Hoover and 20th Century Presidents: Warren Harding

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover with President Warren Harding on the 1923 Alaskan trip.
Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover with President Warren Harding on the 1923 Alaskan trip.

Herbert Hoover was head of the United States Food Administration when he first met Warren Harding.  As Hoover tells the tale, Senator Harding came into his office late one evening and said: “I am here to serve and to help.’  This kind of voluntarism resonated.  Hoover took Harding up on his offer.  On December 4, 1917, they each made presentations at the First Presbyterian Church in DC to more than 500 Ohio farm youths exhorting them to continue their good work for the USFA.

Hoover supported Harding in his 1920 run for President.  After being elected, Harding offered Hoover his choice from three Cabinet positions: Agriculture, Commerce and Interior.  Giving the matter careful consideration, Hoover chose Secretary of Commerce.  The decision served both men well.  The position afforded Hoover the greatest opportunity to have impact on the country.  Harding knew that he’d have no problems from this vector.

While serving as Secretary of Commerce, Hoover and Harding corresponded nearly every day.  These memos and letters cover a range of topics: foreign loans, unemployment, fisheries, sugar imports, housing, the coal strike, the Colorado River Commission.  Astute readers will notice that not all of these topics were within the defined purview of Commerce.  This was evidence of the confidence Harding had in Hoover’s competence.  For his part, Hoover was there to serve and to help his President.

Harding was not so fortunate with some of his other Cabinet members.  Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Interior Secretary Albert Fall were implicated in separate incidents of corruption.  Harding observed: ‘In all American history there have been only three Cabinet officers who betrayed their Chief, and two were in my Cabinet.’ Harding embarked on a speaking tour to Alaska and the west coast in the summer of 1923, partly to escape the heat in Washington DC.  Herbert Hoover accompanied Harding on this trip. 

On the return leg of the trip, President Harding became ill.  After struggling through public appearances in Vancouver and Oregon, Harding reached San Francisco where he was placed on a regimen of absolute bed rest.  Attended by five doctors, Harding’s diagnosis was unclear.  All agreed his condition was dire.  Harding died in his hotel bed August 3, 1923.  Hoover was at the hotel.  Hoover wrote essays ‘On President Harding’s Last Illness and Death’ describing in detail Harding’s last days.  Three typescript versions of the essays, with Hoover’s hand-written edits, are in box 475 of the Commerce Papers. Partly to escape the heat in Washington DC, and partly to pay tribute to his former Chief, Hoover traveled to Marion, Ohio to speak at the dedication of the Harding Memorial in June 1931. Hoover summarized Harding’s career, remarked on their productive partnership, and closed by noting that Harding ‘was a man whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment…. Betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men he believed were his devoted friends. That was the tragedy of Warren Harding.’

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