George H. Nash
The Life of Herbert Hoover. The Engineer, 1874-1914.
W. W. Norton & Co., 768pp.
0 393 01634 X

Australian Book Review, November 1984, pp. 23-24.

This first volume of a biography of a U. S. American president deserves to be reviewed in a periodical exclusively concerned with books relating to Australia when that president is Herbert Hoover whose career before 1914 had more impact on this country than on his own. A substantial portion of Nash’s large, though by no means a definitive Life, deals directly with Australia and anyone wishing to understand the development of capitalism here should become acquainted with the evidence provided.

By comparison, Geoffrey Blainey’s writing are infinitely stronger on mining techniques but nowhere near as rich on capital formation, which Nash details without considering the emergence of a higher stage of capitalism, Lenin’s Imperialism, or monopolising capitals.

It is well enough known that Hoover went to Kalgoorlie in 1897 as an engineer. What is less widely appreciated is the work he did in subsequent years to transform the financing of the world’s mining industries. This second phase was associated with visits to Victoria in 1905 and 1907 when, with the Baillieus, the Robinsons and Francis Govett in London, Hoover was active in establishing the Zinc Corporation which, via the Collins House Group, became part of CRA, the largest mining company in Australia.

Nash has subtitled his first installment of Hoover’s life story The Engineer, 1874-1914; a far more accurate guide would have been that given to chapter 19: “The Engineer-Financier”; better yet would have been the trinity “Engineer-manager-financier”.

To say that Hoover shifted mining finances away from speculation and towards long-term earnings is to over-simplify his aims and to overstate his achievements, though that claim points up the transformation that he and his partners at Bewick, Moreing helped to consolidate.

Though Hoover and Govett continued to raid the market and to manipulate production statistics, such doing became secondary, even subsidiary, to their development of a work-wide mining industry that could accumulate capital from its own workings instead of merely stock-jobbing up on the avarice of others. A desire for profits is no guarantee of success and their firm lost one million pounds to the Lodden Valley deep loads.

Students of Australia should not neglect the several chapters on mining ventures in China, Russia and Burma since these contribute to our appreciation of the new managerial forms that Hoover helped to bring to this country and which Alfred Chandler has elaborated in his The Visible Hand (1977), a book that represents American business history at its very best.

Hoover’s career from 1900 to 1914 was an important strand in the emergence of what we today designate as corporations, and what contemporaries of the coming man called cartels or trusts.

An Australianist could skim the opening chapters but to do so would be to miss out on the disturbed years of Hoover’s childhood; Nash’s version is more tantalizing than satisfying. Hoover may not merit a Freud but he requires a more subtle hand than George H. Nash’s which is palsied when it need s to be sympathetic and defensive when its fingers should be enumerating Hoover’s lies.

Nash is a National Review conservative who thinks that business is such a good thing that he finds no cause to conceal its mechanisms. Thus he presents a lot of re-usable material from British company archives. These disclosures are improved by his naivety.

Labor and social historians will benefit from the details on working conditions such as the sacking of a man for talking compensation after injury; the prevalence of typhoid; and the combination of labour discipline, hours and mechanisation. Nash reports, without counter-checking, Hoover’s persistent claims about higher-wage costs in Australia and endorsees the introduction of “cheaper” Italian labourers as an antidote to declining profits.

Later installments of this biography, though predictably less concerned with out affairs, will be worth examining for any residual effects from Hoover’s Australian experiences on his politics as U.S. Secretary of Commerce (1921-28) and then as president (1929-32).

For a scholarly work, Nash’s volume has an uneven mixture of apparatuses: there are no maps, no tables of figures and no listing of the twenty-two pages of illustrations; there are 180 pages of references notes and a sixteen-page index.