AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - HERBERT HOOVER DOWN UNDER - REVIEW
|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
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
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
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
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.