Herbert Hoover (1874-1964)

By Brian "Fox" Ellis


When most folks think of Hoover they dimly remember ‘Hooverville’ and think he caused the Great Depression. Few know how a man who never ran for political office won the presidency by one of the largest landslides in American History. 

President Hoover had the humblest beginning. He was born the son of a Quaker blacksmith in Iowa. He was orphaned at 8 and sent to work on an uncle’s farm in Oregon. He was a member of the pioneer class at Stanford University, where he met his wife, a geologist. The two of them toured the world working on gold, copper, silver, and coal mines in a dozen countries. He became the highest paid salary man in the world, and as a partner he made millions of dollars before he was 40.

About the time World War I began, Hoover was restless, later saying, “I know how to make money and it no longer interests me. I don’t fully know how government may best serve human beings. That does interest me.”

He threw himself into the relief effort. Because of his Quaker ethics, engineering background and his international relationships, it is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to negotiate with warring nations to purchase food, ship it around the world, and build the infrastructure to distribute that food literally into the mouths of starving children.  He was non-aligned politically, therefore he could be either demanding or supplicating as the moment needed. He was most often demanding. He quickly earned the respect and loyalty of all who worked with him as well as many of his enemies. He rebuilt the railroads, canals and telegraph system throughout Europe to better feed the starving, all while the governments were still trying to pull themselves together. When a conference was held in Paris and a French official bemoaned the need to reopen a canal, Hoover told him he had been using that canal for months to ship food.

After the war, he was appointed by Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge to cabinet positions where he brought that practicality. As the ‘undersecretary of everything else’ he created a dozen federal agencies to insure consumer safety, regulate industry, and imbue the nation with his contagiously progressive “American Individualism.”

This long list of successes lead to one of the greatest presidential landslides in American History. When the depression struck under his watch, his only real fault was his belief in the American businessman to right the ship sooner. He acted too slowly. He had too much faith in American ingenuity. He lost a bitter re-election campaign to an old friend F.D.R. Many of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, like investing in infrastructure to better the nation and create jobs, were actually based on programs Hoover had already initiated.

Hoover lived until 1965. He helped to rebuild Europe after World War II and became a trusted advisor to every president after Roosevelt. Hoover was the quintessential Elder Statesman.

Recommended Reading

Burner, David.  Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. American Political Biography Press, 1974. 

Hoover, Herbert. American Individualism. Hoover Presidential Library, 1922. 

Brian “Fox” Ellis

Brian “Fox” Ellis is an internationally acclaimed author, storyteller, historian, and naturalist. He has worked with The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, The Field Museum and dozens of other US museums. Fox has been a featured speaker at Chautauquas across the country and the creator of Illinois’ Prairie State Touring Chautauqua. Fox is also the Artistic Director for Prairie Folklore Theatre, a unique theatre company that celebrates ecology and history through original musical theatre productions. He is the author of 16 books including the critically acclaimed Learning From the Land: Teaching Ecology Through Stories and Activities (Libraries Unlimited, 2011), the award winning children’s picture book The Web at Dragonfly Pond (DAWN Publications, 2006) and Content Area Reading, Writing and Storytelling (Teacher Ideas Press, 2010). Many of his stories are also available on one of 12 CDs at foxtalesint.com

Herbert Hoover in World War I - The Great Humanitarian 

With thousands of Americans trapped in Europe as The Great War began, Hoover gave up his career as one of the world’s foremost mining engineers to organize one of the greatest relief efforts in world history saving an estimated 20 million children from starvation. As a private citizen, using his personal wealth, political acumen, and engineering skills, he convinced England and Germany to allow him to ship thousands of tons of food into Belgium as the Belgians were being crushed between warring superpowers. He then founded a private relief organization that managed the relief and reconstruction efforts throughout Europe after the war. 


“I know how to make money and it no longer interests me. I don’t fully know how government may best serve human beings. That does interest me.” (1928)

“The world has long since discovered methods of successful war. It has never yet discovered the method of a lasting peace.” (November 6, 1943)

“Freedom can march only on the feet of educated, healthy, and happy children.” (Denver, October 20, 1936, The Challenge to Liberty.)

“We had fought far less to defeat Germany than to bring an end to aggression and war. To Americans, it was the improvement and security in living.” (1941)

“The time has come when we should remove starvation of women and children from the weapons of warfare.” (Armistice Day, Washington, November 11, 1929)

“Individualism has been the primary force of American civilizations for three centuries.” (American Individualism 1923)


1874 - Hoover born in West Branch, Iowa

1884 - Hoover's mother dies, leaving him orphaned [his father died three years earlier]

1891- Hoover enters Stanford as part of 'Pioneer Class' [first class enrolled]

1895 - Hoover graduates from Stanford with degree in geology, begins career as mining engineer [which will make him a self-made multi-millionaire by age 40].

1914 - Hoover forms the Commission for Relief of Belgium-a voluntary organization to provide food relief in Belgium and northern France.  By 1917 the CRB grows into the largest food relief agency in the world.

1917 - When the United States enters WW I, Hoover returns to America at President Wilson's behest to lead the United States Food Administration.  Hoover coins USFA motto 'Food Will Win the War.'

1921 - Hoover is appointed Secretary of Commerce by President Harding-reorganizes and modernizes Commerce over the next seven years [meanwhile directing food relief in Russia and Eastern Europe under the American Relief Administration, 1922; writing American Individualism, 1923, and directing flood relief after the Mississippi River flood, 1927].

1928 - Hoover wins the Presidency in a landslide, defeating Al Smith ['boom times' of 1920s]

1932 - Hoover loses the Presidency in a landslide, losing to Franklin Roosevelt [onset of Great Depression]

1941 - Hoover dedicates the opening of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace on the Stanford campus, an archives documenting 20th century international affairs.

1946 - At the request of President Truman, Hoover heads up the Famine Emergency Committee to investigate food needs, supplies and distribution problems in the postwar world. Hoover travels to 38 countries in 7 weeks, raising awareness.

1964 - Hoover dies at age 90, before the Nobel Committee can vote on whether to award him the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifetime of work as a humanitarian.