Wonder Boy — Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce

ca.1921 Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.
ca.1921 Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.

by Spencer Howard

Herbert Hoover is remembered today primarily as the President who struggled to contain the Great Depression.  It’s hard for us to imagine how incredibly popular he was before entering the White House, and how he dazzled the world with his meteoric rise to fame.  Hoover’s adult life leading up to the Presidency can be neatly divided into three parts — his education and mining career, by which he amassed a small fortune and developed extraordinary administrative and organizational skills;  his leadership of food relief, food supply, and rehabilitation programs during and after World War I, which made his name a household word;  and lastly his seven-and-a-half years as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, which led to his Presidential candidacy in 1928.  It was 100 years ago, on March 5, 1921, that Hoover was nominated by President Harding and confirmed by the Senate as Secretary of Commerce.

The Commerce Department had a reputation as a sleepy government backwater, primarily responsible for lighthouses and fisheries, but under Hoover’s leadership it became the most dynamic agency in Washington.  Hoover reorganized and expanded the Department, especially its divisions concerned with foreign trade, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Standards.  He called over three thousand conferences to encourage efficiency, standardization and elimination of waste in industry.  Hoover also played a key role in the development and regulation of new technologies such as radio broadcasting and the earliest passenger airlines.  In 1926, Industrial Management magazine summarized the nation’s appreciation when the editors noted, “Herbert Hoover has performed a public service that is without price and which has increased the prosperity of every man, woman and child in America.”

Hoover’s dynamic energy didn’t stop with the Commerce Department.  “Secretary of Everything,” the newspapers called him, or as one Washington wag put it, “Secretary of Commerce and Under Secretary of all the other departments.”  For example, in 1922 Hoover organized an ambitious national conference on unemployment;  President Harding and Labor Secretary James J. Davis were nominally in charge, but Hoover did most of the work.  Some cabinet officers resented Hoover’s encroachment on their territory, but he got things done, and perhaps more importantly, he avoided any entanglement with the scandals of the Harding administration.  The relentlessly conservative Calvin Coolidge could barely hide his annoyance with the activist commerce secretary, whom he mocked as “The Wonder Boy.”  But as president, Coolidge leaned heavily on Hoover for advice, and even allowed Hoover to ghost write key policy statements such as veto messages for the McNary-Haugen farm bills.

Hoover’s accomplishments were not limited to the work of government.  While leading the Commerce Department he directed a massive famine relief organization in Russia, continued raising funds for child welfare programs in central Europe, founded national non-profits to promote home ownership and child health in the U.S., and even took time to write a short treatise on his political philosophy.

In the spring of 1927 one of the greatest floods in history broke the banks of the Mississippi River.  President Coolidge sent Hoover to mobilize state and local authorities, National Guard, army engineers, Coast Guard, and the Red Cross.  With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation Hoover set up health units to work in the flooded regions for a year.  He also led a fund drive which collected $15 million dollars for the Red Cross relief programs.  His work during the flood earned Hoover nationwide gratitude and admiration, and the new nickname, “Master of Emergencies.”

In 1928, when President Coolidge declined to run for reelection, Herbert Hoover was urged to become the Republican candidate.  Hoover’s reputation, experience, and public popularity coalesced to insure his nomination as a Presidential candidate.  In November, he was elected 31st President of the United States in a landslide.

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