Sometimes a Man Just Wants a Good Cigar

Matthew Schaefer

Sometimes, for an archivist, what you learn while looking up other things is more interesting than the original topic.  Recently a patron sought information on Herbert Hoover’s dealings with Cuba.  I found the ‘usual suspects’ for a food administrator, Commerce Secretary and President and his relations with our nearest non-contiguous neighbor.  But it was the wisp of smoke on the edge of my field of vision that eventually commanded my full attention.

Herbert Hoover’s ties with Cuba date from his time as head of US Food Administration when sugar became a vital commodity for the war effort.  Cuba, one of the largest producers of cane sugar in the world, was considered crucial by Hoover as he worked with USFA’s sugar committee.

During his Commerce years, sugar, US-Cuba trade, and tariffs were the main topics covered by the material here.  Pretty dry stuff even though it fills 8+ folders in the Commerce Papers.

Although Hoover was invited to tour Cuba as part of the Latin America Goodwill Trip after his election, he did not visit.

There is not much documentation on Cuba in Hoover’s Presidential papers.  There are four folders in the Foreign Relations series: two on Cuba itself, one each on our Ambassadors Guggenheim and Judah.

Reviewing these folders, it is clear that Cuba was a troubled nation during Hoover’s White House years.  The Cuban President, General Gerardo Machado, ignored his country’s constitution and extended his Presidential term in May 1929.  The material in the folders contain several reports on Machado’s dictatorship, the imposition of martial law, economic chaos, the closing of schools and universities, and the stifling of the press.

For his part, Hoover stood at arms’ length, not embroiling the United States in Cuban affairs.  Hoover had enough on his plate stateside.  Hoover issued two public statements on Cuba–one on May 20, 1931 and the other on May 20, 1932 [Cuban Independence Day].  In both statements Hoover offered the usual platitudes of ‘cordial sentiments of good will and best wishes for the continued prosperity of the Republic.’  These sentiments were expressed in telegrams sent to General Machado.

Former president Hoover attending a dinner in Prague, March 4, 1938.
Former president Hoover attending a dinner in Prague, March 4, 1938.

It appears that Hoover gave more time and attention to procuring a consistent supply of Cuban cigars for his personal use than to matters of state.  There are two folders in the Commerce papers which document Hoover’s efforts to keep supply lines open for Havana coronas and claros.  Hoover ordered them by the hundreds, paying close attention to the lightness of the wrapper and the mildness of the smoke.  The Ritz Carlton Cigar Company proved instrumental in supplying the Secretary of Commerce with these cigars.  In one exchange of letters in late March 1928, Ritz Carlton offers to hold 2000 cigars for Hoover.  Hoover demurs, asking that they hold only 1000.

This carried over into the Hoover Presidency.  He ordered cigars in lots of 500 to 1000 every month or two.  After losing the 1932 election, Hoover arranged to purchase 300 cigars each month to be delivered to his Palo Alto home beginning March 1933.  Amazingly, this habit seemed to have no long-term impact on Hoover’s health.  He lived to be ninety.

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