State Dinner at the Hoover White House for the King and Queen of Siam


On April 29, 1931 several precedents were set at a State Dinner at the White House.  The Hoovers hosted King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai, monarchs of Siam.  This was the first State Dinner where an ‘Oriental monarch’ met with the President.  It was also the first time that the ruling monarch sat at the right hand of the President. Generally the guest of honor sat opposite the President.  Finally, this was the first time that Dolly Gann, sister of Vice­-President Charles Curtis, was granted official recognition as second ranking lady in the nation.

Visits from heads of states are driven by page after page of protocols established by the State Department, the nation of the visiting dignitary, and the White House.  Details have to be ironed out weeks in advance, inconsistencies have to be reconciled and procedures have to be clearly articulate so that the visit runs smoothly.  For example, the visit of the King and Queen of Siam led Lou Henry Hoover’s staff to issue a 14-page manifesto describing activities from the minute the royal family debarked from the train on April 29th until the moment they left town on May 1st.  Even at 14 pages, the protocol explanation fell short, thrice resorting to ‘see State Department memo’ for further details.  Every contingency was accounted for, and redundancies were built into the plan to ensure the safety of the guests.

King Paradhipok and Queen Rambai Barni of Siam in the living room of Suite 31-A in the Waldorf Astoria hotel – having a luncheon. 04/05 – 1931 ca.

The King and Queen arrived at 8:00 p.m. and were received by the Hoovers in the Red Room.  Before the arrival of the royals, members of the Siamese party joined nearly fifty American guests in the East Room.  The Hoovers and the royals briefly exchanged courtesies before joining the others in the East Room where the Hoovers presented their majesties to the assembly.  Adopting the American custom, the King and Queen then shook hands with the guests before repairing to the banquet table.

Contemporary press coverage gave considerable attention to décor of the room, the names of the guests, the couture of the ladies and the elaborate menu.  The table ‘had about it the airy atmosphere of Spring’ containing vases filled with pink tulips, red tea roses, bridal wreath of pink and white flowers, and California grapes cascading nearly to the Belgian lace tablecloth.  The guest list was strictly dictated by State Department protocol.  Queen Rambai wore a regal gown of gold brocade cut simply to fit her figure. This gown set off her necklace of emeralds and diamonds, the gems being of unusual size and beauty. Mrs. Hoover wore a gown of heavy ivory faille taffeta with a long train.  She wore no jewels.  Mrs. Hoover held with her custom of serving only American food to visitors from abroad.  The dinner included fish, cold lobster, cunningly devised baskets of beets stacked with cucumbers, chicken breast and endives.  Dessert consisted of ices, fruits and candies.

Queen Rambai Barni of Siam visiting Washington DC. ca. April 1931

After dinner the men retired upstairs for coffee and cigars.  The ladies repaired to the Blue Room for coffee.  Here Mrs. Hoover took pains to introduce the Queen to small groups, thus enabling each little group of Washington women to have a few minutes’ conversation with her majesty.  The men and women then reconvened in the East Room for a short musicale by harpist Mildred Dilling.  They were joined by an additional hundred guests eager to see royalty.  Dilling played an abbreviated program so that the King could retire early, as he had an appointment the next day with an eye specialist at Johns Hopkins to discuss surgery for his cataract.

Lou Hoover, ever the gracious hostess, followed up with hand-written letters to the Queen in May. In the first she asks Queen Rambai to send a photograph of herself to match excellent likeness that the King sent in memory of their delightful visit.  In the second letter, Lou writes: ‘Again with the hope of both the President and myself for his Majesty’s speedy recovery, I am, with many happy memories, yours most sincerely.’

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A Mother’s Day Gift:  The Friendship of Louis Chevrillon and Herbert Hoover

Part 1

By Thomas F. Schwartz

One of the under researched aspects of Herbert Hoover is his vast network of associates that provided him with vital information as well as served as valuable agents in his many humanitarian efforts.  Louis Chevrillon is unknown to most Americans, but he was one of the driving forces in feeding French citizens in the German occupied areas of France during World War I.  The Commission for Relief in Belgium coordinated with the Committee in Northern France of which Chevrillon was Treasurer.  The correspondence between Chevrillon and Hoover housed at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum begins the story in the early 1930s when the Commission for Relief in Belgium’s Education Foundation is wrapping up accounts.  The Committee in Northern France represented by Edmond Labbe, President, and Louis Chevrillon, Treasurer, decided to use the portions of funds remaining from the war to erect a statue in honor of the sacrifice of mothers in France during the war.

Perrin C. Galpin, a close associate of Hoover as well as secretary of the C.R.B. Education Foundation, alerted Hoover to the likelihood of the remaining funds being used for a statue.  As he explained to the “Chief”: “The part we liked particularly was the idea that the French started out to do certain things in health work largely as demonstrations with school lunches, pre-natal care of mothers and the care of nursing mothers.  Much of this work has now been taken over by the state or the local authorities so the Committee is winding up in a creditable way.  The documents also show that they are becoming more and more appreciative of the work you did for them during the war through the C.R.B.”  This is a reference to the wide ranging relief programs that served mothers and infants undertaken by the C.R.B. during and after the war.

Hoover, already aware that the Committee in Northern France course of action was a fait accompli, sent Louis Chevrillon an encouraging letter:

“I have seen the report of the meetings at which the affairs of the successors to North[ern] of (sic) France Committee were liquidated.  You and your colleagues have shown the way in child health matters and have the record of successful accomplishment which you all can look back on with pride and satisfaction.

The plans for the final liquidation of the funds are well thought out and if any group deserves a statue in your country, the Mothers of France have shown themselves worthy of every test.”

Jardin du Monument aux Meres Francaises

Jardin du Monument aux Meres Francaises

French architect Paul Bigot was selected to design the monument with sculptures produced by artists Henri Bouchard and Alexandre Descatoire.  As Chevrillon described the work in his response to Hoover in August 1936: “The monument is to be erected in Paris at the Porte d’ Italie where a large part is to be laid out by the municipality of Paris…Ceremonies will take place and as in your own country, a mother’s day will be instituted when school children will congregate for a fitting celebration.  In fact the origins of Labbe’s idea has been precisely the American mother’s day which struck him as a very pious and highly moral institution.  Personally, I feel that in these times so full of trouble, then the world seems to be turned into a mad house when such essentials as family, liberty, property, religion and morality are threatened to be offered in sacrifice to the monster of communism, it is an atonement to think that such a project is still accepted.  As to our present government, it has destroyed more in three months than can be reconstructed in three years and we are being led into the imminent danger of civil or foreign war…or both with eventually Mr. Hitler posing as the champion of civilization in Europe.  These are bitter times and I look back with comfort to the time when under your guidance, it was my good fortune to participate to such work as the Relief.”

The monument was dedicated on October 25, 1938, by French President Albert Lebrun.  But as Chevrillon foresaw, Germany would invade France months later in May 1940.

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Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Not Quite American

By Spencer Howard

Lou Henry Hoover’s papers include numerous files documenting some of the secretaries, servants and aides that worked for her over the years.  Among them is a folder of letters that tell the story of a Filipino, Matias Estella.

Matias Estella was born in the Philippines around 1896.  Two years later, the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain, and all Filipinos became U.S. nationals, but not U.S. citizens.  Unlike other Asian peoples, who were almost entirely barred from entering the U.S., Filipinos could then freely enter, live, and work here.

Florence and Charles Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover’s parents. ca.1910

As a boy, Matias became a servant of an American naval officer, who then brought him to the U.S.  By 1917 he was hired as a “house boy” by Lou’s parents, Charles and Florence Henry, at their home in Monterey.  Matias took care of the Henrys for the next decade, especially Charles.  He served as chauffer, camping guide and companion, and filled every role in the household, as Lou would say, “from cook to cabin boy.”  During these years, Lou’s sister, Jean Henry Large, went through a messy divorce, and she and her two children frequently stayed at the Henry house.

After Florence died in 1921, Lou determined that what her father needed was an outdoor adventure, so with Matias behind the wheel, Lou and Charles drove the Hoovers’ Cadillac all the way from Palo Alto to Washington DC.  At that time, there were no freeways, and paved highways were rare;  highway signs and roadmaps were scarce or unreliable.  The trip took 34 days, averaging a little over 100 miles per day.  Many nights they camped out under the stars;  Matias cooked their meals and repaired the frequent punctured tires.  After a brief stay in Washington, Charles and Matias returned to California by train.  In the mid-1920s, Charles, along with Jean and her children, moved to Palo Alto and Matias went with them.  Matias also took on the extra work of caring for the Hoover home in Palo Alto, during times when it was unoccupied.

By 1927, Matias was in his early 30s, though still referred to publicly as the Henrys’ Filipino “boy.”  Due to the death of his parents, he inherited responsibility for members of his extended family back in the Philippines, so he decided to return to his hometown, Kalibo, uncertain whether he would ever come back to the U.S.  As he was preparing to leave, Lou sent him a check for $700.  “I want you to look upon it as a very informal loan,” she wrote.  “If [your] business is a success you can repay it.  But if it should be a failure, and make it very difficult for you to pay me back, then you are to consider it in the nature of a gift rather than a loan.”

Matias invested Lou’s money in some local business, and felt confident that his family’s financial situation was secure.  During this time he was also married.  He soon returned to California, though it’s not clear whether his wife traveled with him.  After Charles Henry died in 1928, Matias moved to Washington to work for the Hoover family, and followed them to the White House in 1929 where he was given a job as a pantry boy.  By late 1929 he felt compelled to return again to the Philippines, though what caused him to do so is not documented.  Lou arranged for him to travel on board the U.S. Army Transport Cambrai, which regularly shuttled across the Pacific.

A year later he was having second thoughts.  His business ventures were not going well, and “besides that,” he wrote to Lou, “my health doesn’t agree with the climate.  Now I have in mind to go back in the States with my wife to work in your family or to some of your friends if there is a chance for me, but I prepare first to be in your family because I feel at home to be with them.”  Lou found an opening for him in the household of Vernon Kellogg, a professor at Stanford University and close friend of the Hoovers, but Matias’s wife fell ill, and they never made the trip.

Things improved for Matias and his family.  Aided by glowing letters of recommendation Lou sent to the Governor-General, he picked up a series of government jobs – dynamite inspector for the Bureau of Public Works, time keeper on road construction projects, and assistant to the chief of a government fish farm.  His last recorded contact with Lou was in 1938;  he told her about his three children and offered to send a photograph.  Lou replied, congratulating him and giving news of the Hoovers and the Larges.  “Things in California look much as they did when you knew it,” she wrote, “but times are very, very much harder.  You were indeed fortunate to get back to your own country when you did, as everyone has a much harder time to make a living now than when you knew California.”

As a Filipino and U.S. national, Matias’s immigration experience was somewhat unusual, in that he could freely travel, live and work in the U.S.  But like many immigrants, Matias wrestled with his loyalties to his birthplace and to his adopted home.  While en route to the Philippines in 1929, Matias wrote to Lou, “I feel happy to think that I am on my way home, but at the same time, I feel sorry to think that I shall soon be far from the United States, the Country to which I shall always be loyal and faithful.”  Ultimately, economic concerns took precedence – the need to provide for himself and for his family.

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Fish Story

by Matthew Schaefer

While re-processing the personal papers of Senator Bourke Hickenlooper, I came across a folder labeled ‘Fish, 1954-1966.’  This was an odd title, and less descriptive than one would hope.  Being a curious cat, I further investigated this fishy folder.  It contained dozens of letters, newspaper clippings, receipts and photographs documenting Hickenlooper’s landing of a behemoth rainbow trout while fishing in Bolivia.

Map of Lake Titicaca.

Acting in his capacity as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hickenlooper traveled to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru in the fall of 1954.  While there, he spent the morning of October 2nd fishing with former Ambassador Edward Sparks, William Dodge and Herbert Hoover, Jr. on Lake Titicaca.  Shortly after 10 AM, a heavy strike dragged his daredevil lure deep into the cold waters.  Whatever it was, it was big.  After a 20-minute struggle, during which the trout leaped fully out of the water six times, Hickenlooper brought the beast into the boat.  Hickenlooper had caught a 34-pound rainbow trout, one of the largest ever caught as reported by the New York Times.

Hickenlooper’s fish was no nine-day wonder.  In 1965, photo-journalist Loren McIntyre, retold the story in an article he was preparing for National Geographic.  The magazine’s fact-checkers, doing their job, contacted Hickenlooper to confirm details offered by McIntyre.  Hickenlooper dutifully edited the manuscript, modifying McIntyre’s description of the fish weighing 37 pounds to report its 34 pound weight – perhaps the first time a fish story shaved size off the fish.

Hickenlooper’s October 2, 1965 letter goes on to say: ‘It was alleged to have been the largest trout ever caught on tackle, and I have been told that is the largest ever caught in Lake Titicaca.’   An avid sportsman, he could not refrain from offering details regarding his gear: ‘I used a Peconic Bay Boat rod made by Horrocks-Ibbotson, a Shakespeare Service Star reel with 12-pound test Wexford Nylon Wonder Line.’  Piscatorial minds want to know.

Hickenlooper closes his letter with shout-out to another Iowa fisherman: ‘These rainbow trout were stocked in Lake Titicaca in 1931 at the direction of President Herbert Hoover, who as an experienced fisherman, realized the deep cold water environment would lead them to thrive.’  Invasive species had not been fully developed as a concept at that time.  Invasive species or not, at least one large rainbow trout would not top the Lake Titicaca food chain.  Hickenlooper has his catch put on ice, mounted and placed on display in his Senate office.

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Feng shui at the White House

By Thomas F. Schwartz

A popular approach to room design is feng shui, or creating the right harmony between the room, the furnishings, and the people who use the space.  When Herbert and Lou Hoover moved into the White House on March 4, 1929 it took some time and many rearrangements of the furniture before the White House felt like a home.  In a May 25, 1929 letter to her two sons, First Lady Lou Hoover describes their efforts at personalizing the rooms:

                “We are beginning to feel perfectly at home.  Daddy has moved all the upstairs furniture once, and most of it twice.

He seems definitely set—his in the corner dressing room and I in the big middle one, which really is much nicer for me.  We changed the bedroom on the other side of the ‘west sitting-room’ into our family sitting room—for said west was only the end of the hall at best. (The little corner bedroom beyond it Charlie Field is occupying now).

Daddy wanted his study all changed about—which disclosed the fact that the walls were not painted behind the bookcases!  So to get that done he moved out, into the next-door big ‘blue bedroom,’ said bed and some furniture disappearing temporarily.  Now he likes that room so much better, he wants to stay there!  His old study can’t be made into a bedroom, because there were no bathrooms handy, handier than the third floor.  I don’t like the idea of running way down the hall to the family sitting room.  So the present suggestion is to turn the end-the-hall sitting room into the grand blue bedroom (or the mid Victorian black walnut bed room).  Turn the old study into the drawing room—square—and the drawing room into the family living room.  (It has a door into my workroom—so I can go into it without going into the halls at all).  Which will keep us moving furniture for a month!

Lou Hoover’s sketch of the furniture arrangements in the White House.



So there is the way we look as tho’ we were going to be.  The housekeeper moving upstairs.  It gives us the same number of bedrooms on this floor, but one of them is like Allan’s, with a little dressing room attached, instead of the big blue one.  So there is still room for all of you here at once!

Much love,


This was written just as Allan started south, and was meant for all three of you [son Herbert and wife Margaret, and son Allan].

You will be kind to me if you send it on to him—which will save me writing another letter.

Dear Allan,

I’ve been intending to mail this to you for weeks.  Sorry!


The letter went to son Herbert and his wife Margaret (Peg) but clearly the best of intentions delayed forwarding it on to Allan.

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“What a wonderful panorama!” Lou Henry Hoover’s idea for picturing America.

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Before the invention of IMAX projection and Circle Vision 360, the viewing public was dazzled by panoramic paintings called cycloramas.  Dating from 1787 and reaching its height of popularity by 1900, cycloramas depicted beautiful landscapes or great historic events.  Created by producing multiple oil paintings that could be assembled in the round,

Credit: National Park Service. This photo shows a close-up of Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in hand to hand combat. Gettysburg Cyclorama Painting

cycloramas appeared in major cities throughout the United States and Europe.  One of the most celebrated still can be viewed today at the Gettysburg National Military Park.  Paul Philippoteaux, a French-born artist, was commissioned in 1882 by Chicago merchant Charles Louis Willoughby for the princely sum of $50,000 to paint events of July 3, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg.  This day, the third day of intense fighting in the rural Pennsylvania town, is best known for the gallant but failed Pickett’s Charge.  The work was completed the following year and toured major cities with great acclaim.  The cyclorama eventually found a permanent home at Gettysburg National Military Park and underwent a major restoration for its re-installation in the new museum and theater in 2008.

Lou Henry Hoover

Lou Henry Hoover, 1932

Lou Henry Hoover was familiar with Philippoteaux’s work.  In a series of folders containing both fragments of ideas for speeches as well as portions of speeches she reworked is found a typed fragment urging the creation of a panoramic painting, similar to the one for the Battle of Gettysburg.  Lou muses:

“I wish someone would paint a picture of the whole United States.  Showing all the kinds of people that embrace it, and what they are doing.  It would take a panorama.  What a wonderful panorama!  Like the old Battle of Gettysburg.

I wish someone would write a book.  Not a learned treatise on economics, with big words, and (resonant) phrases.  But a simple, almost one-syllable book about our country.  Just a narrative of it.  What is it geographically?  What does it furnish in living possibilities?  In working possibilities?  In recreational, educational and saving possibilities—for relaxation in old age, and for the helpless.”

Like many of Lou’s ideas, these were never realized.  But it does illustrate the creativeness, diversity, and inclusiveness of her thinking on what constitutes a national portrait and narrative.


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Lou Henry Hoover and Athletics for Women and Girls

by Matthew Schaefer

Last month my wife and I attended a women’s basketball game at the University of Iowa.  We were delighted to learn that the game coincided with National Girls and Women in Sports Day, so that we’d get the commemorative t-shirts.  This led to a discussion of women’s athletics, Title IX, and the relatively recent creation of the National Girls and Women in Sports Day.  February 7, 1986 marked the first such day, more than a decade after the passage of Title IX.  In turn, Title IX can trace its intellectual and institutional history back through the American Association of Health, Physical Education and Dance [AAHPERD] to the National Amateur Athletic Federation-Women’s Division and Lou Henry Hoover.

Lou Henry, practicing archery in 1895.

Lou Hoover joined the NAAF board in April 1923, with the intention of expanding to women its message of the physical and mental value of athletics.  Lou firmly believed that the courage, strength and character gained through sports participation gave girls the tools needed to be the confident leaders of tomorrow.  As the only woman on the board, Lou worked tirelessly to build the infrastructure needed to make the Women’s Division successful.  Lou contacted more than 400 leaders from Girl Scouts of America, leaders in Women’s physical education, and teachers at schools and colleges for women and girls.  Nearly all responded positively to this effort.  By the mid-1920s Lou had shaped the Women’s Division into: ‘A national movement having as its goal the development of the health, physical fitness and morale, and consequent usefulness to the nation as citizens and mothers, of every girl and woman in America.’

While a successful fundraiser for the organization, Lou Hoover found resistance to long-term corporate underwriting. Ultimately, she helped create the organization’s mission in the “promotion of competition that stresses enjoyment of sport and the development of good sportsmanship and character rather than those types that emphasize the making and breaking of records, and the winning of championships for the enjoyment of spectators and for the athletic reputation or commercial advantages of institutions and organizations.” Eventually, the Women’s Division was merged into the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation in 1940.  Before this merger, Lou kept the Women’s Division focused on its goal: ‘A sport for every girl and every girl in a sport.’

Lou Hoover’s hard work was acknowledged by her peers.  Henry Breckenridge, president of the NAAF, wrote Lou in December 1923: “Frankly I think you just about saved the Federation’s life. The combination of the prestige of your name and real direction you gave the women working with you raised our mission above the plain of petty controversy.’  Alice Setton, writing the history of the Women’s Division in 1939, dedicated the book ‘with deep affection and sincere appreciation to our Founder, our First Chairman, and our Permanent Honorary Chair-Lou Henry Hoover.’  Lou Hoover herself, usually self-effacing to a fault, acknowledged in a mid-1930s reminiscence that: ‘The Women’s Division accomplished much more in its field that the men have in theirs.’

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National Proposal Day! What Next?

Very few photographs of the Hoover wedding exist. Shown here are: Charles Henry, Lou Henry Hoover, Jean Henry, Herbert Hoover and Florence Henry. #1899-06

National Proposal Day!  What will they think of next?  I know from personal experience that my memory of proposing to my wife does not align with her memory of the event. No matter, we’re still happily married 30+ years on.  The Hoovers have similarly unaligned stories regarding Herbert’s proposal to Lou Henry.  Doubtless memory is mercurial, even for such life-changing events.  Still there are enough points in common to see the kernel of truth.

When Herbert Hoover told the tale of his proposal in volume one of his memoirs, he placed the story in the context of his career development as a mining engineer.  After enjoying success in the Western Australian gold fields, he was offered a more responsible position and higher salary running Bewick Moering’s operations in China.  Not trusting the weeks-long process of mailing a letter, Hoover cabled Lou Henry ‘asking if she would agree that the time had come to be married and go to China.’

Lou Henry Hoover did not write memoirs, nor do her papers here shed much light on this proposal.  The closest we come is Evelyn Wight Allan’s eulogy for Lou Hoover in the February 1944 issue of The Key, the Kappa Kappa Gamma magazine.  Evelyn tells the story of meeting Lou at Stanford in 1895, sharing a rooming house and outdoor adventures for the next three years, and finding a friend for life.  Noting that it often took months for a letter to travel from Australia to the United States, Evelyn said that Hoover cabled: ‘Going to China via San Francisco. Will you marry me?’  Allan goes on to say that the new postal worker, thinking ‘Lou’ was a man, posted the cable on the rooming house bulletin board.  This provided much amusement to Lou’s friends who enjoyed this novel proposal of marriage.

A third version of the story is offered by J. W. Kirwan, writing a puff piece on Herbert Hoover for the Western Australian.  After detailing Hoover’s mining genius in exploiting opportunities in the Australian Outback, Kirwan tells of Hoover’s departure to London en route to China.  He reports that Hoover took the time to cable Lou from the Perth offices of Bewick Moering.  According to eye witness reports, Hoover’s cable contained four words: ‘Will you marry me?’  The model of efficiency, even in matters of the heart, Hoover wasted no words.

Finally there is a June 28, 1929 letter from one of Mrs. Hoover’s secretaries to Wayne Whipple, author of a book, The Story of the White House.  The secretary calls to Whipple’s attention an error on page 153 regarding ‘the matter of fictitious quick engagement by cable from Australia.’  The secretary comments that the Hoovers laugh off these romantic tales as theirs was an engagement of long standing.  The cable simply detailed a change in date and destination as the return trip would be to China rather than Australia.

Doubtless there are kernels of truth in each of these stories– which may be why George Nash cites all three in his biography of Hoover.  We’ll never know the exact phrasing used by Hoover in his cable, but we can be certain that Lou accepted the proposal as they wed in February 1899 and enjoyed 45 years together.

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The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930

President Herbert Hoover, 1930.

In any discussion of President Hoover’s economic policies, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff often takes center stage.  What’s typically omitted, however, is the context in which the bill emerged.

From the earliest days of the republic, a protective tariff was one of the bedrock principles of U.S. economic policy.    In the late 19th and early 20th century, tariff policy became one of the defining political issues; generally, the Republican Party favored high tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing and agriculture from low-cost foreign competition, while the Democratic Party favored low tariffs to promote trade and boost exports.  As the Republican Party largely dominated at the national level following the Civil War, high tariffs were the norm.

When Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” campaign in 1912 split the Republican Party, Democrats took control of Congress and the White House.   The Underwood Tariff of 1913 rolled tariff rates back to levels not seen since the 1850s, and imposed an income tax to make up for the lost revenue.  After World War I, Republicans returned to power and in 1922 passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, which restored high rates and pushed some to record levels.

In 1928, the major issue of the campaign, by far, was Prohibition, but the tariff was important too.  The Republican platform promised to retain the existing high industrial tariffs and to boost tariffs for agricultural commodities.  Agricultural prices had been depressed since the end of the War, and farmers clamored for relief.  Most American farmers faced little competition from imports, but thought they should have the same level of protection as industry.  (In fact, some farm groups also wanted to see reductions in industrial tariffs, to reduce the price of manufactured goods and thereby increase farmers’ purchasing power.) During the 1920s Congress had repeatedly passed bills to subsidize dumping American farm surpluses overseas, which President Coolidge vetoed.  Herbert Hoover, as the Republican nominee for President, pledged to support tariffs for agriculture, and also proposed an innovative plan for a Federal Farm Board that would help farmers organize co-ops to stabilize prices.

Immediately after his inauguration, Hoover called a special session of Congress.  Within weeks they passed a bill creating Hoover’s Farm Board, to great fanfare.  Then they turned to the tariff.  Weeks turned into months as the bill bogged down in the Senate; the stock market crash in October 1929 had little effect on the debate.  The Smoot-Hawley tariff bill finally passed in June 1930; it raised rates on over 20,000 items, but as a whole, pleased no one.  Over 1000 economists signed an open letter to President Hoover, begging him to veto the bill.

President Hoover was not happy with the Smoot-Hawley bill, especially the increased tariffs on many manufactured goods.  In private, he described it as “vicious, extortionate and obnoxious,” but because it included increased tariffs on agricultural products, he felt compelled to sign it.  Furthermore, Hoover had successfully engineered a provision in the bill that allowed the Tariff Commission to make modest adjustments to tariffs without Congressional approval, which he believed would allow him to fix some of the most egregious industrial tariffs.

Today, there continues to be considerable disagreement concerning the causes of the Great Depression, and the relative roles of those causes.  A number of historians and economists, for example, have downplayed the traditional interpretation of the disastrous effect of the Smoot Hawley Tariff, pointing out that the existing Fordney-McCumber Tariff rates were already dangerously high and that the Smoot-Hawley bill was really just a continuation of business as usual under Republican administrations.  Foreign trade, both imports and exports, was only a small part of the total U.S. economy.   The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was clearly harmful to trade and diplomacy, but it is uncertain how damaging it was relative to other economic forces.

In his memoirs, written in the 1950s, Hoover argued that “later statements implying that the passage of the Smoot-Hawley bill was the cause of the depression seem somewhat overdrawn, as it was not passed until nine months after the crash.  Moreover it was not, as later statements suggested, the beginning of a world movement to increase tariffs.  In fact, the American increase took place only after nearly thirty other countries had imposed higher tariffs.”  He also noted, “But I may say here that raising the tariff from its sleep was a political liability despite the virtues of its reform.” (The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover:  The Cabinet and the Presidency 1920-1933, p. 291, 299.)

When the Democrats returned to power in 1933, President Roosevelt’s policy was to lower tariffs on a country-by-country basis, which had little effect on foreign trade.  After World War II, the United States reversed course completely.  In a series of agreements over many years, the U.S. signed onto the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which reduced tariffs across the board with many nations and created the World Trade Organization to regulate international trade.  Economists now believe, almost without exception, that free trade and low tariffs promote economic growth.

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Preventing Tragedy and Statistics

By Thomas F. Schwartz

It is easy to overlook the significance of Herbert Hoover’s food relief efforts by looking merely at numbers.  The precise number of people Hoover saved from starvation remains murky but most scholars agree it is in the hundreds of millions.  Ironically, one of the most brutal leaders of modern times, Joseph Stalin, is credited with the following aphorism: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy.  If millions die, that’s only statistics.”  Scholars have since discredited the attribution.  The quote, whomever said it, aptly applies to post-World War I era Europe.  Herbert Hoover, against the wisdom of world leaders, used the American Relief Administration to provide food to Russian people living in areas controlled by the Bolsheviks as well as areas controlled by White Russian forces.  Remaining above politics knowing that hunger is apolitical, Hoover provided food to roughly eighteen million Russians.  This good will was not lost on those who received food as continues to be evident in letters the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum staff receive from descendants.  It is important to highlight these letters because they focus on individual lives that were prevented from becoming both tragedies and statistics.  It places a human face on the food relief efforts and, more importantly, provides some sense of what drove Hoover in his tireless efforts to eradicate hunger.  The following account and images are provided by Natalia Sidorova and reproduced with her permission.

“I am writing you to celebrate the legacy that Herbert Hoover has earned in history by his compassion and care for millions of people in Russia and other countries who were on the brink of death by starvation.

Zinaida Tiablikova

About 97 years ago, my grandmother Zinaida Tiablikova moved to Moscow from her small town Klin, fifty miles to the north.  She lived alone while she studied chemistry at Moscow University.

At that time there was a terrible food shortage throughout all of Russia as a result of the chaos following the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war between White and Red Russians.  Many poor Russians from the Volga region came to Moscow in desperate hope of finding food in the city.

In 1920 a friend of my grandmother told her that the American Food Administration provided warm meals once a day for needy people, primarily children.  Although most of the food centers were in the Volga River region where starvation was an enormous problem, there also were a few food centers in Moscow.

Zinaida with two classmates, 1925.

My grandmother Zinaida went to one of these food centers on Miasnitskaya Street in Moscow.  Throughout most of 1920 she and many other persons received a delicious hot meal once a day.  She remembered on occasion receiving condensed milk and hot chocolate.  For the many poor Russians these were special treats because they had never had condensed milk or chocolate before.  Certainly these nutritious meals protected her and many other persons from death by starvation or other diseases caused by lack of food.

She told me that there was a photo of Herbert Hoover on display at the food center, even though Mr. Hoover himself did not want such public recognition.  The people of the community chose to display his photo as their own spontaneous expression of their gratitude to Mr. Hoover and to the American people.

I now have a daughter named Galina who goes to college here in America.  I have told her this story of my grandmother.  This story demonstrates to my daughter that the American and Russian people can be great friends to one another in times of need.

I doubt that Mr. Hoover himself then was supportive to the Bolshevik ideology which in recent years has fallen into disrepute even among conservative Russians.  However, Mr. Hoover put aside his own personal beliefs about politics and economics so that he could help other persons.

My grandmother always spoke with great appreciation of the generosity of the American people as expressed through the person of Herbert Hoover.  She was always amazed that Mr. Hoover possessed special administrative skills so that he could distribute food to remote regions where the food was in greatest demand.  She was delighted for the American people when she learned years later that Mr. Hoover was elected President.  She cherished the memory of his photo in the food center and she prayed for him throughout her life.

My grandmother is not with us any more to express her own gratitude to Mr. Hoover.  As her grand-daughter I accept that task with full enthusiasm.  As an American citizen who was born in Moscow, I thank Mr. Hoover and I thank all the people of America for their generosity and compassion to millions of poor Russians in one of the darkest hours in our history.  The legacy of Mr. Hoover’s goodness and the goodness of the American people is inscribed in the hearts of millions of Russian people.

Mr. Hoover’s legacy is also a beacon of hope for future generations.  In a world that continues to be torn apart by conflict of all types, Mr. Hoover’s example reminds us that the best response to a crisis is compassion.”

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