The American Presidents Series
William E. Leuchtenburg
About the book
The Great Engineer
Little wonder that David Copperfield was Herbert Hoover’s favorite tale. Like Charles Dickens’s hero, Hoover was orphaned at an early age, and, like David too, he had a harsh youth. If none of the men to whom his care was entrusted after his parents’ deaths was quite so mean as Mr. Murdstone, his kin were a mirthless lot. His boyhood experiences left Hoover permanently scarred— reclusive and wary to a degree that not even decades of success could erase, and they would have unfortunate political consequences when he sought to lead the nation. Yet Hoover was also a survivor, a young man of grit and pluck determined to make his way in the world.
Herbert Clark Hoover was born on August 10, 1874, in West Branch, a Quaker settlement in Cedar County, Iowa. “Herbert was a sweet baby that first day, round and plump,” an aunt later remembered, “and looked about very cordial.” His birth took place in a tiny room in a small but immaculate whitewashed gabled cottage on the bank of Wapsinonoc Creek, across an alley from his father Jesse’s blacksmith shop.
Descendant of a Swiss family that a century before still went by the name of Huber, Jesse had migrated with his folks by riverboat and covered wagon to the prairie as a child two decades earlier. Though West Branch was not quite a pioneer community, the railroad had reached it only three years before Herbert was born. One uncle drove a stage between two Iowa towns, and another was a U.S. Indian agent to the Osage. Not until Herbert Hoover was twenty-two would he see the country east of the Mississippi. West Branch was churchgoing, sober, Republican. The sole Democrat was the village drunk.
Bertie spent his first years in modest but comfortable circumstances. His father—a clever tinkerer—sold his forge, set up a profitable farm-implements business, moved his family to a larger house, and got elected to the town council. His mother, Huldah Randall Minthorn, born of English stock in a Quaker colony in Ontario, won high regard for her piety, her solicitude for ill neighbors, and her eloquence when she spoke out at Friends meetings. “The spirit,” it was said, “moved her beautifully.” Bertie also had the companionship of an older brother, Theodore (“Tad”), and a younger sister, Mary (“May”).
In retrospect, Hoover sometimes portrayed his childhood as a rural idyll: the “glories of snowy winter,...the gathering of apples, the pilgrimage to the river woods.” He recollected swimming in the creek, coasting on sleds down Cook’s Hill, fishing for sunnies (using “willow poles with a butcher-string line and hooks ten for a dime”), and combing the glacial gravel along the Burlington track for “gems of agate and fossil coral.” An Indian boy taught him to shoot prairie chickens with bow and arrow. Christmas treats were walnuts, hickory nuts, “and popcorn balls cemented with sorghum molasses.”
For the most part, though, his childhood was as monotone as the drab prairie schooner bonnet his mother habitually wore. “Mine was a Quaker family unwilling . . . to have a youth corrupted with stronger reading than the Bible, the encyclopedia, or those great novels where the hero overcomes the demon rum,” Hoover recalled. Pursuit of pleasure was the vice of sinners. An uncle once chided the boy for a grievous breach of decorum: giggling. Secretary of the local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Huldah enrolled Bertie in a children’s prohibitionist association, the Band of Hope, as well as in the Young People’s Prayer Meeting of West Branch, which she founded. She required him to study a chapter of the Bible every day and to record each penny he spent in a diminutive account ledger. Death was an insistent interloper. Bertie himself, when an infant, had been given up for dead. With more innuendo than he may have intended, Hoover was later to describe his early years as “a Montessori school in stark reality.”
Quakerism accentuated this somberness: plain speech; plain dress; cold, hard benches. To a degree, the Society of Friends left lasting imprints on Hoover’s character and temperament—his self-reliance, his disdain for show, and his capacity for toil—and on his view of the world: his dutiful commitment to good works, his trust in a community of neighbors to sustain the needy, his pursuit of peace, and his conception of “ordered freedom.” He did not find it easy, however, to be the son of a woman who was an ordained minister. In his memoirs, Hoover wrote, “Those who are acquainted with the Quaker faith, and who know the primitive furnishing of the Quaker meeting-house, the solemnity of the long hours of meeting awaiting the spirit to move someone, will know the intense repression upon a ten-year-old boy who might not even count his toes.” Later, he rebelled. He refused to go to Earlham, a Quaker college; was married by a Roman Catholic priest; served in a war government; and smoked, drank, swore, danced, patronized the theater, and profaned the Sabbath. Of Quakerism, he remarked, “I never worked very hard at it.”
When Bertie was six, his universe began to crash around him. His father, only thirty-four, died, leaving, Tad said later, “a void unfillable and unfilled forever.” Despite straitened circumstances, Huldah ordered a stone in her husband’s memory, only to have the elders tell her it was too ostentatious and must be replaced. (Just once in later years did Hoover allude to those harrowing times. In 1928, when he was a candidate for president of the United States, he explained to an interviewer why he liked food so much: “You see, I was always hungry then.”) For his mother, the struggle to survive was remorseless. “You will laugh at my poverty if I tell you I could not scratch up enough to pay my postage,” she wrote her family on one occasion, and on another she said, “I will try to do what I can and not neglect the children.” But, goodhearted though she was, neglect the children she did. Increasingly absorbed in her religious work, she shunted Bertie off to an uncle in a sod house in distant northwestern Iowa near the South Dakota border and, for a long stretch, to another uncle in Indian Territory. On one of her missions, Huldah became ill, and shortly thereafter the meeting recorded, “the Lord had mercy and gave her rest.” She “had gone away,” Tad later wrote, recalling feelings of “helplessness and despair, a dumb animal terror.” The young mother’s death, he said, left “three small children, adrift on the wreck of their little world,” at the mercy of strangers.
Less than two years later, Bert found out just how coldhearted strangers can be when at an Oregon depot he first looked up into the flinty eyes of Uncle John Minthorn. After Huldah’s death, relatives had parceled out the three orphans among themselves, then uprooted Bert yet again. “Thee is going to Oregon,” an uncle informed him. They put the eleven-year-old on a westbound emigrant coach of the Union Pacific for a bare-bones seven-day journey across the Great Plains and the Rockies and then by river steamer on the Willamette to Newberg—his first view of the West, with which he ever after identified. Bereft of parents, catapulted toward a destination he could not imagine, he carried with him a prayer card reading, “Leave me not, neither forsake me, Oh God of my salvation.”
Charles Dickens would have had no difficulty recognizing Uncle John—country doctor, Indian agent under Chester Arthur, and school official. Hard-bitten, ambitious, avaricious, he believed “idle hands were the work of the devil.” He quickly determined that Bert, dispatched to take the place of his son who had died at seven, would not do. Bert returned the ill favor. For the next six years, they lived together in a sullen truce. Bert engaged in hard labor— felling trees, splitting logs, clearing stumps—six days a week, with all of each Sabbath given over to religious observance. In later years, a woman who ran a restaurant in the Oregon town commented, “I can recall him in so many different circumstances, and all of them are tinged with a bit of pathos, as if life had cheated him of his full share of youthful enjoyment.”
“I do not think he was very happy,” Dr. Minthorn said. “Our home was not like the one he left with his own parents in it (indulgent) and with very little responsibility and almost no work. . . . He always seemed to me to resent . . . being told to do anything.” When Bert enrolled at Friends Pacific Academy (today evangelical George Fox University) in Newberg, ensconced in the superintendent’s office was Uncle John—called by another nephew “the greatest disciplinarian I ever saw.”
Their discord became more muted when, in 1888, Minthorn launched a new career as a real estate promoter in the state capital, Salem. Bert dropped out of school to become part-time office boy and full-time hustler. Not yet fourteen, he met prospects at the station, escorted them to boardinghouses, and then took them on tours of the Oregon Land Company’s pear orchard plots in the Willamette Valley—all the while reciting Minthorn’s spiels. Hardworking and a quick study, he picked up bookkeeping and typing during the day and attended business college in the evening. More than one night he slept in the office. Asked a generation later about his boyhood goal, he answered: “To be able to earn my own living without the help of anybody, anywhere.” His uncle, who came to appreciate Bert’s industriousness and ingenuity, put him in charge of national advertising (Lord and Thomas of Chicago ran one of their ads in a thousand papers) and of dealing with luminaries as important as the Speaker of the Oregon legislature. Still, with a rudimentary education and an unremarkable personality, Bert had no reason for great expectations.
A chance meeting with a mining engineer, though, fired Hoover’s imagination. He heard that a new university, Leland Stanford, was being founded in California, and he set his cap on going there.
His meager schooling nearly derailed that aspiration when he failed the entrance examination. The Stanford mathematics professor who administered the test was so impressed by his tenacity, however, that he admitted Bert conditionally. “A young Quaker... none too well prepared,” the examiner reported, “but showing remarkable keenness.” A Quaker himself who would one day be president of Swarthmore, he noted that the slender, square-jawed applicant “put his teeth together with great decision, and his whole face and posture showed his determination to pass the examination at any cost.” He instructed Bert to arrive in California well before the university opened in order to be tutored for a second test.
In late August 1891, Bert boarded a southbound train, and some weeks later Stanford welcomed him into its pioneer class—with the stipulation that he overcome his deficiency in English. That proved to be a lifetime challenge. His grasp of spelling remained precarious, and he never developed a felicitous style. “Reading Herbert Hoover’s tries at political philosophy taxes the most dedicated powers of concentration,” the political scientist James David Barber later wrote. “He seemed to have a positive instinct for ...a kind of thudding Latin threnody, like balls of glue dropped from a rooftop.”
The youngest student on campus, Hoover had to get by, in the words of one writer, “on a shoestring of money and a thimbleful of preparatory education.” He survived thanks to odd jobs—currying horses, becoming agent for a San Jose laundry, running a lecture and concert bureau—but at the cost of shortchanging study time. In his first semester, he flunked German and did so poorly in other courses that he earned no credit at all for the term. After repeatedly failing to satisfy an English requirement, he disposed of it only because a science professor mopped up his punctuation and grammar.
Ill-equipped for college though he was, Stanford became a haven for him. In years to come, the campus in the foothills—with its red-tiled Spanish cloisters and its aromatic eucalyptus—was the hearth to which he always yearned to return. He never ceased to believe his country was the greatest nation on earth; that Westerners, especially Californians, were the most gifted of Americans; and that finest of all were Stanford men.“Stanford,”he later wrote,“is the best place in the world.” On that campus he found acceptance, he found his métier, he found his future wife; he almost found himself.
After Christmas of his freshman year, Hoover had the good fortune to meet a man who was to change the trajectory of his life: John Casper Branner, chair of the department of geology and state geologist of Arkansas. Hoover, hired as his typist, made such a good impression that he earned a summer position charting outcrops in the rattlesnake-infested Ozarks. On returning to campus in the fall, Hoover, who had been largely clueless about a career, switched his major to geology. At the end of his sophomore year, he assisted Branner in creating a huge topographical relief map of Arkansas for display at the Chicago World’s Fair, where it won a prize, and that summer he worked with Waldemar Lindgren of the U.S. Geological Survey in the Nevada desert and the High Sierra. He performed so well that when the USGS charts appeared, they carried the name not just of Lindgren but also of the Stanford undergraduate. His fieldwork imbued him with pride of craft. “Tomorrow we are going to make descent of the American River canyon, a thing people here say is impossible,” he wrote a friend. “But they are not geologists.”
While gaining this priceless experience, Hoover continued to live hand to mouth. When in the summer of his junior year a survey post he was expecting did not materialize, he was reduced to driving a team of horses from Palo Alto to Yosemite, painting signs, and posting advertisements for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. On learning that he did have a job after all—in the mountains near Lake Tahoe—Hoover, all but penniless, walked more than eighty miles in three days to catch a boat in Stockton. No one could doubt his fortitude, however they may have regarded his forbidding personality.
At first, Hoover’s fellow students thought him beyond reach. They saw him trudging across the quad slightly hunched over, as though to apologize for his presence, his eyes staring fixedly at the ground. He looked younger than his years but seemed prematurely old—taciturn, unsmiling. He would not speak unless spoken to, and then, avoiding eye contact, was as likely to snort as to expel a few words, while nervously rattling keys in a trouser pocket. The wife of a professor remembered him as “always blunt, almost to the point of utter tactlessness.” At gatherings in her home, he “usually sat back in the corner and listened. He rarely spoke and always seemed to be a little ill at ease.”
Yet, against all odds, Hoover succeeded in becoming something of a big man on campus, largely by leaguing with other outsiders against the snobbish Greek-letter societies for which he developed an abiding hatred. (In later years, he would forbid his sons to join any Stanford fraternity.) Asked to run for class treasurer on an anti-frat slate, Hoover agreed on condition that, if elected, he would not be paid. He campaigned vigorously, and the “barbarian” ticket won. As treasurer, he put to good use the bookkeeping skills he had learned in Oregon. He also drafted a student constitution that was still in effect a half century later. Too ungainly to play shortstop, he became the baseball team’s financial manager and served the same function for the football squad, even arranging one of the first “Big Games” in the school’s storied rivalry with the University of California. “‘Popularity’ isnot exactly the word for his...influence on his fellows,” his future biographer Will Irwin reflected. “A better word, probably, would be ‘standing.’ The bleachers never rose and cheered when he passed; but subtly he ...radiated leadership.” By the end of his four years, Hoover had collected a number of lifelong buddies who would one day count themselves loyal followers of the Stanford alum they were to designate “the Chief.”
He had acquired one particular friend. Geology was demarcated as male turf, but in his senior year a spirited young woman with a beguiling smile enrolled as a freshman in the program. In conversations in the lab and in the field, Hoover learned that Lou Henry not only shared his love of the outdoors, but also that, though her home was in Monterey, she was Iowa-born. By November he was reporting, “We have a young lady taking Geology as a specialty now a very nice young lady too.” Hoover was smitten, but there was no way that he could propose. On graduating from Stanford in 1895, he had but forty dollars to his name. The only work he could find—in the depths of the worst depression of the nineteenth century—was pushing a handcar through dank tunnels in the bowels of a gold mine, ten hours a night, seven days a week. Even that menial job in Bret Harte country petered out, and, save for a brief stint with Cornish migrants in the Nevada City pits, Hoover spent the rest of the year, as he later wrote, in “ceaseless tramping and ceaseless refusal.” Long afterward, he recalled, “I then learned what the bottom levels of real human despair are paved with.” In such circumstances, the most that Bert could venture with Lou was an “understanding.”
Early in 1896 in San Francisco, his fortunes took a decided turn for the better when he knocked on the door of Louis Janin, a prominent mining engineer who was an agent for the Rothschilds. Janin took him on as a copyist, little more than an office boy, but soon found Hoover’s know-how valuable in litigation and in assessing New Mexico and Colorado mines. When the world-renowned London firm of Bewick, Moreing and Company told Janin it was seeking an engineer (at least thirty-five years old) with expertise in smelting to go to Australia as a mine scout, he recommended Hoover. Much too young—only twenty-two—the recent graduate grew a mustache, bought a top hat and a frock coat, puffed up his credentials, crossed the country by rail, and sailed out of New York harbor on a White Star liner for the Old World. On his country estate in England, Charles Algernon Moreing looked Hoover over, liked what he saw, and sent the young recruit (who gave his age as thirty-six) by train through the Alps to the ancient Roman port of Brindisi, then on a long voyage via the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, with stops at Port Said and Ceylon, to the land down under. For the first time in his life, Hoover later said, “history became a reality and America a contrast.”
Not in his worst nightmare could Hoover have conjured up what awaited him. Australia, he wrote home, was “a country of red dust, black flies, and white heat,” and Coolgardie—called a town of “sin, sand, sorrow, sickness, and sore eyes”—a hellhole. In Kalgoorlie, his next location, the thermometer at night often did not drop below 100°, and typhoid fever claimed three men a day. Mine inspection trips to spots as remote as Never Never in a land of dwarf kangaroos required exhausting journeys on blindfolded Afghan camels across trackless wastelands—in the phrase of one of his early biographers, “an insanity of monotony.”
Yet Hoover thrived. Bewick, Moreing started him off with a handsome salary and a cottage with a cook. He also had a valet. But Hoover spent little time at his comfortable home. Over the next eighteen months, he logged more than five thousand miles in the bush, probing strata for veins of gold. His great coup was the Sons of Gwalia mine. In later years, Hoover, who habitually overstated his achievements, assigned himself more credit than merited for discovering this fabulous lode—which, as its name conveys, was first worked by Welshmen. But he did, after assaying the site, advise the company to purchase it. From an initial investment of little more than a million dollars, Bewick, Moreing eventually raked in $65 million. To manage the Sons of Gwalia and seven other mines, Moreing chose Hoover—with a boost in salary and responsibility for scores of employees.
He was a tough boss. A mere stripling, Hoover had no qualms about firing eight men from his staff while confiding to a friend back home that a number of others were “in the noose.” He was “dreadfully put out,” he said, by resolving to discharge a seventy-two-year-old accountant, “but I have to get things in shape for the company.” In the fall of 1897, he extended the workweek from forty-four to forty-eight hours, and the following spring he reported to the London office:
The Truckers in the lower level struck for a rise in pay owing to the wet ground. We discharged the entire crew at that level and replaced them with men at the old rate.
Again it had been formerly the custom to pay double pay for Sunday Work, which we stopped, and six men working on Sunday refused to proceed. We discharged them and replaced them with new men.
I have a bunch of Italians coming up this week and will put them in the mine on contract work. If they are satisfactory I will secure enough of them to hold the property in case of a general strike, and with your permission will reduce wages.
In his Memoirs a half century later, he wrote of “the sheer joy” not only “of creating productive enterprises,” but also “of correcting the perversities and incompetence of men.”
In fact, Hoover held far less liberal social views than contemporary tories. He opposed Australia’s workmen’s compensation act as too “prejudicial to the owners”; deplored the imposition of a minimum wage; objected to closing ore treatment mills on Sundays; and advocated a “system” to blacklist “the demagogue.” Bewick, Moreing, which imported Italian laborers because they were more tractable, thrived by getting rid of large numbers of employees. Whenever Hoover appeared on the scene, workers wondered how many of them had seen their last payday.
Hoover’s frigid demeanor and his Yankee brag earned him as much animosity as his hard-nosed procedures. Many found him abrasive, abrupt, and overbearing as well as solitary. When you were with Hoover, commented one who knew him well, you were always conscious of “a certain atmosphere of aggressiveness.” A journalist observed that the only subject Hoover took any pleasure in discussing—in a “dull, toneless voice”—was work, “if his harsh staccato ‘yep’ and ‘nope’ could be elevated to the level of discussion.” When Hoover did speak, a Melbourne reporter noted (as had his fellow students at Stanford), he averted his eyes. He was without humor and, so far as anyone could tell, without emotion. He had few, if any, friends who were equals—then, and for the rest of his days. Hoover, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. later wrote, lived a life that seemed to come out of the pages of the globe-trotting war correspondent Richard Harding Davis, but “he transmuted all adventure into business, as a Davis hero would transmute all business into adventure.”
In the course of a lifetime, few Americans spent more years abroad than Hoover, but, wherever he lived, he came—sooner or later, and mostly sooner—to lament that his host nation did not measure up to the United States. “No country in the world,” he said of western Australia, “has witnessed such rank swindling and charlatan engineering.” The Aussies and the Brits down under, he found, did not like him any more than he liked them. With characteristic indifference to punctuation, Hoover complained: “They only have us because they have to they don’t know how to make their mines pay dividends we do.” In London, years later, he would celebrate not only the Fourth of July but the anniversary of California’s admission to the Union. (Hoover’s romance with California, an acquaintance remarked, brought to mind Virgil’s reveries about Italy.) His first initials, “H.C.,” critics said, stood for “Hail Columbia.”
The young man’s employers, though, knew that they had lucked into a wunderkind. They did not at all mind being represented by an agent whose talisman was “efficiency” and who sought to give the firm an edge over its competitors by extracting, in his words, more “work per man per day.” To boot, he was a whiz at assessing the potential of mines. After the Sons of Gwalia acquisition, Be-wick, Moreing promoted him to junior partner with a share in profits that would net him ten thousand dollars a year (many times that sum today), and in the fall of 1898 the firm offered him a lucrative opportunity to supervise a vast new engineering operation in China.
His future secured, Hoover cabled Lou Henry, “Will you marry me?” Almost as soon as she cabled back her speedy acceptance, he set sail from Perth for London to discuss China investments with Algernon Moreing, then crossed the Atlantic and the United States for a reunion with Lou in Monterey. There they were wed in the bride’s family parlor. Less than a fortnight later, outfitted with dozens of books on China, they embarked for the Far East. Hoover had circumnavigated the globe, a transit he would make—by sea and by land—four more times in the next decade.
China gave the newlyweds greater adventure than they had bargained for. In 1900 they found themselves besieged in the international settlement at Tientsin by a rabidly xenophobic order. The Boxers—three hundred thousand strong—massacred Chinese Christians, torched churches, murdered the German envoy, and vowed to drive “the foreign devils” into the sea. Hoover erected barricades of grain and sugar sacks and organized distribution of rice and water to pro-Western Chinese sheltered in their compound. Meanwhile, Lou—a .38 Mauser pistol tucked under her belt—bicycled about on errands under fire (five shells hit the Hoover home), nursed the wounded, tended a dairy herd, and kept night vigils. After a harrowing twenty-eight days, the siege was broken. “I do not remember a more satisfying musical performance,” Hoover later said, “than the bugles of the American Marines entering the settlement playing ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.’ ”
The Marine Corps band could well have struck up “Yankee Doodle” to orchestrate Hoover’s imperial mind-set. “Unless our Government adopts a most forcible policy, we will have a calamity in China that has not been equaled in the history of the world,” he asserted. “Diplomacy with an Asiatic is of no use. If you are going to do business with him you must begin your talk with a gun in your hand, and let him know that you will use it.” His experience in the Australian mines had led him to the conclusion that “Asiatics and negroes” were of a “low mental order” and that “one white man equals from two to three of the colored races, even in the simplest forms of mine work such as shoveling.” Placed in charge of a workforce in the Chinese Engineering Company—the biggest firm in the Celestial Empire—he alluded to his laborers as “9000 thieves,” and, after an inspection trip, recommended “a thorough sweeping of useless employees.” Still worse, he thought, were “the unspeakable villainy of Chinese administration” and “the rottenness of Chinese officialdom.”
It was asking too much to imagine that Hoover would relate easily to a manager who indulged in opium, but, though he traveled widely—beyond the Gobi Desert to Outer Mongolia, where he met the “Living Buddha”—Hoover did not adapt at all. In Tientsin, he rented a commodious house on the outskirts of the foreign settlement that removed him from the local populace, save for his fifteen Chinese servants. “A scholar, a diplomat, or a missionary who has lived in the Orient might be expected to acquire . . . some sensibility toward another culture,” his biographer David Burner has observed. “What the East taught Hoover, however, was almost the opposite. He learned to think of Western technology . . . as offering a means of reordering whole societies.” Traditional communities, in turn, did not take well to an obsessive modernizer. A Kaiping associate complained that the American came up with “all sorts of schemes” that “did not conform to Chinese usages.”
Hoover magnified his difficulties in collaboration by assuming an ambiguous role. After foreign armies began to seize the assets of the Chinese Engineering Company, he arranged to convert the firm into a British limited liability corporation, a transfer that put him in the peculiar position of working both for the Chinese government and for Bewick, Moreing—a relationship guaranteed to beget grievances. Exactly one month after pledging that a China board would have “the entire management,” he urged C. Algernon Moreing to move the head office out of Tientsin to prevent “any interference from the ‘China Board.’ ” Hoover and a Belgian partner later acknowledged that they had limited “Chinese intervention” to a “harmless” consultative body in order to lodge control “in foreign hands.” (When he ran for president in 1928, he would be accused of having been an unscrupulous double agent.) For his services, Hoover pocketed around $200,000 (more than $4 million today). The 1901 acquisition of the Kaiping mines, which has been ranked as “the largest transfer of property to foreigners in the history of China,” precipitated a lawsuit of such magnitude that it was closely followed even by King Edward VII.
It is unlikely that the precise nature of Hoover’s activities in China will ever be sorted out. Hoover believed that the Chinese with whom he was dealing were corrupt and incompetent, and he was quite possibly right. The Chinese thought Hoover was a swindler, and he was certainly capable of sharp dealing. In Australia, he had advocated lying about monthly output in order to mislead investors. British Foreign Office representatives concluded that the dispute between the Westerners, including the Moreing group, and the Chinese was “a case of rogues falling out” after behavior that was “very shady on both sides,” and the British chargé at Peking had “small doubt that Messrs. Moreing and others have made a pretty pile at the expense of the Chinese.” However questionable some of his actions may have been, Hoover proved invaluable to his employers. By skillful administration and an infusion of capital, he turned the immense Kaiping coal deposits into a flourishing enterprise. He was duly rewarded.
In the autumn of 1901, Hoover departed China for London, where he was to become, at twenty-seven, one of four partners of Bewick, Moreing, called “perhaps the most noted mining syndicate in the world.” After an interview in California—a stop on his long journey from Asia across the Pacific to America and then, after a transcontinental rail trip, across the Atlantic to Europe—the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.”
The Hoovers took up residence in London, first at 39 Hyde Park Gate, then in Campden Hill. Their Kensington villa boasted French windows, a walnut-paneled dining room, and an oak-paneled library. In the walled garden of the Red House, callers came upon a fish pond, a towering mulberry tree, and a fountain. The retinue of servants included a butler, a chauffeur, a cook, a parlor maid, and a governess. On occasion, this congenial abode allowed Hoover to show a side of himself that those beyond the family hearth rarely saw. At Easter he hid colored eggs in the garden, and at Christmas he dressed up as Santa and distributed presents to servants and their children.
Instead of easing into this appealing urban retreat and an office chair in the City, Hoover roamed the world on behalf of Bewick, Moreing over the next seven years. In 1907 he sailed for Australia, leaving behind in London his pregnant wife and three-year-old son. They were not to lay eyes on him again for six months. Having learned nothing from his own painful childhood, he turned his two boys over to others through most of their early and teenage years. When illnesses laid them low, neither father nor mother was at their bedside.
His peregrinations as a mine evaluator caught him up in happenings of a sort that are staples of novels set in exotic locales—or of penny dreadfuls. In Asia, as Richard Norton Smith has written, Hoover “saw the world of Kipling and Maugham.” To check out mining property in Korea, he rode that fabled thoroughfare of intrigue the Trans-Siberian Railway. One day in Burma, while crawling through a mine, he came upon unfamiliar prints in the mud, then backed out hastily when he realized that they were the fresh tracks of a Bengal tiger. In Burma, too, in a delirium from malaria, Hoover was overcome by a desire to write poetry.
In these years and later, he carried on reconnaissances in Australia. His eye was not always unerring. He rated East Murchison United “the big mine of the north” with “a splendid career before it,” but investors lost their shirts before the operation was liquidated, and a risky flier at Loddon Valley, after devouring several million dollars, wound up, in the words of its chairman, a “ghastly failure.” Nevertheless, a man knowledgeable about the Australian gold fields said of Hoover that there was “no cleverer engineer in the two hemispheres.”
In 1908 Hoover reached a major decision—to go into business on his own. He sold his interest in Bewick, Moreing, he explained a few years after, “for about $225,000 cash as I could not stand Moreing any longer than necessary having given practically 5 years to that mess.” That explanation was less than frank. It was true he found C. Algernon Moreing “wholly impossible.” Moreing, for his part, wound up suing Hoover after a nasty spat. But there were more compelling reasons for the rupture. One was that Hoover had worked himself into a breakdown, or something close. (In 1904, plagued by insomnia, his memory erratic, he had been ordered by his physician to take a two-month voyage to South Africa— without wife or infant son—to see if he could pull himself together.) The other was that he was determined to get rich. Most folks would have thought he had already accumulated a tidy sum— several hundred thousand dollars at a time of no income tax. But for Hoover that was not enough. “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty,” he said, “he is not worth much.” And, by his lights, he was getting on in years. He was thirty-three.
With offices at Number 1 London Wall and in New York, San Francisco, Paris, Petrograd, and Mandalay, Hoover ran his own consulting firm in a style that a later generation would term “multinational.” As “the doctor of sick mines,” he specialized in reviving ailing enterprises in return for a share of the profits. Though he insisted on being regarded as an engineer, he was actually more a financier and promoter who, in addition to serving as technical consultant, participated in pools to manipulate the stock market. He did not admire all businessmen—some were “drones”—but he sang the praises of “insiders” like himself while denigrating small-fry investors not in the know as “idiots.”
Hoover’s operations ranged from the Klondike to Tierra del Fuego, from tin diggings in Cornwall to a copper smelter in the Urals. As Schlesinger wrote, Hoover “traveled endlessly, from Mandalay to the Transvaal, from Egypt to the Malay States, from a turquoise mine at Mount Sinai to the foggy, gas-lit streets of the City of London.” He owned shares in the Brazilian Iron Syndicate, Russo-Asiatic Consolidated, and the Inter-Argentine Syndicate, and he reorganized oil explorations in Peru and Trinidad. His most unpromising venture—in the forbidding terrain of Burma—would eventually become the main source of his income. For eight years, he persevered against obstacles that would have cowed another man, and in 1913 his doggedness paid off when workers penetrated a fabulous lode of silver, zinc, and lead. Hoover later wrote of this “great enterprise” that he “took it as bare jungle and left it with 25,000 men employed and a new town on earth.” True, some of his investments, always undertaken with supreme confidence, were flops. But others were, after numerous mishaps, extraordinary successes— notably the creation in Australia of the awesome Zinc Corporation. “In the domain of practical mining finance,” a leading periodical in the field said of Hoover, “no one holds a more assured position.”
High regard did not always imply affection, for wherever Hoover went—Australia, China, England—he feuded, repeatedly clashing with associates and not infrequently striving to get them fired. Though he had a brilliant career, he also revealed a troublesome tendency toward self-delusion. When something went wrong, he would either blame others or claim that the failure demonstrated his foresight. Self-righteous, he bridled at even mild criticism. “Despite his persona of disinterested objectivity and his reputation as a cool, aloof businessman, Hoover in some ways was like a volcano: hot and smoldering underneath,” George H. Nash has written in his superb account of these years. At one point, Hoover said unapologetically, “I have insisted on having my own way.” If he could not do so, he flew into rages.
Spasmodically during this period, Hoover talked of abandoning profit seeking for “some job of public service ...in government and all that sort of thing.” As early as 1907, he confided that “he had run through his profession” and “just making money wasn’t enough.” Moreover, he doubted that there would be any more mining bonanzas. What would he like to do? “Get into the big game somewhere,” Hoover responded. But year after year went by, and he did not break away. Something drove him from continent to continent, from one prospect to the next. When he did begin a new life, he later said, it would be “at home, of course.” Through all of 1907 and 1908, and again in 1910, though, he did not spend a single day in America.
Hoover’s identity as a technician allayed his uneasiness about chasing dollars rather than performing “public service.” Out of his seasoning in Australia and perhaps his exposure to the theories of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who had joined the Stanford faculty, Hoover began to recast his social outlook. Like the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class and The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, he esteemed engineers as “the real brains of industrial progress”—disinterested, altruistic craftsmen who were the hope of the future. “Engineering without imagination sinks to a trade,”he said.At a time of tremendous growth—the total of 7,000 engineers in the America of Hoover’s youth in 1880 rose to 226,000 by 1930—Hoover claimed for them professional status, and more. In contrast to occupations that were “parasitic,” engineers with a sense of mission could, through their diligence and precision, transmute “a figment of the imagination” into a project that “brings jobs and homes to men,” which “then...elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life.” He shared the outlook of the president of an engineering society who asserted, “The golden rule will be put into practice by the slide rule of the engineer.”
Hoover pulled together lectures he had given at the Columbia School of Mines and at Stanford into a volume titled Principles of Mining, published in 1909.It was not elegant.The publisher said of his manuscript: “It was atrociously bad—bad in handwriting, in spelling, in grammar and syntax, and in composition.” Much of it had to be rewritten. Indifferent to its literary shortcomings, Hoover concentrated on conveying the substance of what he had learned about how to succeed in the industry. For years afterward, mine schools embraced Principles as a basic text. Some passages in the book, which mostly dealt with matters such as valuation, revealed that Hoover was developing a more progressive attitude toward labor than in his first years in Australia. He favored not only high wages (in return for hard work), but also the eight-hour workday and improved mine safety. He accepted organized labor—less out of sympathy with workers than because unions that acceded “the rights of their employers” could maintain control over their members and would spare management “the constant harassment of possible strikes.” Still, he thought unions “normal and proper antidotes for unlimited capitalistic organization” and declared, “The time when the employer could ride roughshod over his labor is disappearing with the doctrine of ‘laissez-faire’ on which it is founded.”
Intellectual curiosity and a desire to enhance the prestige of the engineering profession led Hoover to collaborate with his wife in preparing an English edition of De Re Metallica, a 1556 treatise on mining and metallurgy by a German who adopted the pen name of Agricola. The idea originated with Lou, who had a command of Latin. To carry it out, Hoover spent twenty thousand dollars employing a team of research assistants and translators able to cope with medieval German and faux Latin. Hoover’s extensive annotation of the manual furnished a history of mining from ancient times and elucidated technical terms. His commentary on labor conditions gave further evidence of his increasingly enlightened views in a year when he contributed a thousand dollars to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign. Published in 1912, the 632-page volume, bound in vellum, was embellished with splendid reproductions of the original woodcuts.
In 1912 Hoover’s gossamer fancies about a new start in life began to become more credible. “I have got to that stage now where I am playing the game for the game’s sake, as the counters don’t interest me any longer,” he said. A millionaire four times over, he had more than reached his goal. In addition, having been away from his homeland almost constantly since 1897, he was morose. “The American is always an alien abroad,” he wrote home. “He never can assimilate, nor do other peoples ever accept him otherwise than a foreigner.” With no insight about how his own deportment might affect others, he added, “I am disgusted with myself when I think how much better off you people are who stuck by your own country and place. When you walk down the street you meet a hundred men who have a genuine pleasure in greeting you. I am an alien who gets a grin once in nine months.”
Londoners, in truth, did not find “star-spangled Hoover” captivating or endearing. A British compeer remembered that “he was a very hardworking, hardheaded and rather saturnine man, and always struck me as a little uncouth.” Impersonating British aristocrats, Bert and Lou Hoover—far distanced from their Iowa roots—dressed for dinner each night, but they were parvenus. Sunday evenings at Red House could be tedious. Hoover himself acknowledged that at parties he “felt like a wet crow.” He “had no small talk—no small talk whatever,” an acquaintance commented, and he refused to make the minimal effort expected of a host.A woman who tried to converse with Hoover found him “not a very affable dinner partner.” He was, she said, “a grunter. I would say something and he’d just say ‘unh.’ ”
Hoover’s reclusiveness prevented his host country from perceiving that the American was not always as self-centered and unfeeling as he seemed. Hoover saw to it that each month a sizable chunk of his salary went to needy friends and relatives in the United States. The recipients of his largesse did not know it came from Hoover, who pursued what one friend called “good deeds by stealth,” so as not to draw attention to himself. He was especially solicitous of young men trying to make it on their own as he had. He told his secret emissary to make sure that “boys who are still in the struggle stages will not hesitate to draw on my account to its utmost limits.” Sometimes his benefactions took more tangible forms, as when a Stanford professor acquired a rare book that he could not afford to purchase. Not until long after did Ray Lyman Wilbur, later president of Stanford and a member of Hoover’s cabinet, learn the source of a gift that had made his subsequent success possible.
Attachment to Stanford allowed Hoover to ease into community service when toward the end of 1912 he accepted election as a trustee of the university, a post he would hold for nearly half a century. He took on this responsibility with characteristic gusto. In ten days, the head of the board of trustees observed, Hoover came up with more ideas than they had heard in ten years. Hoover pushed through a program to build not only a new library, but also a hospital and a gymnasium. Conceiving of a student union as a haven that would “inoculate against the bacillus of social inequality” and avoid “the undemocratic social stratification which has been so much discussed of late in our eastern neighbors,” he quietly donated $100,000 toward its construction. “It is marvelous,” the university president confided, “how Hoover is handling our Board. Almost every reform we have dreamed of has slipped through as if oiled.”
The new trustee had more in mind. He was distressed to learn that assistant professors could not afford domestic servants and that their wives needed to perform housework. Never one to shirk detail, he set down next to the name of each of the 160 or so members of the faculty the precise amount of salary raise he thought each deserved, and, astonishingly, the board approved his figures unchanged. That phenomenal expression of faith in one man’s judgment did not begin to satisfy Hoover. He was looking for a still larger stage in the public sphere.
Opportunity for more conspicuous service came when he agreed to be overseas agent for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition set for 1915 to celebrate the anniversary of Balboa’s discovery of the vast western sea. His goal was extraordinarily ambitious—nothing less than to coax King George V to leave St. James’s Palace and sail all the way to San Francisco via the Panama Canal to give royal imprimatur to the California exhibition. Well connected in British political and publishing purlieus, Hoover conferred with the former prime minister Arthur Balfour and won the publishing potentate Lord Northcliffe to his side. In later years, never willing to acknowledge failure, he implied that he had persuaded England and Germany to participate when, in fact, both turned him down. His effort, though, did have one life-changing upshot. It placed him in London in 1914 when the booming guns of August heralded the outbreak of world war.
Copyright © 2008 William E. Leuchtenburg