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The Wrong Man At The Wrong Time
For all his previous successes, President Herbert Hoover proved incapable of arresting the economic free fall of the Depression— or soothing the fears of a distressed nation
Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
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. “If you want to get the gloomiest view of any subject on earth,” his wife once said, “ask Bert about it.” Hoover saw no point in strutting onstage to rally the nation. “You can’t make a Teddy Roosevelt out of me,” he told his staff. In his memoir Forty-two Years in the White House , the chief usher recalled that Hoover “would go about, never speaking to any of the help. Never a good-morning or even a nod of the head. Never a Merry Christmas or a Happy New Year. All days were alike to him. Sunday was no exception, for he worked just as hard on that day if not harder than on any of the others. There was always a frown on his face and a look of worry.”
The president had no sense of how to reach out to a desperate nation. Hoover, observed Sir Wilmot Lewis, Washington correspondent of the Times of London, “can calculate wave lengths, but cannot see color. . . . He can understand vibrations but cannot hear tone.” The biographer Henry Pringle wrote that Hoover didn’t use a single gesture when speaking in public but read with “his chin down against his shirt front—rapidly and quite without expression.”
The country got its first opportunity to render a verdict on the president’s policies in the 1930 midterm elections, which further disheartened him. The Republicans’ big majorities in Congress were wiped out, the GOP’s 17-seat advantage in the U.S. Senate reduced to one. They also lost 52 seats in the House, which, when the 72nd Congress convened in December 1931, Democrats would control for the first time since 1919.
Instead of serving as an alarm bell, the elections hardened Hoover’s determination to dig in his heels. In his December 1930 State of the Union message, he declared, “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury.” The address came at a perilous moment, just as the financial system had begun to hemorrhage. In the last two months of 1930, 600 banks failed. The collapse of the Bank of United States on December 11 wiped out the life savings of 400,000 depositors, primarily Jewish garment workers—many of them recent immigrants who had placed their trust in an institution whose name suggested that it was an arm of the government. It was the worst collapse in the history of the republic.
These misfortunes reinforced the president’s resolve to quiet anxieties in the financial community by balancing the budget. “The primary duty of the Government,” said Hoover, who for so long had favored stimulating the economy, was “to hold expenditures within our income.” Americans, he maintained, were “suffering more from frozen confidence than . . . from frozen securities.” To encourage investors, he sought to rein in the big government spenders.
The year 1931 saw rising anger at Hoover’s attitude toward relief. He continued to insist that communities were caring admirably for the impoverished at a time when over a million Americans were seeking refuge in freight cars—named derisively “Hoover Pullmans”—or when whole neighborhoods living at best from hand to mouth were building shelters of scrap in empty lots in big cities— miserable shantytowns designated “Hoovervilles.” Unemployment rose to 8 million. (The nation’s population was only 40 percent of what it is today.) By the middle of 1931, the man hailed on inauguration day as the “Great Engineer” had become the “Great Scrooge.”
During this spring, Hoover’s agricultural program—the showpiece of his 1929 initiatives—ended in fiasco. Over the previous year the Grain Stabilization Corporation had been buying wheat, only to find that prices continued to tumble and that it was stuck with an immense stockpile that it could not readily dispose of. Purchasing cotton had a similar outcome. Hoover refused to sanction production controls, and prices skidded.