TRUMAN AND HOOVER: FRIENDS
Part I
[View Part II]

An article from Whistle Stop
the Newsletter of the Harry S. Truman Library Institue

Volume 18, Number 2, 1990

In the winter of 1945-46, immediately following the end of World War II, famine pervaded Europe and was spreading through Africa, India, and the Far East. Within weeks of his inauguration in April 1945, Truman summoned Herbert Hoover to the White House to tap into his years of experience in food relief administration. Then, in early 1946, as the world food situation worsened, Hoover again conferred with the President who asked him to serve as Honorary Chairman of the Famine Emergency Committee.

Already there were food riots in Hamburg. In the Italian towns of Messina and Lucca, food supplies were looted and the severe shortages brought murder and death. In the granary countries like Hungary and Rumania, people were eating acorns and dying of starvation; and in four Chinese provinces, peasants subsisted on nothing but grass.

Hoover's chairmanship would prove to be no mere figurehead role. As the President's envoy, he embarked on a tour of Europe, Egypt, India, China and Japan to investigate global food conditions and to search for sources to replenish the world's supply. This trip for the Committee -- there would be a tour of Latin America barely six weeks later -- covered 30,000 miles and the facts gathered from it provided Hoover with a base for coordinating the food supply for 22 nations. At the time he assumed his post, the former President was 72.

In his Memoirs, Truman writes of that first meeting with Hoover in 1945, noting that the former President seemed pleased to be able to "make a personal contribution to the settlement of the aftermath of the war." Although, in fact, dubious at first, Hoover would eventually be more than pleased. He would be filled with a depth of gratitude that stemmed from the satisfaction of once again playing an active role in world affairs after years as a political pariah. Until the day of his meeting with Truman, he had not set foot in the White House since Roosevelt's first inauguration.

The initial regard the two Presidents had for one another matured into a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. The story of that friendship, how it developed, and the consequences of it, form the themes of a two-part article, the first of which appears in this issue. "Hoover and Truman: Friends" was written by Donald R. McCoy University Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Kansas. Professor McCoy adapted his article from a talk he gave at a meeting on World War I held last December in Kansas City, Missouri. The meeting was jointly sponsored by the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association and the Liberty Memorial Association.

During the winter of 1962-1963, two old gentlemen exchanged deeply moving letters. Herbert Hoover wrote Harry Truman that "yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know ... When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, I at once supported the President and offered to serve in any useful capacity ... However, there was no response ... When you came to the White House within a month you opened the door to me to the only profession I knew, public service, and you undid some disgraceful action that had been taken in the prior years. For all this and your friendship, I am deeply grateful." Truman replied, "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 all this and your friendship, I am deeply grateful.'"

Theirs was an unusual friendship, one often cited by scholars and journalists. In May of 1945 when it began, they had little in common. One, Truman, was a very partisan Democrat and the other, Hoover, was a very partisan Republican. One had been raised in a warm family relationship and the other had grown up almost kicked from pillar to post. One was provincial and often strapped for funds well after he was forty and the other was cosmopolitan and wealthy before he was forty. They would gain much in common only slowly, and I should add rockily, for the early stages of their acquaintance was based substantially on mutual self-interest.

Having said this, one might ask what of significance did they have in common when Harry Truman invited Herbert Hoover to consult with him in May 1945? There was the fact that Truman was the incumbent President and Hoover a former President, but the importance of this and their reverence for the office would grow only as the years passed. Another was that Truman thought Franklin D. Roosevelt had gone too far fiscally and with personal government, and Hoover believed that Roosevelt had been a disaster as President. Yet there was much ground separating their views of Truman's predecessor and Hoover's successor. A case could be made that Truman and Hoover were both courteous men. Indeed they were, but both were also suspicious of, and could detest, those who disagreed with them. Only time would tell how far Truman and Hoover could tolerate the predictable disagreements that would arise between them.

I suggest that they had something else in common in 1945 that was the bedrock of their friendship. Let's call this factor their common Wilsonianism. Hoover had come of age politically during Woodrow Wilson's second term as President from 1917 to 1921. As Food Administrator, he had served as a member of Wilson's war cabinet; he had endorsed Wilson's campaign for the election of a Democratic Congress in 1918; he had accompanied the President to Versailles to make peace in 1919; he had played an important role in implementing Wilson's foreign policy in Europe then; and some had boomed him as Wilson's successor as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1920.

Add to this the criticisms of Hoover for trying to intrude Wilsonian concepts into the Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge administrations in which he served as Secretary of Commerce. After all, Hoover did believe with Wilson in applying moral condemnation and sanctions against autocratic and repressive regimes; in peaceful internationalism; in assisting people in emergency situations, preferably through voluntary action; in keeping Federal powers at a minimum level consistent with a regulatory state; and in waging all-out war when absolutely necessary.

Truman shared these beliefs, although he was tempted to go beyond applying moral sanctions and beyond the regulatory state. Truman held these beliefs largely because as a Democrat his ideas had been shaped by the Wilsonian credo of his young adulthood. Moreover he had risked his life and favorably tested his manhood in France during World War I fighting for Wilsonian policies. He truly believed in them, and during the 1920s Truman thought that their validity had been proven by the errors, as he judged them, of the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Although Truman and Hoover would disagree on much after World War I and even during the years after their first meeting, their shared Wilsonianism, commitment to public service, and appreciation of the difficulties of being President gave them common ground.

What brought the two men together in the first place? Hoover had correctly perceived that Truman was more conservative than Roosevelt and that this might give him a chance for new public service. In the spring of 1945, Hoover was championing, as he had so outstandingly during World War I, the relief of war-stricken peoples, and he was pressing the United States Army to carry out that job in liberated countries. Thwarted in this, he aggressively sought, through intermediaries, an audience with Truman.

At the same time, the new President was reaching out to leading Republicans for their advice and good will. With this in mind, Truman sought meetings with three former Presidential nominees: Hoover, Alfred M. Landon, and Thomas E. Dewey. It was a shrewd move. Although it is difficult to judge its effect on Dewey, his public criticisms of Truman were relatively mild, even during his second run for the Presidency in 1948. The strategy was effective with Landon, for although his relations with Truman were few, they were cordial and as often as not supportive on key issues. The greatest result was with Hoover. I mention this because if one believes Truman's accounts of the initiation of relations with Hoover, here was a kindly President trying to bring a former President usefully back into the political mainstream; if one believes Hoover's accounts, here was an able former President offering his much needed help to a greenhorn President. Clearly, it was a situation in which two astute statesmen wanted to talk with each other for their own individual purposes.

Their meeting of May 28, 1945 opened the door to a remarkable relationship, one that would ultimately ripen into genuine friendship. The positive aspects of this relationship during the Truman Administration are clear and I shall give the high points. The May 28 meeting was, Truman wrote in his diary, "pleasant and constructive." Hoover was less positive about it, writing that despite the "good will ... nothing more would come of it so far as I or my views are concerned."

The former President was wrong. Although the administration did not take Hoover's advice about offering Japan liberal terms for ending World War II quickly, Truman's growing suspicions of the Soviet Union were reinforced by Hoover's comments. More immediately important, Truman accepted Hoover's views for those countries stricken by war, and the Army was ordered to supply emergency relief for western Europe during the critical months ahead in 1945. This emergency relief program would be one of the foundations for the massive post-war American foreign aid program and Truman would enlist Hoover to play an important role in this program.

It became obvious during the winter of 1945-1946 that food shortages threatened people over much of the world as well as the recovery of political and economic stability. In February 1946 President Truman asked his fellow Americans to cut their food consumption so that the United States might have the surplus foodstuffs needed to help stave off famine abroad. Hoover immediately endorsed this appeal. Soon Truman and the administration sought his advice in dealing with the problem. This led to the establishment of the Famine Emergency Committee, with Hoover serving as honorary chairman, to organize a program of voluntary food conservation in America. Originally aimed at helping western Europe, the program at Hoover's urging soon included much of the world. In order to dramatize and give more substance to the program, in March the former President, at Truman's request, began a fact-finding mission. During the next three months, Hoover traveled 50,000 miles and visited 38 countries to discover the extent of the problem and to advise leaders in those and other nations how to deal with the perilous situation.

The results were only partly successful, given the immensity of the problem, but its worst aspects were dealt with in Europe and some small assistance was given to other areas of the world. Without Truman's and Hoover's cooperation, though, far less would have been accomplished. Truman put it well in his letter of thanks to Hoover: "Without your efforts, and the willing cooperation of all our people ... the suffering abroad would have been much greater during those dread months ... when so many nations had exhausted their own food supplies."

In January 1947 Truman again called upon Hoover for similar service, this time in connection with food shortages in Germany and Austria. Once again Hoover was instrumental in combating the needs posed by threatened famine and social instability in these Allied occupied areas. His work also gave him the opportunity to broaden the scope of his advice on foreign policy. He had, since May 1945, taken various opportunities to urge President Truman to be tough in dealing with an increasingly truculent Soviet Union. Now Hoover had the chance to urge the rapid conclusion of peace with Germany and its unification -- at least of the American, British, and French occupation zones -- so that Germany could play an effective part in the economic reconstruction of Europe and thus help counter Communist threats there. If Hoover was only one of many urging Truman to be tough with the Soviets, he was in a minority on the question of Germany, but his voice would count on both issues, and with Truman's gratitude.

As a result of Hoover's outstanding public service and his more statesmanlike comments since 1941, the ogre of Depression days was becoming more accepted on the American political scene. Two evidences of this appeared during the spring of 1947.

Then Congress, with Truman's approval, repaired the New Deal slight to the former President of changing the name of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River to Boulder Dam by again naming it Hoover Dam. The other proof was Hoover's invitation to speak to Washington's prestigious Gridiron Club. In his talk there he sympathized with President Truman for getting more advice than consent from the Republican 80th Congress, and he lauded Truman's "high service to our country," saying that he stood "firm with his feet rooted in the American soil." Truman's response, in a penned note, was to call Hoover "a great man."

By 1947, through his efforts on the food program, Hoover had made an important contribution to world political stability. However, his most notable post-presidential work for Truman was to come. On a personal level, their friendship, still at the tentative stage, would deepen after Truman left the White House in 1953 and continue until Hoover's death in 1984.

by DONALD R. McCOY

 


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