The Drought And The Dole

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Rogers obviously had his doubts, but he was ready to help in spite of them. From Little Rock, on the evening of the twenty-second, the cowboy humorist presided over a nationwide radio appeal featuring the voices of the President, Calvin Coolidge, Al Smith, and Mary Pickford. Nine thousand watched him in Wichita Falls, Texas, eighteen thousand in Forth Worth. Passing through Fort Smith, Arkansas, in February, he noted a touching bit of Depressionana: a small circus had been stranded there, totally busted, and the town was keeping it alive—elephants, tigers, and performers alike. “Well folks, sure glad to be here with you, glad you are starving, otherwise I would never have met you,” Rogers’s warm-up patter began.

You have nothing on the rest of the country. We are all starving. We haven’t had a regular meal since the Democrats were in, and if we wait for em to get back in again we may never get another one.… Starving ain’t so bad, it’s getting used to it that is tough. The first three years of a Republican Administration is the hardest. By the end of that time you are used to living on predictions.…

His audiences loved these mordant fillips; by the end of his tour he had collected $225,000 for drought relief, or almost half of what the Red Cross had spent the previous autumn.

The papers dutifully recorded other notable donations. J. P. Morgan gave $50,000. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., $250,000. Thomas A. Edison donated his eighty-third, and last, birthday cake to the Red Cross, which auctioned it off for $ 107. Convicts in the Tennessee State Penitentiary sent in $51, while a thief presented a stolen stock certificate, which the Red Cross magnanimously returned to its rightful owner; it probably wasn’t worth much anyway. But the appeal soon lost what small momentum it had. By February 1 less than half of the fund had been collected; the $10,000,000 goal was not passed until mid-March, two months after the drive had been initiated. The winter was all but over then, and many regarded the lagging gifts as an indication of how inadequate private relief was in dealing quickly with emergencies of this size.

That, along with the unabated uproar in Congress and the country, finally pushed the administration toward compromise. The Senate was threatening to force an extra session, and there was no telling what trouble might result. Hoover, palpably stung by the fury of his attackers, tried to defend his actions in a public statement issued on February 3. The document was full of the affronted stiffness and bland defiance of his recent Presidential utterances—why did Hoover, who was never facile with the language, always insist on writing his own speeches? And yet, a hint of sadness and bewilderment ran through it:

I have indeed spent much of my life in fighting hardship and starvation both abroad and in the Southern states. I do not feel that I should be charged with lack of human sympathy for those who suffer.… I am proud to have sought the help of Congress in the past for nations who were so disorganized by war and anarchy that self-help was impossible.… There is no such paralysis in the United States.…

Even then, however, he was beginning to think in terms of last resorts:

I am willing to pledge myself [italics his] that if the time should ever come that the voluntary agencies of the country together with the local and state governments are unable to find resources with which to prevent hunger and suffering in my country, I will ask the aid of every resource of the Federal government became I would no more see starvation amongst our countrymen than would any Senator or Congressman.

Would we have to have a Russian famine to convince the President?

Backers of direct federal aid could take little immediate comfort from Hoover’s apparent concession. But shortly after, with the blessing of the President and the reluctant acquiescence of Senate progressives, Congress passed a measure that could be interpreted as food relief, appropriating $20,000,000 for “agricultural rehabilitation” loans. Though not a mention of food appeared in the bill, the Secretary of Agriculture, a former Missouri Ford dealer named Arthur M. Hyde, admitted in a guarded telephone interview with a reporter that farmers could spend the money any way they pleased. But borrowers had to provide good security for the loans, which meant in effect that only those who had not been bankrupted by the drought were eligible. That the money benefited those who least needed it seemed beside the point: the administration had won the battle of principle. As the House majority leader, John Q. Tilson of Connecticut, said, “It’s not a dole. Remember, it’s not a dole.”