FOR THE GENERATION of Americans that lived through the Great Depression of the '30s, Herbert Hoover was a do-nothing president who displayed indifference to human suffering. For many years the standard histories of the period confirmed the judgment of Hoover's contemporaries. Recent historians, however, have treated the 31st president more kindly.

Historian David Burner's study, which takes Hoover from his birth in 1874 to his departure from the White House in 1933, will doubtless further enhance Hoover's image. But Burner is less interested in rehabilitating Hoover than in tracing the origins of his ideas and actions and in viewing him in the context of his times. In the process he has produced the most balanced biography of Hoover thus far.

Perhaps the chief value of this book is the light it sheds on Hoover's early life and career. He was born in 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, a Quaker community which imbued him with the values of individual initiative and humanitarianism; and perhaps it was the gentle persuasion of the Quakers that gave root to Hoover's philosophy of voluntarism. Orphaned at age nine, Hoover was raised by relatives in Oregon. "As his parents died and the rest of his family separated, he must have felt his life going out of control," Burner writes. "Much of his career would be occupied with getting power and control for himself, and creating order and stability around him."

Despite these difficult early years, success came early and easily for Hoover. After graduating from Stanford University, where he majored in geology and displayed some remarkably liberal political leanings, he entered the fast-growing profession of engineering. By the time he was 30, he had traversed the globe many times, had skillfully managed mining operations on the Australian frontier and in China, and had earned an international reputation as the "Great Engineer." By the time he was 40, he was a multimillionaire.

Until now, we have known little about Hoover's 20-year career as an engineer and entrepreneur. But Burner, using previously untapped manuscript sources in Australia, England, and elsewhere, carefully fills in the details of the so-called forgotten years. And, while he presents no startling revelations; Burner does present a clearer picture of the Hoover that emerged from this period. He was ambitious, opportunistic, frenetically active, and a risk-taker; he was also brusque in manner, lacking in introspection, and self-confident to the point of being arrogant, assuming, as Burner puts it, "a concordance between his thinking and an independent rationality." Burner stresses that intellectually Hoover viewed the world through the eyes of an engineer. Then and later he saw the world's problems as having impersonal solutions, which experts could find, which skillful and humane administrators like himself could help implement, and which a rational public would accept.

The Quaker in Hoover prevented him from viewing personal success as an end in itself, and with the outbreak of world war in 1914 he turned to public pursuits. His humanitarian feats during the war, which included organizing massive European relief efforts, made him one of the most widely respected figures of the postwar world. Of Hoover, one young admirer said, "He is certainly a wonder, and I wish we could make him President. There couldn't be a better one." The admirer was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

According to Burner, Hoover came to the White House as a progressive and his all-but-forgotten "early tenure was a remarkable experiment in developing new approaches to old problems." Hoover took initiatives in the areas of civil liberties, civil rights, prison reform, conservation of natural resources, and Indian affairs.He also eliminated some of the imperial trappings surrounding the presidency, expanded the civil service system, and in general appointed persons of high quality to federal office. In foreign affairs, Hoover demonstrated marked restraint, seeking to influence world affairs by example rater than by force.

Burner may at times exaggerate the extent of Hoover's progressivism. Hoover did represent an element of the progressive movement that prized order, efficiency and expertise, but he seemed uncomfortable with another, equally important element, which sought political democracy. His rhetoric about the maldistribution of wealth was more bark than bite, and his contempt for Congress, his distrust of the press, and his heavy reliance on government by expert perhaps betrayed an antidemocratic tendency.

In his account of the Depression, Burner concedes the obvious: Hoover failed both to understand the nature of the crisis and to strike at its root causes. He stubbornly clung to his highly personalized philosophy of voluntarism even when it should have been clear to him that voluntary relief efforts were failing to relieve distress. Hoover's cold, rational engineering appreach alienated the Congress, the press, and eventually the public. Burner does not allow Hoover to shoulder all of the blame, however, and points out that Congress, as well as most other naitonal leaders, were hesitant to venture much beyond the president. Yet, with all its limitations, Burner argues, the Hoover administration set important precedents for Roosevelt's New Deal.

Burner's study increases our understanding of Herbert Hoover. In the end, however, as Burner admits, the hesitant Depression president remains something of a puzzle. In some respects Burner's portrayal of the rational engineer with a reverence for facts, the Quaker and dynamic humanitarian of World War I, and the progessive of the '20s compounds the Hoover mystery.