Few figures in American history have been so misunderstood and maligned as Herbert Hoover. This remarkable man personified the American dream by rising above poverty and personal misfortune to become a highly successful engineer and businessman whose achievements spanned six continents before World War I. Yet many people remember him as the President who was responsible for the Great Depression.
George Nash's scholarly study should help to set the record straight. This, the first of three projected volumes, is solidly researched and refreshingly free of the moralizing one might expect from a historian sympathetic to his subject.
The orphaned son of Iowa Quakers, Hoover was raised by a succession of relatives until, at 17, he set out for Stanford University and the study of engineering.
The shy freshman didn't make much of an impression on his classmates, who considered him somewhat of a grind. They were, however, struck by Hoover's quiet determination as he waited tables, cared for horses, delivered newspapers, worked in a laundry, and served as an office assistant to make ends meet.
Hoover's business savvy and his preference for remaining behind the scenes soon earned him the respect of Stanford's student body, which elected him treasurer in his junior year. He spent the summer between his junior and senior years as a field assistant for the US Geological Survey.
Hoover received his degree in 1895 and, after a brief apprenticeship, secured an appointment with Bewick, Moreing & Co., a British firm with extensive gold-mining interests in Western Australia. The 23-year-old engineer departed for the Australian outback armed with glowing recommendations and a newly grown beard to make him look older.
Hoover promptly established himself as a shrewd judge of profitable mining property and a tough-minded administrator.
In a few years he made the company a fortune by refining its operations and facing down a threatened trade-union strike. His Australian success led to a reassignment to China in 1899, where he survived the Boxer Rebellion and later developed the lucrative Chinese Engineering & Mining Co.
By 1901 Hoover's assets amounted to a quarter-million dollars, and he returned to London and became a partner in the prestigious Bewick, Moreing mining syndicate. For the next seven years he achieved several more successes, including an Australian zinc mine operation that confounded the experts.
Hoover succeeded, Nash says, not simply because he worked so hard, but because he selected competent subordinates and then left them alone to do their jobs. Fiercely independent, he often clashed with his superiors over questions of autonomy.
In 1908, he left Bewick, Moreing with a written understanding that he wouldn't practice his profession anywhere in Great Britain or the British empire for 10 years without the company's consent. Hence he became a free-lance ''financial expert,'' putting his engineering expertise and administrative acumen to personal use.
He traversed the globe in search of new ventures, ranging from a silver mine in Burma to a Russian oil exploration. But his efforts went beyond making money. ''Hoover,'' Nash says, ''saw himself as a reformer bringing a trained scientific intelligence to bear on a business - mining promotion - that had long reeked of ignorance and scandal.''
This blend of ethics and entrepreneurship was enunciated in a series of lectures Hoover gave at Stanford and which were later assembled in ''The Principles of Mining,'' a classic textbook for engineering students until it went out of print in 1967.
Hoover's Stanford ties drew him back as a university trustee in 1912. A board member remarked that Hoover had offered more new ideas in his first 10 days than had been suggested during the previous 10 years. He conducted a financial campaign that saved the school from bankruptcy.
But a much greater rescue operation would await Hoover several years hence, when he would direct food-relief programs for millions of World War I refugees. This and his several other achievements should animate the succeeding volumes and remove some of the stigma attached to America's 31st President.