- Historic Sites
The Drought And The Dole
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
The reaction of the administration to the England incident was as sluggish as it was surly and did little to calm the increasingly uneasy feelings of the public. England was just twenty miles from Little Rock, and reporters must have rushed to the town that afternoon. The story, as told by the Associated Press and others, became nationwide news. Next morning, readers of the New York Times found an account on the front page of the Sunday edition, and the governor of Arkansas, Harvey Parnell, felt it necessary to wire the paper that conditions “are by no means alarming and no rioting or violence in any form has taken place.…” Pointing to the demonstration, Leftleaning journals such as the New Republic and the Nation hastened to reassure subscribers that the Depression was worse than anyone imagined. And the influential Arkansas Gazette of Little Rock agonized over the “unfortunate” publicity that England had brought the state.
Three days after H. C. Coney had led his band of farmers to the England grocery store—put that way, the whole affair seems so tiny—the Senate voted to add $15,000,000 for food loans to the drought-relief bill. In the House, where unanimous consent was needed to send the original $45,000,000 measure into a HouseSenate conference for final modifications, Congressman Fiorello La Guardia of New York stood up and announced that he would withhold his support until the unemployed in the cities were granted a food loan equal to the Senate proposal for drought victims. La Guardia kept up his lonely fight for three days, long enough to make his point—and to confirm Hoover’s worst fears.
Meanwhile the chairman of the Red Cross, John Barton Payne, appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Judge Payne, a wealthy Virginian who had been Wilson’s last Secretary of the Interior, claimed some expertise on the drought matter: seventy-six acres of corn land on his Piedmont estate had failed to yield a single bushel in the summer of 1930. Payne thought that the $4,500,000 remaining in his agency’s special fund for drought relief was probably sufficient for the winter: “I do not say that we can get through on four and one-half millions, but I say if we get toward the bottom of the barrel, we will yell.” Less than a week later Payne was making noises that sounded suspiciously like a yell. On January 10 he asked for, and got, Hoover’s approval for a $10,000,000 public appeal to aid farmers stricken by the drought.
That seemed to settle the matter- or did it? Though the House finally rejected the $15,000,000 food-loan bill, the Senate had not exhausted its capacity for making mischief at the expense of the President. Senator Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, who himself came from Lonoke County, now proposed to offer the Red Cross an outright gift of $25,000,ooo for food and medicine for sick and hungry farmers and—in deference to city congressmen like La Guardia—for the unemployed. Payne did not overwhelm his potential benefactors with gratitude. “All I pray for is for Congress to let us alone,” he announced, without bothering to hide his irritation. “If we can’t do the job, then let Congress kick us.” He also blamed the Robinson bill for an early lag in contributions. The Senate voted the money anyway.
Even administration stalwarts showed signs of weakening at this point; one compromise proposal would have had the government giving the $25,000,000 to the Red Cross —as a loan. By Hooverian logic, that would simply have put the Red Cross on the dole. Payne announced that he would refuse the grant, and the President intimated that he would veto it; the House, loaded with conservative holdovers from the 1928 election, proceeded to kill the Robinson bill. The victory was Hoover’s, but the cost may not have been worth it. His opponents vied with one another in a frolic of sarcasm. “The best way to feed the unemployed would be to move them to China and Russia,” said Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, in a pointed reference to Hoover’s international relief projects and the government’s financial role in them. Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska resorted to beatitudes: “Blessed be they who starve while the asses and mules are fed, for they shall be buried at public expense.”
Congress dithered, the Red Cross drive sputtered along, and starving people in the drought regions got little to eat in the process. Something was wrong; the well of charity appeared to have dried up, too. Maybe there had been too many appeals of late; maybe Americans were holding on to their extra dimes and dollar bills. Judge Payne and the President mounted a tremendous publicity operation. Business leaders like Owen D. Young of General Electric and the power magnate Samuel Insull—he was still mightily solvent, as far as the world knew- were enlisted, as were entertainment figures like Amos ‘n Andy and Will Rogers. Rogers visited Hoover at the White House before flying west to raise money. “Had a long talk with our President this morning,” he reported in his letter of January 16. “He sincerely feels (with almost emotion) that it would set a bad precedent for the Government to appropriate money for the Red Cross. He feels that once the Government relieves the people, they will always expect it.…”