November 17, 2002
HERBERT HOOVER--FATHER OF THE NEW DEAL:Our Finest Hours?: David M. Kennedy talks about his new work, Freedom From Fear, a study of the Depression and the Second World War -- America's era of crisis (Atlantic Monthly, June 10, 1999)
Q: Your picture of Hoover seems more favorable than what is usually written about him. Could you talk about his role in trying to combat the Depression?
David Kennedy: There are two myths about Hoover that I tried to lay to rest. Both of them have a kind of Dracula quality to them: you have to drive a stake through their heart to put them to rest permanently. The first myth is one that's just transparently silly: that Hoover caused the Great Depression, and that it deserves to be called, therefore, the Hoover Depression. The Depression was a worldwide phenomenon. No single individual, not even any single national leader, can be reasonably accused of causing it. The second myth is that once the Depression reached the United States, Hoover did nothing to try to remedy it, which is also a proposition that won't stand close analysis. Hoover was widely regarded at the time, and deserves to be remembered historically, as someone who tried vigorously to use what powers he had -- which were actually quite limited, given the nature of the federal government then -- to turn the thing around.
What neither Hoover nor anyone else understood until sometime in 1931 was that they were looking at a historic event that we now know as the Great Depression. Hoover and others thought they were facing another quite familiar downturn in the cycle, of the kind that people had seen before, most recently in 1921. At that time Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce, through measures similar to those that he used as President, had managed to turn the economy around -- by urging businessmen to maintain payrolls, not to cut wages, to accelerate investment plans, and by urging state and local governments to accelerate plans for public-works construction. Those all worked in 1921, and it was a reasonable assumption on Hoover's part that they would work again. When he took those kinds of initiatives people praised him as the first President who had ever taken vigorous action at the federal level against one of these economic downturns. But it wasn't enough, because the scale of the crisis, it turned out, was infinitely larger than anybody imagined. So Hoover was partly a victim, you might say, of pervasive ignorance about the nature of the beast they were wrestling with. In part, too, he was a victim of the political circumstances in which he found himself -- dealing with a Democratic Congress, after the elections of 1930, that wasn't in any mood to give him the credit for ending the Depression, a Congress that understood that the best way to insure the election of a Democrat in 1932 was to saddle Hoover with the responsibility for a continuing crisis.
Another, nontrivial part of Hoover's problem was that he was a lousy politician. Now, it may have been that even an excellent politician wouldn't have done much better under the circumstances, but he was peculiarly unfitted for leadership in a crisis situation like this. He had very poor rapport with the opposition party -- and with much of his own party, too, for that matter. And he did not very effectively utilize the principal technology of mass communication in his era: the radio. His biggest political mistake, however, was his unwillingness, because of his ideological rigidity on this point, to get into the business of direct federal relief of the unemployed. That cost him dearly. Had he been a more adept President, he might somehow have contrived a way to find relief for the unemployed without compromising his principles.
In addition, Mr. Hoover increased government expenditures by over 50% (from 2,857 to 4,659 million dollars) over the course of his term, beginning the process that FDR would later greatly accelerate--to our lasting detriment. Posted by Orrin Judd at November 17, 2002 11:45 AM