Posts Tagged ‘Herbert Hoover’

Herbert Hoover: “He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?”

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Hoover with a homemade ham radio, probably at Stanford’s Lou Henry Hoover House. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, is one of Stanford’s most charming and engaging speakers – not to mention a fount of knowledge on a dazzling range of topics. The former Fulbright scholar is the author of The Ethical Archivist (Society of American Archivists, 2010) – we’ve written about it here. Her Ethics of Access will be published this year with the same publisher. One of her many enthusiasms is Herbert Hoover (we’ve written about the president’s astonishing philanthropic efforts to save a starving Russia here.) Elena spoke last week for the Stanford Historical Society. And what better venue than the Hoover Institution’s Stauffer Auditorium?

An excerpt:

Herbert Hoover’s particular mentality, while unusual for an American politician, is something familiar to us at Stanford and perhaps easier to recognize in the 21st century than it was previously. He is part of a Stanford tradition that has been with us since the founding in 1891, and only become more clear over the decades. He loved science, technology, engineering, math, and machines, chemistry, trains, steamships, radio, television. He was also a collector, collecting ore samples and semi-precious stones all his life, and also collecting books and manuscripts. Collecting seems to go with this mind-set.


Archivist extraordinaire. (Photo: Sunny Scott)

He was the kind of person who knew how to quickly take advantage of the new technology of the late 19th century. In 1898, he proposed to his beloved bride, recent Stanford graduate Miss Lou Henry, by telegram. Also fascinated by emerging technology, she immediately accepted by return cable. He traveled constantly by rail, steamship, ocean liner (an estimated hundred weeks of his life – or two full years – on ships). He went around the world at least four times prior to World War I, and crossed through war zones during the Great War.

During the belt tightening and labor shortages of the U.S. entry into World War I, he dismissed his chauffeur (normal for a man of his wealth to have), and delighted in driving his roadster a bit too fast for comfort. When he was elected president, before the inauguration, back then held in March, he got on a ship and took a four-week good will tour of Latin America. His train car or steamship cabin was always a mobile office. Going through his papers, I remember marveling at the number of telegrams he would shoot off every day to keep various business and philanthropic organizations mobilized, the way we send off emails. And he was never happier than when he was focusing his math skills on complex financial transactions with large numbers of zeros, the more complicated the better…He was different from Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Truman. You’d have to go back to Benjamin Franklin to find the same combination of love of science, love of foreign travel, and love for complex negotiations.

He was an early adopter. He had a ham radio in his campus home for Herbert Hoover Jr. He was the first person to broadcast on TV in 1927. He was the first president to broadcast a campaign speech on the radio, the first president to have his own telephone on his desk, the first person to use a teleprompter on national TV (1952). He thrived on using emerging technology. It was his strength, enabled him to solve problems, and, in some ways, it was also his weakness, he expected problems to have solutions. He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?


Stanford landmark

Then he took the technical skills he learned at Stanford, starting at age 22, to high-level, high-stakes ventures in Australia, China, and, what I consider the transformative period, in Tsarist Russia. This last is, in my opinion, one of the most significant and least researched episodes in his life. This technical career got him involved in Stanford campus politics, then some global politics and finally American politics, as he tried to apply engineering solutions to international and social problems, a technocrat in the good sense of the word, as a logical, fact-based problem-solver. Throughout this time, he remained deeply committed to helping the university that launched his career, and the career of his wife Lou Henry, his older brother Theodor Hoover, and his sons Herbert Hoover, Jr., and Allan Hoover, his closest friends such as Ray Lyman Wilbur. All Stanford grads, all techies. And we will see his two lasting monuments – not on Mount Rushmore, but two engineering marvels that both have strong connections with Stanford.

Hoover Dam was one of them. From Elena Danielson:

They excavated 3.7 million cubic yards of rock, poured 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete, built four tunnels through which they diverted one of the country’s greatest rivers, installed 45 million pounds of steel, imbedded 582 miles of one-inch cooling tubes, and built a 726 foot tall dam with a 2,000 megawatt power station. The electricity that was generated paid for the construction. Even as president, engineering was his great love.

And Stanford’s Hoover Tower is the other:

He planned the construction of Hoover Tower with instructions to make it as seismically sound as possible given the technology of 1939 with a steel I-beam skeleton and rebar reinforced concrete on a thick concrete pad. Here he stored the documentation he had collected from the turmoil of the Great War, the Russian Revolutions and subsequent political upheavals. The inspiration of those great collectors on the pioneer faculty John Casper Branner and Andrew D. White found tangible expression in the Tower. The Tower held up well in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated much of the construction on campus. His intellectual interests and his engineering mind-set worked together.

You can hear the whole talk here


Not a bad legacy. Ansel Adams’s 1941 photo of Hoover dam.

How pots of jam saved the Bolshevik revolution

Monday, August 13th, 2012

The Bolsheviks were saved by pots of jam from the Britain’s Midlands and lots of Scottish herring, though you would have thought the Baltic Sea was already full of fish.

Last month, Robert Service, author of Spies & Commissars, told an unconventional and riveting story of the Russian Revolution, looking beyond official government documents and examining the worlds of business, journalism, and espionage to see how the West interacted with the new Bolshevik government.

The story he told during the Hoover Archives Summer Workshop focused on some of the lesser known players of the era – such men as Sir Paul Dukes, the accomplished British spy who “rescued princesses, was a master of disguises, and was a very, very modest man.”  The cast of characters also included sometime-diplomat, sometime-spy Robert Lockhart; the dashing Captain George Hill; Sidney Reilly, the notorious “ace of spies”; and the children’s writer Arthur Ransome, “a pro-Soviet British agent” who liked Lenin.

While World War I raged around them, the Western powers needed to know what was going on in Petrograd, said Service, which was “extraordinarily important, especially if Germany won.”

“Both sides were trying in a gingerly fashion to persuade the other to take an indulgent view of it,” said Service.  Hence, although the nations had no formal diplomatic relations, the British prime minister would take lunch with Maxim Litvinov, Lenin’s man in London.

Reilly, "ace of spies"

Over in the fledgling Soviet Union, Trotsky wanted an air force, so he recruited British spy George Hill.  “As you can imagine, he got a lot of information,” said Service.

This delicate choreography ended abruptly in March 1918, when Russia signed a pact with Germany, bowing out of the war.  Western telegraph experts, the precursors of today’s technologists, helped break the code to find out what was happening in Russia.  Meanwhile, Bolsheviks smuggled jewelry to the West to help far-left groups set up Communist Parties in their own countries – unnecessary, from one angle, since “they did it for free, they did it eagerly,” according to Service.

Lockhart – diplomat and spy

At that critical point, the Americans, British, and the French tried to bring down the Lenin-Trotsky government in a coup – the only such attempt by a Western power to do so, said Service – to enable Russia to select a new government more closely aligned with the Allies.

The plan was to be carried out by Reilly and Lockhart (who later downplayed his role), with help from Hill.  It ended when someone else altogether tried to kill Lenin first, triggering a bloody purge.

Reilly escaped.  The lunch-loving Litvinov was arrested in London, and exchanged for Robert Lockhart. “He protested his innocence, but he wasn’t innocent. Very, very far from it,” said Service.

While doing his research in the Hoover Archives, Service found a letter written by Lockhart’s son, Robin, suggesting that his father had cut his tale to fit the times:

“If the question of my father’s relationship with Reilly still exercises anyone’s mind in the F.O., it is clear from his book Memoirs of a British Agent that once intervention in Russia had been decided on in 1918, he gave his active support to the counter-revolutionary movement with which, of course, Reilly was actively working.

“My father has himself made it clear to me that he worked much more closely with Reilly than he had publicly indicated…”

Service (Photo: Ave Maria Mõistlik)

Lockhart, Reilly, Hill, and Dukes (by that time, another spy whose cover had been blown) gathered in London regularly for “Bolshevik liquidation lunches” to “talk down and drink down the Russian Revolution.  Futile?  Perhaps not.  “They formed a lobby to hold a line,” said Service.

Which brings us back to March 1921, when it all changed again, like the twist of the kaleidoscope, with the Anglo-Soviet trade treaty.  That made the U.K. “the first great power to break rank,” said Service. “Washington and Paris were infuriated.” Britain made its decision “unilaterally and by stealth.”

“If Woodrow Wilson and Clemenceau were horrified, anti-Bolshevik Russians were even more horrified,” he said.

That also returns us to the Hoover Archives: its papers show that pots of jam started to reach the Soviet Union from the British Midlands, and Scottish herring went directly to Petrograd.

Service said Hoover’s huge food and humanitarian missions in 1919 “probably did save Europe from the Bolsheviks.” But did the Britain save the Bolshevik revolution at a time it might have crumbled?

Happy times – Yalta in 1945

Winston Churchill warned the British government in vain. “He could never convince the rest of the government that a crusade was necessary.” Postwar Britain was wary of conflict, and its parliamentarians jeered,  “‘Where are you going to get the money, Winston?’ England was bankrupt, bled dry.”

Success isn’t everything. “It’s pretty clear now that we value those politicians who saw things clearly, and said what they saw as forcefully as they could,” said Service.

I like the slightly different conclusion described in The Independent, as the Communists become more and more like the bourgeoisie:

The communists began to enjoy the perks of their predecessors. “We lived in grand hotels and he wore fur coats and smoked enormous cigars,” remembered Litvinov’s wife Ivy. The story becomes irresistibly reminiscent of Animal Farm, which ends with the pigs and the humans indistinguishable. By the time of the Second World War, Hill was in Moscow swapping tips on poisons with the head of Stalin’s fearsome security apparatus. And by 1945, Churchill and Stalin were grinning for the photographers at the old palace in Yalta.

That explains why, in the Soviet Union, Churchill is remembered as a Soviet ally. After my Russian friend had gone to sleep, our driver – an ethnic Armenian – told me how Churchill preferred Armenian brandy above all others. I doubted this, but it does show how the old man has become all things to all men.

As an afterthought, the New Statesman recently asked Service a question that brought up the name of another friend and frequent subject in the Book Haven. Can’t resist a mention:

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

You did a lot of the archival work for this book at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which was the domicile of the great British Sovietologist Robert Conquest. Is he someone who has had a particular influence on your work?

I think Robert Conquest [we wrote about him here and here among other places] is one of the great postwar Sovietologists. The British have had an influence on thinking about the Soviet Union out of all proportion to the number of people working in the United Kingdom on the Soviet Union. Conquest certainly wrote one of the great pioneering books, The Great Terror.

Forgotten tale of how America saved a starving Russia

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

American Relief Administration transport column on the frozen Volga. (Photo: Hoover Institution Archives)

Every so often, a journalist stumbles upon a great, untold story during routine research or interviews.  And other times, a mammoth TV organization, such as PBS, stuffs a press release and DVD into your hand and urges you to cover it.

The latter case is how I found out about the terrible Russian famine of 1921-23 – and the American charity that alleviated it, marking perhaps the first time a large-scale relief was extended to an enemy. Historian Bertrand Patenaude tells how Herbert Hoover saved more lives than any person who has ever lived. Yes, I know, hard to believe, but apparently true.  (I wrote about it here.)

It’s at once a grim, inspiring, and astonishing story – the American Experience broadcast, The Great Famine, airs nationwide on Monday, April 11, on PBS.

The world barely remembers the terrible famine in the Soviet Russia – why?

Author, author!

Bert Patenaude, author of The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, told me that he was a Stanford graduate student writing the last chapters on his dissertation about early Bolshevik food policy when, as he explains it, “I’m seeing what wasn’t such a simple story from the communist side.”

“This was a huge famine could have brought the whole country down.  And Americans were bringing in food supplies and relief,” he said.  “I couldn’t figure out why nobody talked about it – I resolved at that point to write a book.”  (The Stanford University Press book received the 2003 Marshall Shulman Book Prize.)

Of course, a decade later there would be a Stalin-engineered Ukrainian famine that is now considered genocide.  That famine, which killed 5 million Ukrainians, has become well known – perhaps, as Bert suggests, because it is “associated with the evil figure of Stalin.” Nevertheless, “this earlier famine was out right out there in the open.”

Orphaned and abandoned children

Author Maxim Gorky wrote to Hoover on behalf of the Soviet government to praise the relief efforts in 1922:  “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death,” he wrote.

It didn’t happen. The Soviet government had a strong interest in forgetting.  In any case, 1921 was a pivotal year for the new market economy, said Bert.  That new economic policy (NEP) received the thunder – and the death of perhaps 10 million helpless Russians was quietly erased from the history books.

“As students in history in the 1970s, we did the same thing,” said Bert. “We would never talk about this famine.  We would talk about NEP.”

When I was writing the story about his research and the PBS show, I hesitated … I couldn’t say that Bert had actually rescued the tale from oblivion.  I was sure to get at least five angry scholars writing to me to complain that they had known about it.  Yet Bert admits that the reaction to the story, typically, is “Why didn’t I know anything about this?”

Bert had the perfect Solomonic suggestion:  he has retrieved the tale from archival oblivion.  With the PBS film, it will no longer be something buried in the Hoover Archives, or a footnote at scholarly conferences – but it will enter the public consciousness, where it deserves to be.  Even Gorky said so.

(Preview below.)

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.