Hoover’s beliefs were shaped at the nexus of business and technology. An Iowan by birth and a Californian by migration, he had graduated from Stanford with a degree in geology and gotten rich in far-flung mining ventures. By the time he was forty, at the beginning of the war in Europe in 1914, he owned pieces of mines and oil fields on four continents and was considered, according to a London mining publication, “a wizard of finance.” At that point he was a millionaire and making money had receded as a goal, so his ambition turned to applying the lessons of engineering to society. All forms of engineering were then a rising science, and if they could tame and bring order to the natural world, they might also benefit the world of men. And since the world of men was ruled by business, Hoover believed the scientific application of enlightened business principles could improve the lot of workers and still leave room for profits at the top. As a Quaker, he believed in social responsibility. As an engineer, he believed it could be achieved according to a blueprint.
Finally, as a lifelong Republican, he saw little role for the government in this design. Business and industry, organized under the proper influences, could do it all provided they had the information on which to act. The national government waged war and conducted foreign and economic policy, but virtually its only domestic role was to compile the necessary information for business and industry and bring it to the attention of leaders in the private sector and in state and local governments. It became their job, from then on, to act in response to business trends—in the case of recession, for example, to increase spending on plants and public works to counteract the downturn. Hoover had urged the adoption of such countercyclical spending to smooth out hiccups in the business cycle since his days as commerce secretary. Never before had the government taken even this small hand in guiding the economy, a role Hoover, a baseball fan, likened to umpiring rather than playing in the game. But when the depression struck, as president he gave himself few options otherwise, either to attack unemployment or to alleviate the hardships it caused. If federal money could not be spent to create jobs or provide food, clothing, and shelter, the money had to come from somewhere else. And if the state and local governments had tapped all their taxing power and were too broke even to pay their own employees, which was the case in Chicago with its teachers, the only source of money left was voluntary givers. This is where the president now turned.
Persuasion was another of his beliefs. Hoover had great faith in the power of words, assurances, appearances. Like engineering, the art of advertising was also on the rise, and brand names such as Camel cigarettes, Maxwell House coffee, and Coca-Cola were increasing their market share with popular slogans such as Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop.” None of this was lost on the president; he had once told the Saturday Evening Post that “the world lives by phrases.” In a later era, he would have been noted for his belief in “spin.” As jobs kept disappearing, he judged language by its potential for encouragement.
In the fall of 1930, he had appointed an Emergency Committee for Employment. A dispatch from Washington at the time reported that “President Hoover has summoned Colonel Arthur Woods to help place 2,500,000 persons back to work this winter.” Woods, the committee chair, was a former New York City police commissioner and an officer in the army’s air corps during the world war; he had worked in relief during the 1920–21 depression, when a drop in manufacturing triggered a jump in joblessness. Hoover instructed him to approach unemployment as a local problem, but Woods could find no local solutions. He decided it required action on a national scale and, as Father Cox and others were also to do, urged the president to submit a plan of federally funded public works to the Congress. Hoover dismissed the idea, Woods resigned, and the committee dissolved.
By March 1931, half a year later, unemployment had worsened drastically. Eight million people were now out of work, double the number just one year earlier. And the numbers of the unemployed kept rising. In August, Hoover replaced the first committee with another, the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief (POUR). Its chair was American Telephone and Telegraph president Walter S. Gifford, who also chaired the Charity Organization Society of New York; like Hoover, Gifford believed in voluntary private action. POUR mounted an advertising and publicity campaign to encourage private giving. This was more to Hoover’s liking, and the president himself launched the campaign in a nationwide radio address on October 18, in which again he left no room for a federal program: “No governmental action, no economic doctrine, no economic plan or project can replace that God-imposed responsibility of the individual man and woman to their neighbors.” The depression, he said, was “a passing incident in our national life,” and “the number who are threatened with privation is a minor percentage.”
The next morning’s report in the New York Times said the president was “depending on the efforts of individual communities to preclude the appropriation of relief funds by Congress.”
From October 19 to November 25, 1931, Americans were bombarded with ads from every conceivable source: newspapers, magazines, billboards, and the radio trumpeted “the thrill of a great spiritual experience. In those few weeks millions of dollars will be raised in cities and towns throughout the land, and the fear of cold and hunger will be banished from the hearts of thousands.” But humorist Will Rogers, recruited to draw listeners to the initial broadcast, had placed the campaign’s challenge in perspective with typical barbed wit: “You have just heard Mr. Gifford, the biggest hello man in the world, a very fine high-caliber man, but what a job he has got! Mr. Hoover just told him, ‘Gifford, I have a remarkable job for you; you are to feed the several million unemployed.’
“‘With what?’ says Gifford.
“‘That’s what makes the job remarkable. If you had something to do it with, it wouldn’t be remarkable.’”
POUR’s campaign aimed to raise $12 million, or about $1.20 for every person who then was unemployed, but Gifford did little beyond promoting the idea that giving was spiritually uplifting. In January 1932, as Cox’s haggard Pennsylvanians were descending on the capital to plead for a government jobs program, Gifford was testifying before a Senate committee studying unemployment. He did not have much to say. He told the senators he had no idea how much money the campaign had raised. Nor did he know how many people were unemployed, how many were receiving charity, how relief needs differed from place to place, or how local governments were supposed to raise money to provide relief. Nevertheless, he assured the senators, local resources could meet the need. Federal intervention, he said, would only reduce the amount of private giving and make the problem worse.
To be fair, Gifford was not the only idiot. Many business and industry leaders, surveyed for a New Year’s Day story on their outlook for the year ahead, had predicted that 1931 would bring a business recovery. The main reason for this optimism appeared to be the conviction that 1931 couldn’t possibly be as bad as 1930. It “is a new year,” said Alfred P. Sloan, the president of General Motors. “We should enter it with new ideas, new measures, new confidence, new hope…'if our attitude toward the new problems of the new year is constructive, rather than critical, we shall make greater progress in 1931 than we did in 1930.” Colonel Michael Friedsam, the founder and head of the upscale New York department store B. Altman & Co., said, “I firmly believe that business in general is now in a good position to begin reconstruction, and that good management, vision, and courage, which are inherent in American business, will now start things moving in the right direction.” National Steel Corporation chairman Ernest T. Weir concurred: “I think there is assurance that we are close to the turning point and can confidently expect 1931 to be a year of more normal general business.”
What else could the captains of industry and the business leaders say? But their predictions proved to be as wrong as Hoover’s each time he asserted that recovery was “right around the corner.” The fine qualities that Friedsam attributed to his fellow executives had deserted them. No one in business or government, bound to the framework of their beliefs, had a clue about how to solve the crisis.
And unemployment kept rising, inexorably, remorselessly. Yet the president still treated the problem as a crisis of confidence, something to be talked away, or joked or rhymed or sung about. “What this country needs is a good big laugh,” he had said early in 1931. “There seems to be a condition of hysteria. If someone could get off a good joke every ten days, I think our troubles would be over.”
In fact there were jokes aplenty about the hard times, but Hoover was frequently the butt of them. One had him asking his treasury secretary, banker Andrew Mellon, “Can you lend me a nickel? I want to call a friend,” and Mellon responding, “Here’s a dime. Call both of them.”
On another occasion, Hoover said the country needed a good poem. But when he told crooner Rudy Vallee that he would give him a medal if he could sing a song “that would make people forget their troubles and the depression,” Vallee responded by recording a song from a musical, Americana, that opened on Broadway in the fall of 1932. The musical’s theme, largely reprised in Hollywood’s Gold Diggers of 1933 a year later, evoked the hard times, nowhere more poignantly than in Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?
The writers said they got the idea for the song as they walked past the breadlines in Times Square. This anthem of the penniless forgotten man is the song Vallee chose to record. Bing Crosby released his own version of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” at almost the same time, and both went to number one on the charts. But rather than distracting people from the depression, its sweeping popularity reminded Americans that millions of their fellow citizens were out of work, and that for many the indignity of begging for handouts was their only recourse.