In April, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt had died suddenly, and Vice President-now-President Harry S Truman, by his own admission, felt like the moon, stars and all the planets had fallen on him.
Harry Truman Makes A Friend
Only days after Roosevelt’s death, Truman sent a handwritten personal letter to Herbert Hoover, the only living former President, inviting him to “stop in” at the White House next time he was in town. Hoover wasted no time. He was on the next train to Washington.The two men had never met, but Democrat Harry Truman had always admired Republican Herbert Hoover. Like many modern historians, Truman believed that the former president had gotten a raw deal from the Roosevelt administration. Truman’s note was the first time that Hoover had been invited back to the White House since he left it in 1933. The two men spent a few hours in conversation and found much commonality, not the least of which was being poor Midwestern farm boys who came up the hard way. The fact that they were from opposing political parties did not matter. It also did not matter that Hoover had become a wealthy mining engineer, and Truman was never more than middle class. They liked each other, and Hoover was the only man in the country who truly understood what Truman was facing.
Some weeks later, President Truman made an extraordinary personal gesture of friendship. The formal portrait of Mrs. Hoover had been languishing in a White House storeroom for a dozen years. Truman offered to host a private luncheon for the Hoover family and guests. They would make a little ceremony of hanging the portrait in the gallery of First Ladies.
This was a kindness that touched the former President deeply. Mrs. Hoover had died only months before.
HST Continues His Friendship
Now that the bonds of a sincere friendship had started, President Truman knew he could count on his friend “Bert” to provide another service for their country. Europe was devastated following World War II, just as it had been after the First World War. A monumental effort was underway to feed millions of starving souls. Who better to head the project to feed the hungry than the man who rescued a starving nation a generation earlier?
This was a mutual kindness. Truman needed someone experienced, and with irreproachable integrity. Hoover needed to be useful. Still fit and energetic in his early seventies, he jumped at the opportunity to resuscitate his crippled reputation, having been saddled with the unfair personification as the cause of the Great Depression. Bringing the “Great Humanitarian” out of an enforced retirement would be a triple-win: A win for Truman, a win for Hoover, and most importantly, a win for starving Europeans.
The Friendship is Cemented
Herbert Hoover had become a bona-fide self-made millionaire as a world-renowned mining engineer during the early decades of the Twentieth Century. As Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s, planning the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border was especially dear to his heart. It was designed to bring hydroelectric power to the entire Southwest, and had he not been a Cabinet officer, it is very likely that he would have been engaged as an expert consultant. He knew every aspect of the project. His input and advice was substantive. From the start, the project was to bear his name.
Early in the Roosevelt Administration, the dam was formally opened, but the project was consistently referred to not as Hoover Dam, but as the dam in Boulder – and Boulder Dam it slyly became. It was a deliberate effort to undermine the former President and keep his name associated with the Depression – with Hoovervilles – rather than be attached to a monumental engineering project. True to Herbert Hoover’s modest and reserved nature, he never complained, but it had hurt him deeply.
Harry Truman publicly re-named the Dam to honor the man most responsible for its construction. It was not only a personal gesture of kindness, but an intensely private one. As Truman would remark, “I feel that I am one of his closest friends and he is one of my closest friends.”
Herbert Hoover Returns the Kindness
Harry Truman had never been a wealthy man. When he retired in 1953, he had no income other than a tiny pension as a World War I veteran. He had saved little from his Presidential salary. Knowing that the American people do not want their former Presidents to be impoverished, Congress authorized a modest (at that time) pension for ex-Presidents, so they should not suffer basic comforts or go into debt.
Since he was a former President, Herbert Hoover was also eligible to receive the same pension.
Herbert Hoover was also a very wealthy man. He had become a millionaire by the time he was thirty. At the start of World War I, he renounced professional engineering in favor of Humanitarianism with a capital “H”. He never took a cent of salary, and frequently paid his own expenses as well. As a cabinet officer and President, he quietly turned his monthly check back to the Treasury. As was his way, he did not make this action public knowledge.
Herbert Hoover obviously did not need the new presidential pension, but he accepted it. As a man seldom given to opening his private soul, he had told Truman that “Yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know.” The pension was the only public money Herbert Hoover ever accepted from the government, or indeed, from any of his humanitarian projects. It is said that he gave the pension money to charity. To return it, or to decline it, would have been unforgiveable. He did not wish to embarrass his “good friend Harry.”