Today’s post comes from Elizabeth Dinschel, Archivist and Education Specialist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. On February 1st, Elizabeth will present “Understanding Conflicting Primary Sources: When Hoover Met Hitler,” a free, interactive program for students in grades 4-12. Register through the Presidential Primary Sources Project. Students will learn about media literacy, questioning conflicting primary sources, and relating Constitutional rights to history through press coverage of a 1938 meeting between former President Herbert Hoover and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
It might surprise students that “fake news,” sensationalism, omissions, and errors have always existed in the media. The first “fake news” stories rolled off of the earliest printing presses to sell newspapers, influence elections, and generate change – negative or positive. What is perhaps less understood amongst students is how sensationalism, exposés, and false narratives can turn into propaganda and shape public perception.
A free press is a right enshrined in the First Amendment and is vital to Democracy. Journalists are granted access to events closed to the public and trusted with reporting the event as it happened. Most legal scholars and historians will agree that a free press leads to transparency in government, law enforcement, social issues, and other elements of American life. Transparency leads to accountability. In the same vein, the National Archives exists as the nation’s record keeper – not to keep paper in boxes, but to create a transparent government open to the scrutiny of the general public.
Good journalists are acutely aware of how powerful their reporting can be and that knowledge gave birth to people like Nellie Bly and created an entire genre of reporting called “Muckraking.” Muckraking journalism is often identified as playing a pivotal role in the birth of the Progressive Movement in the late 1800s. Later, the United States would see satire and over-the-top fake news tabloids like the Weekly World News claiming that “Abraham Lincoln was a Woman” and John Wilkes Booth was her “jilted lover.”1
Some misinformation is not as obvious as the outrageous tabloids of the 1980s that lined grocery checkout lines. The small details that are in omissions, errors, bad memories of witnesses, and perpetuated by strict deadlines can mislead the public and sometimes turn into urban legends. Presidents throughout history have grappled with bad reporting and fake news all the way back to George Washington. From chopping down a cherry tree as a child to using wooden teeth, Washington’s legacy is full of urban legends. After the Civil War it was reported his body was removed from Mount Vernon in a fake news story.2
Herbert Hoover was no exception. In 1938, then former President Herbert Hoover met with Adolf Hitler while he was on tour of Europe to celebrate 20 years since the end of World War I. The German government invited Hoover to make a brief stop in Germany on his way to Poland as a diplomatic courtesy. Although Hoover was reluctant, he agreed to meet with Hitler and dined with Herman Goering. The press was very interested in this meeting, of course. Hoover requested that Paul Smith from the San Francisco Chronicle accompany him to a private meeting with Hitler. Right before the meeting, Hoover was told Smith was not permitted to attend. “This request was refused on the grounds frankly mentioned by the Foreign Office that it was understood that the San Francisco Chronicle had been bitterly critical of Germany.”3 Paul Smith was not happy about being excluded from the meeting.
It is important to remember the full scope of the Holocaust was not known by Hoover or the United States at this time, and 1938 was prior to the existence of extermination camps.4 In the meeting, Hoover and Hitler mused about the progress Germany made in housing, highways, and the economy since the end of WWI. Hoover acknowledged that much of the progress was made possible by the restrictions placed upon Germans by Nazism.
In the official report that was not made available to the press, Hoover said “in America one must have such regard for spiritual and intellectual freedom that any restrictive measures such as had been adopted in Germany would not be possible there.” Hitler responded, “in the measure in which the Communistic danger of disintegration increased in the European states these states saw themselves confronted ever more urgently with the choice of either bringing about a national re-birth with the aid of certain restrictions or of succumbing to Communism, which in its turn would then have instituted far greater and more absolute restrictions of all freedom.” Hitler went on to talk about how the restrictions of Nazism helped to develop German agriculture. The men agreed that Russia and communism were a threat to the world. Hoover thanked Hitler and “renewed stressing his interest in the development in the new Germany.”5
The press sensationalized this meeting beyond the bounds of the truth. The press headlines read, “Hoover Flays Nazis in Talk With Hitler,” “Hoover Clashes With Hitler,” “Hoover, Hitler Talk; Fascist Rap Denied,” and more. The International News Service wrote the most salacious article based upon a “well-informed source.” Hoover refused to comment on the substance of the meeting, but Hoover and Hitler did acknowledge that the press coverage was not accurate.
On April 7, 1938 the Embassy at Berlin sent dispatch no. 22. The dispatch explains that Paul Smith was not included in the meeting, among other exclusions. “I mention these incidents as possibly having some bearing on the stories sent out by the representative of the International News Service and, it is understood, by the New York Times bureau here, wherein it was represented that a clash occurred between Mr. Hoover and the Chancellor over the issue of democracy versus totalitarianism…Mr. Smith in talking over the matter with Mr. Huss, correspondent of the International News Services, apparently represented the interview between Mr. Hoover and the Chancellor as having been something in the nature of a warm debate as the the merits of liberal and authoritarian regimes and according to the correspondent approved a story to that effect which was wired to the United States without the correspondent having talked with me. The story aroused considerable resentment in the Government here although no mention of it was made in the German-controlled press…”6
This moment in history presents many valuable opportunities to discuss diplomacy, the First Amendment, fake news, different forms of government, the climate leading up to World War II, and more. Students should walk away understanding that research and analyzing primary sources can be complicated and that one account of an event is not sufficient. They should recognize that new evidence can change previous accounts or interpretations – even many years after the fact. The lack of diverse sources and perspectives is one of the reasons National History Day encourages students to pick topics that are 20 years old or older. It takes time for documents and other evidence to become publicly available. Conflicting primary sources should always be expected, and linking the truth together with a variety of evidence and perspective should be best practice.
There are so many compelling questions that can spark discussion with this topic, ranging from presidents speaking diplomatically with dictators, to understanding how much the press can influence public perception, to discussing how freedom of the press creates transparency and eliminates space for false information. While the United States ran inflated news stories, the German-controlled press ran no stories. The dichotomy in press access to events presents students with the realization that not every country has a free press and they may have to dig deeper and wider when searching for primary sources outside of the United States. They are also faced with recognizing that a news source can be weaponized by a government to control its citizens.
Hoover was the only US president to visit Nazi Germany and meet with Adolph Hitler; and for that reason, this meeting is historically significant. The primary sources indicate Hoover made many observations about life in Nazi Germany and he made it a point to share his opinion with people. He understood this meeting had far-reaching implications and created an opportunity for him to see Germany without the guise of propaganda about life in Germany. More advanced students should read Hoover’s post-visit account for his opinions on the differences between German and Italian fascism, the loss of academic freedom and dismantling of German universities, and concentration camps.
The Hoover Library and Museum will explore this topic in a free, interactive session on February 1st at 11am ET or 2pm ET. Teachers can register their students for this Presidential Primary Sources Project session about the Hoover-Hitler meeting through the 2022 teacher registration form.
For access to all of the Hoover-Hitler meeting documents, contact an archivist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum at Hoover.Library@nara.gov.
3 Summary of Dispatch no. 22, from the Embassy at Berlin, March 14, 1938. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
4 Concentration Camps were in use and Hoover was aware of them, but they were not the extermination camps that were used during the Holocaust. For more information about concentration camps during this time, you can visit the United States Holocaust Museum website: Concentration Camps, 1933–1939 | Holocaust Encyclopedia (ushmm.org)
5 “Translation of the Memorandum of the German Official Translator concerning the Conversation between the Fuhrer and Chancellor and former President of the United States of America, Herbert Hoover, in the Reich Chancellery, on March 8, 1938.” Hugh Wilson Papers. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
6 Dispatch no. 22. Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.