It is one of the enduring myths of American history that President Herbert Hoover was an unfeeling chief executive who presided over the American economy’s slide into the Great Depression without caring to do much of anything about it. It isn’t just later generations who think this way -- by the time Hoover ran for re-election against Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the shantytowns of the poor were being called Hoovertowns and the newspapers that covered the homeless sleeping on park benches were known as Hoover blankets.

Behind The Myth

The truth behind Hoover and his administration’s attempts to battle the Great Depression is more nuanced. Although Hoover could seem stiff and formal in public, he was actually a man with a great deal of compassion. As head of the American Relief Administration after World War I, he oversaw efforts to help millions of Europeans left starving and homeless by the war. And as Secretary of Commerce under Warren G. Harding and later Calvin Coolidge, Hoover encouraged American businesses to standardize practices and fought to regulate new industries like aviation. When the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, not even a year into the presidency he had won by a landslide, Hoover thought the crash was part of a temporary recession, as did many experts at the time.

Volunteerism

Hoover believed in volunteerism to help the poor with funds from private sources, and he also believed in working behind the scenes to encourage local governments to solve their own problems by increasing public works expenditures. He set up agencies such as the President’s Emergency Council on Employment and the President’s Organization for Unemployment Relief and asked Congress to increase public work’s spending. But he was against the price controls and welfare that he considered socialism.

Too Little

As the Depression deepened and more people were out of work, Hoover put into motion government intervention efforts like the Emergency Relief Construction Act, which authorized Federal funds for public works projects. This was, however, too little, too late. While Hoover can’t be faulted for not caring about the American people in the Great Depression, it is likely that he did not fully comprehend the enormity of the crisis Americans faced, and that he did not move quickly enough to face it. Furthermore, politically-speaking, Hoover was unable to inspire confidence in the American people the way his successor Franklin Roosevelt would.

Hoover's Legacy

Roosevelt soundly defeated Hoover in 1932 and went on to establish the New Deal policies that, along with the advent of World War II, would help pull Americans out of the Great Depression. Ironically enough, as FDR adviser Rexford Tugwell was to write: “I once made a list of New Deal ventures begun during Hoover’s years as Secretary of Commerce and then as president…the New Deal owed much to what he had begun.”