What we might learn from Hoover and Truman

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

This post about Presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry S Truman is driven in large part by concern about what Iowa may become under the anti-public education agenda that Governor Kim Reynolds spelled out in her Condition of the State speech on January 10. The Republican-controlled legislature then rushed to pass the governor’s school voucher plan.

Consider, too, that President Joe Biden might sum up the State of Union on February 7 as “perilous.”

Risks are inherent in systems of self-governance, but perhaps we can find some ray of hope in the lives and public service of two U.S. presidents who weren’t fully appreciated, despite all their meritorious actions.

Recounting the work and friendship of Presidents Hoover and Truman is not so much a longing for the past as a potential compass for the future.

Presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith dubbed Hoover (1874-1964) and Truman (1884-1972) “the oddest couple” in his book An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover. Despite the differences in their political and personal lives, they became close friends and saved millions of lives around the world in post-World War II efforts to repair global devastation. The friendship was rewarding to both, as they were “bookends” to four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—and contrasted, often unfairly, to him.

Timothy Walch and Dwight Miller, director and senior archivist at the Hoover Library in West Branch in the 1990s, summarized the relationship in Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman: A Documentary History.

The friendship evolved over two decades.

During the years Truman was in the White House, the two were formal but courteous …. [at times] the two were frustrated, peeved, and even angry with one another.

Yet their partnership evolved into a friendship… unprecedented in the history of the American presidency.

About that partnership

The public and archival record of that friendship does not directly refer to their being in FDR’s shadow. The records do underscore some aspect of FDR’s impact on them, as in this December 1962 letter from Hoover to Truman:

Yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know. I gave up a successful profession in 1914 to enter public service. I served through the First World War and after for about 18 years. When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, I at once supported the President and offered to serve in any useful capacity. Because of my various experiences…I thought my service might again be useful, however there was no response [from FDR] […]

When you came to the White House, within a month you opened the door to me to the only profession I know, public service, and you undid some disgraceful action that had been taken in prior years.

In his eulogy of Hoover, Truman wrote,

My warm and close friendship…dates back to…when he visited Washington shortly after I succeeded to the presidency. I have held him in high respect as a devoted public servant and a great humanitarian. […]

It was in this higher calling that I was moved to call him back into public service in the hope he might again resume the task of feeding the hungry. […]

President Hoover did not hesitate. He accepted at once. […]

Briefly put, he was my friend and I was his.

Contrast Truman’s request that Hoover help feed the world with FDR’s disdain of his predecessor.

Soon after accepting Truman’s challenge, the 71-year-old Hoover traveled more than 51,000 miles through 38 countries to see what needed to be done. And he and Truman did it.

When Bernard Baruch, a financier and statesmen, had suggested to FDR that Hoover was just the man to mobilize citizen response after Pearl Harbor and the awful war ahead, FDR is said to have responded, “I’m not Jesus Christ. I’m not raising him from the dead.”

About the “oddest couple”

Hoover and Truman had markedly different upbringings.

Hoover was the descendant of Swiss Quaker immigrants named Huber, who came to the U.S. around 1740. They settled in North Carolina and became prosperous farmers. Some moved to Ohio because of their opposition to slavery.

Hoover’s father and grandfather moved to Iowa in 1854.

Herbert was orphaned in West Branch at age 10 and taken in by an uncle in Oregon. He was in the first graduating class at Stanford University and soon became a boy wonder as a gold mining engineer, working in Australia, China and some ten other countries in Europe and Asia. Hoover became a partner in the firm and was wealthy enough to essentially retire in 1914, committing the rest of his life to public service.

He organized food relief for Belgians at the onset of World War I and then for European food relief programs during and after the Great War, which is why Truman asked him to lead efforts to feed starving millions of people around the world after World War II.

Hoover served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1928 and was likely the most productive secretary of commerce the nation ever has had. He brought standardization and efficiency to everything from design of screw threads, specific sizes for tires and bricks, to needed regulation of the nascent aviation and broadcast industries.

Those credentials led to his victory in the 1928 presidential election. He took office about nine months before the Great Depression hit.

For the remainder of his life, Hoover endured unfair blame for the economic disaster, even though he had tried to curb economic speculation before and after his inauguration, according to the book Herbert Hoover, the Uncommon Man.

On the other hand, Harry’s ancestors came to Missouri in the mid-1840s, part of a large migration from Kentucky to Missouri, admitted to the union in 1820 as a slave state. In Truman, David McCullough describes many of the new Missourians as “farmers, plain-mannered and plain -spoken people with little formal education…of Scotch-Irish descent” who “saw themselves as the true Americans.”

Harry had little public education beyond high school. Poor eyesight quashed his hopes for admission to West Point, but he persevered in seeking military service. He commanded an artillery unit in France in WWI when he was in his early 30s. Back home he became connected with the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City and in time was elected a county judge (like an Iowa county supervisor).

Truman was elected U.S. senator in 1934 and re-elected in 1940. He gained a public reputation through the Truman committee, which exposed wasteful military spending in the early 1940s. FDR chose him as his running mate in 1944, and Truman assumed the presidency after 82 days in office as vice president when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.

Truman met with FDR once while serving as vice president, apparently mostly for a photo op.

Whereas expectations for Hoover’s presidency were high, some in the White House were terrified that Truman, this guy who came up from the Pendergast political machine, would now be president.

The horrified response to Truman becoming president and the damnation of Hoover for “causing” the Depression are not high points in our political history.

“Our” libraries

Iowans can easily learn more about this odd couple, thanks to our proximity to the Hoover Library and Museum in West Branch and the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. Both are refreshing, rewarding, and reassuring places to visit, located less than 200 miles from Des Moines.

And 2023 offers many reminders of Truman and Hoover.

This year will be the 75th anniversary of Truman surprising the American press by beating Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election. It will also mark the 75th anniversary of Truman integrating the nation’s armed forces, implementing the Marshall Plan to support European recovery from World War II, countering Russian belligerency with the Berlin Airlift, granting diplomatic recognition to the state of Israel, and other actions that might give one pause on why he was expected to be out of office.

In addition, 2023 will be the 90th anniversary of Hoover leaving office because, in his words, “Democracy is a harsh employer.”

In today’s turmoil we might recall this comment from the State of the Union address Truman delivered in January 1948: “The United States has become great because we, as a people, have been able to work together for great objectives even while differing about details.”

Add to it Hoover’s speech on “The meaning of America,” given in 1948 when he marked his 74th birthday:

I have had every honor to which any man could aspire. There is no place on the whole earth except in America where all the sons of man have this chance in life. […]

Here alone are the open windows through which pour the sunlight of the human spirit, to which any man could aspire.

Here alone are the open windows through which pour the sunlight of the human spirit.

Not so much a summary as a challenge these days.

Top image: Harry Truman (left) and Herbert Hoover at the dedication ceremony for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum on August 10, 1962. Public domain photo from the Truman Library, available via Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author(s)

Herb Strentz