GEORGE H. NASH, 1917-1918 (New York: Norton, 1996), 504 + pp. $45.00 cloth (ISBN 0-393-03841-6).
The book at hand is the third volume of George H. Nash's on-going biography of Herbert Hoover. This volume examines Hoover's service as head of the United States Food Administration during World War I, the first of his many roles as an American official and participant in what he once called "the slippery road of public life" Nash begins with Hoover returning from London in May 1917, just after the American declaration of war, and follows him to war's end in fall 1918, with Hoover having turned his attention back to Europe and the relief of war victims, a mere eighteen months in all.
Almost the entire volume concerns Hoover's handling of the enormously complex job of rationalizing American agriculture. In general, Hoover was charged with delivering necessary foodstuffs to the Allied nations and ensuring that Americans would have enough to eat, all while preventing the wild inflation that would have erupted in the absence of far-reaching market controls. Nash begins with an account of the Lever Act's passage in summer 1917, which created the Food Administration and with it the position of chief administrator that Hoover apparently coveted. Because he had earned an international reputation for his handling of Belgian relief the year before, he was well-qualified for the job. But much of the rancorous debate over the Lever Act focussed on whether this man, who had not lived in the United States for many years, should be granted the kind of enormous powers entailed in the Act. The end result was an act that created an agency with a single head whose powers were somewhat qualified; most important, Hoover was not given the explicit power to set formal price levels, and farmers were exempted from direct federal control.
Nash describes in great detail the complications that dogged Hoover's policies on each major commodity. Wheat and pork production caused the most difficulties. Hoover was beset by the conflicting demands of a number of divergent interest groups: consumers, packers, brewers, and, not least, America's cantankerous and politically astute farmers and their congressional representatives. At the same time he was charged with carrying through a vital duty to the war effort, which entailed an equally complex set of problems. He had to coordinate American production with both Allied need and the capacities of other food suppliers such as Canada...