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American History: A Long Conservative Period Ends With Election of 1932

Members of a poor family of nine on a New Mexico highway during the early 1930s.
Members of a poor family of nine on a New Mexico highway during the early 1930s.

BOB DOUGHTY: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

I'm Bob Doughty with Steve Ember. This week in our series, we continue the story of the administration of Herbert Hoover. And we talk about the election of nineteen thirty-two.


STEVE EMBER: President Herbert Hoover worked hard to rescue the American economy following the crash of the stock market. It happened in October of nineteen twenty-nine. Within a month, Hoover called the nation's business leaders to the White House. "Don't lower wages," the president told them.

Hoover called on the bankers at the Federal Reserve to make it easier for businesses to borrow money. He tried to provide funds to help farmers get fair prices for their crops. He pushed Congress to lower personal taxes. And above all, the president urged Americans not to lose hope in their economy or in themselves.

BOB DOUGHTY: But the economy was in ruins, falling faster with each passing day of the crisis that grew into the Great Depression. The value of stocks had collapsed. Millions of workers lost their jobs. The level of industrial production in the country was less than half of what it had been before the stock market crash.

Hoover's efforts were not enough to stop the growing crisis. In ever greater numbers, people called on the president to increase federal spending and provide jobs for people out of work.

But the president was a conservative Republican. He did not think it was the responsibility of the federal government to provide relief for poor Americans. And he thought it was wrong to increase spending above the amount of money that the government received in taxes.

STEVE EMBER: The situation seemed out of control. The nation's government and business leaders appeared to have no idea how to save the dollar and put people back to work.

Hoover was willing to take steps like spending government money to help farmers buy seeds and fertilizer. But he was not willing to give wheat to unemployed workers who were hungry.

He created an emergency committee to study the unemployment problem. But he would not launch government programs to create jobs. Hoover called on Americans to help their friends in need. But he resisted calls to spend federal funds for major relief programs to help the millions of Americans facing disaster.

BOB DOUGHTY: Leaders of the Democratic Party made the most of the situation. They accused the president of not caring about the common man. They said Hoover was willing to spend money to feed starving cattle for businessmen, but not willing to feed poor children.

Hoover tried to show the nation that he was dealing with the crisis. He worked with Congress to try to save the banks and to keep the dollar tied to the value of gold. He tried hard to balance the federal budget. And he told Americans that it was not the responsibility of the national government to solve all their problems.


STEVE EMBER: Late in nineteen thirty-one, President Hoover appointed a new committee on unemployment. He named Walter Gifford to head this committee. Gifford was chief of a big company, American Telephone and Telegraph.

But Gifford did Hoover more harm than good.

When he appeared before Congress, Gifford was unable to defend Hoover's position that relief was the responsibility of local governments and private giving. He admitted that he did not know how many people were out of work. He did not know how many of them needed help. Or how much help they needed. Or how much money local governments could raise.

Walter Gifford
Walter Gifford

BOB DOUGHTY: The situation grew worse. Some Americans began to completely lose faith in their government. They looked to groups with extreme political ideas to provide answers.

Some Americans joined the Communist Party. Others helped elect state leaders with extreme political ideas. And in growing numbers, people began to turn to hatred and violence.

However, most Americans remained loyal to traditional values even as conditions grew steadily worse. They looked ahead to nineteen thirty-two, when they would have a chance to vote for a new president.

STEVE EMBER: Leaders of the Democratic Party felt they had an excellent chance to capture the White House in the election. And their hopes increased when the Republicans re-nominated President Hoover and Vice President Charles Curtis in the summer of nineteen thirty-two.

For this reason, competition was fierce for the Democratic presidential nomination. The top candidate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the governor of New York state.

Roosevelt had been re-elected to that office by a large majority just two years earlier. He came from a rich and famous family, but he was seen as a friend of the common man. Roosevelt was conservative in his economic thinking. But he was a progressive in his opinion that government should be active in helping people.

Roosevelt had suffered from polio and could not walk. He used a wheelchair, although it was rarely shown in news pictures.

Franklin Roosevelt in 1932
Franklin Roosevelt in 1932

BOB DOUGHTY: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's two main opponents were Al Smith and John Garner. Smith had been the governor of New York before Roosevelt. Garner, a Texan, was the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Together, they hoped to block Roosevelt's nomination. And they succeeded the first three times that delegates voted at the Democratic nominating convention in Chicago.

Roosevelt's chief political adviser, James Farley, worked hard to find Roosevelt the votes he needed at the convention. Finally, Farley found a solution.

He made a deal with supporters of John Garner. Roosevelt would make Garner the vice presidential nominee if Garner's forces voted to make Roosevelt the presidential nominee. Garner agreed. And on the next vote, the Democratic delegates nominated Franklin Roosevelt to be their presidential candidate. Al Smith was so angry about the deal that he left Chicago without congratulating Roosevelt.

Roosevelt wanted to show the nation that he was the kind of man to take action -- that he had more imagination than Hoover. So he broke tradition and flew to Chicago. It was the first time a candidate had ever appeared at a convention to accept a nomination. And Roosevelt told the cheering crowd that together they would defeat Hoover.

STEVE EMBER: The main issue in the campaign of nineteen thirty-two was the economy. President Hoover defended his policies. Roosevelt and the Democrats attacked the administration for not taking enough action.

Roosevelt knew that most Americans were unhappy with the Hoover administration. So his plan during the campaign was to let Hoover defeat himself. He avoided saying anything that might make groups of voters think he was too extreme.

But Roosevelt did make clear that he would move the federal government into action to help people suffering from the economic crisis.

He said he was for a balanced federal budget. But he also said the government must be willing to spend extra money to prevent people from starving.

BOB DOUGHTY: Americans liked what they heard from Franklin Roosevelt. He seemed strong. He enjoyed life. And Roosevelt seemed willing to try new ideas, to experiment with government.

Hoover attacked Roosevelt bitterly during the campaign. He warned that Roosevelt and the Democrats would destroy the American system.

But Americans were tired of Hoover. They thought he was too serious, too afraid of change, too friendly with business leaders instead of the working man. Most of all, they blamed Hoover for the hard times of the Depression.

On election day, Americans voted in huge numbers for Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats. Roosevelt won forty-two of the forty-eight states at that time. The Democrats also gained a large majority in both houses of Congress.

STEVE EMBER: The election ended twelve years of Republican rule in the White House. It also marked the passing of a long conservative period in American political life.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt would become one of the strongest and most progressive presidents in the nation's history. He would serve longer than any other president, changing the face of America's political and economic systems.

In our next program, we take a look at the beginning of his administration.


BOB DOUGHTY: Our program was written by David Jarmul. I’m Bob Doughty with Steve Ember.

You can find our series online with pictures, transcripts, MP3s and podcasts at You can also follow our series on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #179