This third installment in the saga of Hoover’s ties with American Presidents gets tricky. Hoover’s connections to Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft were small, self-contained universes which allowed for easy translation into a blog post. This is not the case with Hoover and Woodrow Wilson. Their contacts were frequent, their engagement deep, their conjoined impact enduring. This makes it difficult to compress the story into a blog. I ask the readers’ indulgence at the outset should I gloss over their favorite Hoover-Wilson story.
Hoover first met President Wilson in May 1915. The meeting was prompted by allegations that Hoover’s work with the Commission for Relief in Belgium placed him in violation of the Logan Act. This act made it a crime for American citizens to negotiate with foreign governments. Technically, Hoover had transgressed, but Wilson immediately saw the big picture benefits afforded by Hoover feeding Belgians. Wilson issued a statement [written by Hoover] publicly supporting the work of the CRB.
On May 19, 1917, Hoover again met with Wilson. The situation had changed. America had entered World War I. Hoover’s role had to change. Wilson asked Hoover to lead the United States Food Administration. Hoover accepted the post on the condition that he alone would have final authority in organizing the voluntary effort to improve the efficiency of American food production, consumption and conservation. Granted this autonomy, Hoover kept the USFA safe ‘from the rocks of divided responsibility.’ Hoover recognized that the work of the USFA was vital to victory. ‘Food will win the war’ was not just a slogan to Hoover. American food export to Europe doubled from 1917 to 1918. The Germans sued for peace in November 1918.
Hoover was part of Wilson’s team at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. The conference was difficult. Allied victors wanted a punitive treaty, one that would ensure that Germany would never again threaten European peace. Wilson wanted a just treaty premised on his idealistic fourteen points. The negotiations were brutal. The resultant Treaty of Versailles leaned toward punishing German aggression. Economist John Maynard Keynes said: ‘The only one man to emerge from the ordeal of the Paris Peace Conference with an enhanced reputation was Herbert Hoover.’
The Hoover-Wilson friendship crashed on the shoals of partisanship during the campaign of 1920. It did not recover in Wilson’s lifetime. When Wilson died in February 1924, Hoover offered this muted encomium: ‘As time softens the asperities of war, his stature as a great leader… will bring to him the high appreciation and deep gratitude of our people.’ Hoover heeded these words. In 1957 he wrote The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, describing Wilson as crusader working for a just peace. Wilson became a tragic hero as the world aligned against his objectives. Hoover’s book, a Book of the Month Club selection, was one of two books written by an American President about an American President.