Part 2 — The Great Humanitarian Stumbles
by Spencer Howard
At first, Hoover’s drought relief plan was widely praised; it seemed that he had come up with a perfect combination of Federal leadership and local control. The state and local committees went to work with enthusiasm. But as summer turned to fall and fall to winter, things didn’t go as planned. Local committees were overwhelmed with need. The railroads lost money and stopped providing discount rates. Any hope of private credit evaporated when it became clear that that much of the need was among those who couldn’t qualify for loans. The Red Cross appeared to be the last hope, but they too were overwhelmed. The national leadership committed $5 million to relief, but quickly discovered much more was needed. Unprepared for the scale of the disaster, the Red Cross attempted to slow-walk assistance, hoping the local relief committees would find a way to get the job done. Through December, the Red Cross response was limited to distributing free seeds for spring planting; only in January did they begin providing food relief.
By October, Hoover realized more was needed. He held conferences with Red Cross officials, community chest leaders, cabinet officers and bureaucrats, trying to plan a nationwide fund drive for the Red Cross. The minimum needed for bare subsistence relief seemed to be about $15 million, but he explored the possibility of a much bigger drive — up to $200 million — to support more generous nationwide relief, including the urban unemployed. Nothing came of these discussions.
December brought the opening of Congress (in those years, Congress met only from December to March) along with public pressure for Federal appropriations. Negotiations between a bipartisan group of Congressmen and the Secretary of Agriculture settled on a figure of $60 million, including money for food and clothing in addition to crop loans and other aid. But Democrats maneuvered to take some of the credit for the relief package and in a fit of political pique Hoover put his foot down, demanding no more than $25 million, and only loans, nothing for food relief. Members of both parties felt betrayed by Hoover’s intransigence, and after weeks of debate Congress finally settled on $45 million for crop loans.
Hoover continued to insist that the Red Cross could handle direct relief to impoverished families, even as the Red Cross struggled to provide aid in hard hit areas. At Hoover’s urging, the Red Cross told Congress they had enough money, but within days they began calling for a $10 million fund drive. Senator Joseph Robinson of Arkansas tried to call Hoover’s bluff — he proposed a bill to give $25 million in tax dollars to the Red Cross for food relief. In his public reply, President Hoover insisted it was “essential that we should maintain the sound American tradition and spirit of voluntary aid in such emergency and should not undermine that spirit which has made our Red Cross the outstanding guardian of our people in time of disaster.” He warned that “opening of the doors of the Federal Treasury” would inhibit voluntary donations and destroy “American ideals and American institutions.” The Red Cross leadership backed Hoover, fearing that Congress would drag them into providing relief for the urban unemployed. Hoover compromised on a bill for $20 million in additional loans, but with the provision that some of the money could be used to buy food; only $8 million was actually loaned as most of the needy couldn’t qualify for credit.
Through the first half of 1931, the Red Cross, with Hoover’s help, raised $10 million in addition to the original $5 million earmarked for relief. That $15 million provided food, clothing and supplies to over 600,000 farm families in 23 states, but it still wasn’t enough as thousands of families struggled to survive. Voters throughout the country wondered why Hoover was unwilling to spend tax dollars on food for those who were needy through no fault of their own, as he had done so effectively in Europe and Russia. And in his clumsy battle with Congress, Hoover burned much of the good will and political capital he would need for the new emergencies to come in 1931 and 1932.