Picking up a thread dropped months ago, I resume my series on Hoover’s interactions with American Presidents. Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, connections get deep. In fact, there have been book-length explorations of Hoover’s ties to FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Rather than recap them, I suggest that those who want to know the rest of the story consult these books edited by Timothy Walch and Dwight Miller. That allows me to focus on my favorite stories.
Early in Hoover’s career, Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Hugh Gibson in January 1920: ‘I have had some nice talks with Herbert Hoover before he went west for Christmas. He is certainly a wonder and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There could not be a better one.’ Gibson, who knew Hoover well, shared this observation with the Chief. Through Gibson, Hoover let Roosevelt know that he was a Republican. Later in 1920, after FDR’s nomination as vice president on the Democratic ticket, Hoover wrote: ‘My dear Roosevelt: The fact that I do not belong to your political tribe does not deter me from offering my personal congratulations to an old friend. I am glad to see you in the game in such a prominent place…. If you are elected you will do the job properly.’ Light and sociable correspondence followed until Roosevelt ran against Hoover in 1932.
Hoover was initially pleased to see the Democrats nominate Roosevelt in 1932. He felt that FDR was weaker than either Newton Baker or Owen Young, two other candidates with support at the convention. Hoover saw Roosevelt as a dilettante and was confident that this would be exposed in the campaign. Hoover confided to James MacLafferty: ‘I suppose of those mentioned he will be the easiest to beat.’ This proved to be a grievous error. Roosevelt thrived on the campaign trail, hammering Hoover and his policies relentlessly.
As the campaign entered the final week, Hoover realized that he may not be re-elected. In his last major speech, Hoover said to an overflow crowd at Madison Square Garden: ‘This campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government. We are told by the opposition that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal…. The basis upon which our opponents are appealing to the people is their fear and their distress. They are proposing changes and so called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of the American system of life.’
When the votes were tallied November 7, 1932, Roosevelt won in a landslide. As was customary, the loser conceded defeat: ‘I wish for you a most successful administration. In the common purpose of all of us I shall dedicate myself to every helpful effort.’ FDR replied: ‘I appreciate your generous telegram. For the immediate as well as for the more distant future I join in your gracious expression of a common purpose in helpful efforts for our country.’ This goodwill was short-lived. The rivalry of the campaign trail turned to the rancor during the long interregnum.
The five months between the November 1932 election and the March 4, 1933 inauguration were among the darkest in American economic history. The Great Depression deepened. European economic problems grew acute and domestic bank failures threatened to destroy state and local economies. As a lame duck President working with a Congress controlled by the opposition party, Hoover had little leverage. He reached out to President-elect Roosevelt, hoping to mitigate the impending catastrophe. For his part, Roosevelt had no legal authority to act and little political will to align himself with the man he’d just defeated. FDR was content to take action after his inauguration as President, when he had the Constitutional authority to do so. Hoover saw this as partisan gamesmanship. He never forgave Roosevelt and spent the rest of his life holding in FDR in bitter enmity.
Hoover’s ill-will only deepened over the remaining twelve years of Roosevelt’s life. He was convinced that FDR’s expansion of federal government was inimical to American ideals. Hoover wrote The Challenge to Liberty in 1935 to drive home this point. When World War II broke out in 1939, Hoover adamantly opposed American involvement, writing the pamphlet Shall We Send Our Youth to War? As Roosevelt’s policies favored the Allies, Hoover warned that FDR was trying to ‘back-door’ America into the war. When Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term as President, Hoover led the outraged Republican backlash. Roosevelt’s response to all these challenges was silence.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hoover put patriotism above personal animus. He issued a press statement supporting Roosevelt: ‘Today there is just one job before the American people. We must defeat this invasion by Japan and must fight it in any place that will defeat it. Upon this job we must have and will have unity in America. We must have and will have full support for the President of the United States in this war to defend America. We will have victory.’
For his part, Roosevelt saw that American entry into war would strain the nation. He met with Bernard Baruch seeking advice on how to deal with the manpower shortage and the economic transition to war footing. Baruch offered that Herbert Hoover might be useful. Roosevelt replied: ‘I’m not Jesus Christ. I’m not raising Hoover from the dead.’ Discussion over. Hoover remained far removed from the levers of power until Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945.
Upon Roosevelt’s death, Hoover issued a statement: ‘The Nation sorrows at the passing the President. Whatever differences there may have been, they end in the regrets of death…. The new President will have the backing of the country. While we mourn Mr. Roosevelt’s death, we shall march forward.’ On a personal note, Hoover sent Eleanor Roosevelt a touching letter: ‘I need not tell you of the millions whose hearts are going out to you in sympathy. I want you to know I join with them. Your own courage needs little support but the whole country is extending it to you. With Mrs. Hoover’s passing I know the great vacancy that has come into your life. I cannot forget your fine courtesy in writing to me at that time.’ Thus Hoover offered a gracious coda ending years of bitterness.