The Great Depression Coulda Been Worse: What If Herbert Hoover Had Twitter?
Happy Day Before Half-Priced Easter Chocolate Day, Wonkers! Time to wrap up our Wonkette Book Club discussion of Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal, by Erich Rauchway, a historian at UC-Davis. We're increasingly convinced the book might have just as well been titled Herbert Hoover: Christ, What An Asshole! As ever, even if you haven't finished the reading, jump in anyway -- there won't be a test!
Winter War (buy it with this Amazon linky and Wonkette gets a little kickback!) examines the period between Franklin D. Roosevelt's November 8,1932 election victory and his inauguration on March 4, 1932. Thanks to the 20th Amendment, FDR was the very last president-elect to have such a long transition period, and Hoover did all he could to undercut the incoming president and his New Deal. Rauchway makes clear Hoover's opposition to Roosevelt was rooted in sincere conservative economic principle. Hoover really did believe, as he said at a speech in Madison Square Garden shortly before the election, that if the New Deal were enacted, then "the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of millions of farms," and America would never be the same. You might think the demonstrable lack of complete economic collapse might have been a bit persuasive, but Hoover remained convinced socialism and disaster were just around the corner.
But on top of that principled opposition, Hoover was a very bitter, petty butthead. At every turn, he refused to do anything that might help Roosevelt, and kept trying to convince the president-elect that the only way to end the depression was to abandon the New Deal and please just continue Hoover policies. Hoover wasn't able to dissuade Roosevelt, but he did manage to set the agenda for the Republican Party, essentially forever. His apocalyptic warnings about Big Government and its supposedly disastrous effects on capitalism, says Rauchway,
would echo for decades, a knell reminding Republicans that the New Deal was not only undesirable policy but a catastrophe that would destroy American institutions, and that its supporters were not merely erroneous opponents but enemies of the American way.
Gee, that sounds more than a little familiar.
For the Ladies
Rauchway has a knack for fleshing out relatively obscure figures in both leaders' orbits, like the absolutely wonderful Molly Dewson, a labor and social activist who joined Roosevelt's 1930 reelection campaign for governor of New York, then headed up the Democratic National Campaign Committee's Women's Division in 1932. There, she appears to have virtually invented many of the communications strategies we'd now recognize in modern campaigning. She may not have used the term "message discipline," but she certainly made it integral to the Roosevelt campaign. Dewson and Eleanor Roosevelt, working from back-to back desks, had staff at the Women's Division write
a series of flyers, each printed on a different color of paper to ease accurate assembly into comprehensive packets, and each addressing a single issue. Rather than bearing the imprint of the Women's Division, they were attributed, accurately if vaguely, to the Democratic National Campaign Committee. This was because, Dewson said, "we feared some men might be prejudiced by material put out over the Women's Division name." Dewson meant the leaflets to provide "in readable shape… points to be stressed by the 'grass trampers'" when they went out into the field to canvass. One flyer urged voters to consider "how Governor Roosevelt acted while President Hoover waited" in the matter of unemployment relief.
Dewson also organized, down to neighborhood precinct representatives, a system to make sure the talking points in those flyers made it to voters. The campaign sent "respected neighbors," armed with the packets, to strike up conversations about Roosevelt and the New Deal in "town homes, farm kitchens, even in city tenements and miner's shacks," as Dewson wrote. Social media was a lot more social then.
The Wellesley-educated Dewson was very much a feminist and progressive, and chafed at the notion that her politics need be restricted by her gender, because after all, women had been essential to passing labor laws and other progressive reforms. Little surprise, then, that she once threatened Roosevelt he'd better not pigeonhole her: "Franklin, if you ever mortify me by making a speech specifically addressed to women I shall never forgive you. Women, by and large, are just as much concerned with your opinions on general public questions as men are, by and large."
I have to admit I was just plain charmed by Rauchway's portrait of Dewson's personal ambivalence toward Frances Perkins. Dewson worked tirelessly to get Roosevelt to name Perkins as Labor secretary, even though
Dewson did not especially like Perkins and they were "never personal friends." She thought Perkins "intellectually arrogant," impatient, and generally devoid of "human understanding." Dewson once asked Perkins if she had read a particular novel, only to be told, "I would not waste my time on a novel."
Put us on Team Dewson. But because she and Perkins "worked for a common interest without misunderstanding" when it came to labor, and what was even then called "social justice," Dewson was the fiction-snubber's biggest supporter. Once the election was won, she campaigned for Perkins's nomination with as much organization and effort as she'd brought to getting Roosevelt elected. That campaign involved overcoming Perkins's own resistance to the job -- Perkins feared it would throw her family into chaos. Dewson said if Perkins wouldn't take the risk, "a hundred years might go by before any other woman would ever be asked." She followed that up with another lovely threat: "Frances, you do the right thing. I'll murder you if you don't!"
Dewson herself turned down an offer to work in the Roosevelt administration, because her "lifelong partner, Polly Porter, had no interest in moving to Washington, and so Dewson refused Roosevelt's suggestion that she should." When Dewson eventually gave in and took a job with the Social Security Board in 1937, Porter stayed home in New York, and Dewson left the job after nine months.
She shows up again in the book's final chapter. Remember Hoover's warning that a Roosevelt victory would lead to grass growing in the streets? During Roosevelt's inaugural parade, Dewson "was vastly entertained to see 'four husky Negroes pushing lawn mowers down Pennsylvania Avenue.'" Someone get me a biography of Molly Dewson, please!
Hitler? Hitler Who?
Hoover's animus toward Roosevelt even extended to being a dick about foreign policy. When Hoover's secretary of State, Henry Stimson, wanted to brief the president-elect in December 1932, Hoover initially said no. Stimson was angry at Hoover for what looked like pure partisanship, or personal spite at the guy who'd defeated him (not that the fussy Stimson would use a low word like "guy"). Hoover told Stimson that Roosevelt shouldn't get any inside knowledge of world affairs because Roosevelt was a "very dangerous and contrary man" who was not to be trusted.
Eventually, the stalemate was broken when Hoover's ambassador to France, Walter Edge, tendered his resignation, writing to Stimson, "I seem to be filling a post without function." Edge also wanted Hoover to make the reason for the resignation public, and Stimson used that to convince Hoover to let him brief Roosevelt, as long as Roosevelt asked Hoover first. That nicety taken care of, Hoover assented. Even then, Stimson wrote, Hoover was still "very jumpy about my going at all, and is sure… that something untoward will happen."
Roosevelt and Stimson met without incident in early January of 1933, talked for hours, and largely agreed on the threats posed by fascism in Europe and Japan's invasion of Manchuria. In the coming months, Stimson grew more and more disgusted at Hoover, although he was no fan of Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's choice for secretary of State. Hoover, for his part, remained in a state of permasnit -- even when Roosevelt met with him at the White House, Hoover explained to an aide there must be no photos: "I never will be photographed with him. I have too much respect for myself." Christ, what an asshole.
At the end of January, Adolf Hitler, despite the Nazi party's failure to win an electoral majority, managed to get himself named Chancellor of Germany. Rauchway deploys a little rueful irony here, noting the Nazis campaigned on a promise to "enable Germans to cast off all burdens and regain national greatness," ahem. And that the coalition of President Paul von Hindenberg had "campaigned, relatively ineffectively, by deploring Nazis' violence and their intention to deprive women of their liberties." AHEM. Rauchway at least refrains from suggesting Hindenberg should have had a stronger ground game in the Upper Midwest.
Roosevelt was justly worried about Hitler, while Hoover, who didn't especially care about foreign policy, considered fascism just one more weird foreign fad the USA needn't be overly concerned by. He "dismissed the threat of war on the continent" because surely other European nations would easily stop any German aggression -- a weird conclusion for a guy who first became famous for his skill in organizing relief efforts in Europe following the Great War. Roosevelt was alarmed by Hitler, not just for the prospects of war in Europe, but also because he saw a current of support for fascism in America, too.
Citizen Hearst Makes His Own Movie
Which brings us to a delightfully weird not-quite-digression I'll write more about soon, involving William Randolph Hearst, the publisher, isolationist, and reputed sled aficionado (Orson Welles wouldn't lie). You see, Hearst supported Roosevelt in 1932, but only after FDR picked Hearst's real candidate, John Nance Garner, for veep. Hearst thought it would be fun to make the case for strongman government, so he helped finance, and offered script advice on, a bizarre clusterfuck of a movie called Gabriel Over The White House, adapted from an obscure novel.
The plot is just nuts: An irresponsible drunk president (Walter Huston) is happy to be a party tool, hands out favors to his rich buddies, and ignores the Great Depression. But while driving his own limousine 98 miles an hour, he crashes and nearly dies. He's touched by angel, wakes up from his coma, and sets to work fixing America!
He quickly abolishes Congress, declares a national emergency, suspends the Constitution, puts an "Army of the Unemployed" to work on vast public works projects, and has gangsters (scary foreigns!) rounded up and shot without trial -- in front of the Statue of Liberty. The movie ends on a triumphant note: President Definitely Not Hearst warns the US's allies and enemies he'll destroy them with an aerial superweapon unless they disarm, and a Pax Americana ensues. His mission accomplished, the angel leaves his body and he croaks. No, there's no postscript on what happens to the nation after that. It's fine, forever, duh.
Holy shit, I need to see that.
Louis B. Mayer said, after seeing the initial cut, "Put that picture in its can, take it back to the studio, and lock it up." But after some edits aimed at making it a teensy bit less fascist (Congress votes to give up all power, for instance), the thing went into release shortly after Roosevelt took office; happily, it sank almost without leaving a mark on the culture. Roosevelt, aware that Hearst needed placating, sent a letter saying "how pleased I am with the changes which you made" and tepidly faint-praising the incoherent mess.
I think it is an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help. Several people have seen it with us at the White House and to every one of them it was tremendously interesting. Some of these people said they never went to movies or cared for them but they think this a most unusual picture.
FDR never offered any details on how he thought the picture might "do much to help," and at best, the movie may have made enough to cover the costs of its production before it disappeared. Thank heaven for DVDs (look! another Amazon kickback linky!) and film freaks who appreciate really weird movies! I promise once I see it, I'll do a "History Science Theater 3000" for you.
Crisis? What Crisis?
As inauguration day approached, the financial panic worsened, with banks failing left and right. Rauchway gives us even more reason to detest Hoover in his penultimate chapter -- or rather, Hoover gave us that, while Rauchway makes Hoover's ideology and inaction clear to readers who may only remember that Hoover was roundly condemned for "doing nothing."
Hoover had a simple conservative vision of how the Depression would end --the only possible way it could end, in Hoover's view, and it was as Republican as you can possibly get. Bank panics were a "necessary, if violent, purging of the system":
The weak banks must fail for the good of the system. They had made ill-advised loans to people and businesses that could not pay. Debtors who could not pay must go bankrupt. Banks must likewise write off bad debts, and if, having done so, they did not have sufficient resources to resume ordinary operations, they must go out of business. Eventually, this process of liquidation would reach a point at which all the loans that represented illusory value would be gone, the system would be clear of bad debt, and lending could resume normally.
And if that meant people panicked and pulled money out of banks that were solvent, throwing them into instability, so it goes. Of course, the panic threatened more than just banks: since Federal Reserve banks had to exchange gold for paper currency, the USA's own gold reserves could be drained if the panics continued. Bummer, but it was a risk Hoover had to take -- and Rauchway documents multiple times when Hoover insisted he could do nothing, but hoped the collapse would wait to happen on Roosevelt's watch, ha ha, wouldn't that show HIM. In the meantime, state after state declared "bank holidays" to stop panics by keeping people from withdrawing cash the banks didn't have.
Hey, want another reason to detest Henry Ford, as if the antisemitism and union busting weren't enough? He refused an entreaty by Hoover financial officials to publicly state he wouldn't withdraw his millions from a teetering Michigan bank. Instead, Ford told them he planned to demand full payment of the $7.5 million he had in that bank, plus another $25 million from a different bank that was healthy at that point, but would undoubtedly fail if he withdrew his funds. No, he was not impressed by the cabinet officials' predictions that the nation's financial system would almost certainly fail, perhaps leading to a revolution. Instead, Michigan state officials declared a holiday, froze withdrawals to five percent of total assets, and the banks limped along.
Hoover and Roosevelt both knew that a now-obscure law, the "Trading with the Enemy Act" from WW I, gave the president the power to unilaterally stop "currency hoarding" in an emergency. But Hoover refused to do anything, while Roosevelt did all he could to make sure he'd have the legal basis to declare a national bank holiday.
Hoover, meanwhile, directed an aide to discreetly withdraw $10,000 from his own bank. Gotta preserve the fundamentals. Hey, remember how the economy would have been better off in 2008-09 if only George Bush (and then Barack Obama) had let GM and Chrysler collapse?
Even with less than three weeks left in his term, Hoover pressured Roosevelt to renounce the New Deal, and to make "three declarations" that Hoover thought would stabilize the banks. Roosevelt must promise not to pursue inflationary policy or leave the gold standard, pledge to balance the budget immediately, and renounce his plans for vast public works projects. Roosevelt refused, and indeed did the exact opposite once in office, and the recovery began. Nonetheless, Hoover complained about the episode in his memoir, in a chapter with the heading "SOME REASONS WHY ROOSEVELT REFUSED TO COOPERATE."
Hoover didn't want "compromise," he wanted capitulation, but his myth became a dominant narrative -- As Rauchway notes elsewhere, it even infected Barack Obama, who kept trying to win Republican cooperation on the 2008 stimulus -- resulting in a far less robust recovery and never-ending Republican enmity anyway. Damn you, Herbert Hoover!
Then FDR was inaugurated, things slowly got better, and Republicans kept hating the New Deal forever.
[Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal, by Erich Rauchway. Hardcover: $19.48, Kindle ebook: $18.99)]
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