Tag Archives: The Jazz Age

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