History Note:
Hoover in the Ninth Circle
26 February 2019

Eric Rauchway’s Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal is an unexpected book. Covering the months between Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first presidential victory, in November 1932, and his first inauguration, in March 1933, it ought to be both tedious and insubstantial. We have become familiar with the almost instant forgettability of transition-team maneuverings, which not only provide fodder for the newspapers but suggest that the best use for newspapers is wrapping dead fish. What a surprise it is, then, to find in Winter War a compelling, sometimes electrifying read. 

Structurally, the book deals with the political views that divided Republicans and Democrats in the handling of five broad issues — the international debts still lingering from World War I, the impact of overproduction on farm prices, social issues such as Prohibition, the rise of Hitler, and the rash of bank failures that erupted in early 1933 — with a sixth chapter describing the Democrats’ inability to expand their progressive outreach to include black Americans. But Rauchway’s discussions are driven not so much by ideology as by the personalities whose letters and diaries he has mined for the insiders’ view of a confrontation that was largely invisible to the public. Hoover and Roosevelt and their entourages — Hoover himself particularly — were acutely concerned with the stage-management of their positions; the pity for Hoover (not that I can pity him) is that he was playing to an emptying theatre. Winter War is aptly titled, but Winter Siege might have been better. Rauchway presents Hoover as the defender of a fortress under attack by a mortal enemy. Attempts to co-opt (and so disgrace) this enemy give way, as the old year gives way to the new, to essentially traitorous plots to undermine the fortress so that it will blow up once it has been occupied by the attackers.

Rauchway’s tone is is neutral and objective, but his narrative presents Hoover as a villain, if a highly-principled one. Hoover’s animus toward Roosevelt was bone-deep; he thought that the crippling caused by polio alone rendered Roosevelt unfit for office. Rauchway never speculates on the resentment that Hoover must have felt in being challenged and defeated by the sophisticated, “Eastern” inheritor of wealth and position, but the behavior that Rauchway describes is absolutely typical of that all-too-familiar species of ill will. Hoover’s schemes to hoodwink Roosevelt are crude and, to a worldly eye, transparent, and Hoover seems bewildered by Roosevelt’s knack for sidestepping them. More than once, Hoover’s antics reminded me of Mime, in Siegfried, the dwarf so cocksure of his nefarious plans that he loses all sense of vulnerability.

Although he would never regain leadership of the Republican Party, Hoover would vigorously promote the life-is-tough-for-losers, fundamentally libertarian strain of Republicanism for the rest of his life, inspiring Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. I never found this outlook at all congenial, but now I despise it, pretty much as Dante despised Brutus. When I didn’t know much about them, libertarians seemed to be interesting cranks; now they’re nothing to me but anarchists with money. Like anarchists, they ought to be kept out of politics altogether, and their pseudo-Darwinian, quasi-racist ideology permanently archived, alongside Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, under “Politically Toxic.” I’m not sufficiently savvy to trace the libertarian inheritance from Nietzsche, and, more to the point, I’m never sure just how seriously to take what Nietzsche has to say; the discrepancy between any idea of Superman and the frail professor, who never seemed quite large enough to support his moustache, is too great to overcome the stink of a rotting irony. But insofar as libertarians might regard themselves as the heirs of Nietzsche, or even spout the same sort of nonsense, they must be dismissed as essentially inhumane. Those among them who long for the opportunity to download themselves into more permanent, computer form could not be more explicitly anti-human. 

Hoover’s libertarianism was primitive in comparison with today’s, and more distinctly American; it derived from myths about the settlement of the nation, stories that not only responded with dry eyes to the preponderance of individual failure in this immense undertaking but that also minimized the roles of accident and chance in the triumphs of the rich. Men like Hoover, an engineer who worked his way up from rural poverty, were not only successful but rewarded with success, for having done something special, something beyond putting in the blood, sweat, and tears that characterized so many of the failures. In the case of victors like John D Rockefeller, this something special was altogether a matter of chicanery; Rockefeller’s luck was to live and thrive in a particularly amoral, disenchanted period. Eric Rauchway, who sticks pretty close to his chosen period, does not tell us how, exactly, Hoover made his fortune, but his picture of Hoover’s post-election campaign against Roosevelt and the New Deal suggests an extensive familiarity with the toolbox of dirty dealing. 

The blackest of the five chapters in which Hoover plays a leading role is the last one. Here, Hoover grimly prosecutes his conviction that failed banks deserve their fate, and that the government ought to stand back, offering only notional succor, until the last bank has collapsed. In the classically libertarian manner, Hoover confused his causes and effects. If a bank failed, failure was proof of its unsoundness. This ridiculous proposition was exploded within days of Roosevelt’s new administration. A quickly-imposed bank holiday, closing all banks instead of leaving it to the states to improvise different approaches to the wave of panic that surged in February 1933, almost immediately quieted the fever. A new theory took hold: while a bank might be weak, even unsound, its depositors did not deserve to fail (ie to lose their deposits)Hoover’s pitilessness, together with his ostensibly cooperative offer to take action if Roosevelt would collaborate with him by endorsing a rescue program, damn him, in my judgment, to the hottest and darkest of hells. The enormity of Hoover’s wickedness, indeed, made me completely forget the conduct of his current successor.  

Winter War is a must-read. 

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