Herbert Hoover: Foreign Affairs

Herbert Hoover: Foreign Affairs

Herbert Hoover had an admirable reservoir of experience in international affairs when he became President in March 1929. He had traveled the world extensively as a mining engineer, served on President Wilson's delegation to the peace talks at the end of World War I, and worked on international trade issues as secretary of commerce. He was no American provincial.

As President, Hoover's foreign policies were conditioned by the Great Depression. Indeed, by the fall of 1930, Hoover was blaming America's economic malaise on international, and especially European, economic realities. As a result, he looked increasingly for ways to improve the international economy as the Depression deepened. At the same time, Hoover pushed for disarmament treaties, rethought American relations with the countries of South and Central America, and confronted Japanese aggression in China.

Hoover's most important foreign policy adviser was Secretary of State Henry Stimson. Stimson's previous experience in the federal government, as secretary of war under President Taft and as governor-general of the Philippine Islands from 1928 to 1929, made him an ideal choice to head the Department of State. Stimson and Hoover had vastly different personalities; the latter was a somewhat dour workaholic while the former was extroverted and rarely missed a chance to get away from the office. Likewise, they often entertained different views of America's role in the world, with the President much more reticent than his chief diplomat about using military force or coercive economic sanctions. Nonetheless, the two men worked together effectively to craft American foreign policy during the Hoover presidency.

Hoover's Depression Diplomacy

Hoover's attempts in 1929 and 1930 to enact tariff reform quickly emerged as a major domestic policy and political issue. (See Hoover, Domestic Affairs) While foreign policy considerations were never central to the debates about, and passage of, the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, that law had distinct consequences for American foreign affairs. Smoot-Hawley raised duties on both agricultural and industrial imports to the United States, and led European nations and Japan to erect (or to heighten existing) protectionist trade walls against American products. This dynamic produced what the historian Benjamin Rhodes has called a "suicidal international trade war" in the wake of the stock market crash.

The market crash in October 1929, moreover, weakened an already shaky global economic order. Following World War I, the United States emerged as the linchpin of the world economy. Germany depended upon American loans to pay its Great War reparations to France and Britain, which owed the United States for the loans they received during the war. American dollars made these delicate financial arrangements possible, but those dollars disappeared with the Great Crash. As a result, an already sluggish world economy slowed further. In the summer of 1931, German banks defaulted on their reparations payments, endangering nearly $700 million of American loans. Hoping to avert a severe crisis, Hoover called for an eighteen-month moratorium on intergovernmental debt payments. Hoover's gambit won the approval of all European nations; only France balked initially. Hoover also managed to secure an agreement from the Europeans to advance Germany short-term credit.

Stabilizing Germany's finances did little to help the British government, which oversaw an economy wracked by international debts and unemployment. To stop the outflow of its gold reserves, Britain left the gold standard and devalued its currency in the fall of 1931. While British goods became more competitive on the international market, the maneuver sparked a round of devaluations and accelerated the destructive trade war. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, approved Hoover's plans for a debt moratorium and a short-term credit loan to Germany. However it flatly rejected Hoover's call for the recreation of the World War Foreign Debt Commission. Opponents of the debt commission insisted it was only the first step in repudiating, rather than repaying, Europe's war debts.

Hoover continued to struggle with the debt issue during his final year in office. Throughout 1932, members of both parties loudly reminded the President that they expected America's foreign debtors to pay in full. The Lausanne Conference, which reduced Germany's payments to the Allies to just over $700 million, only inflamed American opinion. On November 10—two days after Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover in the presidential election—British diplomats informed State Department officials that they wanted to postpone an upcoming debt payment and review the plans for repayment they had agreed to in the early 1920s. Other European nations, including France, quickly followed suit.

Hoover, by this time a lame-duck President, consulted Roosevelt and suggested the recreation of the War Debts Commission. FDR offered Hoover little support, not wanting to be hamstrung by his predecessor's policies after he took office in March. Hoover alerted the British that they would have to make their scheduled payment, but that negotiations about future payments were possible. Much to Hoover's relief, Britain did make its December 15 payment; the other European nations, with the exception of Italy, defaulted. Hoover continued throughout the interregnum (the period between FDR's election in November 1932 and his inauguration in March 1933) to press FDR to support a commission on the debt issue, but to no avail. This matter, as well as the general state of the international economy, would be left for Roosevelt's consideration.


Hoover worked assiduously during his term to bring about international agreements on disarmament. In 1930, he sent Secretary of State Stimson and a highly credentialed, bipartisan delegation to the London Naval Conference to discuss further reductions in naval armaments; the 1930 Conference was itself a successor to conferences in Washington, D.C., in 1922 and Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. While the summit quickly became bogged down in arcane technical discussions about the size, speed, and armaments of specific classes of naval warships, Stimson hammered out an agreement with Britain and Japan to limit the number and size of each signatory's naval cruisers. The Senate approved the agreement in July 1930.

Later, in 1932, Hoover sent Stimson to the World Disarmament Conference at Geneva. Consumed by the Depression and facing a presidential election, Hoover paid scant attention to the deliberations and gave the American delegation's leader, Ambassador Hugh Gibson, unrealistic proposals which called for the abolition of submarines, airplanes and, tanks. The conference ultimately failed because France made arms reductions contingent on a "consultative pact," between France, the United States, and England, designed to thwart German militarism should it reappear. Neither the United States nor Britain agreed to this condition.

The "Good Neighbor" Policy

One of Hoover's most successful diplomatic initiatives was his "Good Neighbor" policy toward the nations of South and Central America. While most Americans associate the policy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it actually originated with the previous administration. Hoover's approach had both symbolic and substantive elements. After his election in 1928, but before assuming the presidency, Hoover embarked on a ten-week tour of Latin America during which he delivered twenty-five speeches, almost all of which stressed his plans to reduce American political and military interference in Latin American affairs. In sum, he pledged that the United States would act as a "good neighbor." Just as important, in 1930, Hoover ordered the release of a 1928 State Department paper—the "Clark Memorandum"—that disputed the legality of American intervention in Latin America under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

In a number of instances, Hoover backed up this symbolism with concrete actions. He removed American troops from Nicaragua after the 1932 election. He signed a treaty with Haiti that same year, promising to end the American occupation by January 1, 1935. And he personally arbitrated a dispute between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, which Secretary of State Stimson called Hoover's "greatest personal triumph." Hoover's "Good Neighbor policy" established a solid foundation on which his immediate successor could build.

Japanese Aggression and the Stimson Doctrine

In September 1931, Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria, a mineral-rich and agriculturally productive region that had long been coveted by Japanese expansionists. Hoover and Stimson decided against an immediate American response, but Japan's successful campaign in the following months to seize all of Manchuria worried Stimson. The question was how the United States and the world community would respond to the flagrant violations of Chinese sovereignty and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929 (of which Japan was a signatory) that renounced war as an "instrument of national policy." In November 1931, the League of Nations passed a resolution demanding that Japan withdraw from Chinese territory. Japan, however, ignored the dictum.

Hoover and Stimson, meanwhile, were at loggerheads. The President, fearful that the United States might become embroiled in a military conflict in Asia, wanted to reduce the nation's profile there. His most hawkish proposal was to favor a policy of not recognizing Japanese territorial gains should Japan and China sign a peace treaty. Stimson understood Hoover's desire to avoid war and supported the non-recognition policy, but also privately considered the use of military action or economic sanctions. In January 1932, as Japanese forces occupied the southern Manchurian city of Chinchou, Stimson drafted a diplomatic note warning the Japanese that the United States would not accept any treaty resolving the Manchurian crisis which violated existing treaties such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact; in essence, Stimson's note, which came to be known as the Stimson Doctrine—even though President Hoover was its intellectual author—meant that the United States would not recognize Japan's territorial gains in Manchuria.

The Stimson Doctrine failed to halt the Japanese, who soon laid siege to the city of Shanghai. Stimson grew frustrated that even this provocation failed to move Hoover to more decisive action, though the Secretary of State largely kept his thoughts private. Instead, Stimson, with Hoover's support, wrote a letter (subsequently released to the public) to Senator William Borah, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In it, he warned that continued Japanese aggression in Manchuria permitted the United States to abrogate the arms control agreements it had signed with Japan over the previous decade. Stimson also convinced Hoover that the letter not disavow the possibility of coercive action against the Japan.

While Japan did halt its attack on Shanghai, the Borah letter had little effect. Instead, it clarified Hoover's and Stimson's different approach to the Manchurian crisis and to international affairs more generally. Stimson supported both non-recognition and the possible use of force. Hoover, on the other hand, would go no farther than non-recognition. This debate would reappear in American foreign policy circles throughout the 1930s.