Upon accepting the Republican nomination for President in 1928, Herbert Hoover predicted that “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.” Hoover won the presidency that year, but his time in office belied his optimistic assertion. Within eight months of his inauguration, the stock market crashed, signifying the beginning of the Great Depression, the most severe economic crisis the United States had ever known. Rightly or wrongly, Hoover’s efforts to combat the Great Depression have defined his presidency and his place in American history.
Life in Brief
Upon accepting the Republican nomination for President in 1928, Herbert Hoover predicted that “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.” Hoover won the presidency that year, but his time in office belied his optimistic assertion. Within eight months of his inauguration, the stock market crashed, signifying the beginning of the Great Depression, the most severe economic crisis the United States had ever known. Rightly or wrongly, Hoover’s efforts to combat the Great Depression have defined his presidency and his place in American history.
Born in 1874 into a Quaker family in rural Iowa, Hoover was orphaned by the age of nine. Determined to go to the newly established Stanford University in California, Hoover worked hard to improve his mediocre grades. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in geology, Hoover became a mining engineer, traveling the world to evaluate prospective mines for potential purchase. He married the brilliant Lou Henry, the only female geology student at Stanford. Lou Hoover quickly mastered eight languages in their travels; later, she and the President would often speak Mandarin when they wanted to avoid being overheard by the White House staff. By 1914, Hoover was a millionaire, securing his wealth from high-salaried positions, his ownership of profitable Burmese silver mines, and royalties from writing the leading textbook on mining engineering.
World War I brought Hoover to prominence in American politics and thrust him into the international spotlight. In addition to running the U.S. Food Administration, which allocated America’s food resources during the conflict, Hoover organized and administered several private relief efforts before, during, and after the war. He thus became an important war-time adviser to President Woodrow Wilson even though he was a Republican. Wilson, in turn, made Hoover part of the American delegation to the Versailles peace conference that concluded the war.
During the 1920s, Hoover rose steadily in Republican politics, serving with great ability and distinction in the Harding and Coolidge administrations as secretary of commerce. Owing to his record and an effective public relations effort by his supporters, Hoover was the most prominent Republican in the United States when President Calvin Coolidge announced, in August 1927, that he would not seek another term.
Hoover easily won the 1928 Republican nomination for President. His platform rejected farm subsidies, supported prohibition, pledged lower taxes, and promised more of the same prosperity Americans had enjoyed during the Coolidge years. Hoover’s opponent in the presidential race would be Democrat Al Smith of New York, a Catholic who railed against Prohibition. Smith was a distinct underdog, however. His religion and his anti-prohibition position alienated many southern Democrats, a key constituency in the party. Hoover, on the other hand, was an extremely attractive candidate, the man who would help Americans attain new levels of prosperity—or, as a 1928 Republican slogan claimed, put “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.” On election day, Hoover won an overwhelming victory, claiming more than 58 percent of the vote.
Hoover and the Great Depression
Hoover came into the presidency as one of the foremost proponents of public-private cooperation—what was termed “volunterism”– to maintain a high-growth economy. Volunterism was not premised on governmental coercion or intervention, which Hoover feared would destroy precious American ideals like individualism and self-reliance, but on cooperation among individuals and groups. Hoover did not reject government regulation out of hand, however; in fact, he supported regulating industries such as radio broadcasting and aviation that he believed served the public good. But he preferred a voluntary, non-governmental approach to economic matters, the better, he reasoned, to protect what he called the “American character.”The economic crisis that struck the United States in the late 1920s was all- encompassing, however. Having both domestic and international causes and effects, the Depression afflicted almost every sector of the American economy (although some more severely than others), revealing serious structural weaknesses that resulted in high unemployment, low economic growth, and financial instability. Most important, the Depression sapped the American people’s confidence and will.
The Great Depression was a stern test for Hoover’s approach and one that proved too difficult to manage. His voluntarist-inspired persuasion and programs failed to stimulate the consumption and production needed to jump-start the economy. Some policies, like the Hawley-Smoot Tariff bill that Hoover signed, retarded growth and recovery by raising tariffs (especially on agricultural products) and stifling international trade. His Agricultural Marketing Act had little impact on the prospects of American farmers.
Hoover eventually did support some interventionist government programs aimed at combating the Depression. Though undersized, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation used federal money in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to stabilize the nation’s banking and financial sector. The RFC was also aimed at corporations rather than at the growing ranks of the suffering poor, a policy that reflected Hoover’s own beliefs. Fearing that government aid would breed a sense of dependence among the poor, Hoover largely refused to extend such assistance to millions of the nation’s unemployed and hungry who were overwhelming private relief agencies.
In the public eye, Hoover seemed uncaring, unwilling to admit that people were starving and that his ideas were failing. He lost significant public support in the summer of 1932 when General Douglas MacArthur— in defiance of Hoover’s orders—removed the World War I veterans (known as Bonus Marchers) who had massed peacefully in Washington, D.C., to petition Congress for early receipt of their veterans bonuses. MacArthur was brutal in his treatment of the marchers, using cavalry, tanks, and bayonet-bearing soldiers. In the riot that followed, U.S. troops clubbed women and children, tear-gassed the marchers, burned their shacks, and forcibly drove them across the Potomac River.
Hoover ran for reelection in 1932, anxious to prove that his policies could still ameliorate the economic crisis. Americans, though, rallied around Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “New Deal,” with its vague promises of a “crusade to restore America to its own people.” Roosevelt won the contest handily, ushering in decades of Democratic dominance in presidential elections. Hoover left the White House in disgrace, having incurred the public’s wrath for failing to lift the nation out of the Great Depression.
Hoover in Perspective
Hoover’s reputation has risen over the years. He is no longer blamed for causing the Depression; instead, scholars note that Hoover’s efforts to combat its effects were extraordinary when compared to federal anti-depression measures invoked during previous economic crises. These efforts, moreover, flowed logically from the President’s unique brand of social, economic, and political progressivism. Nonetheless, the nation’s economy continued to sink during the Hoover presidency. With the public losing confidence in the President’s abilities, leadership, and policies, Hoover paid the ultimate political price for these failures in November 1932.
Life before the Presidency
Herbert Clark Hoover was born on August 10, 1874. For the first nine years of his life, he lived in the small town of West Branch, Iowa, the place of his birth. His Quaker father, Jessie Clark Hoover, a blacksmith and farm equipment salesman, suffered a heart attack and died when Herbert was six years old. Three years later, the boy’s mother, Huldah Minthorn Hoover, developed pneumonia and also passed away, orphaning Herbert, his older brother Theodore, and little sister Mary. Passed around among relatives for a few years, Hoover ended up with his uncle, Dr. John Minthorn, who lived in Oregon.
The young Hoover was shy, sensitive, introverted, and somewhat suspicious, characteristics that developed, at least in part, in reaction to the loss of his parents at such a young age. He attended Friends Pacific Academy in Newberg, Oregon, earning average to failing grades in all subjects except math. Determined, nevertheless, to go to the newly established Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Hoover studied hard and barely passed the university’s entrance exam. He went on to major in geology and participated in a host of extracurricular activities, serving as class treasurer of the junior and senior student bodies and managing the school baseball and football teams. To pay his tuition, Hoover worked as a clerk in the registration office and showed considerable entrepreneurial skill by starting a student laundry service.
Career and Monetary Success
During the summers, Hoover worked as a student assistant on geological survey teams in Arkansas, California, and Nevada. After his graduation in 1895, he looked hard to find work as a surveyor but ended up laboring seventy hours a week at a gold mine near Nevada City, California, pushing ore carts. Luck came his way with an office job in San Francisco, putting him in touch with a firm in need of an engineer to inspect and evaluate mines for potential purchase. Hoover then moved to Australia in 1897 and China in 1899, where he worked as a mining engineer until 1902. A string of similar jobs took him all over the world and helped Hoover become a giant in his field. He opened his own mining consulting business in 1908; by 1914, Hoover was financially secure, earning his wealth from high-salaried positions, his ownership of profitable Burmese silver mines, and royalties from writing the leading textbook on mining engineering.
His wife, Lou Henry Hoover, traveled with him everywhere he went. Herbert and Lou met in college, where she was the sole female geology major at Stanford. He proposed to her by cable from Australia as he prepared to move to China; she accepted by return wire and they married in 1899. The couple was in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, a time when Lou helped nurse wounded Western diplomats and soldiers while Herbert assisted in the fighting to defend Tianjin, a city near the uprising. By the time the couple returned home to America in 1917, Lou had learned to shoot a gun and had mastered eight languages.
Over the course of his career as a mining engineer and businessman, Hoover’s intellect and understanding of the world matured considerably. Hoover was raised a Quaker and although he rarely went to Meeting as an adult, he internalized that faith’s belief in the power of the individual, the importance of freedom, and the value of “conscientious work” and charity. Hoover also applied the ethos of engineering to the world in general, believing that scientific expertise, when employed thoughtfully and properly, led to human progress. Hoover worked comfortably in a capitalist economy but believed in labor’s right to organize and hoped that cooperation (between labor and management and among competitors) might come to characterize economic relations. During these years, Hoover repeatedly made known to friends his desire for public service.
Politically, Hoover identified with the progressive wing of the Republican Party, supporting Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party bid in 1912. World War I brought Hoover to prominence in American politics and thrust him into the international spotlight. In London when the war broke out, he was asked by the U.S. consul to organize the evacuation of 120,000 Americans trapped in Europe. Germany’s devastating invasion of Belgium led Hoover to pool his money with several wealthy friends to organize the Committee for the Relief of Belgium. Working without direct government support, Hoover raised millions of dollars for food and medicine to help desperate Belgians.
In 1917, after the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson asked Hoover to run the U.S. Food Administration. Hoover performed quite admirably, guiding the effort to conserve resources and supplies needed for the war and to feed America’s European allies. Hoover even became a household name during the war; nearly all Americans knew that the verb “to Hooverize” meant the rationing of household materials. After the armistice treaty was signed in November 1918, officially ending World War I, Wilson appointed Hoover to head the European Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In this capacity, Hoover channeled 34 million tons of American food, clothing, and supplies to war-torn Europe, aiding people in twenty nations.
His service during World War I made Hoover one of the few Republicans trusted by Wilson. Because of Hoover’s knowledge of world affairs, Wilson relied him at the Versailles Peace Conference and as director of the President’s Supreme Economic Council in 1918. The following year, Hoover founded the Hoover Library on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University as an archive for the records of World War I. This privately endowed organization later became the Hoover Institution, devoted to the study of peace and war. No isolationist, Hoover supported American participation in the League of Nations. He believed, though, that Wilson’s stubborn idealism led Congress to reject American participation in the League.
Secretary of Commerce
In 1920, Hoover emerged as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. His run was blocked, however, by fellow a Californian, Senator Hiram Johnson, who objected to Hoover’s support for the League. Republican Warren Harding won the White House in 1920 and appointed Hoover as his secretary of commerce, a position that Hoover retained under Harding’s successor, President Calvin Coolidge.
Under Hoover’s leadership, the Department of Commerce became as influential and important a government agency as the Departments of State and Treasury. Hoover encouraged research into measures designed to counteract harmful business cycles. He supported government regulation of new industries like aviation and radio. He brought together more than one hundred different industries and convinced them to adopt standardized tools, hardware, building materials, and automobile parts. Finally, he aggressively pursued international trade opportunities for American business. To win these reforms, Hoover strengthened existing agencies in the Commerce Department, like the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, or simply established new ones, like the Bureau of Standards, for the standardization project. He also formed commissions that brought together government officials, experts, and leaders of the relevant economic sectors to work towards reform.
The initiatives Hoover supported as commerce secretary—and the ways in which he pursued them—reveal his thinking about contemporary life in the United States and about the federal government’s role in American society. Hoover hoped to create a more organized economy that would regularize the business cycle, eliminating damaging ebbs and flows and generating higher rates of economic growth. He believed that eradicating waste and improving efficiency would achieve some of these results— thus, his support for standardization and for statistical research into the workings of the economy. He also believed that the American economy would be healthier if business leaders worked together, and with government officials and experts from the social sciences, in a form of private-sector economic planning. This stance led him to support trade associations—industry-wide cooperative groups wherein information on prices, markets, and products could be exchanged among competitors—which Hoover saw as a middle way between competition and monopoly. He insisted, though, that participation in these associations remain voluntary and that the government merely promote and encourage, rather than require, their establishment.
Hoover hoped that these innovations would strengthen what he saw as the central component of the American experience: individualism. In 1922, Hoover published a small book, entitled American Individualism, that examined the Western intellectual tradition’s major social philosophies, including individualism, socialism, communism, capitalism, and autocracy. Hoover concluded that individualism was the superior principle around which to organize society. He rejected the laissez-faire capitalism of the Right and the socialism and communism of the Left because he believed that these ideologies hindered rather than helped the individual. Instead, Hoover sought a “balance of perspective” between Right and Left that theoretically would create and maintain opportunities for Americans to succeed. Through enterprises like those he championed as commerce secretary, Hoover believed the federal government could facilitate the creation of political, social, and economic conditions in which individual Americans could flourish.
Hoover’s positions and thinking placed him solidly in the progressive camp of the Republican Party. As secretary of commerce, Hoover emerged as a potential running-mate for Coolidge in the 1924 presidential election, though that effort fell short. Hoover’s reputation with the American people reached its peak in 1927, when he took charge of relief efforts following disastrous floods along the Mississippi River. The episode displayed Hoover at his best: as a humanitarian and leader with the ability to solve problems. When Coolidge announced in 1927 that he would not seek reelection, Hoover became the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Campaigns and Elections
When the Republican convention in Kansas City began in the summer of 1928, the fifty-three-year-old Herbert Hoover was on the verge of winning his party’s nomination for President. He had won primaries in California, Oregon, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Maryland. Among important Republican constituencies, he had the support of women, progressives, internationalists, the new business elite, and corporate interests. Party regulars grudgingly supported Hoover, but they neither liked nor trusted him. Hoover’s nomination was assured when he received the endorsement of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who controlled Pennsylvania’s delegates.
The convention nominated Hoover on the first ballot, teaming him with Senate Majority Leader Charles Curtis of Kansas. The Republican platform promised continued prosperity with lower taxes, a protective tariff, opposition to farm subsidies, the creation of a new farm agency to assist cooperative marketing associations, and the vigorous enforcement of Prohibition. The party also proclaimed its commitment to delivering a “technocrat” known for his humanitarianism and efficiency to the White House. In his acceptance speech, Hoover promised “a final triumph over poverty”—words that would soon come to haunt him.
The four-term New York governor, Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic opponent of Prohibition (the common term for the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned the manufacture, sale, or transport of liquor), won the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. His “Protestant Prohibitionist” running mate, Senator Joseph G. Robinson of Arkansas, balanced Smith’s “Wet (anti-prohibitionist) Catholic” stance. Democrats hoped that Smith could unify the party and defeat Hoover, something that few political pundits at the time considered even remotely possible. The Smith-Robinson ticket actually mirrored the divide in the party between southern, Protestant backers of Prohibition and northern, urban, often Catholic opponents of Prohibition. The Democratic platform downplayed the tariff issue and emphasized the party’s support for public works projects, a federal farm program, and federal aid to education. It also promised to enforce the nation’s laws, a nod to supporters of Prohibition who worried that Smith might try to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment.
Hoover ran a risk-free campaign, making only seven well-crafted radio speeches to the nation; he never even mentioned Al Smith by name. The Republicans portrayed Hoover as an efficient engineer in an era of technology, as a successful self-made man, as a skilled administrator in a new corporate world of international markets, and as a careful businessman with a vision for economic growth that would, in the words of one GOP campaign circular, put “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Republicans also reminded Americans of Hoover’s humanitarian work during World War I and in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Hoover the administrator, the humanitarian, and the engineer were all on display in the 1928 campaign film ï”Master of Emergencies,” which often left its audiences awestruck and in tears. But perhaps Hoover’s greatest advantage in 1928 was his association with the preceding two Republican administrations and their legacy of economic success.
Religion and Prohibition quickly emerged as the most volatile and energizing issues in the campaign. No Catholic had ever been elected President, a by-product of the long history of American anti-Catholic sentiment. Vicious rumors and openly hateful anti-Catholic rhetoric hit Smith hard and often in the months leading up to election day. Numerous Protestant preachers in rural areas delivered Sunday sermons warning their flocks that a vote for Smith was a vote for the Devil. Anti-Smith literature, distributed by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan (KKK), claimed that President Smith would take orders from the Pope, declare all Protestant children illegitimate, annul Protestant marriages, and establish Catholicism as the nation’s official religion. When Smith addressed a massive rally in Oklahoma City on the subject of religious intolerance, fiery KKK crosses burned around the stadium and a hostile crowd jeered him as he spoke. The next evening, thousands filled the same stadium to hear an anti-Smith speech entitled, “Al Smith and the Forces of Hell.”A consistent critic of Prohibition as governor of New York, Smith took a stance on the Eighteenth Amendment that was politically dangerous both nationally and within the party. While the Democratic platform downplayed the issue, Smith brought it to the fore by telling Democrats at the convention that he wanted “fundamental changes” in Prohibition legislation; shortly thereafter, Smith called openly for Prohibition’s repeal, angering Southern Democrats. At the same time, the Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other supporters of the temperance movement exploited Smith’s anti-Prohibition politics, dubbing him “Al-coholic” Smith, spreading rumors about his own addiction to drink, and linking him with moral decline. A popular radio preacher put Smith in the same camp as “card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism.”The Republicans swept the election in November. Hoover carried forty states, including Smith’s New York, all the border states, and five traditionally Democratic states in the South. The popular vote gave a whopping 21,391,993 votes (58.2 percent) to Hoover compared to 15,016,169 votes (40.9 percent) to Smith. The electoral college tally was even more lopsided, 444 to 87. With 13 million more people voting in 1928 (57 percent of the electorate) than had turned out in 1924 (49 percent of the electorate), Smith won twice the number of voters who had supported the 1924 losing Democratic candidate, John W. Davis. Hoover, though, also made significant gains, tallying nearly 6 million more Republican votes than Coolidge had four years earlier. Smith’s Catholicism and opposition to Prohibition hurt him, but the more decisive factor was that Hoover ran as the candidate of prosperity and economic growth.
The Campaign and Election of 1932
Much had changed politically for Hoover and the Republican Party by the time convention delegates assembled in Chicago in the summer of 1932. The Great Depression that struck during the “Great Engineer’s” presidency, and his inability to do much about it, had changed the national mood and its political temper. The word “Hooverize,” which in 1917 carried positive images in the public mind, had undergone a similar transformation; by 1932, “Hooverville” had come to represent the dirty shacks in which the unemployed and homeless now lived, with “Hoover Flags” denoting the turned-out pockets of men’s trousers as they stood in bread lines. All the things about Hoover that had sounded positive notes during the 1920s rang off-key in 1932. Words like “rationalize,” “efficiency,” and “technocrat” spoke of heartlessness and a cold-minded concern with an industrial process that had devastated the nation. Hoover’s political problems during his term—his repeated failures to muster congressional support for his policies—did not help his chances for re-election, either. Hoover’s reputation waned further, and his political future darkened, after General MacArthur routed the Bonus Army from its camps in Washington, D.C., much to the horror of the American public. (See Domestic Affairs section for details.)Few Republicans believed that Hoover could win in 1932, but the President was determined to defend himself. Both Hoover and Vice President Charles Curtis were renominated on the first ballot. No disruptive demonstrations, rowdy parades, or outbursts of applause colored the convention hall in Chicago. No pictures of Hoover or Curtis hung from its rafters. The Republican platform praised Hoover’s programs, called for a balanced budget and a protective tariff, and urged repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment—a reversal of its 1928 stance on Prohibition. Nothing was said about trade associations, technology, or the promise of prosperity. A sense of gloom-and-doom filled the air.
The Democratic convention met in Chicago as well, but in an entirely different atmosphere. The party faithful and their leaders were certain that the 1932 presidential election would bring the first Democratic victory since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York and the man who had twice nominated Al Smith, held the lead among convention delegates. But Smith wanted to try again, and other Democrats, notably powerful House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, also sought the nomination. Roosevelt’s floor managers managed to convince Garner and key supporters, such as California senator William McAdoo, to back Roosevelt’s candidacy rather than let the convention deadlock. Garner acceded and Roosevelt won on the fourth ballot. Roosevelt then flew to Chicago to deliver his acceptance speech in person, a maneuver that defied tradition. It was a politically necessary one, however, because FDR needed to show the electorate that while his body had been ravaged by polio, he was still a vigorous and energetic leader. In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt pledged “a new deal for the American people” and was cheered wildly by the delegates.
Roosevelt’s campaign was cautious, largely because he did not want to commit any gaffes which might draw attention away from Hoover’s failings or the nation’s immense troubles. He repeatedly returned to the phrase “New Deal” throughout the campaign, although he rarely offered details on the programs or policies he might pursue. Indeed, Roosevelt spoke in such generalities and exuded so much optimism that some commentators wondered if he understood the extraordinary challenges facing the nation. Roosevelt departed from this campaign strategy on September 25 in a major address at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. It was there that he outlined the governing philosophy behind his New Deal. The federal government, Roosevelt charged, must assume responsibility for the welfare of the nation. It must assist business and labor in the development of “an economic constitutional order” based upon a fair distribution of wealth, in which every working person would be guaranteed “the right to make a comfortable living.”Hoover delivered nine major addresses during the campaign, defending his record and attacking Roosevelt. The President blamed the Great Depression on the aftermath of World War I, and he argued that his anti-Depression measures had prevented the total collapse of the economy. Roosevelt’s New Deal, he warned, would support an activist federal government whose centralized and coercive powers endangered traditional notions of “self-government” and individual liberty. Hoover’s speeches, however, were dreary, laden with statistics and delivered as sermons. The President inspired few Americans, in stark contrast to Roosevelt’s uplifting oratory. FDR responded by comparing Hoover’s record to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: “Destruction, Delay, Despair, and Doubt.”More than 40 million voters went to the polls in 1932, a record number. They voted overwhelmingly for Roosevelt, who beat Hoover by 7 million votes and captured forty-two of the forty-eight states. Except for Pennsylvania, all the states Hoover won were in New England—a bedrock of GOP support. The Democrats won both houses of Congress by substantial majorities, as well. In the long term, the election marked the beginning of Democratic dominance in presidential elections and American politics. FDR’s Democratic Party would win the next four presidential elections and its philosophy of “New Deal liberalism” would emerge as the nation’s guiding political ideology. During this period of dominance, Democrats never shied away from reminding voters of Hoover’s and the Republicans’ failure to end the Depression. In the short term, though, FDR’s victory removed the burden of leadership from Hoover; the Great Depression officially became Roosevelt’s problem in March 1933.
Herbert Hoover took office in 1929 with a display of optimism and the promise of a “New Day.” In his inaugural, he boasted that “in no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure” and claimed that “anyone not only can be rich, but ought to be rich.” He warned his audience of the dangers of a large and activist federal government but also decried the self-serving greed of large corporations. Hoover reiterated his belief in the centrality of the individual in the American experience, the theme he had developed at some length in his 1922 book American Individualism.
Organizing the Hoover Administration
Hoover’s cabinet choices were generally strong ones. The standouts, like Secretary of State Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Interior Ray Wilbur, Secretary of the Navy Charles Adams, and Attorney General William Mitchell, more than compensated for lesser lights such as Secretary of War James Good, Secretary of Labor James Davis, Secretary of Commerce Robert Lamont, and Secretary of Agriculture Arthur Hyde. Postmaster General Walter F. Brown proved valuable to Hoover as the President’s chief connection to (and adviser about) the Republican Party. At the Treasury Department, Hoover retained Coolidge’s appointee, Andrew Mellon, even though Mellon’s economic views were much less progressive than those of the President. Hoover instead depended on Undersecretary of the Treasury Odgen Mills for economic advice. In fact, Hoover stocked the higher reaches of various executive departments with confidantes he called on regularly for advice.
Hoover’s White House staff was, per contemporary custom, quite small. Walter Newton, the President’s senior secretary, monitored relations with Congress and the executive departments and offered advice on executive appointments. Lawrence Richey helped manage the President’s personal affairs and correspondence. George Akerson handled Hoover’s relations with the press, albeit poorly. Hoover’s executive clerk French Strother coordinated research projects on issues of social reform, topics that interested the President greatly. Hoover’s staff was extremely loyal—Richey, Akerson, and Strother had worked on the 1928 campaign—and generally competent. While Hoover kept in place many of Coolidge’s appointees at the lower levels of the federal bureaucracy, he did appoint hundreds of young technocrats and professionals trained in the new social sciences to government positions and special commissions.
Early Months of the Hoover Administration
Hoover began his presidency with a burst of energy and enthusiasm that demonstrated his progressive political leanings. He directed the Department of the Interior to improve conditions for Native Americans on government-controlled reservations. He won passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act, which mandated the construction of a massive dam (later named the Hoover Dam) that would provide power for public utilities in California. And he appointed the conservationist Horace Albright to the National Park Service and placed nearly two million acres of federal land in the national forest reserve, demonstrating his belief in the conservation of national resources.
Underscoring his faith in the desirability of managerial expertise, the value of social science knowledge, and the benefits of private-public cooperation, Hoover convened a variety of conferences and appointed numerous commissions to study and solve vexing social problems. The White House Conference on Health and the Protection of Children of July 1929 looked at child welfare and produced an astounding 35 volumes of findings that social workers would use in the coming decades. The Wickersham Commission on Law Enforcement investigated the federal government’s judicial system, including the politically dangerous issue of Prohibition enforcement. Finally, Hoover tasked the President’s Committee on Recent Social Trends with assessing twenty-four aspects of American life, such as population, food, and public administration; in the final year of Hoover’s presidency, the Committee provided a comprehensive statistical survey of each field. Consistent with Hoover’s thinking, these commissions and committees gathered and publicized information, made recommendations, summoned voluntary efforts, and, in some cases, suggested legislation. Invariably, these groups resisted calls for an activist federal role in solving social or economic problems.
Two issues in particular took center stage during Hoover’s first nine months as President: improving the economic health of the nation’s agricultural sector and tariff reform. Upon entering office, Hoover called Congress into a special session to address these challenges.
American farmers suffered greatly in the 1920s as their incomes shrunk to only one-third the national average. The chief problem was overproduction. American farmers benefited from new technologies that increased their productivity, but the glut of product, along with overseas competition, caused prices at market to drop precipitously. Many farmers were demanding federal government subsidies (known as McNary-Hauganism for the congressional sponsors of such legislation) to boost farm incomes. Secretary of Commerce Hoover rejected this solution.
By the time Hoover became President in early 1929, the agricultural sector was still reeling. The President, nevertheless, still opposed subsidies; along with his congressional allies, Hoover instead supported a bill that created a Federal Farm Board. With a $500 million budget, the Federal Farm Board would loan money to farmers to create and strengthen farm cooperatives in the hope that these entities would control production and bring crops to market more efficiently. Hoover saw the Board as a shining example how voluntarism and cooperation among competitors could produce a more efficient economy without the government intervention that subsidies represented. The farm bloc in Congress, however, still vigorously supported subsidies. A political deadlock ensued, as factions in Congress battled over farm policy and Hoover did little to break the impasse. Finally, in June 1929, Congress passed the Agricultural Marketing Act, replete with a Federal Farm Board and no subsidies for farmers. Hoover got his desired agricultural program but not without significant political costs. By the fall of 1929, the Federal Farm Board was up and running.
Tariff policy, the other early challenge facing Hoover, had long been a flashpoint in American politics. Hoover was not a supporter of high tariffs but he did believe that farmers deserved some sort of protection, a position that aligned the President with progressive Republicans from the midwest, such as powerful Idaho senator William Borah. The House of Representatives largely acceded to Hoover’s request for high tariffs on agricultural products alone, but senators from eastern states passed a tariff bill that raised rates on industrial and manufacturied products. Borah and his allies were understandably very angry. Hoover, privately and discretely, supported insertion of a codicil into the legislation creating a non-partisan Tariff Commission that could raise or lower rates; he reasoned that the Commission would lower excessive rates after the tariff bill passed. The proposed commission, though, had little support among either protectionists or free-traders in either party and thus was defeated in the fall of 1929. After months of discussion, tariff reform remained at a standstill.
In both the tariff and agriculture debates, President Hoover demonstrated questionable political acumen. The “Great Engineer” had proven as ineffective a politician as he was an effective organizer of exploratory commissions and committees. Instead of convincing Congress that his proposals were sound, Hoover chose to limit his involvement and let Congress legislate. The result, though, was policy stalemate and political tension between the President and Republicans, especially progressives like Borah, who might have been among Hoover’s stronger supporters. It was a performance that did not bode well for the future, when Hoover’s skills would be put to the test as the nation confronted its greatest crisis since the Civil War: the Great Depression.
Causes of the Great Depression
The American economy of the 1920s, while prosperous, was fundamentally unsound. The economic collapse that defined the Great Depression did not occur all at once, nor for one particular reason. Historians have identified four interwoven and reinforcing causes of the nation’s most severe economic crisis: structural weaknesses in both American agriculture and industry; the frailty of the international economy in the late 1920s and the early 1930s; and the overly speculative and unstable foundations of the American financial sector.
As discussed previously, the nation’s agricultural sector during the 1920s was unhealthy, a condition that was due largely to overproduction. But if the economic outlook looked bleak from the nation’s fields, they appeared just as dreary from its factory floors. While industrial productivity and profits increased during the decade, wages remained stagnant. These profits, more often than not, were placed in the stock market or in speculative schemes rather than re-invested in new factories or used to fund new businesses, both of which (theoretically) would have created new jobs. The combination of agricultural woes and industrial stagnation conspired to grind America’s economy to a halt.
The world economy also suffered from a general slowdown in the late 1920s. The Treaty of Versailles that ended the Great War required Germany to pay reparations to France and Britain, countries which owed money to American banks. The German economy, wrecked by the war, could not sustain these payments, and the German government looked to the United States for cash. Europe’s economic health, then, was built on a web of financial arrangements and hinged on a robust American economy.
Finally, America’s financial sector was a house of cards. During the 1920s, American businesses were increasingly raising capital either by soliciting private investment or by selling stock. Over two million Americans poured their savings into the stock market and many more into investment schemes. But there was little or no regulation of these companies and supposed investment opportunities, nor much oversight of the process. Too often, Americans put their money into “get rich quick” schemes which had no chance of long-term financial return, or into companies that made no real profits—and sometimes no actual products!The stock market was particularly volatile during the 1920s. It soared during the second half of the decade, with the New York Times index of industrial stocks growing from 159 points in 1925 to 452 points in September 1929. Investors bought stocks “on margin,” meaning they produced only a small down-payment and borrowed the rest from their broker or bank. As long as the stock increased in value, all was well. The investor would later sell the stock, repay the broker or the bank, and pocket the profit.
Each of these factors helped create and sustain a severely unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, where a tiny minority possessed incredible riches. In 1929, five percent of the populace held nearly a third of the money and property; over 80 percent of Americans held no savings at all. In addition, the stagnation in wages, the collapse of agricultural markets, and rising unemployment (all of which led to the growing gap between rich and poor), meant that most Americans could not buy the products that made the economy hum. Wealthier Americans, moreover, failed to spend their money, choosing instead to invest it. In short, the American economy was a consumer economy in which few consumed.
As the economy began to slow in 1929—with fewer purchases, creeping unemployment, and higher interest rates—stock owners tried to sell but found no buyers; the market tumbled. Two days in particular, October 24 (“Black Thursday”) and October 29 (“Black Tuesday”), saw investors desperately trying to dump stocks. On that Tuesday alone, brokers sold over 16 million shares. The market slide continued for more than two years, with one estimate claiming that investors lost nearly $75 billion. “The Great Crash,” as it came to be known, was only one cause of the economic Depression that followed, but it brought home to many Americans in stunning fashion the harsh reality of the American economic landscape.
The nation’s economic woes deepened considerably in the months and years after the stock market crash. With American farmers earning less, they could not pay their bills and mortgages. Rural banks failed without these payments, placing more pressure on a banking system already shaky from the shocks that hit Wall Street. After 1932, drought conditions plagued the midwest, further compounding existing agricultural problems. As industries failed, factories closed and stores shuttered. Between 1929 and 1933, 5,000 American banks collapsed, one in four farms went into foreclosure, and an average of 100,000 jobs vanished each week. By 1932, over 12 million Americans—nearly one-quarter of the workforce—were unemployed. Statistics alone, however, do not tell the story of the “Great Depression.” For tens of millions, it was a time of panic and poverty, hunger and hopelessness. The national will sagged and its future seemed, at least to some, in doubt.
Hoover and the Great Depression
The collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression did not catch Hoover completely unaware, although he surely—like the vast majority of Americans—was utterly surprised by the severity of these developments. As secretary of commerce, Hoover had worried about speculation in the stock market, even asking for new government regulation of banks and stock exchanges to prevent “insider trading” and the dangerous practice of “margin buying.” He had also called on the Federal Reserve Board to raise interest rates, but the board lowered them instead, thus fueling a stock market boom in the two years prior to his presidency.
During his first eight months in the White House, Hoover and his advisers continued to voice their concerns about the shape and future of the economy. Hoover supported the Agricultural Marketing Act because he believed it would shore up a weak agricultural sector. Suspicious of stock speculation, he approved of efforts by the Federal Reserve System to convince the New York Federal Reserve Bank to halt the practice of giving discounts to smaller banks, a practice that many experts believed fueled stock speculation. Hoover was dubious, however, of the wisdom of the Federal Reserve Board asking its member banks to tighten the money supply to halt speculative loans. Moreover, as the historian Martin Fausold explains, no one in government or the financial sector could agree upon the exact role that the Federal Reserve should play in monitoring and overseeing the financial sector.
Hoover reacted to the October 24 (“Black Thursday”) stock market crash by stating that “the fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” But shielded from public view, he and his administration worked hard to counter what they worried might be the beginning of a cyclical economic downturn. Hoover’s advisers drew up proposals to stimulate the economy with reductions in taxes, a plan for the Federal Reserve to loosen its credit policies, and more public works spending. Hoover also called openly for local and state governments to expand public works projects, and organized a series of conferences in November 1929 which brought together leaders of industry, labor, and government to discuss the economy. Hoover asked for and received pledges from industry not to cut jobs or wages, and from labor not to press for higher wages.
The President’s actions in the wake of the stock market crash were premised on his belief that the economy faced a mere downturn rather than the prospect of complete collapse. Likewise, Hoover’s actions accorded with his faith in voluntarism, cooperation, the value of expertise and statistics, and the effectiveness of limited government measures to counteract economic cycles. He urged cooperation among and between industry and labor. He also ordered the Departments of Labor and Commerce to compile precise and accurate economic statistics. Unfortunately for Hoover, those statistics showed that in the week-and-a-half before Christmas 1929, one million Americans lost their jobs. The nation’s economic slide would only continue.
Battles over the Tariff and the Supreme Court
Nonetheless, during the first half of 1930, issues other than the nation’s economic problems consumed much of Hoover’s time. The death of Supreme Court Justice Edward Sanford left a vacancy on the Court that Hoover needed to fill. The President chose John J. Parker, a highly regarded judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Parker’s nomination initially won wide support, but labor groups and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) argued that the judge’s record was hostile toward unions and African-Americans. At Parker’s Senate confirmation hearings, organized labor and the NAACP attacked the nomination; Progressive Republicans like Senator Borah, who already had a testy relationship with the President because of farm policy and the tariff, took the criticisms seriously. As a vote neared in the full Senate, some rank-and-file Republicans began to rethink their support for Parker. Hoover compounded the problem by failing to give Parker a strong public show of support and by refusing to let the judge appear before Senators to explain his civil rights and labor positions. The Senate killed the Parker nomination in early May 1930 by a tally of 41 to 39, with ten Republicans voting “nay.”The other domestic issue Hoover addressed in the first half of 1930 was the tariff, which lay unresolved after the failure of legislation one year earlier. As the Seventy-first Congress convened in December 1929, Borah and other progressive Republicans still opposed both higher tariffs on industrial products and a tariff commission that could adjust rates; instead, they supported a plan—called export debenture—in which the government would compensate farmers who sold their products overseas at a loss. Politicians from industrial states unsurprisingly favored higher tariffs on industrial and manufacturing imports. Hoover, meanwhile, still supported the commission and opposed export debentures just as strongly. The President, however, refused to interfere in the congressional deliberations, though he did finally make his preferences known. Six months of legislative wrangling produced the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill in June 1930 that raised rates on both agricultural and industrial products to historic levels, provided for a commission, and rejected export debentures. Hoover quickly signed the legislation.
In subsequent years, some Democrats argued that the tariff caused the Great Depression. This charge was politically motivated and historically inaccurate; the Depression was well underway by time of Smoot-Hawley’s passage. Nonetheless, higher tariff rates, most economists and historians agree, did little to help the American economy as it swooned in the early 1930s. Instead, protectionism further weakened the international economy by suffocating world trade, which in turn made it more difficult for the U.S. economy to recover. Just as important, the battles over Judge Parker’s nomination and the tariff worsened Hoover’s relations with the more progressive elements of the Republican Party.
The Hoover administration continued throughout 1930 to battle the nation’s economic problems. To a remarkable degree, state and local governments, as well as leading industries, followed through on Hoover’s requests. The President’s proposals for increased government and private-sector spending were outlined at conferences that brought together business, labor, and political leaders in the wake of the market crash. Hoover pressed Congress in 1930 to pass bills that would spur infrastructure construction, even while he asked executive departments to hold the line on spending so as not to increase the federal budget deficit.
By March 1930, the Labor and Commerce Departments told Hoover that the worst of the crisis had passed, news that the President happily passed on to the public. Other observers—both in and out of government—were not so sure. Hoover ignored these pessimistic forecasts and rejected calls for more aggressive government actions (like relief bills or bond sales to fund unemployment benefits) to combat the nation’s economic problems. Instead, he formed the President’s Emergency Committee on Employment (PECE) in the fall of 1930 to coordinate private organizations’ efforts to help the unemployed. Even Hoover’s own appointee to head PECE, though, warned the President that greater government spending was needed to combat unemployment.
Hoover dismissed this suggestion, although unemployment had climbed to 8.7 percent of the workforce by the end of 1930, meaning that more than 4 million Americans were out of a job. Other indicators were just as dreary. Industrial production in 1930 fell by one-quarter; roughly 1,350 banks failed that year as well, more than twice as many as in 1929. As American economic problems grew—and his anti-Depression efforts floundered—Hoover frequently advanced the argument that a global economic slowdown was primarily to blame for the dismal economic circumstances at home. This assessment indicated that Hoover would likely pair his domestic anti-Depression measures with increased efforts in the international arena.
1931: Into the Vortex
By 1931, members of Congress—especially Democrats and midwestern progressive Republicans—began to call even more vociferously for decisive government action to combat the effects of the Depression. They were particularly desirous of relief bills for farmers and the unemployed. Most of these bills failed, largely because progressives and liberals were a distinct minority in Congress. Increasingly, however, other members of Congress gave credence to these requests. While not a relief measure per se, Congress did pass (over Hoover’s veto) the Bonus Bill in the winter of 1931. The bill allowed veterans to borrow up to one-half the value of life insurance policies that Congress had purchased in 1924; with the policies set to mature in 1945, early access to these funds came to be regarded as a “bonus.” Likewise, Senator Robert Wagner of New York, perhaps the Senate’s most prominent liberal, won passage of bills providing for the collection of unemployment statistics and the systematic planning of public works. A third Wagner bill related to unemployment, which would have set up a system of employment agencies at the state level, was vetoed by Hoover.
By the spring of 1931, as he had a year earlier, Hoover still clung to the notion that the worst had passed. The President had not taken leave of his senses; other respected observers offered similar prognostications. Unfortunately, those assumptions proved wrong. By June, more than one-quarter of the factory work force was unemployed, along with 15 percent (more than eight million people) of the total work force. Bank failures continued to rise, with more than 2,200 banks folding in 1931 alone. Personal income, industrial production, and stock prices all began precipitous slides in the spring of 1931 after showing a burst of recovery in the preceding months. Social workers and labor leaders, who worked closely with communities bearing the brunt of the Depression, called attention to the inability of private relief to ameliorate the suffering and pleaded for more substantive government action.
Even as the crisis deepened in 1931, Hoover held fast to his course. He reiterated that the nation’s economic woes were largely the result of depressed world economic conditions. He also made clear that he opposed federal intervention in the economy or the construction of a welfare state. Instead, Hoover maintained that voluntarism and individual effort would solve the country’s economic woes. His administration’s policies throughout 1931 reflected these approaches. To stabilize the international financial and economic situation, Hoover called in June 1931 for a one-year moratorium on intergovernmental debts. In August, PECE morphed into a new agency, the President’s Organization for Unemployment Relief (POUR), which essentially carried on its predecessor’s mission of mobilizing private assistance. POUR did assume more of an advisory role than PECE, suggesting federal public works programs and strategies to fight unemployment; it did not, however, push for federal relief programs. In the early fall of 1931, Hoover convinced leading bankers to voluntarily organize the National Credit Corporation, which would use a $500 million reserve to aid small, insolvent banks. Bankers, though, extracted a pledge from the President that if the non-governmental, voluntary effort failed, he would support a similar federal effort. Despite these maneuvers, the economy showed no signs of recovery. Indeed, the crisis only deepened.
Hoover’s New Approach
In late 1931, Hoover changed his approach to fighting the Depression. He justified his call for more federal assistance by noting that “We used such emergency powers to win the war; we can use them to fight the Depression, the misery, and suffering from which are equally great.” This new approach embraced a number of initiatives. Unfortunately for the President, none proved especially effective. Just as important, with the presidential election approaching, the political heat generated by the Great Depression and the failure of Hoover’s policies grew only more withering.
The National Credit Corporation quickly proved insufficient, largely because its private-sector leaders were too tight-fisted and reluctant to bail-out smaller banks. As the NCC floundered, the Hoover administration drafted legislation for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). The RFC, which would be government-run and funded, was designed to stabilize the nation’s financial structures by providing credit to banks weak and strong, as well as to other entities like railroads and agricultural organizations; Hoover hoped that by improving the nation’s financial health, public confidence would grow and that both employment opportunities and international trade would expand. Congress created the RFC in early 1932. While the RFC, like the NCC, often failed to help smaller banks, historians and economists now sing its praises for saving many of the nation’s larger financial institutions from ruin. The RFC, however, did not fulfill Hoover’s hopes by cutting into unemployment.
Hoover also bowed to growing public and congressional pressure for emergency federal relief. In the summer of 1932, he signed the Emergency Relief Construction Act, which provided $2 billion for public works projects and $300 million for direct relief programs run by state governments. While the bill only appropriated a pittance for direct relief and placed many restrictions on how the $300 million could be used, its endorsement by Hoover testified, at least partially, to the failure of voluntarism and private relief. Hoover, however, saw the act as a temporary measure to provide emergency relief; he remained resolutely opposed to large-scale and permanent government expenditures on relief and welfare.
Finally, in March 1932, Hoover signed the Norris-La Guardia Anti-injunction Act. The law accomplished three important objectives supported by organized labor. First, it severely curbed the use of “yellow dog” contracts in which employers hired replacement workers to break strikes. Second, it strongly curtailed the ability of federal judges to issue sweeping injunctions against strikes. Finally, it encouraged and confirmed the right of laborers to organize. Norris-LaGuardia was an important forerunner of pro-labor legislation, like the 1935 Wagner Act, and a personal victory for Hoover, who had made clear since the 1920s his opposition to the use of injunctions.
Despite the creation of the RFC and the passage of the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, Hoover (and those under his command) committed two blunders in 1932 that greatly damaged his political standing. First, the President became embroiled in a political spat with Congress over taxes. Committed to keeping the United States on the gold standard, Hoover wanted to close the federal government’s budget deficit, which had grown during his presidency, by raising taxes. The key issue was how to allocate the increased tax burden among Americans. Hoover and his advisers did not want to raise taxes so much that wealthy Americans and businesses were discouraged from investing–an activity that, theoretically, created jobs. Hoover’s original tax plan, then, was to spread tax increases among different economic sectors and between rich and poor Americans. In Congress, conservative southern Democrats countered with a plan in which half of the new tax revenues would come from a sales tax on manufactured goods.
Hoover agreed to support the sales tax—after receiving assurances that it would not affect the prices of “staple food or cheaper clothing”—but progressive Republicans and liberal Democrats rebelled at what they saw as an attempt to pass the tax burden on to those who could least afford to pay it. The issue became a political firestorm. Opponents of the sales tax aggressively attacked Hoover, portraying him as a retrograde conservative. Meanwhile, each party’s leaders tried to keep the maverick sales tax opponents in line. They failed, however, and the Revenue Act of 1932 passed in the late spring of 1932 without a sales tax. Hoover signed the measure, but the political damage had been done.
In late July 1932, the President’s political fortunes took another precipitous dip, only a few weeks after Republicans had re-nominated Hoover as their candidate for that year’s presidential election. Unemployed American veterans of World War I, suffering from the hardships of the Depression, marched along with their families to Washington, D.C., to demand immediate full payment of their bonuses, which, by law, were payable in 1945. Hoover joined Congress in rejecting the demands of the “Bonus Army” marchers, though he did support their right to demonstrate and quietly made available to them shelter and supplies. While in Washington, some in the Bonus Army took up quarters in unoccupied federal building scheduled for demolition. After Congress refused to grant the Bonus Army’s demands, most of the protesters left Washington. Some, however, remained in the abandoned buildings, in nearby camps, and in hovels on the shores of the Anacostia River.
The administration decided to remove the members of the Bonus Army occupying the condemned buildings. Hoover gave precise instructions to the military to peacefully escort the protestors to nearby camps. Secretary of War Patrick Hurley, who feared the Bonus Army might riot, exceeded Hoover’s instructions and ordered General Douglas MacArthur to relocate the marchers from Washington’s political and business district to the Anacostia River flats. MacArthur, in turn, exceeded his orders and decided to drive the Bonus Army from Washington, D.C., altogether. The military attacked the veterans with tanks, tear gas, bayonets, and guns, burned the camps in Anacostia, and killed one Bonus Army member; MacArthur repeatedly ignored orders from superiors to halt the rampage. Americans from around the nation saw the horrific images of the attack in their newspapers. When MacArthur and Hurley obstinately refused to take responsibility for the melee, Hoover did so. The President’s standing with the public only sank further. With the 1932 election fast approaching, Hoover’s chance of winning another four years in the White House were nearly extinct.
Herbert Hoover had an admirable reservoir of experience in international affairs when he became President in March 1929. He had traveled the world extensively as a mining engineer, served on President Wilson’s delegation to the peace talks at the end of World War I, and worked on international trade issues as secretary of commerce. He was no American provincial.
As President, Hoover’s foreign policies were conditioned by the Great Depression. Indeed, by the fall of 1930, Hoover was blaming America’s economic malaise on international, and especially European, economic realities. As a result, he looked increasingly for ways to improve the international economy as the Depression deepened. At the same time, Hoover pushed for disarmament treaties, rethought American relations with the countries of South and Central America, and confronted Japanese aggression in China.
Hoover’s most important foreign policy adviser was Secretary of State Henry Stimson. Stimson’s previous experience in the federal government, as secretary of war under President Taft and as governor-general of the Philippine Islands from 1928 to 1929, made him an ideal choice to head the Department of State. Stimson and Hoover had vastly different personalities; the latter was a somewhat dour workaholic while the former was extroverted and rarely missed a chance to get away from the office. Likewise, they often entertained different views of America’s role in the world, with the President much more reticent than his chief diplomat about using military force or coercive economic sanctions. Nonetheless, the two men worked together effectively to craft American foreign policy during the Hoover presidency.
Hoover’s Depression Diplomacy
Hoover’s attempts in 1929 and 1930 to enact tariff reform quickly emerged as a major domestic policy and political issue. (See Hoover, Domestic Affairs) While foreign policy considerations were never central to the debates about, and passage of, the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, that law had distinct consequences for American foreign affairs. Smoot-Hawley raised duties on both agricultural and industrial imports to the United States, and led European nations and Japan to erect (or to heighten existing) protectionist trade walls against American products. This dynamic produced what the historian Benjamin Rhodes has called a “suicidal international trade war” in the wake of the stock market crash.
The market crash in October 1929, moreover, weakened an already shaky global economic order. Following World War I, the United States emerged as the linchpin of the world economy. Germany depended upon American loans to pay its Great War reparations to France and Britain, which owed the United States for the loans they received during the war. American dollars made these delicate financial arrangements possible, but those dollars disappeared with the Great Crash. As a result, an already sluggish world economy slowed further. In the summer of 1931, German banks defaulted on their reparations payments, endangering nearly $700 million of American loans. Hoping to avert a severe crisis, Hoover called for an eighteen-month moratorium on intergovernmental debt payments. Hoover’s gambit won the approval of all European nations; only France balked initially. Hoover also managed to secure an agreement from the Europeans to advance Germany short-term credit.
Stabilizing Germany’s finances did little to help the British government, which oversaw an economy wracked by international debts and unemployment. To stop the outflow of its gold reserves, Britain left the gold standard and devalued its currency in the fall of 1931. While British goods became more competitive on the international market, the maneuver sparked a round of devaluations and accelerated the destructive trade war. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, approved Hoover’s plans for a debt moratorium and a short-term credit loan to Germany. However it flatly rejected Hoover’s call for the recreation of the World War Foreign Debt Commission. Opponents of the debt commission insisted it was only the first step in repudiating, rather than repaying, Europe’s war debts.
Hoover continued to struggle with the debt issue during his final year in office. Throughout 1932, members of both parties loudly reminded the President that they expected America’s foreign debtors to pay in full. The Lausanne Conference, which reduced Germany’s payments to the Allies to just over $700 million, only inflamed American opinion. On November 10—two days after Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover in the presidential election—British diplomats informed State Department officials that they wanted to postpone an upcoming debt payment and review the plans for repayment they had agreed to in the early 1920s. Other European nations, including France, quickly followed suit.
Hoover, by this time a lame-duck President, consulted Roosevelt and suggested the recreation of the War Debts Commission. FDR offered Hoover little support, not wanting to be hamstrung by his predecessor’s policies after he took office in March. Hoover alerted the British that they would have to make their scheduled payment, but that negotiations about future payments were possible. Much to Hoover’s relief, Britain did make its December 15 payment; the other European nations, with the exception of Italy, defaulted. Hoover continued throughout the interregnum (the period between FDR’s election in November 1932 and his inauguration in March 1933) to press FDR to support a commission on the debt issue, but to no avail. This matter, as well as the general state of the international economy, would be left for Roosevelt’s consideration.
Hoover worked assiduously during his term to bring about international agreements on disarmament. In 1930, he sent Secretary of State Stimson and a highly credentialed, bipartisan delegation to the London Naval Conference to discuss further reductions in naval armaments; the 1930 Conference was itself a successor to conferences in Washington, D.C., in 1922 and Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. While the summit quickly became bogged down in arcane technical discussions about the size, speed, and armaments of specific classes of naval warships, Stimson hammered out an agreement with Britain and Japan to limit the number and size of each signatory’s naval cruisers. The Senate approved the agreement in July 1930.
Later, in 1932, Hoover sent Stimson to the World Disarmament Conference at Geneva. Consumed by the Depression and facing a presidential election, Hoover paid scant attention to the deliberations and gave the American delegation’s leader, Ambassador Hugh Gibson, unrealistic proposals which called for the abolition of submarines, airplanes and, tanks. The conference ultimately failed because France made arms reductions contingent on a “consultative pact,” between France, the United States, and England, designed to thwart German militarism should it reappear. Neither the United States nor Britain agreed to this condition.
The “Good Neighbor” Policy
One of Hoover’s most successful diplomatic initiatives was his “Good Neighbor” policy toward the nations of South and Central America. While most Americans associate the policy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it actually originated with the previous administration. Hoover’s approach had both symbolic and substantive elements. After his election in 1928, but before assuming the presidency, Hoover embarked on a ten-week tour of Latin America during which he delivered twenty-five speeches, almost all of which stressed his plans to reduce American political and military interference in Latin American affairs. In sum, he pledged that the United States would act as a “good neighbor.” Just as important, in 1930, Hoover ordered the release of a 1928 State Department paper—the “Clark Memorandum”—that disputed the legality of American intervention in Latin America under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
In a number of instances, Hoover backed up this symbolism with concrete actions. He removed American troops from Nicaragua after the 1932 election. He signed a treaty with Haiti that same year, promising to end the American occupation by January 1, 1935. And he personally arbitrated a dispute between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, which Secretary of State Stimson called Hoover’s “greatest personal triumph.” Hoover’s “Good Neighbor policy” established a solid foundation on which his immediate successor could build.
Japanese Aggression and the Stimson Doctrine
In September 1931, Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria, a mineral-rich and agriculturally productive region that had long been coveted by Japanese expansionists. Hoover and Stimson decided against an immediate American response, but Japan’s successful campaign in the following months to seize all of Manchuria worried Stimson. The question was how the United States and the world community would respond to the flagrant violations of Chinese sovereignty and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929 (of which Japan was a signatory) that renounced war as an “instrument of national policy.” In November 1931, the League of Nations passed a resolution demanding that Japan withdraw from Chinese territory. Japan, however, ignored the dictum.
Hoover and Stimson, meanwhile, were at loggerheads. The President, fearful that the United States might become embroiled in a military conflict in Asia, wanted to reduce the nation’s profile there. His most hawkish proposal was to favor a policy of not recognizing Japanese territorial gains should Japan and China sign a peace treaty. Stimson understood Hoover’s desire to avoid war and supported the non-recognition policy, but also privately considered the use of military action or economic sanctions. In January 1932, as Japanese forces occupied the southern Manchurian city of Chinchou, Stimson drafted a diplomatic note warning the Japanese that the United States would not accept any treaty resolving the Manchurian crisis which violated existing treaties such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact; in essence, Stimson’s note, which came to be known as the Stimson Doctrine—even though President Hoover was its intellectual author—meant that the United States would not recognize Japan’s territorial gains in Manchuria.
The Stimson Doctrine failed to halt the Japanese, who soon laid siege to the city of Shanghai. Stimson grew frustrated that even this provocation failed to move Hoover to more decisive action, though the Secretary of State largely kept his thoughts private. Instead, Stimson, with Hoover’s support, wrote a letter (subsequently released to the public) to Senator William Borah, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In it, he warned that continued Japanese aggression in Manchuria permitted the United States to abrogate the arms control agreements it had signed with Japan over the previous decade. Stimson also convinced Hoover that the letter not disavow the possibility of coercive action against the Japan.
While Japan did halt its attack on Shanghai, the Borah letter had little effect. Instead, it clarified Hoover’s and Stimson’s different approach to the Manchurian crisis and to international affairs more generally. Stimson supported both non-recognition and the possible use of force. Hoover, on the other hand, would go no farther than non-recognition. This debate would reappear in American foreign policy circles throughout the 1930s.
Life after the Presidency
Still a relatively youthful man upon his defeat in 1932, the fifty-eight-year-old former President lived another thirty-two years before his death on October 20, 1964. Immediately after the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover retreated to his home in Palo Alto, California. For much of the 1930s—and, indeed, for decades to come—the public, and especially the Democratic Party, blamed Hoover for the Great Depression. Likewise, few Republicans in the 1930s wanted Hoover involved in party politics because of his negative standing in the popular mind. Wealthy and generous, Hoover did not need to work, but even the fishing that he loved could consume only so many hours of the week. From his home in Palo Alto, Hoover launched a series of bitter attacks on the New Deal in letters and essays, condemning many of its programs as “fascistic.” Roosevelt’s decisions to abandon the gold standard, to recognize the Soviet Union, to pack the Supreme Court, to support federal government intervention in the economy, and to build the foundations of a welfare state angered and worried Hoover. In the 1936 presidential campaign, he actively supported Kansas Republican candidate Alfred M. Landon, who lost to Roosevelt by a wide margin.
While on a tour of Europe in 1938—Hoover traveled extensively in his post-presidential years—Hoover met with with Adolf Hitler. The former U.S. President dressed down the German dictator, irritated at Hitler’s shouting in their private audience. Still, Hoover, recalling what he regarded as the needless bloodshed of World War I, opposed U.S. entry into the European conflict that broke out in 1939 after Germany attacked Poland. Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, however, changed his mind. As in 1918, war created a need for Hoover’s organizational and humanitarian skills. FDR put aside his personal antipathy towards his predecessor and supported Hoover’s appointment to chair an international relief organization for Poland, Finland, and Belgium. Hoover, however, was unsuccessful in getting food relief to nations occupied by the Nazis.
In the post-World War II years, Hoover remained committed to public service and to commenting on both domestic and international affairs. For the Truman administration, Hoover served as coordinator of the Food Supply for World Famine in 1946 and advised the U.S. government on occupation policies in Germany and Austria. In 1947, a Republican-led Congress named Hoover chairman of the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, which became known as the “Hoover Commission.” The Hoover Commission, which congressional Republicans hoped would curtail (if not destroy) FDR’s New Deal policies and programs, instead recognized the greater burdens of the modern presidency and proposed bureaucratic and administrative reforms to strengthen the Executive Branch. Indeed, a number of the Commission’s proposals found their way into the 1949 Executive Reorganization Act. In 1955, Hoover reprised his role as head of a commission to study government organization, although this later commission is generally considered less successful than the first. Nonetheless, Hoover made his own, unique contribution to the construction of the modern presidency.
It was in international affairs in the 1940s and 1950s, however, that Hoover attracted the most attention. He opposed the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, of which he wrote to a friend in August 1945: “The only difference between this and the use of poison gas is the fear of retaliation. We alone have the bomb.” Hoover’s commentary on America’s Cold War policies was at times supportive and at other times highly critical. For instance, he encouraged Truman’s policies in the immediate aftermath of World War II to rebuild Germany, both economically and politically, as a barrier against Soviet communism.
But Hoover grew disaffected with the administration’s Cold War policies which demanded ever greater military commitments in both Asia and Europe. He criticized Truman’s decisions to intervene in the Korean War and to station four additional American divisions in Europe after the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula in 1950. Hoover became a leading voice among a group of influential Republican conservatives, including Senate majority leader Robert Taft of Ohio, who advocated building American naval and air power and basing American military strategy on a defense of the Western Hemisphere. Hoover supported such a position because he feared that massive land wars in Europe and Asia would cost millions of American lives, because he believed that Europeans could do more to defend themselves against the Soviets, and because he thought that the cost of maintaining the global commitments outlined by the Truman administration would bankrupt the United States. Hoover and Taft, of course, ended up on the losing side of what came to be known as “The Great Debate” concerning America’s Cold War foreign policy.
Hoover remained active in party politics as well. He supported the candidacies of Robert Taft in 1948 and 1952, and of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. He was less enthusiastic about Vice President Richard Nixon’s run for the presidency in 1960. In 1964, shortly before his death, Hoover endorsed Senator Barry Goldwater for President, telling his associates that the conservative Arizona Republican closely mirrored his own views on the need for limiting federal authority over everyday life and the American economy.
Herbert Hoover died in 1964, at the age of ninety, from colon cancer. He was laid to rest in West Branch, Iowa, beside his wife Lou, who passed away in 1944.
President Herbert Hoover worked extremely hard, sometimes putting in eighteen-hour days at the office. Hoover usually awoke at 6 a.m. and exercised with a medicine ball, along with select members of his cabinet and staff, Supreme Court justices, and invited congressmen. After his workout, Hoover would eat breakfast at around 8:30. He spent much of the morning in his office writing speeches and letters, making telephone calls, meeting with staff, and reading newspapers. For an hour at around noon, he met with the public. In the afternoon, Hoover met with his cabinet, commissions, congressmen, and other visitors. Between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., Hoover retired from the office. He and his wife Lou had dinner around 8 p.m., often entertaining guests who were well-versed in policy matters of interest to the President. The Hoovers also hosted a number of state dinners during their time in the White House. After dinner, Hoover often spent the remainder of the evening engrossed in government reports.
Hoover was not renowned for his friendliness or loquaciousness. He could be curt or quiet with his staff and cabinet members. More problematic, he had a brusque manner with the press. As secretary of commerce, Hoover actually had good relations with the media because of his availability and his track-record as a reliable source. This relationship soured during his presidency; while Hoover held semi-weekly press conferences, he required advanced submission of questions, too often gave non-answers, and sometimes declared that there was no news, abruptly ending the conference itself. Even the replacement of Hoover’s incompetent press aide George Akerson with Theodore Joslin did little to help the President. Just as problematic, Hoover was uncomfortable in his relations with the public. He delivered his speeches in a wooden manner and seemed aloof to those who met him at White House receptions and other social events. Each of these weaknesses damaged Hoover’s public image.
Hoover did find time to relax. He occasionally went on vacation, including trips with some of his staff and cabinet to the coast of Florida (1930) and the Caribbean (1931). These getaways seemed to rejuvenate him, with Secretary of State Stimson noting in his diary that Hoover had never looked better than after visiting the Caribbean. To find some privacy and relaxation closer to home, the Hoovers built a secluded retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, close to the Rapidan River, inaccessible by car yet less than 100 miles from the capital. Whether in Florida, the Caribbean, or the mountains of Virginia, Hoover’s favorite past-time was fishing. One biographer notes, however, that Hoover the fisherman was sometimes replaced by Hoover the engineer: rather than tend to his line, Hoover often enjoyed carrying rocks and building dams in the rivers where he fished!Hoover’s two sons, Herbert Hoover Jr., aged twenty-seven in 1928, and Allan Hoover, aged twenty-one, did not spend much time around the White House during their father’s presidency. Herbert Jr. graduated from Stanford in 1925 and from Harvard Business School in 1928. For much of his career, he worked as a mining engineer, although he did make a foray into government service as undersecretary of state from October 1954 to December 1956. Allan Hoover graduated in economics from Stanford in 1929 and then worked on his master’s degree at Harvard Business School before going into banking. He helped run the Hoover Institute at Stanford University for a number of years.
The American Franchise
The defining event in the United States during the Hoover years was, without a doubt, the Great Depression. Quite simply, it ranks second only to the Civil War as the greatest domestic crisis in the nation’s history. The Depression shaped the nation’s politics, economics, culture, social structure, and imagination, and its causes and its effects varied both regionally and temporally. (See Herbert Hoover, Domestic Policies.)
The Depression hit recent immigrants very hard. The majority of newcomers to the United States were of southern or eastern European descent, lived in American cities among other immigrants, and worked in low-paying, blue-collar occupations, many in industry or manufacturing. Unemployment was the chief problem facing recent immigrants during the Hoover years, as newcomers who lost their jobs found it difficult to regain them or get new ones. Women and children, research has shown, had an easier time keeping or finding work during the Depression because they labored largely in sectors that lost fewer jobs, and because employers could pay them less.
The effects of the Depression were devastating and not limited to economics. As the crisis worsened, the pillars of recent immigrant communities—local, immigrant-owned businesses like butcher shops, haberdasheries, and banks—collapsed. Immigrants previously had turned to these institutions (and their owners) in times of trouble, but the Great Depression eliminated this safety net, placing more pressure on already strapped private charities like religious organizations and state and local governments.
Additionally, during the 1920s, Congress passed a series of laws that restricted immigrant admissions to the United States both by number and by country of origin. The stunning results of this legislation became clear during the Hoover presidency. In 1921, over 800,000 immigrants came to the United States; in 1931, two years after the last of the most restrictive immigration legislation had gone into effect, just over 97,000 immigrants arrived. Immigration levels would remain severely depressed until after 1945, when they began to rise slowly and steadily.
Families and Women
The Depression reshaped American family life. While divorce rates fell, abandonment rates rose significantly, suggesting that couples simply split up rather than pursue through legal channels a costly divorce. Both the marriage rate and the birth rate dropped in the Hoover years as well, although the former began to rebound by the mid- to late-1930s. Finally, the average annual family income dropped by 35 percent between Hoover’s inaugural speech and his retirement from office—from $2,300 to $1,500. Less money meant more sacrifice. Two or three families sometimes lived in a single residence; the resulting overcrowding surely tested the mental and emotional strength of all who lived in these conditions.
Women faced unique challenges during the Great Depression. Often in charge of managing the household and running the family, women coped on a daily basis with the Depression-induced stresses placed on families. The decline in family income forced women who ran those households to stretch their families’ clothing and food allowances to the limit. Women patched clothes, transformed old adult garments into children’s wear, planted gardens, and canned and dried foods for future use.
At the same time, many women—including both married women and single women who lived with their families—joined the workforce, looking to supplement (or even replace) their family’s income. But women in the workforce encountered numerous difficulties. Female employment concentrated in the clerical, trade, and service sectors. While these jobs vanished less frequently than jobs in industry or manufacturing, they were lower paying, had fewer—if any—benefits, were less likely to be unionized, and had fewer opportunities for advancement. Indeed, competition for these jobs increased as the Depression deepened and more women entered the work force. Interestingly, research shows that while men did not compete for so-called “woman’s jobs,” a cultural backlash against working women did develop in the 1930s. In many cases, men resented women for the latter’s ability to find jobs or provide for their families. The Great Depression, then, jumbled the established hierarchies that had marked gender and family relations for decades.
The Hoover years were especially dark for American labor. Workers suffered horribly during the Great Depression. Jobs disappeared at a dizzying rate, especially in the industries like railroads, mining, and steel that had powered the American economy for the previous fifty years. “New” economy businesses that produced automobiles, consumer appliances, chemicals, and petroleum also saw significant job losses. While some major firms like U.S. Steel and Westinghouse made efforts in the initial years of the Depression to stanch job loss and wage reductions, small and medium-sized businesses lacked the resources for such efforts and cut jobs and wages accordingly. As the economy continued its downward spiral, even large firms succumbed to the inevitable job lay-offs and wage cuts.
Conflict between employers, their workers, and the unemployed increased dramatically in the early 1930s. One of the most stunning examples occurred in 1932 at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Henry Ford, who had been touted throughout the 1920s as an exemplar of wise business leadership, had fired sixty-thousand workers since the onset of economic hard times. The small, communist-dominated Auto Workers’ Union organized the Ford Hunger March of March 7, 1932, with three thousand protestors marching on Ford’s large River Rouge plant to demand jobs for the unemployed and an end to evictions of former Ford employees. As the protesters neared the plant, Dearborn police and Ford’s private security force attacked with teargas and bullets. Four marchers died and more than sixty were wounded. While violence between workers and employers during the early years of the Depression was not commonplace, such incidents did occur sporadically throughout the country.
The Dearborn protest, notwithstanding, unions were actually quite weak during the Hoover years—and especially compared to the prominence they would achieve over the coming two decades. Union membership by early 1933 had tumbled below three million to less than 10% of the nation’s workers. As a further illustration of this trend, over 900,000 construction workers had been unionized by 1929; four years later, that total had shrunk to 583,000. Moreover, as the specter of unemployment grew, unionized workers became more reluctant to engage in tactics like walk-outs that might cost them their jobs. Unions did win one significant victory during this time: passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which severely curbed anti-union activities like federal injunctions and “yellow” dog contracts. (See Hoover, Domestic Affairs.) On the whole, however, unions in the Hoover years had fewer members and engaged in more conservative tactics.
African-Americans witnessed some important gains during this time. In the same year that Hoover won election to the presidency, voters in Illinois sent black Republican Oscar DePriest to the House of Representatives, the first African-American elected to Congress since Reconstruction. First Lady Lou Hoover defied racist custom and invited DePriest’s wife to the White House, marking the first time an African-American had visited the White House since President Theodore Roosevelt had dined with Booker T. Washington in 1901. Finally, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) successfully led the fight against Hoover’s nominee to the Supreme Court, John J. Parker, in 1930. (See Hoover, Domestic Affairs.)Nevertheless, African-Americans felt the effects of the Depression as acutely, and perhaps more so, than any other group of Americans. In the South, black sharecroppers faced poor weather and plummeting agricultural prices that made even mere survival difficult. More and more blacks in the South moved from rural areas to cities, but encountered difficulties just as often. By 1932, more than half of the African- Americans living in the urban South were unemployed. The horrible conditions in the South, in turn, inspired increasing numbers of African-Americans to move north, a migration that had begun in the 1910s and continued into the 1930s, and accelerated greatly during World War II.
In northern cities, blacks saw their jobs—which were usually of the entry level, low paying, and unskilled or semi-skilled variety—disappear, either consumed by the faltering economy or snatched up by desperate unemployed whites. This was the case for both African American-men and women. The employment situation for African-Americans in the urban North was only marginally better for the growing black middle class. In Harlem, black ownership or management of property dropped precipitously in the first half of the 1930s.
Impact and Legacy
For many years, both scholars and the American public held Hoover in extremely low esteem, blaming him for the Great Depression and criticizing his efforts to solve the crisis. Beginning in the 1970s, however, Hoover’s reputation began to recover. Historians pointed out that Hoover’s embrace of voluntarism, his faith in social science expertise, and his encouragement of cooperation between and among different segments of the American economic order was rooted not in heartless and reactionary conservatism but in the progressive social thought of his time. Hoover hewed to these approaches during his presidency, especially with commissions like the White House Conference on Health and the Protection of Children and the President’s Committee on Recent Social Trends.
Even as the nation spiraled into the Great Depression, Hoover’s faith in voluntarism and cooperation remained steadfast, leading to innovative and unprecedented government-inspired efforts such as the President’s Emergency Committee on Employment, the President’s Organization for Unemployment Relief, and the National Credit Corporation. Hoover also consistently lobbied state and local governments—and the U.S. Congress—to increase public works spending. At the same time, historians now acknowledge that Hoover sometimes abandoned voluntarism in favor of government interventions into the nation’s economic affairs in the hope of ending the Depression with efforts like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Emergency Relief Construction Act. Finally, many historians, with the benefit of hindsight, argue that Hoover in reality could have done little to solve the Depression. They correctly assert that American entry into World War II—and not Roosevelt’s New Deal—lifted the United States out of its economic doldrums.
Nonetheless, many scholars still criticize Hoover’s refusal to authorize large-scale relief programs that might have alleviated suffering and hunger, his unwillingness to use significant federal spending to stimulate the economy, and his general failure to recognize the all-encompassing nature of the Great Depression. Quite simply, Hoover seemed never to have grasped the grave threat that the economic crisis represented to the nation—and that solutions to the Depression might have required abandoning some of his deeply held beliefs.
Hoover compounded these missteps, each of which had political implications, with inept political maneuvering. Hoover proved unable to handle Congress, the press, and the public—or difficult situations like the Bonus Army—in ways that built confidence in his leadership. It should also be noted that Hoover’s questionable political judgment and leadership was not brought on by the “Great Crash.” In the early months of his presidency, Hoover displayed little political acumen during debates about agricultural and tariff policies. The Great Depression, though, brought these political failures, as well as Hoover’s ideological and policy limitations, into sharp relief, exaggerating their effects and paving the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in the 1932 presidential election. What emerges, then, for Hoover is a mixed and perhaps still damning verdict, but one that takes a more accurate measure of the President, his policies, and his politics.