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Churchill and the Presidents: Herbert Hoover
Churchill interacted with eleven U.S. presidents—as many as the Queen. He did not meet all of them, as she has; but you can trace their influence on his thought and principles as you read.
Herbert Hoover (4 March 1929 – 4 March 1933)
In the 1928 Presidential Election, Churchill came close to violating his rule of never meddling in American politics. He had met and liked the Democratic nominee, Governor Al Smith of New York—not least perhaps because Smith was determined to repeal Prohibition. Churchill even suggested a campaign slogan, “All for Al and Al for All.” Had he been in America in 1928, he might have become somewhat embroiled in U.S. politics—a thing he wisely managed to avoid.
Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith in the euphoria of prosperity, and Churchill, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote his wife with one of his earliest known expressions of doubt about Britain’s future: “So Hoover has swept the board. I feel this is not good for us. Poor old England—she is being slowly but surely forced into the shade.”
Despite the Conservative loss to Labour in the June 1929 British general election, Churchill was feeling better by then about Anglo-American accord. “Since Mr. Hoover became President,” he said on June 14th, “a more comprehending and sympathetic spirit has been imparted to the policy of the United States, not only towards this country but towards Europe in general.”
The Wall Street Crash in October brought on the Depression, and a new sense of urgency to improving relations. In 1931, Churchill would embark on his first lecture tour in thirty years, telling Americans that both countries must sink or swim together. When Hoover that same year proclaimed a moratorium on American demands for war debt payments by bankrupt Europe, Churchill praised the President’s “decision and inspiration…wisdom and the comprehension,” received in Britain “with sincere acclaim.”
Hoover wrote extensively and for years about the war, but his manuscript, Freedom Betrayed, was not publicly known until 2011, when Professor George Nash of Stanford completed a life’s work and published it. Hoover argued that continuing actively to fight Hitler after the Germans invaded Russia put Britain into the embrace of Stalin, and then the Americans—allies uncongenial to Britain’s continuance as a great power.
Herbert Hoover was no appeaser. He believed America should have given all-out aid to France and Britain from 1939, while arming herself to the teeth. But he was also convinced that Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s decision to aid Russia forced Britain and America to support what he saw as the ultimate long-term threat.
As Dantan Wernecke wrote, reviewing Freedom Betrayed, Hoover found it necessary “to reject every fact, statement, and conclusion of Churchill which cannot be confirmed from other evidence.” For Churchill, the choice was clearer. He saw Hitler as the direct and present threat in Europe, and Britain had traditionally arrayed herself against the greatest Euorpean power; until 1940, Stalin’s depredations had been confined to his own country.
To understand Hoover, you must read Freedom Betrayed. In my judgment, Hoover’s argument that international relations are primarily dictated by ideology failed to take into account the influence of national interests, which often trump ideology.
Churchill, with far broader experience of foreign affairs, over a much longer time, took the opposite view from Hoover. “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” Churchill broadcast a month after World War II had started. “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
And throughout the war, mistakes though he made, Churchill never deviated from that conviction.