Gabriel Kolko on Hoover and the New Deal

The famed leftist historian Gabriel Kolko shares a number of thoughts on Hoover, FDR, and the New Deal over at Counterpunch in a piece called “The New Deal Illusion“. In the process, he destroys a number of commonly-held left-liberal tropes about both presidents.  As someone who has made it a professional mission to annihilate the historically inaccurate portrayal of Hoover as a defender of “laissez-faire” and “austerity,” I am thrilled to see this piece.   Some excerpts below.

What is most interesting is how emphatic he is about the continuity between Hoover and FDR, seeing both of them as part of the 20th century progressive movement that he has written so much about.

But the 1920s and 1930 was a very complex period and are best treated as one unified era because the administration of Herbert Hoover, the much-reviled president during the Great Depression that began in 1929 and lasted well into the 1930s, was also a part of the American “Progressive” tradition. As I have argued elsewhere, American “progressivism” was a part of a big business effort to attain protection from the unpredictability of too much competition. [See my book The Triumph of Conservatism: A reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, New York, 1962] In fact, the New Deal was many things, having numerous aspects: what was not made up on the spur of the moment was copied from earlier efforts. The Democrats did not have a real economic strategy when they came to power. Most of what they said about the economy during the election campaign was, naturally, simply designed to get votes. They certainly had no idea the day they came to office how to deal with the Depression. Hoover had more ideas than they did.

Most historians know this; Hoover was far from being a bloodless conservative.

Kolko also notes how much smarter Hoover was than FDR.

Though Herbert Hoover was clearly Roosevelt’s intellectual superior, he was unlucky to have presided over an economic depression within eight months of taking office. The depression was the product of much larger forces in the world and the American economy rather than which party was in power. If the Democrats had been in the White House in 1929, there would have been an identical economic downturn.   And in many regards Hoover’s social thought was far more advanced than Franklin Roosevelt’s, “progressive“ in the sense that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were.

Finally he gives libertarians their props (my emphasis):

Hoover tried to combat the ensuing Great Depression with public works projects such as major dams, volunteer efforts, new tariffs and raises in individual and corporate taxes.  He created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, mainly to give loans to weak banks. Roosevelt continued and expanded the RFC somewhat, also loaning the money to weak banks, railroads, and using it for work relief. Then the sums loaned dropped off in 1934 until World War Two, when the RFC began financing construction of munitions plants. Libertarians argued years later that Hoover’s economics were statist, and that he belonged in the continuum of government and business collaboration that began around the turn of the century.   I must agree with them.

I do hope this piece is one that finally convinces the Rachel Maddows of the world to stop pushing a version of Hoover (as well as FDR!) that is not backed up by the historical facts.  If one of their own politically, and one who is more radical than they are, can’t convince them, then we know that they are pure dogmatists with no interest in the facts.

  • You people! How much evidence do you need to believe that leftists are pure dogmatists with no interest in the facts! What are you, anyway, pure dogmatists uninterested in facts?? There’s plenty of evidence to prove that leftists are pursuing their fantasies about how the world works. What would one more piece of evidence mean to you when you’ve already ignored so much?

    • ThaomasH

      If you have a definition of
      “leftist” that is not circular with respect to “fantasies about
      how the world works,” seeing some of your “lots of” evidence
      could be enlightening

    • Sean II

      By “you people”, did you mean Australian method actors portraying black infantrymen in Vietnam movies?

  • Pingback: Around the Web « Notes On Liberty()

  • ThaomasH

    Tariffs and new taxes were the oposite of what was needed of course, not that FDR was better on taxes. FDR gets more credit for deficits than he deserves; they were small until the build-up for WWII and AAA and IRA were colossal blunders. But he got going off gold right, eventually.

  • “If one of their own politically, and one who is more radical than they are … then”. You might want to think a bit about whether you really want to endorse this kind of inference.

    • Fallon

      Do you challenge Kolko’s thesis or not?

  • j_m_h

    Lloyd George had a great quip about Hoover during the Treaty of Versailles, but I cannot remember it word for work. Basically, during the treaty one of Hoover’s big concerns was preserving US agricultural exports to Europe. The Europeans, and others in the global economy, were pretty much thinking with the war over they would get back to trade as usual as well. Apparently, this was a very troubling change for Hoover who, according to George, was having all kinds of nightmares about pork bellies.