1932: FDR, Hoover, and the Dawn of a New America

  • By Scott Martelle
  • Citadel Press
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Andrew M. Mayer
  • December 25, 2023

A fresh, insightful look at a pivotal year in U.S. politics.

1932: FDR, Hoover, and the Dawn of a New America

Scott Martelle, a veteran journalist and former member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board, has written in 1932 a unique and even pioneering study of the presidential election between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. Many authors have covered FDR’s four terms as chief executive (1933-1945), but few have focused on the way he ran for office in 1932 and the various obstacles he had to overcome to beat his incumbent Republican opponent.

In many respects, it was a watershed year. America was deeply in isolationist mode and in rebellion from Wilsonian diplomacy; the nation wanted nothing to do with Europe’s growing troubles. Mussolini was already dictator of Italy and had signed the Concordat with the Vatican three years earlier; Hitler was battling to gain a majority in parliament and take over as chancellor of Germany; and Japan had conquered Manchuria (in 1931) and was rapidly building a weapons arsenal with far-reaching designs of Asian dominance.

Domestically, President Hoover helmed an increasingly divided country in year four of the Great Depression. In 1932 alone, the first-term commander-in-chief faced auto-industry disruptions, farm strikes, and disaffected World War I veterans who refused to wait another decade for promised bonuses. (The latter’s rage grew into the so-called “Bonus Army” of thousands camped out — to the White House’s great embarrassment — on the Anacostia flats in Washington, DC.)

Hoover and Roosevelt had been friends during the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913-1921), when Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy and later the vice-presidential nominee on the Democrats’ losing James Cox ticket. Hoover had been aboard as an economic adviser to WWI famine relief and was retained postwar by Wilson as something of a food czar.

In the aftermath of America’s failure to join the League of Nations in 1919, Hoover and Roosevelt displayed dramatically different approaches to foreign and domestic matters, including the economy. The conservative Hoover believed in “trickle down” economics: The federal government should not get involved in helping poorer citizens because the market (e.g., jobs) would take care of them. This was a tenable position when he won the presidency in 1928; American industry was flourishing, stocks were booming, and prosperity ignited the Roaring Twenties.

Then came the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent worldwide depression. Hoover was troubled by his inability to slow America’s financial collapse and believed, as one cost-saving measure, that the U.S. should no longer send out massive loans to Germany to help that country repay its outstanding — and ruinous — Treaty of Versailles debts, especially given the Weimar Republic’s looming collapse and the Nazis’ ascendance.

Roosevelt, then governor of New York, took a very different approach to the economic calamity. He believed the government should get the country back on its feet via a list of expansive — and expensive — social-service programs and an emergency bank holiday. Hoover, for his part, vehemently objected to such efforts even as his own newly established Reconstruction Finance Corp. was trying (and failing) to stem the tide of domestic bank foreclosures.

Author Martelle brilliantly details the runup to 1932’s Republican and Democratic conventions, which took place in Chicago amid these pressure-cooker events. Hoover had little opposition to his second-term nomination but hated to campaign. (Yet he was forced to do more of it in the fall when polls showed him trailing badly.) Roosevelt remained in New York while balloting went on at the Democrats’ convention. Rivals Al Smith (who’d lost the presidency to Hoover in 1928) and John Nance Garner (who would become Roosevelt’s running mate) competed for the nomination through three tough ballots overnight. Before the fourth ballot, Roosevelt made it clear he’d repeal the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) and support a new economic program to get the country out of the Depression. This put him over the top.

Hoover’s public debacle of crushing the Bonus Army, combined with persistently dismal economic news and Roosevelt’s promise of a better tomorrow, turned the political tide and catapulted the Democrat to office. Roosevelt captured 42 of 48 states — with their 472 electoral votes — and 57.4 percent of the popular vote.

Martelle does a masterful job in 1932 of telling the story of the Hoover/Roosevelt face-off, fleshing out events with timelines, the personal diaries of ordinary citizens, and copious details about farms, industry, and generalized anger to illustrate just how split and destitute America was at the time. Hoover fundamentally misunderstood the depth of pain in the country and underestimated Roosevelt’s determination to do something about it. As much as anything else, that misunderstanding cost the incumbent a second term.

Andrew M. Mayer is professor emeritus of humanities and history at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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