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“Boyhood Roots of National Leadership”

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

50th Anniversary of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum Iowa City, IA
United States

June 15, 2012

I am honored to speak with you this evening and would like in particular to express my high regards for Sally Mason, the university’s remarkable president, and David Ferreiro, the distinguished Archivist of the United States.  But I am dismayed to be addressing this extraordinary audience by speaker-phone from a small room in the Red Carpet Club of United Airlines at O’Hara airport. The tribulations of air travel can be frustrating. My plane was late arriving in Washington and then after boarding stalled at the gate until someone from the ground crew could be summoned to count the bags in the hold.  Please know how deeply I regret not being able to reach Iowa City on a timely basis. 

Nevertheless, if you will pardon the lack of personal contact, I would like this evening to lay out a theme – that Americans radically underestimate the power of culture and the importance of the humanities. To develop this theme I would like to discuss briefly aspects of the life of Herbert Hoover and contrast his career with four other remarkable Iowans whose lives overlapped with Hoover’s and who were born or schooled within a 150 mile radius of this idyllic university community.

On his 88th birthday at the opening of his Presidential library, Hoover spoke of being planted and raised for his first ten years in Iowa.  He expressed particular pride in having earned a certificate indicating he had completed the fourth or fifth grade in West Branch.  In addition, he noted that before being sent to live with an uncle in Oregon after his parents passed, he had already received a grounding in religious faith and the “family discipline”: hard work.

I was particularly struck by the pride he had in the education certificate.  It made me think about what I knew by the fifth grade at the McKinley school in Davenport.   It occurred to me that with all the talk of the 3 “R’s” in education today, my classmates and I at McKinley had “‘rithmatik” down pat.  Through repetition we all knew our math tables.  If someone asked about 6 times 9 or 8 times 7, we could by rote instantly respond.  While we had yet to be introduced to geometry or calculus, we could do arithmetic as fast by the fifth grade as we could in high school or college.  We could also read and write, in each case half or a third as fast as we could a decade later but nonetheless meaningfully and perhaps with more imagination.  We didn’t have much knowledge of life outside the family and the neighborhood.  But, like Hoover, we had a platform from which to learn.

The importance of Hoover’s ten years in West Branch cannot be overestimated.  At least once a year we hear someone at a party affirm that all the social graces ever needed in life can be picked up in the kindergarten sand box.  By the fifth grade something similar could be said for the three “R’s.”  Hoover had good reason to be proud of his early education, his West Branch platform.

By the age of ten every parent, every teacher at some point has given a growing child his first real lesson in the humanities: the admonition that a smart person learns from his own mistakes.  The lessons that follow are seldom stated but are nonetheless clear:  a really smart person learns from the mistakes of others.  And a really, really thoughtful person learns from those who have done the right things in the right way, weaving acts of kindness and generosity into the social fabric of community. 

The 3 “R’s” may begin a formal education but there are no academic disciplines that provide deeper follow-on lessons than studies in history, literature, philosophy, comparative religion, and ethics.  They give a sense of perspective about the past and its higher and lower moments, the present and its opportunities and challenges.

By the time Hoover ventured forth from Iowa he had absorbed important educational and social basics.  He attended a Friends school in Oregon but the institution that most challenged his family-instilled work ethic was clearly Stanford.  No university was founded with more fanfare. Hoover studied hard to pass the entrance examination and then arrived early on the new campus in Palo Alto and got a job in the registration office. He used to suggest that he was the first student to enroll at the fledgling university, the first to be assigned a dorm room.   

At Stanford he met his eventual wife, Lou Henry, who had also been partly raised in Iowa, having been born in Waterloo.  She was the first female geology graduate of the university and had an acute ear for languages, reportedly mastering eight.  It was said that during the many months they spent aboard ship travelling to and from Europe and the Far East that they whiled away their free time translating Greek plays into English, a pursuit Lou Henry would probably have led.  I note this humanities avocation because at the hinge of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Hoover had become the most prominent mining engineer in Australia and China.  He headed a prosperous gold mining operation in Western Australia and then in a similar mining pursuit he and his wife got caught up in the Boxer Rebellion in China.

In the three decades preceding World War I, Hoover had earned a small fortune overseeing and investing in gold and silver mines throughout Asia.   Following his Quaker ethic, he applied the managerial skills he developed in Asia to leading a relief effort for Belgium before the U.S. became engaged in the conflict.  After the U.S. entered the war, Woodrow Wilson asked him to run the U.S. Food Administration to help support our allies.  In this capacity he managed the transfer of millions of tons of American food, clothing, and supplies to famine stricken peoples in twenty countries.

Eight decades later a Republican presidential candidate adopted a deftly named theme: “compassionate conservatism.”  To this day, hard-core conservatives and hard-core liberals find this political tag unappealing.  For activists on both edges of American politics the label implied either too much or too little.  The description might have applied to Hoover but he would most likely have also been uncomfortable with it.  He innately assumed good works to be a duty but he had little regard for “do-gooders.”  He preferred those who simply did good things with efficiency and care without moral smugness.  His early Belgium relief efforts and his 1927 supervision of Mississippi River flood assistance, involving virtually no public funds, were administered with minimal overhead.  His social ethic might be defined as “competent compassion.” 

Looking at Hoover’s 1932 acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, which can be seen at the Hoover Library, one cannot help but note how much television has changed American politics.  In a traumatic economic climate Hoover gave a sober speech that didn’t sing.  Sounding as if there was a potato in his mouth, his staccato voice was a far cry from the Camelot articulation of John F. Kennedy or the smooth political sympathy Bill Clinton could orchestrate.  On a stage Hoover, unlike his wife in her unprecedented radio talks to the country, seemed to lack empathy.  On the other hand, his relief efforts and Lou Henry’s and his dedication to the Boys Clubs and Girl Scouts reflected inspiring family values.  Despite the Great Depression that haunted his legacy, few in Europe thought of him as anything except a great humanitarian.

Hoover was a staunch Republican, but he was an American first.  He loyally served two Democratic Presidents, Woodrow Wilson as a food tsar and later Harry Truman who asked him to head a commission to revamp the government.  One of my favorite political observations relates to a comment the historian David McCullough made at the Hoover Library more than a decade ago in an address about Hoover’s friendship with Truman.  He said that he had no evidence, no scrap of paper or comment of a contemporary to confirm, but he was sure he knew why these two ex-presidents were so close.  As book-ends to Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, both Hoover and Truman knew, according to McCullough, that it would be FDR who would be considered the dominant president of an era.  Each resented being in FDR’s shadow, and each shared a belief that they were far more able stewards of the public trust.

Relations between Hoover and FDR understandably became strained when they faced off in the 1932 election but they had important views in common.  Both were internationalist.  Each supported the League of Nations and the Charter for the United Nations.  Hoover was at the Versailles Peace Conference at the invitation of Wilson, prompting John Maynard Keynes to observe that he was the only leader to emerge from Versailles with an enhanced reputation.   

Unfortunately, in the wake of World War I, the United States Senate refused to ratify the charter of the League of Nations.  The Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate in 1920 was FDR and he toured the country advocating Wilson’s cherished League, though eschewing his idealistic rhetoric.  Instead, Roosevelt issued realpolitik warnings that if the United States did not join, American influence in the affairs of the world would be preempted by Europeans and others.  Hoover agreed.  He assumed that American sovereignty and interests could be better protected by leading rather than objecting to advances in international law and budding institutions.  In his Inaugural Address in 1929, he chose to use the “bully-est” of pulpits to advocate U.S. support for a Permanent Court of International Justice.  He noted that American statesmen were among the first to propose and urge support for such a tribunal.  In language some would consider insufficiently macho today, he told the country that “we should support every sound method of conciliation, arbitration, and judicial settlement.”

I wonder what Hoover would think today of a Senate which for a generation has been unable to ratify the Law of the Seas, a treaty designed to protect rights of ship passage in key straits of the world and provide a framework for settling potential disputes, one of which is looming between Russia, Canada, Norway, and the United States over sea passage and boundaries for the oil rich waters surrounding the North Pole.  The Law of the Seas is a treaty precipitated by the United States, negotiated by a distinguished Republican (Eliot Richardson) serving a Democratic President (Carter), and adamantly supported by the Department of Defense during six administrations. 

An advocate of the rule of law, Hoover as Secretary of Commerce led in pushing through Congress passage of an analogous domestic law, the Air Commerce Act of 1926 that set forth rules for the commercial aviation industry.   It would be presumptuous to suggest where a deceased person would stand on a contemporary issue.  Nonetheless, it would be reasonable to ask whether the concern FDR and Hoover had about ceding leadership influence to others if we didn’t ratify the League of Nations doesn’t also apply today to the Law of the Seas.

To shed perspective on an era, let me mention briefly four other remarkable Iowans whose lives overlapped with Hoover’s and whose contributions to society complemented his endeavors. 

Brought up in Sioux City and educated at Grinnell, Harry Hopkins lived at the White House as the de facto chief of staff to FDR.  He was the compelling driver of two of the most important Roosevelt initiatives – the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which put millions of Americans, including artists and writers, to work, and Lend-Lease, the technique used initially to aid Great Britain and then our other key ally in World War II, the Soviet Union. 

Hopkins took on two historic diplomatic missions at Roosevelt’s behest, the first to Great Britain at the outbreak of the war to assess Britain’s chances, the second involving a flight over Norway to Moscow to assess Russia’s viability and needs.  During this second mission, undertaken in failing health, he twice almost died.  The office of White House chief of staff is generally considered a 20th Century innovation.  To date, Hopkins is surely our greatest Presidential staff chief.      

Henry Wallace of Ames might be considered philosophically at the other end of American political thinking from Hoover.  Wallace was more open to radical liberalism than Hoover, who objected to anything associated with Lenin and his legacy, but Hoover and Wallace had one important perspective in common.  While Hoover found it difficult from both a philosophical and bureaucratic perspective to deal with the communists, he nevertheless worked to provide food assistance to starving Russian families in the aftermath of World War I.  Likewise, a war later, Wallace as FDR’s Vice-President understood the sacrifices of the Russian people and their criticality in defeating Hitler.  He worked to provide assistance to a country that was then an ally though poised to be a geo-political rival.  At the same time he conceived and recommended to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York a project in Mexico that eventually led to the hiring of Norman Borlaug and the launching of what came to be known as the Green Revolution.  Borlaug, an Iowa-born plant geneticist, used the techniques pioneered by Wallace and his father at Iowa State for development of hybrid corn and applied them to wheat, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize for averting a Malthusian debacle.   

The last Iowan I want to mention is a figure virtually everyone in this room knew and revered, Jim Van Allen.  His unparalleled contributions to space exploration and dedication to research are legendary at the University of Iowa.  But I will never forget the elderly physicist from Johns Hopkins who at his celebration of life ceremony at Hancher Auditorium told of the device he invented as a Lieutenant in the Navy after World War II broke out.  Working virtually alone in a lab he built in a garage in Chevy Chase, Maryland and on 40 acres of nearby farm land where he experimented with the results of his handiwork, Van Allen developed a proximity fuse which had the effect of increasing by thirty percent the effectiveness of naval shells and by a thousand percent the accuracy of anti-aircraft shells. 

Van Allen’s work for the Navy remained largely unknown to the public and to military historians for decades in part because it remained top secret after the war and in part because he maintained that understated Iowa modesty.  At the Hancher ceremony, the Johns Hopkins physicist read a citation presented Van Allen at the end of the war signed by the Secretary of the Navy.  It was startling in its significance.  It stated that no individual was more responsible for the success of the United States Navy in World War II than Lieutenant James Van Allen. 

America prevailed in the greatest war in history in partial measure because of four scientific and mathematical advances: upgraded radar; the breaking of the German and Japanese codes; the A-bomb; and the Van Allen proximity fuse.

What these extraordinary Iowans had in common with Hoover was the Iowa work ethic, Iowa modesty and sense of service, professionalism in fields of choice, from engineering (Hoover), to social work (Hopkins), to agronomy (Wallace and Borlaug), to physics (Van Allen).  All were internationalists with one, Jim Van Allen, perhaps also being, to coin a word, an “intra-galacticist.”  

And all had the benefit of an early Iowa education – a model platform.

Thank you.