Herbert Hoover is by and large considered a failed president because the Great Depression occurred on his watch. A little digging reveals an accomplished man, but that’s a story for a different post.
One of Hoover’s accomplishments was The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, his personal account of Wilson’s peace efforts in Paris following The Great War. One president writing a book on another is intriguing in itself, although it’s even more remarkable that a president from one party wrote a balanced evaluation of a president from the opposing party.
Before America got into the war, Hoover, already an accomplished mining executive, took on the challenge of feeding Belgium, then under German rule. The results were remarkable, considering the logistical challenge of raising funds, shipping the food, and convincing both the western powers and Germany to allow the food to be delivered behind German lines.
Once the US got into the war, Wilson appointed Hoover to head the U.S. food administration, responsible for ensuring American soldiers had the sustenance needed to end the war. Hoover took a voluntary approach, encouraging Americans to cut back on food consumption so more was available.
After the war, Wilson named Hoover to take part in the Supreme Economic Council, as well as head the American Relief Administration. The former was tasked with advising the peace negotiators on economics of any peace deal. the latter was charged with feeding starving Europeans, whatever their role during the war.
A criticism that Hoover levels against Wilson is that he personally attended the peace conference. A number of Wilson supports advised him not to go. By staying home, they contended, Wilson could remain above the fray, advocating for his 14 points, including the promotion of democracy as a way for countries to avoid the entanglements that led to the war.
“From the start the President was met with settings unfamiliar to him and obstacles he had never imagined. Fundamentally he was confronted with the irreconcilable conflicts between Old and New World concepts of government and of social and economic life. the two worlds were indeed many ways strangers to each other. Our ancestors had fled from Europe because they were already in conflict with its ideas of class stratification, religion, and freedom, and we had drifted farther and farther apart over the course of three centuries.”
Hoover’s account of the peace negotiations is fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at diplomacy and the logistics of rebuilding a war-ravaged continent. The process was made even more difficult by the Soviet Union’s exporting of Communist revolutions, financed by czarist gold.
Despite Wilson’s failure to obtain Senate ratification of the treaty and the League of Nations, which he considered inextricably intertwined, Hoover contends Wilson’s success was as a moral force in the world.
“Woodrow Wilson’s expression of his ideals and his eloquent statements on the “basis” of peace brought a renewed thrust for freedom to mankind… After America entered the war in April 1917, under Mr. Wilson’s banner of freedom, twenty-one races of men threw off their oppression by revolution. “
Hoover does, however, criticize Wilson for too willingly accept the mandates favored by the Allied powers. Wilson’s initial proposal was that the “backward peoples” that were part of the old German, Russian, and Turkish empires be administered in a transition to self-determination. His notion was that small, neutral countries would administer the mandates.
General Jan Smuts, the Prime Minister of the South African Union, lobbied and won the compromise that the mandates would be administered by the larger Allied Powers on the notion that they had more experience. It was under the mandates that Great Britain controlled Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq, while France controlled Syria and Lebanon. It’s easy to wonder, nearly 100 years later, whether allowing those countries to determine their own destiny would have averted some of the troubles we see today.
Hoover wrote the book in the 50’s, so he had the historical context of World War II, as well as the Marshall Plan, the founding of the U.N. and the creation of NATO. He attributes those institutions to the spirit of Wilson. I believe that those institutions, combined with the spread of democracy throughout Europe, have averted the widespread devastation wrought by both world wars.