William Leuchtenburg: The Wrong Man at the Wrong Time (Re: Herbert Hoover)

Roundup: Talking About History

[From the book HERBERT HOOVER from The American Presidents Series by William E. Leuchtenburg; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz, General Editors. Copyright © 2009 by William E. Leuchtenburg. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.]

... Hoover never declared that prosperity was “just around the corner” (that fatuous statement came from his vice president, Charles Curtis), but he did refuse to face reality. In May 1930 he announced that a “great economic experiment” had “succeeded to a remarkable degree,” and told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “We have passed the worst, and with continued effort we shall rapidly recover.” When in June a delegation that included bankers as well as bishops visited the White House to alert him to the accelerating decline, Hoover, visibly annoyed, told them that the economy was on the upswing and the ranks of the unemployed were dwindling: “Gentlemen, you have come 60 days too late. The depression is over.”

Disappointment in the president deepened. Upon Hoover, troubles never descended singly, but in twos and threes. That summer, just as the silence of factory whistles was testing his mettle, a drought of historic proportions seared the heartland. As in 1927, he galvanized community leaders and turned to the Red Cross, though he believed that the reports of suffering were grossly exaggerated. So, too, did officials at the Red Cross—which, thinking that most of the starving supplicants were fakers, refused to spend much of what meager funds it had. State authorities placed the need in the range of $120 million (almost certainly an underestimate), but the administration restricted federal aid to $25 million and specified that none of it could go for food.

Hoover’s policies toward distress—in the drought-stricken counties or across the nation—reflected an aversion to the omnipotent state and a belief in “local government responsibilities.” Even more important was the tradition of private giving, especially understandable in one raised within the Quaker tradition of philanthropy. Grants from Washington, he contended, would impair the character of recipients and would deny benefactors the opportunity to sacrifice. The poor could always count on their neighbors.

By autumn 1930, cities were staggering under mounting unemployment, and the countryside was devastated. When the president of General Electric urged him to call a special session of Congress to “request it to issue a billion dollars of bonds to allay the tragic circumstances of unemployment,” He was incensed. Sometime later he received an accurate accounting of why federal relief was imperative: “Communities are impotent; state governments are shot through with politics . . . ; local charities are jaded, discouraged, bankrupt, disorganized, discredited. Their task is too great. Their support is gone.” Hoover could barely contain his response: “This nation did not grow great from feeding upon the malignant pessimist or calamity mongers or weeping men, and prosperity for all our people will not be restored by the voluble wailings of word-sobbers nor by any legislative legerdemain proposed by theorists.” He decided to abbreviate this note rather than give full throat to his fury.

Not until October 1930, a full year after the crash, did he establish the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment (PECE), whose main function even then was not to ease hardship but to create enough impression of motion to stave off growing demands for a dole. Though unemployment had climbed past the 5 million mark, the PECE did not award a penny to any local government for relief, instead churning out press releases with pap topics, such as urging people to hire men to “spruce up” their homes. Asked by governors to share its plan to cope with unemployment, the PECE responded that it had no plan.

The flush of confidence in Hoover’s program in the fall of 1929 had truly dissipated. When management did hold fast on wage rates, it frequently reduced hours, so that weekly pay envelopes shrank. Nevertheless, in 1930 factory payrolls plunged 35 percent; Detroit turned out 2 million fewer cars than it had the year before; and more than 25,000 businesses failed—another unwelcome record.

In these dark hours, the nation looked to the president for guidance, comfort, and good cheer—but looked in vain....

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