by Rafael Medoff
New Hampshire’s presidential primary, which will be held on January 10, has produced its share of surprises over the years. Among the more remarkable was the race of 1920, when the Democratic primary in the Granite State was won by a young mining engineer who had never before run for public office–Herbert Hoover.
That Hoover would win a presidential primary the very first time his name appeared on a ballot is startling enough. That he was not a declared Democrat, or even a declared presidential candidate, makes the 1920 New Hampshire outcome all the more astounding. But as it turned out, that was only the first in a long series of surprising aspects to Hoover’s political career, from his support of U.S. aid to the Soviet Union, to his long-forgotten role in promoting the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust and creation of a Jewish state.
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Following successful mining expeditions in China and Australia, Hoover happened to be in London when World War I erupted in 1914, and took it upon himself to organize the evacuation of some 120,000 American citizens from the continent. He followed that by leading a massive campaign to provide food to the people of German-occupied Belgium. In another era, Hoover’s resume might have disqualified him from such tasks, but a keen organizational sense and a deep devotion to public service –born of his Quaker ethos– made up for what he lacked on paper.
This led President Woodrow Wilson to appoint Hoover head of the American Relief Administration, which was responsible for preventing mass starvation in wartorn Europe. By 1919, an estimated 83 million people in twenty countries had received U.S. food shipments, 95% of it paid for by donations that Hoover and his team raised. The people of Norway were so grateful for the aid that the word “Hoover” was turned into a verb in the Norwegian language that means to unselfishly help others. “Herbert Hoover was responsible for saving more people than any other person in history,” Hoover biographer George Nash calculates.
Although fervently anti-Communist, Hoover included famine-ravaged areas of the Soviet Union among U.S. recipients of aid, much to the chagrin of some Republicans. “Twenty million people are starving [in the USSR],” Hoover rebuffed his critics. “Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!”
Hoover’s humanitarian campaigns generated so much public admiration that by early 1920, friends were urging him to run for president. Although registered as a Republican, he had been serving in a Democratic administration and conceivably could have aligned himself with either party. (Think Colin Powell, circa 1992.) Hoover was still undecided about running when he won the New Hampshire primary on March 9. Ultimately, he threw his hat into the ring as a Republican, but he had so many supporters in both camps that in Michigan, he was listed on the April 5 ballot for both the Republican and Democratic primaries. Unfortunately for Hoover, he won the Democratic primary while placing a distant fourth in the state’s Republican contest. The GOP nomination would not be his for another eight years.
Although forever etched in the public’s memory as a staunch Republican, Hoover did not always adhere strictly to the party line, either as president or later. In 1932, for example, he appointed a Democrat, Benjamin Cardozo, to the Supreme Court. After World War II, Hoover served the Truman administration as head of the Famine Emergency Committee, which examined postwar food shortages in Europe and Asia, and then as chair of the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch. It is hard to imagine such cooperation today between a sitting president and a predecessor from the rival party.
Nowhere was Hoover’s unconventional side more striking than in his interest in Jewish affairs. Despite his previous opposition to immigration, it was Hoover who, during his post-presidential years, called for opening America’s doors to German Jewish refugee children–while President Franklin Roosevelt, despite his image as champion of “the little man,” insisted on keeping the doors shut. During the Holocaust, Hoover repeatedly pressed for U.S. action to rescue Jews from Hitler. And, although widely regarded as an isolationist, Hoover was the architect of the GOP’s 1944 call for U.S. intervention to help create a Jewish state in British-ruled Palestine.
It may be that the public’s perception of Herbert Hoover will always be shaped by his response to the Great Depression. And perhaps that is to be expected, given the magnitude and impact of those events. Still, a careful examination of Hoover’s record also reveals an unorthodox public servant who repeatedly crossed party lines, surprised his critics, and defied convention, beginning in the snows of New Hampshire in 1920.