Last night, I was reading some of Nate Braden’s book about the Great Depression, State of Emergency: The Depression and the Plots to Create an American Dictatorship. It is a worthwile read about an era that most Americans know little about. Democracy was more threatened at that time than maybe during any other era since the founding of the country.
What caught my attention was the role Iowa, my home state, played during that radical period. President Hoover was an Iowan and so maybe it makes sense that some of the earliest political activism began in Iowa. I could imagine that Iowans would have expected more help from a president who they might have thought understood what it was like to live in the rural Midwest. Hoover had known the working class life for his first 11 years in Iowa (West Branch, a small town nearby where my brother lives).
However, after leaving Iowa when his parents died, Hoover lived in Oregon with an uncle who was a doctor where he spent his teens. Apparently, rural Iowan life had become such a distant memory that he lost touch with his own roots. This is particularly significant as he was raised Quaker. It is Quakers who have a long history of social justice political activism, often quite radical.
By the time he was an adult, Hoover was far away from his rural Iowa Quaker childhood. And by the time he was president, he had become a wealthy businessman. When as president he claimed there were no starving Americans, he demonstrated how disconnected he had become from the average American and from the rural Midwesterner.
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Here is the passage from Braden’s book where he discusses Iowa and the Midwestern revolts (Kindle Locations 510-571):
“In September 1932 Fortune published a shocking profile of the effect Depression poverty was having on the American people. Titled “No One Has Starved” – in mocking reference to Herbert Hoover’s comment to that effect – Fortune essentially called the President a liar and explained why in a ten page article. Predicting eleven million unemployed by winter, its grim math figured these eleven million breadwinners were responsible for supporting another sixteen and a half million people, thus putting the total number of Americans without any income whatsoever at 27.5 million. Along with another 6.5 million who were underemployed, this meant 34 million citizens – nearly a third of the country’s population – lived below the poverty line. 
“Confidence was low that a Hoover reelection would bring any improvement in the country’s situation. He had ignored calls in 1929 to bail out banks after the stock market crashed on the grounds that the federal government had no business saving failed enterprises. With no liquidity in the financial markets, credit evaporated and deflation pushed prices and wages lower, laying waste to asset values. Two years passed before Hoover responded with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created to distribute $300 million in relief funds to state and local governments. It was too little, too late. The money would have been better served shoring up the banks three years earlier.
“With each cold, hungry winter that passed, political discussions grew more radical and less tolerant. Talk of revolution was more openly voiced. Harper’s, reflecting the opinion of East Coast intellectuals, pondered its likelihood and confidently asserted: “Revolutions are made, not by the weak, the unsuccessful, or the ignorant, but by the strong and the informed. They are processes, not merely of decay and destruction, but of advance and building. An old order does not disappear until a new order is ready to take its place.”
“As this smug analysis was rolling off the presses, the weak, the unsuccessful, and the ignorant were already proving it wrong. Most people expected a revolt to start in the cities, but it was in the countryside, in Herbert Hoover’s home state no less, where men first took up arms against a system they had been raised to believe in but no longer did. On August 13, 1932, Milo Reno, the onetime head of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, led a group of five hundred men in an assault on Sioux City. They called it a “farm holiday,” but it was in fact an insurrection. Reno and his supporters blocked all ten highways into the city and confiscated every shipment of milk except those destined for hospitals, dumping it onto the side of the road or taking it into town to give away free. Fed up with getting only two cents for a quart of milk that cost them four cents to bring to market, the farmers were creating their own scarcities in an attempt to drive up prices.
“The insurgents enjoyed local support. Telephone operators gave advance warning of approaching lawmen, who were promptly ambushed and disarmed. When 55 men were arrested for picketing the highway to Omaha, a crowd of a thousand angry farmers descended on the county jail in Council Bluffs and forced their release. The uprising just happened to coincide with the Iowa National Guard’s annual drill in Des Moines, but Governor Dan Turner declined to use these troops to break up the disturbance, saying he had “faith in the good judgment of the farmers of Iowa that they will not resort to violence.”
“The rebellion spread to Des Moines, Spencer, and Boone. Farmers in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota declared their own holidays. Milo Reno issued a press release vowing to continue “until the buying power of the farmer is restored – which can be done only by conceding him the right to cost of production, based on an American standard of existence.” Business institutions, he added, “whether great or small, important or humble, must suffer.” While advising his followers to obey the law and engage only in “peaceful picketing,” Reno issued this warning: “The day for pussyfooting and deception in the solution of the farmers’ problems is past, and the politicians who have juggled with the agricultural question and used it as a pawn with which to promote their own selfish interests can succeed no longer.”
“Reno and his men had laid down their marker. Aware that the insurrectionists might call his bluff, the governor stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, but he kept his Guardsmen in Des Moines just in case. The showdown never came – a mysterious shotgun attack on one of Reno’s camps near Cherokee was enough to persuade him to call off the holiday – but others weren’t cowed by the violence. The same day Reno issued his press release, coal miners in neighboring Illinois went on strike after their pay was cut to five dollars a day. Fifteen thousand of them shut down shafts all over Franklin County, the state’s largest mining region, and took over the town of Coulterville for several hours, “exhausting provisions at the restaurant, swamping the telephone exchange with calls and choking roads and fields for a mile around” the New York Times reported. Governor Louis Emmerson ordered state troopers to take the town back. Wading into a hostile, sneering crowd who shouted “Cossacks!” at them, the police broke it up with pistols and clubs, putting eight miners in the hospital.
“The rebels were bloodied but unbowed. Vowing to march back in to coal country, strike leader Pat Ansbury told a journalist, “if we go back it must be with weapons. We can’t face the machine guns of those Franklin County jailbirds with our naked hands. Not a man in our midst had even a jackknife. When we go back we must have arms, organization and cooperation from the other side.” Shaking his head at the lost opportunity, he made sure the reporter hadn’t misunderstood him. “This policy of peaceful picketing is out from now on.” Reno conducted a similar post-mortem, acknowledging that his side may have lost the battle but would not lose the war: “You can no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution. I mean the revolution of 1776.”
“Not only were farmers burdened by low commodity prices, they were also swamped with high-interest mortgages and crushing taxes. In February 1933 Prudential Insurance, the nation’s largest land creditor, announced it would suspend foreclosures on the 37,000 farm titles it held, valued at $209 million. Mutual Benefit and Metropolitan Life followed suit, all of them finally coming to the conclusion that they couldn’t get blood from a rock.
“It was also getting very dangerous to be a repo man in the Midwest. When farms were foreclosed and the land put up for auction, neighbors of the dispossessed property holder would often show up at the sale, drive away any serious bidders, then buy the land for a few dollars and deed it back to the original owner. By this subterfuge a debt of $400 at one Ohio auction was settled for two dollars and fifteen cents. A mortgage broker in Illinois received only $4.90 for the $2,500 property he had put into receivership. An Oklahoma attorney who tried to serve foreclosure papers to a farm widow was promptly waylaid by her neighbors, including the county sheriff, driven ten miles out of town and dumped unceremoniously on the side of the road. A Kansas City realtor who had foreclosed on a 500-acre farm turned up with a bullet in his head, his killers never brought to justice. “