moscow to seize western Europe, with all its resources of men and material not to mention the very bases critical to the air supremacy Hoover celebrated as an alternative to vast land armies. Tom Dewey came forward with a plan of his own for a one hundred division army; Walter Lippmann labeled this "the Truman Doctrine carried to its logical extreme." Yet Hoover's platform seemed far worse, nothing less than the abandonment of Europe at a time when the continent, disarmed and bled white, could barely hold its own against internal subversion and civil war.

The debate raged on, China intervened on the Korean peninsula, and the White House was rethinking U.S. objectives in Asia when Hoover in February 1951 told a congressional committee that the whole notion of bipartisan foreign policy was anathema, "a record of failures for lack of proper ventilation and criticism." The Truman administration had gone to war in Korea, he charged, "under the most specious reasoning" and with little concern for congressional or even constitutional niceties.

After Truman fired Douglas MacArthur for insubordination in the spring of 1951, Hoover was quick to enter the fray. Telephoning Bonner Fellers, once among the general's closest aides, more recently a mainstay of the Republican National Committee, the former president instructed him to get MacArthur on the phone and tell him to fly back home as soon as possible, lest his stateside enemies smear him beyond recognition. Fellers carried out the assignment, convincing the MacArthurs to abandon their original plan to return by boat.

Through his contacts with the Hearst organization, Hoover helped arrange a delirious homecoming for MacArthur in San Francisco. He urged Truman to allow a joint session of Congress as the climactic scene in the old soldier's emotional road show. He even tried to write MacArthur's speech, submitting a couple of paragraphs that the literary general improved upon. "The objective of every war is peace;" Hoover had written, "a swift war toward a prolonged peace. The object of war is victory, not uncertain, targetless, stalemated action."

As MacArthur finally delivered it, the passage read: "Once war is forced upon us, there is no alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War's very object is victory not prolonged indecision. In war, indeed, there can be no substitute for victory."

In 1952, Hoover campaigned behind the scenes for Robert Taft. When Taft lost, Hoover and Truman found they had something new in common -- an unconcealed disdain for Dwight Eisenhower. Hoover's, of course, was less vocal, as befitting a man whose party had regained the White House after twenty years in the wilderness. He readily sent to Eisenhower's transition director, Herbert Brownell, documentation pertaining to the old Colorado River Commission, explaining, "I'll be damned if I was going to give them to any of those Democratic administrations but I'll be glad to give them to you." Riding at the front of Eisenhower's inaugural parade, the old man was cheered by jubilant Republicans celebrating a return to power, if not to the past.

But it was only a matter of time before Ike's "modern Republicanism" dashed with Hoover's old-tune religion. Not even a fishing expedition to Colorado could dissolve the former president's suspicions. In fishing as in politics Hoover was a fundamentalist, and Ike waded into a brook "stocked with fish that hadn't been fed in six weeks. You couldn't keep them off the hook." More seriously disappointing was Eisenhower's failure to aggressively promote the recommendations of the second Hoover Commission, whose chairman unrealistically expected an all-out assault on expansive, expensive government. Yet political realities conspired to narrow the scope of the commission's work. "Ike gave me a couple of leftwingers," the chairman griped. Worse was what Ike didn't give him -- adequate support on Capitol Hill; fewer than a third of Hoover's 314 recommendations achieved the status of law.

Even Harry Truman derided the White House for its inaction. Hoover privately agreed, telling friends that while Truman had rallied to his side, Ike had let him down. In other ways, Hoover and Truman rose above their continuing political differences to cement a genuine friendship. Congress voted to give former presidents an annual pension of $25,000, which Hoover reluctantly accepted. Any other course, he said, might embarrass his successor of more modest circumstances. In July 1957, Hoover joined Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt in dedicating the Truman Presidential Library. "One of the important jobs of our very exclusive Trade Union is preserving libraries," he had responded to Truman's invitation. Rearranging his travel plans, he promised to be on hand "except for acts of God or evil persons." Hoover spoke just four paragraphs at the ceremony, lauding Truman for opening up a treasure trove of historical documentation. Later in the day, a fluttery admirer approached Hoover to ask how former presidents passed the time. "Madame," replied Hoover, "we spend our days taking pills and dedicating libraries."

After learning of Hoover's operation for removal of his gall bladder the next year, Truman told his friend to exercise caution. "I have been through the same procedure and got up too soon and it cost me three more weeks in the hospital. Please take care of yourself." When Bess Truman fell ill not long after, a bouquet of white mums and yellow roses arrived for her from New York, "just to show my own convictions" in the words of its sender. And Hoover called Truman's March 1960 Key Largo visit "my intellectual stimulant of the month."

Truman joined Hoover in West Branch for the August 1962 dedication of Hoover's presidential library. "I feel sure that I am one of his closest friends and that's the reason I am here;" Truman told the crowd in Hoover's hometown. A year later Truman wrote gratefully, "I didn't receive a single birthday telegram that I appreciated more than I did yours. We understand each other."

By then the old men did indeed understand each other. In October 1964 Hoover fell ill again. From Truman came fighting words for his friend's recovery. Indeed, said Truman, if he were not in a hospital bed himself, following a bathroom fall that broke his ribs, he would be on his way to New York to offer encouragement in person. Fittingly, Hoover's last communication went to the man from Independence. "Bathtubs are a menace to ex-presidents;" he wired Truman, "for as you may recall a bathtub rose up and fractured my vertebrae when I was in Venezuela on your world famine mission in 1946."

Four days later Hoover was dead. "He was my good friend and I was his," wrote Truman. This was not the whole story of their relationship, but it was truer than most eulogies, as the following pages make clear.


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