In an unpublished, autobiographical essay written around the time of World War I, Herbert Hoover declared: “There is little importance to men’s lives except the accomplishments they leave to posterity.” It is in “the origination or administration of tangible institutions or constructive works” that men’s contributions can best be measured. “When all is said and done,” he asserted, “accomplishment is all that counts.”
One of Hoover’s supreme accomplishments in his long and productive life was the creation and upbuilding of the “tangible institution” known today as the Hoover Institution. Founded in 1919 and housed at Stanford University, the Hoover War Collection (as it was initially called) grew quickly into what was known for years as the Hoover War Library: an immense and invaluable archive of historic manuscripts, newspapers, photographs, books, governmental records, and “fugitive documents” bearing upon the Great War of 1914–1918 and its aftermath. Under Hoover’s indefatigable, hands-on leadership, the repository became, in his words, “the most important [such] collection” in the world.
Hoover never wanted his war library to be a mere “packrat operation” or “dead storage of documents.” Instead, he envisaged it as the nucleus of a dynamic “research institution upon the most vital of all human questions—War, Revolution and Peace.”
Yet authoritative research cannot proceed without data. Scholars cannot definitively probe the past without access to every possible scrap of crucial evidence that the past leaves behind. Hoover recognized this, and—along with numerous associates and agents—went on amassing, from around the world, historical treasures that would shed light upon the often tragic course of the twentieth century.
Of special interest to Hoover were his institution’s extensive holdings of propaganda used by governments as instruments of modern warfare. During World War I, as an acclaimed humanitarian who saved millions of European civilians from starvation, he had watched as the belligerent nations of Europe attempted to manipulate American public opinion in their favor. For the first time in human history, he later wrote, war propaganda became a “major strategy of war.” Fascinated and appalled, he collected as much of this material as he could for his library on the campus of his alma mater.
On June 20, 1941, in ceremonies at Stanford University, Hoover dedicated the 285-foot-high tower that would hold his peerless cache of information on war, revolution, and peace. In his remarks he expressed hope that the “voice of experience” embedded in his vast trove would induce humankind to “stop, look and listen” and turn to the ways of peace.
Even as he spoke, another global conflagration was raging around him. Just a few months later, the United States was drawn in. In this war, too, propaganda would be a formidable weapon. During the remainder of World War II, Hoover gathered “fugitive material” on the new conflict and prepared for a monumental, postwar collecting drive that would take him and his allies to distant lands in search of precious documentation on the most stupendous war ever fought. As the guns fell silent, he resumed his worldwide quest for “living history”—and never stopped as long as he lived.
Today the Hoover Institution holds the fruits of Hoover’s prodigious labors—and of those of his colleagues and successors: thousands of manuscript collections and literally millions of documents and other historical artifacts. Among these irreplaceable treasures are the items on display in this exhibit. They are a small but superb selection of the more than 100,000 posters and other propaganda materials preserved in the Institution’s vaults.
The exhibit reminds us that modern wars are increasingly ideological struggles in which hearts and minds (as well as territory and natural resources) are targets. It reminds us also that the causes for which nations fight can be either noble or hideous.
This fine exhibit represents the work of many talented and devoted people. Ultimately, it was made possible by the vision, generosity, and resourcefulness, decades ago, of Herbert Hoover. The institution at Stanford that bears his name “is probably my major contribution to American life,” he wrote in 1959. Its existence is a testament to his unwavering faith in the importance of “constructive works”—to our lasting benefit.
Copyright © 2012 by George H. Nash
George H. Nash is a professional historian, lecturer, and author of several books about Herbert Hoover. Recently he edited the never-before-published memoir/history, Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath
(Hoover Institution Press, 2011).
Max Gordon, US 6556, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Archives