Josh Marshall is right about Herbert Hoover, and he’s right about Jonah Goldberg, the latter of whom is, of course, a buffoon.
There’s no use reiterating all the ways that Hoover was or was not substantively responsive to the depression. Notwithstanding Goldberg’s insistence that Hoover was “not this stand-pat, do-nothing guy,” Hoover simply failed for the near-duration of his presidency to comprehend the enormity what was happening. It’s not the case, obviously, that he did nothing — but his public demeanor was weirdly disconnected from the crisis. In his first press conference after the stock market crash, Hoover talked about Iceland. Two weeks later, he insisted that “any lack of confidence in the economic future and the basic strength of business in the United States is simply foolish,” a point he reiterated in his State of the Union message the following month:
I am convinced that through these measures we have reestablished confidence. Wages should remain stable. A very large degree of industrial unemployment and suffering which would otherwise have occurred has been prevented. Agricultural prices have reflected the returning confidence. The measures taken must be vigorously pursued until normal conditions are restored.
Throughout 1930, Hoover continued to insist that the nation’s economic fundamentals, so to speak, were strong and that deficit spending would prove disastrous. In February, he warned against a “general expansion of public expenditure,” insisting that Congressional priorities should focus on maintaining a balanced budget. March, he claimed that “All the evidences indicate that the worst effects of the crash upon employment will have been passed during the next 60 days.” In October, he rejected calls for a special Congressional session to address unemployment, insisting that the nation’s “sense of voluntary organization” was sufficient to see it through. The worse conditions became, the more Hoover repeated his philosophy of volunteerism and insisted that local relief efforts were adequate. As the winter of 1931-32 approached, he publicized a series of letters from state governors who claimed (incorrectly) that public and private cooperation would enable them to “undertake their own problem” without any broader federal effort.
And so it continued for the rest of his term. At every point, Hoover congratulated the government for its modest spending increases on public works while expressing even greater enthusiasm for holding the line on budgets and not allowing public debt to increase. He spoke warmly of veterans while swatting away any efforts to broaden pension eligibility or provide early benefits to veterans of the Great War. (Indeed, Hoover’s arguably most aggressive “intervention” during his presidency was to evict the Bonus Expeditionary Force from their tents on the Anacostia flats.) When an emergency relief and public works bill appeared in the House in May 1932, Hoover freaked out, describing it as “the most gigantic pork barrel ever proposed” and an “unexampled raid on the Public Treasury.” When it eventually passed in July, he crowed about the removal of $100 million in “charity” and the reduction of public works spending by more than 75 percent from the original bill. Meantime, he urged people to “make a real contribution to employment” by purchasing cars.
There’s nothing profoundly “interventionist” about this, Goldberg’s claims to the contrary. Anyone who examines Hoover’s work in response to the Belgian food crisis as well as his post-war relief efforts in Germany and Russia knows that his chief asset was a skill for coordinating the activities of private agencies who were actually capable of meeting the needs of the moment. (And anyone who looks at Hoover’s response as Commerce Secretary to the 1927 Mississippi Flood will know as well that he also anticipated George W. Bush’s skill at allowing black people to writhe in squalor.) But the fact that Hoover rejected the advice of liquidationists like Andrew Mellon doesn’t make him a Keynesian. Though Hoover recognized that there were structural causes of the depression, he did not envision structural solutions. Rather, he preferred to view it as a natural disaster — a flood or a drought — that could be weathered through mere cooperation, voluntarism, positive thinking and elbow grease. He brought his impressive — but limited — talents to bear on a problem that was beyond his comprehension. And so by 1932, there were very good reasons for Americans to pelt their president with debris on the campaign trail and to deride his languid — and not very progressive — response to it all.