Hoover and 20th Century Presidents: Harry Truman

President Harry S Truman meeting with former president Herbert Hoover, 1946.

A recent reference inquiry reminded me of one my earliest projects at the Hoover Library.  A researcher wanted to know if any website still hosted the documentary history of the Hoover-Truman relationship.  I’d been part of a team that scanned these documents for the web, but I hadn’t noticed that the links were dead.  The old content can be found on the Internet Archive “Wayback Machine” at https://web.archive.org/web/20190406073143/https://www.trumanlibrary.org/hoover/book.htm.

Viewing this website was like visiting an old friend.  I was reminded that the Hoover-Truman connection was grounded on mutual respect and ultimately on friendship, despite their partisan divide.  When Truman unexpectedly found himself President on April 12, 1945, he received a telegram from Hoover: ‘All Americans will wish you strength for your gigantic task. You have the right to call for any service in aid of the country.’  Truman replied a week later, thanking Hoover for this note, adding a post-script: “I assure you I shall feel free to call upon you.’

This simple, cordial exchange might have sunk without a trace if Truman had not called upon Hoover.  In May 1945, he did.  Working through Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had also been Hoover’s Secretary of State, Truman invited Hoover to meet with him at the White House.  Truman did so with a hand-written note which he mailed himself: ‘If you should be in Washington, I would be most happy to talk over the European food situation with you. Also it would a pleasure to me to become acquainted with you.’  Hoover accepted the invitation with alacrity, ending his twelve year exile.

Hoover met with Truman in the White House for nearly an hour on the morning of May 28, 1945.  They discussed not only the world’s food situation, but also whether the military should administer food relief, demobilization as the European war unwound, when and if Russia would enter the war against Japan, and how long the Pacific war might last.  Truman was duly impressed by Hoover’s solid grasp of the situation and policy implications.  He asked Hoover to write a memo summarizing his points. Two days later, Hoover delivered an 18-page typed memoranda on the major subjects covered. Truman’s brief note of thanks ended: ‘I appreciated very much your coming to see me.  It gave me a lift.’

Truman shared the Hoover memoranda with members of his cabinet: Secretary of War Stimson, Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew, soon to be confirmed Secretary of Agriculture Clinton Anderson.  They confirmed Truman’s judgment that Hoover still had the policy chops to be of service. It was not a surprise that Truman asked Hoover to serve as the honorary chairman of the Famine Emergency Committee in February 1946.  Hoover met with Truman, select cabinet members and twelve distinguished citizens on March 1, 1946 to discuss the famine problem.  In his memoirs, Truman described this as: ‘The most important meeting held in the White House since I had become President.’

Hoover entered this service with gusto, planning a two-month, 35,000 mile, around the world trip to visit heads of state in twenty-two nations. On the eve of his departure, Hoover addressed the nation via ABC radio at 7 PM, March 16th: ‘I can only appeal to your pity and your mercy.  I know that the heart of the American people will respond with kindness to suffering. Will you not take to your table an invisible guest?’  Hoover continued to pound the publicity drum to increase public awareness of people in need of food relief.  When he returned to the United States, he reported the findings of this famine survey to President Truman, then spoke again to the American people via radio on May 17, 1946: ‘If we can succeed in persuading every man and woman, every nation to do their utmost, we shall master this famine…. We can pull the world through this most dangerous crisis….  It is the only path to order, to stability and peace. Such action marks the return of the lamp of compassion to the earth.’

Chairing the Famine Emergency Committee proved to be the highlight of the Hoover-Truman relationship for more than ten years.  Despite visiting Europe and leading the Commission on the Reorganization of the Executive Branch of Government during 1947—both at Truman’s behest—Hoover found himself vilified in the 1948 Presidential campaign. Hoover had come to expect this of the Democratic Party; they’d been running against the Hoover Depression for sixteen years.  He was surprised, and a bit peeved, when Truman’s campaign speeches recalled the Hoover carts of the Depression and slammed Hoover as the engineer who backed the train into the waiting room, bringing ‘panic, depression and despair.’  Truman saw this as the political rhetoric.  Hoover took it personally.

After Truman left office, he and Hoover were the only two living American ex-Presidents.  Thus began a détente that resulted in Truman inviting Hoover to attend the dedication of the Truman Library July 1957.  Hoover agreed to attend if his schedule permitted, for ‘one of the most important jobs of our very exclusive Trade Union is preserving libraries.’  Truman wrote back: ‘You do not know how pleased I am that you plan to be here for the library dedication…. I am all swelled up about it. We’ll maintain that closed Union.’  Truman returned the favor, attending the dedication of the Hoover Library in 1962.  For the rest of their lives Hoover and Truman remained friends.

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