100 Years of the Hoover Institution

Herbert Hoover in 1918 (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)
It's now a conservative atoll in a progressive sea. What’s next for the storied research center?

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Or at least, in theory, it sort of does.

In 1919 Herbert Hoover — then a 45-year-old multimillionaire, mining engineer, and veteran of efforts to save the starving of Europe and Russia following World War I — gave $50,000 (about $600,000 today) and his million-document collection on the war and its detritus to his beloved alma mater, Stanford University.

By 1921, the expanding “Hoover War Collection” — hardly a “think tank” — had become formalized as Stanford’s prestigious Hoover War Library, with some 1.4 million documents and books.

After two decades, the iconic 285-foot Hoover tower was built in 1941 on Stanford’s 50th anniversary. And by 1947 the library and its staff were formally renamed the “Hoover Institute and Library on War, Revolution and Peace” — still embedded within Stanford University, but perhaps not yet even a true think tank — and in theory not necessarily to be ideologically part of Stanford University.

Ten years later, the Institute adopted its current name of the Hoover Institution — the apparent idea being that an “institution” would better reflect Hoover’s own expanding interests and agendas beyond the “institute’s” original archival emphases on World War I and its aftermath.

Controversy over names, charters, and relations with Stanford were more or less suppressed from 1960 to 2015, perhaps because the Hoover Institution enjoyed a 55-year-long tenure under just two directors, W. Glenn Campbell (1960–89), 86-year-old Herbert Hoover’s hand-picked staunch conservative), followed by his former assistant, John Raisian, and Raisian’s equally long and impressive tenure (1989–2015). It was under Campbell that the idea of an independent research institution, with fellows whose research interests would transcend archival work, was first fully realized.

This half-century of remarkable growth explains why the Hoover Institution, currently under the direction of Thomas Gilligan, now enjoys a $550 million endowment, and a $70 million annual budget, employs 190 fellows of various ranks, and hosts quite diverse scholars and former government officials such as Scott Atlas, Peter Berkowitz, Russel Berman, Niall Ferguson, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, Condoleezza Rice, Andrew Roberts, Peter Robinson, George Shultz, Kiron Skinner, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and economists John Taylor, Michale Boskin, John Cochran, John Cogan, and Edward Lazear.

One way of understanding Hoover’s often tumultuous first century is to explore its three key relationships.

The first, of course, involves the role of Herbert Hoover, the eponymous founder of the institution. Hoover enrolled in Stanford’s first class of 1891 and may have been its first in-residence student by moving into newly built Encina Hall.

For the next nearly 70 years, alumnus Hoover was Stanford’s chief advocate and fundraiser on the national scene. He was convinced that Leland Stanford and David Starr Jordan (the donor and new university’s first president) were at heart conservative pragmatists who envisioned Stanford as a unique and even pioneering research university (co-ed and nondenominational) that would combine the arts and sciences with practical professional schools that fostered applied learning — a sort of blueprint of Hoover’s own spectacular career to come.

Certainly, Herbert Hoover was a self-made man who in his twenties and thirties had gained a global reputation as a fearless mining engineer who would traverse remote places around the world where few others dared. Given his talents in his thirties for creating corporations and cementing complex deals and mergers, had he continued as a full-time entrepreneur, investor, and technocrat, Herbert Hoover might well have become the richest man in the United States.

Instead, in the dark years of World War I, and its immediate aftermath, Hoover turned all his energies toward heading the Belgian Relief Fund, and later the American Relief Administration, which saved millions from the starvation that accompanied World War I and the outbreak of the Spanish flu. By 1920-1, in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution, Hoover had organized help for millions of starving Russians. His signature biographer, George Nash, did not exaggerate in suggesting that Hoover was credited with saving more humans than any other man of his time.

By 1921, when he was appointed secretary of commerce by Warren Harding, Hoover the technocrat, innovator, philanthropist, and humanitarian was in some sense the most famous and beloved man in the world, perhaps analogous in our times to a mixture of Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Mother Teresa all in one.

Hoover was most fortunate in partnering with a brilliant spouse, Lou Henry Hoover, a polyglot fellow Stanford geology graduate (she had translated the 16th-century treatise De re Metallica from Latin) who remained his confidante and ideological partner for some 46 years. The 55-year-old Hoover was elected president in 1928 by a margin of more than 58 percent, a greater percentage even than the Roosevelt landslide that would remove him office four years later. The Hoovers moved into the White House rightly seen as a reward for the tireless humanitarian work of the nation’s beloved first couple.

Unfortunately, Hoover entered office in March 1929 and just seven months later was overwhelmed by the Black Friday stock-market meltdown that would soon usher in the Great Depression through no fault of his own. In some sense, Hoover’s life was now bifurcated into two radically antithetical halves: sainthood before 55, and unfair demonization for the next 35 years of his life. Depression shanties were renamed “Hoovervilles,” and he insidiously became the progressive Roosevelt administration’s scapegoat for the Depression.

Citizen Hoover by 1933 was understandably no longer so interested in combining his notion of a progressive agenda within the aegis of market capitalism, but rather in curbing big-government socialism ushered in by the New Deal. As Hoover pointed out, FDR’s New Deal had failed to restart the economy. A near decade after the Wall Street collapse, in 1938, unemployment was still hovering above 17 percent, and annualized GDP had shrunk by an astoundingly negative 2.5 percent. In his 1959 mission statement of the Institution, Hoover likely had in mind his own long opposition to the New Deal and what it had represented:

Ours is a system where the Federal Government should undertake no governmental, social or economic action, except where local government, or the people, cannot undertake it for themselves. . . . The overall mission of this Institution is, from its records, to recall the voice of experience against the making of war, and by the study of these records and their publication, to recall man’s endeavors to make and preserve peace, and to sustain for America the safeguards of the American way of life. This Institution is not, and must not be, a mere library.

As Hoover aged and grew more conservative, so did his relationship change with what was becoming formalized as the Hoover Institution. Or more specifically, Hoover soon was squaring off against a series of Stanford University presidents, culminating in a collision with the legendary and gifted Wallace Sterling (1947–68) in a decade-and-a-half fight over the autonomy of the Hoover Institution. And while Stanford’s most famous alumnus eventually made his peace with his university, it is germane that he did not bequeath all his papers to Stanford, and his presidential library was not located at Stanford, but in West Branch, Iowa, the place of his birth in 1874 — and burial in 1964.

The second landmark Hoover Institution relationship, then, involves its home institution, Stanford University. Ostensibly, the Hoover-Stanford partnership was seen as a win-win for both parties and can often be viewed so today: Hoover, unlike other major conservative think tanks, such as AEI, Heritage, and Hudson, is lodged at a major research university. Its scholars draw on the huge library of Stanford University and its intellectual community. The Stanford cachet has empowered Hoover’s efforts to raise funds from Stanford alumni.

In turn, Stanford also has found advantage in partnering with Hoover. Hoover scholars are sometimes members of Stanford departments or at least enjoy courtesy appointments that enrich teaching, scholarship, and national rankings. Its iconic tower is often emblematic of Stanford itself, which reminds conservative critics of the university’s left-leaning trajectory that it still welcomes the ideological “balance” that Hoover offers.

That current give-and-take of tensions and compromise between university and institution are best emblemized by the manner of appointment and retention of fellows: Hoover can within reasonable limits appoint and retain “research” fellows without intrusive Stanford approval and sometimes without requiring fellows to hold a Ph.D. In turn, “senior” fellows, who are granted de facto tenure, must win the approval of a university faculty-tenure committee and roughly meet the relevant department’s requirements for full professorship — and then further have such nominations ratified by a Stanford provost.

Yet old ambiguities arise in new ways: Conservative intellectuals and researchers who seek to become senior fellows who meet Stanford department requirements are not always primarily academic historians, economists, and social scientists but sought out by Hoover more for their work as public intellectuals. And into that lacuna often enter “joint” appointments — sometimes “centrist” Stanford professors who may not prove to be all that conservative.

Before the 1960 appointment of the unwavering conservative W. Glenn Campbell as Hoover director, 86-year-old Herbert Hoover had grown somewhat despondent that Stanford, perceived as becoming ever more liberal in the post-war 1950s, had almost won its battle to absorb, intellectually and operationally, his envisioned conservative Hoover Institution. He often dismissed the intrusive Stanford professors who sought to transform Hoover as squirrel-caged scholastics.

Today, the same questions that confronted Herbert Hoover remain: Does Hoover pose a conservative threat or offer an enhancement to liberal Stanford University, or does Stanford pose a danger or offer advantage to Hoover’s autonomy, or neither or both? In some sense the symmetry is misleading: Given that Hoover’s impressive 190 fellows and $550 million endowment are not so impressive when compared with Stanford’s 2,240 professorial faculty and 50-times-larger $26 billion endowment.

A final tessera in the Hoover mosaic is the changing relationship to California. Herbert Hoover, the first U.S. president born west of the Mississippi, saw Stanford University, and by extension the growth of the new Hoover collection, library, institute, and institution, as representative of a far-seeing, dynamic California — especially as personified by its robust economy, modern infrastructure, and can-do entrepreneurialism, best typified by Stanford’s founder, the railroad Big Four tycoon and governor, Leland Stanford.

California is distant from the centers of American financial and political power in New York and Washington. Hoover himself spent much of his last 30 years in the Waldorf Astoria in New York and occasionally felt frustrated that the Institution was far from both his own residence and the levers of American influence. Ironically, the original advantage of a having the Hoover Institution on the West Coast was that it was distant from the political intrigue of the East Coast, thereby allowing scholars to craft policies without the Sturm and Drang of lobbyists, activists, and politicos.

Perhaps more important is the ongoing political transformation of California. From the time Herbert Hoover enrolled in Stanford in 1891 to his death in 1964, eleven of California’s 14 governors were Republicans. Hoover naturally assumed that the institution’s home state would be a force multiplier of his library and institution’s advocacy of free markets, limited government, and realist foreign policy. And while California became increasingly more centrist after Hoover’s death — and was home to campus activism, the hippie movement, and much of the new Left — the Institution still played a natural and influential policymaking role in the subsequent Republican governorships of Ronald Reagan (1967–75), George Deukmejian (1983–91), Pete Wilson (1991–99), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (2003–11).

Yet by 2012 a variety of financial, demographic, and ideological factors had changed the nature of California. There are currently no Republican statewide officials. Only seven of the state’s 53 congressional representatives are Republicans. It is hard to imagine how a Republican governor might be elected in the present — or future — political landscape that is the bluest in the nation.

The sources of great wealth in California are also no longer necessarily found in farming, gas and oil, shipping, ranching, mining, timber, construction, manufacturing, or even real estate. Rather, California’s new vast riches derive from Silicon Valley’s computer industry, high technology, the Internet, and social media and their related companies.

The management and owners of these latter 21st-century industries are mostly progressives, and the targets of their giving reveal their liberal preferences. Given Hoover’s location in the liberal Bay Area in general and in particular situated just a mile or two away from Silicon Valley, Hoover faces a number of insidious challenges, among them the likelihood that its largest potential gifts may one day come from donors who are reluctant to identify as conservative or even libertarian, but rather see Hoover as ripe for ideological recalibration leftward. Moreover, the aggregate four-trillion-dollar market capitalization of Silicon Valley’s largest firms often explains the huge amounts of money that go to progressive candidates, ballot initiatives, and liberal think tanks.

In other words, Herbert Hoover’s assumption that his institution would find a nourishing ideological climate at his alma mater and in his adopted state has been transmogrified into its antithesis: Hoover is a conservative atoll in a sea of progressive big money and left-leaning thought. We need to remember that while the Hoover Institution of the last 60 years was seen as an idiosyncratic presence at Stanford and in Northern California, Herbert Hoover in 1919 likely had assumed the very opposite: that his beloved Stanford, Calif., and what would become the future Hoover Institution would all remain synergistic ideological bedfellows.

Finally, a more existential challenge for Hoover at its centennial is the entire modernist idea of a “think tank” itself. Certainly, against-the-grain analysts and scholars — of the caliber of Milton Friedman, Robert Conquest, or Thomas Sowell — have been able to challenge flawed orthodoxies, offer concrete alternatives to conventional thought, advance those ideas in an often hostile public arena, and thereby change lives for the better.

But in an age of universal pushback against the “swamp” of globalized bureaucracies that ignore popular criticisms, and fossilized elites who seek credibility through degrees and credentials rather than by proven performance, we must remember that independent and even eccentric thinking, not affirmation of the status quo, is the appropriate brand of think tanks. Their proper constituencies are not just policymakers but, most important, the people themselves, and thus they should welcome qualified outsiders and see the unconventional as a trademark advantage.

The views expressed here do not reflect those of Stanford University or necessarily of the administration, overseers, donors, or fellows of the Hoover Institution.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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