David Burner. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
On 2 August 1927, on a summer trip in South Dakota, President Calvin Coolidge distributed to reporters copies of a simple message: “I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty-eight.” He was quietly departing from a presidency that had quietly watched over a country enjoying what seemed to be permanent prosperity, rejoicing in seemingly limitless technological and scientific progress, and enormously proud of its institutions. In Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover—an engineer, businessman, humanitarian, administrator, and in many respects political progressive—the nation saw a figure whose brilliantly successful career embodied its technical and economic talents, its generosity, its mythic story of the poor boy whose hard work brings him fame and wealth. Hoover would be the fitting Republican candidate and successor to Coolidge.
The campaign, with Charles Curtis as vice presidential candidate on Hoover’s ticket, was all that the Republicans could have wanted. Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, the Democratic candidate, had the political liability of his Roman Catholicism, which he compounded by appointing a Catholic to be Democratic national chairman. Smith blundered, or at any rate was stubbornly intractable, in his handling of the religious issue. He failed during the campaign to address specifically the fears of those Americans who thought of his religion as alien to the American tradition, and he acted as though any questions about his faith were an affront to be brushed aside. Further, although Smith opposed Prohibition at a time when it was proving itself a failure, this deepened the public perception of him as an eastern urbanite fixed to his Catholic ethnic constituency. Hoover’s campaign looked toward an end to poverty, equivocated on Prohibition by calling it an experiment, and promised farmers an agricultural marketing act. But no matter who the Democratic candidate might have been or how the campaign might have proceeded, Hoover had on his side a national prosperity that was irresistible politically. Hoover received 21 million votes, and Smith, 15 million. The electoral vote was divided 444 to 87.
Early Life and Education
What sort of president did the public think it had chosen? How did Hoover perceive himself and his mandate? The course of Hoover’s earlier career predicted to some extent the character of his presidency. Amid the rolling farms surrounding West Branch, Iowa, hacked out of the wildwood by his sturdy and independent forebears, Herbert Clark Hoover, born on 11 August 1874, experienced a childhood filled with both the grief and the pleasures of nineteenth-century small-town life. In later years he would reminisce about the pleasures: swimming in streams large enough to dam, eating wild strawberries in the fields, collecting agate and coral along the railroad tracks. The grief that struck the boy came in a form familiar to the western pioneers who frequently lost children and relatives to diphtheria, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. When Bert was six years old, he lost his father, Jesse, an agricultural implements dealer who had long suffered from a form of heart disease. His mother, always religious, was a hard worker in temperance and Sunday school activities. After becoming a Quaker minister, she traveled to revival meetings, preaching the message of forgiveness and redeeming love. On her return from a winter trip, she died of pneumonia when Bert was nine. The boy himself had a close brush with death while suffering from croup.
The orphan shuttled between relatives on nearby farms until he left to live with an uncle in Oregon in late 1885. Such continuing abandonment and separation could have caused severe problems, but for the most part Hoover was later able to shut out the dark memories of his childhood, preferring not to speak of them and garbling his memory of dates and incidents. Certain possibilities about the emotional relationship between his early life and his adult career do suggest themselves. For example, one of young Hoover’s favorite books was David Copper-field, the story of an orphan mistreated by adults. Yet Hoover arrived at a sort of rugged, progressive individualism. If he had to be alone, he would make the most of it. He made of his habitually outward-looking life an ideology—heroic individualism, the self-reliant man expressing himself in technological mastery and personal accomplishment. One particular reflection of his early life came in his relief efforts during the era of World War I: helpless, bereaved, abandoned people could count on his aid, though others had not always aided him. Hoover’s later dislike of large inheritances also suggests the experience of being left on his own.
The Quaker idea of the Inner Light suggests a real but unseen decency, reasonableness, and harmony within the world. Among the Friends there is a special blend of piety and practical worldliness that expresses itself in business life, and a compound of moral urgency with a certain optimism that the world can be enticed to put its practical arrangements into good moral order. The Quakers immersed themselves in the full variety of nineteenth-century reforms: antislavery (West Branch was a station on the underground railroad, and John Brown spent one winter a mile outside of the town), suffrage for blacks, prison rehabilitation, Indian reform, poor-houses, and care of the insane. The progressive record of Hoover’s first eight months in the White House suggests the influence of his Quaker upbringing.
Hoover’s years in Oregon, from 1885 to 1891, trained him in business. John Minthorn, the stern uncle with whom he lived, was a doctor, a Quaker minister, and head of a small preparatory school, but his central interest was real estate. Dreaming of enticing settlers to the fertile Willamette Valley, he moved from Newberg to Salem to sell undeveloped land suitable for prune orchards. Hoover dropped out of high school to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Oregon Land Company and attended night school to learn bookkeeping, typing, and office skills. He helped buy and sell land and houses, run saw and flour mills, and arrange advertising in eastern papers. Before Minthorn’s company failed in the depression of the 1890s, Hoover had already decided to attend Stanford University.
Hoover, who would later claim that he had been the first boy to take up residence at the new school (founded 1891), took advantage of the innovative curriculum. He received an excellent education in geology, taking about half of his credits in the department under Dr. John Branner and working summers for the U.S. Geological Survey. He also continued a career in business, organizing and selling laundry and newspaper routes. His social views expressed themselves in his disdain for fraternities on account of their snobbishness, and he would not allow his sons to join any at Stanford.
After Hoover was graduated from Stanford in 1895 with a B.A. in geology, he worked briefly as a day laborer in the Reward Gold Mine in Grass City, California. The experience won him a job with an important San Francisco firm that needed his practical knowledge of the Grass Valley mines for a legal case. This in turn led to a position with one of the world’s leading mining consultant firms, Bewick, Moreing and Company of London.
Charles Algernon Moreing, desperate for qualified mining engineers willing to work the sultry wastes of the Western Australian goldfields, sent Hoover there in 1897. It was a good arrangement for the firm and for Hoover, who soon successfully recommended to London the purchase of the fabulous Sons of Gwalia gold mine. His other recommendations proved generally fruitful, and he showed increasing versatility as a mine manager and business consultant. Life in the Australian outback was not easy. The temperature frequently rose above 100°, even at night, and Hoover, suffering from physical debilitation brought on by overwork, would sometimes travel hundreds of miles through the desert lying on a mattress in the back of an open wagon. After three years in Australia, at the age of twenty-four, he was a recognized success and authority in his field. He wired Lou Henry, a Stanford geology major from Monterey, California, asking her to marry him, and she did early in 1899 in Monterey just before embarking with him to China on a new adventure.
Sent to China by Bewick, Moreing to find gold, Hoover arranged to exploit extensive and profitable coal deposits instead. He established relations with the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company just before the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 broke out, threatening the Western imperialist spheres of influence that had hitherto dominated China. In exchange for protection by the British, the Chinese signed the company over to Hoover, who in turn bartered it to Bewick, Moreing, in exchange for a partnership in that company. In China the Hoovers were trapped briefly in the city of Tianjin during the Boxer Rebellion; there he carried out relief efforts for the beleaguered European community similar to the famous work he would accomplish during and after World War I.
In 1901, Hoover and his wife made their home in London and raised two sons, Herbert and Allan, taking them sometimes on mining exploration trips around the world. On these ocean voyages, Hoover turned his attention to reading, giving himself some of the liberal arts education he had missed in the narrow curriculum of Stanford. He also wrote technical articles, which appeared in the world’s professional mining magazines. He and his wife supervised and annotated the translation from Latin of De re metallica, a medieval treatise on mining that they published in 1912. Hoover also contributed thoughtful talks and editorials on the new profession of engineering. In a textbook, Principles of Mining (1909), he recommended progressive dealings with labor, favoring collective bargaining, high wages for hard work, and improvements in mine safety.
Hoover’s most successful ventures after 1900 involved finding some great supply of base metal near a dependable transportation system. He would supply the world’s growing industries, like steel, with needed base minerals. He achieved his greatest success, first with the help of his brother Theodore, after painfully slow experimentation with the extraction of zinc from slag heaps at Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia. His second successful venture lay with the Burma Corporation, which produced silver, lead, and zinc in abundant quantities. By 1914, Hoover, operating on his own since 1907, had important investments on every continent and offices in San Francisco, London, St. Petersburg, and Mandalay. Once he remarked that if a man “has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty he is not worth much.” Hoover was worth about $4 million at the beginning of World War I.
Relief Administrator, World War I
The outbreak of war in 1914 came at a fortuitous time for Hoover. The mining boom in both precious and base metals was beginning to spend itself, except perhaps in Russia. He was thinking now of employing in some philanthropic way his skill in public relations, tested at Stanford and refined in his years of mining promotion. An admirer of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism, he had been thinking for some years of government service in appointive office. He was in London when war broke out in August, and the American ambassador, Walter Hines Page, asked him to aid Americans who had been stranded abroad at the onset of war. He did this with such efficiency that Page recommended to President Wilson that Hoover be drafted to help provide food for the Belgians, hitherto dependent on the importing of food, after the invasion of their country.
For the next three years Hoover headed the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Despite the stubbornness of both Germans and British, Hoover, using highhanded and sometimes illegal methods, employed his knowledge of worldwide shipping to bring a steady flow of food to the tiny country. He brought to his work ample technical and administrative skills, but more particularly the relentless energy and forcefulness of his personality. “This man,” stated his German passport, “is not to be stopped anywhere under any circumstances.”
The relief of Belgium, Hoover enthusiastically proclaimed, was “the greatest job Americans have undertaken in the cause of humanity.” The result would be “the greatest charity the world has ever seen.” Hoover himself remained shy and averse to publicity. He had, so it seemed, the simple Quaker distaste for such things: in Quakerism good works become tainted if publicized. All his life Hoover made a secret of his hundreds of benefactions.
Unquestionably an ambitious man, Hoover sought from President Wilson the post of United States food administrator even before the country formally entered the war in April 1917. Wilson, who could not question the effectiveness of the CRB, gave Hoover the job. Hoover realized that his earlier work in Belgium was a useful model for wartime administration and that his own reputation for being the “Great Engineer” put him in a unique position to help win the war. His name had become synonymous with thrift and self-denial, so that “Hooverize” came to mean “economize for a worthy purpose.”
Propaganda was the main weapon of the Food Administration. It preached meatless and wheat-less days. A massive campaign enjoined those in control of households to cut down especially on the normal use of bread and sugar, and schools and churches joined the crusade. Yet Hoover, while preferring volunteerism, hastened to get congressional legislation, such as the Lever Food Control Act of 1917, which set a government-guaranteed price for wheat.
In 1919, Hoover managed to dispose of much of the wartime food surplus by selling it to European governments, which often borrowed from the United States for the purpose. Whatever the merits of the transaction, Hoover’s American Relief Administration (ARA)—a public agency replaced in mid-1919 by a private one bearing the same name—got the job done as well as could be expected. Hoover went to Europe, slashing through red tape everywhere he went. Without functioning European systems of transportation and communications, he had to create his own. Hoover violated laws, made laws, and transgressed the sanctity of international boundaries to get food to where it was most needed. He implicitly urged his subordinates to do likewise and to ignore local or centralized authority.
The Versailles Peace Conference, particularly its representatives from France, urged Hoover to withhold food to discourage the advance of bolshevism in eastern and central Europe. Whether Hoover consistently did so is still a matter of controversy. Hoover’s most blatant use of food for political purposes was against a coup d’état by the reactionary Hapsburg monarchy in Hungary. For Hungary, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Béla Kun, Hoover allowed food that had already been purchased to be taken into the country, although the practice ceased after he received explicit directions from Paris not to allow it. By mid-1919, after Kun had ordered hundreds of political executions, Hoover’s concern for feeding Hungary had ceased, and he welcomed the government’s overthrow by radical trade unions. To him anything was preferable to an Allied invasion of these troubled lands. Hoover’s insistence on feeding starving Germans received sharp criticism from the Allies. While he gave some preference to feeding the war-torn nations that had fought with the Allies, he bent the will of Versailles statesmen who would have allowed Germans to starve.
A subsequent episode in Hoover’s relief efforts came in Soviet Russia during the great famine of 1921-1923. When the Soviets guaranteed freedom of movement to the ARA, shipments began in huge quantity. When a shrill anti-Communist complained at a public meeting about what Hoover was doing, he replied, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.” George Kennan later observed that the ARA “importantly aided” the revolutionary government, “not just in its economic undertakings, but in its political prestige and capacity for survival.”
Secretary of Commerce
Frequently mentioned as a presidential candidate for either of the major political parties in 1920, Hoover showed a qualified interest in the possibility. He had been a loyal Wilsonian, at least publicly, ardently championing the League of Nations. As vice chairman of the Second Industrial Conference (1919-1920), he had advanced the cause of collective bargaining for labor. He also denounced elements of the Red Scare. He announced that he was a Republican the same month. After Harding easily swept the election in a public repudiation of Wilson, the new president appointed Hoover to be secretary of commerce.
Hoover brought representatives of industry to Washington conferences to exchange information in order to improve efficiency and standardization. The representatives would agree on a “sense of the meeting” and return home to propagandize for their recommendations. The impetus the trade association movement received from Hoover’s office was only temporarily dampened by Justice Department efforts to prevent price-fixing. When progressives protested that he was not using his office to promote business reform, he replied that the Commerce Department was not the appropriate agency. But Hoover had an important part in ending the twelve-hour day in the steel industry and winning the Jacksonville Agreement, which brought temporary labor peace to many of the soft-coal fields. Regulation of radio and the air-waves and the airplane industry also began under Hoover’s Commerce Department.
Hoover increased fourfold the personnel of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, to promote a free-flowing international trade. The bureau increased United States business by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Hoover particularly wanted commercial expansion to replace military adventurism, especially in Latin America. He took it as a matter of faith that an increased American commercial role abroad would bring a higher standard of living both to the United States and to the rest of the world. Through noncoercive means, he strove to divert American loans away from the support of armaments and risky investments.
That commitment to the spread of commerce as a means to a world free of war says a great deal about the mentality of Hoover: his trust in the rational, orderly mind and processes of modern industry and trade, his search for a workable combination of private economic activity and governmental planning, and his Quaker-like vision of an industrious, peaceful world. It must have seemed, in the sunny year when the former secretary of commerce assumed the presidency, that the planet was ready to be nudged into that future.
In the 1928 campaign, Hoover took a moderate course on the issue of Prohibition, promising a national commission on law observance to study what he cautiously termed “a great social and economic experiment noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.” Hoover respected the attempt at reform because it showed that “property rights did not dominate American ideals.” But he also came to accept the belief that Prohibition had failed after being given an “honest trial.” As president, he worked to enforce it, within the limits of law, because it was his duty to do so under the Constitution. Yet the report of his commission, which contained only one Prohibitionist, was evasive if not confused. Seven of its eleven members favored revision, but the report also called for a further trial at enforcement. “The findings are wet and the recommendations are dry,” the despairing president complained to his secretary of state. Hoover remained the captive of the Prohibitionists through the 1932 campaign, and Roosevelt was the beneficiary of growing sentiments for repeal. The presidency would provide a test of Hoover’s Quaker background and prowess as a social engineer.
As president, Hoover had a far from perfect record on civil liberties, yet in response to Jane Addams’ complaints in 1929 that the government held political prisoners from the Red Scare of 1919, he could investigate and reply that all such prisoners had been released years before, during Harding’s administration. He also pleased Addams—who voted for him in both 1928 and 1932—by ordering that a passport be granted the executive secretary of her organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, with the word defend omitted from the oath of allegiance. Hoover asked Attorney General William D. Mitchell to look into the case of the labor martyr, Thomas J. Mooney of California, to see whether his rights had been violated. The president also secured the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the flamboyant Prohibitionist whose methods included espionage. Secretary of Labor William Doak had deported aliens to totalitarian countries; years later Hoover would protest to Attorney General Mitchell, “I cannot imagine our Administration violating the very spirit of the Bill of Rights.” Unaccountably, he did not protest at the time.
Hoover as secretary of commerce had taken some steps toward desegregating the department after the southern policies of the Wilson years. As chief executive, Hoover acquitted himself quite well on matters of race in contrast to other early-twentieth-century presidents. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover invited a prominent black, Robert Moton of the Tuskegee Institute, to public ceremonies at the White House. Hoover preferred representatives of the Tuskegee philosophy to the less tractable W. E. B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The wife of a black congressman, Mrs. Oscar de Priest of Chicago, came to a congressional tea, albeit with a carefully pruned guest list that included three cabinet members’ wives. Addams’ Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom formally congratulated Mrs. Hoover on the occasion. Congressman de Priest later ostentatiously used the incident to bait racists. The first sentence Hoover commuted under his presidential pardoning power was that of a black convicted of murdering a white woman. No eyewitness to the crime had appeared, and the verdict had depended on what seemed to be a forced confession.
Hoover sharply increased appropriations for Howard University. He was also sensitive to the need for appointing blacks to government management and to boards such as those guiding federal paroles. The president proposed to foundations that they give tenants and sharecroppers of both races the opportunity to buy the land they worked.
On the subject of lynching, Hoover suggested to an assistant, “With the modern expedition, through aerial and motor forces of Federal troops located at all important centers throughout the country it is possible to bring them almost instantly to the assistance of local authorities if a system were authorized by Congress that would make such action swift and possible.” Advised by Mitchell that constitutional restraints prevented the use of federal troops without a request from state government, the president condemned lynching publicly but offered no legislation against it. Evidently he relied on the force of an enlightened public opinion.
Yet under Hoover the Republicans ousted blacks from the party in the South, and Secretary of War Patrick Hurley segregated black gold-star mothers and widows of the World War I dead en route to Europe on ocean liners. Hoover also failed to accomplish much to end discrimination in hiring for government projects.
Hoover’s work in prison reform, a field long of interest to Quakers, led to the passage of eight bills. Under the direction of his appointee Sanford Bates, the Bureau of Prisons alleviated prison overcrowding by establishing work camps and building new penitentiaries and reformatories. A federal school for prison guards was founded, and all prison employees came under the Civil Service Administration. Educational opportunities and health benefits were improved, and the number of prisoners on parole multiplied during the Hoover administration.
Again spurred by his Quaker heritage, Hoover sought the reform of Indian policy. He made good appointments when he chose Charles J. Rhoads and J. Henry Scattergood, Philadelphia Quakers, to run the Indian Bureau (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Rhoads was appalled by the corruption and insensitivity he found in Washington, but his administration was a transitional one and at odds with itself in many respects. The debate about reform centered on the degree to which Indians should be encouraged to retain their distinct cultural, social, economic, and religious identity. Although the Hoover administration opposed government welfare that “coddled” Indians, expenditures by the bureau almost doubled under Rhoads. The money went chiefly for better schools and health care. John Collier, the New Deal head of the bureau, later acknowledged that the “real shift” toward recognition of Indian rights began under Hoover.
In fulfillment of a campaign pledge, President Hoover, after a special session of Congress in the spring of 1929, signed the Agricultural Marketing Act, which included a $500 million revolving fund to buy surpluses that might be resold in better economic times. The Federal Farm Board speculated in agricultural commodities to hold up farm prices, but to no avail. Farm prices plunged soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, and the board became merely a relief agency. With farmers unwilling voluntarily to reduce crop acreage and the government unwilling to coerce them to do so, the board’s funds simply ran out before the Great Depression reached bottom in 1932-1933.
Hoover had made an impressive record while commerce secretary by persuading states through which the Colorado River flowed to agree on a plan to harness its electrical energy, control its flood potential, and distribute its waters fairly. Hoover (formerly Boulder) Dam is a monument to this work. During his presidency Hoover finally managed to negotiate a treaty with Canada for the development of a St. Lawrence waterway. Other projects—the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and various public works—also marked his tenure.
The conservation movement advanced under Hoover. Some 2 million additional acres of forest-land became national preserves, and the area of national parks increased by 40 percent. But some of the recommendations of Hoover’s Commission on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain had an ambiguous character. It suggested, for example, that the surface rights to lands useful only for grazing should be returned to the states. Hoover liked the notion of shrinking federal controls and had a naïve idea of state conservation goals. He made plans for building Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River but vetoed a proposal by Senator George Norris of Nebraska to develop the Tennessee River valley, objecting to its socialist character and labeling it “degeneration.”
Hoover’s appointments to the Supreme Court reflected a liberal rather than conservative bias. Charles Evans Hughes, appointed chief justice in 1930, was a judicial moderate who would side with the liberals on most of the critical decisions on New Deal legislation in the 1930s. Justice Owen Roberts was to become known in the 1930s as the “swing vote” on the Court. Hoover’s final appointment was perhaps his best. Benjamin Cardozo, known for his integrity and his intellect, had aligned himself with the liberal constitutional philosophy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Louis D. Brandeis—who, like Cardozo, was Jewish—was sitting on the Court, and antiSemites protested the nomination of a second Jew. The famous progressive journalist and Prohibitionist William Allen White wrote to Senator George Norris, I have not had a good drink since I left Kansas City to come to Emporia [Kansas] nearly 40 years ago … Hunt up … a good long brown drink of nose-choking, hair-raising, gullet-giggling, hard corn liquor and then and there … take one happy untrammeled drink for me in celebration of Justice Cardozo.”
Hoover had long criticized speculation on the stock market. He had repeatedly asked President Coolidge to seek additional control over private banking and financial practices, especially insider trading and the use of common stocks as security at near-market value for customers’ deposits. He also urged Federal Reserve Board members to restrict credit sufficiently to deter speculation. The board pursued confused objectives and showed faulty logic, dropping the re-discount rate, to Hoover’s horror, to 3.5 percent in August 1927. There was little that Hoover could do to restrain stock speculation when he entered office in March 1929. He wrote a statement for a reluctant Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to issue, saying that conservative bonds, in contrast to speculative stocks, were undervalued. Fearing that an assault on the speculative market could start a panic, he was cautious about recommending a rise in the rediscount rate in that year. But probably nothing Hoover could have done would have averted the stock market crash of October 1929.
There were few historical parallels for Hoover to draw on. By late-twentieth-century standards, Hoover reacted slowly to the crisis; by earlier guides he was a remarkable activist. His initial response was to persuade management to maintain wages and to urge a pooling of resources on the part of financial interests to prevent further deflation. Groups of industry and labor representatives came to Washington at the president’s invitation, and both took action to try to avert serious trouble, but to no avail. Hoover and the American Economic Association both anticipated a healthy deflation to be followed soon by a business revival. When the depression reached worldwide dimensions toward the end of 1930, Hoover failed to respond freshly to the crisis. He relied principally on increased public works and a balanced budget—timid answers to what by 1931 was obviously a disaster.
Hoover promised in February 1931 that if hunger and suffering could not otherwise be prevented, “I will ask the aid of every resource of the Federal government.” But he came only reluctantly to support federal relief. Establishment economic thinking was wary of relief as being unproductive, and Hoover feared that it would bring hordes of subsidy seekers. But he had other reasons for his hesitancy to provide extensive federal relief, and they were of a different sort from those that much historical scholarship has attributed to a cold and reactionary Hoover. In the years before his presidency, Hoover had spent considerable energies in some of the most extensive humanitarian relief in history. Then, acting out of his Quaker faith and upbringing, he had looked to voluntary, rational acts of compassion and social reformation on the part of the spiritually enlightened. Hoover, it seems, believed that in times of crisis, citizens would take this kind of initiative. It was, then, not only the will of the recipients of relief that would suffer—and Hoover was not given to the right-wing notion that the poor have themselves to blame—but the will of the property holders, who were supposed to behave as Hoover and his volunteers had behaved in days of famine abroad.
Hoover’s trust in the generosity and initiative of his fellow citizens was naive, and had he not finally come around to provide some federal aid and then been replaced by the New Deal, it might have proved disastrously naive. But the sharing that he wanted from the citizenry was not so very far from what the democratic left envisions within a workers’ democracy. In the years since, when the values of privacy came to be extolled above the virtues of public citizenship, Hoover’s belief in the reality of cooperativeness had evidently become only a poignant memory.
It is not inconceivable that Hoover’s hesitancy in the face of the depression represented the drag of the past upon the politics of the moment and the sluggishness of prevalent institutions in their first encounter with economic collapse. Hoover had been sympathetic toward the progressive movement, and a vigorous response to the crisis would have been wholly in character for a statesman who in relief work and government service had been so much the activist and innovator. Yet Hoover’s failure to launch something like the New Deal was also in character, consistent with his liking for volunteerism and his foolish trust in the business economy with which he had been so intimately and so successfully connected. He knew the productive power of modern industry, its capacity to subdue poverty with goods and jobs; and he knew that cooperative ventures like the CRB and the Red Cross could put the resources of the economy to great public use. His knowledge was also his handicap. He had seen and organized so much that was good that he could not see, or admit to himself, how much a part of the nature of the market economy it was to withhold from one family or region the wealth that it poured into the lap of another. Hoover’s inability to recognize this meant that one of the best and most generous administrative minds of the day went stumbling through the presidency and then kept spinning round in a fevered defense of that presidency and of the existing capitalist system while it might have been working toward some new economic order, perhaps an order more radical in its reforms than the New Deal itself.
Late in 1931, after an unsuccessful attempt to persuade private business interests to form an effective credit association, Hoover endorsed the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which passed Congress in January 1932. Based on the War Finance Corporation of World War I, the RFC would lend to banks, corporations, and agricultural groups. A bias in its initial loans led to the charge that the Republicans favored a trickle-down effect by which the unemployed would benefit only when large business organizations could function normally. To a great extent the charge was accurate, but widely accepted historical accounts have failed to recognize that Hoover ultimately saw the necessity of providing federal funds for relief and used the subterfuge of the RFC to lend funds to the states for relief purposes. Hunger marches, beginning in December 1931 and culminating in the famous Bonus Army the next summer, dramatized the urgency of the need. Much farm surplus was released to the unemployed, and early in 1932, Hoover recommended $300 million in RFC loans to the states for relief. A law Hoover finally signed in mid-1932 reversed the government’s course on relief. The concept of loans virtually disappeared. Funds would be advanced out of federal aid for highway construction due in 1935, and the states were to repay them later.
The President’s Emergency Committee on Employment (PECE) was set up in the fall of 1930 when unemployment had reached about 11 percent. Under the direction of Colonel Arthur Woods, who had played an important role in Hoover’s 1921 Conference on Unemployment, PECE strove to generate private charity and prevailed on Hoover and Congress to increase public works spending. But Woods was battling a tidal wave. In August 1931, PECE gave way to the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief (POUR), headed by Walter S. Gifford, president of American Telephone and Telegraph. Some work on expanding, coordinating, and improving relief efforts was accomplished, but unemployment increased still more. Hoover, earlier that year, had signed the Wagner-Graham Stabilization Act, which set up the Federal Stabilization Board to initiate public works. Public works did increase throughout the decade after 1929, but the massive scale needed to cure unemployment never materialized. And in 1931 the mood in Congress remained strongly opposed to federal relief; even the National Council of Social Workers refused to endorse the principle at their convention in May. By this time, shacks derisively called Hoovervilles were rising in the nation’s largest cities; New York’s Riverside Park was full of them.
In 1932, Hoover continued to adhere, at least publicly, to the economic orthodoxy of a balanced budget. So did Congress, where a national sales tax almost passed under sponsorship from the leadership of both parties. Hoover expressed more progressive sentiments in a memo to Congressman Charles Crisp, arguing for higher excise taxes on luxuries and higher income taxes on the wealthy. Later Hoover said that high estate taxes were essential. The Revenue Act of 1932 embodied most of these ideas.
The bad economy was to dominate Hoover’s foreign policy. After a postelection goodwill tour to Latin America, Hoover had pursued the enlightened policy there that had originated under Coolidge. Much of the good effect was dissipated by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which raised barriers against foreign imports.
By 1931 the countries of Europe had been badly infected by the virus of worldwide depression. They blamed the American tariff, but it played a comparatively minor role in economic disruptions that were traceable back to the Treaty of Versailles. Congress and the American public believed that the war debts owed to the United States by Europe should be paid, but Europe could not pay. Hoover instituted in 1931 an eighteen-month moratorium on the debts, but even then European countries defaulted. The largest bank in Austria had failed, and Britain soon abandoned the gold standard. Hoover wasted his energies on trying to maintain, with the aid of France, an international gold standard. The depression grew worse.
Always influenced by Quaker pacifism, Hoover advocated international disarmament. The London Naval Disarmament Conference of 1930 attempted to extend the work of the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922, which had effectively stabilized the balance of arms in the Pacific. The London conference accomplished some further postponement of the arms race but, along with the Geneva World Disarmament Conference of 1932, was notably ineffective against Japanese imperialism, evidenced by Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in September 1931.
Hoover and Secretary of State Henry Stimson differed on the proper American response to Japanese militarism. Hoover counseled patience, arguing from his experience that the dominant Chinese culture would ultimately either assimilate or expel the invaders. Stimson was more bellicose and considered supporting world sanctions through the League of Nations. Together they promulgated the Hoover-Stimson Doctrine of January 1932, announcing the American refusal to recognize any arrangement contrary to the Open Door policy. This, the president hoped, would cast “the searchlight of public opinion” on Japan.
Bonus Army March on Washington
Almost nothing that occurred in Hoover’s final year in the White House went well for him. The worst event from a political standpoint was the march of the Bonus Army in 1932. About fifteen thousand World War I veterans descended on Washington, D.C., in May to demand early payment of a soldiers’ bonus not scheduled for distribution until 1945. The veterans, peaceable protesters except for a tiny minority, settled in abandoned buildings and in tents on the Anacostia Flats. They marched in front of the Capitol and the White House, and when the Senate voted against the bonus in June by 62 to 18, most of the veterans went home at federal expense, but about ten thousand stayed.
When the Senate voted as it did, following the advice of liberals such as Senator Norris of Nebraska and Congressman Fiorello La Guardia and Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York, many members of Congress avoided confronting the veterans by escaping through subterranean chambers of the Capitol. Until late July, Hoover did nothing except to provide some sanitary facilities, clothing, cots, tents, and food. On 28 July some veterans were evicted from a small downtown area of government buildings. The buildings had been scheduled for demolition to make way for public works projects providing jobs for the unemployed. When a riot ensued in which a veteran died, the District of Columbia commissioners asked for help from the United States Army. General Douglas MacArthur readily obliged.
Hoover gave MacArthur specific orders to remove the veterans from the heart of the district; troops did so, wielding drawn sabers and carrying tear-gas canisters. But in direct contravention of Hoover’s orders, the imperious MacArthur drove the veterans from their pitiful camp at Anacostia Flats into the Maryland countryside. No event staged for the benefit of public opinion could have seemed more cruel. Hoover reprimanded his chief of staff privately, but fearing public instability should the insubordination become known, the president took the blame. Subsequently, both men became enamored of the idea that Communists and criminals had been gaining considerable strength among the remnant of the veterans. The incident marked a turn to the political right on the part of the president and was his final political failure.
When Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic presidential candidate, heard about the rout of the veterans, he grinned and said to his adviser, Felix Frankfurter, “Well, Felix, this will elect me.” But the New Yorker, not yet widely perceived as the easy winner, left nothing to chance. He campaigned tirelessly. Yet the content of his speeches differed only modestly from the president’s own views. The contrast between them, at least in 1932, was more personal than political. Roosevelt could instill a sense of security and self-confidence in the nation, qualities that came with inherited wealth. Hoover, the successful self-made engineer, was testimony to the good working order of capitalism in good times but an embarrassment in the depression. Hard times mocked everything Hoover had worked for. And he lacked the kind of deep-rooted conservatism that would allow Roosevelt as president to unite diverse factions and to sense and strengthen a community’s innate equilibrium.
Election of 1932 and Postpresidential Years
By 1932 it seemed that Hoover had gone as far as he would in tampering with the economy. His dreary speeches were an unrelieved defense of his record, and he blamed Congress for holding up certain legislation, such as a national system of home loan banks to avoid foreclosures. On 31 October in Madison Square Garden in New York City he launched into a tirade: with no tariff, he warned, “the grass will grow in streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of millions of farms … their churches and schoolhouses will decay.” Secretary of Agriculture Arthur Hyde unleashed a still more blatant appeal to fear: “If Roosevelt is elected the homes and lives of one hundred million American people might be in jeopardy.”
The economy was in fact showing some improvement in the summer and early fall of 1932. Stock prices advanced sharply, bank failures declined, and Hoover would always claim that Roosevelt’s election aborted a recovery that was under way. Roosevelt’s victory was by 22,810,000 to 15,759,000. By refusing to cooperate with Hoover during the interregnum, the New Yorker, according to Republicans, was threatening to end recovery.
After the election the banking system slumped toward collapse. Nevada’s banks closed for six weeks, beginning on 31 October. Unemployment increased to more than 20 percent of the labor force. Many farmers lost their land. In the long interregnum Hoover tried to persuade Roosevelt to join him in advocating a balanced budget, changing the laws on banking, and staying on the gold standard. The president-elect refrained from committing himself. When the two men met at the White House on 22 November, they were superficially friendly. But Hoover thought Roosevelt intellectually incapable of understanding the complexities of international finance.
Late in January a rash of major bank closings filled the country with alarm. In Michigan, banks closed for eight days in mid-February. Panic came at the end of the month when banks lost $73 million in deposits. Hoover unsuccessfully tried to get Roosevelt to promise to guarantee certain bank deposits, but the incoming president refused to participate in any joint solution. The emergency bank holiday and banking legislation of Roosevelt’s Hundred Days had been drafted in general terms by Hoover and his staff. On inauguration day, Saturday, 4 March, the wind blew gusts of rain yet a ray of sunlight broke into the weather. The nation could not help but identify the gray bleakness with Hoover and the sunlight with Franklin Roosevelt.
Hoover lived for three decades after leaving office. From his suite in New York’s Waldorf Towers he preached isolationism, Republicanism, conservatism, and philanthropy. He saw a threat of Fascism and Communism in the New Deal but approved of many of its specific laws. In 1945 he spoke in revulsion against the use of the atomic bomb: “The only difference between this and the use of poison gas is the fear of retaliation.” He returned to public life in the late 1940s, serving for President Truman on a fact-finding international relief trip and then as chairman of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (the Hoover Commission). Many of his recommendations on saving money were adopted. He chaired a similar commission under President Eisenhower, but with fewer positive results. Hoover died, at the age of ninety, on 20 October 1964.