By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Triumph of Reaction
Progressives and the Election of 1920
VIII. The Great Engineer
And that was but one of the many encomiums to the Great Engineer in 1919 and 1920. "I am 100 percent for him," argued Justice Louis Brandeis, a man whose words carried in the progressive community. "High public spirit, extraordinary intelligence, knowledge, sympathy, youth, and a rare perception of what is really worth-while for the country, would, with his organizing ability and power of inspiring loyalty, do wonderful things in the Presidency." Walter Lippmann declared he had "never met a more interesting man, anyone who knew so much of the world and could expound so clearly…the inscrutable mysteries of European politics." Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt was another Wilson man firmly in the Hoover camp. "He is certainly a wonder," he declared, "and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There could not be a better one."2
The New Republic editors agreed. Having been pro-war themselves at the start of the great conflagration, they seemed to envision a possible redemption in a Hoover candidacy: "The dominant temper of politics at this moment," they argued, "is a product of the fatigue of the war, the frustration at Versailles, and the panic of inexperience." But as the hero who fed Europe, Hoover could be the "vehicle of that same idealism which ennobled the war and was thwarted in the peace." If a "vast disinterested call for Hoover by men and women who were willing to waive differences of opinion, of party, and of personal preference" were to rise up, then the Great Engineer could "restore sanity to American politics, and…prepare an administration led by hope rather than one dictated by fear."3
And so -- much to the consternation of Hiram Johnson supporters in particular -- TNR began attempting to manufacture that vast, disinterested call by loudly touting Hoover's presidential timbre in its pages. "There is one man, not an active candidate," TNR opined in January 1920, "who in comparison with all the other candidates, qualifies so readily that his election would be a foregone conclusion in reasonable conditions. That man is Herbert Hoover":
[W]ill any supporter of Leonard Wood or Mitchell Palmer pretend that either of their candidates knows a fragment of what Herbert Hoover knows about the necessities of the modern world? Would either of them, or any of the others, risk comparison with Hoover, either on knowledge of social conditions, knowledge of American industry, knowledge of world trade, knowledge of European politics, knowledge of diplomacy? Is there one of them who can show a record as administrator which will stand against the record of the organizer of the Belgian Relief, Food Administrator of the Allies, and the Director General of European Relief? 1Hoover, TNR continued to effuse, was "no dark horse, no straw man manufactured by political boomers, but admittedly the most competent and successful American revealed by the war…every trial enhanced his stature." As such, he was the candidate of all Americans who had their "eyes on the facts, not on labels and doctrines."5
Doubling down a few weeks later, TNR deemed Hoover "the spokesman and the embodiment of the profound discontent and the utter disgust which Americans who understand what is happening to the world and to their own country, feel at the gross obscurantism and incompetence of the existing leadership of both political parties." His candidacy made evident "the unreality of the competing candidates and the political bankruptcy of the two party machines. It is the expression of the manifest need of a new agency of party agitation and action in American politics…[It forces] the two old parties to come out from behind the protection of patriotic phrases and tell the American people how they propose to act to mend the gaping breaks in our national life and in the life of the modern civilized world." In The Nation, Robert Herrick argued similarly. "Whether's one sympathies are radical or reactionary," he wrote "what we must have as a leader today is someone who knows. And the only man in the United States who thoroughly understands this moloch of a machine to which we are all inextricably hitched is Hoover." Only The Great Engineer, Herrick concluded, "understands the infinitely intricate machine that modern capitalistic society has become.6
In deeming Hoover an avatar of efficiency, both Herrick and TNR's editors were not far off from the candidate's own view of himself and what he would bring to the presidency. "During my whole European experience," Hoover would later write in his memoirs, "I had been trying to formulate some orderly definition of the American System… Along with these ideas, I elaborated a basis of economic recovery and progress:
It involved increasing national efficiency through certain fundamental principles. They were (a) that reconstruction and economic progress and therefore most social progress required, as a first step, lowering the costs of production and distribution by scientific research and transformation of its discoveries into labor-saving devices and new articles of use; (b) that we must constantly eliminate industrial waste; (c) that we must increase the skill of our workers and managers; (d) that we must assure that these reductions in cost were passed on to consumers in lower prices; (e) that to do this we must maintain a competitive system; (f) that with lower prices the people could buy more goods, and thereby create more jobs at higher real wages, more new enterprises, and constantly higher standards of living. I insisted that we must push machines and not men and provide every safeguard of health and proper leisure.Hoover's vision of the American System, and of forward progress defined as a battle between efficiency and waste, is something he would continue to develop in the decade to come. But to some of TNR's readers in 1920, this conception was already off the mark. In fact, some thought TNR had gone overboard for Hoover at the expense of real progressive virtues. Citing concerns about civil liberties and the Versailles Treaty, editor Charles Merz wrote a bylined piece to "disassociate myself from the policy these editorials have defined," since "we owe it to our readers to underwrite no man's candidacy until he comes more completely into agreement with us than Mr. Hoover has come." Similarly, reader A.C. Freeman wrote in to critique the editors' emphasis on efficiency. "I fail to see any proof of genuine liberalism in Mr. Hoover's recent statement of his position on domestic issues," he wrote. "True he comes out in favor of our traditional rights of free speech, etc. But so does Mr. Nicholas Murray Butler":
The sole valid argument in favor of Mr. Hoover is his unquestionably efficient record as an administrator during the war. But efficiency is a quality shared by Judge Gary, Clemenceau, and the Prussian General Staff. There is no reason to suppose that General Wood and Governor Lowden are lacking in efficiency. Nine-tenths of the suffering in the world at the present time is due to efficiency, selfish efficiency, devoid of moral purpose or rational direction. In choosing a liberal candidate for President let us have an efficient man by all means; but let us first have a man who is courageous, and humane, and forward-looking, who will not be afraid to condemn the Peace Treaty and the blockade of Prussia, for the crimes that they are, who will not instinctively condemn strikes because they hamper production.8Other readers argued that, by going whole hog for Hoover, TNR had given the proven progressive in the race, Senator Hiram Johnson, short shrift. "Mr. Hoover's great capacity as an administrator is willingly recognized," wrote in another correspondent, "but as President of the United States we need at this time one who is something more than an administrator - a statesman with imagination and insight, a statesman who stands for constructive political principles both in the domestic and the international field. Such a statesman the country possesses in Senator Hiram Johnson -- and I know of no one else." (The writer, Aksel Josephson, did concede that Hoover's vaunted efficiency would make him a great Postmaster-General.) For his part, Gifford Pinchot thought Hoover's emphases reflected a "natural aristocrat" who favored "big business and the middleman as against both the producer and the consumer."9
Similarly, William Hard, while conceding "the merits of your Presidential candidate," argued to TNR's readers that Hiram Johnson was much closer on the issues of note than Herbert Hoover. On "the preservation of civil liberties," "coercive foreign adventures - such as our invasion of Russia," and the issue of the League, "Mr. Johnson has gone far beyond any other Presidential candidate in courageous loyalty and in effective serviceableness to principles and to results which you would like to see established and achieved":
Please understand I am not disputing the immense superiority which Mr. Hoover possesses over Mr. Johnson in certain knowledges and experiences and aptitudes. Nor am I disputing Mr. Hoover's enlightened inclination toward perceiving and admitting and in some way remedying the sicknesses of the society which has blessed him with fortune and fame without cursing him with a conviction of its unerring rightness…I am simply pleading: have a heart and a word for my candidate's astonishing knowledge and experience and aptitudes; those of a man - I say - skilled in man's nature, deep into simple insight into human fraud whether at Paris or at Washington, open in simple courage against it whether at Sacramento or Geneva."1The relative importance of efficiency as a defining virtue of progressivism is a debate that would continue to play out as the Twenties unfolded. For now, despite the pleas of old-line progressives like Hard, Hoover, according to one biographer, enjoyed the support in 1920 of a veritable Who's Who of prominent reformers, including "William Allen White…Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Croly, Jane Addams, Louis D. Brandeis, Walter Lippmann, Edward Bok, Oscar Straus, Edward A. Ross, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Frederick Lewis Allen, Heywood Broun, and Frank W. Taussig." Writers such as Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker added compositions to a pro-Hoover paper published during the Republican convention. In fact, Hoover seemed so far above the field in 1919 and early 1920 that he even garnered the support of the interminable cynic from Baltimore. "Of the whole crowd at present in the ring," Mencken wrote:
"it is probable that only Hoover would make a respectable President. General Wood is a simple-minded old dodo with a delusion of persecution; Palmer is a political mountebank of the first water; Harding is a second-rate provincial; Johnson is allowing himself to be lost in the shuffle; Borah is steadily diminishing in size as he gets closer to the fight…Only Hoover stands out as a man of any genuine sense or dignity…But can he be elected? I doubt it."1Part of the reason Hoover's prospects to Mencken seemed dim -- as they did to the Great Engineer himself -- was that Hoover was, for all intent and purposes, a man without a party. "It was obvious enough," Hoover later wrote of 1920, with perhaps some 20-20 hindsight, "that I could not be nominated by either party, even if I wanted the honor." A supporter of TR's Progressive Party in 1912, Hoover had gone on to serve important roles in the Wilson administration and -- incurring the wrath of Boies Penrose and the Republican Old Guard, who had not forgiven this apostasy -- encouraged voters to vote Democratic in 1918. As late as March 1920, Hoover still labeled himself an "independent progressive" who disliked both the "reactionary group in the Republican party" and "the radical group in the Democratic party."12
By his own reckoning, however, Hoover was a Republican through and through. "I had two generations of Republican blood in my veins," Hoover later wrote. "I was a registered Republican from my twenty-first birthday…My work in Washington had given me intimate opportunity to observe the Democratic party in its political aspects, all of which reinforced my Republicanism." While conceding there were a few Democrats "of the highest purpose and ideals," Hoover mostly saw the Party of Jefferson and Jackson as an uneasy three-way marriage of "an ultraconservative Southern group," "a set of plundering political machines in many of the large cities," and, in the West, "agrarian fanatics and near-Socialists" formed out of "Bryanesque demagoguery." By contrast, while he had no truck with "such Republican phenomena as Senators Penrose, Watson, Knox, Lodge, and their followers…the rank and file membership of the Republican party in the North and West comprised the majority of skilled workmen, farmers, professionals and small-business men. They gave it cohesion in ideas whose American aspirations I greatly preferred."13
Hoover had more prosaic reasons for choosing the Party of Lincoln as well. For one, surveying the electoral landscape in early 1920, it looked rather obviously to be a Republican year. "I knew no Democrat could win in 1920," Hoover later told a friend, "and I did not see myself as a sacrifice." The Great Engineer wanted to play a long game. Agnes Meyer, the wife of one of Hoover's friends, thought the man was "consumed with ambition…The man's will-to-power is almost a mania. The idea of goodwill, of high achievement, is strong in him, but he is not interested in the good that must be accomplished through others or even with the help of others. Only what is done by Hoover is of any meaning to him. He is a big man but he cannot bear rivalry of any sort." For the time being, Hoover had his eye above all else on a potential Cabinet spot, which means he had to get his name bandied about in Republican circles. In any case, when Democratic Franklins Roosevelt and Lane visited Hoover and implored him to run as a Democrat, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Instead, not unlike Democrats Wilson and McAdoo, Hoover insisted he was sitting out the race - while his supporters feverishly tried to solicit letters of support from Stanford alumni, Hoover's fellow miners and engineers, and every person listed in Who's Who.14
Hoover managed to make himself even more of a persona non grata in conservative circles by formally declaring the principles he expected the Republican Party to stand for, should it expect his support. If Republicans adopted "a forward-looking, liberal, constructive platform on the Treaty and on our economic issues," emphasized "measures for sound business administration of the country" and promised to be "neither reactionary nor radical in its approach to our great domestic questions," Hoover would "give it my entire support." Indeed, while not seeking the nomination himself, of course, "if it is felt that the issues necessitate it and it is demanded of me, I cannot refuse service." As one newspaper summed it up, Hoover would be a Republican if Republicans "will be the kind of a party which he would like to belong. And…if he belongs to it, he would have no objection to leading it."15
Hoover did officially break from the Wilson/McAdoo statesman-in-the-wings strategy once, when he allowed his name to be entered in his home state primary of California - also the electoral base of Senator Hiram Johnson - so "as to allow an expression on the issue of the League." In his own words, Hoover, while "fully aware of the weaknesses of the treaties… perhaps more aware than most Americans…had concluded that they should be ratified in order to save what was left of the European structure." And so he welcomed the chance to go up against Hiram Johnson and his "violent anti-League platform," even though "as Senator Johnson controlled the state organization, there was no possibility that he could be defeated."16
Claiming to "not make a single political speech or statement in the primary," Hoover still endured what he felt was irresponsible calumny, an "orgy of personal slander and abuse directed at me," from Johnson forces. "Their general line," he recalled, "was that I was an Englishman and even a British citizen; that I was possessed of untold millions, and so on." Whoever cast the first stone, to the Penroses of the world the California primary was manna from Heaven. In the end, Johnson defeated Hoover by 370,000 votes to 210,000, but the end result was that the two most progressive Republicans in the race had bloodied up each other beyond any possible likelihood of electability.17
Even though TNR's editors remained Hoover's biggest supporters, arguing he could still "embody the progressive crusading disposition that is always latent in America," even they looked in chagrin as Hoover's candidacy in California was "used by experienced professionals to neutralize the progressive forces at the convention…Mr. Hoover cannot afford to destroy the influence of men like Senator Johnson," they argued. "He cannot afford to disperse progressive strength at this juncture…If he must contest California, he will do well to remind his supporters that they are dealing with a veteran who as governor, progressive leader, and United States Senator has earned the respect and appreciation of American progressives. No man can destroy Hiram Johnson's position, and call it a good day's work."18
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Schlesinger, 84. Steel, 123. Schlesinger. Burner, 151.
3. "Hoover's Chances," The New Republic, April 14, 1920 (Vol. XXII, No. 280), 197. Russell, 350.
4. "Hoover as President," The New Republic, January 21, 1920 (Vol. XXI, No. 268), 208.
6. "The Meaning of Hoover's Candidacy," The New Republic, February 18, 1920 (Vol. XXI, No. 272), 328-330. Robert Herrick, "For Hoover," The Nation, June 5, 1920 (Vol. 110, No. 2866), 750.
7. Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Cabinet and the Presidency (New York: Macmillan Company, 1952), 28-29.
8. A.C. Freeman, "Why Mr. Hoover?," The New Republic, March 5th, 1920 (Vol. XXII, No. 274), 33.
9. Aksel G.S. Josephson, "Hoover for Postmaster," The New Republic, April 14, 1920 (Vol. XXII, No. 280), 223. Bagby, 45. Another telling letter, by one L.E. Graves, called out TNR for so effusively endorsing Hoover even though he seemingly had no position on African-American civil liberties. "The Negro forms more than one-tenth of the population of this country, and no "realism," however blatant, can be of sincere service to the United States of America that does not consider as one of the great issues in American life the just settlement of his account." L.E. Graves, "Hoover and the Negro," The New Republic, April 14, 1920 (Vol. XXII, No. 280), 223
10. William Hard, "A Communication: Johnson for President," The New Republic, February 15th, 1920, 383-385.
11. Burner, 153-154. Mencken, 5.
12. Hoover, 33-34. Steel, 168.
13. Hoover, 33-34. Put more simply, Hoover also noted that he did not want to be the standard-bearer for a party whose only member in his home town growing up was the town drunk. Michael Stoff, "Herbert Hoover," in Brinkley and Dyer, ed. The American Presidency, 335.
14. Ibid. Burner, 152. Barry, Rising Tide, 268, 271
15. Burner, 152.
16. Schlesinger, 84. Barry, Rising Tide, 268. Hoover, 10, 34-35. This was not a particularly popular stance, especially among Republicans. "[I]n choosing the League of Nations as the chief issue," wrote the El Paso Times, "the former food Administrator has placed his bet on a dead card." Burner, 153.
17. Hoover, 35.
18. "Hoover's Chances," The New Republic, April 14, 1920 (Vol. XXII, No. 280), 197-198.
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