Anti-Interventionism of Herbert Hoover, 1939-1963 by Justus Doenecke


I want to begin by thanking Tom Schwartz,
Matt Schaefer, the staff of the Hoover Library and the Hoover Library Association for the
privilege of making this presentation. My research here goes back to 1970, when Tom
Thalken and Bob Wood were the major archivists I’ve often been on pilgrimages here, both
as scholar and as panelist. Let me begin my presentation this afternoon
by a remark Herbert Hoover made to the Bar Association of Nassau Country, New York, in
May 1940. Europe had been at war for just over seven months. German troops had just
reached the English Channel. The bulk of British and French forces in Belgium and northwestern
Europe were trapped. Hoover said, “We are passing through the most serious moment in
the history of the world since the year 410 AD– the year of the fall of the Roman Empire
and the capture of Rome by the barbarian king Aleric.” “The world,” he continued, was
experiencing “the most gigantic drama of 1,000 years.” Yet the very same Herbert Hoover who
had voiced such alarm was a major opponent of Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionist measures,
so much so that just six months before Life magazine had called him the nation’s most
effective isolationist. Hoover was, said Life, more energetic than Michigan senator Arthur
Vandenberg, more realistic than Idaho senator William Borah, more discrete than aviator
Charles Lindbergh. One should note that Hoover was neither indifferent
nor apathetic towards developments overseas. He paid far closer attention to foreign policy
than his close friend and political ally Senator Taft. Were one living in 1929, one could find
few presidents entering the White House with so much international experience, and even
had Hoover died a few years after leaving the presidency, say 1935 or 1936, he would
have been seen as a cautious Wilsonian, a theme to which I will eventually return. Just look at his role in the Manchurian crisis,
the London Naval Conference, the Geneva Disarmament conference, the international debt moratorium.
Until 1937, it could be argued that Hoover was more of an isolationist than his successor,
Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover’s reputation as an isolationist, or as I prefer the term anti-interventionist,
comes about primarily because of his opposition to US World War II policies and certain Cold
War policies. It is easy to stress Hoover’s opposition to
FDR’s interventionism during the years 1939-41, for he frequently and vociferously attacked
one Roosevelt policy after another. Be the matter lend-lease, convoys to Britain, military
aid to the Soviet Union once it faced attack, FDR’s freezing of Japanese assets, Herbert
Hoover was in opposition. Little wonder that R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., executive secretary
of the America First Committee, wrote Hoover immediately after Pearl Harbor, saying, “I
want you to know how much I personally appreciated your help during the fight to keep our country
out of war…. If the country had heeded your words, it would not be facing these tragic
days ahead.” The very same day, Hoover in turn wrote General
Robert E. Wood, national chairman of America First and board chairman of Sears, Roebuck,
“I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your fine efforts and to let you know that
I feel you made a grand fight. We were right– and time will so demonstrate it.” Hoover had begged off joining America First
on the grounds that his own committee to feed the Nazi-occupied Europe had top priority,
though he did aid America First’s fundraising efforts. Hoover’s food efforts are a vast
and rich topic in themselves and I don’t have time to develop the matter here. Let me just
note the research of my friend Hal Elliott Wert, who has done excellent work on this
topic. Hoover’s anti-interventionism involved several
tenets. First, he assumed that continued fighting would lead to stalemate, for neither Britain
nor Germany had the means to invade the other country. Second, he denied that Germany was
a military or economic threat to the US. Diminishing exports and the threat of foreign dumping
could be met by creating more home industries. If necessary, the US could conduct its trade
on a barter system. In an emergency, America could be 97% self-contained. As far as any military threat was concerned,
a Germany unable to cross the English Channel could hardly cross the Atlantic with an invading
army. Hoover told Secretary of State Cordell Hull in February 1941 that though the Soviet
Union could be conquered with two army corps, an attack on the Western Hemisphere required
far too many resources and weaponry to be successful. Conversely, US entry into war could only bankrupt
the nation. The savings of the American people would be lost. America’s debt would equal
50 percent of her wealth. As far back as 1938, Hoover argued that the US could not remain
a democracy under war conditions. A third point, under no circumstances should the US
do anything to aid the Soviet Union. When Hitler invaded Russia, Hoover commented
that to enter the war to bring about FDR’s Four Freedoms to mankind would be “a gargantuan
jest.” Even in late November 1941, when Germany was besieging Moscow, he wrote Republican
leader Alf Landon, “Aid to Russia may sound practical now but the world will pay dearly
for this debauchery of our ideals of freedom.” Fourth, it was folly to provoke the Japanese.
Hoover did say in 1938 that Japan’s war on China was “as horrible as that of Genghis
Khan.” But he opposed any direct pressure on Japan, be the move terminating the 1911
commercial treaty or embargoing aviation gasoline, high grade iron, and steel scrap, or in July
1941 freezing Japanese assets, which in reality blocked off all trade to Japan and triggered
the Pearl Harbor attack. In August 1941 Hoover wrote his friend Cal
O’Laughlin concerning the recent Japanese invasion of Indochina. Hoover said, “When
Hitler wins in Russia– as he will eventually– and when the British make peace with him,
or when we go to war and eventually make peace with him, the Japs [his term] will still be
there. We will probably go to war with them and when we have made peace with them, they
will still be in China and way stations.” In addition, he saw war with Japan as “God’s
gift to Hitler,” as it would force the American navy to convoy in the Pacific and Indian Oceans
and thereby relieve pressure on Germany in the Atlantic. Yet Hoover’s attitude was not
simplistic. In 1938 he opposed the proposal of Indiana congressman Louis Ludlow for a
popular war referendum, saying it would only be effective if all countries were democracies.
Similarly, he opposed the neutrality acts of the 1930s, which forbade arms shipments
to belligerents, arguing that they “place us in practical economic alliance with the
aggressor.” In September 1939, when war broke out in Europe,
Hoover favored the repeal of the arms embargo and called for the enactment of cash-and-carry.
Such arms sales, he wrote O’Laughlin, would “give an enormous emotional outlet to the
American people” and thereby reduce pressures for intervention. He had one qualification–that
a ban on shipments of all offensive weapons be retained. Admittedly, during this month
he told Charles Lindbergh that it was inevitable that Germany either expand peacefully or,
if necessary, by war. But in May 1940, he reversed his criticism
of military appropriations. In fact, he went so far as to endorse Roosevelt’s proposal
of spending $1.8 billion on national defense. That December he commended FDR for establishing
the Office of Production Management and for appointing auto executive William Knutson
as its head. He also favored supplying Britain with needed bombers, tanks, food, munitions,
fighter planes, and minor warships. In March 1941, Hoover called the pending lend-lease
bill “a war bill” that surrendered Congress’s war-making powers to the president, but he
wrote his close friend William R. Castle that he would give Britain 2 to 3 billion dollars
to buy defense goods. Once lend-lease was adopted, he urged his countrymen to “make
a good job of it.” During 1941, Hoover made guarded endorsements
of Roosevelt’s protests against the German sinking of American ships, first when the
Robin Moor was sunk in May 1941 and second that September. This was when FDR protested
against German firing on American warships and German sinking of American merchant ships
without providing for the safety of the crew. Hoover did privately claim that in two sinkings
the US was the offender. This is the case of Greer in September and the Kearny a month
later. In June 1941, he called for direct aid to
China, though he said privately in September the US should encourage Japan to seize Siberia.
He thought in terms of trading Japan’s withdrawal from territory south of the Great Wall for
what he called “this vast unpopulated area into which to expand.” Within a year, though, Hoover wrote a memorandum
in which he called Chiang Kai-shek (and I quote directly) “the war lord leader of a
military oligarchy based upon a secret society, the Kao Ming Ting” [meaning the Kuomintang]
Hoover continued, “There never was an election in China; there never was a representative
government in the Western concept. There was never the remotest ‘freedom’ of the Western
variety.” Hoover realized his anti-interventionism was
exposing him to attack. He wrote O’Laughlin, “For what my life and conscience are worth,
they become valueless to me or anyone else if I do not persist in what I so deeply believe.
I would greatly welcome total eclipse from dealing with the contemporary world. But so
long as my voice will be heard I shall do the best with it that I can.” Once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hoover publicly
said that war had been forced on the US. Privately, he wrote columnist and broadcaster Boake Carter,
“This war will be put in the scales of judgment and when the time comes you and I will be
found to have been right.” He also wrote Castle, referring to the US sanctions on Japan and
Hull’s 10-point note of November 26, “This continuous putting pins in rattlesnakes has
finally got this country bitten.” During the war, Hoover spoke relatively little
on strategy, though he did endorse a Pacific-first strategy for fighting the war. His greatest
fears always centered on the growing power of Russia. In July 1942, he doubted wither
Russia would hold out, privately writing O’Laughlin, “Peace will be easier with the Communists
out. Peace will be more lasting with that center of revolution in other countries eliminated.” At the same time, Germany would be weakened,
for the task of garrisoning the Soviet Union would take one and a half million men. In
1943, he privately accused the Russians of deporting one and a half million Poles to
concentration camps in Siberia, where half died of starvation. In December 1945, several
months after the war ended, Hoover condemned America’s role at the various Allied summit
conferences. Indeed he found nothing at all to praise in any of Franklin Roosevelt’s
diplomacy. “The United States,” he told O’Laughlin, “had appeased every time at
the expense of the freedom and liberty of more and more human beings.” He also was suspicious of British power, fearing
the British would use the war to dominate most of Africa below the Sahara. When Truman
became president in the middle of April 1945, Hoover urged him to use diplomatic and economic
pressure to achieve free elections in Russia. Yet he warned, “A war with Russia meant the
extinction of Western Civilization or what is left of it.” Most of the time, however, Hoover focused
on the coming peace. With retired diplomat Hugh Gibson, he published a book The Problems
of Lasting Peace in 1942, a work supplemented by many speeches and articles. The causes
of modern war, he said not surprisingly, were rooted in militarism, nationalism, imperialism,
and ideology. But Hoover by no means excluded economic factors. Though denying he was a
“complete” economic determinist, he claimed that market and population pressures played
“a striking part on the world stage today.” In fact, they were “among the primary causes
of the collapse of the world into this second World War.” Though in religion a Quaker, he sounded a
bit like an old-time Calvinist in his claim that man was “a combative and egotistic animal”
who “loves contest” and “hates easily.” Though Hoover was no Cordell Hull, he stressed the
need to lower tariff barriers. The end of hostilities must be followed immediately by
the lifting of a food blockade, by instant relief to friend and foe alike. Fearing a repetition of the destructive protectionism
resulting after Versailles, Hoover wanted to make the independence of small countries
contingent on the lowering of economic barriers. When it came to the international state system,
Hoover sought the general principle of effective parliamentary government. Noting that for
a hundred years irredentism was a course of war, he said consideration should be given
to what he called “the heroic remedy of transfer of populations.” Surplus populations should
be channeled to undeveloped areas, particularly Polynesia, South America, and Africa. I’m
sorry he never elaborated on any of this. He opposed the dismemberment of Germany, claiming
that otherwise efforts of “this virile race” [his term] to reunite its nation would result
in war. By 1943, Hoover and Gibson envisioned two
parts to international organization. The first involved a general world agency that would
eventually include all nations. The second concerned separate councils for Europe, Asia,
and the Western Hemisphere and would act under the larger world institution. These regional
councils would bear the primary responsibility for peace, for they would command the international
armed forces and settle controversies. In 1943 Hoover met with Lord Halifax, British
ambassador to the US. He told Halifax that while Americans opposed collective security,
he personally favored informal cooperation with Britain after the war. Hoover called
the San Francisco conference to draft the UN charter “the most fateful conference in
all American history, one that might determine the future for the next hundred years.” When
the charter was drafted, Hoover called for its immediate ratification. Its major strength
lay in its provisions for continual meetings in which major problems could be aired. Other
positive points included the reestablishment of the World Court, a trusteeship system for
independent people, “limited action” to prevent military aggression, and machinery to promote
social and economic welfare. Yet Hoover opposed some aspects of the UN.
It lacked a positive bill of rights and codification of principles. It needed a more elaborate
regional machinery to prevent aggression. He opposed the veto within the Security Council
as it put the great military powers out of reach of any enforcement mechanism. “World
wars,” he said, “are not started by small nations.” The new UN lacked other things–methods
of revising outmoded treaties, a definition of aggression, a commitment to reduce armies
and navies. Hoover sought lenient peace terms for Italy
and Japan. When he met with President Truman in May 1945, just a month after Truman had
taken office, he said peace terms with Japan should be limited to unconditional surrender
of Japan’s military forces. In addition Japan must completely disarm for 30 to 40 years.
Manchuria must be restored to China. There should be American trials of those Japanese
who “violated the rules of civilized warfare.” That the Japanese form of government should
be retained, obviously meaning the emperor, and Japan should keep Korea and Taiwan. In October 1945 Hoover suggested that the
dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan might have been necessary, but he expressed dismay
over the killing of what he said were “tens of thousands of women and children.” Within
a year he privately told physicist Niels Bohr that he considered the dropping of the bomb
a crime, and in his new book Freedom Betrayed, just published by the Hoover Institution and
edited by George Nash, he called its use “immoral.” By the end of World War II many deemed Hoover
an isolationist. Hoover disavowed this label, and in Freedom Betrayed, he writes that he
would always use the terms “intervention” and “anti-intervention.” Hoover was correct
in so doing, though most historians will still use the label “isolationist” to describe one
seeking to avoid political and military commitments. One scholar of this phenomena, Ted Galen Carpenter,
wrote on Hoover’s views during the Cold War. In his doctoral thesis on Cold War dissenters
that during the period 1945-54, Carpenter puts Hoover in the class of marginal isolationists,
those supporting the prevailing interventionist foreign policy while adopting dissenting positions
on some important issues. Carpenter places Hoover in the same camp with Ohio Senator
John Bricker, upstate New York congressman John Taber, and Missouri Senator Forrest Donnell.
And Carpenter distinguishes these individuals from what he calls doctrinaire isolationists
who believed that the events of 1931-51 did not change America needs to avoid foreign
involvement at all costs. In that camp would be Senators William Langer and Hiram Johnson,
journalist John T. Flynn, Chicago publisher Robert McCormick, commentator Lawrence Dennis,
and historian Harry Elmer Barnes. Certainly Hoover supported revisionist histories
of World War II. He no longer referred to Charles Beard as “that left-winger.” Rather
Beard was one “right down our alley.” We must show he wrote journalist John T. Flynn in
1946, that “the events of the last few years have been all wrong.” During the immediate postwar years, Hoover
kept stressing that only the recovery of Germany would enable Western Europe to survive. As
early as 1945 – October ‘45, he opposed a vengeful peace. While not mentioning the
Morgenthau Plan by name, he claimed that dividing Germany would simply imperil the world. He
went on to attack the forced labor of German POWs, whom- he said – were being worked under
conditions reminiscent of Roman slavery. He made a highly publicized trip to Germany
in 1947, one authorized by Truman, in which he stressed that Germany was the linchpin
of Europe. Incidentally, he said the same thing about Japan’s role in Asia. Hoover was
less enthusiastic concerning aid to the rest of Europe. Beginning in 1946, he warned against
the US continuing its role of Santa Claus. In 1947 he opposed sending American military
forces to Greece. A year later, he endorsed the claim of publicist
Bruce Barton, who said America had “bitten off more than it could chew.” “You are right,”
replied Hoover, “I think we are headed for a nosedive– and not too far off.” In 1948,
Hoover opposed the Republican presidential nomination of Arthur Vandenberg, recently
a convert to Truman’s internationalist foreign policy. Were the Michigan senator chosen as
the GOP standard-bearer, he wrote Barton, it “would be the greatest tragedy that could
come to the Republican Party.” Now Hoover did back the Marshall Plan, though
he wanted it greatly modified. What Hoover sought was a commitment for less than four
years, a 15-month appropriations was plenty. Three billion dollars was plenty. Gifts should
be confined to American surpluses in food, coal, fertilizer, and cotton. Europe should
repay by shipments in steel and other capital goods. The whole Marshall Plan should center
on German production. He said he would be more amenable to such aid if the Europeans
gave up demands for a 40-hour, 5-day week. In November 1947, after claiming that communism
was becoming weaker in Europe, he called on the US to help other nations combat what he
called “their conspiracies.” By early 1948, he asked the Western European nations to form
a region defense alliance. George Washington, he said, would amend his advice against “entangling
alliances” in light of Europe’s misery. Now, Hoover was slightly off here. It was Jefferson,
not Washington, who used the phrase entangling alliances. Yet Hoover also warned that if the US went
to war with Russia, it could not rely on a single ally. Britain and Western Europe might
remain neutral, not because of any ingratitude, but because they feared a Red Army of two
and a half million men. Hoover was not hopeless. He posited that a regional European alliance
might eliminate the need for an American commitment. During the Berlin blockade of 1948, Hoover
suggested a counter-blockade of the Baltic and Black seas. In addition, he told Chicago
investor Sterling Morton that the US, Britain, and France should levy an embargo. By June
1950, however, Hoover was suspicious of massive military aid. Europe, he said, was spending
only 10% of its budgets of military items. The US was spending 40%. Perhaps Europe was
feeling helpless, he mused, “and cannot do otherwise than rely upon being neutral, in
which case we are simply playing Stalin’s game by the economic exhaustion of our society.” Yet, in some ways, Hoover was optimistic.
Communism, he wrote Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, contained its own seeds of disintegration.
Russian satellites were chafing under the oppressive rulers. If war could be avoided,
the Russian empire would “decay in strength and even disintegrate” [his language]. Conversely,
even if the US won a major war, it would have to spend years occupying all of Russia, China,
and dependent countries. Ideologies, he stressed, could not be destroyed by machine guns. If
the US attempted such a feat, it would be engaged in “processes of repression and liquidation
repugnant to the American people.” Now the Korean War saw a more militant Hoover.
Only the conflict began, he endorsed American military intervention. The time for recrimination
is over, he said. ‘To win, we must have unity of action and purpose.” In the middle of October, it looked as if
the troops commanded by Douglas MacArthur could unite both North and South Korea. Hoover
favored crossing the 38th parallel. Once the Chinese entered the conflict, threatening
to overrun all of Korea, Hoover shifted ground rapidly. He called for withdrawing all ground
forces from both Europe and Asia. In a well publicized speech delivered on December
20th 1950, often called the “Gibraltar speech,” Hoover called the Western Hemisphere “this
Gibraltar of civilization.” The US should confine its commitments to holding such “islanded
nations” [his term] “islanded nations” as Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Britain
if it so desired. America should rely on sea and air defense, not ground troops. Halting
communism by a land war would merely create a “graveyard” for “millions of American boys”
[his language]. Hoover called for total withdrawal from Korea,
arguing the world itself lacked the forces to repel the Chinese Communists. He questioned
whether Europe had the will to fight. The continent was haggling over German rearmament.
It had refused to permit Spain to join NATO. It had within it well-organized Communist
parties. Before the US contributed another man or dollar to Europe, the Europeans should
establish “organized and equipped divisions of such large numbers as would erect a sure
dam against the Red flood.” Defenders of the Truman Administration were
not exactly enamored by this speech. Even liberal publications were biting. The Nation
magazine declared Hoover’s policies “should set the bells ringing in the Kremlin as nothing
has since the triumph of Stalingrad.” The New Republic saw Stalin sweeping onward “until
the Stalinist caucus in the Chicago Tribune tower would bring out in triumph the first
communist edition.” Within two months, Hoover slightly modified
his position. In February 1951 he favored defending the nations who signed the Atlantic
pact, which created the NATO alliance. Air and sea power, he maintained, would deprive
the Russians of “General Manpower, General Space, General Winter and General Scorched
Earth.” Just one month after Truman appointed Eisenhower
to Paris, there to become the first supreme commander of the Allied force in Europe, Hoover
opposed administration plans to send ground troops, though he did approve shipping arms.
He still sought total withdrawal from Korea. He approved arming Nationalist China. He claimed
he would permit Chiang “to do what he wishes in China.” When, in April 1951, Truman fired
MacArthur, Hoover praised MacArthur. Hoover called the general “a reincarnation of St.
Paul into a great general who has come out of the East.” In January 1952, Hoover accused the Truman
administration of denying the nation victory. The president should have adopted MacArthur’s
strategy of destroying the Chinese air sanctuary in Manchuria and employing Chiang’s armies.
Hoover attacked the peace negotiations. “The US,” he said, had “retreated from the original
purpose of unity and independence for Korea to an appeasement idea of a division of Korea
about where it was before.” Yet he feared that too many commitments would
wreck American solvency, as massive debt would guarantee a Communist victory. To Hoover American
military policy should center on air power. In a letter to Senator Joseph McCarthy, Hoover
said that an air strategy could serve as an effective deterrent. It would preserve American
solvency. It could ultimately save Europe if that continent were overrun by ground forces.
And in opposing the sending of more infantry divisions to Europe, he found the strategy
fallacious. Indeed he said, “The time has come for civilian control of the armed forces
of the United States.” Yet if Hoover remained cautious concerning
American commitments, he still made proposals concerning international organization. In
April 1950, he called for reorganizing the UN without Communist nations. The Kremlin
had, he said, “reduced the United Nations to a propaganda forum for the smearing of
free peoples,” thereby eliminating its role “as a preservative of peace and good will.”
If this move was impractical, he vaguely suggested that freedom-loving nations should a New United
Front. In 1962, he again accused the UN of failing
to offer even a remote hope of lasting peace. In fact, it had “added to the dangers of war.”
Now, in 1952, Hoover supported his close friend Robert Taft for the Republican nomination.
Both saw eye to eye on foreign and domestic policy. However, once the GOP nominated Eisenhower,
Hoover supported him in the general race. Now, where does one place the role of Herbert
Hoover? Where does one put the post-presidential Hoover in the diplomatic spectrum? One could
well see him, I think, as a cautious Wilsonian. Historian Lloyd Ambrosius, in a book titled
Wilsonianism, defines this concept as involving: national self-determination, Open Door economic
globalization, collective security, and progressive history, that is: the belief that history
is ever evolving in the direction of freedom. Hoover served Wilson as Food Administrator
during World War I and as American Relief Administrator during the Paris Peace Conference.
In his book The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, which is part memoir, Hoover praised Wilson
for his superior mind, his clarity of thought, his ability to reduce problems to what he
called their “bare bones” and Wilson’s staunch morality. To Hoover, Wilson contributed greatly
to the rights of peoples for political independence. He established a “systematic and powerful
organization of nations to maintain peace.” He supported the organization of the greatest
battle against famine and pestilence in world history – led by guess who? Now when one looks at Wilsonianism, at one
point of Open Door economic globalization, one notes that as secretary of commerce, Hoover
pushed an Open Door economic policy. When one looks at another Wilsonian doctrine, that
the historical process is ever going in the direction of freedom, one finds Hoover less
optimistic than Wilson about a tide of human history inexorably running towards such a
goal, the 1940s, 50s, and 60s being far more perilous than the 1910s and 1920s. But as
I pointed out, he was not a total pessimist. As far as the Wilsonian tenet of self-determination
went, Hoover was somewhat selective, being more vocal concerning those people under Communist
rule than those in the former Japanese Empire. When it comes to Wilsonian adherence to collective
security, Hoover’s endorsement of the UN was far less enthusiastic than Wilson concerning
the League of Nations. Yet when Hoover criticized FDR’s policies, he often did so in Wilsonian
language, updated by his frequent references to the Atlantic Charter, a document Hoover
found betrayed by its creators. At Paris, he supported Wilson’s peace program but de-emphasized
Article X of the League Covenant, in which members of the League of Nations agreed to
preserve the territorial integrity and political independence of signers. Though Wilson did have some regionalism of
his own in his world view. He said in Salt Lake City in September 1919, “If you want
to put out a fire in Utah, you do not send to Oklahoma for the fire engine. If you want
to put out a fire in the Balkans, or stamp out a smoldering flame in some part of Central
Europe, you do not send to the United States for troops.” Not quite Hoover’s idea of regionalism,
though there are similarities. Let me just conclude with this observation.
I would argue that to the degree that we are still wrestling with Hoover’s policies, we
are somewhat wrestling with Wilsonianism, and that Wilsonianism might a far more creative
category with which to view Hoover than overworked categories of internationalism and isolationism. Thank you! [Applause]

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