Richard Norton Smith
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.
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."
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.'"
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
That Japan withdraw from all of China, including Manchuria,
and hand the government of China to Chiang Kai-shek.
That the Chinese government receive all of the Japanese
government railways, ports, mines and factories in Manchuria
That Japan be confined to Korea and Formosa. Neither
of these people are Chinese and China has no particular
moral rights in these countries."
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?
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.
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 . . . "
that pungent note, the first phase of the Hoover-Truman
relationship came to an end.
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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:"
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
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!"
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.