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Herbert Hoover, Unemployment, and the Public Sphere: A Conceptual History, 1919-1933

Author(s):Gaddis, Vincent
Reviewer(s):Reagan, Patrick D.

Published by EH.NET (September 2008)

Vincent Gaddis, Herbert Hoover, Unemployment, and the Public Sphere: A Conceptual History, 1919-1933. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005. xxix + 180 pp. $36 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7618-3235-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Patrick D. Reagan, Department of History, Tennessee Technological University.

In this suggestive, yet flawed, study Benedictine University historian Vincent Gaddis calls for reexamination of the unemployment policies of Herbert C. Hoover, Secretary of Commerce and President of the United States, between 1921 and 1933. Using the theoretical approach of German scholar Jurgen Habermas, Gaddis argues that Hoover manipulated the role of the American public in this period to impose his view of a limited voluntarist state on the broader society through the intermediate institutions of municipal government, business, labor, and urban charities in response to the depression of 1920-1921.

Gaddis deploys an abundance of research from the wealth of materials in the Secretary of Commerce and presidential papers at the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa to put Hoover at center stage in the public policy formulations of the 1920?s. In a brief introductory chapter on the conceptual challenge of making sense of Hoover?s ideas, Gaddis stresses the interrelationship among Hoover?s ideological values of individual virtue, preservation of liberty through a limited state, and the significance of voluntary action by local governments and private sector actors for public policy making implemented through the work of the President?s Conference on Unemployment of 1921. In the wake of what this reviewer has termed ?the forgotten depression of 1920-1921,? newly-appointed Secretary of Commerce Hoover created a series of follow up committees to investigate the issues of unemployment, the business cycle, seasonal unemployment in the construction industries, and industrial disputes.[1] Gaddis summarizes the work and impact of the conference, Hoover?s voluntarist views of political economy, and Hoover?s efforts to stabilize the coal industry in the 1920?s in separate chapters. In chapters 4 through 6, the most insightful and thoroughly research section of the work, Gaddis presents a sophisticated historical narrative focused on the work of the municipal committees on unemployment in the three key Midwestern cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Gaddis draws on research in personal manuscript collections, municipal records, local and state historical societies, printed autobiographies and biographies, and city newspapers to fill in the picture of how the Hooverian response to the immediate crisis of unemployment in 1921 played out on the local level. Following recommendations of the Unemployment Conference for local and private-sector based responses to rising unemployment in 1921-1922, Republican machine mayor ?Big Bill? Thompson and Democratic successor William Dever in Chicago, socialist mayor Daniel Hoan in Milwaukee, and progressive Republican mayor James Couzens of Detroit roughly adhered to Hoover?s voluntarist policies in attempting to bring relief to the unemployed.

Yet, once the Great Depression of 1929-1941 began, voluntarism proved much too little and way too late. Traditional sources of local funding for relief such as food, housing subsidies, and limited health care were used up quickly. Little direct relief in the form of cash, known as ?the dole,? was available. Between 1929 and 1933, President Hoover desperately sought to hold on to voluntarist precepts through the work of the President?s Emergency Committee for Employment (1930-1931), the President?s Organization for Unemployment Relief (1931-1932), and, reluctantly, the new Reconstruction Finance Corporation (1932). During the same period, mayors Anton Cermak in Chicago, Daniel Hoan in Milwaukee, and Democrat Frank Murphy in Detroit mouthed voluntarist rhetoric while moving toward increasingly statist policies such as unemployment insurance and federal and direct relief as local charities, businesses, and municipal relief committees experienced a growing gap between their resources and the number and needs of the unemployed. In the penultimate and final chapters, Gaddis traces in detail Hoover?s growing divergence from socioeconomic reality and the city mayors? pragmatic moves toward the post-1933 social welfare state.

Unfortunately, the work is riddled with mistakes in grammar, spelling, and footnote citations that distract the reader?s attention from an otherwise valuable contribution to the historical literature on Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, public policy making in the Republican-dominated 1920?s, and the Hoover presidency. Throughout the text, conjunctions and prepositions that should appear remain missing. Some names appear in two spellings (e.g. Otto Mallery and Otto Mallory). Footnote numbers appear in mixed formats as regular, italicized, and superscript types. Two footnotes numbered 16 appear on pages xxiv and xxv. Chapter 3 with forty-nine footnotes at the end contains only one numbered footnote in the text (p. 53). One footnote on page 108 refers to notes 1 and 2 simultaneously. Whether through poor proofreading or lack of copy editing, this work reflects poorly on the author?s detailed research and careful thinking of an important topic in need of clarity and historical perspective. Production values, while not uppermost in a reader?s mind, do count.

More significantly, Gaddis appears unaware of key works such as Evan Metcalf?s study of Hooverian macroeconomic policy making, Ellis Hawley?s studies of Hoover?s coal stabilization work and Hoover?s use of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Guy Alchon?s Habermas-influenced analysis of Hoover?s policies throughout the period, and this author?s explication of the Hooverian committee and conference system bolstered by the work of the National Bureau of Economic Research and the financial support of national philanthropic foundations.[2] While Gaddis finally ties together many of his insights in the conclusion, this final chapter should have served as the introduction. Not only did Hoover and members of the newly reorganized Department of Commerce engage in a host of policy making ventures in the 1920?s, other people and institutions participated as well such as business groups including the National Civic Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and local business associations. So too did the Taylor Society, locally-grounded firms, and individual New Era business leaders some have termed ?corporate liberals.?[3] Aware of the role of organized philanthropy in the Hooverian networks emerging from the Unemployment Conference of 1921, Gaddis points to the work of the Russell Sage Foundation, which played a minor part, while he ignores significant funding by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Rich primary sources exist for study of the part these second-generation philanthropies took in the Hooverian planning efforts throughout the decade as well as the capstone, landmark studies on Recent Economic Changes (1927) and Recent Social Trends (1933).[4] Unlike other revisionist works on Hoover?s ideology of voluntarism, his leadership of the President?s Conference on Unemployment of 1921 and its ensuing committee system, and the failure of President Hoover?s relief policies in the early 1930?s, Gaddis?s research shows us how and why the voluntarist response to the postwar crisis of 1921 set the tone, example, and model for Hoover?s later responses to the Great Depression. While the forgotten depression of 1920-1921 proved to be the sharpest economic downturn since the emergence of the business cycle in the early nineteenth century, it also was one of the shortest reversals. Hoover and his disciples along with city mayors, local business leaders, and local charities thought their response to rising unemployment worked in 1921-1922, so they quite understandably tried to use it again in the 1929-1933 period. In what Boston business leader and Hoover supporter Henry S. Dennison called ?the slowly sucking maelstrom? of the Depression, voluntarism reached its limits. The American people turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the statist-oriented New Deal, leaving Herbert Clark Hoover and the voluntarist New Era behind. Still, when Franklin Roosevelt appointed the only national planning agency in U.S. history in July 1933, all of its members were veterans of the Hooverian experiments of the 1920?s.


1. Patrick D. Reagan, ?From Depression to Depression: Hooverian National Planning, 1921?1933,? Mid-America 70 (1988): 35-60.

2. Evan Metcalf, ?Secretary Hoover and the Emergence of Macroecoomic Management,? Business History Review 49 (1975): 60-80; Ellis W. Hawley, ?Secretary Hoover and the Bituminous Coal Problem, 1921-1928,? Business History Review 42 (1968): 247-270; Ellis W. Hawley, ?Economic Inquiry and the State in New Era America: Anti-Statist Corporatism and Positive Statism in Uneasy Coexistence,? in The State and Economic Knowledge: The American and British Experiences, eds. Mary O. Furner and Barry Supple (New York: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 287-324; Guy Alchon, The Invisible Hand of Planning: Capitalism, Social Science, and the State in the 1920?s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); Patrick D. Reagan, Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000); and Michael A. Bernstein, A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 53-58.

3. Ellis W. Hawley, ?The Discovery and Study of a ?Corporate Liberalism?,? Business History Review 52 (1978): 309-20; Robert F. Himmelberg, The Origins of the National Recovery Administration: Business, Government, and the Trade Association Issue, 1921-1933 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1976); Robert F. Himmelberg, ?Government and Business, 1917-1932: The Triumph of Corporate Liberalism?? in _Business and Government: Essays in Twentieth-Century Cooperation and Conflict, eds. Joseph R. Frese and Jacob Judd (Tarrytown, NY: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1985), 1-23; and Essays in Business-Government Cooperation, 1917?1932 : The Rise of Corporatist Policies, ed. Robert F. Himmelberg (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), Volume 5 in Business and Government in America Since 1870: A Twelve Volume-Anthology of Scholarly Articles.

4. For a sampling of works based on philanthropic records, see Barry D. Karl and Stanley N. Katz, ?The American Private Philanthropic Foundation and the Public Sphere, 1890?1930,? Minerva 18 (Summer 1981): 236-270; Robert Arnove, ed., Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980); Jack Salzman, ed., Philanthropy and American Society: Selected Papers (New York Columbia University Press/Center for American Studies, 1987); Donald Fisher, Fundamental Development of the Social Sciences: Rockefeller Philanthropy and the United States Social Science Research Council (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993); and Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, ed., Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999) .

Patrick D. Reagan is author of Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000); American Journey: World War I and the Jazz Age (Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group/ Primary Source Microfilm, 2000); editor of and contributor to Voluntarism, Planning, and the State: The American Planning Experience, 1914-1946 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988); and contributor of essays on planning and several economists in Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, ed. Robert S. McElvaine (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003), 2 volumes.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII