Popular history reaches a wide audience and often inspires readers to delve more deeply into a topic. All history contains some misinformation. In most cases, it is based on sources that have since been replaced with writings that benefit from new primary materials that better inform the topic. Bill Bryson’s widely read One Summer: America 1927 contains an egregious example of misinformation.
Instead of using primary source materials, Bryson relied on a 1931 “smear” book by John Hamill that led Bryson to make the following claim:
During the war, as part of his business operations, Hoover illegally bought chemicals from Germany. This was an exceedingly grave offense in wartime. Remarkable, he did so not because the chemicals were unavailable in Britain, but simply because the German ones were cheaper. He saw no moral inconsistency in supporting the German economy even as Germany was trying to kill the sons and brothers of the people with whom he worked and lived. It is extraordinary to think that only a little more than a decade before he became president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, the Great Humanitarian, was engaged in an act that could have led to his being taken outside, stood against a wall, and shot.
The main problem with this assertion is that it simply is not true. George H. Nash, Hoover’s most meticulous biographer, argues that Hoover clearly knew that conducting the transaction from Britain was illegal in September 1914. But the transaction was perfectly legal if conducted through American agents since America remained a neutral party in the conflict until 1917. As Nash describes the plan:
Quickly he [Hoover] dispatched an agent to Switzerland to arrange with German representatives to ship cyanide down the Rhine to the neutral Dutch port of Rotterdam. Then he asked an American business associate in New York to become the ostensible purchaser. Hoover explained that the cyanide could be consigned to the American Express Company in Rotterdam and that his friend could either pay the money to American Express or perhaps remit directly to Germany. Since the United State was officially neutral in the current war, the British could not prevent the cash transfer. In this way Hoover’s name could be kept out of the transaction.
Nash continues, “Hoover insisted that he was ‘not trying to facilitate anything for the King’s enemies.” In “actual fact,” he asserted, “we are striving to keep the mines operating [in the British empire].” Ultimately, nothing ever happened because the Swiss agent was unable to make the initial purchase.
Why was such a discredited source as John Hamill used in the first place? Most Hoover biographers claim the five titles released before the 1932 election, including Hamill’s, were intended to paint Hoover as incompetent and someone whose public image of the Great Humanitarian and Great Engineer were at odds with the “real” Hoover who was only out for himself. Known collectively as the “smear books,” journalist and Hoover associate Will Irwin wrote a report on each, pointing out the falsehoods presented. William Faro, the publisher of the Hamill book was a pseudonym for Samuel Roth who served a prison sentence for publishing obscene literature. Hamill apparently collaborated with James J. O’Brien on the book which was to be a muckraking expose on Hoover. O’Brien, angered by the distribution of royalties, filed an injunction to have sales halted. The complaint claimed that Hamill had lied in his contributions to the book. If good history is dependent on good sources, the use of Hamill’s book was a great mistake.