Presidents Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover had a close and unexpected association.
Hoover served as president from 1929 to 1933. He had the misfortune of being president during the onset of the Great Depression, the economic crash for which he took much blame. At no time during the presidency of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, was Hoover invited to the White House. President Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt, not only invited Hoover to the White House, but entrusted him with important roles.
Hoover and Truman formed an unlikely bond. Hoover was a politically conservative Republican. Truman was a moderate, liberal-leaning Democrat. In a letter he wrote to a friend in Tennessee in February 1956, Truman referred to Hoover as belonging to the “far-right class.” Hoover and Truman also had significant foreign policy differences. Furthermore, Hoover, unlike Truman, was very wealthy. He lived at the posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City following his presidency.
Still, both men were dedicated to public service and were Midwesterners, which probably helped Truman, a Missourian, relate to Hoover, an Iowan born in West Branch. As historian Burton Kaufman pointed out in “The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton,” Truman also believed as a matter of principle “that ex-presidents deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Truman also felt a kinship with Hoover, the only living ex-president at that time. In their first meeting, which took place in the Oval Office on May 28, 1945, Truman and Hoover discussed “the general problems of U.S. Presidents – two in particular.” Arranging that meeting had been no easy task, because many of Truman’s advisers were staunchly opposed to it.
Truman pragmatically wished to put Hoover to work helping address the world food crisis, a problem that Hoover had addressed as administrator of the Food Administration following World War I. Truman named him honorary chairman of the Famine Emergency Committee, formed in 1946. Kaufman noted that Hoover assessed the food needs of Europe and other areas; he visited almost 40 countries and traveled over 50,000 miles in just three months. Hoover, with Truman’s help and against the objection of the State Department, convinced dictator Juan Peron of Argentina to ship surplus grain to Europe.
Truman also asked Hoover to chair a commission established by Congress in 1947 to reorganize the federal government’s executive branch. Kaufman called what became known as the Hoover Commission the “most comprehensive study ever undertaken of any branch of government.” Ironically, as William Pemberton mentioned in his essay in Richard Kirkendall (ed.), “The Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia,” the Republican-controlled Congress intended the Hoover Commission to prepare a “blueprint for dismantling the New Deal.” That didn’t happen. In fact, Truman implemented most of the commission’s recommendations, which included an initiative to unify the armed services into a department of defense.
Truman further helped improve Hoover’s public reputation by signing a bill to restore the name of Boulder Dam to Hoover Dam. (Hoover’s name had been removed during FDR’s administration.)
However, Truman never completely rose above his political differences with Hoover. During his campaign for his own election in 1948, Truman attacked Hoover and his record. For Truman, it was just politics and not personal. Hoover, however, was hurt by Truman’s barbs.
Still, there was no break between the two men. Bess Truman assisted in maintaining their good relations by requesting from Hoover a portrait of his wife, Lou Hoover, for display in the renovated White House. Hoover obliged and expressed his gratitude for her interest.
After Harry Truman left office in January 1953, Truman and Hoover remained close. Hoover supported Truman’s successful efforts to get Congress to approve pensions for former presidents (although Hoover certainly didn’t need the money). Hoover attended the dedication of Truman’s presidential library in 1957, and Truman attended the dedication of Hoover’s presidential library in 1962.
In December 1962, the very private Hoover wrote Truman to express his feeling that “yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know.” Hoover died in 1964 at the age of 90.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.