On a Great Humanitarian

We all know how the President responded to the Great Depression, right? It’s been thoroughly documented in the history books and in governmental archives. But, before we look at that in a little more detail, let’s remember the man himself.

The President was known for his business knowledge. He’d been in government for some time, and his reputation was unimpeachable. He’d served two previous administrations in the cabinet as a secretary. Before that, during World War 1, the President had led efforts to bring support to the people of Belgium as they suffered extreme food shortages from the effects of much of the war being fought on their territory–and this was even before the United States entered the conflict. His name became synonymous with humanitarian efforts when then-President Woodrow Wilson asked him to lead American efforts at bringing supplies to Europe to help rebuild after the devastation of the Great War. Thus, the man who worked to deal with the Great Depression seemed the perfect man for the job because he knew how to deal with crises.

So, what did the President do to try to overcome the effects of having almost 25% unemployment, the banking system in tatters, Wall Street and the entire business community rattled, and people’s lives on the edge? Well, we have to remember that, at that time, no administration had intervened in the economy before. It’s difficult to believe, but it is so. The American tradition was that business and government were separate, and, while elected officials could affect the economy with laws and guidelines, actually and actively working to stimulate the economy had not been tried before. And when the President did it to combat the economic downturn, many people thought it was tantamount to treason or communism.

No, he knew that to do nothing would be the worst thing for the country. He promised and delivered, in his words, “the most gigantic program of economic defense and [economic] counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic.” And so it was. He put the government to work on the economy like no other Chief Executive before him. Public works programs, support for the failing banks, low-interest loans to corporations, and he ordered companies to not lay off people (which was among the first things companies did when hard times hit) knowing that incomes were still needed. In short, he did all he could to make the situation better. What else would you expect from a great humanitarian? He knew what people were going through.

And he tried to calm people’s fears about the economy as well. He called in reporters to show how he continued his daily routines as if to say, “look, all is well. It’s going to be ok.” He even tried to allay fears by coining the term “Depression” to indicate that, like people at times, even the economy could become depressed, and that bright days were ahead.

Sadly, as we know, it didn’t work. His name became synonymous not with humanitarianism but, rather, with the Great Depression itself.

But you can’t say Herbert Hoover didn’t try.