William E. Leuchtenburg, 2009
Most of the time I launch into these presidential biographies with no question more specific than "All right, what's this guy about?", but I went into this one with an agenda. See, this is actually the fourth presidential biography I've read to prominently feature Herbert Hoover, who was a key player in the Woodrow Wilson administration and a dominant one in the administrations of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge — "secretary of commerce and undersecretary of all other departments", people called him. Coolidge, who summed up his philosophy of government by snapping at Hoover that "if you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you", despised him for constantly proposing new government initiatives touching on everything from steel mills to fish hatcheries: "That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years," Coolidge grumbled in 1927, "all of it bad!" So how did Hoover the activist technocrat, who seemed to want to get the government's fingerprints all over everything, suddenly turn into the embodiment of laissez-faire — a "fat Coolidge", as H.L. Mencken put it — at precisely the moment that the economy collapsed and government intervention was most needed? Leuchtenburg doesn't answer that question, not in so many words. But this is still one of the better presidential biographies I've read, for Leuchtenburg does collect a lot of great material — I found myself making notes in response to almost every page — and thereby allowed me to answer the question myself.
Herbert Hoover was born in Iowa to a puritanical family who yelled at him when he laughed and restricted his reading to "the Bible, the encyclopedia, or those great novels where the hero overcomes the demon rum". He was then orphaned before reaching the age of ten, and sent to live with a taskmasker of an uncle whom, Leuchtenburg writes, "Charles Dickens would have had no difficulty recognizing". These are not the ingredients to become much of a people person, and Hoover wasn't. Those who worked with him decades later attested that he never had a "good morning" or even a nod of the head for anyone, flew into rages when anyone dared to question him, and had no friends. His own secretary of state said that talking to him was "like sitting in a bath of ink." And that was after he had mellowed! In his early career, he crisscrossed the world running mining operations for a firm in London, and while he credited himself with "creating productive enterprises", the part of the job he took "joy" in was "correcting the perversities and incompetence of men". When Hoover arrived on site, a swift dismissal was the inevitable fate of any employee who did not prove infinitely tractable — like Mitt Romney, Hoover liked firing people. What he did not like was any place his travels took him. Australia was a land of "sin, sorrow, sickness, and sore eyes" and "an insanity of monotony"; China was a land of "thieves" and "unspeakable villainy", convincing him to add "Asiatics" to "negroes" as "colored races" of a "low mental order"; London made him feel like "an alien" and "a wet crow". Of course, what all of these places had in common was that it was Herbert Hoover's eyes looking at them. If he had stayed at home, he might have developed an equally contemptuous view of America. Instead he went abroad, and the effect was to make him a jingo: "star-spangled Hoover", the Brits called him, the man who couldn't make small talk (he'd just say "unh" in conversation, one woman recalled), but who would grimly regale the unfortunate listener with a lecture on the glories of American individualism.
"If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much," Hoover maintained, and as he turned from working as a (very highly paid) salaryman to becoming a financier in his own right, he soon accumulated several times that amount — nearly a hundred million in today's dollars. Satisfied that he had proven himself in the world of money, he turned his attention to power. "I have insisted on having my own way," Hoover said, and he cast about for new arenas to do that. He became a trustee of his alma mater, Stanford, and immediately took over the board, micromanaging things right down to choosing raise amounts for each of nearly two hundred different professors, and cowing the other trustees into passing his reforms without debate. Finding himself in London at the outbreak of World War I, he appointed himself leader of an ad hoc organization to evacuate Americans trapped in Europe with lines of credit that were suddenly no good, running roughshod over the group that was officially charged with the task — and few minded, as his efforts to raise money and get people on boats were much more efficient and successful. So much so that Hoover was soon tapped to direct the relief effort in Belgium, which lay in ruins with less than a week's supply of food on hand. In typical fashion, Hoover placed orders for food that went far beyond what he was authorized to spend, commandeered ships and trains and warehouses, and thereby saved thousands from starvation — making himself a hero to those who didn't have to deal with him personally. Winston Churchill, who did, called Hoover a son of a bitch; the U.S. ambassador to Belgium commended his "genius for organization and for getting things done", but lamented that he was "always trying to force, to blackmail, to frighten people into doing things his way." Hoover shrugged that there was one thing that "has got to be recognized by everybody", and that was "that I am the boss".
When the United States entered the war, the Wilson administration summoned Hoover home to direct "food activities" domestically — a vague remit that Hoover took to mean everything from micromanaging national food prices and individual restaurant menus to launching a PR campaign urging American families to switch from meat- and grain-heavy diets to ones centered around fruits and vegetables, with smaller portions and no waste. "Hooverizing", the public soon called it. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke midway through his second term, higher-ups in the Democratic Party such as Franklin Roosevelt set about recruiting Wilson's capable "food czar" as the party's 1920 nominee. Progressive publications such as The Nation and The New Republic were on board, thinking that Hoover exemplified how government could be a force for positive change in society. But Hoover demurred. He did so for three reasons. First, he'd grown up in places that were entirely Republican, and felt more at home in that party. Second, after the chaos of 1919, it was clear that the Democrats had no chance in 1920, even were the popular Hoover their nominee. Third and most importantly, though, Hoover didn't think of himself as an exemplar of the possibilities of government to do good, but rather of the superiority of voluntary action by the business community. It was he and his fellow businessmen, not government officials, who had arranged rides home for stranded Americans in 1914 — and, to Hoover, the fact that they'd done so using tax dollars rather than their own funds was immaterial. The Herbert Hoover of 1920 avowed that he did want to join a party with "a forward-thinking, liberal, constructive platform", but that had to go hand in hand with "sound business administration". That basically meant backing the Harding-Coolidge ticket and then trying to run things once he was in the Cabinet.
As commerce secretary in a "business administration", Hoover believed his number one task to be encouraging the growth of private enterprise, but unlike Harding and Coolidge, he did not believe that laissez-faire was the way to do that. For instance, he wanted the U.S. to develop a civil aviation industry, with several private carriers rather than a state-run airline — but that was never going to be a viable travel option so long as planes kept crashing all the time. And so Hoover pushed through legislation establishing an air traffic control system, pilot licensing, and airport standards, all of it to be overseen by… why, the commerce secretary, of course. Much the same went for ground traffic: cars and trucks promised to revolutionize both personal travel and shipping, but not so long as every municipality had its own unique set of traffic signals. And so Hoover mandated standardized traffic lights and road signs. Radio was another field that Hoover decided fell under his purview. Again, he wanted several private networks rather than a state-run broadcasting service, but so long as anyone was permitted to broadcast on any frequency, radio would remain in the hands of the hobbyists. The courts ruled that Hoover could not legally deny transmission licenses to those who wanted them, but after conferring with the heads of the new broadcasting corporations, he did so anyway, declaring (correctly) that having dozens of amateurs interfering with the signals on every frequency was not in the public interest. Nor did Hoover restrict his activity to domestic concerns. According to a grateful Maxim Gorky, Hoover was almost singlehandedly responsible for fending off famine during the Russian Civil War; when a critic charged that he was thereby enabling Bolshevism to gain a permanent foothold, the fervently anti-communist Hoover pounded his fist on a table and shouted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!"
And in 1928, the Republicans claimed in an infamous political ad that the same had proven true for America — that, thanks to a decade of "Republican prosperity", they had delivered on the promise of Henri IV and "put the proverbial 'chicken in every pot'". When Calvin Coolidge declined to run for re-election — apparently expecting that the party rank and file would beg him to accept the nomination, and devastated when they did not — Hoover wasted no time making it clear that he meant to bear the Republican standard this time around — though he too had qualms about actually running. ("I'll not kiss any babies," he muttered.) The fact that he was personally off-putting was the only real knock that anyone could summon about Hoover, though. He was considered the brains behind the government that had fostered the Roaring '20s, without the faults of either Republican president he'd served under: Hoover had been the one to advise Harding to confront scandals with integrity, and had been the one to warn Coolidge about the danger that uncontrolled speculation presented to the economy. So while Harding would likely have reacted to a downturn by maundering that he didn't know what to do, and Coolidge by shrugging and letting it happen, Hoover would surely take charge and fix things, much as he had the year before, directing the relief effort when the Mississippi River flooded. But few were expecting a downturn. On the contrary — when Hoover declared that his policies would bring America "in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation", people genuinely believed him.
Meanwhile, the Democrats remained a party riven by the fault line between its two chief constituencies: one, Southerners, and two, metropolitan immigrants and their descendants. In 1924, former treasury secretary William McAdoo, a Southerner who ran with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan, had battled for over a hundred ballots against New York governor Al Smith, a Catholic from Manhattan's Lower East Side, before the nomination finally went to the forgettable John Davis. This time around, McAdoo didn't run, and the nomination went to Smith. Anti-Catholic sentiment made him the first Democrat since the end of Reconstruction to lose more than one of the former rebel states. Hoover shellacked Smith 444 to 87. "No American in 1928 could have provided a fairer test of the capacity of the business community to govern a great and multifarious nation than Herbert Hoover," wrote Arthur Schlesinger, and now Hoover was about to get his chance. And I suppose that, having mentioned Schlesinger, I should probably add this to the mix:
The Crisis of the Old Order
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 1957
I had planned to read this book after writing my Herbert Hoover article, but a paid freelance assignment ate up all my writing time at the end of March, and then I ended up spending so much time on boats and planes and things with this book as my only entertainment that I wound up reading most of it before I even had a chance to open my text editor. It's occasionally dry but very ambitious, encompassing biography (most notably of Franklin Roosevelt, but also providing capsule lives of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover), political history, economics, and even philosophy. Schlesinger spells out what the Great Depression meant to the average person in vivid detail — one passage that springs to mind is that in which the head of an Oklahoma gas company writes to Hoover's war secretary that he has solved America's hunger problem. The secret, it turns out, is to keep restaurants from throwing away the scraps left on diners' plates. Instead, those gnawed spareribs and half-eaten baked potatoes should be scraped into buckets, and hungry people could qualify for a free bucket of delicious garbage by spending a few hours chopping firewood. One point Schlesinger stresses, and extensively documents, is that as 1929 turned to 1930 and then to '31 and '32, and unemployment climbed to 25% and cardboard shantytowns sprang up across the nation, it became a mainstream opinion that capitalism had irrevocably failed, and that representative government was about to fail as well — that there would have already been a revolution by 1932 if not for the safety valve of the election, and that once that election had come and gone and the economy continued to collapse, the revolution would follow shortly thereafter. The only question was what kind of revolution it would be. Many, particularly those still employed, believed that "we may esteem ourselves fortunate if we get the American equivalent of a Mussolini"; those who had been out of work for years tended to be more inclined to hold that "all roads in our day lead to Moscow".
Schlesinger and Leuchtenburg tell the same basic story about the Great Depression, as do Robert Ferrell (from last time) and Brad DeLong and pretty much every other reputable source I've run across. It goes something like this. In the aftermath of WWI, the U.S. agricultural sector collapsed, and it failed to recover as the 1920s wore on. The manufacturing and service sectors did better. Productivity increased by forty percent! …but wages by only eight percent. This led to two dangerous excesses in the American economy. One was excess inventory. People were producing a lot of stuff, but most weren't being paid enough to buy much of it. For a while, credit made up the difference — and the "chicken in every pot" ad declared this a triumph, crowing that the Republicans had "changed credit from a rich man's privilege to a common utility". Really it meant that farmers saw other workers join them in deep debt — and with too little money chasing too many goods, deflation threatened to add to the burden of those debts. And then with excess inventory sitting around, companies needed fewer workers, kicking off a vicious cycle, as laid-off workers with no income generated even less demand than merely underpaid workers, leading to more layoffs, world without end. The other excess was profits — up eighty percent overall, and 150 percent in the financial sector. This was the money that wasn't going to workers; instead, it was disappearing into the pockets of the bosses, who spent relatively little of it — after all, how many Model T's can you buy? Instead, they gambled with it, trying to turn money not into goods but rather into more money. The problem was that they were betting on the health of an economy that they were making unhealthy by pulling money out of it to make those bets. In 1929, those bets abruptly stopped paying off. The stock market imploded.
Herbert Hoover wasn't entirely surprised. For years he had been warning that if speculation in securities were permitted to run riot the way it had, a crash was inevitable. This sort of thing happened all the time; history books duly rattled off the Panics of 1792, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1896, 1901, and 1907. Hoover didn't like the idea of "the Panic of 1929" occurring on his watch, so he insisted on euphemistically calling the downturn a mere "depression". And he did take action — he advised governors that now would be a good time to launch public works projects, encouraged the Federal Reserve Board to lower interest rates, and convened conferences of industry leaders and asked them to pledge not to cut wages during the crisis, which he estimated would last for about two months. But as 1930 arrived, and bread lines got longer, and park benches in every city filled up with newly homeless people shivering through the winter nights, Hoover reversed course. He raised taxes and slashed government spending in an attempt to balance the budget, arguing that "the primary duty of the government is to hold expenditures within our income". Progressives who had backed Hoover were perplexed — they'd supported him because he was not wedded to laissez-faire, because he believed "not in the philosophy of drift, but in the dynamics of mastery", so why wouldn't he make a move? And occasionally he would. In 1932 he authorized bailouts for institutions such as banks and insurance companies — what Fiorello La Guardia called "a millionaire's dole". But when it came to government action, Schlesinger observes, Hoover "decided that wherever he finally dug in constituted the limits of the permissible. […] He himself had done unprecedented things to show the potentialities of government action; but anyone who went a step beyond transgressed the invisible line and menaced the American way of life."
Which brings me, at last, to the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this article. Many wondered why Hoover, who had made his name dealing with hunger crises overseas, did so little about the one that unfolded in his own country during his presidency. One columnist growled that "the only mistake [the] starving unemployed of this country have made is that they did not march on Washington and under the windows of Mr. Hoover in the White House display banners reading, 'We are Belgians!'" A senator expressed disbelief that Hoover would happily feed "hungry Russians, hungry Bolsheviks, hungry men with long whiskers and wild ideas", but not starving Americans. But Herbert Hoover believed in American exceptionalism. It made sense to him that people in places like Belgium and Russia might find themselves starving and in desperate need of help, for they did not hold to the tenets of American individualism, and so it was only to be expected that their inferior philosophies would lead them into dire straits. But that couldn't happen in America. It just couldn't. Throughout his term, Hoover remained in deep denial about the depression. Every time there was a momentary uptick amid the overall downward plunge, he declared victory. When a delegation came to the White House in the spring of 1930 to propose a federal public works program, Hoover sniffed, "Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over." When the Census Bureau reported unemployment figures, Hoover simply changed the numbers — they were twice as big as he thought they should be, and therefore couldn't be right. When Pennsylvania's public health secretary sent out an alarm about a spike in malnutrition, Hoover waved it away. "No one is actually starving," he said, adding in Reaganesque fashion, "The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day." When finally forced to concede that America was suffering, he took a new tack and declared that it wasn't America's fault. Initially he had blamed "wild speculation", but by 1931 he confidently stated that "we know that the main causes of the extreme violence and the long continuance of this depression came not from within but from outside the United States".
Hoover trusted that once the budget was balanced — "the most essential factor to economic recovery", he maintained, not to mention "imperative" and "indispensible" — the economy would automatically regain its footing, for unlike the shoddy systems in those unstable European countries that were dragging down the rest of the world, "no one can rightly deny the fundamental correctness of our economic system". But John Maynard Keynes and allied economists denied it. The depression could not be waited out, they argued, because the economy had a problem that would not resolve on its own: people didn't have any money. They had worked, they had produced goods and services, but too much of the money their work had generated had not gone to the people who generated it. It had gone to gamblers, who had lost the money. The lost money could not be retrieved; when the value of a security drops from a hundred dollars a share to zero, that money is just gone. To get the economy restarted, a source of money would have to be found to replace that which had been lost, and placed in the hands of those in need — not merely because it was fair, not merely because it would alleviate suffering, but because the fact that they were in need by definition meant that they would spend it. This demand for goods and services would create a demand for labor, which would increase employment, which would mean more people with money to spend, which would create a demand for more labor, and so on in a virtuous cycle. But where would the initial money come from? The future, the Keynesians proposed. Deliberately unbalance the budget. Run a deficit. If simply giving money to people was politically untenable, then at least let the government serve as the employer of last resort and disburse the money as wages. Let the virtuous cycle's multiplier effect take hold, and when the future borrowed against became the present, one of those multiplications could be used to pay the amount owed, with no harm to the economy — by that point, the restitution might even serve as a salutary cooling-off. And once prosperity had been restored, make sure workers were never underpaid again — again, not just because of fairness, not just out of concern for their welfare, but because an economy in which the workers are underpaid while the financiers build vast paper fortunes to gamble with is fundamentally misaligned, and doomed to go bust again and again.
Hoover replied that, yes, if "the time should ever come that the voluntary agencies of the country, together with the local and state governments, are unable to find the resources with which to prevent hunger and suffering", then he would call for federal action — but "I have faith in the American people that such a day will not come." But letters continued to pour in — from children begging that "i am a poor girl and i want to go to school and i aint got the closes"; from people in the field reporting back that "communities are impotent", that "state governments are shot through with politics", that "local charities are jaded, discouraged, bankrupt" and that "their task is too great"; from corporate presidents urging him to listen to the Keynesians and start issuing bonds. Hoover was unmoved. "Prosperity for all our people will not be restored by the voluble wailings of word-sobbers nor by any legislative legerdemain proposed by theorists!" he fumed. What people calling for government action didn't understand, he said, was that, sure, it might work, but it "would destroy the very foundations of our American system". Those who argued that a more equitable distribution of wealth would stave off depressions might be right, but that was no matter, for they were "exponents of a social philosophy different from the traditional American one", and there was no point in saving the country if that country wasn't the Gilded Age America in which he'd grown up and which the Republicans of the 1920s had restored.
Americans, it turned out, didn't agree. They cared more about having food to eat and places to live than in redeeming American exceptionalism. Consequently, they came to despise Herbert Hoover. When he traveled around the country, people threw tomatoes at his train. His very name became an epithet: encampments of tents and boxes became "Hoovervilles", newspapers used for warmth became "Hoover blankets", cardboard used to make shoes became "Hoover leather". People joked that when Hoover asked a member of his cabinet for a nickel to call up a friend, he received the reply, "Here's a dime, call up all your friends." Before the election he received a telegram: "Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous." The election wasn't unanimous, but it was close enough. Hoover was booted from office and embarked upon the longest retirement of any president until Jimmy Carter broke his record in 2012. He lived long enough to see the New Deal, which he passionately despised, be taken as a keystone of American government by both Democrats and Republicans — and spent much of the 1950s grumbling about how Dwight Eisenhower had turned out to be one of those accursed "left-wingers". But he also lived long enough to see the Republicans nominate Barry Goldwater — and not long enough to see Goldwater get crushed. And so Herbert Hoover went to his grave thinking that the dismantling of New Deal America might be on the horizon. And though that horizon turned out to lie a couple of decades further onward, he was right.