Herbert Hoover was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the 31st President of the United States. The humanitarian services for which he is perhaps best remembered were public-private efforts to relieve misery and suffering in the wake of war and disaster. He was also a significant philanthropist in his own right. His personal charitable giving centered on two areas: character building for children, and creating one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished think tanks, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace.
Hoover was born in 1874 in the small village of West Branch, Iowa. Orphaned at a young age, he went to live with an uncle in Oregon. His character was shaped by the Quaker faith, from which he gained a strong sense of moral virtue, an appreciation for voluntary service, and a relentless work ethic. He enrolled in the inaugural class at Stanford University, and was quickly fascinated by the study of geology. Years later, he authored the first English translation of De Re Metallica, Georgius Agricola’s once-authoritative work on mining.
Herbert Hoover, whose high character was shaped by his Quaker upbringing, is best remembered as a philanthropist for his work to relieve misery in the wake of war and disaster.
Soon after his graduation in 1895, Hoover found himself in Western Australia, where he applied new technologies to gold mining. One business success followed another, and his career soon took him to China, Russia, and South Africa. (Indeed, Hoover and his wife mastered Mandarin Chinese during their years abroad, and would speak the language in the White House to keep aides from understanding their conversations.) According to George Nash, Hoover’s leading biographer, Hoover’s net worth in 1913 was approximately $4 million.
On the eve of World War I, Hoover was working in England. When the conflagration began, he found himself on what he later called the “slippery slope of public life.” Hoover was distraught over the suffering of civilians and organized the Commission for the Relief of Belgium. The effort fed millions of Europeans during and after the Great War; on two continents, he was called the “Great Humanitarian.” On the basis of his experience, write historians Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch, Hoover “developed a unique philosophy—one balancing responsibility for the welfare of others with an unshakable faith in free enterprise and dynamic individualism.”
Throughout his life, Hoover would be called upon to assume the role of public humanitarian. In 1927, for example, the Mississippi River flooded, leaving 1.5 million Americans homeless. Although it did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department, which Hoover then headed, six Governors asked President Calvin Coolidge to put Hoover in charge of the relief effort. He marshaled a massive private-sector response. (“I suppose I could have called in the Army to help,” he said years later, “but why should I, when I only had to call upon Main Street?”) Two decades later, in the wreckage of postwar Germany, he led a similar effort to bring food and medicine to a devastated Germany. In all, he oversaw the distribution of 40,000 tons of emergency meals, in what was a crucial precursor to the Marshall Plan.
But Hoover’s involvement in public humanitarian projects (to say nothing of his political career) should not overshadow his generosity as a private citizen. With his wife, Lou Henry, he had a strong moral sense of responsibility for his fellow citizens. As many biographers have noted, however, Hoover had an equally strong moral sense that his private good deeds should be kept out of the public eye.
Even during the Great Depression, when Hoover was blamed for the worst economic crisis in American history, he never allowed his many charitable activities to be made public or politicized in any way. The nation, notes Smith, “saw nothing of his private anguish, or the dozens of personal bequests he made to individuals in need.” According to historian and biographer Glen Jeansonne, “Hoover did not simply save Belgium, much of Central Europe, and the Soviet Union from famine during the era of the Great War; he performed small acts of kindness virtually every day.”
A central focus of Hoover’s philanthropy was organizations that fostered character among young men. After leaving the presidency, he became an active supporter of the Boys Club of America, including service as chairman. “The boy is our most precious possession,” he wrote in 1937. But the life of the contemporary city boy meant “stairs, light switches, alleys, fire escapes” and “a chance to get run over by a truck.” Through the Boys Club, he hoped to introduce young men to the wholesome pleasures of the great outdoors. Hoover, notes Smith, “devoted thousands of hours to the organization, building it up from 140 clubs to more than 600 at the time of his death.”
Even during the Great Depression, Hoover never allowed his many charitable activities to be made public or politicized in any way.
Hoover was likewise committed to understanding the principles and policies that led to war or peace, deprivation or prosperity. In the aftermath of World War I, he donated $50,000 to Stanford University to begin collecting documents related to the issues and ideas that had caused the Great War. The Hoover Institution gathered materials on a variety of topics, but came to be a leading repository for scholarship on the dangers of communism. It soon became one of America’s leading think tanks, defending the constitutional order and offering public-policy solutions rooted in the principles of liberty and limited government, wielding real influence on foreign and domestic policy throughout the 20th century.
“Hoover,” writes George Nash, “practiced the philanthropic virtues that he professed. As President, he declined to spend any of his salary on himself. Instead, he gave it away to charities or as income supplements to his associates. During their long marriage, he and his wife extended charitable assistance to countless needy recipients, usually anonymously and through surrogates. In the 1930s, Hoover’s brother concluded that he [Hoover] had given away more than half of his business profits for benevolent purposes. Characteristically, however, Hoover concealed most of his benefactions, with the result that their full extent may never be known.”
While in the White House, Hoover received a letter from a 10-year-old boy who was seeking advice on how to become President. His reply was revealing. “The first rule is just to be a boy getting all the constructive joy out of life,” Hoover wrote. “The second rule is that no one should win the Presidency without honesty and sportsmanship and consideration for others in his character—together with religious faith. The third rule is that he should be a man of education. If you follow these rules, you will be a man of standing in your community even if you do not make the White House. And who can tell? Maybe that also.”
- Gary Dean Best, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Keeper of the Torch, 1933-1964 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
- Glen Jeansonne, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933 (Palgrave, 2012)
- George Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover (W. W. Norton, 1983–1996)