Hoover; An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

Hoover; An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte. Knopf, 2018.

Herbert Hoover was the first U.S. President to be born west of the Mississippi, in the small Iowa town of West Branch. Kenneth Whyte, author of this biography, makes him succeed in nearly every endeavor in his complicated and busy life. Those successes began with the fortune he made as a mining engineer, geologist, and consultant for mining activities around the world. Some, however, would disagree about a claim for the success of his Presidency, 1928-1932.

Hoover’s early successes involved his responsibility for getting the 120,000 Americans caught in Europe when the war broke out in 1914 out of harm’s way. He then organized food relief during and after the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1914.

The German army had occupied Belgium and imposed a blockade interrupting food shipments from the U.S. The blockade was enforced by submarine warfare in the sea approaches to Great Britain, France, and Belgium.  Our efforts to provide food were prompted by a genuine benevolence. But in addition, U.S. agricultural exports stood to gain ground on other potential exporters.

Kenneth Whyte, like other biographers of Hoover, face a dilemma. Was Hoover a progressive, intervening in capitalist markets and the policy of laisse faire to obtain a humanitarian goal? Or was he a conservative? Latter in his political career, Hoover revealed his conservative side, attempting to limit the intrusions of the state into a self-regulating market?

What did Herbert Hoover think of Woodrow Wilson (President 1912-1920)? An idealist, Wilson swept into the Paris peace talks in 1918 with his own peace-keeping proposals and ignored sage advice from the more experienced Hoover, or so Hoover thought.

Wilson was now in his second term as President, and traditionally Presidents were limited to two terms. There was talk about Hoover making a run for the White House, but he held back on joining the race. Instead he watched as Warren G. Harding won the Republican nomination and the election. Followed by Calvin Coolidge four years later. The Harding and Coolidge Presidencies are mostly known for the scandals toward the end of the Harding Administration and the first year of Coolidge’s Presidency.

In the American political tradition, candidates for high office did not typically make campaign appearances. Had Hoover campaigned for office in 1920, he might have won the Republican nomination, and likely also the election. He eventually won the Presidency in 1928, but only for one term.

Hoover continued to be loyal to the old school of battening down the hatches and waiting for better times. His belief in private philanthropy rather than government handouts, according to Whyte, seemed to be the tune for the time.  At least that was the tenor of Hoover’s presidency.

A second term? But history intervened. The Wall Street crash in October 1929 happened during the first year of Hoover’s administration. Banks began to fail and the lines of the unemployed lengthened. Hoover waited for the counter-cyclical policies that he had advocated to take hold. He is remembered mostly for this inactivity. He did favor tax reforms and job-creating projects that he thought would help lift the country out of the Depression.

Although he couldn’t get their approval, he also favored a collective of the healthy banks to extend private aid to their weakened brethren. Hoover believed this initiative on the part of the banks was more desirable than government intervention. They declined.

There were, however, some pro-active moves. The Glass-Steagall Act and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation were two. But there were numerous Presidential vetoes of other relief legislation as Hoover waited for the business class to take over the leadership. (Now days, the wait would be for entrepreneurial activity to fight economic slowdowns.)

Two other issues contributed to Hoover’s being defeated for a second term. He leaned toward the ‘dries,’ and hence opposed the repeal of the Prohibition amendment when the country was going wet.

And perhaps most harmful to that second term was the fight with the Bonus Army. Given the difficulty that many World War I veterans were experiencing in the 1920s, there were calls from many sides to allow the veterans to collect their bonuses for service in the Great War ahead of time. To press the point, large numbers of veterans arrived in Washington, occupying government buildings and demanding that they be paid their bonuses early. Hoover’s refusal, and sent in the army to oust the veterans – led by General Douglas MacArthur, ending with certainty, his chance for a second term.

Herbert Hoover never quite understood why the country rejected him in 1920 and again in 1924. It gulled him that his failed efforts to pull the country out of the Depression were thrown back in his face. But his successor, FDR, was given credit for Hoover’s efforts that succeeded.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Broadway, 2017 paper.

Named as one of the ten “Best Books” in 2016 by The New York Times, the reader will, nevertheless, perhaps be as confused as I was. Matthew Desmond follows eight families of various descriptions who are looking for affordable housing for their families in the greater Milwaukee area. They are considering both trailer park and an apartment in an existing rental unit. And landlords are looking for tenants who can pay the rents they are asking. The reader needs a chart to keep the dozens of characters divided into their families. Or perhaps it is the author’s intention to create a confusion that exists in the real world amongst the poor and poorly housed.

Landlords have to overlook the fact that many of those looking for housing have already been evicted several times, either because they can’t pay the rent, or are engaged in illegal activities, or have male companions who are engaged in illegal activities.

Potential landlords have an array of reasons for rejecting applicants because they can’t afford the rent. The applicant may be a first-time renter without someone to cosign the application. He or she may have bad references from a previous landlord.

Potential tenants may be asked whether they have been evicted within the last three years or have a felony drug or violent crime conviction in the last seven years; or a record of disorderly conduct, including domestic abuse.

Eviction may seem like an option for the landlord, but the lost rent resulting from vacancies are almost never recovered. Landlords are in the best bargaining position if the prospective tenant has not yet moved in. Evictions can be a matter of throwing the few possessions their tenants have out on the curb, or inviting a storage facility to collect the possessions and store them, charging a monthly rent. Desmond follows these possessions in and out of rental units in these storage facilities around
South Milwaukee.

The courts preside, more or less, over this complicated system. Both evicted tenants and their former landlords must wait for their case to be heard by a court. Often there is no alternative to eviction. The rents are simply too high for the family’s income. There is back rent that is due. It has to be paid somehow, often by soliciting friends and family for financial assistance. Moving into a homeless shelter, kids and all, is destructive of family life.

The landlord or his agent can legitimately turn off the electricity. There goes the food stored in the refrigerator, and the heating unit. It is difficult for the reader to comprehend and the reviewer to organize this world in order to describe it fully. Hence. the difficulty which the courts face in sorting out the evictions.

Consider the kids, which is something that the courts and the families try to do. Moving in search of affordable rent usually involves a new school. Being homeless means that the kids aren’t getting the education they need to leave this world of misfortune.

Landlords are frequently accused of not keeping up their rental properties. The obvious reply is why not put those delinquent in their rent payments to work repairing and painting their rental properties? The problem is one of matching the skill set of a non-performing tenant with the skills needed for the job.

The confusion over housing for the poor is then complicated further by the problems they have in obtaining short-term loans to be able to afford anything like a security deposit on a new home. They face higher borrowing costs and too frequently banks foreclose on whatever assets they have.

Popular wisdom among real-estate dealers and landlords is that rent, mortgage payments, etc. should amount to about 30% of family income. A journalist who investigated the situation in South Milwaukee found that the rent was 70 to 80% of family income.

Housing vouchers are intended to help those looking for housing but can’t pay the rent because of insufficient income. But many argue that those who receive vouchers should be required to find a job or at least spend a lot of time looking for a job – while they are also looking for affordable housing. The need for this assistance from the city could be avoided with sufficient family income. Unfortunately Milwaukee, like other Midwestern cities, has seen a movement of well-paying jobs out of the central cities. So economic trends are working against that common, easy answer.

Matthew Desmond has made a considerable effort to be “fair” in his analysis of the situation. He has stepped into a very complicated world of poverty and indebtedness. And unfairness!

Sons and Soldiers; The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis

Sons and Soldiers; The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. William Morrow, 2017.

Bruce Henderson has woven together a history of the last years of World War II with the story of the Ritchie Boys. The “Boys” were young service men trained for U.S. Army intelligence during W.W. II. Fourteen percent of them were young Jewish men who escaped from Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht, an assault on Jews and their property on the night 9 November 1938. Their knowledge of German and other European languages was recognized as valuable to the Allied war effort, and they either volunteered or were drafted into the intelligence service.  The term Ritchie is from the camp in Maryland where they were trained. Henderson has found ten Ritchie Boys who are exemplary of this special service in the War.

Sadly the exit of thousands of German Jews in the 1930s resulted in the splitting up of families. The farewell dinners and tearful train departures were often the last time these sons would see their parents and siblings. Germany was no longer safe for the Jews.

German and East-European Jews were fleeing to the Netherlands, France, Britain, the U.S. and other safe havens in the late 1930s to wait out the insanity of Nazi Germany. The German invasion of Belgium and then France in 1939 turned migration into flight.

Many left Germany with the idea of acquiring American citizenship and joining our armies now assembling in Britain for the Normandy Landings. It was dangerous, however, to fight in the front ranks of the British or American armies. Without American or British citizenship, they would be considered spies and traitors. But their talents and limitations could be put to good use to the rear of the front.  Several thousands of these young Jews were sent to a special camp for training in interrogation. Attached to British and American units, they were used to interrogate German POWs.

Most of the intelligence they gathered would be considered “tactical.” Where were the enemy mortars and machine guns placed? They listened to German military propaganda broadcasts to better understand the German foot-soldier. They had studied the German Battle Order, its hierarchical organization, command structure, disposition of personnel, and the equipment of units facing them on the battle field, and the quality of the troops that the Allied armies faced.

SS Panzer Divisions were dreaded because of the many fanatics in their ranks. Later many of the German infantry were drawn from the Wehrmacht, Reichsmarine, the elite Waffen SS Panzer Divisions, and guards from the concentration camps as those services began to crumble.

Most intelligence gathering had been accompanied by beatings and other forms of coercion. Take no prisoners! But a dead or abused prisoner was a missed opportunity.

The Ritchie Boys were taught a different set of methods. POWs were required by the Geneva Convention to give their name, rank, and serial number. But asking for them was not a good starter because it reminded the prisoner of obligations to his unit. Never enquire about his family, what his father did for a living. That would remind the soldier of his familial obligations and loyalties.

You might, instead, start the “conversation” by asking the POW where he was from in Germany. What was he trained to perform? (German armies were well-trained.) Let the prisoner know what intelligence you had already gained from previous interrogations. Most of the interrogations involved one individual at a time; interrogating groups of German soldiers together would remind them of their loyalties to their fellow infantrymen.

Huge numbers of Germans troops were surrendering, 4000 to 5000 every 24 hours by the time of the cross-channel invasions. Hence those trained in interrogation had to screen prisoners quickly as they entered the POW “cages.” Recent arrivals were most likely to have actionable information.

Henderson tells an amusing story. German soldiers, above all, hoped to avoid falling into the hands of the Russians where they would be sent to a Russian POW camp in Poland or the Ukraine. Those POWs that were not cooperating were informed that they would be questioned by Russians. There were, however, no Russians interrogators available in France or Belgium. So someone would fake a Russian accent picked up from a comic Russian character that appeared regularly on Eddie Cantor’s radio program, making it seem like a possibility that the POW would be handed over to the Russians.

It was important to keep immediately behind the fighting front. That would provide fresh intelligence from the battlefront. Tactical information got old fast. Not always was it verbal information. Several of the most important intelligence triumphs were maps of mine fields taken off German prisoners.

There is much heroism in Bruce Henderson’s narrative. And sadness. He has ended with the return of many of the Ritchie Boys to their destroyed German homeland and scattered families.

The Second Coming of the KKK; The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s

The Second Coming of the KKK; The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon. Liveright, 2017.

Linda Gordon relates the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to other contemporary movements. The earliest Klan organization followed the end of the Civil War. But she suggests various other “ancestors”. Nativism, one of them, is a political movement that promoted the interests of native inhabitants against more recent immigrants. Populism, another ancestor, advocates the rights and power of the “people” in their struggle against a privileged elite. She also associates this second version of the KKK with the fascist movements in the interwar period, particularly the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain. Membership in the Klan was secret, but organizational claims ranged from three to six million.

The Klan had much in common with the other fraternal organizations of the time: the Masons, the American Legion, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus, among others. These fraternal orders were most active in the early 1920s following the Great War. However, they began to lose favor in the latter part of the ‘20s.

The organization had the blessing of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist religious movements, although that was less so after a series of scandals, financial and sexual, involving the Klan’s leadership. The 1920s were also the years of the temperance movement. Klanners could be on both sides of Prohibition after the constitutional amendment was passed in 1920.

The founder of this “second coming” of the KKK was William Simmons, a preacher and retired army colonel, who was in it primarily for the money. He was also inspired by Thomas Dixon’s popular novels, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan and The Leopard’s Spots (1905) and D.W. Griffin’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Simmons employed recruiters who got a cut of the membership fee.

There were local organizations that were associated with the KKK by what we would today call franchises and they earned money for the organization through the sale of paraphernalia. This amounted to a substantial revenue stream that helped sponsor many of the Klan’s activities: involvement in parades, picnics, fireworks, and airplane stunts.

Cross burnings were often incorporated into their secret rituals. The robes and masks associated with the KKK were aimed at intimidation of minority groups and particularly African-Americans.

It is often assumed that the members were drawn mostly from small towns and farming communities in the Mid-West and South. But Gordon suggests that the Klan was drawing its enthusiasts from city populations as well. Klansmen were able to fill Madison Square Garden in New York City on several occasions. Membership in the Klan was secret, but organizational claims ranged from three to six million. Surprisingly, Oregon had the largest percentage of KKK membership relative to its population, followed by Indiana. The 1920s Klan was moving north and west.

There were Klan women as well. They, like their menfolk, were concerned with preserving “American values,” which involved them with Anti-Semitism and Anti-Catholic activities.

The members were racist and kept that throughout the second and into the “third coming,” responding to the Civil Rights movement. This was a much smaller phenomenon, though at times it out-matched the Second Klan in fervor.

The second Ku Klux Klan claimed several “accomplishments.” Troubled with the high levels of immigration in the early 1920s, they supported nation-wide immigration restrictions and campaigned for the Chinese and Japanese exclusion on the West Coast. Also while they liked their parades and their cross burnings, they largely avoided street violence. The author maintains that the KKK provided male spaces where they could revert back to being soldier/warriors. Gordon is reminded of the traditional gathering amongst German-Americans – herrenabend – or “stag parties.”

Florida had its share of KKK activities. Some of that was aimed at Cuban-Americans working in Florida’s cigar industry and men working in the turpentine and lumber industries. In January 1923, a band of whites in Levy County “took justice into their own hands” and lynched several Negroes accused of having raped and robbed a white woman in the small town of Rosewood.

The sheriff of Levy County raised a posse and began an investigation. Men arrived from Cedar Key and surrounding towns to help in the search for the black male who was alleged to have raped the white woman. Some of these vigilantes were deputized, and dogs were brought in to help with the search. The alleged rapist was found, tortured, shot, and lynched. African-American homes in Rosewood were then torched.

Just previous to this incident the Klan had held a rally of over one hundred hooded Klansmen fifty miles away in Gainesville under a burning cross.

Gordon makes the point that most KKK members were drawn from the respectable class or sought to be viewed as middle class. Like  those who joined other fraternal organizations. The poor, tucked away in the Florida backwoods, could not afford the entrance fees.

The Marshall Plan; Dawn of the Cold War by Benn Steil.

The Marshall Plan; Dawn of the Cold War by Benn Steil. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

What precipitated the rupture in Russian-U.S. relations after they jointly defeated Nazi Germany? Benn Steil makes it clear that it was both sides that initiated the “Cold War” in the late 1940s. As it unfolded, both were motivated by their intention to make sure that Germany would not again pose a threat to Europe, though it would need to survive and revive. Post-war policy would also have to take into account the sacrifices involved in defeating Germany. The victorious Allies were hoping to avoid the economic disruption that followed WWI. Western Russia was in ruins and would need American assistance. But to contain Russia’s threat to Central Europe there must be a restoration of industrial Germany.

This new policy of containment was delineated by George F. Kennen, a senior U.S. diplomat hen serving in Moscow. His “long telegraph” called for the U.S. to stay engaged in Europe. Germany’s industrial recovery, with American support, was essential to Europe’s long-term revival. American Lend Lease had supported the British war effort. The Marshall Plan, would now help restore Europe’s industrial economy.

The Russians were ambivalent about the Marshall Plan from the beginning. Was it a capitalist conspiracy to restore a capitalist economy in the heart of Europe? Or a means of keeping the U.S. invested in making the outcomes of WWII permanent?

The Russian demand for reparations from Germany, in the form of industrial plant and amounting to $268 billion in today’s dollars, would have to be in the form of industrial plant. (Germany had no Russian rubbles with which to pay!) resulting in the dismantling of German industrial plant.  However, we were anxious to insure the German recovery because it would block the expansion of Russian communism. In the absence of any agreement on reparations, the Russians were helping themselves to Eastern Europe. American aid to postwar Germany was being used to meet the Russian demands for reparations and for  a territorial buffer.

The Marshall Plan was offered to the Soviet Union. They declined to take part because they believed that it was a pretext for imposing a capitalist economy on post-war Germany. Surprisingly the Soviets initially allowed their “satellites” to choose, though soon blocked their participation. Gradually, beginning with Czechoslovakia, they reigned in their Eastern Europe allies – Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. We would have extended Marshall Plan aid to Yugoslavia despite its being a communist state. But its break with the Soviet Union made the Marshall Plan available to this remaining Balkan state.

Steil makes the point that the peace that followed the Great War involved moving borders rather than people. After WWII it was the opposite; mostly people moved into regions where they could enjoy a majority or at least a significant minority.

The European Recovery Program – the Marshall Plan – was welcomed by most Europeans, but also Americans. In fact the Russians were largely correct in assuming that with Marshall Plan aid and a reemergence of Euro-American trade, we were also looking to use a continued U.S. involvement as an assurance of a liberal democracy.

Perhaps the most dynamic event of the emerging Cold War was the Berlin Airlift. We had been sending shipments of food, fuel, and chemicals to Germany through the port of Rotterdam. No problem. But there was no agreement about the establishment of a new German currency that would replace the Reichmark and be agreeable to both Russia and the U.S.

The currency issue was a particular problem for Berlin, which had been divided from the rest of the Russian occupied territory by the different currency and by a guarded concrete barrier, the Berlin Wall. The Soviets could exert pressure on the Western Allies by a blockade of essential imports from the U.S. by ground transport. The U.S. and its Allies responded with the Berlin Airlift, bringing those imports, especially food, in by means of air transport.

The Russians were certain that we could not pull off an airlift, at least for a long enough time to make it a permanent fixture of our occupation of Berlin. To their dismay we did so. There is a photography that captured American hearts; young Berliners waving at planes bringing their supplies into Tempelhof Airport In 1948-1949.

There was one happy American politician. Harry Truman, running for a second term in1948, defeated Thomas Dewey. Truman was well aware of the jeopardy that Russian moves in Berlin placed on his political career. And isn’t this true more generally of the Cold War. In its ‘dawn’ political careers were at stake on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Did the Marshall Plan impede German reunification? Very likely it did.