by John Willson
Most of the readers of this site know by now that one of the truly great historians of my generation (people born 1933-46, the “no-name” generation), George H. Nash, has recently published Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2011). Every conservative has held in his hands Dr. Nash’s definitive The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945, and, thanks to the good offices of institutions such as The Heritage Foundation, ISI, and Hillsdale College thousands of students have heard him speak or read his lectures, making him a real presence among conservative Americans for nearly four decades.
He is also the scholar of Herbert Hoover, one of our most brilliant Presidents (and perhaps, including Jefferson, the best read), but one who continues to be trashed by both left and right for his complicity in turning a stock market correction into the Great Depression. This is a charge, by the way, that Dr. Nash has effectively refuted many times, but it’s one that sticks, not only to Hoover himself but to those who try to write about him sympathetically. Curiously enough, it takes about as much courage to write about Hoover as it does to write about Senator Joseph McCarthy. Prior to Dr. Nash’s biography, the only historians who dared to portray Hoover favorably were those whose thesis was that Hoover’s Depression policies were just like FDR’s. Dr. Nash has always let Hoover be himself, never more so than in this volume, which is Hoover’s “Magnum Opus” preceded by about a hundred pages of Nash scholarship explaining its genesis and the context of its contents.
I met my friend George in the early 1980s at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. He was living a spartan life in a motel, driving an old Ford Fairlane, researching and writing the Hoover biography. I was hired to consult with the Library on programs and publications its Library Association might undertake. He told me about the “Magnum Opus,” although neither he nor any other scholar had yet been allowed to read it. Apparently there was some concern that it was too revisionist for the then-current scholarly and political atmosphere. It still had to wait about three decades to see the scholarly light of day. In the meantime I tried for over ten years to lure George to the Hillsdale College faculty. It didn’t work out– a good thing, perhaps, for him, because he got his work done! I mention this personal side of things only to suggest, particularly to our younger readers, that real scholarship, like real community, often takes time and great patience to achieve.
I don’t mean here to write a review, but rather to offer ten reasons why good Imaginative Conservatives should read this book.
10. It is a marvelous example of what some of our Presidents used to be. Hoover wrote most of his own speeches and all of his more than thirty books. Since then, with a few exceptions here and there, this has not been true.
9. As “part memoir and part diplomatic history” it gives a view of events that, in its literary quality, is rare, reminding us of Churchill and DeGaulle.
8. By defining FDR’s “Lost Statesmanship” it presents a clear view of how important it is for us to elect leaders who actually know something about the cultures and the peoples they befriend and fight.
7. It “marches” through the wartime conferences, showing the content behind their declarations as well as the texts of their public pronouncements. Hoover also makes the case that Tehran was more crucial to the shape of the postwar world than Yalta.
6. The structure highlights the central place of communism in the unfolding of world events, from 1933 on, thus showing that the foreign policy of the 1930s was not just about opposition to fascism.
5. Its argument against Unconditional Surrender is both passionate and nuanced, and pronounced as politically and morally bankrupt. Hoover shows that it was opposed by our allies and actually prolonged the war.
4. The list of nineteen (!) “gigantic errors” made by American and British policy makers is a comprehensive and detailed indictment of allied policy brought together more succinctly than in any other book.
3. Nash’s introduction lays out the care and consideration that went into the making of the “Magnum Opus” over the course of twenty years, an invitation to compare with other books written during the same era.
2. It recreates the full range of moral and political debates that took place during this crucial period, instead of merely apologizing for American policy.
1. And although Hoover never uses the term, he shows how liberal internationalism came to shape almost all of American domestic and foreign politics by 1950, and that the same moral and political questions remain with us today.
Toward the end of his life Hoover wrote to his son Allan that he and his political principles had been smeared and vilified to a degree “probably unequalled in American life.” He anticipated that the publication of Freedom Betrayed would only increase the noise. In a sense it is a good thing to have waited this long to give it to the world. It may do more good now than it would have in 1953, or 1963. Dr. Nash’s fine job of giving it form and context will at least introduce a new generation to what was a noble American tradition.
John Willson, is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and professor of history emeritus, Hillsdale College. His work has been published in Modern Age, Imprimis, and the University Bookman, and he contributed to Reflections on the French Revolution (1990). Dr. Willson is past President of the Philadelphia Society and gives speeches regularly to various groups.