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Friday, July 1, 1983

A Reviewers Notebook: Herbert Hoover: The Engineer

George Nash, the author of The Conservative’ Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, was an inspired choice to write a definitive biography of Herbert Hoover, who had the bad luck to be President at the onset of a depression that turned many an intellectual to an ill-considered radicalism that still dogs our political life. As the historian of the contemporary conservative revival, Nash is just the man to touch hands with an earlier America, when an orphaned Bertie Hoover, the son of an Iowa blacksmith, could scratch his way through geology courses at Stanford University to make his fortune in mining ventures all over the world and “retire,” at age 40, to start a second career in public service that led to the White House at a most inopportune time.

Mr. Nash has been at work on his Hoover biography since 1975, when the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association of West Branch, Iowa, picked him to carry through with a job of research that is still several years from completion. The first installment of Nash’s undertaking, The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer, 1874-1914 (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 768 pp., $25.00), is at hand, a work of tremendous detail that recreates a vanished world in a way that stresses many an irony.

The world that Herbert Hoover was so busy building as a young engineer and financier was brutally murdered, when, in 1914, the “guns of August” signalled the end of a hundred years of peace. World War I gave Herbert Hoover the opportunity to make a reputation as a public servant, but it utterly cancelled the meaning of many of the projects that had engaged his attention in the years when he was building his fortune by wresting mineral wealth from gold and zinc mines in Australia, coal mines in northeastern China, copper mines in Russia, and lead and silver slag piles in Burma.

Hoover’s first mining labors, as a young American engineer sent to the “outback” of West Australia by the English firm of Bewick, Moreing, were to bring some order and continuity to gold mining in places where the yield demanded the most careful kind of cost-cutting. The trick, even along the so-called Golden Mile at Kalgoorlie in the “Westralian” bush, was to make low grade ore deposits pay a margin of profit over a long enough period to justify the expense of good stamping equipment.

The irony of Hoover’s career in gold mining is that it presupposed a world in which gold would continue to be the “unit of account” in currency systems. But the pre-1914 world of the gold standard barely outlasted Hoover’s mining engineer career. And it was England’s attempt to revive the standard at an unrealistic level after the war that helped bring on the depression that ruined the Hoover presidency.

Hoover’s cost-cutting success in the Australian “outback” was repeated in China, where he took on the job of getting rid of “squeeze” in the operation of the rich Kaiping coal mine. But political troubles doomed the efforts of Hoover’s boss, C. Algernon Moreing, to make a good thing out of any Chinese concession. It was the time of the Boxer uprising. Hoover and his young wife, Lou Henry, survived the Boxer troubles, but his company couldn’t solve the problem of dealing with Chinese officials who had to reckon with laws that gave to the Imperial Court the ownership of all minerals in the ground. Hoover had a low opinion of the Chinese as workers—they “lacked mechanical instincts.” He argued that China would never manage to accumulate a “social surplus” for modernizing its economy until it had found a way to control its population growth.

If the “squalor of Asia” depressed Hoover, he had greater hopes for Russia. In his last days in London as an engineer-financier, he played a big part, mostly behind the scenes, in putting the Kyshtim copper mines in the southern Urals on a paying basis. He helped run pools in Kyshtim stock, he raised debenture money for the enterprise, and he profited by taking stock options. He made two trips to Russia, where he approved the “humane and progressive” attitude of the Baron Vladimir Meller-Zakomelsky in trying to improve the conditions of the peasants and workers at the bottom of the Kyshtim “pyramid.” But at a rail station in Russia Hoover caught sight of a chain gang of prisoners headed for Siberia. The horror of the scene gave him nightmares. He felt that “some day the country would blow up.” This was in 1912.

Despite the chain gangs, Hoover believed that western money and engineering expertise could do much for Russia. In 1913 and 1914 he backed his friend, the ebullient and optimistic Leslie Urquhart, in Russian ventures. Urquhart launched the Russo-Asiatic Corporation, with Hoover on his board. The corporation acquired three extraordinary mining concessions in Siberia, including 3,000 square miles in the southern Altai mountains not far from the Mongolian border. By the summer of 1914 Hoover’s Russian mining enterprises were in sight of spectacular success. Hoover also had oil interests in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia.

Nash quotes Hoover as saying he stood to obtain “more than is good for anybody” out of his Russian enterprises. But “it was not to be.” The enterprises that Hoover and his associates helped to guide in the Urals and Siberia all evolved toward eventual prosperity. But the Bolsheviks got all the benefits.

Hoover’s long absences from America only served to make him feel more and more American. He took special pains to take time off from money-making in London to become a big benefactor of Stanford University, which made him a trustee. It was Hoover who insisted on raising the salary levels of the Stanford faculty at a time when the university was having trouble luring good teachers to its Palo Alto campus. If World War I had not in-tervened Hoover would have returned to California, where he hoped to settle himself and his family on the Stanford campus.

Nash is remarkably even-handed when it comes to dealing with Hoover’s quarrels with his London partner C. Algernon Moreing, who made Hoover promise to refrain from practicing his profession of mining engineer on British Empire soil as a condition of leaving Bewick, More-ing to become a financier. Hoover and Moreing had always kept their distances from each other. Their quarrels were not always seemly on either side. Nash remarks on Hoover’s “marked sensitivity to criticism.” Hoover, he says, would go to “extraordinary lengths . . . throughout his life to rebut alleged misrepresentation.”

What Nash implies is that Hoover was too thin-skinned to be a politician. But that is something for another volume.

The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer may be received postpaid, by sending a check or money order in amount of $25.00 to Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, Inc., P.O. Box 696, West Branch, Iowa 52358.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.