Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath
Edited by George H. Nash
Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 2011
Cloth. cxx+957 pp. ISBN 978-0817912345. $49.95
Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Bloodworth
Gannon University, Erie (Pennsylvania)
Get Off My Lawn!: Or Why Herbert Hoover Detests Saving Private Ryan
It is not merely the rich who are different from you and me; high achievers are similarly unlike the rest of us. Run-of-the-mill Horatio Algers and standard issue Type A personalities are not so unusual. Twenty-something corporate tycoons, psychotically competitive professional athletes, and limelight-starved, globetrotting ex-Presidents (you know who you are Bill Clinton), comprise a different species altogether. It is they who float above the thin stratosphere that separates Business Elite from First Class.
Though his name is no longer synonymous with success, once upon a time Herbert Hoover was an American wunderkind. For decades, the orphan-cum-engineer-cum-entrepreneur-cum-millionaire-cum-humanitarian-cum-Secretary-of-Commerce-cum-President possessed the Midas touch. His every endeavor had resulted in fortunes, accolades, and oodles of acclaim—that was until the Great Depression. Despite engaging in a form of activist government never before seen in American life, Hoover failed to capture the hearts, minds, and votes of the “forgotten man.” Seemingly overnight, the former Boy Wonder became a synonym for failure.
Booted out of office, exiled from the limelight, and blamed for the depression, Hoover brooded and plotted as only true high achievers can. From the post of his proto-think tank, the Hoover War Library (later renamed the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution, and Peace) and Park Avenue high-rise, he planned a comeback. Hoover might not have captured the Republican nomination and defeated Roosevelt, but his books and speeches laid the groundwork for modern conservatism’s response to New Deal liberalism.
When Hoover was not writing a biography on Woodrow Wilson, building his institutional namesake, or fundraising for the Boys & Girls Club he secretly worked on his Magnum Opus: Freedom Betrayed : Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath. Written in relative secrecy, Hoover spent the final twenty years of his life laboring on this work. Intended to comprise a portion of his memoirs, the “War Book,” as he called it, evolved into the ur-text of conservative revisionism. In sum, Hoover, as did cavalcades of paleo-conservatives and (later) New Leftists, claimed, Roosevelt plunged the country unnecessarily into the Second World War and a preventable Cold War.
Laboring over his Magnum Opus during the final twenty years of his life, Hoover wrote, edited, and rewrote sections of Freedom Betrayed. The vast bulk of the work was complete at the time of Hoover’s death in 1964. For a sundry of reasons the Hoover family did not publish the work. Thankfully, George Nash took up the task to edit and prepare Hoover’s masterwork for publication. The preeminent expert on the thirty-first President, Nash is also the dean of the history of modern conservatism. Not surprisingly, his lengthy introduction to Freedom Betrayed is an authentic tour-de-force that establishes the work’s basic contours and arguments. Through editing Hoover’s book Nash has performed a valuable service for the profession and field. In so doing, he brings Hoover and modern conservatism into better focus.
A progressive Republican in domestic affairs, the former President bandied an anti-interventionist foreign policy. Most certainly an internationalist, in the most basic sense of the term, Hoover gained international renown for his relief efforts in post-World War I Europe. In his life prior to public service, he had lived on nearly every continent and in numerous nations. A citizen of the world, Hoover, nevertheless, embraced an unreconstructed form of American Exceptionalism. Viewing the Old and New World as fundamentally separate societies, he believed the America should only wage war to defeat aggression into the Western Hemisphere.
In addition to this, his first-hand view of the First World War caused him to fear that the brutality and bureaucratic necessities of modern war posed internal threats to democratic regimes. Hoover warned in 1938, “Those who would have us again go to war to save democracy might give a little thought to the likelihood that we would come out of any such struggle a despotism ourselves” [xx]. Hoover’s desire to “keep out of other people’s wars,” remained rooted in domestic policy and his hatred for FDR and the New Deal. To him, any endeavor that gave Roosevelt and Washington more concentrated power threatened to end with fascism [xxii]. Written from the perspective of right-wing critics who feared the New Deal led to Mussolini and Hitler, Freedom Betrayed is an important text in the history of modern conservatism.
C. Vann Woodward reminded a generation of historians of the role that “contingency” plays in events. In most regards, specialists have heeded Woodward’s example. The Second World War, however, remains an exception. With a cast of characters fit for the Mos Eisley Catina (of Star Wars fame), historians understandably see any conflict that features the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Tojo as inevitably concluding with Americans heroically storming the beaches at Normandy. Through Freedom Betrayed Hoover forces us to rethink the contingent events leading the US into a global conflagration.
Freedom Betrayed directly challenges that most standard issue of all historical conventional wisdoms: Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement led to the Second World War. In the mother-of-all revisionist arguments, Hoover claims more appeasement, not less, would have channeled Hitler toward the Soviets. Instead, Chamberlain, backed by FDR, challenged the Nazis, which prompted Germany’s invasion west and brought the U.S. into war. To Hoover, the Soviets always represented Western Civilization’s prime enemy. For him, a Nazi invasion east would have destroyed the world’s essential scourge, leaving Britain to negotiate an acceptable peace with Hitler and the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere untouched by war.
A generation of New Left revisionism has definitely revealed what Hoover suspected—FDR had surreptitiously maneuvered the US into war. From an undeclared naval war with Germany to economic sanctions against Japan, the President might have told Americans, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,” but he knew and acted otherwise.
This doorstop-of-a-book is organized into three separate volumes, the longest of which, volume II, contains 35 sections. Volume I details Roosevelt’s prewar & furtive foreign policy. The second volume details the President’s wartime plans for the postwar world. Sarcastically titled, “the March of Conferences”, with it Hoover intends to reveal how Roosevelt bungled and gave Eastern Europe and China to the communists. Thus, FDR not only pushed the U.S. into an unnecessary war: his wartime alliance with Stalin and secret agreements led to the Cold War. The third volume in the Magnum Opus offers case histories of nations that had fallen under communist control. Starting section III at the tender age of 87, Hoover was unable to complete this project. The segment does feature some interesting personal letters to and from important figures. In this way, the third volume is only valuable for the most diehard of Hoover enthusiasts.
It is tempting to dismiss Freedom Betrayed as the work of an embittered high achiever who wrote a book in a futile attempt to prove Americans chose poorly in 1932. Indeed, Hoover’s unyielding criticism of FDR and near gleeful treatment of Harry Truman reveals the author’s quite personal agenda. In this book, the thirty-first President was prescient. Decades before mainstream scholars took note, he identified Roosevelt’s reckless penchant for “secret agreements,” and the Communist party’s infiltration of American government.
While the former and the latter are most definitely true, Hoover invests way too much importance in their influence upon events. As a result, his Magnum Opus is premised upon a creaky and specious hypothesis. According to Hoover, the inevitability of a German-Soviet war meant that guaranteeing Poland and backing the USSR unnecessarily brought the U.S. into war. Following a blunder with provocation and impeachable actions, FDR aggravated the Nazis and Japan into war. To accept this thesis, one must trust that Hitler merely sought the conquest of continental Europe. Several generations of historiography on the Third Reich reveal otherwise. When Hitler promised, “tomorrow, the world,” he meant it.
Herbert Hoover fundamentally misunderstood the stakes involved in Nazi aggression and the limits of American power to control events in the immediate postwar world. Driven by a personal vendetta against FDR, the former President unwittingly reminds readers how he could be both a phenomenally successful world citizen and a lousy president; Hoover lacked that je ne sais quoi that made Roosevelt both a scoundrel and a latter-day Founding Father.
Freedom Betrayed is simultaneously indispensable reading for those interested in contemporary political history and a 957-page screed. In essence, Old Man Hoover is screaming “Get Off My Lawn” to the legions of Roosevelt enthusiasts who credit FDR with saving Western Civilization. Hoover would not have enjoyed the celebration of the “good war” that was Saving Private Ryan, but Freedom Betrayed reminds us that he remains an important voice in deciphering the American past and present.
George H. Nash (ed.), Freedom Betrayed : Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 2011)—Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Bloodworth, Gannon University, Erie (Pennsylvania)
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