Cliff May

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.”

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.