It was Herbert Hoover's misfortune to be president when the stock market crashed in 1929. Three years later, Franklin Roosevelt would blame him for the Great Depression and defeat him at the ballot box. Historians ranking American presidents have placed Hoover near the bottom of their lists ever since.
If you've read Amity Shlaes's masterful The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, (and if you haven't, do so without delay) you know there was more to Hoover's economic thinking than is generally recognized. But for the last 20 years of his life, Hoover spent much of his time and energy on national security, laboring over what he called his "magnum opus," a combination revisionist history of World War II, memoir, and scathing critique of Roosevelt's foreign policy.
Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath was completed almost half a century ago but published only last year following a herculean editing job by historian George H. Nash. According to Nash, Hoover's 900-page tome should be read "as an argument that challenges us to think afresh about our past." It should be read also, I would suggest, as an argument that challenges us to think afresh about our present and future.
In particular, at a time when America is facing a new totalitarian threat, Hoover makes clear how essential it is that we know our enemies — who they are, what they believe, what they are fighting for — and that we think hard about how to defend ourselves and other free nations.
Hoover was unequivocally anti-fascist. He called Hitler "a consummate egoist, the incarnation of the hates of a defeated nation, cunning, intent on conquest, without conscience or compassion." He called Nazism a "gigantic spartanism" and "a sort of mysticism based on theories of racialism and nationalism." He was pro-British as well. Nevertheless, he took the position that America joining the war against Germany "was never necessary in order to save Britain."
How did he arrive at that counterintuitive conclusion? On June 23, 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Hoover was certain the Germans hadn't enough men and arms to fight successfully on two fronts at the same time. That meant that the pressure on Britain would abate, that Britain, as Hoover wrote, had been made "safe from defeat."
Hoover also believed that with Hitler's invasion of Russia, "the two dictators of the world's two great aggressor nations were locked in a death struggle. If left alone, these evil spirits were destined, sooner or later, to exhaust each other." That, he maintained, is what Roosevelt should have allowed to happen.
In a speech that was radio-broadcast nationally on June 29, Hoover reminded listeners that less than "two years ago, Stalin entered into an agreement with Hitler through which there should be joint onslaught on the democracies of the world. Nine days later Stalin attacked the Poles jointly with Hitler and destroyed the freedom of a great and democratic people. Fourteen days later Stalin destroyed the independence of democratic Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Ninety days later on came the unprovoked attack by Russia on democratic Finland."
To ignore this record and treat Stalin as an ally, Hoover argued, could only lead to one outcome: tightening "the grip of communism on Russia, the enslavement of nations, and more opportunity for it to extend in the world. . . . To align American ideals alongside Stalin will be as great a violation of everything American as to align ourselves with Hitler." Roosevelt's errors, in Hoover's view, were compounded by the concessions Roosevelt made to Stalin at Tehran and Yalta.
The flaw in Hoover's argument, it seems to me: Hitler turned his weapons east rather than west not because he was more covetous of Stalingrad than of London, and not only because there was more Lebensraum, "living space," in Eurasia than in the British Isles. Rather, Hitler desperately needed oil for his tanks, ships, and planes. Oil was abundant in Soviet Central Asia — not in England, Scotland, and Wales. Had Hitler succeeded in capturing Baku, the heart of the Soviet oil industry, he would have become stronger than ever — and then, undoubtedly, he would have turned his aggressive attentions to Britain and the Americas.
Hoover was correct in this: World War II lifted the Nazi jackboot from the throats of Eastern Europe only to replace it with the Soviet jackboot for decades to come. Wrong, however, was his prediction that, "if we get involved in this struggle we, too, will be exhausted and feeble." In fact, the US emerged from World War II more powerful and, before long, more prosperous than it had ever been.
It was not inevitable that America would prevail over Nazism, fascism, and, eventually, Communism. It is not inevitable that America will prevail over totalitarianism in its 21st-century forms — not a kampf but a jihad; not Aryan racial supremacism but Islamic religious supremacism; not a Führer but a Supreme Leader; not dictatorships of the proletariat but clerical dictatorships.
What we should know — and what Hoover's magnum opus reinforces — is that vigorous debate is essential. Those who call themselves our enemies have ideologies, strategies, and goals. We need to understand them. If we refuse to seriously attempt that — because we want to be "politically correct" and multiculturally sensitive, or because it is comforting to believe we are only confronting "extremism" and grievances that can be addressed through diplomacy — we will contribute to our own decline and downfall.
We need to think also about our vital interests and highest values, and develop strategies to defend them. Does anyone believe our political leaders — either those in power or those in opposition — are making progress in this regard? Hoover worked on his "magnum opus" for 20 years because he believed in the power of ideas. Can you imagine any former American president alive today doing the same?