Herbert Hoover - an Uncommon Man Brought Down by the Great Depression

By Goode, Stephen | The World and I, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Herbert Hoover - an Uncommon Man Brought Down by the Great Depression


Goode, Stephen, The World and I


Stephen Goode is senior writer for Insight magazine.

He must have been on top of the world. In 1928, Republican Herbert Hoover took on Democrat Al Smith, the popular New York governor, and defeated him by the widest spread in electoral votes ever in a presidential election up to that time. Hoover carried forty out of forty-eight states, for an electoral vote tally of 444 to 87.

It was a much-celebrated victory. Times were good. The economy appeared robust, with many Americans sharing in new wealth. Republicans were elated. Only four years later, however, Hoover lost to another New York governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by an even greater margin, setting yet another record in presidential elections. In the 1932 debacle, FDR won forty-two states to Hoover's six, with 479 electoral votes going to Roosevelt and a measly 59 to Hoover.

At the beginning of his presidency, Herbert Hoover was a highly regarded statesman, with a solid reputation as an able mining engineer and self-made millionaire. He was a capable administrator who had organized and supervised the successful feeding and clothing of millions in a Europe ravaged by World War I.

Right after World War I, Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter, who was later to sit on the Supreme Court, called Hoover "a truly great man." And in 1920, no less a figure than Franklin Roosevelt, who was to defeat him so overwhelmingly in 1932, wrote a friend that "I had some nice talks with Herbert Hoover before he went West for Christmas. He is certainly a wonder, and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There could not be a better one."

Many agreed. Hoover was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate as early as the 1920 election. For quite a number of Americans, he represented the best elements of Republican progressivism, the wing of the party that continued the activist role in politics personified by Teddy Roosevelt and stood opposed to the laissez-faire policies advocated by such Republican presidents as William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge.

By 1932, at the end of his one term as president, however, Hoover had become the most despised and ridiculed man in America, the very symbol of cold, uncaring, and inefficient government at its worst. The man who had been known for getting things done and done well was now the man who could do no right at all.

THE GREAT DEPRESSION

What had happened? The Great Depression. On October 19, 1929, hardly eight months into Hoover's administration, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed on what has come to be known as Black Friday. Hoover had expected a financial crisis and had warned on several occasions against what he regarded as the soft financial policies (too much easy credit) of President Coolidge and Andrew Mellon, Coolidge's secretary of the treasury, even before he became a candidate for the presidency.

Hoover had thought that the boom of the 1920s was shaky and that the roaring market would falter. But no one anticipated the depth or seriousness of the long economic slump that followed the stock market's crash. Unemployment stood at 3.2 percent in 1929, prior to the collapse. By 1933, it had risen to 24.9 percent and by 1934, two years after Hoover left office, it reached 26.7 percent.

That meant that many Americans went hungry. Many lost their homes, unable to keep up their mortgages, and millions looked for work when there were no jobs to be had. Long lines formed at big-city soup kitchens. In rural America, men and sometimes whole families wandered the country, looking for work.

For all this Hoover was blamed--which wasn't fair, even to contemporary observers. The great political commentator and observer Will Rogers, a Democrat and no great fan of Republicans, saw that it wasn't and pointed this out. "Nobody ever asked Coolidge to fix a thing" when things were going well and people were getting rich, Rogers said.

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