In July of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to rout the so-called “bonus army”: US veterans who had come to Washington, D.C., seeking advance bonus payments.
During the night, MacArthur used tanks to drive the veterans and their families out of their makeshift settlements, after which infantry prodded them with bayonets, fired tear-gas canisters, and torched their shelters.
No episode, writes William Leuchtenburg in Herbert Hoover: The 31st President, 1929-1933, “so fixed in the mind of Americans the conviction that Hoover was cold and heartless.”
Leuchtenburg, an emeritus professor of history at the University of North Carolina and a Franklin Roosevelt scholar, argues convincingly that Hoover wasn’t responsible for the Great Depression, but was in fact a “more complex, more interesting man” than many caricatures of him have suggested.
However, as much as Hoover was a captive of the Great Depression, he also unwittingly perpetuated it.
Born in 1874 to an Iowa Quaker family and reared an orphan in Oregon, Hoover knew deprivation first hand. Yet he went on to become a Stanford University-educated engineer and self-made millionaire.
Following World War I, he chaired President Woodrow Wilson’s Commission for Relief in Belgium, which provided that country with food. Without a man of Hoover’s daring, declares Leuchtenburg, “many thousands would have starved to death.” Hoover later headed similarly successful humanitarian efforts in Britain and Russia.
But Hoover also possessed darker qualities, such as insistence on total deference to his will. Incapable of accepting criticism, he was seen by many as an “empire builder” who routinely exceeded the boundaries of legality and his authority. As President Warren G. Harding’s Commerce secretary, Hoover issued “edicts that he had no authority to issue or that were forbidden by an act of Congress ... ordered all amateurs off the airwaves; empowered himself to issue licenses; and in contravention of both U.S. and international law ... assigned frequencies.”
In seizing bureaus from his fellow cabinet members, he gained greater influence in both US domestic and foreign affairs, but also earned much enmity.
After a 1927 flood in Mississippi, Hoover, then Calvin Coolidge’s Commerce secretary, “sparked a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million; gathered an armada of six-hundred vessels, and put together 150 tent cities as havens for multitudes of evacuees.” Widely praised for his actions, Hoover easily won election as America’s 31st president.
Early in his term, Hoover won high marks for progressive measures, such as the National Institute of Health; construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River; and labor, banking, and penal reforms. But his unfortunate place in American history was sealed in the wake of the “Black Thursday” stock market crash of Oct. 24, 1929.
In the months immediately following, Hoover coaxed the Federal Reserve Board to increase the money supply and to make more credit available. But his insistence that, “Prosperity is just around the corner” rang hollow in the face of rapidly growing unemployment and mounting bank failures. In the words of journalist Walter Lippmann, Hoover came to seem “an irresolute and easily frightened man.”
He also, in 1930, signed the widely criticized and protectionist “Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act,” which served to deepen the already entrenched Depression.
Roosevelt’s easy reelection as New York’s governor that same year made him Hoover’s likely challenger in 1932. Even as Roosevelt’s popularity was growing, Hoover went out steadfastly refusing federal assistance in favor of municipal and private solutions – saying that “prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public treasury.”
But America’s localities were suffering and Hoover’s inaction only added to their difficulties. Shacks referred to as “Hoovervilles” began to spring up – monuments to Hoover’s ineptitude and seeming lack of empathy.
Hoover’s petty dislike for Roosevelt became even more apparent when, following the signing of the Emergency Banking Act in March of 1933, he clumsily denounced it as “a move to gigantic socialism [bound to] raise the most appalling difficulties” – even though Hoover himself was largely responsible for drafting it.
But after retiring to a suite of rooms in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Hoover’s reputation received a boost when President Truman appointed him to head his European relief effort following World War II.
In the end, Leuchtenburg notes that Hoover’s legacy was more than the sum of his four years as president. After Hoover’s passing in 1964, an associate remarked that due to his work in Europe he had “fed more people and saved more lives than any other man in history.” In that sense, Herbert Hoover was truly “The Great Humanitarian.”