BY THE TIME Lyndon Johnson arrived in Washington, the district’s arrogance was gone; its people were asking the government for help now—for government participation in relief funding; for government refinancing of farm mortgages; for government support of crop prices; and, more and more, because “surplus is ruin,” for government-enforced crop controls. There was desperation in the mail sacks he opened each morning.
There was desperation in the mail sacks of almost every Congressman, it seemed. Americans everywhere were asking their government for help. Despair was stalking city streets as well as the countryside. In Chicago, 600,000 persons were unemployed, in New York, 800,000; the total of unemployed men in America’s cities was between 15 million and 17 million, and many of these men represented an entire family in want. Witnesses were telling congressional committees that private charities had run out of money, that states and local municipalities which had attempted to shoulder the burden had run out of money—that, for want of federal assistance in relief, growing numbers of America’s people were, literally, starving.
During that session of Congress, there were reminders of the nation’s plight not only in Washington’s committee rooms but in Washington’s streets—25,000 reminders: the penniless World War veterans who, in May, 1932, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, their faces set in concentration as they tried to march in step as they had marched when they were young, and who then encamped with their wives and children in abandoned warehouses and empty stores, and in tents set up in parks, so that “Washington, D.C., resembled the besieged capital of an obscure European state.”
But little help came from the government. When its legislative branch, which had, in December, 1931, turned a deaf ear to suggestions that it forgo its usual two-week holiday, returned in January, it was to begin seven months of wrangling and delay, enlivened only by Congressmen’s near panic when they encountered Bonus Marchers; some Congressmen broke into a run when the ragged men approached. When Congress finally adjourned in July, 1932, the only substantial aid that had been given to farmers was a $125 million increase in the capital available for federal mortgages—an increase so far below the amount needed as to be all but meaningless, particularly since it was not accompanied, despite the pleas of farm organizations, by even a token easing in the onerous interest and repayment schedules. Despite the urgency of witnesses’ pleas for help with relief funding, the Congressmen who had heard those pleas squabbled over minor details for weeks that turned into months—and the provisions of the bill that finally passed were so niggardly that the average relief stipend for a family of four would be fifty cents per day. As for the vital tax and tariff reform bill, special interest blocs squabbled over its provisions, and states traded tariff proposals back and forth until, in May, one Senator was moved to shout: “Have we gone mad? Have we no idea that if we carry this period of unrest from one week to another, a panic will break loose, which all the tariffs under heaven will not stem? Yet we sit here to take care of some little interest in this state or that. … ‘My state! My state!’ My God! Let’s hear ‘My country!’ What good is your state if your country sinks into the quagmire of ruin!” For months, the Forum magazine said, “the country [has] been looking on, with something like anguish, at the spectacle of the inability of the national legislature, in a time of desperate need, to take any action—good, bad or indifferent—for dealing with the crucial problem of national finance.” A columnist, more succinct, called the House of Representatives “The Monkey House,” and his sentiment was echoed by some of the congressmen themselves; declared McDuffie of Alabama: “representative government is dead.”
AS FOR THE leader of the government’s executive branch, when the Bonus Marchers begged Herbert Hoover to receive a delegation of their leaders, he sent word that he was too busy. Reinforced police patrols surrounded the White House; barricades were erected to close nearby streets to traffic; a New York Daily News headline proclaimed: HOOVER LOCKS SELF IN WHITE HOUSE. And in July, the President had the Army, with fixed bayonets and tear gas, drive the veterans out of Washington.
He handled the Depression with equal firmness. In December, 1929, he had said, “Conditions are fundamentally sound.” In March, 1930, he said the worst would be over in sixty days; in May, he predicted that the economy would be back to normal in the Autumn; in June, in the midst of still another market plunge, he told a delegation which called at the White House to plead for a public works project, “Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The Depression is over.” In his December 2, 1930, message to Congress, he said that “the fundamental strength of the economy is unimpaired.” Asked why, then, so many unemployed men were selling apples on street corners, he said: “Many people have left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.” His secretary noted that the President was beginning to regard some criticism as “unpatriotic.” In 1932, his tune had not changed; in April of that year, a visitor was authorized to report that “Conditions are getting better. The President was in high spirits over the economic improvement.” When delegations came to the White House begging him to endorse direct federal aid for relief, or increased spending on public works, he refused; “As long as I sit at this desk, they won’t get by,” he said. He couldn’t bear to watch suffering, so he never visited a breadline or a relief station; as his limousine swept past men selling apples on street corners, he never turned his head to look at them. Even Time magazine, after more than two years of maintaining a fagade almost as cheery as Hoover’s, noted in 1932 that “the nation’s needy have gone through three hard winters without a dollar’s worth of direct aid from the Federal Treasury.” Said Hoover: “Nobody is actually starving. The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”
He wasn’t starving. Having decided that economy in the President’s kitchen would be bad for the country’s morale, he continued eating at the most elaborate table ever set in the White House. Even when the only other diner was his wife, Lou, dinners were always seven courses; while Hoover, dressed always in black tie, ate his way through them, the dress blues of the Marine duty officers in the doorways provided ceremonial trappings, and butlers and footmen—all of them the same height—stood as rigid as statues, “absolutely silent, forbidden to move unbidden.”
When, after months of haggling, Congress finally passed a public works bill, the President called it “an unexampled raid on the public treasury,” and warned, “We cannot squander ourselves into prosperity.” When Congress attempted to add to his request for $25 million for the relief of animals in Southern drought regions another $35 million so that humans as well as livestock might be fed, he refused to allow the measure, saying: “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids on the public treasury.” When, finally, he became convinced that some government action was necessary, the action he selected was the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which critics called a “breadline for big business,” because of its emphasis on bailing out corporations, railroads, insurance companies and banks (big banks; in general, it would not help smaller institutions); the RFC’s attitude toward suffering on a human scale was revealed when Congress in 1932 pushed through against the administration’s wishes an act authorizing the agency to advance the states $300 million for relief; it deliberately dragged its feet, so that the states actually received only $30 million—exactly one-third of the amount the RFC’s president had loaned his own bank. Herbert Hoover, said Breckenridge Long, “has set his face like flint against the American government’s giving one cent to starving Americans.” And when, in the Autumn of 1932, Hoover went to the country to campaign for another term, crossing states he had never visited since he had been elected four years before, the reception that greeted him was one that had been afforded no previous American President—not even Lincoln in Richmond in the last days of the Civil War; as the President’s train was pulling into Detroit, the men on it heard a hoarse, rhythmic chant rising from thousands of throats; for a moment they had hopes of an enthusiastic reception—and then they made out the words of the chant: “Hang Hoover! Hang Hoover! Hang Hoover!” Mounted police charged the crowd, and the Secret Service hustled the President into a limousine for the four-mile drive to Olympic Stadium. And as the Presidential caravan sped past, those inside his limousine saw, through its thick windows, that the route was lined, block after block, with tens of thousands of men and women who were, in Gene Smith’s words, “utterly silent and grim save for those who could be glimpsed shaking their fists and shouting unheard words and phrases.” When, in St. Paul, the President defended his treatment of the Bonus Marchers, saying, “Thank God we still have a government in Washington that still knows how to deal with a mob,” the crowd responded with one vast snarl, a snarl so vicious that the Secret Service chief suddenly found himself covered with sweat. As the President’s train moved across his country, its people pelted the train with eggs and tomatoes. Four years before, he had carried forty of the forty-eight states; in 1932, he carried six.
DESPITE HIS REJECTION by the people in November, 1932, Hoover was going to be President until March, 1933—March which lay on the far side of the winter ahead. Although no fewer than 158 Congressmen had been defeated in November, they were going to be Congressmen until March.
That was a winter of despair. When, on December 5, 1932, the lame-duck Congress reconvened, those of its members who had hoped that the tear-gassing of the veterans had frightened the jobless away from Washington received a surprise; crowded around the Capitol steps were more than 2,500 men, women and children chanting, “Feed the hungry! Tax the rich!” Police armed with tear gas and riot guns herded the “hunger marchers” into a “detention camp” on New York Avenue, where, denied food or water, they spent a freezing night sleeping on the pavement, taunted by their guards. Thereafter, Congress met behind a double line of rifle-carrying police, who blocked the Capitol steps. And behind these bodyguards, as the weeks of the terrible winter turned into months, Congress dawdled and wrangled as it had been dawdling and wrangling ever since the Depression began; sullenly, it deadlocked over the scores of competing relief proposals, while spending hours and days squabbling over whether to legalize beer and what percent of it should consist of alcohol. As for the man in the White House, he spent the interregnum maneuvering to tie his successor to his discredited policies. The program of the “President-reject,” as Time called him, had the virtue of consistency; his State of the Union message called, as had his previous three messages, for economy in government and a balanced budget; the lone new proposal was for a sales tax that would fall hardest on those least able to afford it. With conditions worsening as rapidly as the weather, with the welfare rolls growing longer and longer, and the relief structure, so long crumbling, beginning to disintegrate, he continued to withhold federal help.
As the people saw that their government was going to give them no leadership, there began to be heard throughout America the sound of hungry men on the march. In Columbus, Ohio, 7,000 men in ranks tramped toward the Statehouse to “establish a workers’ and farmers’ republic.” Four thousand men occupied the Lincoln, Nebraska, Statehouse; 5,000 took over the Municipal Building in Seattle; in Chicago, thousands of unpaid teachers stormed the city’s banks. A Communist Party rally in New York’s Union Square drew an audience of 35,000.
IN THE CITIES, such outbreaks, while violent, were brief. It was in America’s countryside that rebellion began to flare with a flame that, while fitful, did not die out—in the countryside, among the descendants of the People’s Party, among the descendants of the Alliancemen. For half a century and more, America’s farmers had been asking for tariff reform, for railroad and bank regulation, for government loans, for silver remonetization—for help in fighting forces too big for them to fight—and for half a century, their government had turned to them a very deaf ear. Now, starving, they asked again—often in words that echoed those spoken in Chicago thirty-six years earlier before an audience bearing silver banners that fluttered in the breeze; an Oklahoma rancher told a House subcommittee: “We will march eastward, and we will cut the East off. We will cut the East off from the West. We have got the granaries; we have the hogs, the cattle, the corn, and the East has nothing but mortgages on our places. We will show them what we can do.” And this time, when their pleas were, as usual, unanswered, the House passed farm legislation; Hoover, calling it “wholly unworkable” (his Memoirs reveal that he had not taken the trouble to understand it), let it be known that he would veto it, and it died in the Senate—farmers reached for their pitchforks and their guns.
The previous summer, under the leadership of sixty-five-year-old Milo Reno, who had in fact been one of the early Populists, Iowa farmers, singing, “Let’s call a farmers’ holiday,/A holiday let’s hold;/We’ll eat our wheat and ham and eggs/And let them eat their gold,” had refused to deliver milk to Sioux City, where distributors who bought it from them for two cents were selling it for eight cents—and, to enforce the strike, blocked every road leading into the city with spiked telegraph poles and logs. Warned by sympathetic telephone operators of the approach of police and sheriffs, they disarmed them and threw their pistols and badges into corn fields. The movement had spread—soon Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Omaha were isolated; when sixty insurgents were arrested in Council Bluffs, a thousand farmers marched on the jail and released them. That revolt had died away, but now, in the desperate interregnum winter, rebellion flickered and flared all across America’s countryside. In Iowa, a mob of farmers, flourishing a rope, threatened to hang a lawyer who was about to foreclose on a farm. In Kansas, the body of a lawyer who had just completed foreclosure proceedings was found lying in a field. In Nebraska, the leaders of 200,000 debt-ridden farmers announced that if they didn’t get help from the Legislature, they would march on the Statehouse and raze it brick by brick. A judge who had signed mortgage foreclosures was dragged from his bench by black-shirted vigilantes, blindfolded, driven to a lonely crossroads, stripped and beaten. And in scores of county seats in America’s farm belt, the same scene was repeated: when a foreclosed farm was to be auctioned, crowds of armed farmers would appear at the courthouse; prospective bidders would be jostled and shoved until they left, and the farm would be “bid in” for a dollar or two, and returned to the original owner. The respect for institutions and public authority that holds societies together was beginning to vanish.
IN FEBRUARY, 1933, the country’s banks began to close. Some 5,500 had already closed in the three years since the Crash. Few of the remaining 13,000 were healthy; they had a total of $6 billion in cash to meet $41 billion in deposits; should a wholesale run begin, they would have to cover the balance by selling securities and mortgages which had by now declined to a fraction of their previous value. And now the run was beginning. On February 14, 1933, Governor William A. Comstock of Michigan was told that Detroit’s Union Guardian Trust Company was tottering, and that if it fell, every other bank in the city would go down with it. He was asked to declare a banking moratorium throughout Michigan, and at midnight he agreed, and issued a proclamation closing the state’s 550 banks.
With the collapse in Michigan, suddenly there were long lines—of depositors withdrawing their savings—in front of tellers’ windows in banks all across the country. On Monday, February 20, the Baltimore Trust Company paid out $1 million, on Tuesday $2 million; on Friday, February 24, it paid out in a single day more than $6 million. Governor Albert C. Ritchie closed Maryland’s 200 banks; another state had gone under. On February 26, banks in Indianapolis and Akron announced that withdrawals would be limited to 5 percent of balances; by the next day, that policy had been adopted by a hundred Ohio banks. In neighboring Kentucky, banks began imposing similar restrictions. By March 1, frantic Governors had declared bank “holidays” in seventeen states. By noon on March 3, every bank in Kansas and Minnesota had closed, and closings had begun in North Carolina and Virginia. And in New York, opposite Grand Central Station, depositors had formed long lines to withdraw their money from the Bowery, the world’s largest savings bank; in Chicago, bankers totaling their shrinking reserves realized that their institutions had paid out $350 million in two weeks. The nation’s two great financial strongholds were at the brink of chaos.
CHAOS WAS THREATENING even those farm areas that had once seemed most secure—areas such as the one that Lyndon Johnson’s Congressman represented. Revolt was flaring down on the Gulf. As the desperate winter of 1932 finally drew near its end, farmers applied to local banks for the usual seasonal loans for seed for the Spring planting—and were told that the banks had no money to lend. Soon the truth of that statement was demonstrated to them the hard way: a farmer who still had money in a bank would suddenly hear that the bank had closed.
To the farmers of South Texas, it was as if the very fabric of their society was ripping apart. One of the shuttered banks was the depository of the Corpus Christi School District; with the bank’s doors closed, the school doors closed. Other school districts, dependent on property tax payments, found that with tax payments so sharply down, there was no money for teachers’ salaries. Many children weren’t going to school, anyway; they had to work “off the farm,” work like field hands, for a nickel an hour. The education of their children had been so important to these farmers; now the children were no longer receiving an education.
Few farmers were free now from the dread of losing their homes. In 1933) only 38 percent of the farmers—about one out of every three—in once-prosperous Nueces County were able to pay their taxes; many were three years behind now, so penalties and interest had been piled atop the debt. And the abyss that gaped before them seemed bottomless. Farmers who had lost their land the year before had been able to go on relief, so that at least their families would not starve. Now relief organizations were all but out of funds. In February, the Corpus Christi branch of the Salvation Army announced that the last of its funds would be exhausted by the end of May.
Government couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help. Their local government was poor because they were poor. Their state government was dominated by what Populists called “the Interests.” In January, 1933, Nueces County farmers joined farmers from all over Texas in asking the Legislature for passage of a bill authorizing the issuance of bonds to raise money for relief funding; the bill was defeated. Eleven bills providing for a tax moratorium were introduced in the Legislature in January and February, 1933, by its small group of Populists; lumping all eleven bills together for easy handling, the Legislature defeated them on February 11—although, just a few days before, it had been informed that without a moratorium, tens of thousands of Texas families would shortly lose their farms. Hope for assistance from the national government had long since faded. And when the farmers realized that there was going to be no help from government, they decided to help themselves—even if it meant breaking the law. The first Tuesday of each month was “foreclosure day” in Corpus Christi: the day on which foreclosed farms were auctioned off on the steps of the Nueces County courthouse. Twenty-five farms were scheduled for auction on Tuesday, March 7. At a rally on February 25, more than 1,500 grim farmers, after being told by a speaker, “I know you are here to see that the masses of the land get justness and fairness and right,” vowed to be at the courthouse on March 7—with guns. Similar vows were being taken that week in county seats all across rural America. An entire nation was going up in flames, and its government seemed paralyzed; as James MacGregor Burns has written: “Crisis was in the air—but it was a strange, numbing crisis, striking suddenly in a Western city and then in the South a thousand miles away. It was worse than an invading army; it was everywhere and nowhere, for it was in the minds of men. It was fear.”