It was Herbert Hoover's misfortune to be president when the stock market crashed in 1929. Three years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt would blame him for the Great Depression and defeat him at the ballot box. Historians ranking American presidents have placed Hoover near the bottom of their lists ever since.
If you've read Amity Shlaes' masterful The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, you know there was more to Hoover's economic thinking than is generally recognized. But for the last 20 years of his life, Hoover spent much of his time and energy on national security, laboring over what he called his "magnum opus," a combination revisionist history of World War II, memoir and scathing critique of Roosevelt's foreign policy.
Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and its Aftermath was completed almost a half-century ago but published only last year following a Herculean editing job by historian George H. Nash. According to Nash, Hoover's 900-page tome should be read "as an argument that challenges us to think afresh about our past." It should be read also, I would suggest, as an argument that challenges us to think afresh about our present and future.
In particular, at a time when America is facing a new totalitarian threat, Hoover makes clear how essential it is that we know our enemies -- who they are, what they believe, what they are fighting for -- and that we think hard about how to defend ourselves and other free nations.
Hoover called Hitler "cunning, intent on conquest, without conscience or compassion. ..." He called Nazism "a sort of mysticism based on theories of racialism and nationalism." Nevertheless, he took the position that America joining the war against Germany "was never necessary in order to save Britain."
How did he come to that conclusion? On June 23, 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Hoover was certain the Germans hadn't enough men and arms to fight successfully on two fronts at the same time. That meant that Britain, as Hoover wrote, had been made "safe from defeat."
Hoover also believed that with Hitler's invasion of Russia, "the two dictators of the world's two great aggressor nations were locked in a death struggle. If left alone, these evil spirits were destined, sooner or later, to exhaust each other." That, he maintained, is what Roosevelt should have allowed to happen.
In a speech radio broadcast nationally on June 29, Hoover reminded listeners that less than "two years ago, Stalin entered into an agreement with Hitler" that led to both Soviet and German attacks on Poland, and then Soviet attacks on Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland. To ignore this record and treat Stalin as an ally, Hoover argued, could only lead to one outcome: tightening "the grip of communism on Russia, the enslavement of nations, and more opportunity for it to extend in the world. ... To align American ideals alongside Stalin will be as great a violation of everything American as to align ourselves with Hitler."
The flaw in Hoover's argument, it seems to me: Hitler turned his weapons east rather than west because he desperately needed oil for his tanks, ships and planes. Had Hitler succeeded in capturing Baku, the heart of the Soviet oil industry, he would have become stronger than ever -- and then, undoubtedly, he would have turned his aggressive attentions to Britain and the Americas.
Hoover was correct in this: World War II lifted the Nazi jackboot from Eastern European necks and replaced it with the Soviet jackboot for decades to come. Wrong, however, was his prediction that, "If we get involved in this struggle we, too, will be exhausted and feeble." In fact, the U.S. emerged from World War II more powerful and -- before long -- more prosperous than it had ever been.
It was not inevitable that America would prevail over Nazism, Fascism and, eventually, Communism. It is not inevitable that America will prevail over totalitarianism in its 21st century forms -- not a kampf but a jihad; not Aryan racial supremacism but Islamic religious supremacism; not a fuehrer but a Supreme Leader; not dictatorships of the proletariat but clerical dictatorships.
Most importantly, now as then, those who call themselves our enemies have ideologies, strategies and goals. We need to understand them. If we refuse to seriously attempt that -- because it's more comforting to believe we are only confronting "extremism" and grievances that can be addressed through diplomacy -- we will be contributing to our own decline and downfall.
(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.)