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Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

‘The day may come when my much cursed visit to Munich will be understood.’ Neville Chamberlain speaking to Margot Asquith, May, 1940.

‘You may gain temporary appeasement by a policy of concession to violence, but you do not gain lasting peace that way. It is a grave delusion to suppose that you can.’ Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary, speaking in May, 1938.

‘Appeasement’. Rarely has reaction to a word been so transformed by time, taking it from something worthy of the greatest praise to generating near-disgust. From common-sense avoidance of confrontation to cowardice rooted in ignoring the evidence, appeasement has gone from being a sensible policy for thoughtful politicians to something to be avoided at all costs. Why was it that this idea which was once so good has become so bad? Why was it followed with regard to Hitler and Mussolini in the thirties but not against, say, Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003?

In the 1930s, the world was dominated by the suffering caused by the ‘Great Depression’. The economic problems which were triggered by the Wall Street Crash in October, 1929, had seen unemployment rise, trade collapse, industrial production fall, share prices fall, incomes fall and wages fall. From New Zealand to New York, from Britain to Brazil, there was despair and fear, as people struggled to make ends meet. But there were countries that were making progress and there were leaders who promised hope. This was the age of the dictators and two of them in particular seemed to be working economic miracles. In the ‘red corner’, so to speak was Joseph Stalin, bringing industrial growth in the Communist Soviet Union thanks to his ‘Five Year Plans’, while in the ‘brown corner’, by contrast, was Germany’s right-wing dictator, Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi (National Socialist) policies were having a remarkable impact and transforming the country. The fact that no other major countries were doing anywhere near as well during the depression brought great envy and attention from the rest of the world.

Praise flooded in from some really rather well-respected people for both men. David Lloyd George, the British former Prime Minister, was one of those who expressed admiration for Hitler. After visiting the Führer, Lloyd George described him as a ‘George Washington of Germany…the greatest living German’. He was probably overwhelmed by the contrast between what he saw in Germany and the state of life in Britain, especially South Wales and the industrial heartlands of the country but, even so, it was a sad thing to hear from a great politician. He would later turn against Hitler, though, supporting Churchill’s ideas against appeasement but his reputation was seriously damaged. But he was far from alone in praising Hitler as there was widespread respect for his achievements across Europe and amongst several leading figures in the USA, most famously Henry Ford. The German economic recovery appeared to be so positive that most people were more than willing to overlook some of the tactics used and the shadowy side of some of the ideology.

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David Lloyd George, the ‘Welsh Wizard’, in 1932. His visits to Hitler in the 1930s undermined his status as an astute politician. (Author: Robert Sennecke; Source: here)

Likewise, there was praise for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin from many Western visitors who were shown neither the harsh realities of life behind the Five Year Plans nor the effects of the forced collectivisation of farms and the effects of that most terrible disaster, the Ukrainian Famine of 1933. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a famous writer, was one who praised Stalin, controversially defending the Show Trials and naively believing that there was no famine in the Ukraine. He encouraged people from  the West to go to the USSR to find work and a better standard of living. Many hundreds of people did move from the USA and elsewhere to find prosperity and hope in a ‘Communist paradise’ but few found what they were looking for, as Tim Tzouliadis records in his excellent study, ‘The Forsaken’. Shaw spoke well of Stalin, putting him among those ‘superior leaders’ who had emerged during the Russian Revolution. Again, he was not alone in his opinions, with people like WEB Du Bois, one of the US founders of the civil rights group the NAACP, and the British Socialists, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, adding their praise for Stalin. In most of the world, though, overall conditions seemed worse than in Germany or the USSR.

Times of economic hardship tend to make countries turn inwards as they seek to protect their own systems, economies and people. In the USA, the richest and most powerful country of the age, this was especially true as the challenges of the Depression went alongside the renewed commitment to isolationism to which it had re-committed itself after the Great War. The USA had retreated from world affairs since Woodrow Wilson had left the White House in  1920 so that, even though it was his “Fourteen Points” had shaped the post-war world, but the US Congress had rejected the dying man’s plans for their own contribution. The post-war treaties of 1919 had not been ratified by the USA and so they had turned their backs on the League of Nations, the most important single organisation that would try to maintain peace and ensure smoother relations between nations. The League had come into existence but was only a shadow of what it needed to be and responsibility for keeping countries in line if there were unresolved disputes, rested with the two old European Powers, Britain and France. Economically they both lacked the capacity to act and politically they did not have the will to act. And in neither country was there great commitment from the ordinary people to demand decisive action, as they faced the immediate hardships of the Twenties and Thirties, and so the ‘League of Nations’ drifted. The logical thinking was, “Why should Britain and France take on these extra burdens at a time when there was such economic hardship in their own lands? Why should their men, their resources, their armies have to travel the world to sort out problems that had nothing to do with them when they would see little by way of the benefits?” The absence of the USA from the League of Nations would be a central problem which would smooth the path to war immeasurably.

Other problems afflicted the League of Nations between the wars, though. Various countries were not allowed to join the League at first, notably Germany and the other Central Powers from the war, as well as the newly formed Communist state of the USSR. These absences were a natural reaction to the horrors and chaos of the Great war but the gaps at the table would prove significant, morally and psychologically as well as politically. Germany finally joined in 1926 but the sense of ‘rejection’ in those early years was strong in Germany, as was the feeling that they had been made scapegoats for all the problems of the war and were to be ‘second class’ citizens in the new world order. Hitler and the Nazis would stoke up these fires of anger which smouldered away during the 1920s. Leaving the League of Nations was one of Hitler’s first actions in 1933, one which impact on the development of appeasement.

The League of Nations actually enjoyed some successes in the 1920s, mainly because the problems that came its way were quite small and included countries which were not too powerful. These countries were willing to accept the ‘advice’ of the League, which allowed Britain and France to avoid having to use the tougher measures they had available, like sending in troops to settle disputes. The League’s strategies for survival included actions at a more ‘diplomatic’ level: writing letters, holding meetings, sending advisers, making speeches which would criticise countries in public (the use of ‘shame’ to bring change) and trade sanctions. In reality, the solving of disputes in places like Silesia, Bulgaria the Aaland Islands did not tax Britain and France too much. They also had success in dealing with issues to do with border disputes, refugees, prisoners of war, slavery and leprosy. But some things were not well handled, such as a dispute involving Italy in Corfu, the failure to address the whole issue of military disarmament (which had been a big dream of President Wilson’s) and the invasion of the Ruhr by France in 1923 after Germany failed to make its reparations payments. The Ruhr invasion actually indicated a major tension between Britain and France as each country would choose to act in its own interests rather than the League of Nations; the two were not willing or able to cooperate. The weaknesses of the League became even clearer in the 1930′s when they were dealing with bigger countries and when the ‘easy’ solutions were not accepted.

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Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA (1856-1924) (Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: here)

Anyway, things were generally ‘okay’ for the League of Nations in the 1920s but they were to get much tougher in the 1930s as the Depression started and countries became increasingly aggressive and nationalistic in such tough economic circumstances. Germany, as has been mentioned, was invited to join the League of Nations in 1926, following the Locarno Treaty which settled all remaining border disputes after the war. Germany took its place alongside Britain, France, Japan and Italy as one of the main players in the League of Nations. However, in 1933, Germany left the League as Adolf Hitler did not want to be subject to their system, advice or sanctions. The crisis for the League was exacerbated in that same year when Japan also left because it was in dispute over Manchuria (see below). This indicated a major weakness of the League of Nations: what could they do when countries and politicians didn’t want to listen to them? In contrast, a year later Stalin decided that the USSR would join the League which seemed to strengthen it but the fundamental flaws in the system were so clear by then that even the presence of the USSR made little difference: everything would still depend on good will, reasonableness and the willingness of Britain and France to act together in a decisive manner. And the odds on these being successful were not exactly high.

Appeasement might not have been mentioned much so far but all of these developments in the League of Nations were important as background to it. The most significant political development that would put the spotlight on appeasement, of course, was that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany on 30th January, 1933. He was invited to take on the role of Chancellor and he was determined to use this position to restore German power and pride by rebuilding the armed forces, revitalising the economy and creating a new Reich, a one party state that would end democracy. He set this process in motion as soon as he was in power, removing political opponents, closing down the Trades Unions, marginalising then attacking the Jews and so on. In time, he broke all of the restrictions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles: the army was increased to more than 100 000 troops, the air force was built up, warships and submarines were built, troops were sent into the Rhineland, land lost under the Treaty of Versailles was re-occupied and so on. This did not all happen overnight; it took several years, and it was often a tentative process because Hitler knew that the country was still vulnerable to a strong military action from Britain and France. Hitler could not be sure of how these two powers would react to his breaches of the treaty, but he did have some good clues as to what would probably happen and they served only to encourage him. After 1933, Germany was no longer subject to the League of Nations, but there could still be problems from London and Paris in the form of trade sanctions or even an invasion, so why was he increasingly confident that he would face no direct confrontation? Two events from the 1930s suggested that Britain and France would do all they could to avoid conflict, choosing talking over fighting and direct action; these events were the ‘Manchurian Crisis’ (1931-34) and the ‘Abyssinian Crisis (1935-36). Appeasement was pretty much a nailed on certainty when you see what happened with these two problems.

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Maps are needed here so let’s start with Manchuria, that’s away over in the north-east of China, where the Japanese were in control in 1931. The darker red section is the main region that they occupied. (Author: CIA; Source: here)

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And now a world map to show how far it was from Britain and France. Remember, in 1931, no one was making long journeys by plane; everything was by ship, making intervention across the globe both difficult and slow. Communications by telegram and increasingly by phone were possible. But Manchuria really was a long way away in the minds of most Europeans, so why bother? (Author: Wikiacc; Source: here)

The “Manchurian Crisis” was an expression of Japanese expansionism, which had really begun when it took control of Korea in 1910. This was all tied in with Japan’s economic growth and its desire to industrialise when it had very few of its own natural resources. To cope with this situation, the army led an invasion of Manchuria in north east China, effectively telling the politicians what to do. China raised the issue of the invasion with the League of Nations in 1931,  but the initial decision of the main powers was ‘to have a look at the problem’ and so they sent some officials to check things out. They also asked Japan to leave Manchuria but this was simply ignored and nothing was done about it. When the delegation reported in October, 1932, the delay itself was a sign in itself, the decision was to recommend that the Japanese that they should give Manchuria back to the Chinese. In February, 1933, the League held a  formal vote on the matter, two years after the case had been presented to them, and there was a unanimous vote to condemn Japan and demand their immediate withdrawal from China. In response, the Japanese simply got up and walked out, ignoring the League of Nations and staying in Manchuria.

The next stage in this dispute should have been public condemnation, a ban on the sale of weapons to Japan and a trade embargo, but with the USA not involved, any such ban on trade would simply have led to more trade between those two countries. What’s the point of a ban when the country you want to punish can just trade with someone else? Added to this, Britain and France needed any trading opportunities they could have with Japan as the Great Depression was causing serious economic hardship at home. The ‘Manchurian Crisis’ passed with no real changes and clear evidence that the League of Nations would not take decisive action, especially when there were such clear flaws in the process. Added to this, no one in Britain and France really cared about what was happening on the other side of the world; the majority of people and politicians simply saw no reason to fight over Manchuria. It had been only 13 years since the end of the Great War and few people had the appetite, money or willingness to fight – and Adolf Hitler was just one of those who took note.

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A map of Abyssinia in 1908 (Author: Ken Mayer; Source: here)

 

Africa and Europe showing the strategic importance of Abyssinia

The next major challenge to the League of Nations came with the “Abyssinian Crisis” which started in late 1934. Abyssinia was the name at the time for the country we know as Ethiopia. Being in East Africa, Abyssinia was a dispute that was much closer to Europe than Manchuria had been, and was one that touched on the interests of the great powers, but it followed a similar process and had a similar result. The dispute was based on the Italian dream of power and glory, an ambition linked with control of Abyssinia.

The man at the heart of the dispute was Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator who led Italy between 1922-1943. One of the great posers in political history, Mussolini had an ego almost as large as his chin and his torso, both of which he liked to thrust in the general direction of an adoring crowd. For Italy, he desired greatness, power and an empire; for himself he wanted glory and adoration from the people – and to be respected and feared by his enemies. Unfortunately, the chances of Mussolini or Italy being respected and feared in the mid-1930′s were rather low as the country was a bit of a laughing stock amongst the European powers, which could be traced back to the end of the Great War when their desire for land was pretty much passed over at Versailles. The Italian army had not performed with any real credit in the war, they had few colonies and little by way of industry to support a great military force. it was not actually that long since the army had actually been humiliated with defeat to Abyssinia  at the hands of Menelik II during the battle of Adwa in 1896. When Mussolini was looking for a target and an opportunity to build an Empire in the 1930s, Abyssinia was there, providing the land and resources as well as the chance for revenge and glory.

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Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Abyssinia was actually an important area of Africa for several powers. Control of it was useful for its proximity to the important sea lanes linked with the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and India, as well as the Middle East. For some time, Britain and France had held territory in the country as did the Italians. In 1934, there was a clash between Italian and Ethiopian forces at a place called Wel-Wel which was triggered by a border dispute focused on Italian Somaliland. The French and British noted that the Italians had moved beyond their borders in this dispute and it was referred to the League of Nations. Part of the problem was about whether Britain and France should support a potentially important Fascist European power or a small, more peripheral, African kingdom. Italy seemed to have greater significance for them in everyday affairs and economic business, so they both took care to do as little as possible to rock the boat. The decision was taken to ignore the law and so to avoid challenging Mussolini.

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Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), the last Emperor of Ethiopia. (Author: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection; Source: here). Haile Selassie was the leader of Abyssinina at the time of the Italian invasion. His dignified appeal for help from the League of Nations in June, a936, fell on deaf ears and he was forced into exile in Britain. In 1941, he was reinstalled as leader with British assistance. Today, Haile Selassie is revered as a god in Rastafarianism.

The big issue for Britain and France at the time was the growing fear about Germany’s military build-up in Europe, and the two main powers wanted to keep Italy as an ally in that struggle. In 1935, Britain and France said that neither side was really at fault in Abyssinia, hoping that it would all just settle down, but this was effectively telling Italy that, as long as they promised to help against Germany, they would be pretty much free to act as they wanted in Africa. Mussolini built up his forces and, to cut a long story short, launched an attack which led to war. Over several months, from October, 1935, to May, 1936, the fighting continued until the Italians declared victory. Mussolini had his empire and the adulation of the Italian people; and the League of Nations had been exposed as toothless once more. It had been both powerless and, more importantly, unwilling to act in a clear-cut dispute; Britain and France failed to do the right thing by protecting Abyssinia, a small state which needed support against a more powerful aggressor. They had acted out of pure self-interest in allowing Italy to act as it did. Again, Hitler took note of the actions and the arguments of the British and French; the message was pretty easy to understand.

Soon after the conflict ended, Mussolini took Italy into an alliance with Hitler, seeing his strength and clarity as a better model for leadership than the inertia and avoidance of Britain and France; their plan to keep Mussolini on their side had unravelled. This was in October, 1936, and the so-called ‘Rome-Berlin axis’ was to be the start of a great alliance across the Alps. It would lead to further cooperation and a strengthened unity in the joint venture to support the Fascist forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War which had started in July, 1936. This would be another example of the failure of the League of Nations to take decisive action to stop the rise of the dictators. And so all this is the background for appeasement, the failure of Britain, in particular, to stand up to Hitler’s expansionism in Germany ahead of World War II.

Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933. It was expected that he would be a ‘flash in the pan’, kept under control by the President, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), and various other experienced politicians. They got it slightly wrong, to say the least, so that Hitler and the Nazis stayed in power rather longer than had been expected, until May 1945, in fact. On Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, Hitler became both Chancellor and President, combining these roles as ‘The Führer’, the Leader of Germany.

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Adolf Hitler with his first cabinet in 193, Hermann Goering to his right and Franz von Papen to his left. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

As soon as he had power, Hitler acted in a far more decisive manner than his opponents expected. They could not have foreseen that he would take out the Communist and Socialist members of the Reichstag as a force; they did not foresee his ban on the Trades Unions on May 2nd, the day after he allowed the traditional May Day marches to go ahead; they could not have foreseen that the ‘Reichstag Fire’ in February 1933 would allow him to pass the Enabling Act, granting him the powers to act as a dictator during a time of ‘crisis’, a situation that would last until the end of the Second World war. And no one could have foreseen the energy with which the Nazis would enact their policies and the drive with which so many people came to support them, especially in moving forward the economic regeneration. The great symbol of this new Germany came to be the autobahns, the motorways built across the country in such number, and with such quality, that they remain amongst the finest in the world but there was development to observe in other areas of German society during the thirties.

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Building the autobahns in the 1930s; Hitler does some symbolic digging. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

On the back of the support he received, Hitler basically began to prepare for war and nearly every major decision he made has to be seen in this light. He was one of those who felt betrayed by the ‘November Criminals’ who had signed the Treaty of Versailles. He had served as a soldier in the Great War and felt deep anger at the armistice which inflicted defeat on a mighty army. He also had a deep seated hatred of the Jews, seeing them as a disease and a curse, worthy of punishment simply for being alive. He saw the Treaty of Versailles as the greatest injustice imposed upon the people of Germany, something that had to be thrown off as soon as possible. He believed that Germans were superior to other races, and deserved more ‘lebensraum’ (living space) in the East, where they would put it to far better use than the Slavic peoples. Time was short and preparations had to begin immediately to help build the Third Reich, which was to last for a thousand years.

Hitler proceeded to break each of the key terms of the Treaty of Versailles: the numbers in the army exceeded 100 000, warships were constructed and the Luftwaffe formed but Britain and France did nothing. German troops entered the Rhineland in 1936, it having been declared a demilitarised zone by the Treaty of Versailles, and Britain and France did nothing. Germany was united with Austria in the ‘Anschluss’ of March 1938 and, although there were concerns, Britain and France did nothing. They did speak to Hitler, though, and his promises that he would not do anything else to break the Treaty were enough for them; it is hard to see the acceptance of such a ‘promise’ as an act of wisdom. And then in October, 1938, Hitler’s troops moved in to the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. This was an area which had been taken from Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Sudetens being German speaking, and Hitler declared that they should rightfully be in the German Reich. All the actions of Britain, France and the League of Nations suggested that they might moan and complain but they would not actually do anything about it. And so it was: comments were made, questions were asked, concerns were raised but no action was taken to stop Germany retaking the Sudetenland.

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A warm welcome for the German troops in Vienna, Austria, March 1938. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

This is really where Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, came in, doing an early form of shuttle diplomacy, flying off to visit Hitler in the hope of brokering a deal on Czechoslovakia. The Munich Conferences came to be seen as the epitome of appeasement, the weakest diplomacy, whereby a madman gave a fool the run around. The promise made by Hitler that he would not seek to extend Germany’s control any further would soon be ignored. The decisive moment that finally brought an end to appeasement came in September, 1939, when Hitler decided to move into Poland. Again, he thought that words not actions would follow but this time it proved wrong as both France and Britain declared war on Germany and World War II began. Six years of the most intense fighting would follow, the largest and most destructive war in history. But why did Britain, in particular, not act earlier?

The person seen as the epitome of the policy was, of course, Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. While this is logical, it is also a bit harsh as Chamberlain was not alone in following this policy. However, appeasement was an attitude and a policy of the British establishment throughout the 1930s, as can be seen from the way Winston Churchill was widely derided as a warmonger for his analysis of Hitler’s expansionist tendencies. Indeed for most of the thirties,he was the only senior politician to speak out against Hitler and appeasement, and his ideas around a ‘gathering storm’ saw him pushed well and truly to the margins of political life. People like Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister before Chamberlain, would often mock Churchill and his analysis of the dangers posed by Hitler and a strong Germany. The truth of the matter is that just about no one, no politician, no military leader and no major group in society, wanted war in 1935 or ‘36 or ’37, and with good reason: Britain was in an economic depression and could not afford it and the armed forces were not strong enough in numbers of trained troops and in technology.  And also of great significance was the fact that people remembered all too well the horrors of the Great War so that the thought of choosing a ‘return match’ for no good reason was beyond them; the fathers who had fought and survived, did not want to put their sons through the same hell. Appeasement was a hopeful ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, but it was one that united the country and made sense. Any politician taking an alternative position would have been accused of being a ‘warmonger’, a maker of war, just as Churchill was accused.

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Neville Chamberlain and his famous piece of paper: ‘Peace for our time’, 30th September, 1938. (Author: Ministry of Information official photographer; Source: here)

The reaction of the people as Chamberlain returned from Munich on 30th September, 1938, waving that famous piece of paper in his hand, Hitler’s promise to keep his word, was one of overwhelming support. People sang and wept and cheered. They sang ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ and they celebrated long into the night because it was ‘Peace for our time’. Chamberlain represented a nation of appeasers, and is that not what politicians are supposed to be in a democracy, people who represent the views of the majority? The reaction of the newspapers the next day indicated that it was Chamberlain who was seen as the wise one, the strong one, the brave one, and not Churchill. The years to come would change that but the country, and the papers, were lucky to be able to be wise after the event.

And France was no different really. They took pretty much the same line as Britain, seeking to negotiate where they could, taking the moral high-ground by pointing out breaches of the Treaty and expressing their concerns, but not pushing for war. This was actually an important positive in appeasement because when war finally did come, both Britain and France could say, ‘You were warned’. They could say they had tried everything else rather than rushing to war at the first opportunity. Hitler was clearly to blame for World War II in a way which the Kaiser probably could not have been held to be so totally responsible 25 years earlier.

One other thing that can serve to explain, if not totally justify, appeasement is that Britain (and France) eventually won. Okay, it might have happened earlier and with far less damage and fewer deaths, but there is a big argument to say that Britain could not have successfully embarked on a war of such magnitude any earlier than it did. Maybe if Britain and France had taken on Germany in 1938 or even 1936, they would have been fighting a much weaker force but they too were far weaker than they were in 1939 – and their leader would have been Chamberlain. Behind the banner of appeasement, Britain did build and prepare for war: planes were developed, tanks were built, ships were refitted, soldiers were recruited and supplies were built up. To argue against appeasement is easy and ‘alternative’ histories are impossible to prove; there is certainly an argument to justify Chamberlain’s actions and that comes with victory in 1945. Rather like the appalling ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’ of August 1939, the one justification is that, when Hitler did launch Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the USSR withstood the attack. It was a victory achieved at huge cost and it might well have ended differently but, in the end, the USSR played the key role in defeating the Nazis. So it could not have been completely the wrong decision to make the Pact – and maybe Chamberlain could argue the same. All of his trips to Munich, being made to look a bit of a fool and sounding rather weak as he said, ‘My mother always told me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’, all was worth it because, in the end, victory was achieved. But it was a mighty close run thing.

And don’t forget, an alternative to appeasement might well be having leaders who look for opportunities to go to war, as some might say happened with the Falklands Conflict in 1982 or the Gulf War in 2003. Somewhere between the two approaches, there has to be a ‘happy medium’ – what a shame it’s never in the same place from one crisis to the next.

 

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis’ by David Faber; ‘The Road to War: The origins of World War II’ by Richard Overy and Andrew Wheatcroft; ’1939: Countdown to War’ by Richard Overy; ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ by AJP Taylor; ‘Making friends with Hitler’ by Ian Kershaw

TV: ‘The Nazis – A Warning from History’ by Laurence Rees; ‘The World at War’ (Directed by Peter Tiffin for Thames Television, 2010 edition); ‘The Gathering Storm’ (BBC drama, 2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herbert Hoover: A good man in power at a bad time.

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‘Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement. Economic wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body – the producers and consumers themselves.’ Herbert H. Hoover

Herbert Hoover: A good man in power at a bad time.

Herbert Hoover was, by all accounts, a hard-working man, a clever man and a generous man. Hoover was almost certainly one of the best men ever to become President of the USA. He wanted to help the poor – and he did. He wanted to reward people who worked hard – and he did that too. He wanted to be a man of principle and integrity – and he managed that as well. Hoover was respected by those who knew him, a self-made millionaire who worked hard all of his life, a man f energy and action who never sat back or left important things to others.He was a man of principle and integrity. and yet, as president, Hoover is usually remembered as a weak and ineffective leader, a failure in the eyes of most people. So, just who was Herbert Henry Hoover and why did things go so very badly wrong for him?

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The “Hoover Dam” was one of the great engineering achievements of its age. It was dedicated by President Roosevelt in 1935 and named in honour of Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the USA, but it was all a bit controversial. Still, it is now officially the highest dam in the western hemisphere and helps keep Las Vegas going, which may be a ‘good thing’. There are far worse things that were named in Hoover’s honour, as we shall see. (Author: snakefisch; Source: here)

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was a mining engineer by trade. Orphaned at the age of 9, he was highly motivated, intelligent and very hard-working. He did not go to high school but worked during the day and then did his studies at night school, showing the discipline and motivation that he, and many others, thought was essential for doing well in the USA. Hoover was brilliant at engineering and rose to become one of the world’s leading figures in mining. He made a fortune out of his work but he was never a greedy or selfish man. He wanted to use his skills, experience and money to help others. A great example of this was how he undertook a mission to go to Belgium during the Great War, 1914-18, to help the people displaced and suffering because of the fighting in the region. Using his own money and coordinating many volunteers, Hoover helped thousands of people by providing them with food, shelter and medical care. He was a true humanitarian and a genuinely good man. But in surveys to decide who was the best American President, Hoover rarely gets voted inside the top number 30, and recent polls put him at around 36 out of 44. Admittedly this puts him above Warren Harding at 41 and George W. Bush at 39, but it’s still pretty bad for this committed, generous Quaker who did so much to epitomise the ‘American Dream’.

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Herbert Hoover (Author: Underwood & Underwood; Source: here)

The answer to the inevitable question, namely, ‘What went wrong for Mr. Hoover?’, echoes the words of Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister between 1957 and 1963. When asked by a young journalist what his biggest problem was as Prime Minister, Macmillan replied with the famous words: ‘Events, dear boy, events!’ This quote may be considered boring by many people and, indeed, might have been trivialised by over-use, but it is widely used for a reason: ‘events’ really are just about the most important thing in politics and few have suffered their curse quite like Herbert Hoover.

The event that shook the happy world of Herbert Hoover was one which is as big as they come: his world was totally messed up by the economic disaster which was the ‘Wall Street Crash’ of October 1929. The collapse of share prices at that time on Wall Street, the home of the New York Stock Exchange, heralded the massive and dramatic decline of the US economy. The ‘Great Crash’ triggered the world-wide ‘Great Depression’ that so dominated the 1930s and, through its impact on the Second World War, shaped the rest of the century. Looking back it was clear that serious problems were developing on the Stock Market during the 1920s, as things were simply too good for too long and for no particular reason. With hindsight, it is clear that ‘something’ should have been done by ‘somebody’ but that was not on the agenda at the time. When Hoover, standing as a Republican, won the presidential election of November, 1928, and took office in the following March, things looked as good as they ever had. In his Inaugural Speech, Hoover was even willing to proclaim that, ‘Given the chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this country’. The new President’s honourable goal and his fine words were to prove more than a little wide of the mark. The policies of the ‘previous eight years’, to which Hoover had referred in his speech, were those of his immediate predecessors, the Republican Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, both of whom are worth a mention in their own right. Therefore, we’ll take a little detour to look at these two very different men before getting back to Hoover.

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Warren Harding (Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: here)

Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923) is generally considered to have been the worst US president in history, despite being blessed with one of the greatest second names ever. This is a little harsh because there were some seriously bad performances in the 1840s and 1850s who tend to get overlooked, including close contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln, like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pearce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. However, Harding does have a lot to commend him as a disaster of the first order, as his naiveté, gullibility and general foolishness were pretty hard to believe.

Harding was the successor to the famous Woodrow Wilson and was in office from 1920-23. He presided over the first years of prohibition, the start of the rise of the gangsters, and he did so with real style and aplomb, being oblivious to the growing political carnage around him. Harding never came to grips with the fact his friends, many of whom he appointed to high office, were far from being the nice, friendly, honest people he thought they were; in fact, they were astonishingly corrupt. They took huge advantage of their appointments to cut deals all over the place so as to make each other a nice little profit through business deals linked with Government projects. The biggest outrage was ‘The Tea-Pot Dome’ scandal in which the Minister for the Interior, Albert Fall, leased out Government-run oilfields to private companies in return for bribes and interest-free loans. Fall went to prison for his actions but several other officials broke the law under Harding. The whole Government was in a mess in those early years of the Twenties, with crime running almost out of control. Gangster related crime was running out of control around prohibition and corruption of Government and Police officials at every level was on the rise. Writing this brief paragraph makes it clear that Warren Harding deserves a full chapter of his own so this can end now really. Harding died quite suddenly and unexpectedly in 1923, well before he completed his term as president and it’s probably a good job he did as things would in all likelihood have got even worse. Two of his more controversial decisions were to stop American soldiers getting their ‘bonus’ payment after the Great War, while he also allowed trusts (monopolies) to become more powerful, both of which would have serious consequences for Herbert Hoover later on.

Mind you, it must be said that, after a dodgy few years in the early 1920s, one thing was going very well at the end of Harding’s time in office and that was the economy. Business in the USA was starting to boom in the post-war period and many people were getting significantly richer, especially those who were already rich. Ordinary workers saw slow but steady improvements and felt a sense of expectation that life would get better in the years to come. Confidence in the economy started to rise, a key factor for any country, and Harding did also sign the law giving women the vote. So spare at least one kind thought for Warren Harding, a man for whom life did not got off to the best of starts, as he did spend his early years being called ‘Winnie’ by his Mum.

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Calvin Coolidge (Author: John Garo; Source: here)

Anyway, with Harding gone, the vice-president was required to step into office. This was the almost legendary Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, President 1923-28). Coolidge liked to keep things quiet and simple. He didn’t believe in talking too much, saying ‘I never got hurt by what I didn’t say.’ Once he was asked by an exhausted colleague how he managed to look so well after a morning’s meetings. His colleague said he was worn out by talking at length to just four different people; Coolidge replied that that was his problem: ‘You talk to them.’ Coolidge’s approach was to ignore anything he could, almost boring people into sorting things out for themselves. It seemed to work in most people’s eyes – and at least the economy kept going well. Dorothy Parker, a noted wit of the time, when told that Coolidge had died, simply said, ‘How can they possibly tell?’, a cutting reference to his lack of energy and personality.

The quotation that Coolidge himself is most linked with, though, is, ‘The business of America is business’. In the ‘Roaring Twenties’, the idea that making money and getting rich was at the heart of being American seems to have come to the fore – and Coolidge presided over this. Mind you, for those who like a good quotation, it is worth remembering Coolidge also said that, ‘Civilisation and profit go hand in hand’, something highly questionable as you see mega-rich multi-nationals like Wal-Mart, KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks and the like, reach out from the USA and dominate almost every High Street in the world. But enough of such opinions and back to the Twenties, where most Americans were more than happy to have ‘laissez-faire’ and the small government policies of Calvin Coolidge.

The idea of business being at the heart of life, values and goals in the USA of the Twenties is clearly true. This decade was the ‘Jazz Age’, the boom time for nearly all Americans. Coolidge was a popular President, a leader whose policies were so light that they amounted to an almost total avoidance of intervention in the economy. In doing this he was in line with the values of the time; his victory in 1924′s election showed that the people wanted his way of working. The Republican Government followed laissez-faire policies, stepping back and doing as little as possible, leaving things to individuals and businesses who were free to do pretty much whatever they chose, paying the wages they wanted, working the hours they wanted, charging the prices they wanted. It all seemed to go pretty well throughout the decade as share prices boomed, profits grew and real wages rose a little. The people were happy, businesses were happy and politicians were happy with this set up; small Government was good so what could possibly go wrong? Or, as Hoover himself put it, ‘We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this country’.

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Herbert Hoover’s Inauguration, March 1929. (Author: National Photo Company; Source: here)

When he came into office, Hoover simply did what was expected of him and carried on the Republican policies which had been so successful and popular in the previous eight years. For any sensible politician, this was clearly the ‘right thing to do’ and the evidence was there: low unemployment, high profits, a booming stock market, rising confidence, happy workers and even happier bosses. Everyone agreed that they wanted ‘small Government’ which kept interference to a minimum and left it to people and businesses to get on with their own thing. Hoover simply did what was wanted and sat back to watch things unravel in a really big, horrible, bad sort of way. The problems first showed up on Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, but they had started elsewhere – and for this you need to understand a basic thing or two about economics, shares, business and the like. You might want to have a break before reading this bit so come back when you’re ready, maybe bringing a nice hot drink and a biscuit with you – but get it yourself, don’t leave it up to your Mum or someone else to get it for you.

Right, stocks and shares first. These are basically ‘parts’ of companies that people can buy. A business can sometimes be sold in sections to investors, people who put money into the company for a variety of reasons but always with a view to making more money. The money invested can be used by the company to do a variety of things, like buying new machinery, developing new products, creating new markets, doing research, building factories and the like. In very simple terms, investors have two ways of making money: they are entitled to a share of the profits at the end of the year and they can sell their shares to another investor for more than they paid for them (assuming the company’s value has increased in the meantime). Firstly, if you own 10% of the shares, in theory you can take 10% of the profits which are declared at the end of the year. This is known as the ‘dividend’. Secondly, if you buy your 100 shares for £1 each, you pay £100; if the price goes up to £2 a share and you sell them all then you make £100 profit. Easy money. Or it can be. Sometimes.

Trading in shares is an easy way to make money as long as certain things happen, of course. You have to have enough spare money to buy a decent number of shares, the company has to make decent profits and things have to look positive for the future; in this situation, things are positive and an investor can make good money as the share price rises. But why do share prices go up? And what affects the price of a share? The second point first: the number of shares, the value of the company, confidence in the company, how competing companies are doing and how many people want the shares will all affect the price of any share. But the one thing that is guaranteed to make prices go up is the answer to the first question: that is expected profits. It’s not so much how well a company has done in the past as what people expect to happen in future that will really affect a share price. At least that should be the key factor in rising share prices: good prospects and rising profits should see share prices rise; bad prospects, falling profits or even losses ahead should see them fall.

On Wall Street in the late 1920s, things got more than a bit silly and the basic rules, like looking at profits and what was going to happen in future, were ignored by more and more investors. Many experienced investors knew there was a problem with numerous companies around 1927, as share prices were rising when profits were falling. The Government knew there was a potential problem developing but they didn’t think it was their job to get involved so share prices went up and up and up, even though many observers knew that they should have been falling. Share prices rose because demand was high as lots of ordinary investors thought buying shares was the easy way to make money. When people realised there was a problem and that shares were over-priced, they came down quickly; in reality they went off a cliff and share prices crashed.

Shares are actually bought and sold on a stock market. Before 1920, nearly all the people who dealt in shares were ‘professionals’, making a living by studying companies and investing their money for the medium and longer term (5 years or more). After the Great War of 1914-1918, the USA had done well economically and made lots of money so that increasing numbers of ordinary people had a little spare cash for the first time and some of them decided to invest it. But this really meant that they ‘gambled’ it on the stock market. Buying and selling shares is always a gamble because the investor can win or lose because the price can go down as well as up. Most of the time, some share prices go up but others fall because not all companies do well at the same time.

Dealing with shares is a bit like an auction in that the number of shares is limited. As more people want shares in a particular company, the higher the price will go. When you are gambling, though, it’s useful to study the form of the horse or team you are backing; when you are at an auction, it’s good to have a bit of knowledge or skill so that you know what you are buying. Few people would buy a vase or a painting just on a ‘feeling’; if they are serious investors, they would want to make a judgement on the real value of the product they intend to buy. The same is true for shares but on the stock market during the 1920s, none of this really mattered because shares in almost every company were doing well and many were doing superbly. Every investor would win, it seemed, as there was no risk of a ‘bad buy’. In many areas, buying shares became the way to make easy money and so more and more people started buying shares, whether or not they knew anything about economics and business. Some people became millionaires almost overnight, it seemed, and a wave of optimism and celebration grew into complacency and expectation. Many people did whatever they could to get some spare cash to buy shares. And as the prices rose they believed they had lots more money. Many people believed they were suddenly rich and they bought property and goods, as well as more shares. Share prices were rising, people were rich…lovely.

But there was a problem. The money that many people held in shares was not ‘real’ money. It only became real when they sold their shares but people did not think like this. The share prices had risen and people expected them to keep on rising; in theory, they had lots of money but they didn’t want to sell their shares as they could expect to make even more money. Many people even borrowed money from the banks to buy shares and planned to pay off the loan later when they sold their shares and pocketed an easy profit. Imagine going to a bank today and saying you were going to use a loan to buy shares or to bet on a horse – they would never give it to you but, in those days, no questions were asked. Anyway, people used their ‘profits’ and borrowed more money to buy lots of the new goods that were available in the 1920s, goods like vacuum cleaners, radios, washing machines and, most of all, cars, especially the Model-T made by Mr. Henry Ford, the first car made by mass production methods.

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Henry Ford next to a ‘Tin Lizzie’, his Model T. Ford’s production line would lead to one being produced every 24 seconds in the 1920s. Over 15 million were produced between 1908 and 1927. The saying, ‘You can have any colour as long as it’s black’, may or may not have been said by Ford but the Model T was only available in black after 1913. This was because Ford was obsessed with reducing costs and using just one colour did just that. (Author: Ford Motor Company; Source: here)

By September, 1929, the stock market and the economy had over-heated to a frightening degree and there were clear warning signs of troubles ahead. Share prices were far too high, based on company profits and widespread over-production, so that during the late summer and autumn of 1929, the rise in values first of all slowed, dropped, briefly recovered and then suddenly and totally collapsed. The famous ‘Wall Street Crash’ came in October 1929 and it triggered the collapse of the world economy and the start of the ‘Great Depression’. Share prices would not recover their full 1929 values on Wall Street until the early 1950s. And the US economy itself would only recover thanks to World War II.

The ‘Wall Street Crash’ and the ‘Great Depression’ meant disaster for President Hoover. He was held responsible for everything because he was in charge when it happened even though he had simply followed those laissez-faire Republican policies of Harding and Coolidge which had been so popular with everyone throughout the decade. He was left holding the blame for doing what was popular – but flawed. Such is the problem of events in the life of any politician but rarely has anyone been left in such a mess by doing the popular thing. However, what really did for Hoover was that, after the ‘Great Crash’, as the boom years faded into the terrible depression, he stood by those same policies; he would not intervene but left the recovery to the markets and to individuals, seeing that their energy and skills would sort things out just as they had in the good years. This was, to put it mildly, a mistake.

But what had actually gone wrong in the lead up to the ‘Wall Street Crash’? Let’s step back a little and see if Herbert Hoover was really to blame for what happened in 1929 and the years that followed. One massive reason for the crash was the over-production of many goods by US industries. A range of new products became widely available in the 1920s and the use of the production line saw more of them made more quickly and more cheaply. Radios, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and cars were among the goods that became ‘must haves’ for the majority of the population. Wages were rising a little but demand for these goods rose more, with advertising on radio and in newspapers creating a larger market. The development of sales by catalogues and mail order also extended the markets beyond the cities and out into small-town America. Many companies saw their profits rise and they built new factories and employed more people so as to make more goods. Planning ahead, based on past sales and high profits, many invested lots of money in new factories. This was fine until it became clear that many people already had a car, a radio, a washing machine and so on. Demand started to tail off but the factories were still producing the goods which had to be stock-piled or reduced in price. As has already been mentioned, profits actually began to fall in many companies from about 1927 but most people ignored the warning signs and kept buying shares. Experienced investors saw the problem and many sold their shares, making massive profits in the process. The Government knew there was a problem but no officials wanted to say anything or to interfere. The Republicans believed in ‘laissez-faire’ government, saying they should not interfere with things unless they absolutely had to – and the people certainly did not want the government to interfere if it would stop them making money. The warning signs for the economy had started under Coolidge, who did nothing, and Hoover just continued the same policies.

Another reason for the boom in share prices was that more and more credit (borrowed money) became available in the 1920s. With all the brilliant new goods being made, people wanted them and they wanted them immediately. Rather than saving up and then buying them as they had done in the past, people increasingly used H.P. or ‘Hire Purchase’ to get them. This meant they borrowed off the bank or the company itself, allowing people to have the goods straight away and then paying the money back over a year or so but with interest. This was fine while people had jobs and could afford to repay their loans but once the problems started, people were left in debt and companies saw their profits start to fall. Increased borrowing had actually had the effect of artificially increasing demand for goods so that company profits had leapt up and it led to them expand too quickly. Instead of people having saved up and buying only when they were able to, HP allowed them to buy immediately. This artificial increase in demand fed into over-production which was made worse by the fact that most goods had been built to last. Once people had bought their washing machine or vacuum cleaner, that was it for a good number of years; they didn’t break so they didn’t need replacing. This was one reason why manufacturers, developing a similar strategy of the Ford Motor Company, started to build in weaknesses to their products, meaning people would always need a replacement. But HP was popular with people and businesses, so the Republicans had no intention of stopping or controlling it; why should they interfere and limit choice?

Rising incomes in the early 1920’s contributed to the economic boom. Although some groups, like farmers and workers in the cotton mills and other traditional industries, did not do too well, most people in the big industrial cities had seen their incomes rise. Many of them had a bit of spare money for the first time. Through reports in newspapers and on the radio, people became aware of how easy it seemed to be to make money when buying shares on the stock market. During the 1920s, playing the stock market became more and more normal so that you were considered to be a ‘fool’ if you didn’t do it. The banks, many of which were small, one-town outfits, were able to lend money without restriction and so it was that many of them gave loans which allowed people to ‘buy on the margin’. This meant people borrowed money to buy shares with the aim of paying the bank loan back and pocketing the difference after the shares rose. As with HP impacting on sales of goods, so this provided a massive increase in share prices as it allowed the demand for shares to go up immediately as investors did not have to save up before buying shares. Many banks actually took money from their savers’ accounts and used it to buy shares for themselves, planning to pay it back into the accounts later on and keeping the profit. This is now illegal but at the time it was allowed.

Various other factors played a part in the boom of the 1920s, and the subsequent collapse of the economy. Monopolies, or ‘Trusts’, were allowed to develop in the USA without any restriction by the Republican Government. Business leaders liked monopolies as they allowed more control, higher prices and increased profits. The Trusts got greedy, though, expanded too quickly and fed into over-production. Another issue was tariffs, a tax placed on foreign goods coming into a country, which was a way of protecting local industry. In the 1920s, the Republicans had responded to requests for help in this way from US businesses, but other countries had retaliated by doing the same to US goods. While the American market was booming, they did not need to export goods, but when the Crash came and they wanted to sell goods abroad, they couldn’t because of the high prices brought on by the tariffs. In addition to this, as mentioned earlier,the new advertising industry exercised an extraordinary power over the population. Demand for goods rose as the radio, posters and magazines made people aware of the ‘wonderful benefits’ that could be found through these time and energy saving devices.

All of this shows the uncomfortable truth that, behind the boom and bust, was ordinary people, the people who make capitalism work on a day to day basis; if they don’t buy, then nothing happens. The average American became ever more optimistic and confident as the Twenties unfolded. Many were young, positive people, who wanted to grab every opportunity and make a better life for themselves and their families. They looked for the upside and ignored the warnings, believing in the full glory of the ‘American Dream’. In such an atmosphere, President Hoover had no real chance of controlling spending or investing by anyone. To have limited opportunities through legislation would have been considered un-Republican and anti-American. In an age when there was a growing fear of Communism, expressed in things like the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, no President could easily interfere in the operation of the free market. But, anyway, most of the damage was actually done before the 1928 election but people judge who ever happens to be in power at the time, so Hoover was to blame when Wall Street crashed in October 1929.

President Hoover failed to deal with the impact of the greatest economic crisis in modern history. The problems on Wall Street quickly spread across the USA and reverberated around the globe. One particular consequence of this was that banks which had loaned money to Germany and Austria now wanted that money back. This triggered an economic crisis which would eventually see Hitler come to power in 1933. Around the world, trade collapsed, unemployment rose and nationalism was strengthened as Governments tried to protect their own interests. The Great Depression would be at its worst in the years 1930 to 1933 but its impact defined the whole decade both in the USA and internationally.

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Adolf Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933, partly as a result of the ‘Great Depression’. (Author: Theo Eisenhart; Source: here)

In the USA, Hoover continued the Republican policy of ‘laissez-faire’ as he tried to deal with the economic fall-out after October 1929. He saw no reason to change policies: why should the government have to sort things out? They had not raised taxes or ran things when they were going well, so why should they increase spending and tell people what to do now that there were problems? The belief was that the markets would sort things out in time and people would have to look after themselves until that point. This was the idea of ‘rugged individualism’, something which people believed had made the USA ‘strong’, whereby people took responsibility for everything in their own lives. If they had no job, they should set up a business or move or get training. In good times, they should have saved so that they could later be secure in the bad times. If people wanted education or health care, they should save and pay for it all themselves. This was fine in theory but the USA was in crisis and Hoover looked cruel as he did little to help. When he did put money in to things, such as helping people keep their homes, there simply wasn’t enough of it and it was a case of ‘too little, too late’.

The incident which came to haunt Hoover most of all was his treatment of the ‘Bonus Marchers’. These men were a group of soldiers who had fought in the Great War and had been promised the payment of a bonus as a reward for winning the war. The bonus was not due to be paid until 1941 but many of the former soldiers were facing problems in 1931 because of the Depression. Unemployment had seen many of them lose their homes as well as their jobs and they faced an uncertain future. They organised themselves with a march on Washington, D.C., In the city, they built a ‘Hooverville’, a shanty town, named after the President. There were many such ‘Hoovervilles’ across the country, an indictment of Hoover’s handling of the crisis. The Bonus Marchers asked that their bonus be paid early because, just as they had helped the country in its hour of need during the war, they believed that they should be helped in their time of suffering. Instead of granting the request, police and troops were turned on the men. The protesters were beaten and shots were fired; four men died and many were injured. The picture of US troops firing on former soldiers horrified everyone and ensured that Hoover would be defeated in the election of 1932.

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Bonus Marchers clash with police in the protests of 1932. (Author: Signal Corps Photographer; Source: here)

The story of the ‘Bonus Marchers’ was a tragic end to four years which should have been the fine presidency of a good, honest man. He was easily defeated in the Presidential Election of 1932 by Franklin D. Roosevelt who brought in the ‘New deal’ and the greatest Government intervention seen in the USA to that date. FDR would go onto win four terms in office and would lead the nation in World War II becoming regarded as one of the greatest Presidents of all time. In his shadow, most others would have looked like failures; the tragedy for Herbert Hoover was that, in the most public years of his life, he had failed so badly that history would judge him little more kindly than his own age.

And he had a long time to reflect on the events of these years as he only died in 1964, at the age of 90, the fourth oldest man to have been president.

 

Find out more:

Books: ‘The Great Crash, 1929′ by JK Galbraith (Penguin, 2009); ‘The Life of Herbert H. Hoover’ by George Nash (Numerous volumes).

Novels: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’by John Steinbeck

Films: ‘City Lights’ and Modern Times’ starring Charlie Chaplin, ‘They shoot horses, don’t they?’ and ‘The Color Purple’.

Songs: ‘Brother, can you spare a dime’ by Bing Crosby, ‘Whistle while you work’ by Artie Shaw and ‘We’re in the money’ by Al Dubin and Harry Warren