One of the great myths of American history is that President Herbert Hoover was a proponent of laissez-faire economics, and that his purported hands-off approach led the US to economic ruin.
In fact, Hoover was anything but hands off once the economy began tanking in 1929, and his meddling made things far worse than they otherwise would have been.
According to economist Murray Rothbard, the government under Hoover embarked on the “Hoover New Deal,” an anti-depression program marked by extensive governmental economic planning and intervention – including bolstering of wage rates and prices, expansion of credit, propping up of weak firms, and increased government spending (e.g., subsidies to unemployment and public works).
“Hoover, from the very start of the depression, set his course unerringly toward the violation of all the laissez-faire canons,” according to Rothbard. “As a consequence, he left office with the economy at the depths of an unprecedented depression, with no recovery in sight after three and a half years, and with unemployment at the terrible and unprecedented rate of 25 percent of the labor force.”
So why does Hoover, 80 years later, have this reputation as someone who did nothing?
St. Lawrence University professor Steven Horowitz, writing at the Coordination Problem blog, looks to pop culture as a potential source:
I wonder, in all seriousness, how much the musical Annie is responsible for the various myths surrounding both Hoover and FDR. Hoover is played as the cause of their misery (no, there’s no indication that the expansionary monetary policy of the 1920s and the errors of the Hoover-era Fed might be part of the problem). Although the lyrics to “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” don’t explicitly blame his inaction for the Depression, the contrast between the way he is treated and the reverence for FDR (who is actually a character in the musical) and the lyrics to “New Deal for Christmas,” which clearly credit FDR for improving things, couldn’t be more obvious. It need not be explicitly said that Hoover “did nothing,” when it’s clear that FDR supposedly saved us from the disaster Hoover created by giving us the New Deal.
Then there is the absolutely ridiculous scene in the Cabinet meeting where Annie reprises “Tomorrow” with the whole Cabinet singing along. (It’s almost as bad as this piece of Rooseveltian propaganda, which if you’ve never seen, you should.) Add it all up and you have a very well-known piece of popular culture that promulgates the narrative of Hoover as uncaring villain who let the people starve and FDR as heart-of-gold president who stepped in and saved them. That narrative is consistent with the Hoover myth, not to mention the related myths that the two presidencies were dramatically different with respect to policy and that the New Deal was responsible for ending the Great Depression.
Horowitz closes by pointing out a pair of ironies: One, that people at the time were much more aware of Hoover’s interventionism and the similarities between Hoover’s policies and those of FDR. And, two, that the original “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip drawn by Harold Gray was fanatically ANTI-New Deal.
The musical turned the comic strip’s politics 180 degrees in its treacly treatment of the New Deal, Horowitz writes.
Of course, given the average American’s understanding of history, many don’t even know there was a president named Hoover, so trying to identify the commonalities between Hoover and Roosevelt, and the problems associated with their heavy-handed approaches, would seem quite the uphill struggle.
3 thoughts on “Hoover, Roosevelt and ‘Annie’”
Super post. It seems like almost nobody knows that. I’ve always thought the comparisons with the 1921 recession should be highlighted far more.
Interesting you should mention the 1921 recession. Here in South Carolina, the Great Depression pretty much started in 1920 and went through until the end of World War II. We were so dependent on cotton that when cotton price plummeted with the end of the First World War, South Carolina’s economy never really bounced back. The Roaring ’20s were anything but here.
Thanks for the comment.
That’s something I never thought of. I suspect it was pretty much the same here, different crop, same problem. During the Great war they pushed production so much that surpluses were common into the at least the early 20’s.
I’ll have to look into that.
Thanks for the reply