Herbert Hoover's Historical Reputation
President Hoover has gone down in history as a totally uncaring chief executive who, while he presided over economic disaster, cared little about his fellow citizens, accepted the Great Depression as inevitable and something to simply be endured regardless of the level of suffering it caused, and who refused to do absolutely anything to alleviate the incredible suffering all around him for three and one-half long years. While this image was particularly widespread during the 1930s and persists even to this day, it is totally fallacious, misleading, and unjustified.
A More Balanced Historical Perspective
Herbert Hoover was in the right place at the wrong time. He could well have been a good - if not great - president had he served at another time. His ideological beliefs were such that he could well have launched the country in a more progressive direction than his predecessors in the 1920s had not the Great Depression intervened. He was far more committed to active government than either Calvin Coolidge or Warren Harding. However, as the presiding chief executive when the Depression began, he has received the blame for the Depression from his fellow countrymen both at the time and from subsequent generations. While he really was a "progressive" in his own way and probably did more to end the Depression than any preceding president in previous economic collapses, what he did failed to alleviate the situation and therefore he gained a reputation that was only partially deserved.
The Self-Made Man
Orphaned at an early age, Hoover had made a success out of himself - according to his pre-Depression legend and hype - by dent of his own hard work. Working his way through Stanford University to a degree in mining engineering, he went on to found his own business and became a multimillionaire. During the Great War he served in a voluntary capacity as director of the Food Administration Board, assigned the task of overseeing the production and distribution of foodstuffs required for victory. Following World War I, he headed up a private relief campaign to provide Europeans - literally facing the prospect of starvation - with food. His efforts were highly publicized and there was even talk in 1920 of him being the Republican candidate for president. While Warren Harding would be the nominee of a brokered convention, Hoover would serve as Secretary of Commerce during the next eight years. Escaping any involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal and receiving a great deal of positive publicity - much of it self-generated - for his supposed role in engineering the economic boom of the 1920s, Hoover entered the presidency in 1929 with a great deal of ballyhoo. During the 1928 presidential campaign his political handlers built this reputation up to phenomenal heights. Thus, when the Depression began and Hoover's efforts to deal with it were unsuccessful, his fall from grace was that much more spectacular because the publicity had built expectations up to a totally unrealistic level.
Hoover himself was apparently aware of the potential problem. As president-elect in late 1928 he confided his fears in this respect to a confident, William J. Abbot who was editor of the Christian Science Monitor. He purportedly said: "My friends have made the American people think me a sort of superman, able to cope successfully with the most difficult and complicated problems. They expect the impossible from me and should there arise in the land conditions with which the political machinery is unable to cope, I will be the one to suffer".
Hoover certainly felt by 1932, after over three years of the worst economic depression the country had ever known, that his declining approval rating and popularity were the result, at least in part, of this public image as a superman. He said that he had been "absolutely oversold". To a Republican senator he said: "No man can live up to it".
Responding to the Crisis
Despite an undeserved, fallacious, but enduring reputation as a do-nothing who simply accepted the Depression as an unpleasant fact of economic life that simply must be endured, President Hoover did try to end the Great Depression and, in fact, probably did more to deal with it than any preceding president had ever done in time of economic catastrophe. Hoover applied a conservative business-oriented approach that stressed voluntary efforts by Americans rather than governmental interference in the economy. What he tried was unsuccessful and sometimes poorly handled and out of this grew his public reputation.
Having taken at least partial credit for the economic boom of the Twenties when he campaigned for the presidency in 1928, Hoover had trouble personally accepting the end of the boom or fathoming just how bad the crash and Depression would be. He, however, was not alone in this. Hoover initially felt that the Depression was a temporary aberration in the economic cycle caused more by psychological fears than economic realities. Therefore, President Hoover responded to the crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Depression by counseling confidence....as long as Americans didn't let panic cause them to take intemperate and unwarranted action, the country would witness a brief and limited recession and then resume its economic boom. Confidence was the key.
The President waged a campaign to
convince businessmen to keep wages up so that consumption levels would
not decline. This approach was less than successful. While businessmen
maintained wage levels temporarily, they cut back on the number of their
employees because of dropping consumption levels. Hoover also failed in
his confidence campaign to convince consumers to keep purchasing. Seeing
other workers laid off and fearing for their own future, laborers cut back
on purchases thus guaranteeing further layoffs.
Hoover's confidence campaign, while well intentioned, simply did not work. The economy continued its downward spiral - workers cut back on consumption, more workers were laid off, workers cut back further on consumption, etc., etc.
In order to understand Hoover's long-term reaction to and efforts to end the Great Depression, one must understand Hoover's idea of "Progressivism" - with which he consciously identified. President Hoover felt that while government intervention in the private sector was sometimes necessary in the modern industrial era, such intervention should be kept to an absolute minimum. This philosophy was a curious cross between the "old" and the "new". As Robert McElvaine puts it: "What Herbert Hoover was grappling with was one of the fundamental problems of the twentieth century: how to apply our Jeffersonian heritage in a highly concentrated, urban industrial setting". "His ideal remained people ruling themselves, through voluntary cooperation".
President Hoover felt the key to economic recovery was restoring the confidence of the business community in the economy of the United States. Only if businessmen reinvested their capital in the economy would the country be able to recover. Therefore, he pursued for three plus years a conservative business-oriented approach to recovery.
A fiscal conservative, he fought desperately to maintain a balanced federal budget. This was extremely difficult given the demands placed on the government to launch various relief programs and a shrinking revenue base because of unprecedented deflation. Hoover however said: "The course of unbalanced budgets is the road to ruin". The logic of this position was that the business community would be discouraged and delay reinvestment if the government were unable to operate in the black. As McElvaine points out: "The President therefore devoted much of his energies in 1931 and 1932 to the goal of a balanced budget, which was hopeless under the circumstances. Yet, as Hoover himself had recognized in less frantic times, cutting spending and raising taxes diminished purchasing and made the situation worse".
In the name of restoring business confidence, President Hoover also rejected ever-louder demands by Americans that the currency system be inflated. Many Americans reasoned that since the economic disease the country suffered from was unprecedented deflation (as hundreds of millions of dollars were withdrawn from circulation and investment) then the appropriate prescription was inflation. They urged the government to abandon the gold standard and flood the economy with printed currency. Hoover rejected such demands arguing that a stable or "hard" currency system had always been a prerequisite for business investment. If the currency system was inflated by the government, businessmen would refuse to reinvest their funds in the economy. This would simply delay the day when economic recovery could begin. Thus, Hoover refused to give in to the demands for inflation.
President Hoover was also supportive of protective tariffs to shield American businessmen from foreign competition. Tariffs had been used pretty consistently since the end of the Civil War to encourage industrial investment and development. In 1930 the United States Congress passed and President Hoover signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Only partially a response to the crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Depression, this was the highest tariff in American history, "with ad valorem rates jumping from an already high 33 percent to more than 40 percent". While Hoover hoped the tariff would help economically, it worsened the situation. "Other nations quickly retaliated and the world depression grew worse".
As businesses failed or slashed production levels, unemployment skyrocketed. As more and more millions lost their jobs, the unemployed looked to the federal government for relief of poverty. They demanded that the federal government institute relief or welfare payments for the needy. President Hoover rejected such demands for both ideological and financial reasons. He felt relief should be handled by the private sector - Community Chest, United Way, the Salvation Army, churches, individual philanthropy, etc. If government had to deal with this problem, it should be state and local governments - where the programs would be more democratic, cheaper, and less bureaucratized. Hoover also refused to the end of his presidency to begin federal relief or welfare programs because such a program would, he argued, be incredibly expensive, would unbalance the federal budget requiring deficit financing, and would cause businessmen to lose confidence thus delaying reinvestment and the beginning of economic recovery.
Hoover's position overlooked the fact that the problem of unemployment and the resultant poverty was too big for the private sector and state and local governments to handle adequately. By 1932 unemployment had reached 24.9% nationwide. This was so massive a problem that only the federal government, with its borrowing power and its ability to print currency, could cope with it. Nonetheless, Hoover refused to budge.
President Hoover did increase federal spending on public works as a way of trying to lessen unemployment. $700 million on such projects in 1931 was unprecedentedly high. However, he grew more hostile with the passage of time believing "a huge work relief program might be as demoralizing as a dole". When Congress passed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act in 1932, Hoover's administrators did everything in their power to limit its impact through the implementation process.
Hoover acted boldly in calling for and obtaining the Reconstruction Finance Corporation - a government lending agency that made long-term low interest loans to banks and big businesses in hopes of prompting economic recovery. While RFC loans did forestall the peaking of the banking crisis until 1933, they failed to promote economic recovery. As McElvaine points out - "Given the paucity of purchasing power, businesses were not interested in obtaining loans. Expansion was the last thing on the minds of most businessmen in 1932". Therefore, businesses didn't borrow to expand, workers weren't rehired, and thus there was no increase in consumption by rehired laborers.
While the RFC was an innovative step, note that it was in line with Hoover's conservative business-oriented philosophy and approach. The loans went to banks and big businesses not to the unemployed, homeless, or needy.
Herbert Hoover once told his old friend Julius Barnes: "No president must ever admit he has been wrong". During the last two years of his presidency as it became more and more apparent that the Depression was worsening and his program of confidence, voluntarism, and business support wasn't working, President Hoover set his feet in concrete. He refused to recognize that his philosophy and programs weren't working. Rather than try something different, he clung rigidly to his program, became more and more defensive, tried to convince himself and Americans that things were getting better, and lost the support of the nation. Why?
Partly, it was his personality. Joan Hoff Wilson, a Hoover biographer, maintains that Hoover was always unable to admit defeat or failure throughout his entire life. She points to a business venture launched by Hoover that very clearly failed but that he always maintained was a success. According to Wilson, Hoover had no reason to fudge the truth - he was a successful businessman who made millions and that many business ventures fail. He just couldn't admit defeat or failure.
He had a great capacity for self-delusion where failure was involved. Note the denial of reality in these words he wrote to a friend shortly after leaving office: "This country started out of the Depression in August 1932.....and all the rest of the principal commercial countries started out at the same time....all of them have gone along smoothly making steady progress; [only] the United States slipped backwards and came into a banking panic because the New Deal began on November 9,1932".
Hooverís refusal to abandon his business-oriented, small government approach to the Depression was also the result of the fact that he was an ideologue rather than a pragmatist. As McElvaine puts it -"It is impossible to understand Herbert Hoover and his reaction to the Depression without seeing that he was that rarest of politicians, a man of principle. He was an idealist who firmly (and rightly) believed that means cannot be separated from ends. This was admirable up to a point. But his method proved disastrous during the Great Depression when crisis conditions demanded results without much concern about method".
Hooverís reputation, in many ways, grew out of his intransigence. Despite every indication that his approach to ending the Depression was not succeeding, he tenaciously continued down the path he had trod since the stock market crash in 1929. However, the presidentís genuine efforts to engineer recovery were and are largely overlooked because he suffered from an ever-deepening image problem. While he counseled optimism, his rigid and dour personality imparted a sense of gloom and despair. He also failed to use the media effectively to communicate with the populace and he seemed isolated from his fellow citizens and the real world. At the depth of the national catastrophe in 1932, two incidents forever fixed Hooverís public image. In the summer of that year, Movietone News crews filmed the president feeding his dog T-bone steak in the Rose Garden at the White House. This footage played over and over again in movie theaters across the country and was disastrous for a chief executive up for reelection who claimed that federal relief would destroy the American character. On top of this came the governmentís treatment of the Bonus Army. General Douglas MacArthur violated a direct presidential directive from Hoover not to attack the veterans of the Great War encamped at Anacostia Flats in the nations capital. Hoover, however, took the blame for this public relations nightmare.
In the seventy years since his administration ended in failure, Hooverís ratings and reputation have improved little. In part this was because he was the incumbent when disaster struck. Like all incumbents, his reputation was in many ways simply a reflection of events. Incumbents get the credit when things go well, whether they had anything to do with it or not. Conversely, incumbents get the blame when things go bad whether or not they were truly responsible. Hooverís historical reputation, however, has remained so fixed because he suffered from the extreme contrast in personality with his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hoover seemed so much more of a failure because Roosevelt convinced millions of Americans that things were getting better once he assumed office and launched the New Deal program. Finally, the Democratic party ran against Hoover for a half century. At election time, every Republican candidate was likened to Herbert Hoover. It was an effective partisan technique for attracting votes but it converted the "forgotten progressive" into a caricature of his true self.
All quotations unless otherwise
noted are from Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941,
Time Books (New York, 1984).
David Burner, Herbert Hoover: A Public Life , Knopf (New York, 1979).
Martin I Fausold, The Presidency of Herbert Hoover, University Press of Kansas (Lawrence, Kan., 1985).
Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression, 1929-1941, Macmillan (New York, 1952).
Gene Smith, The Shattered Dream: Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, William Morrow & Company (New York, 1970).
Harris Gaylord Warren, Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, Norton Library (New York, 1967).
Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover:
Forgotten Progressive, Little, Brown, and Company (Boston, 1975).
© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999