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The Wrong Man At The Wrong Time

June 2024
15min read

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

On March 4, 1929, Herbert Hoover took the oath of office as the thirty-first president of the United States. America, its new leader told the rain-soaked crowd of 50,0000 around the Capitol and countless more listening to the radio, was “filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity.”

He spoke in a monotone, but his words were oracular. “We are steadily building a new race, a new civilization great in its own attainments,” he claimed. “I have no fears for the future of the country. It is bright with hope.” One assertion more than any other articulated the theme of his inaugural address: “In no nation ‘are the fruits of accomplishment more secure.”

Through much of his term, critics would fling those words back in his face. He had been, in the phrase of the day, asking for it. “Never in American history,” observed a journalist in 1932, “did a candidate so recklessly walk out on a limb and challenge Nemesis to saw it off.”

But at the time, most Americans had found Hoover’s assertions altogether reasonable. For years, they had seen the manifestations of the consumer culture burgeoning around them: Fords, Studebakers, and Pierce- Arrows; refrigerators, electric toasters, and rayon frocks; the surging stock market, soaring skyscrapers, and rising real wages. In 1929 unemployment bottomed at 3 percent. “The more or less unconscious and unplanned activities of business men,” wrote Walter Lippmann, “are for once more novel, more daring, and in general more revolutionary than the theories of the progressives.”

Hoover’s entry into the White House lifted the Great Bull Market still higher. “Messages from virtually every city in the country, from Maine to California and from Washington State to Florida, have directed brokers in New York to buy stocks, indicating a conviction that the Hoover Administration is to inaugurate a period of unparalleled prosperity,” reported the New York Herald Tribune , the country’s foremost Republican newspaper. A maverick South Dakota senator wrote, “The President is so immensely popular over the country that the Republicans here are on their knees and the Democrats have their hats off.” By September, General Electric was trading at $396, three times what it had gone for in the spring of 1928.

But such elation and prosperity wouldn’t last. A month after GE rode so high, the New York Stock Exchange opened quietly on Thursday, October 24, 1929. Soon, however, volume grew heavy, and prices plunged at such a pace that the ticker could not keep up. “By eleven o’clock,” John Kenneth Galbraith would write later, “the market had degenerated into a wild, mad scramble to sell. By eleven- thirty the market had surrendered to blind, relentless fear.” October 29, “Black Tuesday,” was far worse: $30 billion in securities evaporated. The next morning the New York Times reported: “Stock prices virtually collapsed yesterday, swept downward with gigantic losses in the most disastrous trading day in the stock market’s history.” By mid-November, industrials were worth only half what they had commanded 10 weeks before.

A number of Hoover’s predecessors had confronted financial crises, but none had left him a usable legacy. In previous depressions—from 1837 to 1894—Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Ulysses S. Grant had done nothing, and Grover Cleveland had taken a hard line against aid to the unfortunate. In later years Hoover, too, would be categorized as a “do-nothing” president. In fact, as might have been expected of a man who had been so active a secretary of commerce, he moved with commendable alacrity to arrest the decline.

Over nine days, starting in mid-November, the president summoned leaders of industry, finance, construction, public utilities, agriculture, labor, and the Federal Reserve System to the White House. At this Conference for Continued Industrial Progress, as Hoover designated the meetings, he implored manufacturers to maintain wage rates—a policy that he believed would not only benefit workers but also bolster the economy by sustaining consumer purchasing power. He asked unions to pledge not to strike and to withdraw pending demands for wage increases.

The president accompanied these pleas with reassurances. To steady the nation’s nerves, he eschewed the familiar term “panic” and instead designated the downturn a “depression,” an unfortunate choice of words that would forever cling to him. “The fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis,” he declared. “Any lack of confidence in the economic future . . . [of] the United States is foolish.”

Initially, he succeeded beyond all expectations. Management and labor readily fell into line. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce created a National Business Survey Conference that drew upon the knowledge of some 170 trade associations. As he emerged from the White House, Henry Ford announced that he was not only willing to adhere to the president’s standard but was actually going to raise wages. Hoover persuaded railroad executives to step up maintenance projects, and the National Electric Light Association pledged to spend more than $100 million beyond the large sum it had invested in 1929.

Besides wiring governors to encourage states and counties to accelerate construction, the president urged Congress to appropriate $150 million for public works and to approve a tax cut. He coaxed the Federal Reserve Board into expanding the money supply and making more credit available; for the first time in the history of the republic, discount rates fell to under 2 percent. He counted on the Federal Farm Board to sustain crop prices, and for months it did remarkably well, holding the price of U.S. wheat 25 cents or more a bushel above that in Europe.

Despite all the rockets being fired from the White House, though, Hoover intended to limit the role of government. The amount he requested from Congress for construction was modest, and he advised governors that the “pursuit of public works” by the states should be “energetic yet prudent.” Virtually all the responsibility for the nation’s economic health was left with the same old corporate boards, and it was not clear how much leadership would emerge from the private sector. The National Business Survey Conference contented itself with such actions as recommending that homeowners add on “the extra sunporch.” Moreover, if the system was “fundamentally sound,” there was no need to inquire why the crash had happened or whether reforms might be needed.

Hoover believed that the country was going through a short-term recession much like that of 1921, and hence that drastic remedies were not required. Businesses continued to report year-end profits; the stock market recovered by several points; and, in contrast to past panics, no large bank or corporation had collapsed. Hoover has been roundly criticized for not realizing that the stock market crash signaled the onset of the Great Depression, but no one else—including liberals—had any perception that the slump would last over a decade.

At the end of 1929 the New York Times judged the most important news story of the year to be not the Wall Street blowup but Admiral Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole.

Yet even before 1929 was over, cabinet officers were expressing concern about mounting unemployment, and by March 1930 breadlines were familiar sights on city sidewalks. That same month, Hoover claimed that “employment has been steadily increasing.” In April, after the Census Bureau reported more than 3 million Americans out of work (the figure was actually closer to 4 million), he shaved the total to below 2 million, which, he said, was normal.

Hoover never declared that prosperity was “just around the corner” (that fatuous statement came from his vice president, Charles Curtis), but he did refuse to face reality. In May 1930 he announced that a “great economic experiment” had “succeeded to a remarkable degree,” and told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “We have passed the worst, and with continued effort we shall rapidly recover.” When in June a delegation that included bankers as well as bishops visited the White House to alert him to the accelerating decline, Hoover, visibly annoyed, told them that the economy was on the upswing and the ranks of the unemployed were dwindling: “Gentlemen, you have come 60 days too late. The depression is over.”

Disappointment in the president deepened. Upon Hoover, troubles never descended singly, but in twos and threes. That summer, just as the silence of factory whistles was testing his mettle, a drought of historic proportions seared the heartland. As in 1927, he galvanized community leaders and turned to the Red Cross, though he believed that the reports of suffering were grossly exaggerated. So, too, did officials at the Red Cross—which, thinking that most of the starving supplicants were fakers, refused to spend much of what meager funds it had. State authorities placed the need in the range of $120 million (almost certainly an underestimate), but the administration restricted federal aid to $25 million and specified that none of it could go for food.

Hoover’s policies toward distress—in the drought-stricken counties or across the nation—reflected an aversion to the omnipotent state and a belief in “local government responsibilities.” Even more important was the tradition of private giving, especially understandable in one raised within the Quaker tradition of philanthropy. Grants from Washington, he contended, would impair the character of recipients and would deny benefactors the opportunity to sacrifice. The poor could always count on their neighbors.

By autumn 1930, cities were staggering under mounting unemployment, and the countryside was devastated. When the president of General Electric urged him to call a special session of Congress to “request it to issue a billion dollars of bonds to allay the tragic circumstances of unemployment,” He was incensed. Sometime later he received an accurate accounting of why federal relief was imperative: “Communities are impotent; state governments are shot through with politics . . . ; local charities are jaded, discouraged, bankrupt, disorganized, discredited. Their task is too great. Their support is gone.” Hoover could barely contain his response: “This nation did not grow great from feeding upon the malignant pessimist or calamity mongers or weeping men, and prosperity for all our people will not be restored by the voluble wailings of word-sobbers nor by any legislative legerdemain proposed by theorists.” He decided to abbreviate this note rather than give full throat to his fury.

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.

In June the board gave up. The Grain Stabilization Corporation stopped buying surpluses and dumped 257 million bushels on the market, driving the price of wheat catastrophically lower. From its $500 million revolving fund, the board had suffered losses of $345 million with nothing to show for it. Cotton eventually slumped to a sickening 41/2 cents per pound. The government had financed the removal of 3.5 million bales from the market but saw 10 million bales added to the surfeit. After the board’s capitulation, Hoover, who thought the government had already departed too far from sound principles, did nothing at all to sustain rural America. The farming sector faced ruin and, because of its importance to the economy of Main Street, threatened to pull hundreds of banks down with it. Before Hoover’s term was over, one-fourth of American farmers had lost their holdings—their fields, their stock, their barns, and their homes—many of which had been in one family for generations.

After the short session of Congress ended, Hoover turned aside pleas to bring legislators back, even though the Depression was worsening. “I do not propose to call an extra session of Congress,” he announced in May. “I know of nothing that would so disturb the healing process now undoubtedly going on. . . . ; We cannot legislate ourselves out of a world economic depression.” So with Congress away from March 4 to December 7, 1931, he assumed full responsibility for coping with hard times—and for all that went wrong.

Either out of conviction or in self- defense, Hoover’ increasingly offered a new explanation for why recovery was so slow in coming. “The major forces of the depression now lie outside of the United States,” he had announced in December 1930, “and our recuperation has been retarded by the unwarranted degree of fear and apprehension created by these outside forces.” In June 1931 he located the sources of these woes in “the malign inheritances in Europe of the Great War—its huge taxes, its mounting armament, its political and social instability, its disruption of economic life by the new boundaries.” He had become so convinced of the validity of this hypothesis that he stated flatly, “Without the war we should have no . . . depression.”

In October 1931, Hoover returned to Philadelphia for a World Series contest at Shibe Park, where two years earlier he had received a heartwarming welcome, only to be greeted by deafening boos. On the very day of the game, one of the city’s largest banks, the Franklin Trust Company, collapsed—the consequence, said a state official, of “the hysteria and unfavorable psychological reaction which are gripping the public.”

The affliction that brought down Franklin Trust was felling scores of other financial institutions. Within a month of Britain’s being driven off the gold standard, 522 U.S. banks failed. That autumn, in the greatest outflow of bullion in American history, $1 billion was pulled out of bank vaults and squirreled away in coffeepots, mattresses, and other hiding places. No longer was anyone saying “safe as a bank.”

In his State of the Union address in December 1931, Hoover insisted, “Our people are providing against distress from unemployment in true American fashion by magnificent response to public appeal and by action of the local governments.” He opposed “any . . . dole” because, thanks to “the sense of social responsibility in the Nation, our people have been protected from hunger and cold,” and voluntary effort gave “assurance against suffering during the coming winter.” When he delivered these words, more than 200,000 men and women were walking the streets of Detroit seeking work. Throughout the country, tar-paper Hoovervilles were multiplying.

Alarmed that the national treasury was running a historic deficit— nearly a billion dollars—Hoover believed it essential to balance the budget in order to forestall a run on gold reserves and to instill faith in the integrity of the central government. “Nothing will contribute more to the return of prosperity than to maintain the sound fiscal position of the Federal Government,” he declared, consequently advocating substantial tax increases along with cuts in government spending—precisely the wrong medicine for an ailing economy.

Without any effective galvanizer, the slump dramatically worsened— erasing all the gains of the golden era of Hoover’s public career. Factories in 1932 turned out less than they had in 1913. For every four cars that had rolled off the assembly line in 1929, only one emerged in 1932. Steel plants operated at a pitiful 11 percent of capacity. And with few jobs to be had, breadlines grew longer. The business magazine Fortune estimated that 34 million men, women, and children were “without any income what- ever,” and this figure “omitted America’s 11 million farm families, who were suffering in a rural Gethsemane of their own.”

Community chests could deal with a few hundred out of work, perhaps a few thousand, but they could not conceivably meet the needs of a city such as Cleveland, where 50 percent of the workforce was jobless. In Akron and East St. Louis, Illinois, unemployment reached 60 percent; in Toledo it mounted to 80 percent.

Investigators found that Hoover’s reliance on municipal capacity was also illusory. One hundred cities in 1932 appropriated no money at all for the indigent while he single-mindedly concentrated not on aid to the bereft but on balancing the budget. Whatever members of Congress proposed—not only federal relief, but also modest efforts such as gathering statistics on job losses or modernizing employment exchanges—he set himself sternly against, admonishing that “We cannot . . squander ourselves into prosperity.” On May 31, 1932, he took the unusual step of appearing in the U.S. Senate chamber to scold legislators for considering costly relief and public works measures. “The course of unbalanced budgets is the road to ruin,” he declared, in urging Congress to pare the deficit by raising taxes. That plea resulted in the Revenue Act of 1932—a law that has been condemned by economists ever since for further draining the nation’s meager purchasing power.

But so great was the pressure from progressives in both parties for aid to the jobless that Hoover capitulated and in July signed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, which provided $300 million in loans to states for succoring “needy and distressed people” and empowered a government agency to finance $1.5 billion for income-producing public works such as toll roads. In addition, it authorized over $300 million for emergencies. Never before had Congress enacted a statute of this nature or of these dimensions.

At Hoover’s behest, however, federal officials administered the law so stingily that the tens of thousands of jobs the country had been promised were never created. “These loans are to be based upon absolute need and evidence of financial exhaustion,” the president said. “I do not expect any state to resort to it except as a last extremity.” When the governor of Pennsylvania asked for enough money to give 13 cents a day to those who were down and out, the government granted a sum that yielded just three cents a day. By mid-October, only three of the 243 applications received for public works projects had been approved.

As the 1932 campaign got under way, few observers saw even a glimmer of possibility that the president could win a second term. Unhappily for Hoover, the Democrats had picked a formidable nominee in Franklin D. Roosevelt, though it took some time for the president to acknowledge this. Even when Hoover did recognize that the ebullient governor of the country’s then most populous state was no pushover, he failed to comprehend that his rival’s attitude toward help for the impoverished would give FDR the advantage.

Roosevelt had told the New York legislature that relief “must be extended by Government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty; the State accepts the task cheerfully because it believes that it will help restore that close relationship with its people which is necessary to preserve our democratic form of government.”

In contrast, Hoover conducted a lackluster campaign from the furthest point of the respectable right. No one applauded at the end of his acceptance address, because, reported a British journalist, of “the dispiriting influence of Mr. Hoover’s personality, his unprepossessing exterior, his sour, puckered face of a bilious baby, his dreary, nasal monotone reading interminably, and, for the most part inaudibly, from a typescript without a single inflection of a voice or gesture to relieve the tedium.” When the Republican campaign train rolled into Detroit, where many thousands of autoworkers had been discharged, angry crowds shook their fists and chanted, “Hang Hoover! Hang Hoover! Hang Hoover!” His face ashen, his eyes bloodshot, his hands trembling, he soldiered on, convinced that he carried the fate of the republic with him.

On his final campaign leg—west to California—his train was halted in Wisconsin after a man was detected ripping out spikes; near a critical Nevada rail crossing, watchmen came upon two men toting sticks of dynamite. After tomatoes spattered his train in Kansas, he told his wife, “I can’t go on with it anymore.” When he crossed the California border, Hoover took comfort in knowing he was in his home state—but in Oakland, the terminus of the line, crowds jeered him, and on Market Street, the main artery of San Francisco, stink bombs fouled the air. By the time he got to Palo Alto, he seemed to be a “walking corpse.” A telegram he opened there recommended: “Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous.”

On election night, November 8, 1932, one wire after another revealed how many rock-ribbed Republican strongholds had turned against him. Hoover was stunned— visibly aging before his neighbors’ eyes. In 1928 he had carried 40 states; in 1932, with less than 40 percent of the popular vote, only six. Not for 80 years had there been such an avalanche of Democratic ballots. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first Democrat to enter the White House with a popular majority since Franklin Pierce in 1853. Save for 1912, when the party had been divided between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supporters, 1932 marked the worst defeat in the history of the GOP. The Hoover years wrenched many lifelong Republican voters from their moorings.

On his last day in office, the Washington correspondent of the New York Times found Hoover “standing at the window looking out at the Washington Monument. His eyes were red; it was clear he had been weeping. We sat down and he said slowly that the country was in terrible condition, ... that the whole economy was in jeopardy.” His presidency was ending to the din of crashing banks, to the stillness of thousands of miles of assembly lines. At midnight he faced up to the inevitable. “We are at the end of our string,” he said. “There is nothing more we can do.”

From the book HERBERT HOOVER from The American Presidents Series by William E. Leuchtenburg; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz, General Editors. Copyright © 2009 by William E. Leuchtenburg. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

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