Monday, January 12, 2009

Hoover on Wilson

While we know Herbert Hoover as a mining engineer he was also a prolific author. He wrote over forty books. He even wrote a book on another president – The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson. This is the only time that a former president wrote a book on another former president:
The logical question for all of us to ask is why would a man who had just turned 80 years old take on the task of writing a biography of one of the most complicated Presidents of the 20th century? The simple answer is that Herbert Hoover thought of Woodrow Wilson as his political mentor. They were two men who shared a common political vision and who both faced political tragedy.

At first glance, there might appear to be little uniting the Princeton educator, the child of a prominent Virginia family who studied at some of the nation's most prestigious schools, and the practical businessman, an Iowa-born orphan who got by as an average student at the then-new and obscure Stanford University.

On closer examination, however, it is clear that the professor and the engineer were both progressives fiercely wedded to economic competition and determined to keep open the pathways of individual opportunity. Each was endowed with a powerful intellect; each was deficient in social graces. And neither man was temperamentally suited to the rough and tumble of presidential politics.

Hoover, who was in Wilson’s war council and helped with war relief, wanted to retell the story of Wilson and what happened at Versailles:
What was the story that Hoover wanted to tell? The book was not to be a typical biography of Wilson or history of events at Versailles. The former President wanted to write a memoir based upon the personal experience of one who had been at Wilson's side through a time of noble purpose and its shabby aftermath… The book begins to tell of the President's ordeal in the months after the Armistice and the congressional elections. Drawing upon thousands of pages of documents as well as his own recollections, Hoover traced the sorrowful route from Wilson's initial rapturous European greeting to his subsequent defeat and physical collapse. Often labeled stubborn himself, Hoover took issue with critics of Wilson's alleged obstinacy.

The real problem at Versailles, Hoover insisted, was not Wilsonian idealism but Europe's prewar hatreds and resentments that were vastly increased by the horrors of the struggle. Both men tried and failed to breach an Allied blockade of food to prostrate postwar Germany, an act of savagery that set the stage for the rise of Adolf Hitler. Having stirred hope among the silent masses of humanity, Wilson suddenly found himself thrown into unfamiliar settings, among men impervious to his eloquence. Conflicts between European imperialism and American democracy arose that were essentially irreconcilable.

This book proved very successful and popular:
By the spring of 1959, the publicity campaign for the book was over. The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson was one of Mr. Hoover's most successful books, and the most satisfying. McGraw-Hill had sold close to 30,000 copies, and Mr. Hoover's skills as a historian, biographer, and memoirist were heralded across the country. Not too shabby for a man who would soon celebrate his 85th birthday!

Timothy Walch, the director of the Hoover Library, ends his article with these thoughts:
If Herbert Hoover was not a great biographer, he was an honest one. He used his memories of Woodrow Wilson to educate readers about the burdens of presidential leadership. He knew that burden; he had been there. Most important to Hoover, however, was that he set the record straight on his mentor. Our understanding of both the 28th and the 31st Presidents of the United States is better for his effort.

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