The Drought And The Dole

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Mark Sullivan, a journalist with close ties to the White House, wrote later that the President turned to the drought “with something like a sense of relief, almost of pleasure.” This was the sort of problem he understood: “The drought was concrete; he could get his hands upon it—unlike the intangible forces of depression which in many respects were psychological and came stealthily out of the air.” On the morning of Monday, August 11, Hoover returned from his Rapidan camp to learn that the July corn crop was 690,000,000 bushels under the average for the month: the harvest had not been so low in more than a quarter of a century. Red Cross reports made public that day also indicated that people were “actually suffering.” On Tuesday the President announced that because of the emergency he was cancelling his trip to the West. All through the following day governors from the drought states debarked at Union Station, and on Thursday the fourteenth, amid a hush of expectancy and a gentle flutter of press releases, they met at the White House to discuss what might be done in the way of immediate relief.

It was a moment that called for a dramatic and open-handed gesture calculated to capture the attention and enlist the sympathy of the whole nation: a special session of Congress or a tour of the scene, a promise of food or money or the initiation of a vast disaster-relief campaign under the auspices of the Red Cross. A little Wilsonian rhetoric—just a little- would have helped. But the theatrical action was not Hoover’s style; his performances were always to the front rows only. How many similar opportunities would present themselves in the next two and a half years, and how many would be passed up—turning points that didn’t turn?

Herbert Hoover was a humane man in a trap of his own making. Earlier in the year he had cut taxes at the request of business leaders, and now he worried about strains in the budget, which was beginning to show an unaccustomed deficit. The conventional, pre-Keynesian economics of the period viewed an unbalanced budget as a cause of, and not a remedy for, depression; and Hoover, who was hardly a radical in these matters, feared the effect of a sudden outpouring of federal funds, even in the form of loans. Any large-scale federal program, moreover, brought up the touchy question of direct relief. Direct relief from the government, anything that smacked of the notorious British dole, was counter to the principles of American individualism, which the President so strenuously invoked. He maintained that state and local authorities, cooperating with private charity, could handle the problem. “The drought,” Sullivan wrote, in setting forth Hoover’s position, “lent itself to cure by an American method and in accord with an American tradition that he cherished: i.e., through community generosity and mutual self-help.”

Hoover and the governors resolved the dilemma to his ideological satisfaction at least. He persuaded the railroads to haul feed to the afflicted areas at half rates and asked the Red Cross to provide aid for those in the most serious distress; it immediately responded with a pledge of $5,000,ooo. He exhorted banks and businesses to extend loans to farmers temporarily in need and authorized new road-building projects to give them work. No sooner had the governors departed than the skies of the Midwest burst open. Rain deluged millions of parched acres, and news of the meteorological reprieve inundated Wall Street in a torrent of optimism. Had the Great Engineer turned rainmaker?

 

The heat spell broke in September, and though the rain clouds disappeared again, the drought receded to the back pages of the newspapers. Unemployment was the big story now, and apple sellers were making their unsettling appearance on street corners, first in New York and soon in all the major cities. Occasionally an item, no less disturbing for its brevity, would recall the late emergency. White farmers in Lonoke County, Arkansas—keep the name in mind—fired into the tents of black laborers imported to work on a state highway. The locals thought they should have the jobs; the National Guard had to be called in to keep peace. Physicians at the Kansas State Fair’s Better Babies Contest worried because the 1930 crop of infants seemed less sturdy than usual. They attributed it to undernourishment caused by the drought and heat. That fall Malcolm Cowley of the New Republic drove south from New York to Tennessee. Rich vistas had turned into wasteland, and handbills advertised farms for sale at auction. “Everywhere,” he reported, “the fields were the color of old straw matting. The weeds in the fencerows, even, had shriveled like rose leaves in an old album.… In Tennessee, the rains had come in time to save most of the tobacco crop, but the corn was ruined and there would be no hay to carry the stock through the winter.” Cows nibbled on grass roots or milled around dwindling strawstacks ordinarily used only for bedding; often their ribs showed.