Any analysis of Herbert Hoover’s presidency is naturally overwhelmed by his failures in combating the Great Depression. And it’s true that Hoover’s policies may have turned a mundane cyclical economic downturn into the worst economic catastrophe in American history. However, when evaluated against the restrained national security policy of the Constitution’s framers and more than a century of early practice, Hoover’s security policy was the best of any president in the 20th century, remains unsurpassed so far in the 21st, and stands as one of the best in American history.
Hoover dramatically improved relations with Latin America. He also kept the United States out of war in Asia and was successful in achieving disarmament among the large naval powers. He believed astutely that military intervention overseas usually caused more problems than it solved, including the loss of freedom at home. He also believed in sticking closely to the framers’ original anti-militarist and anti-alliance orientation, and made no claims to expand the president’s role in foreign policy beyond its limited role provided by the Constitution.
In practice, Hoover’s foreign policy demanded that overseas peoples and nations fight their own battles. During his four-year term, he passed up more chances for American intervention abroad than any other similarly tenured president of the 20th century. As a result, during his term, no Americans died in foreign conflicts.
In Latin America: Hoover gave this region the highest priority in U.S. relations abroad. His benevolent policy, largely continued by Franklin Roosevelt, would pay big dividends prior to and during World War II, when FDR was trying to garner support against possible Nazi penetration into the Americas.
For 30 years after the Spanish-American War, the United States had overseen and actively policed Latin American countries, including the internal affairs of those nations. Allegedly to ensure Caribbean security, particularly that of the Panama Canal, the United States had intervened militarily in Panama, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Before World War I, Woodrow Wilson had launched two invasions of Mexico. The reason for those intrusions was to support U.S. business interests in enforcing contracts and collecting debts—called “dollar diplomacy.”
Hoover aimed to change that interventionist policy. Although FDR is usually credited with initiating the “Good Neighbor” policy toward the region that united the Americas against the Axis powers, it was Hoover who pledged that the United States would quit meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American countries, something even the Coolidge administration had refused to promise. Hoover militarily stayed out even when Latin American nations fell into numerous depression-induced revolutions, defaulted on their U.S. loans, and confiscated American assets through nationalization.
He also withdrew U.S. Marines from Nicaragua, ending a two-decade-long martial presence in that nation, and he would have done the same in Haiti but for the Haitian legislature refusing to approve the terms of a treaty ending the occupation. (Hoover did set up the plans that allowed FDR to initiate the withdrawal by executive agreement in 1934.) In the meantime, U.S. relations with Haiti improved substantially as Hoover allowed Haitians to take over most public functions, ended martial law, and refrained from meddling in Haitian congressional elections.
In Japan: When Japan invaded Manchuria in September of 1931, Hoover historian Alexander DeConde noted, “The fighting there did not threaten American security, nor did it menace other tangible American interests.” Hoover insightfully noted at the time that “These [Japanese] acts do not imperil the freedom of the American people, the economic or moral future of our people. I do not propose ever to sacrifice American life for anything short of this.”
Although Japanese and Russian investment in Manchuria was substantial, British and American investment was not. Hoover also concluded that war with Japan would not only be naval but would involve American forces in China arming and training Chinese. He chose instead to lead the mediation effort to try to solve the crisis.
Hoover’s policy toward Japan should be analyzed through the lens of World War I, which was such a meat grinder for the powers involved that they were disinclined to push back against the Japanese. That meant that not only were Hoover’s instincts good but his hands were tied: he couldn’t have gone to war even if he’d wanted to. In fact, the war-weary American public had elected the Quaker Hoover in the first place because they were averse to faraway wars that had already sucked away lives and national resources.
Furthermore, given the poor state of its Navy, it is unlikely that the United States could have won a war with Japan in 1931. George C. Herring sums it up best:
It has been conventional wisdom since the 1940s that a firm Western response in 1931 would have prevented World War II. The so-called Manchurian/Munich analogy, which preached the necessity of resistance to aggression at the outset, became a stock-in-trade of postwar U.S. foreign policy…But there is no certainty that a firmer response in Manchuria would have prevented subsequent Japanese and German aggression. Nor did the non-response necessarily ensure future war. Neither Japan nor Nazi Germany at this time had a master plan or explicit timetable for expansion. The plain hard truth is that the Western powers in 1931 lacked both the will and the means to stop Japan’s conquest of Manchuria. …To have gone to war in 1931 might have been more disastrous than a decade later.
Signing the London Naval Treaty of 1930: At President Warren Harding’s initiative, the Washington Conference of 1920-1921 led to the first arms limitation agreement among the great naval powers. The treaty, however, limited only battleships and aircraft carriers, not cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. However, in the London Naval Treaty of 1930, the largest sea powers agreed to curtail all categories of naval warships until 1936. The treaty was the first comprehensive naval arms limitation agreement in modern history that covered all ships.
Given that nuclear weapons, intercontinental-range missiles, and long-range bombers have now allowed for the defense of the United States without overseas alliances, bases, and military adventures, perhaps a reversion to Hoover’s and the founders’ more rational and affordable foreign policy is in order. And given the nearly $21 trillion national debt, national exhaustion over recent interventions in the Middle East, five simultaneous drone wars that the United States is presently conducting, and consequent election of a populist president who has promised a less overextended U.S. foreign policy, now would be the perfect time to follow Hoover’s example. Going back to the future by re-adopting Hoover-style “independent internationalism” is the only way to ensure that the United States will retain its great power status for a long time to come.
Ivan Eland is senior fellow at and director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute, and author of the new book Eleven Presidents: Promises vs. Results in Achieving Limited Government. His forthcoming book is War and the Presidency: Saving the Republic from Congressional Failure.