President Herbert Hoover strongly believed in self-reliance, rugged individualism, and hard work. His own life reflected these conservative principles. Orphaned at age nine, Hoover became a millionaire and a respected public official through his own talents and determination. Hoover was not oblivious to people’s suffering. But like most conservatives, he did not believe that the federal government should give aid to the needy. Federal relief, he worried, would undermine self-reliance and encourage people to become dependent on government handouts. Instead, he supported “mutual self-help through voluntary giving.”
A Cautious Approach: Limited Government
Like many economists, Hoover viewed the American economy as basically sound. He felt that his job was to generate optimism and restore confidence. Optimistic business owners, he believed, would expand production. Confident consumers would spend more money. The economy would then bounce back without direct government involvement. Meanwhile, Hoover looked to local communities, mainly through churches and private charities, to take care of their citizens.
Hoover’s conservative approach made sense at first. In time, however, even he could see that this depression was different from past ones. For example, unemployment continued to increase. So did the number of Hoovervilles [Hooverville: during the Great Depression, a shantytown of makeshift dwellings] —shantytowns that homeless Americans in many cities built out of crude cardboard and tarpaper. While people in cities went hungry, desperate farmers tried to boost crop prices by causing food shortages. However, it was the sharp increase in bank failures that finally caused Hoover to rethink the government’s role in an economic crisis.
To deal with failing banks, Hoover at first tried his standard approach of voluntary cooperation. He prodded the owners of healthy banks to loan money to banks that were suffering. When this cooperative venture did not work, Hoover reluctantly modified his policy. In 1932, he supported the creation of a government agency to save failing banks and businesses. That agency, called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation[Reconstruction Finance Corporation: a government agency created by Congress in 1932 to provide loans to banks, railroads, and big businesses and later also to farmers and public works projects] (RFC), issued government loans to banks, railroads, and other big businesses.
Hoover hoped RFC loans would stimulate economic growth. Once companies began hiring again, he believed, prosperity would trickle down through the economy to those most in need. To his credit, the number of bank failures declined greatly that year. Still, conservatives criticized Hoover for putting the government in the business of saving banks. At the same time, liberals criticized what they called his trickle-down theory [trickle-down theory: an economic policy in which the government attempts to indirectly aid the needy by promoting economic growth at the business level in the hope that it will influence prosperity at all levels] of helping the needy. The poor, they argued, could not wait for money to seep down to them from expanding businesses. They needed direct relief right away.
With a presidential election coming in the fall, Hoover knew he had to do more. In July 1932, he supported a bill authorizing the RFC to loan money to states that no longer had enough resources to help the needy. The bill also allowed the RFC to finance a variety of public works projects. This legislation stopped just short of offering direct federal relief to those in need, but it was a giant step in that direction. Hoover signed the bill into law just as the issue of the Bonus Army was about to boil over.
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt launched an ambitious campaign tour of the country by train. At each stop, bands played his cheerful campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” To the attendees, Roosevelt gave compelling speeches that he carefully planned with the help of a group of advisors nicknamed the Brain Trust.
Hoover Battles the Bonus Army
When the Bonus Army veterans first arrived in Washington, D.C., President Hoover had chosen to ignore them, hoping they would go away. They did not. However, on June 17, 1932, Congress defeated the bill that called for paying the bonuses immediately. At that point, a few thousand weary veterans gave up and headed home. But close to 10,000 Bonus Army marchers refused to leave. Walter Waters vowed to continue his protest until 1945 if necessary.
Fearful that the remaining veterans might become violent, Hoover ordered their removal. On July 28, troops used tear gas and tanks to push the veterans out of Washington. The next day, Hoover told reporters, “A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly.” However, reports of tanks chasing unarmed veterans out of the capital appalled many Americans.
The Great Depression and the New Deal
Voters were in an ugly mood as the presidential campaign of 1932 neared. Countless factory chimneys remained ominously cold, while more than 11 million unemployed workers and their families sank ever deeper into the pit of poverty. Herbert Hoover may have won the 1928 election by promising “a chicken in every pot,” but three years later that chicken seemed to have
laid a discharge slip in every pay envelope.
Hoover, sick at heart, was renominated by the
Republican convention in Chicago without great enthusiasm. The platform indulged in extravagant praise of Republican antidepression policies, while halfheartedly promising to repeal national prohibition and return control of liquor to the states.
The rising star of the Democratic firmament was
Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York, a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. Like the Rough Rider, he had been born to a wealthy New York family, had graduated from Harvard, had been elected as a kid-gloved politician to the New York legislature, had served as governor of the Empire State, had been nominated for the vice presidency (though not elected), and had served capably as assistant secretary of the navy.
Although both men were master politicians, adept with the colorful phrase, TR was pugnacious and confrontational, whereas FDR was suave and conciliatory— qualities that appealed strongly to a people traumatized by one of the greatest crises in American history.
FDR: Politician in a Wheelchair
Infantile paralysis, while putting steel braces on
Franklin Roosevelt’s legs, put additional steel into his soul. Until 1921, when the dread disease struck, young Roosevelt—tall (six feet two inches), athletic, and handsome—impressed observers as charming and witty, yet at times as a superficial and arrogant “lightweight.” But suffering humbled him to the level of common clay. In courageously fighting his way back from complete helplessness to a hobbling mobility, he schooled himself in patience, tolerance, compassion, and strength of will. He once remarked that after trying for two years to wiggle one big toe, all else seemed easy.
Another of Roosevelt’s great personal and political assets was his wife, Eleanor. The niece of Theodore Roosevelt, she was Franklin Roosevelt’s distant cousin as well as his spouse. Tall, ungainly, and toothy, she overcame the misery of an unhappy childhood and emerged as a champion of the dispossessed—and, ultimately, as the “conscience of the New Deal.” FDR’s political career was as much hers as it was his own. She traveled countless miles with him or on his behalf in all his campaigns, beginning with his run for the New York
legislature before World War I, later considering herself “his legs.” She was to become the most active First Lady in history. Through her lobbying of her husband, her speeches, and her syndicated newspaper column, she powerfully influenced the policies of the national government. Always she battled for the impoverished and the oppressed. At one meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, she confounded local authorities and flouted the segregation statutes by deliberately straddling the aisle separating the black and white seating sections.
Sadly, her personal relationship with her husband was often rocky, due to his occasional infidelity. Condemned by conservatives and loved by liberals, she was one of the most controversial—and consequential—public figures of the twentieth century.
Franklin Roosevelt’s political appeal was amazing. His commanding presence and his golden speaking voice, despite a sophisticated accent, combined to make him the premier American orator of his generation. He could turn on charm in private conversations as one would turn on a faucet. As a popular depression governor of New York, he had sponsored heavy state spending to relieve human suffering. Though favoring frugality, he believed that money, rather than humanity, was expendable. He revealed a deep concern for the
plight of the “forgotten man”—a phrase he used in a 1932 speech—although he was assailed by the rich as a “traitor to his class.”
Exuberant Democrats met in Chicago in June 1932 and speedily nominated Roosevelt. Fellow New Yorker Al Smith felt entitled to a second chance, and a beautiful friendship wilted when he was elbowed aside for Franklin Roosevelt. The Democratic platform came out more forthrightly than the Republican for repeal of prohibition, assailed the so-called Hoover depression, and promised not only a balanced budget but sweeping social and economic reforms. Roosevelt flew daringly through stormy weather to Chicago, where he smashed precedent by accepting the nomination in person. He electrified the delegates and the public with these words: “I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.”
Presidential Hopefuls of 1932
In the campaign that followed, Roosevelt seized the offensive with a slashing attack on the Republican Old Dealers. He was especially eager to prove that he was not an invalid (“Roosevelt Is Robust”) and to display his magnificent torso and radiant personality to as many voters as possible. Roosevelt consistently preached a New Deal for the “forgotten man,” but he was annoyingly vague and somewhat contradictory. Many of his speeches were “ghostwritten” by the “Brains Trust” (popularly the “Brain Trust”), a small group of reform-minded intellectuals.
They were predominantly youngish college
professors who, as a kind of kitchen cabinet, later authored much of the New Deal legislation. Roosevelt rashly promised a balanced budget and berated heavy Hooverian deficits, amid cries of “Throw the Spenders Out!” and “Out of the Red with Roosevelt.” All of this was to make ironic reading in later months. The high spirits of the Democrats found expression in the catchy air “Happy Days Are Here Again.” This theme
song fit FDR’s indestructible smile, his jauntily angled cigarette holder, his breezy optimism, and his promises to do something, even at the risk of bold experimentation. Grim-faced Herbert Hoover remained in the White House, conscientiously battling the depression through
short lunches and long hours. Out on the firing line, his supporters halfheartedly assured half-listening voters, “The Worst Is Past,” “It Might Have Been Worse,” and “Prosperity Is Just Around the Corner.” Hoover never ceased to insist that the uncertainty and fear produced
by Roosevelt’s impending victory plunged the nation deeper into the depression.
With the campaign going badly for the Republicans, a weary and despondent Hoover was persuaded to take to the stump. He stoutly reaffirmed his faith in American free
enterprise and individual initiative, and gloomily predicted that if the Hawley-Smoot Tariff were repealed, the grass would grow “in the streets of a hundred cities.” Such downat- the-mouthism contrasted sharply with Roosevelt’s tooth-flashing optimism and sparkling promises.
Hoover’s Humiliation in 1932
Hoover had been swept into office on the rising tide of prosperity; he was swept out of office by the receding tide of depression. The flood of votes totaled 22,809,638 for Roosevelt and 15,758,901 for Hoover; the electoral count stood at 472 to 59. In all, the loser carried only six rock-ribbed Republican states.
One striking feature of the election was the beginning of a distinct shift of blacks, traditionally grateful to the Republican party of Lincoln, over to the Roosevelt camp. As the “last hired and first fired,” black Americans
had been among the worst sufferers from the depression. Beginning with the election of 1932, they became, notably in the great urban centers of the North, a vital element in the Democratic party. Hard times unquestionably ruined the Republicans, for the electoral upheaval in 1932 was as much anti-Hoover as it was pro-Roosevelt. Democrats had only to harness the national grudge and let it pull them to victory. An overwhelming majority appear to have
voiced a demand for change: a new deal rather than the New Deal, for the latter was only a gleam in the eyes ofits sponsors. Any upstanding Democratic candidateprobably could have won.
The preinauguration lame duck period now ground slowly to an end. Hoover, though defeated and repudiated, continued to be president for four long months, until March 4, 1933. But he was helpless to embark upon
any long-range policies without the cooperation of Roosevelt—and the victorious president-elect proved rather uncooperative. Hoover at length succeeded in arranging two meetings with him to discuss the war-debt muddle. But Roosevelt, who airily remarked to the press, “It’s not my baby,” fought shy of assuming responsibility without authority. As Hoover privately
confessed, he was trying to bind his successor to an anti-inflationary policy that would have made impossible many of the later New Deal experiments. But in politics the winner, not the loser, calls the tune. With Washington deadlocked, the vast and vaunted American economic machine clanked to a virtual halt.
One worker in four tramped the streets, feet weary and hands idle. Banks were locking their doors all over the nation, as people nervously stuffed paper money under their mattresses. Hooverites, then and later, accused
Roosevelt of deliberately permitting the depression to worsen so that he could emerge the more spectacularly as a savior.
FDR and the Three R’s:
Relief, Recovery, Reform
Great crises often call forth gifted leaders, and the hand of destiny tapped Roosevelt on the shoulder. On a dreary Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933, his vibrant voice, broadcast nationally from a bulletproof stand, provided the American people with inspirational new hope. He denounced the “money changers” who had
brought on the calamity and declared that the government must wage war on the Great Depression as it would wage war on an armed foe. His clarion note was, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt moved decisively. Now that he had full responsibility, he boldly declared a nationwide banking holiday, March 6–10, as a prelude to opening the banks on a sounder basis. He then summoned the overwhelmingly
Democratic Congress into special session to cope with the national emergency. For the so-called Hundred Daysm(March 9–June 16, 1933), members hastily cranked out an unprecedented basketful of remedial legislation. Some of it derived from earlier progressivism, but these new measures mostly sought to deal with a desperate emergency Roosevelt’s New Deal programs aimed at three R’s— relief, recovery, and reform. Short-range goals were relief and immediate recovery, especially in the first two
years. Long-range goals were permanent recovery and reform of current abuses, particularly those that had produced the boom-or-bust catastrophe. The three-R objectives often overlapped and got in one another’s way. But amid all the topsy-turvy haste, the gigantic New Deal program lurched forward. Firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat, President Roosevelt cracked the whip. A green Congress so fully shared the panicky feeling of the country that it was ready to rubber-stamp bills drafted by White House advisers— measures that Roosevelt called “must legislation.” More than that, Congress gave the president extraordinary
blank-check powers: some of the laws it passed expressly delegated legislative authority to the chief executive. One senator complained that if FDR asked Congress “to commit suicide tomorrow, they’d do it.” Roosevelt was delighted to exert executive leadership, and Congress responded to it, although he did not always know precisely where he was going. He was inclined to do things by intuition—off the cuff. He
was like the quarterback, as he put it, whose next play depends on the outcome of the previous play. So desperate was the mood of an action-starved public that any movement, even in the wrong direction, seemed better than no movement at all. The frantic Hundred Days Congress passed many essentials of the New Deal “three R’s,” though important long-range measures were added in later sessions. These reforms owed much to the legacy of the pre–World War I progressive movement. Many of them were long overdue, sidetracked by the war in Europe and the Old Guard reaction of the 1920s. The New Dealers, sooner or later, embraced such progressive ideas as unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, minimum- wage regulations, conservation and development of natural resources, and restrictions on child labor. A few such reforms had already made limited gains in some of the states. Many of these forward-looking measures had been adopted a generation or so earlier by the more advanced countries of western Europe. In the area of social welfare, the United States, in the eyes of many Europeans, remained a “backward nation.”