Towns were beginning to go broke. Texhoma, just up the road from Dalhart, had cut off its streetlights. People’s desperation drew them closer to Alfalfa Bill Murray. He promised that, if he were president, no one would go without bread, butter, bacon, or beans. He criticized Oklahoma A&M for asking for public money to build a swimming pool, saying that they could simply go to the creek to swim. Conversely, he believed that every white citizen should get a piece of land.
Alfalfa Bill stoked populist resentment among poor farmers toward those whom they would have viewed as privileged elites, such as the students at the university. On the other hand, those farmers wanted to maintain their own caste system, in which their white identity would ensure their place at the top.
President Hoover was becoming increasingly unpopular. Most Americans paid no income tax in 1932, but Hoover wanted everyone to pay taxes to pay for the federal deficit. When he was shown pictures of fruit vendors on city streets, he said it was simply due to that being more profitable than working a regular job. Meanwhile, the Republicans had lost seventeen seats during the 1930 midterm election. They had also lost control of the House. Congress voted to raise taxes on the wealthy, while others pushed for an estate tax, taking half the worth of anything over ten million dollars. There appeared to be an attack on the rich.
Hoover lost favor with everyone due to his slow response to the Depression and his poor rhetoric. He did a poor job of explaining how taxes would contribute to the greater good by allowing people to keep their teachers and police forces. He did not sympathize with the indignity of businessmen selling five-cent apples. He also failed to compromise with a Democratic Congress that sought to recoup the nation’s losses by seizing personal wealth.
Hoover was an engineer and an entrepreneur. He was worth four million dollars at the start of World War I. His past statements, including his inaugural prediction that the United States was close to eliminating poverty forever, and that one’s character was defined by how much money they had, came back to haunt him.
Hoover discounted the lives of many people with his statements, especially those who never had a chance to take full part in the wheat boom, such as black and indigenous people. He stoked people’s sense of failure through his words about wealth and personal value.
The national unemployment rate was 25 percent. John Maynard Keynes said that only the Dark Ages were worse. In regard to the election, Alfalfa Murray was certain that anyone “who could stand up straight and string four sentences together” could become president. One wing of the Democratic Party favored Al Smith, but Murray was sure that Smith’s Catholicism would work against him. Then there were “the Reds,” or Socialists. From New York came a governor from the moneyed class, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Alfalfa Murray sensed that anyone who spoke to the concerns of desperate people could become president in 1932. However, he also knew that the prejudices of many Americans would disqualify certain candidates from the presidency. As a self-identified “man of the people”—that is, representative of both whites and farmers—Murray was sure that he could seize and build populist momentum.
Initially, people believed that Roosevelt lacked substance. He seemed to be running on his great name. Then, he took up the cause of the “forgotten man”—the destitute farmer on the plains, the apple cart vendor in major cities, and the factory hand without work. He gave people hope and justified their outrage. His health problems, including double pneumonia, which had nearly killed him, and polio, which paralyzed him, helped him understand emotional panic.
Though Roosevelt came from a privileged background, he used his personal misfortunes to demonstrate that he understood how people could be crippled by circumstances out of their control. Both hunger and illness brought people face-to-face with their own mortality. He understood that fear, and knew it existed in those who could no longer afford to feed themselves.
Hoover believed that the way to end the Depression was to help factory owners and business owners “get up and running again.” Yet, Roosevelt said it made no sense to spur production if no one could afford to buy products. In No Man’s Land, a farmer could only get six cents for a dozen eggs and four cents a pound for a hog or a chicken.
Hoover insisted that the only way out of the economic slump was through productivity, forgetting that the prices of products like wheat continued to decline, despite high productivity, due to a lack of demand.
At the Democratic convention in Chicago, Alfalfa Murray tried to stop Roosevelt, but the New York governor won the nomination on the third ballot. Murray was crushed. In the November election, Roosevelt won Oklahoma and every other state except for six. Hoover said that the Democrats under Roosevelt had become a “mob,” while Murray said that Roosevelt was actually a Jew who had kept his heritage a secret.
Both Hoover and Murray used coded language to describe Roosevelt’s win. Hoover’s description of a “mob” signaled Socialism, while Murray’s comment about Roosevelt being a secret Jew was meant to stoke fears that foreign influences were at work to change the country.
Roosevelt was sworn in as president in March 1933. Shortly thereafter, he went on a hundred-day dash. He called for a bank holiday—four days to stabilize the system. Then, he called Congress into session and signed the Emergency Banking Bill. By the end of Roosevelt’s first week in office, deposits exceeded withdrawals. He added new provisions to the law, insuring individual accounts up to ten thousand dollars. Now, the government would back people’s accounts.
Roosevelt first worked to stabilize banking institutions, knowing that without them, no one’s money—rich or poor—would be worth anything. In the same year, Roosevelt took the country off of the gold standard and backed the American dollar on confidence.
The next task was to save farms. To avoid surplus crops, the government would become the market for farmers. It would ask cattlemen and wheat growers to reduce supply in return for cash. The newly created Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) would work “to stitch the land back together” by building dams and bridges, restoring forests, and creating trails in mountains. Also, the Volstead Act was permitted to allow for the sale of beer—the first step toward ending Prohibition.
The allowance of beer sales was key in helping to revive the grain market, since grain crops were necessary for the cultivation of beer. Farmers were happy to reduce their supplies, however, in exchange for cash. This not only meant being rid of what they could not currently sell, but it also meant less work for them and less concern about needing to sell a farm product to survive.
Hugh Bennett continued to rage about the destruction of the land. He was particularly outraged about land exploitation in Oklahoma. He could speak on the matter without sounding like an elitist because he, too, was a farmer and knew the soil. Still, most scientists did not take Bennett seriously. To them, the study of nature was associated with the appreciation of scenic wonders, such as grand mountains, rivers, and megaflora. People did not care about soil, and did not understand that humans could impact the environment at this level.
Bennett’s warnings about the excessive exploitation of resources were an inconvenience to farmers. Furthermore, farmers did not identify the soil—a simple, mundane aspect of their lives—with the magnificent associations they made with nature. “Nature,” to them, meant spectacle and grand beauty. The soil was their means of survival.
Roosevelt summoned Bennett to the White House, and asked him what could be done to undo what humans had caused. Bennett made no promises, but he suggested stabilizing the soil. He then became the director of a new agency within the Interior Department, one that was dedicated to the task. Bennett had no money or staff, but he knew his subject. Some estimates found that more than eighty million acres in the Southern Plains were stripped of topsoil, and more was disappearing each day. Millions of years of runoff from the Rocky Mountains had deposited “a rich loam over the plains, held in place by grass.” To replace it, people had to remember how to farm without a plow. Still, it was unclear if the land could be restored.
Bennett advocated a reversion to a simpler way of life, one that would employ the farming methods that people had used before industrial farming was introduced into the Great Plains. Plowing had stripped too much of the soil too quickly. The reintroduction of simpler farming methods was intended to help restore the grass, though it would perhaps be centuries before the land returned to the state in which the settlers first found it.