(c) 1997, Stephen E. Sachs <contact me>

Herbert Hoover:
The Triumph and Tragedy of 'American Individualism'

by Stephen E. Sachs

History Day 1997
Senior Division

            On the eleventh of August, 1928, sixty thousand people stood in the sun in the Stanford football stadium, waiting to hear a national hero accept his nomination for the Presidency.  Herbert Hoover was a self-made man, the savior of Belgium, the Great Engineer; there was nothing that he could not do and nothing that America could not achieve under his leadership.  “We in America today,” he declared to the crowd, “are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of this land” (New Day 16).  Eighteen months after that speech was delivered, the country would be in the grip of the greatest economic collapse in its history.  The prosperity of the 1920s had vanished; the American system, it appeared, was broken.  Many called on the Great Engineer to work the magic that had fed the Belgians and saved a war-torn world from famine, but it was not to be.  Hoover’s unquestioning faith in the “fundamental correctness” (New Day 30)  of America’s existing economic, political, and social systems prevented him from taking the action necessary to solve the country’s problems.  His philosophy of American individualism, though confirmed by his experiences in Belgium, failed him as President; his inflexible adherence to the beliefs of his triumphant days resulted in Hoover’s tragic downfall.


The Commission


            Hoover had not sought to gain fame as a humanitarian.  A partner in the prestigious mining firm of Bewick, Moreing & Co., Hoover in 1914 directed a worldwide network of mining facilities and engineering projects from its London office.[1]  He had hoped to return to his Stanford home in the fall, but the onset of the First World War in August disrupted his plans; instead, he stayed in London, participating with a group of other American businessmen in a relief effort for American tourists.  The war had come at the height of the tourist season, and thousands of Americans were stranded in the city as transatlantic shipping ground to a halt.[2]  After the crisis was resolved in October, Hoover again booked passage home.

            Before he was due to depart, however, Hoover encountered an old friend named Millard Shaler.  Shaler, like Hoover, was a mining engineer; he had left his office in Brussels to seek aid in England for Belgian citizens.  German battalions had crossed the border into neutral Belgium on August 4, and with the fall of Antwerp in early October, most of the country was under German control.  As the most industrialized nation in Europe, Belgium depended heavily on imported food and clothing, and the war had brought commerce to a standstill.[3]  On September 15, a group of Belgians and Americans formed a committee in Brussels known as the Comité Central, which solicited contributions and designated Shaler to purchase food in Britain for the starving city.  To obtain permission from the British to ship foodstuffs to occupied territory, at Shaler’s request, Hoover sought assistance from the American Embassy.  Ambassador Walter Hines Page had worked with Hoover during the tourist crisis, and he agreed to have the food shipped directly to the American Ministry in Brussels for distribution by the Comité Central.[4]

            Impressed by the scope of the problem in Belgium, Hoover began to formulate a plan for feeding the hostage nation.  Brussels was not alone in suffering:  “In two weeks,” wrote an American diplomat on October 17, “the civil population of Belgium, already in misery, will face starvation” (Nash 24).  Not even the farmers had stores of food:  the Germans had destroyed fields and commandeered much of the previous harvest.  On October 18, representatives of the Comité Central met with Page and Hoover at the American Embassy in London and pleaded for American aid.[5]  Four days later, Hoover organized a meeting of six Americans, four of whom were engineers, and under his leadership, the American Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) was born.[6]  Within a week, the first shipment of 2,300 tons of wheat was on its way.[7]  At the time, Hoover believed the war would be over within months:  “if we could tide the Belgians over for eight months . . . ,” he later wrote, “that would end the job” (Memoirs 156).

            The Commission served as a model for the efficient, selfless cooperation Hoover would extol for the rest of his career.  The CRB organized private Belgian Relief Committees worldwide, generating over $52 million in donations of money and clothing (Hoover, American Epic 31).[8]  The American businessmen who constituted its leadership were all volunteers, and their task was immense:  the CRB negotiated with the belligerent governments,[9] conducted public relations, purchased food in world markets, and operated a merchant fleet of over two thousand ships, while the Comité Central (now known as the Comité National) held responsibility for distributing 110,050 tons of food each month to nine million people.[10]  Due to the large number of volunteers and the many services rendered in kind,[11] Hoover’s organization was able to handle almost a billion dollars over five years while reducing administrative expenses to less than one-half of one percent (Hoover, Statistical Review v).

            Under Hoover’s leadership, the CRB became more than a simple relief organization:  it was effectively a neutral state, with its own commerce, taxes, currency, passports, and flags — a “piratical state organized for benevolence” (CRB 5), staffed by volunteers and under the sole command of Herbert Hoover.[12]  The CRB and Comité National continued to operate throughout the war, shipping in a total of over five million tons of food.  Although the rations were small, the CRB provided enough to keep the Belgians from starvation:  it was estimated that child mortality during the CRB’s existence was actually lower than before the war (Hoover, Memoirs 176).  When the United States entered the war, the Americans were forced to withdraw from Belgium, and Hoover turned over day-to-day control to the Spanish and Dutch.  However, he had already made his mark:  his organization had crossed the lines of battle to save the lives of millions, and Hoover returned home to the welcome of a triumphant hero.[13]

The Philosophy


            Hoover returned from Europe to an America ill at ease.  Strikes and labor tensions had subsided during the war, but now that the armies had returned home, the “no-strike pledge” was no longer in effect.  The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Red Scare two years later had created a crisis atmosphere; depression and widespread unemployment in 1921 added to the fear.  After watching “radical agrarians” gain influence in Congress in the 1922 elections, Hoover decided to release “an antidote to the rising tide of unrest” (Nash, Introduction 10) in the form of a short book entitled American Individualism.

            Hoover’s personal philosophy of American individualism was clearly influenced by the events of his career, “confirmed and deepened by the searching experiences of seven years of service in the backwash and miseries of war” (33).­  The former Iowa orphan’s name had become a household word, and he pointed out that “Of the twelve men comprising the President, Vice-President, and Cabinet, nine have earned their own way in life without economic inheritance, and eight of them started with manual labor” (40).[14]  Hoover believed fervently that individuals of ability would rise to renown by facing “the emery wheel of competition” (35).

            Hoover was not, however, a Social Darwinist; he detested laissez-faire doctrine, which he described as “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost” (35).  Under laissez-faire, he wrote, an “autocracy of economic power” (53) would gain control through restraint of trade, stifling equality of opportunity and individual initiative.  Yet socialistic or fascistic governments could also destroy the individual, making government “through its relations to economic life the most potent force for maintenance or destruction of our American individualism” (53).  Hoover feared any “concentration of power, whether political or economic, for both are equally reversions to Old World autocracy in new garments” (59).

            The saving grace of American individualism, felt Hoover, was that it tempered the desire to compete and control with an ideal of public service.  “Overreckless competition” (50) could rend the social fabric that protected it; Hoover therefore urged businesses to engage in voluntary cooperation and government to assist them.[15]  Cooperation in the public interest was required of individuals as well:  Hoover praised “the vast multiplication of voluntary organizations for altruistic purposes” (42) which had developed during the war — not mentioning by name, but clearly including, the CRB.

            His philosophy was as inflexible as it was optimistic.  To Hoover, America faced a very real danger of being “infected” (1) by Old World philosophies and losing its individualist heritage:  he felt that solutions to the “failures and unsolved problems of economic and social life” could be found only “within our social theme and under no other system” (61-2).  As U.S. Food Administrator after America entered the war, Hoover had insisted on voluntary, cooperative measures, believing that “in this voluntary action lay our guard against Prussianizing the country” (Memoirs 241).

            Hoover continued to expound his philosophy in his stump speeches as a Presidential candidate in 1928.[16]  In a campaign speech in St. Louis, Hoover declared, “This is the American System.  One part of it cannot be destroyed without undermining the whole” (New Day 181).  In accepting the nomination, he had cited the “impressive proof on all sides of magnificent progress” and announced that “no one can rightly deny the fundamental correctness of the American system” (New Day 30).    At the time, it seemed that Hoover was right — his system, he claimed, had produced eight years of Republican prosperity — and the nation rewarded him with a solid victory over Democrat Al Smith.[17] The new President-elect had no fears for America under his leadership; the future, he said in his inaugural address, was “bright with hope” (12).


The Presidency


            The picture, however, was not as rosy as Hoover described it.  The gains in productivity which Hoover lauded as “magnificent progress” had not been followed by proportionate gains in purchasing power; wages, though increasing, had not kept up with profits, and income inequality had grown.[18]  As the rich got richer, more money was used for speculation and less was spent and returned to the economy; at the same time, installment buying hid the fact that many workers were unable to afford the goods they produced (Schlesinger 159).  A downturn in industries which had saturated their markets, such as construction, durable goods, and automobiles, burst the economic bubble; after reaching its zenith in September of 1929, the great bull market retreated for a month before Black Thursday, October 24, when it began its great downward plunge.

            The Crash shook the nation’s confidence in the economy.  Immediately, Hoover sought to reassure the public, releasing a statement that “The fundamental business of the country . . . is on a sound and prosperous basis” (Times 10/26/29 1).[19]  The Crash was due to frightened speculators, he said, and did not signify any structural fault in the economy.  Most businessmen and economists at the time agreed:  the president of the National Association of Manufacturers saw “little on the horizon to give us . . .great concern” (Sobel 55).

            As the slump deepened, however, Hoover saw the need for more than reassurance.  Contrary to his image, he did not remain inactive during the Depression; rather, his actions were constrained by his philosophy.[20]  Hoover attempted to solve the Depression through “systematic, voluntary measures of cooperation” (Times 12/4/29 26).  He regularly called hundreds of businessmen to the White House and implored them to maintain current employment and wage levels.  The Depression could not be ended “by legislative action,” he said; instead, “Economic wounds must be healed by . . . the producers and consumers themselves” (Ibid).  However, Hoover’s voluntary, cooperative measures could not address many of the problems that the Depression presented.

            The failure of the Federal Farm Board served as one of the earliest examples of the insufficiency of cooperation.  An agricultural depression had afflicted farmers throughout the 1920s; from 1917 to 1929, the costs of farming had increased slightly while the purchasing power of crops plunged.[21]  In 1929, the Farm Board was created as part of the Agricultural Marketing Act to negotiate with farmers’ marketing cooperatives, offer loans, and purchase surplus produce.  Hoover had hoped that with the help of the Farm Board, the farmers would be able to solve their own problems, increasing efficiency and maintaining crop prices through cooperation.  Unfortunately, the loans and price guarantees offered by the Board served only to stimulate overproduction.[22]  Although the Board’s strategy could have prevented seasonal fluctuations in price, it could not correct structural surpluses, and production controls, urged by the Farm Board to eliminate these surpluses, were rejected by Hoover as utterly incompatible with a voluntarist strategy.[23]

            Hoover’s attempts to reduce unemployment through cooperation met a similar fate.  At first, it seemed that his business conferences had worked, as employment rose in January 1930.  However, worsening conditions soon forced layoffs, and by October of that year, 3.5 million were unemployed (Times 10/22/30 1).  In order “to bring all agencies” that dealt with unemployment relief “into complete cooperation with the Federal government” (Ibid), Hoover appointed an “Emergency Committee on Employment” headed by Col. Arthur Woods, who had chaired a similar commission in the depression of 1921.  Hoover intended the committee to gather statistics and assist states, localities, businesses, and private charities; federal action to address unemployment consisted mainly of “the energetic yet prudent pursuit” (Times 11/24/29 1) of public works.[24]

            Hoover’s public works program was sadly insufficient,[25] however.  Col. Woods suggested stronger action, endorsing a greatly expanded public works program and a national employment service, but these were rejected by Hoover.[26]  By December 1930, 4.8 million were unemployed; a month later, the figure had climbed to 5 million; and in 1931, Woods’ committee was replaced by a “President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief,” whose efforts were limited to encouraging donations and local public works efforts.[27]

            Although the unemployment and suffering continued, Hoover vigorously opposed any direct relief to the unemployed.  According to his philosophy, a socialistic dole would erode the nation’s individual initiative; such relief would not only reduce private giving but would also destroy the American “spirit of charity and mutual self-help” (State Papers, vol. 1, 496).[28]  In 1914, private giving had raised millions for the Belgians, and Hoover was similarly confident in 1930 that private organizations could “relieve the cases of individual distress” (Times 12/3/30 18).[29]  Private charities, however, lacked “the organization, manpower, and funds for the task” (Sobel 64), and as incomes fell, fewer donations were made.  By 1932, private charity could provide only one-tenth of the funds spent on relief,[30] and only a quarter of those without income received any assistance at all (Schlesinger 249).

            Hoover’s reaction to the final challenge of his Administration, the banking crisis, was similarly constrained by his voluntarist philosophy.  By 1930, over a thousand banks had failed, and millions in deposits had been lost.[31]  Hoover exhorted stronger banks to extend credit to weaker banks through a cooperative banking pool; however, most banks were reluctant to take the risks involved, and so the pool did little.[32]  Only at the end of 1931 did Hoover accede to demands that the government assist struggling banks; in January 1932, he created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to lend federal funds to banks, insurance companies, agricultural cooperatives, railroads, and state relief efforts.[33]  However, Hoover preferred not to use the RFC’s powers, hoping that its mere presence would reassure investors.[34]  Furthermore, the RFC “took only the soundest assets of a troubled institution as security” (Rosen 283), leaving banks less solvent and creating, rather than dispelling, public apprehension.[35]  The banks continued to fail;[36] hoarding of money accelerated,[37] and prospects for recovery grew ever dimmer.

The Downfall


            As the Depression deepened, so did Hoover’s ideological inflexibility.  To Hoover, the world was divided into two camps — those who believed that “we shall go on with our American system” and those who believed that “we shall, directly or indirectly, regiment the population into a bureaucracy to serve the State” (Times 6/16/31 1).  If the American people expanded their government’s economic powers, they would “lay the foundation for the destruction of their liberties” (Times 2/13/31 1).[38]  At a time when Hitler and Mussolini were in power, he saw the calls for nationalization of industry or large-scale public employment as the beginning of the end of American freedom — “Free speech does not live many hours after free industry and free commerce die” (State Papers, vol. 2, 425).  Hoover’s policy to “hold aloof” from direct intervention in the economy was a direct result of his “fundamental belief in the efficacy of American individualism” (Times 12/9/31 1).

            This belief was manifested in the President’s public optimism.  In an effort to restore confidence, Hoover remained doggedly optimistic in all public statements, until many doubted that he understood the seriousness of the Depression.[39]  Hoover insisted that “the people are being cared for . . . [N]o one is going hungry and no one need go hungry or cold” (State Papers, vol. 1, 497-8); rather than restoring confidence, however, Hoover’s exhortations resulted in widespread disillusionment.[40]  Hoover’s refusal to compromise his philosophy was interpreted as a policy of inaction, and his persistent optimism was interpreted as a lack of understanding.[41]  Hoover staunchly defended his philosophical system as one of “fundamental correctness” (New Day 30); as he struggled to identify outside causes, he described the Depression as a temporary aberration,[42] certainly not “typical of the American system” (Hoover, Challenge 97).[43]

            Such arguments were ignored by a populace which demanded solutions for the nation’s economic problems.  By 1930, public opinion had turned “rather heavily against the Hoover Administration” (Times 6/22/30 6E).  The “Hoover apron” had once been a sign of efficiency; now, shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles” dotted the landscape.  Hoover’s resistance to government action angered a public that had been promised ongoing prosperity through Republican policies:  as a result, “when the crash came, he could not extricate himself or his party from the ruins” (Times 2/23/30 4E).[44]  Clinging to his philosophy, Hoover attempted to make the election of 1932 a referendum on American individualism, whether the country should continue on its path of “ordered liberty” or take a “radical departure” through the New Deal (State Papers, vol. 2, 428).  Hoover characterized FDR’s platform as destroying “the very roots of liberalism” (Ibid 425), warning that if it were implemented “The grass will grow in [the] streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns” (Ibid 418).[45]  The country decided, and Franklin Roosevelt was swept into power.  Hoover’s philosophy had been discarded by the nation it had once enthralled, and Hoover himself was rejected by the country that had once thought him a hero.




            The tragedy of Herbert Hoover signaled more than the personal failure of an inflexible or uninspiring President:  it signaled the inability of a formerly successful philosophy to solve the problems of new times.  To the people of his day, “Hoover signified something that [had] at least momentarily evaporated, the bright illusion of American infallibility” (Times 3/17/31 1-2); the savior of Belgium had no magic left in 1932 with which to save his country.  The 1932 election was indeed a referendum on philosophy, although not in the way that Hoover had intended:  with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, the nation committed itself to a policy of active government intervention in the economy rather than the passive encouragement of private effort.  Even sixty years later, as many of Roosevelt’s social programs are being challenged or dismantled, this commitment to government intervention is rarely questioned.  The tragedy of Herbert Hoover was that he clung to the beliefs of his triumphant days even after those days had passed:  as a result, the successes of the Great Engineer have been forgotten, and all that is remembered is a President’s failure.

Works Consulted


Primary Sources


Commission for Relief in Belgium.  Statistical Review of Relief Operations.  Compiled by George Gay.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1925.

            In 1925, the CRB printed a complete statistical overview of its operations, providing general information as well as listing such details as the quantities of food carried by individual ships.  These materials are also available at the Hoover War Library at Stanford University.


            [Although it is a departure from standard rules of formatting, works by Herbert Hoover  will each be listed in chronological order for clarity.  Articles from the New York Times will be referenced in the same manner.]


Hoover, Herbert.  American Individualism.  1922.  Rpt. in American Individualism & The Challenge to Liberty.  West Branch, Iowa:  Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, 1989.

            In this 1922 essay, Hoover attempted to defend the American system against those who sought socialistic or other forms of government.  It is widely regarded as a definition of his personal political philosophy.


-----.  Foreword.  Statistical Review of Relief Operations.  Compiled by George Gay.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1925.

            Hoover prefaced the CRB’s statistical report with a short discussion of the CRB’s efficiency and the extent of its operations.

-----.  Address of Acceptance.  11 Aug. 1928.  Rpt. in The New Day:  Campaign Speeches of Herbert Hoover.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1928:  7-44.

            Hoover accepted the nomination for President in the Stanford football stadium and delivered an extremely long speech, addressing every issue that he felt was pertinent to that year’s election.  He had full confidence in the nation’s future and promised a continuation of Republican prosperity.


-----.  St. Louis Address.  2 Nov. 1928.  Rpt. in The New Day:  Campaign Speeches of Herbert Hoover.  Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1928:  177-208.

            Hoover used his last speech of the 1928 campaign to describe what he called “the American System,” the philosophical underpinnings of the nation.  (He did offer one more speech from Palo Alto by radio, but as it was completely non-partisan and did not mention the issues of the election, it should not be considered part of the campaign.)


-----.  “Proclamation 1882:  Boulder Dam Project.”  25 June 1929.  Proclamations and Executive Orders.  Vol. 1.  Washington:  United States Government Printing Office, 1974:  27.

            The Boulder Dam project, later to be renamed Hoover Dam, was commissioned before Hoover took office and implemented by him in July of 1929 in this proclamation.  It was not part of his economic public works strategy, as the Depression had not yet begun.


-----.  Press Statement.  Rpt. as “President Hoover Issues a Statement of Reassurance on Continued Prosperity of Fundamental Business.”  New York Times 26 Oct. 1929:  1.

            Immediately after the Crash, Hoover issued a press statement in an effort to restore public confidence in the economy.  He argued that the Crash was the result of a fickle market and not of any imbalance in the economy; at the time, most economists agreed.

-----.  Telegraphed Message.  Rpt. as “Text of President’s Appeal to the Governors.”  New York Times 24 Nov. 1929:  1.

            In Hoover’s voluntarist strategy, the federal government’s role was mainly limited to encouraging private donations and implementing public works programs.  Hoover asked governors and local officials to do the same at the state or municipal levels.


-----.  Press Statement.  Rpt. as “Text of President’s Message Emphasizing Soundness of Nation’s Economic Position.”  New York Times 4 Dec. 1929:  26.

            This statement by Hoover in the early months of the Depression again declared the innate strength of the American economy and urged businesses and labor leaders to cooperate in keeping wages and employment strong.


-----.  Address to U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  1 May 1930.  Rpt in “Worst of Depression Over, Says Hoover.”  New York Times 2 May 1930:  1.

            Hoover tried many times to convince the nation that it was nearing the end of the Depression, as in this speech before business leaders.


-----.  Address to American Bankers’ Association.  2 Oct. 1930.  Rpt. in “Text of President Hoover’s Speech Before Bankers of Nation.”  New York Times 3 Oct. 1930:  22.

            As part of his voluntarist strategy, Hoover encouraged the nation’s banks to maintain lines of credit to businesses and other banks.  In this speech, he promised that prosperity would soon return if individuals did their part.

-----.  1930 State of the Union Address.  2 Dec. 1930.  Rpt. in “Text of President Hoover’s Message to Congress.”  New York Times 3 Dec. 1930:  18.

            Hoover provided a general summary of his attitude towards the depression in this message to Congress.  He stated that the Depression was mainly due to foreign causes and recommended a limited program of public works; he also declared that individuals should maintain their self-reliance.


-----.  Press Statement.  “The Importance of the Preservation of Self-Help.”  3 Feb. 1931.  Rpt. in State Papers of Herbert Hoover.  Edited by William Starr Myers.  Vol. 1.  New York:  Doubleday, 1934:  496-499.

            Hoover responded to Congressional attacks by citing in this press statement the need to preserve America’s independent spirit.


-----.  Lincoln Day Address.  12 Feb. 1931.  Rpt. in “Press Stresses Self-Help to Solve Nation’s Problems.”  New York Times 13 Feb. 1931:  1.

            In this speech celebrating Lincoln’s birthday Hoover used quotations from the sixteenth President to ask the nation to stand firm in the face of adversity.


-----.  Indianapolis Address.  15 June 1931.  Rpt. in “Hoover Decries Depression Panaceas.”  New York Times 16 June 1931:  1.

            Hoover criticized various anti-Depression proposals in this speech as wasteful pork barrels; he also told his audience that the main causes of the Depression lay outside the U.S.

-----.  1931 State of the Union Address.  8 Dec. 1931.  Rpt. in “Text of President Hoover’s Annual Message as Read to Congress Yesterday.”  New York Times 8 Dec. 1931:  21.

            In this message Hoover proposed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.  However, he also reiterated his belief in the balanced budget and proposed cuts in federal programs.  (The message was “Read to Congress” because Hoover did not actually deliver it himself; as was the custom, he sent it to the House in written form and an official “House Reader” delivered its contents.  Hoover was himself a very poor speaker.)


-----.  Radio Address on the Hoarding of Money.  6 Mar. 1932.  Rpt. in State Papers, op. cit., vol. 2:  137.

            Concerned that the hoarding of currency was locking up money from circulation and slowing the economy, Hoover in this radio address exhorted his fellow citizens to keep their money in banks in the name of patriotism.


-----.  Address at Madison Square Garden.  31 Oct. 1932.  Rpt. in State Papers, op. cit., vol. 2:  408-428.

            In this campaign speech, Hoover attempted to define the GOP as the party supporting the concept of “ordered liberty,” while Roosevelt and the New Dealers were the anti-democracy  elements which opposed it.


-----.  The Challenge to Liberty.  1934.  Rpt. in American Individualism & The Challenge to Liberty.  West Branch, Iowa:  Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, 1989.

            A response to the New Deal, Hoover argued in this 1934 essay that Roosevelt had dangerously concentrated political and economic power in the Executive Branch, a course which could lead only to despotism.

-----.  “Crisis to Free Men.”  Address before the Republican National Convention.  10 June 1936.  Rpt. in American Ideals versus the New Deal.  St. Clair Shores, Michigan:  Scholarly Press, 1972:  4-12.

            As an ex-President, Hoover appeared at every Republican National Convention from 1936 until his death.  He urged the GOP to resist the New Deal, which he described as a fascistic attempt to destroy the ideals of the United States.


-----.  The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover.  Vol. 1:  1874-1920:  Years of Adventure.  New York:  MacMillan, 1951.

            Hoover in his autobiography told the story of the creation of the CRB and his position as U.S. Food Administrator after 1917.  The book provides his own opinions of the Commission’s work and of the men who staffed it.


-----.  The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover.  Vol. 3:  1929-1941:  The Great Depression.  New York:  MacMillan, 1952.

            In this volume, Hoover attempts to defend his actions during his Administration.  He claims that the Depression would have ended twice, once in early 1931 and again in summer 1932, but was begun anew by foreign troubles and by Roosevelt’s election, respectively. 


-----.  An American Epic.  Vol. 1:  The Relief of Belgium and Northern France.  Chicago:  Regnery, 1959.

            The three volumes of An American Epic, as the title would suggest, tell the story of Hoover’s European exploits in a dramatic fashion.  Much of the material contained here is also presented in Hoover’s Memoirs.

“Volume of Christmas Buying Exceeds 1928.”  New York Times 14 Dec. 1929:  1.

            The Hoover Administration released sales figures from retailers in December of 1929 in an effort to prove the economy’s soundness.


“Employment Turns Upward, Hoover Reports.”  New York Times 22 Jan. 1930:  1

            Hoover’s Emergency Committee on Unemployment reported in late January that employment had risen steadily for the past two weeks.


“Disputes Hoover on Employment.”  New York Times 23 Jan. 1930:  11.

            Frances Perkins, the New York State Industrial Commissioner, disputed the findings of Hoover’s Committee on Employment:  her office’s data showed that the ranks of jobless had grown throughout the month.


“Mr. Hoover’s Popularity.”  Editorial.  New York Times 23 Feb. 1930:  4E.

            Hoover’s diminishing popularity was the subject of this editorial; although the Times editorial staff generally supported Hoover (and its publisher, Adolph Ochs, was a good friend of his), it argued that his failure to deliver on campaign promises of prosperity was hurting his support.


“The Fall in Prices.”  Editorial.  New York Times 23 Feb. 1930:  4E.

            This editorial in the New York Times provided a general summary of the problems facing farmers and the Farm Board, including the collapse of crop prices.


“Signs Farm Relief Bill.”  New York Times 5 Mar. 1930:  1.

            This article described the reaction to Hoover’s Farm Relief bill, in which loans were provided for animal feed but not for the farmers’ families.

“Hoover Board Tells Facts of the Business System.”  New York Times 24 Mar. 1930:  1.

            The Times summarized the report of the National Business Survey Conference, which painted a positive picture of the economy; on the same page, however, were articles describing the greater demands on charity organizations and bread lines.


“Hoover Demands Strict Economy.”  New York Times 5 May 1930:  1,7.

            Hoover was greatly concerned that the budget would be unbalanced by anti-Depression expenditures; this article reported his attempts to economize the Executive Branch.


“President Opposes Telling Farm Board to Buy More Wheat.”  New York Times 15 June 1930:  1.

            The Farm Board had by this time accumulated millions of bushels of wheat in an attempt to raise prices; this article provided Hoover’s opinion that any attempt to influence prices further would be fruitless.


“The Prosperity Yardstick.”  Editorial.  New York Times 22 June 1930:  6E.

            This editorial commented on possible reasons why Hoover had lost his popularity so quickly.


“Comparisons of Employment and Payrolls.”  New York Times 17 July 1930:  24.

            This article provided a statistical overview of national wage and employment data.


“President Selects Col. Woods to Head Relief for Jobless.”  New York Times 22 Oct. 1930:  1,5.

            Hoover’s Emergency Committee on Employment was the subject of this article, which described its personnel.

“Green Asks Speed on Congress Bills.”  New York Times 4 Dec. 1930:  1.

            William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, cited large numbers of jobless in his plea to Congress for increased unemployment aid.


“Notable Story of the Past Financial Year.”  New York Times 31 Dec. 1930:  1.

            The front page of the New York Times on the last day of 1930 provided an overview of the past year’s events.


“Wagner to Press Employment Issue.”  New York Times 5 Jan. 1931:  1

            This article described the unemployment bills proposed by Senator Wagner; it also stated that the number of unemployed had reached 5 million.


“Hoover With Vigor Bars Extra Session.”  New York Times 23 May 1931:  1.

            Hoover refused to convene a special session of Congress in the summer of 1931; he thought that such a session focusing on the Depression would decrease business confidence.


McCormick, Anne O’Hare.  “Mr. Hoover’s Turning Point.”  New York Time Magazine 17 Mar. 1931:  1-2.

            This essay by a Times political columnist describes Hoover’s odyssey in public opinion, from a businessman of hero-like stature, respected for his ability to get things done, to a reviled President accused of inaction.


Oulahan, Richard.  “Hoover Message Calls for Tax Rise.” New York Times 9 Dec. 1931:  1.

            This article summarized Hoover’s budget message to Congress in 1931; it showed his continuing faith in American individualism and his belief that the government should not directly interfere with the economy.

Secondary Sources


Carman, Harry, Harold Syrett and Bernard Wishy.  Appendix VI:  Statistical Tables.  A History of the American People.  Vol. 2.  New York:  Knopf, 1961.

            An appendix to this general survey of American history provides economic statistics.  These showed the extent of the fall in crop prices, the drop in domestic consumption, and the devastating impact of the Depression on industrial production.


Jones, Jesse, and Edward Angly.  Fifty Billion Dollars.  New York:  Macmillan, 1951

            Jesse Jones was the head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation from late 1932 until 1945; in this autobiography, he provides a history of the organization with special focus on his experiences there.


Hofstadter, Richard.  “Herbert Hoover and the Crisis of American Individualism.”  The American Political Tradition.  New York:  Random House, 1948.

            This chapter in Hofstadter’s analysis of several Presidents and political figures argues that Hoover’s philosophy was too rigid for his times.  It describes the society in which Hoover’s philosophy flourished and then recounts how the strains of the Depression caused that philosophy to flounder.


Nash, George.  The Life of Herbert Hoover.  Vol. 2:  The Humanitarian, 1914-1917.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1988.

            George Nash, who has recently released the third volume in his biographical series, provides in the second a detailed, comprehensive account of the formation of the CRB and the role that Hoover played.  Much of Nash’s information is compiled from the original papers of the participants.

-----.  Introduction.  American Individualism & The Challenge to Liberty.  By Herbert Hoover.  West Branch, Iowa:  Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, 1989.

            The circumstances that led to the printing of American Individualism, Hoover’s definition of his philosophy, and The Challenge to Liberty, his critique of the New Deal, were recorded by Nash and presented in this introduction.


Romasco, Albert.  The Poverty of Abundance.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1965.

            This book chronicles the history of voluntary, cooperative measures under Hoover.  Romasco portrays the Depression as the period in which old-style conservatism was tested and found inadequate to solve social problems.



Rosen, Elliot.  Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1977.

            Mainly a history of the Brains Trust, this work emphasizes the thinking behind Roosevelt and the New Deal.  It illustrates the conflict between Roosevelt’s philosophy and that of Hoover.


Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. The Crisis of the Old Order.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

            The first work in his series The Age of Roosevelt, Schlesinger’s book presents the history of the Hoover Administration from a social perspective.  The book not only chronicles the events in government but also provides information on the lives and opinions of ordinary people of the time.  It could be described as sympathetic towards Roosevelt and the New Dealers.

Schwarz, Jordan.  The Interregnum of Despair.  Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 1970.

            Hoover was known as an effective businessman but an extremely poor politician.  As President, he managed to alienate both the Old Guard and the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, and never cultivated good relations with the Democrats.  This work provides a history of his Presidency with special emphasis on his relations with Congress.


Sobel, Robert.  Herbert Hoover at the Onset of the Great Depression.  Edited by Harold M. Hyman.  Philadelphia:  J.B. Lippincott, 1975.

            This book focuses on American political philosophy during the Twenties and Thirties.  It also provides excerpts from original documents.


Warren, Harris Gaylord.  Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1959.

            Despite the number of works that have been written concerning Hoover, there are very few objective studies of his Administration.  Biographies tend to be sympathetic to Hoover, portraying him as a true progressive and a wise prophet whose voice was ignored.  These works emphasize Hoover’s personal qualities of efficiency and hard work.  On the other hand, histories often sympathize with Roosevelt, portraying Hoover (equally unjustly) as a representative of the laissez-faire Republicanism of the nineteenth century.  These works emphasize Hoover’s dislike of the press and his cold public persona.  Warren’s study serves as an objective, balanced analysis of the man and his times, praising Hoover’s individual characteristics but justly criticizing his actions while in office.

[1] Until 1914, Hoover had lived a life worthy of a Horatio Alger novel.  An orphan at the age of ten, Hoover had attended Stanford University, receiving a degree in engineering as a member of its first graduating class.  He decided to enter the field of mining, but was unable to find work other than as a laborer in California and New Mexico mines.  His abilities impressed his supervisors, and Hoover was selected to participate in an Australian mining expedition organized by Bewick, Moreing & Co.  Over 20 years, Hoover rose through the ranks to full partner.  By 1914, Hoover had been involved in mining operations in Australia, Burma, China, South Africa, Siberia, and California; according to George Nash, “one hundred thousand men worked for enterprises that he directed or in part controlled” (Nash 1).  (Unless otherwise noted, references to Nash are from the second volume, The Humanitarian, in George H. Nash’s multi-volume series The Life of Herbert Hoover.)

[2] American tourists across the Continent flooded to London in hopes of reaching home.  However, the reduced number of transatlantic voyages created a bottleneck, and many were forced to stay in London.  Making matters worse, due to the crisis atmosphere of the war, British banks did not accept the tourists’ travelers’ cheques, leaving even wealthy Americans effectively penniless.  Hoover did not begin the relief movement, but became chairman of one of the largest relief organizations, loaning money to tourists and arranging for passage back to the United States.

[3] The Belgians imported most of their food supply: only 22% of the country’s grain was grown domestically (Gay 4).  It was estimated that 70% of the population would starve if food were not imported.

[4] One tenth of the Belgian population lived in Brussels, and by the time Shaler’s food arrived, no food but a small supply of black bread was left in the city.  Hoover estimated on October 8 that the food supply would barely last two weeks (Nash 20).

[5] In the first volume of his Memoirs, Hoover states that he had “no thought of further responsibility in the matter” (153) after assisting Shaler.  He had not paid much attention to Belgium until surprised by the invitation to the Embassy on October 18, where the Belgian delegation pleaded with him to organize relief:  “You alone have the setting for this job” (154).  (Unless otherwise noted, references to Memoirs are to the first volume — subtitled “1874-1920, Years of Adventure” — of Hoover’s multi-volume autobiography.)  However, Nash records that Hoover had been greatly concerned by events in Belgium and had been intimately involved since Shaler’s visit:  “My own impression,” he told an acquaintance shortly after meeting with Shaler, “is that American effort ... should be devoted entirely to [Belgian relief]” (Nash 20).  Nash, whose study of the CRB is exhaustive, believes that Hoover most likely sought the position as head of the relief organization or at least indicated that he would take it.

[6] When neutral powers Holland and Spain joined the effort, the word “American” was dropped from the title.

[7] In order to convince the British to allow the food through the export blockade, Hoover took an immense risk:  he purchased $250,000 worth of food, chartered ships, loaded them, and only then asked the British for permission.  “[H]aving carefully advertised the purchases and the preparations for shipment, . . . there could only be one answer from the English officials” (Nash 29).

[8]  Financing the CRB posed an immediate difficulty.  At Hoover’s direction, effective public-relations campaigns and friendly journalists generated sentiment for the plight of the Belgians.  The governors of 40 states created state Belgian Relief Committees at his request; the Duke of Norfolk organized a similar effort in the British Commonwealth, and committees were also created in Scandinavia, France, Latin America, and Japan.  Funding was also available from Belgium itself, as the CRB sold rations to those who could afford them.  However, the vast majority of the CRB’s total income, over $700 million, was provided by British, French, and American government contributions.

[9] The CRB depended on the goodwill of the belligerent governments for its existence, and that goodwill was not always forthcoming.  The British argued that Germany under international law was responsible for the care of civilians in its occupied territories; to provide imported food to Belgium would therefore decrease the demands on the German food supply and possibly prolong the war.  Germany, however, blamed the British blockade for the lack of food; it could hardly feed its own people with the blockade in place, it claimed, and so Britain bore responsibility for the fate of the Belgians.  Hoover convinced Britain, France and Germany to support the CRB by promising both sides American sympathies in the war (Nash 70, 87).

[10] At Britain’s request, American representatives of the CRB were stationed in Belgium to provide for independent accounting — although the Germans had promised not to take the food, the British insisted that none of it fall into German hands.  A third committee, the Comité Français, was added when the CRB took on the responsibility of feeding the inhabitants of Northern France; however, the CRB often dealt with the French agricultural communes directly.

[11] Much of the shipping service required by the CRB was donated by shipping companies.  In addition, the organization (which handled hundreds of millions of dollars) received accounting services for free from the English accounting firm of Deloitte, Plender, Griffiths & Co.

[12] The CRB had issued its own currency to counteract the flight of Belgian currency out of the region, although it was soon abandoned when the Germans replaced it with one of their own.  CRB representatives were given their own passports, and Hoover even negotiated an agreement whereby they would have freedom of travel throughout Belgium and Northern France.  (Hoover himself carried a document issued by the German government which stated, “This man is not to be stopped under any circumstances.”)  Ships bound for Belgium flew the CRB flag and displayed huge wooden planks bearing the words “Commission for Relief in Belgium.”  (Even though Germany had specified a route free of submarines, the danger was always present.  After unrestricted submarine warfare was declared on January 31, 1917, several CRB ships were destroyed despite their markings.)

[13] Hoover was widely acclaimed for his work in Belgium:  as a token of their gratitude, the women of Belgium sent him thousands of embroidered CRB flower sacks as gifts (see Fig. 1).  Hoover’s triumphs did not end after he sailed home, however.  When America entered the war, Hoover was asked by President Wilson to become the U.S. Food Administrator, charged with organizing the nation’s war effort and increasing food production.  He also accompanied Wilson to Paris; his pleas for a just and humanitarian peace made him, in the words of John Maynard Keynes, “the only man to emerge from the ordeal of Paris with an enhanced reputation” (Sobel 31).  Hoover organized the American effort to feed the nations of Central Europe devastated by the war; under his leadership, American food was used as a bulwark against communism.  Some estimated that as much as one-third of the population of Europe would have died from famine had it not been for the American Relief Administration under Hoover; streets (Hooverstrassen) were named for him in Germany and Austria, and his picture was hung in houses and huts across Europe.  However, the American Relief Administration was not under Hoover’s personal control to the same extent as the CRB, and so it is for his creation of the latter that he is best known as a humanitarian.

[14] At the time, Hoover was serving as Secretary of Commerce.

[15] As Secretary of Commerce, Hoover would champion the trade-association movement as a method of reducing waste by standardizing parts and production; he believed that in cooperation there existed “great hopes that we can even gain in individuality, equality of opportunity, and an enlarged field for initiative” (American Individualism 49-50)

[16] Hoover had been considered as a possible candidate by both parties as early as 1920, when one Democrat suggested a Hoover-FDR “dream ticket.”  (Roosevelt had expressed interest in such a match before Hoover declared his party affiliation.)  Once Hoover announced that he was a Republican, however, he was quickly rejected by the party’s Old Guard in favor of Warren Harding; as long as Hoover did not pose the threat of running as a Democrat, the Old Guard saw no danger in nominating someone whose views more closely aligned with theirs.  Hoover spent the next eight years attempting to eliminate waste and open markets as “Secretary of Commerce and Under-Secretary of all the other departments” (Schlesinger 84).

[17] Hoover captured 58.2% of the popular vote, and the tally in the electoral college was a lopsided 444 to 87.  Hoover also won several Southern states which had voted Democratic since before the Civil War (Warren 48).

[18] Normally, an increase in real wages would be beneficial irrespective of whether profits increased faster or not; however, these profits were reinvested in increasing production capacity regardless of demand.  As goods were produced “in ever greater quantities, there was proportionately less and less cash in the hands of buyers to take them off the market” (Schlesinger 160); eventually, industries would be unable to cover the costs of production, and prices would deflate.

[19] Frequently no author is given for the articles from the New York Times.  Due to the inconvenience of citing each article by title, references will instead list the newspaper, date of publication, and page number.

[20] Many of Hoover’s supporters and some elements of his Cabinet preferred to leave the Depression alone, allowing it to restore an inflated economy to more solid foundations:  “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” advised Secretary of the Treasury Mellon; “It will purge the rottenness out of the system” as had happened after the Panic of 1873 (Hoover, Memoirs:  1929-1941, The Great Depression 30).  Hoover, however, was aghast at the “untold amount of suffering” in 1873 “which might have been prevented,” and he resolved to “use the powers of government to cushion the situation” (Ibid 31) — yet he felt that the “best contribution of government” was the “encouragement of . . . cooperation in the community” (Times 12/3/30 18).

[21] Over the twelve-year span, prices paid by farmers increased from an index figure of 150 (1913 = 100) to one of 155; at the same time, crop values fell from 118 to 89 (Carman 554).  Although prices in 1917 were inflated by increased war demand, the statistical comparison is still valid:  many farmers during World War I borrowed to buy land and expand their productive capacity, and their ability to repay the loans depended on a permanently inflated market.

[22] Despite $90 million in Farm Board loans and purchases, wheat prices fell from $1.18 a bushel in October 1929 to 33 cents a bushel in June of 1930 (Rosen 55-6).  The Board was able to drive prices up to 81 cents a year later, but only at such cost that in July of 1931 it went bankrupt; as its stores were dumped on the market, prices fell to 30 cents per bushel.  Wheat and cotton brought less than the cost of production; some farmers found it more economical to burn their corn for heat than pay to have it shipped to market (Schlesinger 175).

[23] The Farm Board proposed that farmers plow up every third row of their fields, and many farmers agreed that production control would be a necessary step in raising prices.  However, these individual farmers sensibly refused to voluntarily plow up their fields without any guarantee that others would do so as well (Schlesinger 239).

[24] The most famous of these projects, Hoover Dam, had not been initiated by Hoover:  the Boulder Canyon Project had been commissioned by Congress in 1928 but was implemented during Hoover’s term in office (Hoover, Proc. 1882).

[25] During his four-year term, Hoover spent over $500 million on construction projects and encouraged businesses and local governments to do likewise.  However, many public works programs were rejected by Hoover in order to balance the budget.  The maintenance of a balanced budget throughout the Depression was of the utmost importance to Hoover and the Under-Secretary of the Treasury, Ogden Mills, who feared that an unbalanced budget would decrease confidence in U.S. credit.  Because of falling incomes, however, tax revenues dropped dramatically:  in 1930, revenues fell by $430 million while expenditures increased by $223 million (Times 12/3/30 18).  Hoover called for “the most rigid economy” (Times 4/5/30 7) and reductions in spending; public works programs, he said, had already reached “the maximum limit warranted by financial prudence” (Times 12/3/30 18).  Yet Hoover’s $500 effort had been too limited to succeed; private construction fell by $2 billion in 1930 and again in 1931, and despite state and local efforts, total funding over both years for construction projects was $1 billion lower than before the Depression.

[26] The “Wagner bill,” S. 3060, provided for increased spending, advance planning of public works, and new national and state employment exchanges to replace the current bureaucratic employment service.  The Wagner bill was strongly supported by Col. Woods and many economists; however, it was vetoed by Hoover, most likely for budgetary reasons (Schwarz 39-40).

[27] The new commission was chaired by AT&T president Walter Gifford.  Gifford was profoundly ignorant of the problem he faced:  after five months in office, he was unable to tell a Congressional committee the number of unemployed, the proportion receiving aid, how much money had been raised by his organization, or whether local communities were indeed able to provide funds, saying that he “did not consider most of this information as of much importance to his job.”  However, Gifford remained convinced of “the capacity of the communities to meet the relief problem” (Schlesinger 173).

[28] In his 1931 State of the Union address, Hoover declared his opposition to “any direct or indirect Government dole.  The breakdown and increased unemployment in Europe is due in part to such practices” (Times 12/9/31 1).

[29] Hoover was often criticized for his unwillingness to provide the unemployed with food and money while he had been so willing to help the Belgians during World War I.  Hoover’s response was that the Belgians were truly unable to survive without aid, while the unemployed in the United States were able to help themselves.  However, he never reconciled this position with his belief that the unemployment of the Depression was a result of global economics and not of individual laziness.  Hoover also claimed that most of the funding for his humanitarian efforts had come from private charity (State Papers, vol. 1, 496); in fact, government treasuries had provided over two-thirds of the CRB’s income.

[30] The other nine-tenths were publicly funded; however, these efforts were limited as well, as the relief budgets of states and local governments were already strained by public works.

[31] During the Depression, the assets held by many banks declined in value, and the banks sought to improve their cash holdings.  However, their dumping of assets onto the market drove the values of those assets down still further, leaving many banks insolvent.

[32] The requirements for membership in the Federal Reserve system at the time were so strict that many small local banks were not members.  Hoover hoped that the pool, known as the National Credit Corporation, would lend to these banks as large banks had done before the Federal Reserve was created.  However, the National Credit Corporation loaned only $10 million of its $500 million in assets to weak banks in 1931 (Rosen 282).

[33]  Despite the strains on state and local budgets, state governments received little aid from the RFC:  its requirements for receiving loans were so strict that few states qualified, and so only $35 million of the $300 million allocated for state relief efforts was actually spent.

[34] Hoover had proposed the RFC in his 1931 State of the Union address, asking that it be given $500 million in capital.  At the same time, he noted hopefully that “It may not be necessary to use such an instrumentality very extensively.  The very existence of such a bulwark will strengthen confidence” (Times 12/9/31 1)

[35] Speculation that a bank would be insolvent became self-fulfilling as depositors rushed to withdraw their money.  Because RFC loans were given only to weaker banks and because they left the bank with fewer sound assets, banks often refused them for fear of losing public confidence.

[36] Hoover would later blame Roosevelt’s election for the banking crisis.  By refusing to commit to a balanced budget and gold standard, he argued, Roosevelt had destroyed confidence in the credit of the United States and precipitated a run on the banks; had Roosevelt not hinted that he would leave the gold standard, the banks would have remained solvent.  However, Warren calls the loss of confidence “fully justified” by the state of the economy:  “What Hoover called ‘a wholly unnecessary panic of bank depositors’ was only unnecessary if depositors would have been willing to see their assets disappear entirely . . . Fear of New Deal monetary policies, while very real, sinks into minor proportions when compared with that also very real loss of confidence that caused a complete disintegration of the banking structure” (282).

[37] Hoarding of money by individuals occurred in response to the weak banking system; depositors felt safer with their money in gold or under a mattress than in a bank.  By withdrawing currency from the economy, hoarding posed a great threat to recovery.  Hoover’s strategy for combating hoarding was again cooperative — he formed a Citizen’s Reconstruction Organization, intended to persuade citizens in the name of patriotism to keep their money in insolvent banks (State Papers, vol. 2, 137).

[38] Hoover’s inflexibility is evident from his response to the drought of 1930.  In the early part of 1930, 15 Midwestern states were struck by a severe drought; in the summer, a second drought occurred in the Southwest.  While Hoover supported a farm relief proposal which offered $7 million in loans for seed, fertilizer, and livestock feed (Times 3/5/30 1), he specifically opposed an amendment allowing the farmers to purchase food for themselves; loans for human food seemed perilously close to the dole.  Hoover’s opponents castigated him for his willingness to feed starving cattle but not starving humans (Schlesinger 170).  Hoover feared that even small steps towards a nationalized economy would destroy the American system, as implementing the methods of the Left would bring a reactionary swing to the Right:  “The penetration of Socialist methods even to a partial degree will demoralize the economic system . . . and infect the whole system of ordered Liberty . . . .  In the United States the reaction from such chaos will not be more Socialism but will be towards Fascism” (Challenge 111).

[39] It is difficult to say whether Hoover privately understood the extent of the suffering or not.  Hoover recalled in his Memoirs that he was “not impressed” by the optimism of most economists and business leaders after the Crash.  “Obviously,” however, “as President, I had no business to make things worse in the middle of a crash” (Memoirs, vol. 3, 19).  He therefore released a positive statement about the economy in general without mentioning the stock market.  By Christmas of 1929, the Administration had proclaimed that “the dark clouds . . . looming on the horizon” had been “swept away” (Times 12/14/29 1), and Hoover’s National Business Survey Conference had declared that the Depression “has left no major problems to be solved” (Romasco 50).  In January 1930, Hoover noted a two-week upturn in employment and promised a quick recovery (Times 1/22/30 1); in March, he stated that the Depression would be over in “sixty days” (Sobel 105), and fifty-six days later, in May, he remained “convinced we have now passed the worst and . . . we shall rapidly recover” (Times 5/2/30 1).  Hoover maintained his position throughout his public life; his Memoirs, printed some decades later, repeat many of these claims.

[40] Hoover’s optimistic assessments were far removed from the actual situation, and he soon suffered from the resulting credibility gap.  His claims of low unemployment “resulted from dependence on completely unreliable statistics” (Warren 198).  In Pennsylvania, a quarter of the state labor force was unemployed; in Chicago, the hungry searched through “heaps of refuse . . . as soon as the garbage trucks pulled out” (Schlesinger 171); in St. Louis, hundreds of homeless settled in a “Hooverville” on the banks of the Mississippi (see Fig. 2).  As Hoover proclaimed that more people were finding jobs, Frances Perkins, New York State Industrial Commissioner, announced that unemployment was at its highest since the state had begun keeping records (Times 1/23/30 11).  In August 1930, Professor Charles Pearsons resigned from the U.S. Census Bureau to protest its attempts to “minimize and obscure the number of unemployed” (Schlesinger 506).

[41] Supporters of Hoover have noted that Roosevelt was guilty of the same persistent optimism, even in the face of worsening conditions.  However, it must be remembered that “Roosevelt was one of the most astute politicians the nation had ever produced, while [Hoover] was one of the poorest” (Sobel 67).  Roosevelt’s ringing proclamation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was far more powerful than Hoover’s tepid 1931 assertion that “Ninety percent of our problems are caused by fear” (Sobel 35).  Roosevelt had an oratorical power to inspire which Hoover lacked; to many, FDR’s optimism appeared as the confidence of a capable leader, while Hoover’s appeared as empty rhetoric.  Hoover also made several political faux pas, publicly feeding his dog on the White House lawn at a time when men were starving and privately telling a delegation in 1930 that they had “come six weeks too late.  The Depression is over” (Schlesinger 231).

[42] Hoover often compared the Depression to the many short-lived panics of the nineteenth century.  He would later claim that the Depression had indeed ended twice, once during early 1931 and again in the summer of 1932; he cited the 1931 failure of the Creditanstalt bank in Vienna and Roosevelt’s election in 1932 for its rebirth.  As for the first, the failure of the Creditanstalt bank in Vienna did indeed cause several European bank failures; however, the momentary upturn in the United States had ended well before the Creditanstalt fell (Schlesinger 248). His belief that Roosevelt’s election caused the banking collapse has been discounted by several authors (see note 36 above).

[43] By 1931, Hoover had adopted the position that the Depression had come “not from within but from outside the United States.  Had our wild speculation, . . . our loose and extravagant business practices, and our unprecedented drought . . . been our only disasters,” he stated in an address in Indianapolis, “we would have recovered months ago” (Times 6/16/31 1).  What was prolonging the Depression was the poor economic conditions in the rest of the world:  overproduction of “wheat, rubber, coffee, sugar, copper, silver, zinc, to some extent cotton, and other raw materials” (Times 12/3/30 18) had hurt the economies of countries such as Peru and Java, Hoover claimed, and these countries were therefore less able to buy manufactured goods from Europe and the United States, “with inevitable contributions to unemployment” (Times 10/3/30 22).  In order to isolate the U.S. economy from poor conditions worldwide, Hoover had favored the Hawley-Smoot tariff, which created prohibitive tariff rates and gave the President power to adjust them.  (However, according to Schlesinger, the nation’s trade surplus had fallen by only $60 million in 1930, hardly enough to keep one of the world’s largest economies in depression (233), and the tariff sparked a series of reprisals which severely diminished world trade.)  Hoover disparaged allegations of any structural fault in the American economy; he believed that apart from certain abuses by individuals, the system was fundamentally sound.  For example, Hoover refused to acknowledge the existence of income inequality in the United States, saying that statements to the contrary were inventions of “those who are anxious to destroy liberty” (Hoover, Challenge 200).  However, a study released the same year by the Brookings Institution showed that the nation’s richest 631,000 families had a greater aggregate income than the poorest 16 million, who “had incomes too small even to purchase ‘basic necessities’ ” (Hofstadter 305).

[44] Hoover had stated publicly that the American people could no more “legislate ourselves out of a world-wide depression” than Congress could “exorcise a Caribbean hurricane by statutory law” (Times 6/16/31 1).  He did not reconcile this position with his assertion that the GOP was responsible for the prosperity of the 1920s, and many questioned how a government that could prolong good times would be unable to escape the bad.

[45] Hoover’s rhetoric grew especially vicious as the election drew closer:  he noted that fascist regimes had normally begun their reign through economic planning, and he described the New Deal as nothing more than “a cold-blooded attempt by starry-eyed boys to infect the American people” with foreign philosophies (State Papers, vol. 2, 418).