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Herbert Hoover: A Public Life - David Burner

I found the chapter on Hoover's postwar hunger relief work to be very interesting for two reasons. The first was Burner's coverage of what was probably the greatest single achievement of Hoover's lifetime. Over a period of years he did his best to stave off famine throughout Europe, often irrespective of ideology (if not politics). I really enjoyed his description of Hoover's deft interweaving of politics and humanitarianism in his work, which his ability to do (no doubt honed by his experiences in the war) was probably key to his success.


What proved even more interesting, though, was Burner's analysis of Hoover's activities in famine relief within the context of Hoover's views. Though Hoover may have possessed enough nuance not to see any contradictions in the convictions Burner focuses on, there is an undeniable tension between the view "that in an interdependent world, economic power must come under some guidance" and "that excessive intervention by government in the economy also dangerously politicizes international affairs." (pg. 115) And when it came to famine relief, it's pretty clear that Hoover leaned strongly towards the former. Seeing this made me realize how easy it would be to interpret his triumphs here differently -- how, instead of celebrating the people he saved it a case could be made of Hoover as an unelected bureaucrat usurping political authority, both of the victorious Allied governments and the new administrations emerging out of the ruins in central and eastern Europe. This is not to say that his actions were not heroic (and I do think he should have received the Nobel Prize in 1921 for what his efforts in dealing with the famine in the Soviet Union), but that he demonstrated little interest in respecting legal niceties when he needed to get things done. Hopefully Burner will describe in later chapters why such spirit was absent when he was dealing with the Great Depression as president.