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The Drought And The Dole

July 2024
27min read

Few places are more unpleasant ban Washington in the summer, and the summer of 1930 was worse than most. The pressures of the business downturn had kept Herbert Hoover a prisoner in the White House through a hot June and a hotter July —the stock-market crash was less than a year old—and in those days before air conditioning, editorial writers were beginning to express concern for the President’s health. Whenever he could break away for a weekend, Hoover would lead a caravan of Cabinet members and other influential guests to his Rapidan River fishing camp three hours away in the Virginia mountains; even there the heat was inescapable that summer. He had announced plans for an August vacation in the Rockies, where he proposed to make a leisurely tour of the national parks, and his most ardent critics could not deny that he certainly had earned the rest.

“The President, it is understood, has more than an interest in nature and a love of the outdoors in visiting the Western region,” the New York Times commented. “Some of his friends assert that he desires to test the strength of his own position after fourteen months in office.…” The events of recent months had certainly tarnished his position, but as yet there was little indication that the damage was much more than the surface wind-erosion of politics. Hoover was an authentic American hero, the managerial genius who had organized relief for starving Belgium and Russia, who had taken command of the broken levees and the submerged fields of the Mississippi River delta during the great flood of 1927. Most people believed him now when he said that the slump had touched bottom—and public trust, like confidence in Insull utilities or the Bank of the United States, could prove the margin of recovery.

The mood of the boom persisted as that steamy summer began. Unemployment, the administration reassured the country, wasn’t as bad as the bread lines made it seem. Stocks were drifting downward after an impressive recovery in the spring, but Wall Street blamed that on the doldrums of the season. Not even in the best years of the Jazz Age had so many Americans travelled in Europe, and those who didn’t get over still had enough money to spend a half million dollars a day emulating Bobby Jones’s grand slam on miniature-golf-course putting greens. They fretted about the heat as much as the Depression. If clouds remained on the Presidential horizon, few, unfortunately, were rain clouds.


It was hot—hotter than anyone could remember. The country had never known a month as hot as July, the weather bureau said. In Arkansas during one forty-three-day stretch, the mercury reached i oo degrees or more on all but one day. A grocer in Petersburg, Indiana, opened up his store one morning to find a newly hatched chick hopping on top of a basket of eggs; the heat had been as effective as a sitting hen. A newspaper report from Quitman, Georgia, stated more or less seriously that a small field of popcorn popped spontaneously on the stalk. The story was straight out of Paul Bunyan, of course; so were the heat and the drought. For it was dry, too. Descendants of a Mrs. Roof in Ohio stirred around in their attic and discovered her diary, which seemed to indicate that only the 1830’s had been drier. A great swath of the middle states of America, running from the Chesapeake Bay to the Rocky Mountains, was affected by drought; the prospect not only of crop failure but of water famine threatened perhaps a million farm families in the twenty-sevenstate area.

In places the leaves were turning brown in early August; people walked dry-shod in what were ordinarily the river bottoms of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and fish were stranded and were dying in stagnant pools that had lately been trout streams. Water sold for a dollar a barrel in parts of southern Illinois, and motorists were known to have paid as much to have their radiators filled as they did for gas. A southern Ohio farmer named James Mead described how he “chopped down bushes and small trees in order to let the cattle eat the green leaves and thus to keep them from starving while we hoped and prayed for rain. Many birds are dying for lack of food. The seeds of weeds even have failed to ripen. Apples have literally been cooked on the trees. We are hauling water three miles.”

A heavy stillness enveloped the land; as day after day passed without rain, the sky took on an eerie copper tinge. Farmers watched helplessly as one crop after another failed that summer. Some went deeper into debt than they were already; others found that not even their vegetable gardens would grow, and lived on root crops and fried green apples. One Arkansas county agent reported that half of his two thousand farm families were without “feed for their stock or food for themselves.” His state was the hardest hit; banks were failing along with the crops, and cases of typhoid and pellagra were reported on the increase—the one caused by bad water and the other by vitamin deficiency.

Mark Sullivan, a journalist with close ties to the White House, wrote later that the President turned to the drought “with something like a sense of relief, almost of pleasure.” This was the sort of problem he understood: “The drought was concrete; he could get his hands upon it—unlike the intangible forces of depression which in many respects were psychological and came stealthily out of the air.” On the morning of Monday, August 11, Hoover returned from his Rapidan camp to learn that the July corn crop was 690,000,000 bushels under the average for the month: the harvest had not been so low in more than a quarter of a century. Red Cross reports made public that day also indicated that people were “actually suffering.” On Tuesday the President announced that because of the emergency he was cancelling his trip to the West. All through the following day governors from the drought states debarked at Union Station, and on Thursday the fourteenth, amid a hush of expectancy and a gentle flutter of press releases, they met at the White House to discuss what might be done in the way of immediate relief.

It was a moment that called for a dramatic and open-handed gesture calculated to capture the attention and enlist the sympathy of the whole nation: a special session of Congress or a tour of the scene, a promise of food or money or the initiation of a vast disaster-relief campaign under the auspices of the Red Cross. A little Wilsonian rhetoric—just a little- would have helped. But the theatrical action was not Hoover’s style; his performances were always to the front rows only. How many similar opportunities would present themselves in the next two and a half years, and how many would be passed up—turning points that didn’t turn?

Herbert Hoover was a humane man in a trap of his own making. Earlier in the year he had cut taxes at the request of business leaders, and now he worried about strains in the budget, which was beginning to show an unaccustomed deficit. The conventional, pre-Keynesian economics of the period viewed an unbalanced budget as a cause of, and not a remedy for, depression; and Hoover, who was hardly a radical in these matters, feared the effect of a sudden outpouring of federal funds, even in the form of loans. Any large-scale federal program, moreover, brought up the touchy question of direct relief. Direct relief from the government, anything that smacked of the notorious British dole, was counter to the principles of American individualism, which the President so strenuously invoked. He maintained that state and local authorities, cooperating with private charity, could handle the problem. “The drought,” Sullivan wrote, in setting forth Hoover’s position, “lent itself to cure by an American method and in accord with an American tradition that he cherished: i.e., through community generosity and mutual self-help.”

Hoover and the governors resolved the dilemma to his ideological satisfaction at least. He persuaded the railroads to haul feed to the afflicted areas at half rates and asked the Red Cross to provide aid for those in the most serious distress; it immediately responded with a pledge of $5,000,ooo. He exhorted banks and businesses to extend loans to farmers temporarily in need and authorized new road-building projects to give them work. No sooner had the governors departed than the skies of the Midwest burst open. Rain deluged millions of parched acres, and news of the meteorological reprieve inundated Wall Street in a torrent of optimism. Had the Great Engineer turned rainmaker?


The heat spell broke in September, and though the rain clouds disappeared again, the drought receded to the back pages of the newspapers. Unemployment was the big story now, and apple sellers were making their unsettling appearance on street corners, first in New York and soon in all the major cities. Occasionally an item, no less disturbing for its brevity, would recall the late emergency. White farmers in Lonoke County, Arkansas—keep the name in mind—fired into the tents of black laborers imported to work on a state highway. The locals thought they should have the jobs; the National Guard had to be called in to keep peace. Physicians at the Kansas State Fair’s Better Babies Contest worried because the 1930 crop of infants seemed less sturdy than usual. They attributed it to undernourishment caused by the drought and heat. That fall Malcolm Cowley of the New Republic drove south from New York to Tennessee. Rich vistas had turned into wasteland, and handbills advertised farms for sale at auction. “Everywhere,” he reported, “the fields were the color of old straw matting. The weeds in the fencerows, even, had shriveled like rose leaves in an old album.… In Tennessee, the rains had come in time to save most of the tobacco crop, but the corn was ruined and there would be no hay to carry the stock through the winter.” Cows nibbled on grass roots or milled around dwindling strawstacks ordinarily used only for bedding; often their ribs showed.


It became increasingly obvious that Hoover’s program was not working. His pleas had failed to dislodge loan money from private sources; rural bankers were already too deeply in trouble to extend more credit. Announcing public works was one thing; actually starting them was another, and they ordinarily conformed to plans made years before. New roads rarely seemed to run through areas where the drought was worst, and even when they did, contractors were reluctant to hire unskilled farmers. (That probably explained the trouble in Lonoke County.) Railroad rate reductions did some good, but they lasted only until October i ; the real feed crisis would come in the winter months. Drought victims looked to the Red Cross as their best hope, only to find, in the words of one high official, that the agency regarded it as “psychologically unsound” to intervene until local authorities could no longer cope.


Casting a weather eye toward the months ahead, the assistant director for Red Cross relief in the Midwest estimated shortly after the White House conference that “in some counties there will be a few dozen families and [in] others perhaps i oo or 200 families that will need food provided by some agency next winter. Thousands of families, of course, will need to skimp.” By the end of 1930 the Red Cross had in fact provided food and clothing to 50,000 families, at a cost of $500,000. That was an average of $ i o per family, a drop in an empty bucket and hardly a dent in the original $5,000,000 pledge. But money, and a great deal of it, was needed as badly as rain now. Harris Gaylord Warren, one of Hoover’s few reliable—and sympathetic—biographers, has put that need at $85,000,000 in loans for 330,000 farm families in the fifteen states hardest hit. To the balancer of the budget, the figure was appalling; to the desperate man on the receiving end, it could mean the two or three hundred dollars that would carry him through the winter.

Late in November, just before the three-month lame-duck session of the outgoing 71 st Congress opened, Red Cross officials, congressional leaders, and other interested parties met to discuss the drought situation. This conference, held at the Department of Agriculture, agreed to back loans for seed, fertilizer, tractor fuel, feed for animals, and—despite the predictable administration murmurings about the dole—loans for food relief. The estimated appropriation was $60,000,000, and there were tentative indications that the President would support it. But the administration proceeded to introduce an alternative measure, which asked for only $25,000,000 and which pointedly excluded food loans. To many, particularly those senators and congressmen from the drought states, the administration package was nothing more than another instance of the notoriously poor liaison between the White House and Capitol Hill. They treated it as an outright double-cross.

The President’s reasons were plain, but in this case words spoke louder than actions. At a press conference late in December, Hoover declared that if all the bills, “mostly in the guise of giving relief,” were lumped together, they would cost four and a half billion dollars above his budgetary recommendations. “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids on the treasury,” he said, adding with a touch of self-righteousness that he refused to play politics “at the expense of human misery.” His tormentors would not forget that unhappy phrase.

What the public did not know was that Hoover had finally tried to start a great voluntary drive for drought and unemployment relief comparable to his European efforts. But leaders of local relief programs had balked, expressing the fear that their own money-raising campaigns would be doomed by such a drive; Hoover’s visionary project died, unrecognized and unmourned. It was yet another splendid opportunity missed. From administration sources there came only the predictable invocation of the spectre of the dole: food relief, even in the form of loans, was perilously close to being one. Just before the Christmas recess Congress reached a compromise and agreed on a $45,000,000 loan appropriation for feed, seed, and the like, with the food provision left out. The matter seemed closed, though an undeniable residue of doubt and bad feelings lingered. As Joseph T. Robinson, of Arkansas, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, commented during the debate, “It is all right to put a mule on the dole, but it is condemned, I see, to put a man on a parity with a mule.”

The dole . That overpowering, allencompassing word of illusion in the Hoover years. It was charged with the same amorphous malignity and colored with the same sickly foreign taint as the word Red in 1919. And in the same way, the word as Americans used it bore little relation to the real thing. The dole in Great Britain had originated in the early part of the century as an unemployment insurance scheme, to which workers, employers, and the state all contributed. But under the pressure of a seemingly unshakable postwar depression, it had begun to assume the character of straight poor relief. The publicists of America’s New Era delighted in spreading pictures of the gaunt people “on the dole” sitting hopelessly in bare, airless kitchens made more ghastly by the illumination of photographer’s flash powder, or queuing up in some sootblackened Midlands street with its changeless horizon of slate roofs and cannon-mouthed chimney pots, the industrial revolution gone in the teeth. Whether they were the stunted children or the prematurely aged girls of Wigan and Manchester, their attitude was invariably one of supine waiting: “The soul-destroying dole” was a bit of catching euphony coined by a group of Boston bankers during that winter. To Americans it appeared as though the dole had caused the depression in England, and not the other way round.

A government handout, be it shillings or a few dollars, would strip a person of his self-reliance and his pride in his own accomplishments; it would create a situation in which he ceased to feel guilt for living by the sweat of someone else’s brow—so this line of reasoning went. The dole was not only against our traditions but would end by wrecking them. The word, as intimation or accusation, could be a potent political weapon, and even progressives like Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York shielded themselves with pro forma declarations against it.

In the conservative view the dole had come to mean any sort of direct federal aid to an individual. Once the government established a precedent by giving food relief to hungry farmers in the drought states, where could it draw the line? Next the unemployed in the cities would be clamoring for the same treatment. Hoover did not want to commit himself to what he believed to be an irrevocable step. Like his hero Woodrow Wilson, he worried about his historical role quite as much as his day-to-day administrative one: ideal was as important as action, and a fine balance had to be maintained between the two. He was convinced that nothing less than the soul of America, along with everything the New Era stood for, was at stake- and so, perhaps, he tended to credit the most optimistic things his informants told him about the health of the nation.


Since cancelling his western vacation Hoover had taken only three brief excursions out of the Washington area, to deliver speeches in the congressional campaign of 1930. It is hard to say whether the Democrats would have registered such impressive gains if he had made himself more conspicuous; but it seems clear that in the strenuous isolation of the White House -has a President ever worked so hard?- he was out of touch with much of the discontent and genuine desperation of the country. This was nowhere more evident than in his handling of the drought.

Hoover was playing for time. The prevailing assumption was that once the nation got through the winter, the worst would be past. The administration seized on every favorable twitch of the expiring economy as a sign of inevitable upswing. Spring would bring one as surely as it would bring rain, and the principle of voluntary aid would have withstood the onslaughts of all dole-like compromises. The result would vindicate Hoover’s Presidential leadership—that, too, was important if he hoped to reverse the trend of depression. But Hoover had obviously failed to allow for the consquences of a chance boiling over, and right after New Year’s one occurred which reopened the question of drought relief in the most painful and damaging way.

It is not impossible that Herbert Hoover’s career in the White House turned on the accidental inspiration of a tenant farmer in Arkansas. His name was H. C. Coney, and he was one of those ordinarily anonymous persons who, without meaning to, sometimes leave a permanent mark on their time. The 1930’s seemed made for his kind, which was a measure of how far events had run beyond the control of the men who were supposed to control them. What many Americans at the beginning of 1931 feared that somebody would do, Coney did. They were lucky that he was a good man who never stepped out of character, who asked only for what he needed and did not reach for more. As a model for a hero of proletarian fiction he is a bust. We do not find him crying out to his oppressed fellows at the end, “We gotta make a union!” and with a linking of arms and a shouldering of rifles, marching forward to solidarity. Even so, the repercussions of his small attempt to make things better would haunt and discredit Hoover’s grand strategy for fighting the Depression. From this point on in his administration, the President would remain on the defensive, caricatured as a hardhearted bungler in a stiff collar by his political opponents and, gradually, by much of the public that had once revered him.


H. C. Coney worked forty-one acres of cotton land near the town of England—appropriate name—in Lonoke County. He was forty-six years old, married, and the father of five sons; tuberculosis in his boyhood had partially crippled him. All his life he had been a renter. “I have tried to get able to buy me a home,” he later related, “but about the time I thought I was about to reach the goal, along came 1930 and buried me alive.” Coney had been hit hard by the drought, but he was better off than some: at least his family was not starving.

Then, on January 3, a Saturday, a woman neighbor came to his place and told him that her children hadn’t eaten for two days. She was crying. As Coney put it, something went up in his head. He asked her to wait while he and his wife drove over in his truck to the Red Cross depot. He found a crowd of men already gathered there. They were pleading with the Red Cross agent, who refused to give them food because his supply of application blanks for relief had run out. Others, men who had been relatively prosperous until the disaster of the summer, were being turned away because they were too warmly dressed; the Red Cross was obsessed with the fear of “impostors.”

Coney shouted to them to climb on: they would get food in England if they had to take it. Forty-odd men accompanied him, clinging to his old truck as it puttered, a little more sullenly than usual, toward the main street. Newspaper accounts alleged that some were carrying guns. Though Coney and other eyewitnesses later denied it—and the spontaneous character of the demonstration would seem to make the possibility unlikely—the guns were the detail that stuck in people’s minds. Were things really this bad? Was somebody hiding the truth?

Coney and his small party first sought out the mayor and the police chief. By this time a sizable crowd had collected, and it soon became apparent that there were many others desperate for food. A local lawyer named George Morris tried to calm the gathering. He was interrupted by shouts: “We are not going to let our children starve.” “We want food and we want it now.” Meanwhile merchants made panicky calls to Red Cross regional offices in Little Rock and St. Louis. The St. Louis authorities suggested that they issue $2.75 worth of food for each family but hedged about reimbursement: food orders could not be approved unless they were made on the regulation application blanks. The Red Cross promised to rush a fresh supply. The England merchants, many of whom were broke themselves, finally decided that it was better to distribute free food than to risk being looted. By late evening, from three to five hundred persons had been provided with food. As Morris said, “These men and women who came here today just simply got hungry, that’s all. Why, one man told me they were impostors, but when I saw those women standing before me, crying openly and begging food for their children, they can’t tell me they are impostors.”

There had been “bread riots” in the cities before this, but they could be, and usually were (with good reason) dismissed as Communist publicity stunts. But H. C. Coney and his kind could not be branded with any of the customary epithets of political opprobrium—though some of Hoover’s well-intentioned supporters tried to do so. Here were white, American-born farmers, not foreign Reds from a ghetto, behaving like revolutionaries. “Paul Revere just woke up Concord, these birds woke up America,” Will Rogers wrote in his boxed “letter” syndicated to newspapers from coast to coast. He went on to warn: ”… you let this country get hungry and they are going to eat, no matter what happens to Budgets, Income Taxes or Wall Street values. Washington mustn’t forget who rules when it comes to a show down.”

But Washington gave every sign of having forgotten. The President refused to believe what had happened in England, terming it in his Memoirs an “alleged riot by ‘starving people.’ … When I sent my military aide, Colonel Hodges, to investigate the ‘riot’ [which Hoover placed in February], he found that it was a fake.” The demonstration hadn’t been a riot, of course, but Hoover had missed the point. In fairness to him, however, it should be pointed out that the drought had not produced a famine comparable to the Russian one in the early i92o’s, when his relief efforts (largely depending on federally appropriated money) had saved an estimated ten million lives. Perhaps that memory clouded his view. It was one of those needless ironies of history that Herbert Hoover, the man who had gained his fame by feeding the hungry of the world, should have been undone by his apparent insensitivity to starvation at home.


The reaction of the administration to the England incident was as sluggish as it was surly and did little to calm the increasingly uneasy feelings of the public. England was just twenty miles from Little Rock, and reporters must have rushed to the town that afternoon. The story, as told by the Associated Press and others, became nationwide news. Next morning, readers of the New York Times found an account on the front page of the Sunday edition, and the governor of Arkansas, Harvey Parnell, felt it necessary to wire the paper that conditions “are by no means alarming and no rioting or violence in any form has taken place.…” Pointing to the demonstration, Leftleaning journals such as the New Republic and the Nation hastened to reassure subscribers that the Depression was worse than anyone imagined. And the influential Arkansas Gazette of Little Rock agonized over the “unfortunate” publicity that England had brought the state.

Three days after H. C. Coney had led his band of farmers to the England grocery store—put that way, the whole affair seems so tiny—the Senate voted to add $15,000,000 for food loans to the drought-relief bill. In the House, where unanimous consent was needed to send the original $45,000,000 measure into a HouseSenate conference for final modifications, Congressman Fiorello La Guardia of New York stood up and announced that he would withhold his support until the unemployed in the cities were granted a food loan equal to the Senate proposal for drought victims. La Guardia kept up his lonely fight for three days, long enough to make his point—and to confirm Hoover’s worst fears.

Meanwhile the chairman of the Red Cross, John Barton Payne, appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Judge Payne, a wealthy Virginian who had been Wilson’s last Secretary of the Interior, claimed some expertise on the drought matter: seventy-six acres of corn land on his Piedmont estate had failed to yield a single bushel in the summer of 1930. Payne thought that the $4,500,000 remaining in his agency’s special fund for drought relief was probably sufficient for the winter: “I do not say that we can get through on four and one-half millions, but I say if we get toward the bottom of the barrel, we will yell.” Less than a week later Payne was making noises that sounded suspiciously like a yell. On January 10 he asked for, and got, Hoover’s approval for a $10,000,000 public appeal to aid farmers stricken by the drought.

That seemed to settle the matter- or did it? Though the House finally rejected the $15,000,000 food-loan bill, the Senate had not exhausted its capacity for making mischief at the expense of the President. Senator Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, who himself came from Lonoke County, now proposed to offer the Red Cross an outright gift of $25,000,ooo for food and medicine for sick and hungry farmers and—in deference to city congressmen like La Guardia—for the unemployed. Payne did not overwhelm his potential benefactors with gratitude. “All I pray for is for Congress to let us alone,” he announced, without bothering to hide his irritation. “If we can’t do the job, then let Congress kick us.” He also blamed the Robinson bill for an early lag in contributions. The Senate voted the money anyway.

Even administration stalwarts showed signs of weakening at this point; one compromise proposal would have had the government giving the $25,000,000 to the Red Cross —as a loan. By Hooverian logic, that would simply have put the Red Cross on the dole. Payne announced that he would refuse the grant, and the President intimated that he would veto it; the House, loaded with conservative holdovers from the 1928 election, proceeded to kill the Robinson bill. The victory was Hoover’s, but the cost may not have been worth it. His opponents vied with one another in a frolic of sarcasm. “The best way to feed the unemployed would be to move them to China and Russia,” said Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, in a pointed reference to Hoover’s international relief projects and the government’s financial role in them. Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska resorted to beatitudes: “Blessed be they who starve while the asses and mules are fed, for they shall be buried at public expense.”

Congress dithered, the Red Cross drive sputtered along, and starving people in the drought regions got little to eat in the process. Something was wrong; the well of charity appeared to have dried up, too. Maybe there had been too many appeals of late; maybe Americans were holding on to their extra dimes and dollar bills. Judge Payne and the President mounted a tremendous publicity operation. Business leaders like Owen D. Young of General Electric and the power magnate Samuel Insull—he was still mightily solvent, as far as the world knew- were enlisted, as were entertainment figures like Amos ‘n Andy and Will Rogers. Rogers visited Hoover at the White House before flying west to raise money. “Had a long talk with our President this morning,” he reported in his letter of January 16. “He sincerely feels (with almost emotion) that it would set a bad precedent for the Government to appropriate money for the Red Cross. He feels that once the Government relieves the people, they will always expect it.…”

Rogers obviously had his doubts, but he was ready to help in spite of them. From Little Rock, on the evening of the twenty-second, the cowboy humorist presided over a nationwide radio appeal featuring the voices of the President, Calvin Coolidge, Al Smith, and Mary Pickford. Nine thousand watched him in Wichita Falls, Texas, eighteen thousand in Forth Worth. Passing through Fort Smith, Arkansas, in February, he noted a touching bit of Depressionana: a small circus had been stranded there, totally busted, and the town was keeping it alive—elephants, tigers, and performers alike. “Well folks, sure glad to be here with you, glad you are starving, otherwise I would never have met you,” Rogers’s warm-up patter began.

You have nothing on the rest of the country. We are all starving. We haven’t had a regular meal since the Democrats were in, and if we wait for em to get back in again we may never get another one.… Starving ain’t so bad, it’s getting used to it that is tough. The first three years of a Republican Administration is the hardest. By the end of that time you are used to living on predictions.…

His audiences loved these mordant fillips; by the end of his tour he had collected $225,000 for drought relief, or almost half of what the Red Cross had spent the previous autumn.

The papers dutifully recorded other notable donations. J. P. Morgan gave $50,000. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., $250,000. Thomas A. Edison donated his eighty-third, and last, birthday cake to the Red Cross, which auctioned it off for $ 107. Convicts in the Tennessee State Penitentiary sent in $51, while a thief presented a stolen stock certificate, which the Red Cross magnanimously returned to its rightful owner; it probably wasn’t worth much anyway. But the appeal soon lost what small momentum it had. By February 1 less than half of the fund had been collected; the $10,000,000 goal was not passed until mid-March, two months after the drive had been initiated. The winter was all but over then, and many regarded the lagging gifts as an indication of how inadequate private relief was in dealing quickly with emergencies of this size.

That, along with the unabated uproar in Congress and the country, finally pushed the administration toward compromise. The Senate was threatening to force an extra session, and there was no telling what trouble might result. Hoover, palpably stung by the fury of his attackers, tried to defend his actions in a public statement issued on February 3. The document was full of the affronted stiffness and bland defiance of his recent Presidential utterances—why did Hoover, who was never facile with the language, always insist on writing his own speeches? And yet, a hint of sadness and bewilderment ran through it:

I have indeed spent much of my life in fighting hardship and starvation both abroad and in the Southern states. I do not feel that I should be charged with lack of human sympathy for those who suffer.… I am proud to have sought the help of Congress in the past for nations who were so disorganized by war and anarchy that self-help was impossible.… There is no such paralysis in the United States.…

Even then, however, he was beginning to think in terms of last resorts:

I am willing to pledge myself [italics his] that if the time should ever come that the voluntary agencies of the country together with the local and state governments are unable to find resources with which to prevent hunger and suffering in my country, I will ask the aid of every resource of the Federal government became I would no more see starvation amongst our countrymen than would any Senator or Congressman.

Would we have to have a Russian famine to convince the President?

Backers of direct federal aid could take little immediate comfort from Hoover’s apparent concession. But shortly after, with the blessing of the President and the reluctant acquiescence of Senate progressives, Congress passed a measure that could be interpreted as food relief, appropriating $20,000,000 for “agricultural rehabilitation” loans. Though not a mention of food appeared in the bill, the Secretary of Agriculture, a former Missouri Ford dealer named Arthur M. Hyde, admitted in a guarded telephone interview with a reporter that farmers could spend the money any way they pleased. But borrowers had to provide good security for the loans, which meant in effect that only those who had not been bankrupted by the drought were eligible. That the money benefited those who least needed it seemed beside the point: the administration had won the battle of principle. As the House majority leader, John Q. Tilson of Connecticut, said, “It’s not a dole. Remember, it’s not a dole.”

On the face of things Hoover could justify his stand: by March, 1931, the Red Cross announced that it had fed or clothed 2,000,000 persons in twenty-one states. But that figure was somewhat less impressive when broken down into individual cases. A man could live, but just barely, on a Red Cross handout of forty to fifty cents’ worth of food per week, with some cans of tomato and salmon—supposed to strengthen gastric tubes—thrown in if he was suffering from pellagra. Clearly private relief, even on this heroic scale, made only a dent in the problem. In Mississippi the Red Cross fed 150,000 drought victims that winter; nobody knew how many thousands more were slowly starving. The first Red Cross aid did not arrive until January; by then the need was so great that relief seekers walked barefoot for miles in the cold weather. A family of six in Bolivar County got $11.67 in groceries per month, or less than $2.00 a person, while a mule could receive $8.00 in feed for the same period through government loans, which was an example of life imitating a wisecrack. The state government had done nothing all this time: the governor, Theodore G. Bilbo, would not call a special session of the legislature because members refused to sign promises not to impeach him.

Arkansas remained the worst sufferer: as of the middle of February, the Red Cross was feeding 519,000 persons. The Times reported late in January that roads around the town of Marked Tree were “clogged with wagons and buggies, not automobiles, and men and women walking with sacks of flour on their shoulders and pails of lard in their hands.…” But Red Cross aid must never have reached the three members of one family in Hot Springs, who apparently died of malnutrition at about that same time. (The precise reasons for such deaths, recorded under a variety of related causes, from heart failure to pellagra, are impossible to trace.) Small jokes told a great deal: rabbits—scarce, too, that winter- were known as Hoover hogs, and there was the recipe for a turnip sandwich: “three slices of turnip and put one in the middle.” The humor was no thinner than the reality. Russell Owen of the Times noted the following exchange between a Red Cross worker and an old farmer in the relief station at Wynne, Arkansas. The farmer, a pale man with eyes a little inflamed, needed food, but it had been a struggle for him to apply for charity.

“I didn’t want to come around, but I heard the others were getting something, and we are pretty low at home,” he said.

“Time to pocket your pride?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

The Red Cross worker asked how much food he had left at home. A little flour, some meal, and a few potatoes, the farmer told him.

And meat?

“I haven’t had any meat in a year.” He seemed astonished, Owen said, to be asked such a foolish question.

A chairman of a local branch of an Arkansas unemployment bureau claimed that in his county alone 23,000 out of a total of 26,000 had to be fed: “From last March until this March,” he said, “we in these parts had but little over one inch rainfall, so made our fourth failure.…” His job was mainly to take over from the Red Cross in situations that it was not prepared to handle. For example, what was most needed in the spring of 1931 was seed corn, and he managed to obtain a freight car of surplus corn donated by friends in Iowa. (Why, people wondered, wasn’t the federal government this resourceful?) He paid for the carrying charges, $250, out of his own pocket; the Red Cross would only pay for corn used as feed for animals. He was also helping to provide free lunches for schoolchildren, both white and black. He wrote:


… The Red Cross has been allowing only three and one-half cents a day per individual, and that is being cut down now. Many of the county children were making their noonday luncheon out of hickory nuts picked up in the woods. We are now, through Red Cross and private donations, feeding over 75 percent of the children in the county one hot meal a day. This is the only meal many of these children get. There are so many ways we can use funds to help the destitute that do not come under the rigid Red Cross rules.…

Applicants were too often snooped on and lectured to, and had to submit to what amounted to a means test—a soul-destroying advance on the British, who did not initiate their version of such personal prying until the fall. In Kentucky, Edmund Wilson found that if a man owned two cows, no matter how dry they were or how hungry he was, he would probably be denied relief, on the theory that he could sell one. Wilson overheard the plea of a good-hearted lady relief worker to a hill farmer in such a fix: “Well, I’ll give you an order, but I don’t want you to tell anybody about it—please don’t mention it to anybody.”

In the end, rain did as much good as the Red Cross or the government, though its help, too, was insufficient. There were some heavy downpours all through the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in March and again in April. As a media fad at least, the great drought was over. In some parts of the country it was actually worse in 1931 than it had been the previous year, though it received scant notice since fewer people were involved. The Great Plains were entering one of their periodic dry spells, and it was no coincidence that by the winter of 1931-32 the sky would be blackened by the first dust storms.

Time and more than a few cloudbursts were needed for the groundwater supplies that fed wells and springs and grass roots to build up again. As the geographer and conservationist J. Russell Smith warned in the spring of 1931, prospects for the farmer were not bright: “His hay field is without grass. His wheat is in bad order. His haymows are emptier than ever before at this time of year, his flocks and herds are reduced. His mortgages are bigger; his notes at the bank are more pressing; his credit is lower, to say nothing of low prices caused by the slump.” Smith’s gloomy forecast was borne out. To cite one statistic of this total environmental collapse: gross farm income, which had been $9.4 billion in the drought year of 1030, would fall to $6.9 billion in 1931, a loss of two and a half billion dollars. To put that another way, the average American farmer would net just $342 for a whole year’s work.

Arkansas had a fortunate summer on the whole; its disasters for once were only the normal personal ones of the Depression. Crops were better than usual, and in a special Thanksgiving message in November the President could speak of courage and energy surmounting hardship, and of the blessings of Almighty Providence. He compared this day to the first Thanksgiving, when the Plymouth Colony had celebrated a harvest after months of near-famine. That was the closest he ever came to admitting that the drought had really caused near-famine. England, Arkansas, was mostly forgotten by that time; surprisingly there had been no immediate rush to follow H. C. Coney’s example. Maybe people were too demoralized; maybe their sense of isolation was too acute for collective action. That sense of isolation had struck Russell Owen with haunting impact: “Not an isolation of distance or of time or inaccessibility, but one which is expressed in a breakdown of commerce and trade. When a man on a mortgaged and barren farm has no money he cannot order anything; when his food gives out, he cannot get more.… He is lost in a world of plenty. Civilization has failed him except as it gives him charity.”


But the England incident did find its way into the Depression mythology, largely via a story that young Whittaker Chambers published in the March, 1931, issue of the Communist New Masses . The story was called, in the prescribed clarion manner of proletarian fiction, “You Can Make Out Their Voices,” and soon became one of the radical classics of the i93o’s. His was the Arkansas of a revolutionary dreamworld. The voice of the bourgeois villain issues “from the small slit of his lips,” and his daughter has “big breasts, glasses and a gold incisor.” (For some reason the other bad lady in the story, a Red Cross worker, also wears glasses: she is the one who exclaims, “We ought to spread some bags of flour on the counter. There’s nothing like it for psychological effect.”) The farmer-hero turns out to be a home-grown agrarian Communist, who directs the looting of Red Cross headquarters and then leads his band of embattled farmers into the hills to await the inevitable coming of the capitalist militia. But first he sends away his two sons- “East, to the comrades.”

Lincoln Steffens told Chambers that his story was a model of proletarian art, the eminent Soviet authority on American literature A. Elistratova praised it, and Hallie Flannagan, director of the Vassar College experimental theatre, produced it as a play there. But the final judgment belongs to the party critic who wrote that “Can You Hear Their Voices?” —the name had been changed along the way—“eclipses anything that can be written about it.”

The real H. C. Coney would have been miscast in the leading role. Early in the spring of 1931 a reporter found him living in his shack on the outskirts of England. Little had changed for him. The house needed a paint job, and the roof leaked; inside, old newspapers were pasted on the walls to keep out the wind. On the mantelpiece the reporter saw an atlas, a Bible, and a cheap print of the Last Supper, partly covered by an old cylinder gasket. Coney told him that the farmers had grown “more sociable-like” since the invasion of England: “I think that three winters like this one would see them organized.” But he was mainly concerned with getting a government loan. The regional office at Memphis, Tennessee, had approved his request for $195 to tide him over until his cotton crop matured, but he had to wait for final certification as to his general character by a county committee. The local authorities cancelled the advance. They had not forgotten him.


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