(photo credit 3.1)
The public memory of many of our presidents is clouded by myth, often to the point where it is very difficult to convince anyone that a given leader was different from his popular image. Some presidents—Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, to name a few—are the subject of generally positive myths, others negative images. No past president, though, has suffered quite as much abuse as Herbert Hoover. He is used as an example of a poor leader, a weak president, an awful politician. Russell Baker’s Aunt Pat informed her young nephew of some of the sins of President Hoover in 1932: “People were starving because of Herbert Hoover. My mother was out of work because of Herbert Hoover. Men were killing themselves because of Herbert Hoover, and their fatherless children were being packed away to orphanages … because of Herbert Hoover.”
There has been a method to the mythology of Herbert Hoover. He has served Democrats for a half century in the same way the “Bloody Shirt” issue was used by Republicans in the decades following the Civil War. Blaming Hoover for the Great Depression, and implying (or actually saying) that he was a man who would provide relief for banks but not people, a president who would feed foreigners but would let his own people starve, were useful reminders that the Republican party was the party of little compassion, big business, and great depressions. (Some of the stereotypes, incidentally, may be more justified when applied to subsequent Republicans rather than to Hoover.) The ultimate use of the negative Hoover symbol may have been David Levine’s cartoon on the cover of the New York Review of Books in June 1970. It showed a man removing a Nixon mask to reveal Hoover underneath.
References to the “Hoover Depression” just will not go away. In congressional hearings in the spring of 1982, South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings read a statement by Treasury Secretary Donald Regan asserting that President Reagan’s budget was “a blueprint for growth and prosperity.” Hollings exclaimed: “That’s Hoover talk, man!” As the economic collapse of the early 1980s worsened, more and more people were heard to mention the names “Reagan” and “Hoover” in the same breath. In September 1982, House Speaker Tip O’Neill called Reagan “Hoover with a smile.” Such implications of similarity between the two men are unfair—to Hoover.
Nor are the bitter attacks on poor Hoover the sole property of Democrats and liberals. “Supply-side” economist Jude Wanniski charges: “Most one-term Presidents only have time for one truly disastrous decision but Herbert Hoover squeezed in two.” (He refers to Hoover’s signing of the Hawley-Smoot tariff and his tax increase of 1932.) Wanniski is not content with these charges. He goes on to imply that Hoover’s tariff was responsible for bringing Hitler to power! Even The Wall Street Journal has lambasted Hoover in recent years. The temptation is strong to say that with such a host of enemies on opposing sides, Hoover must have been doing something right. This is not necessarily so, but the diversity of Hoover’s critics ought at least to make us more curious about his philosophy and actions.
My purpose here is not to reverse the Hoover image but to examine Herbert Hoover so that his role in the Great Depression can become more comprehensible.
Until the publication of several highly competent works in the last decade or so, finding the “real” Herbert Hoover was no easy task. Hoover’s own Memoirs were done very carelessly and are chock-full of errors, beginning with an incorrect date for his own birth and carrying through, according to biographer David Burner, hundreds of other mistakes. Even with the recent scholarship, many facts about Herbert Hoover remain beyond our knowledge. He was a very private person, and less can be said about his inner life than we would like to know in order to paint an accurate portrait. Since the opening of the Hoover papers in the 1960s, however, it has become possible to offer a reassessment of Hoover and to do so with some confidence.1
Prior to 1929, Hoover was a symbol, as he has been since; but before the Crash he symbolized something vastly different from what he came to stand for later. Herbert Hoover was the foremost example of the idea of the New Era. Much of the public seemed to agree that he was the perfect man for the presidency: an expert, an engineer, a businessman, a “nonpolitician,” a humanitarian. Optimism was the order of the day in the late twenties, and it was no coincidence that Hoover entitled the volume of his speeches from the 1928 campaign “The New Day.” But, like Henry Ford, Hoover was not only a symbol of the new that people so loved in the twenties; he also seemed to embody the old ways. His image was a “highly successful blend of modern and traditional themes.”
And image is the proper word. Hoover was the first important figure in American politics to use the techniques of modern public relations on a massive scale. His publicity agents were so successful in selling their product that Hoover was generally seen in the twenties as a “human symbol of efficiency,” a super businessman who could solve any problems that might arise. “We were in a mood for magic,” journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick recalled of Hoover’s inauguration. “We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved.”
The image-makers had worked wonders for Hoover. But in the process they “oversold” him and created a dangerous situation. Hoover recognized the problem just before he took office, when he told a newspaper editor that he feared “the exaggerated idea the people have conceived of me. They have a conviction that I am a sort of superman, that no problem is beyond my capacity.” “If some unprecedented calamity should come upon the nation,” the President-elect went on, “… I would be sacrificed to the unreasoning disappointment of a people who expected too much.”
In the twenties, the public conception of Hoover rivaled that of Henry Ford as the perfect embodiment of the American Dream. Orphaned and very poor at the age of nine, Hoover was a self-made millionaire thirty years later. In the 1920s this dream seemed viable, but when the dream became a nightmare in the thirties, most people had no desire to be reminded of it. People in depressions are not likely to have kind views of self-made men. Ford and Hoover both learned this unpleasant lesson in the early thirties.2
The help of publicity agents notwithstanding, Herbert Hoover’s career prior to reaching the nation’s highest office was remarkable. In that background can be found the character traits that led Hoover to deal with the Depression in the way he did.
Born in 1874 into a hardworking Quaker family in West Branch, Iowa, Herbert Hoover’s religious upbringing left a distinct imprint on him. The Friends were not opposed to worldly success, which they saw as the just reward for individual effort, but they held that one who was enriched by society owed a great obligation of service to his fellow citizens. The successful member of the Society of Friends has a trust to do good and to bring order to a part of the world. Quaker individualism was a long way from social Darwinism. Hoover expressed the belief well when he said that what was needed was “ordered liberty,” not “individualism run riot.”
Hoover’s father died when Bert (as he was called by family and friends) was six, and his mother passed away less than four years later. Thereafter young Hoover was shuttled among the households of various relatives. At age eleven he joined relatives in Oregon. His life was beyond his control. As an adult Hoover constantly sought to impose order and stability on his surroundings, to gain personal control. The Friends among whom the future President grew up may have been friendly, but there was a definite lack of warmth around the boy. He was lonely and his boyhood was decidedly austere.
Young Hoover was poorly prepared for college, but the new Stanford University was in need of students and admitted him to its first class, despite a serious deficiency in English that would trouble him throughout his career. At Stanford, Hoover aligned himself with the poorer student faction—the “barbarians”—against the fraternity boys. In 1893, Bert Hoover ran for elective office for the first of only three times in his life. He won the race for Stanford student body treasurer, but did not offer himself to an electorate again until he sought the presidency of the United States thirty-five years later.
Hoover took his engineering degree from the new university when the nation was in the depths of the depression of the 1890s, and he found it necessary to accept a job as a laborer in a mine. Within a few months, though, he landed a position as an engineer with a British mining company operating in Australia. Over the next several years, Hoover worked in mining operations all over the globe, using his skills as an engineer to move into the business as a manager and promoter. It was not true, as his publicity agents later claimed, that he never knew failure in his mining and business ventures, but the degree of his accomplishment was great. It was revealing of Hoover that he never acknowledged the few failures interspersed in his overall success. At the age of twenty-nine, Hoover was a financier-promoter-geologist-engineer-metallurgist. He was internationally famous as “the Great Engineer.” When the United States entered World War I, Hoover was worth $4 million. He held the opinion that if a man “has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty he is not worth much.”
Having made his money, Hoover turned to his Quaker duty of service. In London when the war began, he was asked to assist Americans caught in Europe. He soon joined an effort to assist the people of Belgium, a neutral country overrun by German armies invading France. Hoover quickly “took charge” of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Its achievement—and his—was phenomenal. The CRB fed more than 9 million people in Belgium and northern France over a period of nearly five years. The overhead costs were kept to an incredible one-half of 1 percent. And child mortality was actually lower in the area the CRB helped than it had ever been before. Here was efficiency! The experience confirmed Hoover’s belief that voluntary action could meet any crisis. Ironically, though, 78 percent of the CRB’s funds came from government help.
The subsequent service Hoover rendered as United States food administrator during the war and director general of the American Relief Administration after the Armistice only added to his renown. The former task involved a vast increase in American agricultural production and a huge effort to cut consumption. Hoover’s agency conserved without resort to rationing, another example of the efficacy of voluntary action. And the postwar European relief effort saved upward of 100 million lives. Hoover had much of which he could be justly proud. After the Versailles conference, John Maynard Keynes singled out Herbert Hoover as “the only man who emerged from the ordeal of Paris with an enhanced reputation.” “Never was a nobler work of disinterested goodwill carried through with more tenacity and sincerity and skill, and with less thanks either asked or given,” Keynes declared. Hoover’s agents could not have said it better, but it was essentially true. The tributes were effusive. The word “Hooverize,” meaning to economize for a noble purpose, entered the language for a time. Hooverstrassen and other variants of streets named for him appeared in many European towns. Such uses of his name provide a graphic illustration of how different his reputation was in 1919 from what it became in 1933, when the most common derivative was “Hooverville.”
To Americans as well as Europeans, Hoover was a hero, a “gruff humanitarian” who could accomplish miracles. “I think,” Brand Whitlock, the progressive former mayor of Toledo, wrote of Hoover to Secretary of War Newton Baker in 1917, “he is precisely the man that the liberal movement in America, as you and I understand it, needs … his hardness is all on the surface.” Other progressives agreed. “He is truly a wonder, and I wish we could make him President,” wrote Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy in a 1920 letter. “There couldn’t be a better one.” It was an opinion the writer, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would eventually alter, but not until after Hoover was in the White House. In 1928, FDR still referred to Hoover as “an old personal friend.”
Hoover was the Great Progressive Hope for 1920. He appeared to be just the ticket—a “hardheaded moralist,” that wonderful paradox so loved by Americans, the “practical idealist.” Although most of his relatives were Republicans, Hoover had never been actively involved in politics. Progressives in both parties wanted to claim him. The Democrats, desperately in need of a superman to replace Wilson and stem the Republican tide, might have nominated Hoover. But at the end of March of the election year he finally publicly announced his Republican affiliation and his willingness, under certain conditions, to be drafted. The New York Times translated the meaning of Hoover’s statement: “In effect, Mr. Hoover tells the Republican party he would like to belong to [it] if [it] will be the kind of a party to which he would like to belong. And that, if he belongs to it, he would have no objection to leading it.” The Republican bosses were not interested.
When Warren Harding began to form his Cabinet, he said he wanted the “best minds.” The progressive Hoover was appointed to Commerce, balancing the arch-conservative Mellon (of whom Harding had never heard before the appointment was suggested to him) at Treasury. Hoover’s talents and ideals had a new showcase, one in which it could be seen just what sort of progressive he was.3
In his post at Commerce during the eight years of the Harding-Coolidge administrations, Herbert Hoover demonstrated both his character and his beliefs in ways that clearly prefigured his tragic presidency. The department itself moved from the shadows to the center stage of government activity. Whether Mellon was, as his friends insisted, “the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton” (which, it may be helpful to point out, they meant as a compliment) or only the greatest since Carter Glass (who had held the post under Wilson), Hoover was the greatest secretary of commerce in our history. “There is reason to doubt,” TRB wrote in The New Republic in 1925, “whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground.”
Hoover had no use for the strict laissez-faire attitude of the nineteenth century. As early as 1909 the future President declared, “The time when the employer could ride roughshod over his labor is disappearing with the doctrine of ‘laissez faire’ on which it was founded. The sooner the fact is recognized, the better for the employer.” He often said that the root problem in our economic system was the unfair distribution of income between labor and capital. Nor did Herbert Hoover believe the government’s role in the economy ought to be minimized. He emphatically did not think that the business cycle was “natural” and so could not be mitigated by government action. He proposed a dynamic program for dealing with the depression of 1920–22 and, thanks to Hoover, President Harding took more action at that time than had ever been tried by any previous president in the face of economic collapse. Government actions, such as public works spending, should provide a “balance wheel” for the economy, Hoover maintained. After his 1928 victory Hoover called for a “prosperity reserve fund” in which excess government income in times of prosperity would be held for use in providing jobs during hard times. This amounted to a small-scale countercyclical proposal, seven years before the publication of Keynes’s General Theory.
Hoover’s views on taxation were similarly far removed from the Coolidge-Mellon philosophy. He told Harding that income from the securities of the “well-to-do” ought to be taxed at a higher rate than “earned” income. “I would like to see,” Hoover wrote in 1924, “a steeply graduated tax on legacies and gifts … for the deliberate purpose of disintegrating large fortunes.” Hoover opposed taxes on necessities and believed that the lower and much of the middle class should be free of taxation. In direct contradiction to such people as Du Pont, Raskob, and Mellon (not to mention the present-day leaders of Hoover’s party), he said the burden should be borne by the rich. It should be seen as their social duty.
Hoover was clearly not a strong champion of unrestricted capitalism. In his often-mentioned but seldom-read 1922 book, American Individualism, Hoover insisted that the key to the American system was equality of opportunity. He had no truck with the belief that people really were equal, an idea he wrote off as “the claptrap of the French Revolution.” For Hoover’s conception of the American system as just to be accurate, he had to argue that everyone in the “race” had an equal start and played by the same rules. Thanks to “free and universal education” and the government acting as “umpire of fairness,” candidate Hoover contended in 1928, each “runner” had a fair chance. Those who won were those who deserved to win. Given Hoover’s assumptions, this might seem to be a fair system. But it should be noticed that despite all the qualifications and regulations, Hoover had worked his way back into dangerous proximity of social Darwinism.4
If the rationale for Hoover’s system approximated that of social Darwinism, however, his vision was well separated from dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hind-most individualism. Here was not “rugged individualism,” but what Hoover saw as a uniquely American blend of opposites, a nation of “socially responsible individualists.” “I believe we in America are developing a new economic thought, a new basis of community action … cooperation,” Hoover wrote. He downplayed the differences among conservatism, liberalism, and progressivism. All aimed, or should aim, at his goal of equality of opportunity. One day he would find that opposites could not be united so easily.
The emphasis on the American system may seem strange from one who spent so much time abroad. As with Thomas Jefferson, however, extensive foreign travels served to confirm Hoover’s belief in the superiority of American ways. One of the clearest effects of Hoover’s contacts with foreign systems was his conviction that government intervention in the economy, although necessary, must be strictly limited. “I have witnessed not only at home but abroad,” the Republican candidate said in 1928, “the many failures of government in business. I have seen its tyrannies, its injustices, its undermining of the very instincts which carry people forward to progress.” Hoover wanted a moral economy, by which he meant an efficient one, a progressive economy in the sense of achieving the most progress. Too much reliance on the national government to solve problems, he fervently believed, would endanger progress and efficiency, and subvert liberty as well. By “liberty,” though, he did not mean what the anti-New Deal “Liberty League” of the mid-thirties meant. “As to the Liberty of the Wall Street Model,” he wrote in 1934, “I am not for it … they give no consideration to the fact that property or the power over property can be used to abuse Liberty. It can be used to dominate and limit the freedom of others.”
What Herbert Hoover was grappling with was one of the fundamental problems of the United States in the twentieth century: how to apply our Jeffersonian heritage in a highly concentrated, urban industrial setting. Hoover spoke much in the language of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, but he understood that he lived in a different age. Individualism no longer meant “go it alone.” His ideal remained people ruling themselves, through voluntary cooperation. It was—and is—an attractive concept. Hoover was naive, but that, in a way, is refreshing. He clung to the belief that people could be gotten voluntarily to cooperate, share, and help their neighbors, that coercion was unnecessary. It may be more of a commentary on our age than on Hoover that most of us today do not understand him.
But Herbert Hoover was not one to admit failure or that his ideals were unworkable. Throughout his career, as biographer Joan Hoff Wilson has noted, Hoover had a large “capacity for self-delusion where failure was involved.” In his business career he had a tendency “of ignoring, dismissing, whitewashing, or even falsely claiming success for those inevitable financial failures common in any speculative profession.” At least one of his mining ventures in Australia, for example, was a large failure. As he would not admit failure in business, neither would he in ideas. Herbert Hoover constructed his values into a closed system and would not let events or facts upset his ideal vision. His system—unlike the real world—was based on rationality, but he was irrational in his defense of it.
Here is one of the great Hoover ironies. Although he was the Great Engineer, the objective scientist who said all that was needed to make the government work was to collect the facts, he came finally to reject those facts that did not support his viewpoint. It is impossible to understand Herbert Hoover and his reaction to the Depression without seeing that he was that rarest of politicians, a man of principle. He was an idealist who firmly (and rightly) believed that means cannot be separated from ends. This was admirable up to a point. But his method proved disastrous during the Depression when crisis conditions demanded results without much concern about method.
The ends desired by Herbert Hoover were not so different from those sought by Franklin Roosevelt. All the public images to the contrary notwithstanding, Hoover was not opposed to helping Depression victims and did not favor letting the “unfit” fend for themselves. What Hoover sought was the sort of vast voluntary effort that he had witnessed during the war. He wanted people to rise to the challenge through charitable organizations. His pleas were answered. Private giving in the United States reached a record level in 1932. What Hoover desperately wanted to avoid was not assistance for the poor, but the demoralizing effects of a federal dole, which he believed would be “to lower wages toward the bare subsistence level and to endow the slackers.” The President insisted, though, that his first priority was to prevent suffering. “I am willing to pledge myself,” he declared in February 1931, “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.…” But Hoover said he had “faith in the American people that such a day [would] never come.” Exactly. Hoover by this time was operating on faith, not facts.
It was not that Hoover rejected all facts and always refused to take pragmatic action. He finally accepted the conclusion that voluntary action would not save the nation’s banks, so he agreed to government intervention to help them. He continued, though, to reject federal relief for the unemployed. “In the one case,” as historian Albert Romasco has pointed out, Hoover “faced the facts as he found them and acted; in the other, he persistently denied the facts and refused to act.” The President was willing to handle the banking crisis pragmatically, but remained idealistic in dealing with unemployment. Hoover seemed to many Americans to be splitting ideological hairs while people starved.
In a similar vein, President Hoover endorsed a $45 million appropriation to feed the livestock of Arkansas farmers during the 1930 drought, but rejected a grant of $25 million for food for the farmers and their families. As in the case of unemployment relief, the President was worried about destroying people’s self-reliance and “spiritual responses.” Hogs and bankers, it seemed, were in one category, while farmers and the unemployed were in another. Hoover saw no danger of undermining the independence and self-respect of the former group, but was more solicitous of the latter’s spiritual health.
It was not that there was anything inherently wrong with Hoover’s ideals, but that he held to them so tenaciously, if sometimes inconsistently. In upholding his values no matter what and refusing to go along with the demands of the American people during the Depression, Herbert Hoover became, in biographer Joan Hoff Wilson’s words, “the remembered reactionary and forgotten Progressive.”5
The reasons for Hoover’s politically suicidal adherence to his principles must be sought in his character and psychological makeup. Herbert Hoover’s greatest virtue may have been his consistency; his worst defect was his rigidity. These are, of course, two terms for what is basically the same quality. If we choose to say that a person is tenacious, unshakable, or steadfast we are usually praising him; to call him stubborn, obstinate, or pigheaded is to condemn him. Other terms, such as inflexible, uncompromising, or adamant, might be used in either a positive or negative sense. Hoover was all of these things—or this one thing—but whether it is good or bad depends not only upon the adjective chosen but also upon the conditions under which one is unyielding.
Herbert Hoover became so unbending in his commitment to his beliefs that he was willing to contradict the obvious. Despite all the evidence of the gross inadequacy of local relief efforts, Hoover said in his December 1931 State of the Union address that “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.” Richard Hofstadter explained Hoover’s apparent mental process well: “Because, on his postulates, his program should have been successful, he went on talking as though it were, and the less his ideas worked, the more defiantly he advocated them.”
Hoover’s commitment to his ideas was so strong that when they had failed completely by mid-1932, he could offer only to try the same ideas over again. In the end, his rigidity was a matter of pride. In 1962, two years before his death, Hoover wrote to a friend: “The world has gone bye [sic] you and me. However it is some satisfaction that you and I have gone through the agonies of these years without ‘deviations.’ ” Herbert Hoover “stayed the course.”
Next to his refusal to “deviate,” Hoover’s most notable characteristic was his apparent scientific detachment. He seems to have been a man of little personal warmth. His great humanitarian efforts involved masses of people and were acts of administrative efficiency, not personal contact. He evidenced little emotion or empathy with individual sufferers. Much of his life before entering Harding’s Cabinet had been spent roaming the globe, often entailing long absences from his family. While we still do not know very much about his private life, there are many indications that it was nearly as impersonal as his public appearance. In the New Era none of this was held against Hoover. His image as “efficiently cold-blooded” suited the public mood in the 1920s. During the Depression, though, compassion came to be more highly prized than detached efficiency.
In order to be efficient, it is usually thought necessary to be a hard worker. This Herbert Hoover was. The contrast with Coolidge is overwhelming. Hoover hated idleness, an attitude that helps to account both for his despising the “idle rich” and his fear of the “dole” creating an “idle poor.” He would not be idle himself. Smashing his immediate predecessor’s precedent of long vacations, Hoover panicked at the very idea and tried to avoid vacations entirely. If forced to take one, he would hurry from one sightseeing spot to the next at breakneck speed.
Herbert Hoover was that unusual—but far from unique—person who is both shy and possessed by a passion for publicity. He had, according to David Burner, “the need of an orphan to show the world he had made good.” Hoover wanted credit for what was accomplished, but he also was, or wanted to be, humble, as befits a Quaker. A private person with a large ego runs certain risks. Bernard Baruch pointed out Hoover’s problem, while overstating it. Hoover had, the financier asserted, “delusions of grandeur—he really believes all the wonderful things he has written about himself.”
Any man who craves success and fears failure to more than the ordinary degree is likely to be hypersensitive to criticism, and Hoover was no exception. Coolidge’s policy was “If you don’t like it, don’t read it.” Hoover was incapable of assuming this attitude. One critic in 1931 said that the President was “thin-skinned and sensitive.” The same could have been said of him before the Depression, when there was far less provocation from detractors. The political life may have held great attractions for such a man, but it was not the best life for him.6
“Politics,” wrote William Allen White in a marvelous mixed metaphor, “is one of the minor branches of harlotry, and Hoover’s frigid desire to live a virtuous life and not follow the Pauline maxim and be all things to all men, is one of the things that has reduced the oil in his machinery and shot a bearing.” Certainly the general assessment is that Herbert Hoover was a poor politician. The weight of the evidence supports that view, but more than a few grams can also be counted on the other side of the scale.
Republican congressional leaders were generally hostile to Hoover. They questioned his “Republicanism”—the nonpartisan stance that pleased so many voters did not meet the approval of party leaders. Senate majority leader James E. Watson of Indiana was barely on speaking terms with the President. “How can a man follow the President unless he has St. Vitus’s dance?” Watson asked. Isolationists and “patriots” in Congress questioned the “Americanism” of the citizen-of-the-world in the White House. In a private 1931 letter, California’s Hiram Johnson referred to Hoover as “the Englishman in the White House.”
Congressional distaste for Hoover was generously reciprocated. He once called Congress “that beer garden up there on the hill,” and cited one senator as “the only verified case of a negative IQ.” After the Depression began, the President saw the proper role for Congress as that of spectator. There was, in his opinion, no need for legislation, so Congress was just an annoyance to a recovery plan that would be a cooperative effort of the White House and business leaders.
A poor relationship with Congress can often be overcome if a president has the public behind him. But here Hoover’s political weaknesses manifested themselves. After all the wonderful publicity work of earlier years, Hoover as president was unable to present himself to advantage. He always insisted upon writing his own speeches. It was a serious mistake, as the activity consumed huge amounts of time and yielded generally poor results. Hoover’s prose was, one historian has noted, always “suggestive of a light fog moving over a bleak landscape.” Nor did the content of some of his statements help his standing with the public. Some of the things he said appeared callous, disingenuous, or just plain stupid. In March 1930 the President announced, without any statistics upon which to base the assertion, that the worst of the unemployment would be over within sixty days. He was trying to build confidence and may have believed it, so we will forgive that one. Less understandable was his declaration a few months later to a visiting group of public works advocates: “Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The Depression is over.” On another occasion Hoover told the press that things were not so bad: “The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.” At least the President was still wedded to statistical precision, even if his sources of information were slipping to the sort of anecdotes later so favored by Ronald Reagan. In writing his Memoirs, Hoover made the fascinating statement that during the early thirties “many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”7
Had Calvin Coolidge run and won in 1928, he would have been president for longer than anyone who had served before him. As the country neared the crest of the wave called Coolidge Prosperity, the incumbent President seemingly could have had reelection for the asking. He did not ask. On one of his long vacations, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, on August 2, 1927, Coolidge took the most surprising action of his presidency. He summoned reporters and as they filed by him he handed each one a small slip of paper reading: “I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty-eight.” Reporters asked for further comment, but Coolidge said “None” and proceeded to lunch.
The most intriguing reasons for Coolidge’s decision to step down center on the possibility that he foresaw what was coming. First Lady Grace Coolidge put it most succinctly: “Poppa says there’s a depression coming.” By the accounts of both Mrs. Coolidge and Senator Watson, the President believed that times were changing and that he was better suited to the passing than the coming era. “I know how to save money,” Mrs. Coolidge said her husband told a member of the Cabinet, “… Perhaps the time has come when we ought to spend money. I do not feel that I am qualified to do that.” “From this time on,” Coolidge told Watson, “there must be something constructive applied to the affairs of government, and it will not be sufficient to say, ‘Let business take care of itself.’ ” Coolidge knew he was not the man to undertake such a constructive policy.
A simpler explanation for President Coolidge’s decision is that, never energetic, he had grown increasingly tired. Being president had become more of a burden than the novelty it had once been. On the way back from issuing his statement, Coolidge told Republican Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas: “Ten years in Washington is longer than any other man has had it—too long!” This cautious Yankee was not one to wear out his welcome.
If the nation must do without Coolidge, what better choice could there be than Herbert Hoover? If “something constructive” must be done, Hoover was the man to do it. He won the Republican nomination handily.
The Democrats met in Houston and managed to bind over the wounds of four years earlier sufficiently to nominate Al Smith on the first ballot. It has often been said that Smith had no chance to win because he was a Catholic, an urbanite, and an opponent of prohibition. This is only partially correct. That Smith had no chance to win is true, but the principal reason had nothing to do with his religion, origins, or positions on issues. At the height of Republican prosperity, no Democrat, even a Methodist born in a log cabin in Indiana who was as dry as the Sahara and a member in good standing of the Klan, could have defeated Hoover. This is not to say that these issues may not have hurt Smith, or even that one of them might not have been sufficient in itself to cause his defeat. The point is simply that they were unnecessary to Hoover’s victory; the prosperity issue—“A Chicken in Every Pot, Two Cars in Every Garage”—was decisive.
Something momentous was taking place in American political life in 1928. In much of the country Al Smith was ridiculed for his background working in the Fulton Fish Market, his poor education and grammar, his Lower East Side pronunciation. Cartoons portrayed him as an urban ruffian, a man who would disgrace the Office of President of the United States. This was a direct reversal of an earlier development in American politics in which the poorly educated, ungrammatical country roughneck—symbolized by Andrew Jackson—became the embodiment of American democracy. Then the urban enemy was pictured as cultured, educated, an undemocratic “professor,” the role for which John Quincy Adams seemed well cast in 1828. A century later, though, the East and the city had taken on a very different character in the rhetoric of rural America. Perhaps more important, the “ploughman” of whom Jefferson had spoken so reverently and whom Jacksonians had elevated above the professor—the simple working man looked down upon by the elite—had moved to the city and exchanged his plow for an assembly-line wrench. The effects of this change were fully apparent for the first time in the Depression decade.
It was not plain that Smith was the more liberal and Hoover the more conservative candidate in 1928. Despite their vastly different backgrounds both men were “administrative progressives.” It was no coincidence that both wound up bitter opponents of the New Deal. Smith and Raskob spared no effort in trying to “out-Coolidge” Hoover. Smith followed the advice of his predecessor as Democratic presidential nominee. “When will we get done with the fool idea that the way to make the party grow is to scare away everybody who has an extra dollar in his pocket?” John W. Davis asked in 1925. “God forbid that the Democratic party should become a mere gathering of the unsuccessful!” If God was not interested in forbidding it, Smith and Raskob were. Their attempt to repeal prohibition and shift the tax burden to the poor spent $7 million, compared to the $9 million Hoover effort. This was a spending ratio far better than the Democrats usually enjoy, but it did them little good at the polls.
For his part, Hoover ran a mildly progressive campaign. Despite the mildness of his progressivism, it was enough to upset many Wall Streeters. Hoover was known to favor a cooling of stock speculation. Although they would have preferred Coolidge—or Mellon—“the Interests” had to settle for Hoover, who spoke in favor of public power and labor unions and against strike-stopping injunctions. Franklin Roosevelt wrote letters to businessmen warning that Hoover had “shown in his own Department a most alarming desire to issue regulations and to tell businessmen generally how to conduct their affairs.” Business interests, FDR assured his friends in that line, would be safer with Smith than with Hoover in the White House. It was all to no avail.
In September, Roger Babson warned that “if Smith should be elected with a Democratic Congress we are almost certain to have a resulting business depression in 1929.” It was a warning similar to the one in the probably apocryphal story about the man who was warned in 1964 that if he voted for Barry Goldwater the United States would become deeply involved in Vietnam and the nation would be torn apart. A few years later the man ran into the person who had made the warning and said to him: “You were right. I voted for Goldwater and all those terrible things happened.”
Hoover crushed Smith by more than 6 million popular votes and won the electoral college by a greater margin than Harding had eight years before. The outcome—if not its magnitude—was entirely predictable months before the ballots were cast. (It is tempting to speculate that some dry, anti-urban, anti-Catholic Democrats may have dropped their opposition to Smith on the grounds that anyone they nominated was going to lose, so he might as well be a Catholic, whose religion could be blamed for the defeat, making another Catholic nominee unlikely for years to come.) The 1928 Republican victory was so decisive that the party’s domination seemed assured for another generation. The title of an article by the Democratic National Committee’s former publicity director expressed the political wisdom of the day: “Will the Democrats follow the Whigs?” Like the similar inquiries about the Republicans after 1936, 1964, and 1974, this question was premature. In accepting his nomination, Hoover had declared: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.… We shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” It was a statement that came back to haunt Hoover more than any other. The candidate had left himself few outs. It soon became apparent that God either was not a Republican or had decided that the Great Engineer needed no help. In any event, God offered to take none of the blame for the Depression. Herbert Hoover was left to answer alone when prosperity, rather than poverty, was banished from this nation.8
Herbert Hoover’s presidency began with great expectations. This, of course, could be said of most, if not all, administrations. But hopes were especially high in 1929. For many, the greatest hope was the return of progressivism after eight years of conservative Republican rule. Among the new President’s more interesting symbolic acts were the closing of the White House stables and the retirement of the presidential yacht. Before his first week in office ended, Hoover openly declared that “excessive fortunes are a menace to true liberty by the accumulation and inheritance of economic power.”
Within a few months Hoover’s plans were upset by the Crash. Previous presidents—with the partial exception of Harding (and that mostly at Hoover’s urging)—had followed a simple policy in dealing with economic depressions: they waited. This was in keeping with the mystical approach to economics—the belief that the business cycle was “natural” and beyond the ability of men to influence. Adam Smith’s invisible hand would automatically correct economic problems.
Sitting and waiting were alien to Herbert Hoover’s temperament. His great confidence in humankind’s abilities—and his own—led him to believe that action could mitigate the effects of an economic downturn. He moved swiftly and boldly to stem the decline. Hoover sought to create a business-labor-government partnership that would reverse the usual behavior of depression periods. Within a month of the October 1929 stock market crash, President Hoover began a series of conferences with leaders in all fields. He got employers to pledge not to cut wages. This, he hoped, would maintain purchasing power. If wages were to fall, it should happen only after prices had dropped. If workers were assured that their real wages would not decline, they might be persuaded to buy. The usual inclination in hard times is, of course, to cut back and save as much as possible. Hoover and the business group he organized, the National Business Survey Conference, urged Americans to reverse their frugal habits and spend the nation back to prosperity.
Along similar lines, the President sharply increased spending for public works. In 1931 public works expenditures reached the unheard-of sum of $700 million. In the past, such government spending had, like personal buying, been cut in depressions. Hoover’s initial response amounted to joining with business and other leaders in what Walter Lippmann called “an open conspiracy not to deflate.” The hope was that the Wall Street crash could be isolated and that everyone else could proceed as if it had not happened.
The essential ingredient needed for rapid recovery, President Hoover firmly believed, was confidence. What mattered was not reality, but the expectations of businessmen. The President wasted no time in launching his confidence offensive. “The fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities,” Hoover declared on the day after Black Thursday, October 24, 1929, when the bottom fell out of the stock market, “is on a sound and prosperous basis.” Less than a month later the President assured the nation that “any lack of confidence in the economic future or the strength of business in the United States is foolish.”
His understandable desire to engender confidence led Hoover down a disastrous path. He hoped that prediction of prosperity would be father to the fact. But his optimistic talk backfired when it quickly proved to be groundless. Hoover’s statements then looked at best ridiculous, at worst heartless and fabricated. Soon the President and his cohorts were publicizing only those statistics that were reassuring. And when no numbers fitting that description were available, they began to imply that such favorable figures existed. Hoover’s quest for confidence became desperate. In the fall of 1931 he took time off to go to Philadelphia for a World Series game. The only purpose of the trip was to try to convince people that normal times were returning.
The idea of bringing about recovery through building confidence was not a foolish one. Three underlying problems thwarted the plan: First, the collapse was far worse than almost anyone realized, and optimistic talk is a drug that either works in the initial dose or not at all. The Great Depression was too serious a disease to be cured instantly by an injection of confidence. The second reason for the failure of Hoover’s prescription was that he was not the proper physician to administer it. The President talked optimism, but he looked and acted pessimistic. “He took an unnecessarily dark view of situations,” Baruch contended. It was one of Hoover’s most striking contrasts with Roosevelt, and a trait that was most inopportune during the Depression.
The third problem with the business-confidence approach was that it proved to be self-defeating. Hoover concluded that the most essential factor in restoring an optimistic business climate was balancing the budget. “The course of unbalanced budgets is the road of ruin,” he declared. The President therefore devoted much of his energies in 1931 and 1932 to the goal of a balanced budget, which was hopeless under the circumstances. Yet, as Hoover himself had recognized in less frantic times, cutting spending and raising taxes diminished purchasing power and made the situation worse.
As Hoover’s hopes collapsed with the economy, his rigidity grew more pronounced. He began to sound more like his reactionary adversaries than the generally progressive man he had always been. “We cannot legislate ourselves out of a world economic depression,” the President told a press conference in May 1931, “we can and will work ourselves out.” A month later Hoover told an Indianapolis audience that the notion that we could get out of the Depression by congressional action was similar to believing that we could “exorcise a Caribbean hurricane by statutory law.” This was a far cry from the 1929 Hoover, who insisted that business cycles were not like the weather, and were susceptible to human remedies. A year later, the same President who earlier had so greatly increased public works expenditures was denouncing one of the relief bills before Congress as “an unexampled raid on the public treasury.” “We cannot thus squander ourselves into prosperity,” Hoover lectured.9
The Depression was bringing forth a “new Hoover,” clearly an outgrowth from the same roots as the old one, but with different and less attractive foliage.
It should be apparent by now that although Herbert Hoover was taken as a symbol for the New Era, his views were at wide variance with those of the Coolidges, Mellons, and Raskobs. As the Commerce secretary during Coolidge Prosperity and the nominee of the Republican party in 1928, Hoover became associated with a constellation of beliefs to which he did not adhere—at least not fully. Progressive social worker Lillian Wald protested in 1928 that in the campaign Hoover was working with men he had previously said “made him vomit.” There was no great affection between Coolidge and Hoover. “Mr. Coolidge was a real conservative,” Hoover later remarked, “probably the equal of Benjamin Harrison.… He was a fundamentalist in religion, in the economic and social order, and in fishing.” Hoover drew a line between himself and any man so conservative that he fished with worms. During the 1928 campaign, the two men appeared together and barely talked. (Donald McCoy explains the relationship between them in an interesting fashion: “If Coolidge disliked Herbert Hoover, it must be remembered that he disliked many men.”) Hoover’s view of Mellon was even less charitable. He believed—with ample evidence—that the Treasury secretary was a hopeless reactionary. The new President retained the old secretary of the Treasury only because of the trouble that would be raised in business circles if he let him go.
In the late thirties, Herbert Hoover pleaded that he not be made “a whipping boy for the ‘New Era.’ ” “I was,” he wrote to Mrs. Sinclair Lewis in 1937, “neither the inventor nor the promotor nor the supporter of the destructive currents of that period.” Hoover insisted that he was merely the New Era’s “ ‘receiver’ when it went into collapse.” This seemingly self-serving statement was actually very close to the truth. As a progressive (of sorts) in 1928, Hoover was out of step with his times. The greatest of all the Hoover ironies is that he remained out of step by changing not with the times, but against them. Conservatism was popular when Hoover was elected and he was wrongly seen as a conservative. As the Depression caused that philosophy to lose its popularity, Hoover was unjustly blamed for being a conservative. Always overly sensitive to criticism, the President moved further to the right to defend a record that was not his, but Coolidge’s and Mellon’s. In defending that record, Hoover increasingly made it his own.
In a very complex way, several of Hoover’s character traits came together to put him on a collision course with the American people. His own record of success ill equipped him for dealing with failure. Hence he naturally became more conservative as economic conditions worsened. His sensitivity to criticism enhanced his natural rigidity and caused him defensively to embrace positions he had not really held but was being blamed for. Hoover’s need to be in control and to get credit led him to reject proposals from Congress and others. As the American people moved leftward, Hoover was in no position to place himself at the head of the parade. Accordingly, he marched in the opposite direction.
By the 1932 campaign, President Hoover had become an almost full-fledged conservative, or at least he sounded like one. His speeches were “a defense of a record, not a plan for reconstruction.” The once great progressive was reduced by the later stages of the campaign to shivering and trembling with emotion while he delivered bitter, desperate speeches. Roosevelt’s ideas, the President wildly charged, represented “the same philosophy of government which has poisoned all Europe … the fumes of the witch’s cauldron which boiled in Russia.” The Democrats, Hoover angrily asserted, had become “the party of the mob.” “Thank God,” he said, “we still have some officials in Washington that can hold out against a mob.”10
Herbert Hoover’s place in history, like that of most leaders, was determined more by external events than by his own character and actions. No president who suffered the misfortune of being in office when the Great Depression began would have been likely to be remembered favorably. Yet the damage such circumstances do to one’s reputation need not be as bad as in Hoover’s case. Grover Cleveland did almost nothing to counteract the Panic of 1893; Herbert Hoover took bold action in the face of the Panic of 1929. But Cleveland’s reputation has generally fared better than Hoover’s. A recent survey of scholars of the presidency rated Cleveland thirteenth and Hoover twenty-first among our presidents.
“When all is said and done,” Hoover wrote in an autobiographical fragment during the First World War, “accomplishment is all that counts.” Held up to his own yardstick, Hoover failed. But if the assessment is left at that, we miss his very large historical significance. Observers have long argued whether Hoover was the last of the old presidents or the first of the new. It is a fascinating question, but if one is to be fair and accurate it must finally be begged or straddled. He was both.
Hoover was, in truth, neither the last of the old nor the first of the new; he was a transitional figure between the two. He played a critical—though thankless—historical role in breaking with the past and giving moderate change a chance to succeed. He rejected the old economic fatalism, got the government involved (within his strict limits), and allowed a more-than-fair test of the idea that business could act cooperatively to bring about recovery. The failure of both the Coolidge planless economy and Hoover’s voluntary cooperation opened the way for the New Deal’s government-directed plans. Before people will accept what they see as extreme programs, moderate ones must be shown to be insufficient. This was one of Hoover’s chief contributions. Thanks to his efforts, no one could justly complain (although of course many protested without good cause) that the government intervened without giving the private sector a chance to recover on its own. The New Deal owed its wide support in no small measure to the failures of Hoover’s policies.
But Herbert Hoover’s accomplishments went beyond this negative achievement. Many of the things that he tried proved to be forerunners of the New Deal. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, of which Hoover made only limited use, became one of the more important agencies of the New Deal. He began—although with extreme reluctance—the move to public assistance. His 1930 call for a $25 million loan to the Department of Agriculture to provide seed and feed for struggling farmers was a precedent for government assistance. Despite his complaints about “raids on the federal treasury,” Hoover finally signed a much watered-down version of the Wagner-Garner relief bill in July 1932. It was another precedent Hoover did not want to set, but he did.
In many other particulars, Hoover took hesitant steps in the directions in which New Dealers would leap in subsequent years. Decades later, New Deal architects Raymond Moley and Rexford Tugwell gave Hoover credit for inventing “most of the devices we used.” Hoover himself explicitly approved in 1935 the concepts of deposit insurance (although only in emergencies) and the Securities Act. Moley said flatly a few months prior to his death that “Herbert Hoover originated the New Deal.” In 1974, Tugwell said, “We didn’t admit it at the time but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.” Thomas Dewey said to Hoover, long after the fact, “I have a suspicion that you would have signed practically all the legislation that FDR signed.” The former President considered the statement for a minute and responded, “I think I would have.” Such statements made with long hindsight exaggerate the distance Hoover traveled, but they serve as useful reminders that the differences between Hoover and Roosevelt were more over means than ends, more of style than substance. They demonstrate that the frequent politically motivated contrast between Hoover the hopelessly reactionary demon and Roosevelt the faultless progressive saint has little historical basis.
Hoover is often compared to other presidents, usually unfavorably. The most frequent presidential names that come up when similarities to Hoover are being discussed are the likes of McKinley, Coolidge, Nixon, and more recently, Reagan. This is as misleading as it is unjust. The twentieth-century President to whom Hoover bore the most resemblance is Jimmy Carter. Both Hoover and Carter were “nonpoliticians,” or tried to give that impression. Each was skilled at using new techniques—Hoover’s use of mass publicity, Carter’s mastery of the reformed Democratic delegate-selection process—to rise from political obscurity to the presidency. They worked the respective systems and defeated the “politicians” of their day. Both were masters of detail, incredibly hard workers, and lovers of statistics. Each tried to do almost everything himself. Each successfully portrayed himself as an expert, an engineer, a technician who could make the government work smoothly. Efficiency was the strong suit of each. In both cases their nonpolitician status initially raised them in the public’s esteem. (Carter’s “I’m not a lawyer” line was always good for a hand—or at least appreciative smiles—in 1975 and 1976.) But this quality that was once viewed so positively turned with a vengeance against both presidents.
“He does not understand the game,” one journalist wrote, “and seems totally unable to think his way through a situation in advance. Moreover, he is dreadfully handicapped by the personal hostility of most of his own party leaders.” A comment on Jimmy Carter in 1979? No, one on Herbert Hoover in 1929. Neither Hoover nor Carter understood the need to “stroke” congressional leaders and both had dreadful relations with important senators in their own parties. Each man favored rational over political solutions and hence was able to solve little.
Both Hoover and Carter were highly intelligent men, but unable as president to be convincing to the public. Both were, as president, poor speakers. Each was a humanitarian and wanted to make the government more compassionate. Both qualify as that paradoxical American breed, the “conservative progressive.” The presidencies of both were judged to be failures by voters, who sharply rebuked each man after a single term.
And yet, while such analogies can be helpful, they should not be pushed too far. Jimmy Carter’s handicaps as a politician seem sufficiently large to have prevented him from being a successful president under almost any circumstances. The feeling persists, on the other hand, that Herbert Hoover might have succeeded under different conditions. Hoover was long judged to be a prophet after his time. More recently, scholars of both left and right have argued that he may have been a prophet ahead of his time. Perhaps he was both, or more simply a prophet at precisely the wrong time. To argue that some of his ideas—such as community-based cooperative efforts—might have relevance today is not to say that they could have worked during the Depression.
It has often been speculated that had Hoover won the presidency in 1920—which is not a particularly farfetched idea—he might have served two highly successful terms and retired as “one of the most admired chief executives in all American history.” And Charles Evans Hughes contended in 1931 that had Coolidge “chosen to run” again, the people would have looked “upon Hoover as a potential deliverer from suffering” in 1932. Whether he could then have delivered the people from their suffering is a valid question, but it may well be that Herbert Hoover simply had the misfortune of being in the right place at the wrong time.11