This time we turn our attention to Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, who held office from 1929 to 1933. Hoover is popularly remembered as a failed president because of his inability to effectively react to the stock market crash of 1929.
Hoover has been redeemed by more recent discussions of this history, but last year, for example, my cousin's husband called a neighborhood in Queens a "Hooverville" in reference to its shoddy condition, and to the economic conditions during Hoover's presidency. Let's just say that Hoover tops the 'best presidents' lists of very few American historians.
But Hoover was not a failed president in the sense of the corrupt Warren G. Harding or the useless James Buchanan. Instead he lived a life more similar to the first President Bush or President Carter. That is he was extensively qualified, he was involved in humanitarian missions, he perfected the job of civil servant, but he ran into trouble when it was time for him to lead.
It was in his role as director of the American Relief Association that Hoover was involved in delivering food and supplies to the Baltic countries during the First World War. In 1938, after he had been ousted from office, Hoover found time to visit Estonia and Latvia who had both invited him to thank him for the ARA Relief. It was these visits that Hoover gave an account of while under oath in front of the Kersten Commission in December 1953.
Hoover: During the years afterward I had many invitations to come to the Baltic States, Poland, and other countries. They wanted to express some appreciation for our services, but I was busy with other things, as you know, and it was not until 1938 that I responded to those invitations, 19 years after my previous experiences.***
I then visited Latvia and Estonia. I did not go to Lithuania, although I made considerable inquiries as to how they were getting on. I was also interested in knowing what was going on in Russia because there was a constant migration back and forth, chiefly of skilled mechanics from the Baltic States going into Russia, for employment in Russian industry. These people were coming back and they knew all about details of life in Russia. I interviewed a great number of them and could give you something of the picture and contrast.
Mr. Kersten: We would like that picture.
Mr. Hoover: The problem you are working on bears directly in that direction. Russia at that time was drastically rationing all food and clothing. They had an entirely unstable currency, if you could call it a currency at all. You know the nature of the Russian government and the characteristics.
The Baltic States, in contrast, had a free economy. Their currency was stable, their currencies were convertible into gold, they were accepted all over the world. Their fiscal policies were completely successful,; their budgets were all balanced, their industries were thriving, their agriculture was making an astonishing progress.
The result was that the standard of living in the Baltic States was about as high as any standard of living in Europe, possibly outside of Switzerland and Norway.
Mr. Madden: Mr. President, what year was this?
Mr: Hoover: This was 1938. The contrast with Russia was so great that it became one of the menaces of the Baltic States. The Russian people were constantly attempting to escape from Russia into the Baltic States. The Russians had established a barbed wire fence over some portion of that border, I don't know how many miles, but in any event, they maintained a rigid picket line in order to repel their own people from escaping into the more prosperous Baltic States to live.
The contrast was enormous and I should say that those three states had made more progress from the very low beginnings they had had 19 years before, than probably had ever been made by any series of states on record.
The testimony later goes on to discuss how during the Sept. 1939 discussions between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Germany was originally slated to get Lithuania, while the USSR would grab Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. Part of Lithuania was later purchased by the USSR from Germany, in cash. That is they had the cash to buy a strip of Lithuania from the Nazis, but not the cash to invest in their own people.
Towards the end of his testimony Hoover is asked if he has any hopes for the Baltic States regaining their independence.
Hoover: When these three states came out from under the Russians in 1919, they had a flowering literature, they had great vitality in all of their racial qualities. Now, I have the belief that you cannot stamp that out of a people; you can't stamp it out of the Czechs, you can't stamp it out of the Poles, nor the Baltic peoples.
The only hope I can see is that some day, in some world cataclysm, those people can rise again as they did in 1919. That is the only solution I can see at the moment and it is the main hope.
He died in New York in 1964. His funeral was the third in three state funerals in a year, following the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Douglas MacArthur.