Herbert Hoover? John A. Ryan? Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.? Apocryphal
Quote Investigator: The great depression which began in 1929 was one of the most serious economic calamities of the twentieth century. In the U.S. a high unemployment rate persisted for more than a decade. Herbert Hoover was the U.S. President when the crisis began, and he has been criticized for responding ineffectively. In 1930 a group appealed to Hoover to initiate a large-scale intervention, and he reportedly made the following obtuse reply:
Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The Depression is over.
Is this quotation accurate? Who was speaking with Hoover?
Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence located by QI appeared in a 1931 article in “The Nation” titled “We Met Mr. Hoover” by a lawyer and political activist named Amos Pinchot which described a meeting held in June 1930 between President Hoover and a group that favored a large public works program to mitigate the effects of the great depression. Hoover spoke against the proposal because he believed that unemployment was decreasing and the economy was already improving: 1
Unemployment, he said, was being shamefully exaggerated. Its peak had been reached and passed. The tide had turned. The Census and Labor Department reports, and other information to which, as he reminded us, he had better access than we, would presently show that things were quite different from what we feared. Yes, we were now to drift peacefully, if slowly, back to good times.
According to Pinchot, Hoover made a statement that was similar to part of the quotation. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
He showed us, in authoritative style, that every agency of both the federal and State governments was working at top capacity to relieve the situation. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you have come six weeks too late.”
The next piece of evidence was contained in testimony given in 1933 by John A. Ryan during a subcommittee meeting of the U.S. Senate. Ryan was a scholar, priest, and political activist based at Catholic University. He was a member of the group with Pinchot. In the following excerpt Ryan was answering questions posed by Senator Smith W. Brookhart of Iowa: 2
Doctor Ryan. Absolutely. It is nearly three years since I was a member of the committee headed by Mr. Metzerott, which went to the President of the United States asking him to recommend to Congress the appropriation of $3,000,000,000 for public works. This was in June, 1930; $3,000,000,000 would have been more than enough at that time.
Senator Brookhart. It will take more than $6,000,000,000 now.
Doctor Ryan. Much more. What did he say to that? “Gentlemen, you have come 60 days too late. The depression is over.”
Ryan was a critic of Hoover and an advocate of the New Deal policies of the incoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ryan’s version of the quotation matched the one under investigation, but if differed somewhat from Pinchot’s version. The time period was “sixty days” instead of “six weeks”. The phrase “The depression is over” was mentioned by Ryan but not by Pinchot. Nevertheless, it was an accurate summary of Hoover’s commentary.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In October 1936 a book by Harry L. Hopkins titled “Spending to Save” was reviewed in “The New York Times”. Hopkins was the director of a major public works organization called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Robert Van Gelder was the book reviewer, and he mentioned the quotation ascribed to Hoover within the review: 3
Mr. Hoover had told a committee that came to him in June, 1930, to ask a public works appropriation that might put some of the people to work: “Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.” But through 1930, 1931 and 1932 the misery became increasingly widespread; the grins faded from more and more faces.
Also in October 1936 “The Washington Post” reported remarks made by Harry L. Hopkins while he was defending the WPA from critics. Hopkins presented the Hoover quotation based on the testimony of Ryan: 4
Hopkins said Mgr. John A. Ryan, of Catholic University, in June, 1930, urged a $3,000,000,000 public works program, and Hoover replied: “Gentlemen, you have come 60 days too late. The depression is over.”
In 1957 the influential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. published “The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933”. The book discussed the Hoover meeting and presented the quotation. The accompanying footnote pointed to Ryan’s Senate testimony and other documents: 5
In June 1930, a delegation headed by Dr. John A. Ryan of the National Catholic Welfare Council and Amos Pinchot urged on the President immediate expansion of federal public works. Hoover, listening with the exasperation of a man who knew the situation far better than his visitors, told the group that the interview was unnecessary. The tide had turned. Unemployment was declining. Business was expanding its activities. The government had the situation fully under control. Public works? “Gentlemen,” the President said, “you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.”
In July 1957 when the book by Schlesinger was reviewed in the journal “Encounter” the quotation was reprinted: 6
In June, 1930, when a delegation came to him to urge an expansion of federal public works, he met them with the reply: “Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.”
In 1998 the quotation was included in a compendium called “The Experts Speak” which gathered together a large set of misguided and wrongheaded pronouncements by specialists, experts, and knowledgeable people. The supporting footnote cited Schlesinger’s 1957 book: 7
“Gentlemen, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.”
—Herbert Hoover, responding to a delegation requesting a public works program to help speed the recovery, June 1930
In conclusion, the combination of the material from Amos Pinchot and John A. Ryan provided substantive evidence. QI believes that Herbert Hoover probably did make a remark similar to the quotation specified by Ryan during the June 1930 meeting.
Image Notes: Portrait of Herbert Hoover from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. Unemployed individuals in 1931 standing in line waiting for soup, coffee, and doughnuts; image from the U.S. Information Agency via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Peter Olausson (@faktoids) whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update History: On April 25, 2016 the 1931 citation was added.
- 1931 January 14, The Nation, Volume 132, We Met Mr. Hoover by Amos Pinchot, Start Page 43, Quote Page 44, Column 1, Nation Associates, New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1933, United States Senate, Seventy-Second Congress, Second Session, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Banking and Currency, Held February 2 and 3, 1933, Further Unemployment Relief through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, S. 5336: A Bill to Amend the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932, (Statement of John A. Ryan, Catholic University, Washington D.C.), Start Page 142, Quote Page 144, Published by U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1936 October 15, New York Times, Books of the Times by Robert Van Gelder, (Book Review of “Spending to Save” by Harry L. Hopkins, Federal Emergency Relief Administrator), Quote Page 25, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1936 October 18, The Washington Post, ‘99.99% Pure,’ Hopkins Reply To WPA Critics, Quote Page M19, Column 1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1957, The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933 by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Section IV: The Valley of Darkness, Chapter 25: Climax in Washington, Quote Page 231, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1957 July, Encounter, The Age of Hoover by Richard Hofstadter, (Book Review of The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933 by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.) Start Page 74, Quote Page 76, Column 1, The Congress for Cultural Freedom, Published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., London. (Unz) ↩
- 1998, The Experts Speak (Expanded and Updated Edition) by Christopher Cerf and Victor S Navasky, Quote Page 60, Villard Books, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩