Herbert Hoover was elected the 31st president of the United States by a landslide in 1928. But with the onset of the Great Depression, he quickly became one of the most despised presidents in the country's history. Although he took office with a lifetime of international experience, the Depression overshadowed his successes in foreign affairs. The Republican's foreign policies reflected his commitment to helping others balanced with his belief in a strong free market.
The Blame Game
While Hoover's presidency was largely defined by his perceived inability to control the ever-worsening depression that gripped the country, he blamed the situation in part on the European economic instability brought on by World War I. Although Hoover had organized shipments of food to millions of starving and displaced people in war-torn Europe, he also raised tariffs on agricultural and industrial imports to the U.S. These increased tariffs worsened the situation for nations already heavily indebted to the U.S., and they responded by raising their own tariffs against American products. This protectionist trade war, in turn, further entrenched economic depression on a global scale.
Give Peace a Chance
Perhaps motivated in part by his Quaker upbringing, Hoover was reluctant to use military force and made global disarmament a focus of his foreign policy, seeking unsuccessfully to eliminate all military airplanes, tanks and chemical warfare. In 1929, many countries entered a global treaty renouncing war. When Japan violated this treaty by invading Manchuria in 1931, Hoover advised against sending American troops to repel the invasion. Rather, Hoover announced a policy of non-recognition: the U.S. would not recognize any territorial gains, made by Japan or any other country, as a result of military invasion.
Being a Good Neighbor
Historians particularly praise Hoover's handling of the U.S. role in Latin American affairs and his efforts to reduce political and economic interference in Central and South America. After his election, but before he'd taken the oath of office, Hoover spent 10 weeks in Latin America, meeting leaders and making speeches pledging the U.S. would be a "good neighbor" to the nations to the south. He ended the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua and, in 1932, entered a treaty with Haiti that promised a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country within three years. Hoover also declined to use diplomatic non-recognition as a tool to unseat Latin American governments the U.S. didn't like.
Hoover expended great effort towards feeding the hungry worldwide before, during and after his presidency, earning global acclaim and gratitude as a "Great Humanitarian." In his lifetime, he helped feed more than a billion people in 57 different countries. However, Hoover saw such relief as the province of volunteerism and charity efforts, not the responsibility of the federal government. During World War I, President Wilson appointed Hoover as head of the Food Administration, where he decreased national consumption without resorting to rationing, enabling the U.S. to send surplus food to the starving citizens of Europe. Long after his presidency, he was called again by President Truman to help avert famine following World War II. Touring 38 countries, Hoover convinced foreign leaders to donate to those in need.
- University of Virginia Miller Center: American President: Herbert Clark Hoover -- Foreign Affairs
- The White House: Herbert Hoover
- National Archives Prologue Magazine: The Ordeal of Herbert Hoover
- National Archives Prologue Magazine, The Ordeal of Herbert Hoover, Part Two
- The Hoover Presidency -- A Reappraisal; Martin L. Fausold and George Mazuzan
- Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images