Great Depression and Herbert Hoover

Did Republican policies create the villains in the story of the Great Depression?

World War I created a demand on Iowa farmers to produce more, even when their sons and hired help were being drafted into the army. The government appealed to farmers’ patriotism and pocketbooks. “Food Will Win the War” posters went up everywhere. Even more important, the federal government guaranteed high prices on corn, wheat and livestock. Iowa farmers responded enthusiastically, increasing their herds, putting more acres under cultivation and investing in new equipment and facilities. And production did increase rapidly. So did the price of land.

That production capacity did not go away when the war ended in 1918. Farmers continued to produce record outputs. European fields were again coming under cultivation after the war and those countries needed to buy less from the United States. American agriculture surpluses began to build up. In May 1920, the federal government stopped guaranteeing high prices, and suddenly prices for farm goods plunged. Land prices did also, and those who had speculated in rising land values were caught unable to pay off their loans. Many rural banks that had financed those loans went bankrupt, and the Midwest began a decade of hard times. Farmers continued to produce surpluses and prices sank even lower. For Iowa, the Depression did not start in 1929 when the stock market crashed. It only got worse.

Herbert Hoover Faces National Crisis

Iowa-born Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1928 as a Republican. He had a distinguished career as a mining engineer and achieved international fame and respect in leading efforts to feed starving Europeans, especially children, after the war. In 1921, he started an eight-year career as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Soon after assuming office, Hoover faced a national crisis. Almost half of American families engaged in agriculture at the time. When they did not have the money to purchase manufactured items, factories couldn’t sell their products and they laid off workers. This created a downward spiral because unemployed workers could not buy products either. The trouble spread across the entire economy.

In October 1929, the value of stocks on the New York Stock Exchange started a sudden downward slide that touched off panic among investors. As in land prices earlier, there had been speculation in stocks that exceeded the companies’ capacity to produce. Banks and financial institutions that had loaned money began to fail, and credit necessary to keep the economy moving became hard to acquire.

Through Hoover’s presidency, the situation was bleak and many blamed the president. Up to one-third of the work force was unemployed. More and more families were homeless, and many young people took to the road in the desperate hope of finding work. In Iowa, farm families had the advantage of large gardens and homegrown livestock but struggled to find the cash to pay their taxes and necessary purchases. City families struggled. Before this period, welfare programs were very limited and taking government assistance was seen by many as a disgrace.

Some farmers threatened with the loss of their farms and homes became desperate. Farmers in eastern Iowa opposed a state law requiring their dairy cattle to be tested for tuberculosis. They formed gangs to threaten veterinarians doing the testing. The governor had to provide special protection for the vets. In western Iowa, farmers were so angry with a judge who refused to promise not to hear cases of farm foreclosure that they dragged him out of the courtroom into the country and threatened to lynch him. They did not carry through but the governor had to call out the National Guard to restore order. Would the country collapse into chaos?

Hoover Loses Ground, Roosevelt Claims the Election

In 1932, with Hoover’s popularity very low, the nation elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, governor of New York. He appointed Iowa’s Henry A. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, and Wallace quickly created a very ambitious plan to raise farm prices. Since surpluses were keeping prices low, the federal government promised a higher guaranteed price to those farmers who would reduce the number of acres they farmed and the size of their herds. This did provide some relief to farmers but, along with other federal programs, it also greatly expanded the role of the federal government that some people opposed.

The 1930s was a decade of struggle for Iowans along with the rest of the nation. In 1939, Germany’s invasion of Poland touched off a second major war in Europe. America was drawn into the conflict when Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Suddenly, there was once again strong demand for manufacturing and farm goods, and employment numbers rose dramatically.

The Great Depression, however, continued to have a lasting impact. Programs like Social Security were adopted to provide a safety net in times of economic stress, and individuals who had gone through the tough times never forgot it. Through the Depression and World War II, the role of the federal government grew tremendously and Iowans found themselves connected to the outside world in new ways.

Supporting Questions

Whose interests did Republican policies serve businesses, individuals or themselves?

  • “A Chicken for Every Pot” Political Ad, October 30, 1928 (Document)
  • Inaugural Address of Herbert Hoover, March 4, 1929 (Document)
  • Letter from Arthur Smith to President Hoover, August 17, 1930 (Document)
  • Letter from Herbert Hoover to Herbert S. Crocker, May 21, 1932 (Document)

Do you feel Herbert Hoover’s policies demonstrated an understanding of the plight of individuals during the Great Depression or was he a “do-nothing” President?

  • Crowds Outside New York Stock Exchange, 1929 (Image)
  • Herbert Hoover’s Response to Questions by the Press, October 4, 1930 (Document)
  • “Bonus Army” Assembles on U.S. Capitol Steps, 1932 (Image)
  • “Veterans March to Washington” Broadside, December 5, 1932 (Document)
  • Dwellers in Circleville’s “Hooverville” in central Ohio, 1938 (Image)
  • Recovery: A Federal Writer’s Project Interview with Mr. W.W. Tarpley, January 5, 1940 (Document)

Great Depression and Herbert Hoover Source Set Teaching Guide Printable Image and Document Guide

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