The Drought And The Dole


The dole . That overpowering, allencompassing word of illusion in the Hoover years. It was charged with the same amorphous malignity and colored with the same sickly foreign taint as the word Red in 1919. And in the same way, the word as Americans used it bore little relation to the real thing. The dole in Great Britain had originated in the early part of the century as an unemployment insurance scheme, to which workers, employers, and the state all contributed. But under the pressure of a seemingly unshakable postwar depression, it had begun to assume the character of straight poor relief. The publicists of America’s New Era delighted in spreading pictures of the gaunt people “on the dole” sitting hopelessly in bare, airless kitchens made more ghastly by the illumination of photographer’s flash powder, or queuing up in some sootblackened Midlands street with its changeless horizon of slate roofs and cannon-mouthed chimney pots, the industrial revolution gone in the teeth. Whether they were the stunted children or the prematurely aged girls of Wigan and Manchester, their attitude was invariably one of supine waiting: “The soul-destroying dole” was a bit of catching euphony coined by a group of Boston bankers during that winter. To Americans it appeared as though the dole had caused the depression in England, and not the other way round.

A government handout, be it shillings or a few dollars, would strip a person of his self-reliance and his pride in his own accomplishments; it would create a situation in which he ceased to feel guilt for living by the sweat of someone else’s brow—so this line of reasoning went. The dole was not only against our traditions but would end by wrecking them. The word, as intimation or accusation, could be a potent political weapon, and even progressives like Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York shielded themselves with pro forma declarations against it.

In the conservative view the dole had come to mean any sort of direct federal aid to an individual. Once the government established a precedent by giving food relief to hungry farmers in the drought states, where could it draw the line? Next the unemployed in the cities would be clamoring for the same treatment. Hoover did not want to commit himself to what he believed to be an irrevocable step. Like his hero Woodrow Wilson, he worried about his historical role quite as much as his day-to-day administrative one: ideal was as important as action, and a fine balance had to be maintained between the two. He was convinced that nothing less than the soul of America, along with everything the New Era stood for, was at stake- and so, perhaps, he tended to credit the most optimistic things his informants told him about the health of the nation.


Since cancelling his western vacation Hoover had taken only three brief excursions out of the Washington area, to deliver speeches in the congressional campaign of 1930. It is hard to say whether the Democrats would have registered such impressive gains if he had made himself more conspicuous; but it seems clear that in the strenuous isolation of the White House -has a President ever worked so hard?- he was out of touch with much of the discontent and genuine desperation of the country. This was nowhere more evident than in his handling of the drought.

Hoover was playing for time. The prevailing assumption was that once the nation got through the winter, the worst would be past. The administration seized on every favorable twitch of the expiring economy as a sign of inevitable upswing. Spring would bring one as surely as it would bring rain, and the principle of voluntary aid would have withstood the onslaughts of all dole-like compromises. The result would vindicate Hoover’s Presidential leadership—that, too, was important if he hoped to reverse the trend of depression. But Hoover had obviously failed to allow for the consquences of a chance boiling over, and right after New Year’s one occurred which reopened the question of drought relief in the most painful and damaging way.

It is not impossible that Herbert Hoover’s career in the White House turned on the accidental inspiration of a tenant farmer in Arkansas. His name was H. C. Coney, and he was one of those ordinarily anonymous persons who, without meaning to, sometimes leave a permanent mark on their time. The 1930’s seemed made for his kind, which was a measure of how far events had run beyond the control of the men who were supposed to control them. What many Americans at the beginning of 1931 feared that somebody would do, Coney did. They were lucky that he was a good man who never stepped out of character, who asked only for what he needed and did not reach for more. As a model for a hero of proletarian fiction he is a bust. We do not find him crying out to his oppressed fellows at the end, “We gotta make a union!” and with a linking of arms and a shouldering of rifles, marching forward to solidarity. Even so, the repercussions of his small attempt to make things better would haunt and discredit Hoover’s grand strategy for fighting the Depression. From this point on in his administration, the President would remain on the defensive, caricatured as a hardhearted bungler in a stiff collar by his political opponents and, gradually, by much of the public that had once revered him.