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Current R., Williams T. H., Freidel F., Brinkley A. American History: a survey. 7th edition; New York, 1987.


 

Chapter 25. The Great Depression

Few Americans in the first months of 1929 saw any reason to question the strength and stability of the nation's economy. Most agreed with their new president that the booming prosperity of the years just past would not only continue but increase, and that dramatic social progress would follow in its wake. "We in America today," Herbert Hoover had proclaimed in August 1928, "are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.

Only fifteen months later, those words would return to haunt him, as the nation plunged into the severest and most prolonged economic depression in its history. It began with a stock market crash in October 1929; it slowly but steadily deepened over the next three years until the nation's economy (and, many believed, its social and political systems) approached a total collapse; and it continued in one form or another for a full decade, not only in the United States but throughout much of the rest of the world, until war finally restored American prosperAmerica had experienced economic crises before. The Panic of 1893 had ushered in a prolonged era of economic stagnation, and there had been more recent recessions, in 1907 and in 1920. The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, affected the nation more profoundly than any economic crisis that had come beforenot only because it lasted longer, but because its impact was far more widely felt. The American economy by 1929 had become so interconnected, so dependent on the health of large national corporate institutions, that a collapse in one sector of the economy now reached out to affect virtually everyone. Even in the 1890s, large groups of Americans had lived sufficiently independent of the national economy to avoid the effects of economic crisis. By the 1930s, few such people remained.

The misery of the Great Depression was, then, without precedent in the nation's history. There was prolonged massive unemployment; over a quarter of the work force is estimated to have been without work in 1932, the worst year of the crisis. Even those who retained their jobs often had to accept drastic pay cuts, reduced hours, and continued uncertainty. On the nation's farms, the economic problems that had been growing in severity through the 1920s became far worse; great numbers of farmers lost their land, and many of them left the countryside altogether in search of work in other regionswork that generally did not exist. The Depression was not only a traumatic experience for individual Americans. It also placed great strains on the political and social fabric of the nation. And out of those strains emerged a series of fundamental reformsmost notably in the role of government in American life. Private institutions and local governments were completely unprepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude; and despite occasionally strenuous attempts, their efforts gradually collapsed under the burden. Slowly, Americans began to look to the federal government for some solution to their problems.

Herbert Hoover was the first to expand the federal presence in the economy in response to the crisis. His innovative programs in the early 1930s made his the most activist peacetime administration in American history to that point. But Hoover's efforts, inhibited by conservative assumptions about the proper functions of government, were in the end painfully insufficient. And so, in 1932, the American people turned to the Democratic party and to its presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt to show them the way out of the Depression.

The Coming of the Depression

The sudden financial collapse in 1929 came as an especially severe shock because it followed so closely a period in which the New Era seemed to be performing another series of economic miracles. In particular, the nation was experiencing in 1929 a spectacular boom in the stock market.

The Great Crash

In February 1928, stock prices began a steady ascent that continued, with only a few temporary lapses, for a year and a half. By the autumn of that year, the market had become a national obsession, attracting the attention not only of the wealthy but of millions of people of modest means. Many brokerage firms gave added encouragement to the speculative mania by offering absurdly easy credit to purchasers of stocks.

It was not hard to understand why so many Americans flocked to invest in the market. Stocks seemed to provide a certain avenue to quick and easy wealth. Between May 1928 and September 1929, the average price of stocks rose over 40 percent. The stocks of the major industrialsthe stocks that are used to determine the Dow Jones Industrial Averagedoubled in value in that same period. Trading mushroomed from 2 or 3 million shares a day to over 5 million, and at times to as many as 10 or 12 million. There was, in short, a widespread speculative fever that grew more intense with every passing day. A few economists warned that the boom could not continue, that the prices of stocks had ceased to bear any relation to the earning power of the corporations that were issuing them. But most Americans refused to listen.

In the autumn of 1929, the market began to fall apart. On October 21, stock prices dipped sharply, alarming those who had become accustomed to an uninterrupted upward progression. Two days later, after a brief recovery, an even more alarming decline began. J. P. Morgan and Company and other big bankers managed to stave off disaster for a while by conspicuously buying up stocks to restore public confidence. But on October 29, all the efforts to save the market failed. That day"Black Tuesday," as it became knownsaw a devastating panic. Sixteen million shares of stock were traded; the industrial index dropped 43 points; stocks in many companies became virtually worthless. In the weeks that followed, the market continued to decline, with losses in October totaling $16 billion. And despite occasional hopeful signs of a turnaround, the market remained deeply depressed for more than four years and did not fully recover for more than a decade.

Popular folklore has established the stock market crash as the beginning, and even the cause, of the Great Depression. But although October 1929 might have been the first visible sign of the crisis, the Depression had earlier beginnings and more important causes.

Causes of the Depression

The nation's economy had been showing some signs of distress for months before October 1929. Business inventories of all kinds were three times as large as they had been a year before (an indication that the public was not buying products as rapidly as in the past); and other signposts of economic healthfreight carloads, industrial production, wholesale prices were slipping downward. The extraordinary performance of the stock market kept many Americans from noticing these alarming signs. But the bull market was, in fact, an artificial phenomenon, flourishing at a time when the nation was already sliding into a recession.

Economists and other observers have argued for decades about what was principally responsible for this economic decline. Most agree, however, that many factors were involved. There was, first, a serious lack of diversification in the American economy in the 1920s. Prosperity had been excessively dependent on a few basic industries, notably construction and automobiles; in the late 1920s, those industries began to decline. Between 1926 and 1929, expenditures on construction fell from $11 billion to under $9 billion. Automobile sales began to decline somewhat later, but in the first nine months of 1929 they declined by more than a third. Once these two crucial industries began to weaken, there was not enough strength in other sectors of the economy to take up the slack.

Another important factor was a fundamental maldistribution of purchasing power in the New Era. As industrial and agricultural production increased, the proportion of the profits going to farmers, factory workers, and other potential consumers was too small to create a market for the goods they were producing. Even in 1929, after nearly a decade of economic growth, more than half the families in America lived on the edge of or below the minimum subsistence leveltoo poor to share in the great consumer boom of the 1920s, too poor to buy the cars and houses and other goods the industrial economy was producing, too poor in many cases to buy even adequate food and shelter for themselves. As long as corporations had continued to expand their capital facilities (their factories, warehouses, heavy equipment, and other investments), the economy had flourished. By the end of the 1920s, however, capital investments had created more plant space than could profitably be used, and factories were pouring out more goods than consumers could purchase.

A third major problem was the credit structure of the economy. Farmers were deeply in debttheir land mortgaged, and crop prices too low to allow them to pay off what they owed. Small banks, especially those tied to the agricultural economy, were in constant trouble in the 1920s as their customers defaulted on loans; there was a steady stream of failures among these smaller banks throughout the decade. The banking system as a whole, moreover, was only very loosely regulated by the Federal Reserve System. Although most American bankers in this era were intensely conservative, some of the nation's largest banks were failing to maintain adequate reserves and were investing recklessly in the stock market or making unwise loans. In other words, the banking system was not well prepared to absorb the shock of a major recession.

A fourth factor contributing to the coming of the Depression was America's position in international trade. The United States was far less dependent on overseas trade than it would later become, but exports formed a significant part of the economy in the 1920s. Beginning late in the decade, European demand for American goods began to decline. That was partly because European industry and agriculture were becoming more productive, and partly because some European nations (most notably Germany, under the government of the Weimar Republic) were suffering serious financial crises and could not afford to buy goods overseas. But it was also because the European economy was being destabilized by the international debt structure that had emerged in the aftermath of World War I.

The international debt structure, therefore, was a fifth factor contributing to the Depression. When the war came to an end in 1918, all the European nations that had been allied with the United States owed large sums of money to American banks, sums much too large to be repaid out of their shattered economies. That was one reason why the Allies had insisted (over Woodrow Wilson's objections) on demanding reparation payments from Germany and Austria. Reparations, they believed, would provide them with a way to pay off their own debts. But Germany and Austria were themselves in deep economic trouble after the war; they were no more able to pay the reparations than the Allies were able to pay their debts.

The debtor nations put strong pressure on the United States in the 1920s to forgive the debts, or at least to reduce them. The American government refused. Instead, American banks began making large loans to the nations of Europe. Thus debts (and reparations) were being paid only by piling up new and greater debts. In the late 1920s, and particularly after the American economy began to weaken in 1929, the European nations found it much more difficult to borrow money from the United States. At the same time, high American protective tariffs were making it more difficult for them to sell their goods in American markets. Without any source of foreign exchange with which to repay their loans, they began to default. The collapse of the international credit structure was one of the reasons why the Depression spread to Europe (and grew much worse in America) after 1931. (See below, pp. 719-720.)

Progress of the Depression

The stock market crash of 1929 did not so much cause the Depression, then, as help trigger a chain of events that exposed a large number of weaknesses that had long existed in the American economy. And over the next three years, the crisis grew steadily worse.

The collapse of the stock market meant, of course, that companies now found it far more difficult to raise money to expand their enterprises. That was one reason for the rapid decline in investment after 1929. More important, perhaps, was the collapse of the American banking system. Over 9,000 American banks either went bankrupt or closed their-doors to avoid bankruptcy between 1930 and 1933. Depositors lost over $2.5 billion in deposits. Partly as a result of these banking closures, the nation's money supply greatly decreased. As banks stopped making loans, farmers, businessmen, and others found it more and more difficult to get money with which to invest. The total money supply, according to some measurements, fell by more than a third between 1930 and 1933. And the declining money supply meant a decline in purchasing power, and thus deflation. With fewer and fewer Americans able to buy, manufacturers and merchants began reducing prices, cutting back on production, and laying off workers. A cycle of economic contraction began early in 1930 that would not be reversed until 1933. Full recovery would not arrive until the 1940s.

Historians and economists disagree over why things got so bad so quickly. Some leading economists argue that while a recession of some sort was probably inevitable by the late 1920s, the Depression itself could have been avoided if the Federal Reserve system had acted more responsibly. Instead of acting to increase the money supply so as to keep things from getting worse in the early 1930s, the Federal Reserve first did nothing and then did the wrong thing: Late in 1931 it raised interest rates, which contracted the money supply even further. Others argue that the maldistribution of purchasing power that had been building throughout the 1920s, and the decline in spending that it had caused, was much more important. Whatever the causes, however, the economy grew steadily worse until by 1932 it appeared to have reached rock bottom.

The collapse had been so rapid and so devastating that at the time it created only bewilderment among many of those who attempted to explain it. The American gross national product plummeted from over $104 billion in 1929 to $76.4 billion in 1932a 25 percent decline in three years. By 1933, Americans had virtually ceased making investments in productive enterprises. In 1929, they had spent $16.2 billion to promote capital growth; in 1933, they invested only a third of a billion. The consumer price index declined 25 percent between 1929 and 1933, the wholesale price index 32 percent. Farm prices, already depressed in the 1920s, fell even more dramatically. Gross farm income dropped from $12 billion to $5 billion in four years. With economic activity contracting so sharply, it was inevitable that industrial unemployment would greatly increase. By 1932, according to the relatively crude estimates of the time, 25 percent of the American work force was unemployed. (Some believe the figure was even higher.)

For the rest of the decade, unemployment averaged nearly 20 percent, never dropping below 15 percent.

The American People in Hard Times

Someone asked the British economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s whether he was aware of any historical era comparable to the Great Depression. "Yes," Keynes replied. "It was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted 400 years." The Depression did not last 400 years. It did, however, bring unprecedented despair to the economies of the United States and much of the Western world. And it had far-reaching effects on American society and American culture.

Unemployment and Relief

It is hard to know whether the suffering was worse in the cities or on the farms. In the industrial Northeast and Midwest, cities were becoming virtually paralyzed by the burden of unemployment. Cleveland, Ohio, for example, had an unemployment rate of 50 percent in 1932; Akron, 60 percent; Toledo, 80 percent. To the men and women suddenly without incomes, the situation was frightening and bewildering. Most had grown up believing that every individual was responsible for his or her own fate, that unemployment and poverty were signs of personal failure; and even in the face of national distress, many continued to believe it. Unemployed workers walked through the streets day after day looking for jobs that did not exist. When finally they gave up, they often just sat at home, hiding their shame.

An increasing number of families were turning in humiliation to local public relief systems, just to be able to eat. But that system, which had in the 1920s served only a small number of indigents, was totally unequipped to handle the new demands being placed on it. In many cities, therefore, relief simply collapsed. New York, which offered among the highest relief benefits in the nation, was able to provide families an average of only $2.39 per week. Private charities attempted to supplement the public relief efforts, but the problem was far beyond their capabilities as well.

With local efforts rapidly collapsing, state governments began to feel new pressures to expand their own assistance to the unemployed. Most resisted the pressure. Tax revenues were declining, along with everything else, and state leaders balked at placing additional strains on already tight budgets. Many public figures, moreover, feared that any permanent welfare system would undermine the moral fiber of its clients.

As a result of all this, American cities were experiencing scenes that a few years earlier would have seemed almost inconceivable. Bread lines stretched for blocks outside Red Cross and Salvation Army kitchens. Thousands of people sifted through garbage cans for scraps of food or waited outside restaurant kitchens in hopes of receiving plate scrapings. Nearly 2 million young men simply took to the roads, riding freight trains from city to city, living as virtual nomads.

In rural areas conditions were in many ways even worse, especially in a large area of the South and Midwest known as the Dust Bowl. Between 1929 and 1932, not only did farm income decline by more than 60 percent; not only did an estimated one-third of all American farmers lose their land through mortgage foreclosures or eviction. Much of the farm belt was suffering as well from a catastrophic natural disaster: one of the worst droughts in the history of the nation. Beginning in 1930, a large area of the nationand particularly a group of states stretching north from Texas into the Dakotasbegan to experience a steady decline in rainfall and an accompanying increase in heat. The drought continued for a full decade, turning what had once been fertile farm regions into virtual deserts. In Kansas, the soil in some places was completely without moisture as far as three feet below the surface. In Nebraska, Iowa, and other states, summer temperatures were averaging over 100 degrees. Swarms of grasshoppers were moving from region to region, devouring what meager crops farmers were able to raise, often even devouring fenceposts or clothes hanging out to dry. Great dust storms"black blizzards," as they were called swept across the plains, blotting out the sun and suffocating livestock as well as any people unfortunate or foolish enough to stay outside.

It is a measure of how productive American farmers were and how depressed the market for agricultural goods had become that even with these disastrous conditions, the farm economy continued through the 1930s to produce far more than American consumers could afford to buy. With the domestic market dwindling and the international market having almost vanished, farmers were able to sell their goods only at prices so low as to make continued operations unprofitable. Thus many farmers, like many urban unemployed, left their homes and traveled to what they hoped would be better areas. In the South, in particular, many dispossessed farmers black and whitesimply wandered from town to town, hoping to find jobs or handouts. Hundreds of thousands of families from the Dust Bowl (often known as "Okies," since many came from Oklahoma) packed their belongings in rickety cars or trucks and traveled to California and other states, where they found conditions little better than those they had left. Owning no land of their own, many worked as agricultural migrants, traveling from farm to farm picking fruit and other crops at starvation wages.

For urban and rural Americans alike, malnutrition and homelessness became a growing problem.

City hospitals reported an alarming increase in deaths by starvation. Although such deaths in rural areas often went unreported, they too were increasing. People who had lost their farms or their homes were often unable to afford any permanent shelter. Large shantytowns began to spring up on the outskirts of major cities, where homeless families lived in makeshift shacks constructed of flattened tin cans, scraps of wood, abandoned crates, and other debris. Many homeless Americans simply kept movingsleeping in freight cars, in city parks, in subways, or in unused sewer ducts.

Black Americans and the Depression

Those Americans whose access to opportunities had been limited even in prosperity found the Depression especially devastating. Thus black Americans encountered special hardships in the 1930s. They had not generally shared in the prosperity of the previous decade; they now experienced the problems of unemployment, homelessness, malnutrition, and disease to a far greater degree than in the past, and to a far greater degree than most whites.

As the Depression began, over half of all American blacks still lived in the South, most of them farmers. The collapse of prices for cotton and other staple crops left many with no income at all. Those who stayed on their farms had to grow their own food or scavenge or beg for it. Many left the land altogethereither by choice or because forced to by landlords who no longer found the sharecropping system profitable. Some migrated to Southern cities, where it was now difficult to secure even the menial jobs traditionally considered suitable for blacks. Unemployed whites believed they had first claim to all work, and some now began to take positions as janitors, street cleaners, and domestic servants, displacing the blacks who formerly occupied them.

As the Depression deepened, whites in many Southern cities began to demand that all blacks be dismissed from their jobs. In Atlanta in 1930, an organization calling itself the Black Shirts organized a campaign with the slogan "No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has ajob!" In other areas, whites used intimidation and violence to drive blacks from jobs. By 1932, over half the blacks in the South were without employment. Even unemployed, blacks continued to encounter discrimination. What limited relief there was went almost invariably first to whites; benefits for blacks were consistently lower than those for whites. Some private organizations, and some local governments, refused to provide any assistance at all to blacks.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, many Southern blacksperhaps 400,000 in allleft the South in the 1930s and journeyed to the cities of the North. There they found less direct discrimination, perhaps, but conditions that were in most respects little better than those in the South. In Harlem, the median income of skilled workers dropped by nearly half between 1929 and 1932. But most blacks, there and elsewhere, were unskilled workers; and as always, they tended to be the first fired when layoffs began. In New York, black unemployment was nearly 50 percent. In other cities, it was even higher. A black sociologist reported in 1932 that a third of all black Americans were unemployed and another third underemployed. Two million blackshalf the total black population of the countrywere on some form of relief by 1932. But relief provided most of them with far less support than was necessary to sustain health.

Relatively few white Americans showed any sensitivity to the special plight of blacks during the 1930s.

Traditional patterns of segregation and disfranchise-ment in the South survived largely unchallenged. The horrible problem of lynching continued, with all efforts to win passage of a law making the practice a federal crime frustrated by the opposition of national leaders afraid of antagonizing powerful white Southern politicians. But several particularly notorious examples of racism did attract the attention of the nation.

The most celebrated, perhaps, was the Scottsboro case. In March 1931, nine black teen-agers were taken off a freight train in Alabama (in a small town near Scottsboro) and arrested for vagrancy and disorder. Later, two white women who had also been riding the train accused them of rape. In fact, there was overwhelming evidence, medical and otherwise, that the women (both of them prostitutes) had not been raped at all; they probably made their accusations out of fear of being arrested themselves. Nevertheless, an all-white jury in Alabama quickly convicted all nine of the Scottsboro boys and sentenced eight of them to death.

After the Supreme Court overturned the convictions in 1932, a series of new trials began that gradually attracted national attention. This was in part because the International Labor Defense, an organization associated with the Communist party, came to the aid of the accused youths and began to publicize the case. The trials continued throughout the 1930s. Although the white Southern juries who sat on the case never acquitted any of the defendants, all of them eventually gained their freedom four because the charges were dropped, four because of early paroles, and one because he escaped. The last of the Scottsboro boys did not leave prison until 1950.

Although the Depression generally did little to alter white racial attitudes, it was a time of important changes in the role and behavior of the leading black organizations. The NAACP, for example, began to work diligently to win a position for blacks within the emerging labor movement, supporting the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and helping to break down racial barriers within labor unions. Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, once even made a personal appearance at an auto plant to implore blacks not to work as strikebreakers. Partly as a result of such efforts, more than half a million blacks were able to join the labor movement. In the Steelworkers Union, for example, blacks constituted about 20 percent of the membership.

At the same time, many black leaders were beginning to question their traditional belief that patient lobbying in Congress and through the courts would ultimately produce racial equality. The economic distress of American blacks, combined with adverse judicial decisions and the continuing disinterest of Congress and state legislatures in their problems, caused many to contemplate more direct forms of protest.

Hispanics and Indians

Similar patterns of discrimination confronted many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The Hispanic population in the United States had been growing steadily since early in the century, largely in California and other areas of the Southwest through massive immigration from Mexico (which was specifically excluded from the immigration restriction laws of the 1920s). Some Chicanos filled many of the same menial jobs there that blacks had traditionally filled in other regions. Others began to farm on small, marginal tracts. Still others became agricultural migrants, traveling from region to region harvesting fruit, lettuce, and other crops. Even during the prosperous 1920s, it had been a precarious existence. The Depression made things significantly worse. As in the South, so in the Southwest: Unemployed whites began to demand jobs held by Hispanics, jobs that whites had previously considered beneath them. Thus Mexicans and Mexican-Americans found themselves, like blacks in the South, the last to be hired and the first to be fired; and Mexican unemployment rose quickly to levels far higher than those for whites. Some Mexicansthose willing to move across the border into Mexicowere provided free transportation. Others were, in effect, forced to leave by officials who arbitrarily removed them from relief rolls or simply rounded them up and transported them across the border. Perhaps half a million Chicanos left the United States for Mexico in the first years of the Depression.

For those who remained, there were both economic hardships and increasing social discrimination. Most relief programs excluded Mexicans from their rolls or offered them benefits far below those available to whites. Hispanics generally had no access to American schools. Many hospitals refused them admission. Unlike American blacks, who had established certain educational and social facilities of their own in response to discrimination, Hispanics generally had nowhere to turn. Even those who possessed American citizenship found themselves treated like foreigners.

There were, occasionally, signs of organized resistance by Mexican-Americans themselves, most notably in California, where they attempted to form a union of migrant farm workers. But harsh repression by local growers and the public authorities allied with them prevented such organizations from making significant progress. Like black farm workers, many Hispanics began as a result to migrate to the cities. In Los Angeles and other Western cities, they lived in a poverty comparable to that of urban blacks in the South and Northeast.

For the most tragically exploited of all American minoritiesthe Indiansthe 1930s were years of several important changes. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 reversed the longstanding government policy of encouraging the assimilation of Native Americans into the mainstream of the nation's culture, a policy that had generally served as an excuse for robbing Indians of their tribal lands and reducing them to indigence. The act returned significant authority to the tribes to govern themselves, provided government funds to support education and cultural activities, and perhaps most important, restored the right of tribes to own land as collective entities. Previously, the government had required all Indian land to be owned by individuals. Several other government policies also assisted Indians. The Soil Conservation Service of the New Deal, for example, helped the Navajos improve their range lands and offered needed employment to many Indians on soil conservation and erosion prevention projects.

Nevertheless, American Indians through the 1930s remained what they had been for many years: an impoverished and isolated minority. Even with the redistribution of lands under the 1934 act, Indians continued to possess, for the most part, only territory that whites did not wantmuch of it arid, some of it desert. They continued to lack real authority to govern their own economic and social relationships, even inside their reservations. And they continued to lose property to white encroachment. Most of all, they continued to live in desperate poverty. In 1934, the average income of an American Indian was year.

Women in the Work Force

The Depression had conflicting effects on the ability and willingness of women to obtain paid employment. The economic crisis served in many ways to strengthen the widespread belief that a woman's proper place was in the home. Most men and also many women believed that with employment so scarce, what work there was should go to menthat female workers were taking jobs away from male breadwinners. There was a particularly strong belief that no woman whose husband was employed should accept a job, that to do so would take income away from other, needier families. That belief, in fact, was for a time enshrined in law. From 1932 until 1937, it was illegal for more than one member of a family to hold a federal civil-service job. State and local governments often introduced similar restrictions. And in over twenty states, the legislatures considered (but never passed) laws prohibiting women from working in any paid jobs.

But the widespread assumption that married women, at least, should not work outside the home did not stop them from doing so. Both single and married women worked in the 1930s, despite public condemnation of the practice, because they or their families needed the money. In fact, the largest new group of female workers consisted of precisely those people who, according to popular attitudes, were supposed to be leaving the labor market: wives and mothers. Such women worked to supplement reduced family incomes or, often, because their husbands had lost their jobs. By the end of the Depression, 25 percent more women were working than had been doing so at the beginning.

Few of the new woman workers were entering professional work. In fact, the Depression saw an erosion of the already limited professional opportunities for women. That was partly because unemployed men now began moving into professions such as teaching and social work that had previously been considered women's fields. It was also because the general prejudice against women taking jobs away from men operated particularly strongly in the professions. Female industrial workers suffered similar discrimination. They were far more likely to be laid off or to experience wage reductions than their male counterparts. But women also had certain advantages in the workplace in the 1930s. The nonprofessional jobs that women traditionally heldas salesclerks and stenographers, and in other service positionswere less likely to disappear than the predominantly male jobs in heavy industry. Nor were many men, even unemployed men, likely to search for such jobs.

Black women, however, enjoyed few such advantages. In the South, in particular, they suffered massive unemployment because of a great reduction of domestic service jobs. Doing without paid servants was often one of the first economies that troubled white families imposed on themselves. Thus, over half of all black working women lost their jobs in the 1930s. Even so, at the end of the 1930s, 38 percent of black women were employed, as compared to 24 percent of white women. Married black women were twice as likely to be employed as married white women. That was because black women both married and unmarriedhad always been more likely to work than white women, less out of preference than out of economic necessity. And that pattern continued despite the setbacks of the Depression. For American feminists, the Depression years were, on the whole, a time of frustration. Although economic pressures pushed more women into the work force, those same pressures helped to erode the frail support that feminists had won in the 1920s for the idea of women becoming economically and professionally independent. Most Americans could accept the idea of women working as a way to meet pressing family needs, but few could accept the idea of women working as an assertion of independence and individualism. In the difficult years of the 1930s, such aspirations seemed to many to be less important than dealing with economic hardship.

The Depression saw the virtual extinction of the National Woman's party, which had fought throughout the 1920s for the Equal Rights Amendment and for other egalitarian goals. Even more moderate feminists, committed to "protective" legislation for women, found their gains in decline by the end of the decadealthough they did achieve some significant gains in the early years of the New Deal. (See below, pp. 752-753.) By the end of the New Deal, American feminism had reached its lowest ebb in nearly a century.

Depression Families

The economic hardships of the Depression years placed great strains on American families, particularly on the families of middle-class people who had become accustomed in the 1920s to a steadily rising standard of living and now found themselves plunged suddenly into uncertainty. It was not only unemployment that shook the confidence of middle-class families, although that was of course the worst blow. It was also the reduction of incomes among those who remained employed.

Economic circumstances forced many families, therefore, to retreat from the consumer patterns they had developed in the 1920s. Women often returned to making their own clothes (and those of their families) and to preserving their own food rather than buying such products in stores. Others engaged in home businessestaking in laundry, selling baked goods, accepting boarders. Many households expanded to include more distant relatives. Parents often moved in with their children and grandparents with their grandchildren, or vice versa.

The Depression made family life in many ways more important economically. It also worked to erode the strength of many family units. There was a decline in the divorce rate, but that was largely because divorce was now too expensive for some. More common was the informal breakup of families, particularly the desertion of families by unemployed men bent on escaping the humiliation of being unable to earn a living. The marriage rate and the birth rate both declined.

The families whose structure and behavior were perhaps least affected by the onset of the Depression were those that had not shared in the affluence of the 1920s. Rural families, black families, and migrant families continued to survive in traditional ways. But in middle-class families the sudden deterioration of conditions often caused significant changes. Men, who had been accustomed to the role of breadwinner and central authority figure within the family and who now found themselves unemployed or underemployed, tended to experience strong feelings of failure and inadequacy. Married women who had not worked before the Depression might find the changes less jarring. Sociologists examining family structure in these years noted the frequent phenomenon of husbands becoming secondary to their wives as the center of family life. In some cases, it was the children who assumed leadership when their parents lost the ability to support the family. Young men and women sometimes managed to obtain paid employment when their parents could not, and their authority within the family rose as a resultoften with disorienting results for everyone.

Social Values

Much of American culture in the 1920s had been a response to prosperity and industrial growth. It had celebrated affluence and consumerism and had stressed the importance of personal gratification through both. The economic crisis of the 1930s thus came as a special shock to those men and women who had come to expect continued and increasing prosperity. Many Americans assumed, therefore, that the experience of hard times would have profound effects on the nation's social values, on the way the society defined its goals.

In general, however, American social values seemed to change very little in response to the Depression. On the contrary, many people responded to hard times by redoubling their commitment to familiar ideas and goals. The sociologists Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd, who had published a celebrated study of Muncie, Indiana, in 1929 (Middletown), returned there in the mid-1930s to see how the city had changed. They described their findings in their 1937 book, Middletown in Transition; and they concluded that in most respects "the texture of Middletown's culture has not changed. . . . Middletown is overwhelmingly living by the values by which it lived in 1925." Above all, the men and women of "Middletown"and by implication the people of the nation at largeremained committed to the traditional American emphasis on the individual.

No assumption would seem to have been more vulnerable to erosion during the Depression than the belief that the individual was in control of his or her own fate, that anyone displaying sufficient talent and industry could become a success. And in some respects, the economic crisis did work to undermine the traditional "success ethic" in America. People became during the 1930s more accustomed to looking to their government for assistance; they learned to blame corporate moguls, international bankers, economic royalists, and others for their distress. Yet the Depression fell far short of destroying the success ethic.

The survival of the ideals of work and individual advancement was evident in many ways, not least in the reactions of those most traumatized by the Depression: responsible, conscientious working people of all economic levels who suddenly, bewilderingly found themselves without employment. Some expressed anger and struck out at the economic system. More, however, blamed themselvesif not openly, at least subconsciously. Nothing so surprised foreign observers of America in the 1930s than the apparent passivity of the unemployed, many of whom were so ashamed of their joblessness that they refused to leave their homes. Perhaps that was why people who continued in the 1930s to work and to live more or less as they always had sometimes found it easy to forget that there was an economic crisis. The Depression was sometimes hard to see, because the unemployed tended to hide themselves, unwilling to display to the world what many of them considered their own personal failure.

At the same time, millions responded eagerly to reassurances that they could, through their own efforts, restore themselves to prosperity and success. Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), a self-help manual preaching individual initiative, was one of the best-selling books of the decade. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Protestant theologian who similarly preached the virtues of positive thinking and individual initiative, attracted large audiences with his radio addresses. And although many of the great financial moguls fell into wide disrepute after 1929, the public continued to revere such "self-made men" as Thomas Edison and even, to some extent, Henry Ford.

The Depression also seemed to reinforce the belief of many Americans in the importance of conforming to the predominant standards of their society. If failure was, as many people believed, a result of personal inadequacies, then the best way to compensate for those inadequacies was to conform more and more tightly to the values of the community, to try harder to be like other, more successful people. Dale Carnegie's message was not only that personal initiative was the route to success; it was also that the best way for people to make something of themselves was to adapt to the world in which they lived, to understand the values and expectations of others and mold themselves accordingly. The way to get ahead, Carnegie taught, was to make other people feel important, to fit in.

Depression Culture

Not all Americans, of course, responded to the crisis of the Depression so passively. Large groups of men and women did come to believe that the economic problems of their time were the fault of society, not of individuals, and that some collective social response was necessary. Such beliefs found expression in, among other places, American artistic and intellectual life.

Just as many progressives had become alarmed when, early in the twentieth century, they "discovered" the existence of widespread poverty in the cities, so many Americans were shocked during the 1930s at their discovery of debilitating rural poverty. The plight of the farmerand particularly of the Southern tenant farmer and sharecropperbecame one of the leading themes of Depression intellectual life.

Perhaps most effective in conveying the dimensions of rural poverty was a group of documentary photographers, many of them employed by the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s, who traveled through the South recording the nature of agricultural life. Men such as Roy Stryker, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn and women such as Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange produced memorable studies of farm families and their surroundings, studies designed to show the savage impact of a hostile environment on its victims. Through their work, not only did the problems of poverty receive wider public attention but the art of photography earned new stature.

Many writers, similarly, turned away from the personal concerns of the 1920s and devoted themselves to exposes of social injustice. Erskine Caldwell exposed many of the same injustices that the documentary photographers had studied, in Tobacco Road (1932)a novel about life in the rural South, which later became a long-running play. James Agee produced one of the most powerful portraits of the lives of sharecroppers, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)a careful, nonjudgmental description of the lives of three Southern families, illustrated with photographs by Walker Evans. Other writers and artists turned their gaze on social injustice in other settings. Richard Wright, a major black novelist, exposed the plight of residents of the urban ghetto, in Native Son (1940). James T. Farrell, in his Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-1935), depicted the savage world of urban, lower-class white youth.

Other artists and intellectuals moved beyond social realism and combined an effort to expose social problems with a commitment to political solutions. Some were successful novelists of the 1920s who now turned to new themes. Ernest Hemingway, in To Have and Have Not (1937), displayed for the first time a concern with social issues by portraying a bitter labor struggle and advocating a collective solution; in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), he used the Spanish Civil War as a setting through which to illustrate the importance of solidarity in the face of oppression. Other, newer writers were discussing similar themes. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) portrayed the trials of a migrant family in California, concluding with an open call for collective social action against injustice (although in an earlier novel, In Dubious Battle, in 1936, Steinbeck had expressed grave reservations about the most collective political effort of the 1930s: the Communist party). John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy (1930) explicitly attacked modern capitalism. Playwright Clifford Odets provided a particularly explicit demonstration of the appeal of political radicalism in Waiting for Lefty (1935).

For the most part, however, the cultural products of the 1930s that attracted wide popular audiences were those that diverted attention away from the Depression rather than illuminate its problems. The two most powerful instruments of popular culture in the 1930sradio and the movieswere particularly careful to provide mostly light and diverting entertainment. The radio industry, still fearful of the possibility of nationalization (which was occurring in many other countries just establishing broadcasting systems), made every effort to avoid controversy. Although stations occasionally carried inflammatory programs, the staple of broadcasting was escapism: comedies such as Amos 'n Andy, adventures such as Superman or Dick Tracy, and other programs of pure entertainment. Hollywood continued to exercise tight control over its products through its resilient censor Will Hays, who in response to growing pressure from the Catholic church's Legion of Decency, founded in 1934, redoubled his efforts to ensure that movies carried only safe, conventional messages. There were some films that did explore provocative political themes. The film version of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) faithfully evoked Steinbeck's social criticism. Director Frank Capra provided a muted social message in several of his comediesMr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941)which celebrated the vir-

tues of the small town and the decency of the common people in contrast to the selfish, corrupt values of the city and the urban rich. More often, however, the commercial films of the 1930s were deliberately and explicitly escapist: lavish musicals and "wacky" comedies designed to divert audiences from their troubles and, very often, satisfy their fantasies about quick and easy wealth.

Popular literature, similarly, offered Americans an escape from the Depression rather than an investigation of it. Two of the best-selling novels of the decade were romantic sagas set in bygone eras: Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), which became the source of one of the most celebrated films of all time; and Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse (1933). Leading magazines, and particularly such popular new photographic journals as Life, did offer occasional glimpes of the ravages of the Depression. But for the most part they concentrated on fashions, stunts, and eye-catching scenery. Even the newsreels distributed to movie theaters across the country tended to give more attention to beauty contests and ship launchings than to the Depression itself. The American people lived through the 1930s without experiencing a radicaJ change in their values in part because they managed so frequently and effectively to divert themselves from their problems.

The Allure of the Left

For a small but important group of Americansintellectuals, artists, workers, blacks, and others who became disenchanted for various reasons with the prevailing values of American lifethe Depression meant a commitment, for a time at least, to radical politics. Some became members of the American Communist party, which achieved a size and visibility in the 1930s it had never attained before and would never attain again. Others expressed sympathy for the party and its ideas without actually becoming members. The United States has always been distinctive for the weakness of radicalism in its political tradition; and even during the Depression, the left remained, by the standards of other nations, very weak. But the 1930s marked one of the high-water marks of radical activism in American life.

For intellectuals, in particular, the left offered an escape from the lonely and difficult stance of detachment and alienation that many had embraced in the 1920s. It combined a harsh critique of mainstream American society with an intense commitment to a political movement that seemed to give meaning and purpose to their lives. The particular importance of the Spanish Civil War (see below, p. 766) to many American intellectuals was a good example of how the left's sense of commitment proved appealing. The battle against the Spanish fascists of Francisco Franco (who was receiving support from Hitler and Mussolini) attracted a substantial group of young Americans, about 450 in all, who formed the Abraham Lincoln brigade and traveled to Spain to join in the fight. About a third of its members died in combat; but for those who survived, the experience was profoundly rewarding. Ernest Hemingway, who spent time in Spain as a correspondent, wrote in For Whom the Bell Tolls of how the war provided those Americans who fought in it with "a part in something which you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with others who were engaged in it."

Instrumental in creating the Lincoln brigade, and directing many of its activities throughout its existence, was the American Communist party. The Communist party of the 1930s remains the subject of considerable controversy among historians and many others. Its membership peaked at perhaps 100,000 during its heyday in the mid-1930s; and for a time it made efforts to present itself as a genuinely American organization, no more threatening or alien than any other political organization. For several years beginning in 1935, the party dropped its insistence on working completely apart from other organizations and began to advocate a great democratic alliance of all antifascist groups in the United States, a "Popular Front." It began to praise Franklin Roosevelt and John L. Lewis, a powerful (and strongly anticommunist) labor leader. It adopted the slogan "Communism is twentieth-century Americanism."

The party did perform functions in the 1930s that even many Americans unsympathetic to its long-range goals found appealing. It was active in organizing the unemployed in the early 1930s and staged a hunger march in Washington, D.C. in 1931. Party members were active in the labor movement, were in fact often among the most effective union organizers in some industries. And the party was one of the few political organizations to take a firm, unequivocal stand in favor of racial justice; its active defense of the Scottsboro boys was but one example of its efforts to ally itself with the aspirations of blacks. It also helped organize a union of black sharecroppers in Alabama, which resistedin several instances violentlyefforts of white landowners and authorities to displace them from their farms.

But it is also clear that despite its efforts to appear to be a humane, patriotic organization, the American Communist party was always under the close and rigid supervision of the Soviet Union. Its leaders took their orders from the Comintern in Moscow. Its members followed the "party line" or found themselves expelled from its ranks. The subordination of the party leadership to the Soviet Union was most clearly demonstrated in 1939, when Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. Moscow then sent orders to the American Communist party to abandon the Popular Front idea and return to its old stance of harsh criticism of American liberals; and the leaders in the United States immediately obeyed although thousands of disillusioned members left the party as a result.

The Socialist party of America, now under the leadership of Norman Thomas, also cited the economic crisis as evidence of the failure of capitalism and sought vigorously to win public support for its own political program. In particular, it attempted to mobilize support among the most desperate elements of societyespecially the rural poor. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union, supported by the party and organized by a young socialist, attempted to create a biracial coalition of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and others to demand economic reform. Neither the Farmers Union nor the party itself, however, made any real progress toward establishing socialism as a major force in American politics. By 1936, in fact, membership in the Socialist party had fallen below 20,000.

In the end, what is most striking about American radicalism in the 1930s is less its unprecedented strength than its continuing limits. Neither the Communist party nor any other radical organization ever achieved dimensions during the Depression sufficient to make it a truly important political force. Even the most distressed Americans seemed to find the subordination of the Communists to Moscow unappealing. But the more moderate Socialist party, whose independence from foreign control was not in question, fared no better in increasing its membership in these years. However strong radical sentiment may have become, the strength of antiradicalism remained far stronger.

The Ordeal of Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover entered the presidency in March 1929 believing, like most Americans, that the nation faced a bright and prosperous future. For the first six months of his administration, he attempted to expand the policies he had advocated during his eight years as secretary of commerce, policies that would, he believed, complete the stable system of cooperative individualism that he thought key to a successful economy. The economic crisis that began before the year was out forced the president to deal with a new set of problems; but for most of the rest of his term, he continued to rely on the principles that had always governed his public life.

The Hoover Program

Hoover's first response to the Depression was to attempt to restore public confidence in the economy. "The fundamental business of this country, that is, production and distribution of commodities," he said in 1930, "is on a sound and prosperous basis." Consequently, he held a series of highly publicized meetings, summoning leaders of business, labor, and agriculture to the White House and urging upon them a program of voluntary cooperation for recovery. He persuaded businessmen not to cut production or lay off workers; he talked labor leaders into forgoing demands for higher wages or better hours. For a few brief months, the president's efforts seemed to be having some effect; but by mid-1931, economic conditions had deteriorated so much that the structure of voluntary cooperation he had erected quickly collapsed. Frightened industrialists soon began cutting production, laying off workers, and slashing wages. Hoover was powerless to stop them.

Hoover also attempted to use government spending as a tool for fighting the Depression. Rejecting the demands of some fiscal conservatives that the government cut back its own programs to ensure a balanced budget, the president proposed to Congress an increase of $423 milliona substantial sum by the standards of the timein federal public works programs; and he exhorted state and local governments to engage in the "energetic yet prudent pursuit" of public construction. Nevertheless, Hoover's spending programs were in the end no more effective than his efforts at persuasion; for he was not willing to spend enough money, or to spend it for a long enough time, to do any good. He viewed his public works program as a temporary expedient, something to promote a rapid recovery. When economic conditions worsened, he became far less willing to increase government spending, worrying instead about maintaining federal solvency. In 1932, at the depth of the Depression, he proposed a tax increase to help the government avoid a deficit.

Even before the stock market crash, Hoover had begun to construct a program to assist the troubled agricultural economy. It embodied two major initiatives, which the president proposed to a special session of Congress in April 1929. The Agricultural Marketing Act established for the first time a major government bureaucracy to help farmers maintain prices. A federally sponsored Farm Board of eight members would administer a budget of $500 million, from which it could make loans to national marketing cooperatives or establish "corporations" to buy surpluses and thus raise prices. At the same time, Hoover attempted to protect American farmers from international competition by raising agricultural tariffs. The Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930 contained protective increases on seventy-five farm products and raised rates from the average of 26 percent established by the 1922 Fordney-McCumber Tariff to a new high of 50 percent.

Neither the Agricultural Marketing Act nor the Hawley-Smoot Tariff ultimately helped American farmers in any significant way. The Marketing Act relied on voluntary cooperation among farmers and gave the government no authority to do what the agricultural economy most badly needed: limit production. Hoover's call for a reduction of the wheat crop, for example, resulted in a drop in acreage of only 1 percent in Kansas. The Farm Board lacked sufficient funds to deal effectively with the crisis. Prices continued to fall despite its efforts. The Hawley-Smoot tariff was an unqualified disasteras 1,000 members of the American Economic Association had warned the president even before he signed it into law. It provoked foreign governments to enact trade restrictions of their own in reprisal, further diminishing the market for American agricultural goods. And it raised rates not only on farm products but on 925 manufactured goods as well, making industrial products more expensive for farmers.

A Change of Direction

By the spring of 1931, Herbert Hoover's political position had deteriorated considerably. Democrats had made major gains in the 1930 congressional elections, winning control of the House and making substantial inroads in the Senate. Large portions of the public were beginning to hold the president personally to blame for the crisis, and Hoover's name soon became synonymous with economic distress. Shantytowns established on the outskirts of cities were known as "Hoovervilles." Progressive reformers both inside and outside the government urged the president to support more vigorous programs of relief and public spending. Hoover ignored the recommendation. Instead, he seized on a slight improvement in economic conditions early in 1931 as proof that his policies were working.

The international financial panic of the spring of 1931 destroyed the illusion that the economic crisis was coming to an end. The ability of European nations to secure loans from American banks, which had been so crucial to their solvency throughout the 1920s, largely disappeared after 1929; and shortly thereafter, the financial fabric of many European nations began to unravel. In May 1931, the largest bank in Austria collapsed. Over the next several months, panic gripped the financial institutions of neighboring countries. European governments, desperate for sound assets, withdrew their gold reserves from American banks. European investors, in need of dollars to pay off their loans and protect their solvency, dumped their shares of American stocks onto the market, further depressing prices. More and more European nations were abandoning the gold standard and devaluing their currencies, leaving the United States, which remained tied to gold, at a disadvantage in international trade. American economic conditions rapidly declined to new lows, and Herbert Hoover quickly adopted a new approach to the Depression.

It was not the domestic American economy that was to blame for the Depression, he now argued, but the structure of international finance. The proper response to the crisis, therefore, was not to adopt active social and economic programs at home but to work to restore international stability. Hoover's solution was to propose a moratoriumfirst on the payment of all war debts and reparations, then on the payment of international private debts as well. It was a sound proposal, but it came too late to halt the panic.

By the time Congress convened in December 1931, conditions had grown so desperate that Hoover finally decided to support an expanded federal role in the economy. He persuaded Congress to increase funding for federal land banks and to create a system of government home loan banks. Through them, financial institutions holding mortgages on farms, homes, and other properties could receive cash from the government for the mortgages instead of foreclosing on themthus keeping the banks afloat and, incidentally, preventing many Americans from losing their homes and properties. Hoover also supported the Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1932, designed to make it easier for American banks to meet the demands of overseas depositors who were withdrawing their gold from the United States. And he encouraged New York financiers to establish a $500 million fund to help troubled banks stay afloat.

The most important piece of legislation of his presidency, however, was a bill passed in January 1932 establishing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a government agency whose purpose was to provide federal loans to troubled banks, railroads, and other businesses. It even made funds available to local governments to support public works projects and assist relief efforts. It was an unprecedented use of federal power; and unlike many earlier Hoover programs, it operated on a large scale. In 1932, the RFC had a budget of $1.5 billion for public works alone.

Nevertheless, the new agency failed to deal directly or forcefully enough with the real problems of the economy to produce any significant recovery. Because the RFC was permitted to lend funds only to those financial institutions with sufficient collateral, much of its money went to large banks and corporations, prompting some critics to dub it a "bread line for big business." The RFC could only provide loans; it could not purchase stock or otherwise provide capital to troubled institutions, even though that was what they most desperately needed. And at Hoover's insistence, it helped finance only those public works projects that promised ultimately to pay for themselves (toll bridges, public housing, and others), thus severely limiting the scope of its efforts. Its chairman, the conservative Texas banker Jesse Jones, prided himself on the solvency of his agency and followed sound, prudent banking practices. This meant that the RFC itself remained healthy by refusing to make loans to those institutions that most desperately needed them. Above all, the RFC did not have enough money to make any real impact on the Depression; and it did not even spend all the money it had. Of the $300 million available to support local relief efforts, the RFC lent out only $30 million in 1932. Of the $1.5 billion public works budget, it released only about 20 percent. Even Hoover's most vigorous and expansive program had been crippled by the cautiousness and fiscal conservatism of his administration.

Agrarian Unrest

For the first several years of the Depression, most Americans were either too stunned or too confused to raise any effective protest. By the middle of 1932, however, the crisis had continued so long and had grown so severe that dissident voices began to be heard.

In the Midwest, farmers sensing themselves near economic extinction raised new and louder demands for government assistance. In particular, they called for legislation similar to the McNary-Haugen bill of the 1920s by which the government would guarantee them a return on their crops at least equal to the cost of production. Lobbyists from the larger farm organizations converged on Washington to pressure members of Congress to act. Some disgruntled farmers staged public protests in the capital. But when neither the president nor Congress showed any signs of movement, they adopted a more drastic approach. In the summer of 1932, a group of unhappy farm owners gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, to establish a new organization: the Farm Holiday Association. Under the leadership of Milo Reno, the association endorsed the withholding of farm products from the market in effect a farmers' strike. The strike began in August in western Iowa, spread briefly to a few neighboring areas, and succeeded in blockading several markets; but in the end it dissolved in failure. The scope of the effort was too modest to affect farm prices, and many farmers in the region refused to cooperate in any case. When clashes between strikers and local authorities resulted in several episodes of violence, Reno called off the strike. Nevertheless, the uprising created considerable consternation in state governments in the farm belt and even more in Washington, where the president and much of Congress were facing a national election.

The Bonus March

A more celebrated protest movement emerged from a less likely quarter: American veterans. In 1924, Congress had approved the payment of a bonus to all those who had served in World War I, the money to be distributed in 1945. By 1932, however, economic distress had mobilized a widespread demand among veterans that the bonus be paid immediately. Hoover would not consider the request, fearing that acquiescence would ruin his hopes for a balanced budget; but the veterans refused to be denied. In June, more than 20,000 veterans, members of the self-proclaimed "Bonus Army," marched into Washington, built crude camps in the city and its environs, and promised to stay until Congress approved legislation to pay the bonus. A few of the veterans departed in July, after Congress had voted down their proposal. Most, however, remained where they were.

Their continued presence in Washington was an irritant and an embarrassment to Herbert Hoover, who had problems enough already and who gradually became defensive and even paranoid about the protesters. Finally, in mid-July, he ordered police to clear the marchers out of several abandoned federal buildings in which they had been staying. The police arrived; a few marchers threw rocks at them; someone opened fire; and two veterans fell dead. To Hoover, the incident seemed proof of dangerous radicalism, and he ordered the U. S. Army to assist the police in clearing out the buildings.

General Douglas MacArthur, the army chief of staff, chose to carry out the order himself. In full battle dress, he led the Third Cavalry (under the command of George S. Patton), two infantry regiments, a machine-gun detachment, and six tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue in pursuit of the motley Bonus Army. The veterans fled in terror as the troops hurled tear gas canisters and flailed at them with their bayonets. MacArthur followed them across the Anacostia River, where he ordered the soldiers to burn their camp to the ground. More than 100 marchers were injured. One baby died.

The incident served as perhaps the final blow to Hoover's already battered political standing. To much of the public, he now stood confirmed as an aloof and insensitive figure, locked in the White House, uncomprehending of the distress around him. Hoover's own cold and gloomy personality did nothing to change the public image, and some of his embattled public statements at the time made his plight even worse. "Nobody is actually starving," he assured reporters (inaccurately) in 1932. "The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been." The Great Engineer, the personification of the optimistic days of the 1920s, had become a symbol of the nation's failure to deal effectively with its startling reversal of fortune.

The Election of 1932

Most of the American people looked to the 1932 presidential election as their most effective vehicle of protest. Almost no one had any doubts about the outcome. The Republican party dutifully renomi-nated Herbert Hoover for a second term in office, but the lugubrious atmosphere of their convention made it clear that few delegates believed he could carry the November election. The Democrats, in the meantime, gathered jubilantly in Chicago to nominate a candidate who, they were certain, would be the next president of the United States. Their choice was the governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt had been a well-known figure in the party for many years already. The son of a wealthy Hudson Valley railroad tycoon, schooled at Harvard and at Columbia Law School, Roosevelt had begun his political career in 1910 in the New York State legislature. Because he was handsome, charming, and articulate, and because he was a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (a connection strengthened by his marriage in 1904 to the president's niece, Eleanor), he attracted increasing attention. He served as assistant secretary of the navy under Woodrow Wilson during World War I; and in 1920, he received his party's nomination for vice president on the ill-fated ticket with James M. Cox.

Less than a year later, however, his public career appeared to come to an end when he was stricken with polio and lost the use of his legs. For seven years, Roosevelt worked hard at his recovery, but he was never again able to walk without the use of crutches and braces. Nevertheless, he built up sufficient physical strength to make a courageous appearance at the 1924 Democratic Convention to nominate Al Smith for president. In 1928, when Smith finally received the Democratic nomination and left Albany to run for president, Roosevelt succeeded him as governor; and in 1930, he easily won reelection.

Roosevelt worked no miracles in New York as the state suffered through the first years of the Depression. He did, however, initiate enough positive programs of government assistance to be able to present himself as a more energetic and imaginative leader than Herbert Hoover. At least as important to his political future, however, was his astute effort to win support from both the urban and rural wings of his party. By avoiding such divisive cultural issues as religion and prohibition, and by emphasizing the economic grievances that most Democrats shared, he assembled a coalition within the party that enabled him to win his party's nomination. And the next day, in a dramatic break with tradition, he flew to Chicago to address the convention in person and accept the nomination.

In the course of his acceptance speech, Roosevelt aroused the delegates with his ringing promise: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people," giving his program a name that would long endure. Neither then nor in the subsequent campaign, however, did Roosevelt give much indication of what that program would be. In part, of course, it was because there was no need to be specific. Herbert Hoover's unpopularity virtually ensured Roosevelt's election; his only real concern was to avoid offending any voters unnecessarily. In part, however, it was because Roosevelt had no firm or coherent program to describe. Surrounded by advisers holding widely disparate views, the candidate seemed at times to be little more than a genial mediatorlistening to everyone, disagreeing with no one.

There was, however, evidence of important differences between Roosevelt and Hoover. Drawing from the ideas of a talented team of university professors (whom the press quickly dubbed the "Brains Trust"), Roosevelt espoused an amalgam of ideas that combined old progressive reform principles with some of the newer ideas of associationalism that had gained currency in the 1920s. Hoover liked to insist that the Depression was international in origin and that any attempt to combat it must be international as well. Roosevelt, in contrast, portrayed the crisis as a domestic (and Republican) problem and argued that the most important solutions could be found at home. Above all, perhaps, Roosevelt's stylehis dazzling smile, his floppy broad-brimmed hat, his cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle between his teeth, his skillful oratory, his unfailing witall combined to win him a wide personal popularity only vaguely related to the specifics of his programs.

In November, to the surprise of no one, Roosevelt won by a landslide. He received 57.4 percent of the popular vote to Hoover's 39.7. The Socialist party, in this year of despair, garnered only 1.2 percent of the ballots. The Communist party polled a meager 103,000 votes. In the electoral college, the result was even more overwhelming. Hoover carried Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Roosevelt won everything else. And Democrats won majorities in both houses of Congress. It was a broad and convincing mandate, but it was not yet clear what Roosevelt intended to do with it.

The Interregnum

The period between the election and the inauguration (which in the early 1930s still lasted more than four months) was traditionally a time of quiet planning and federal inaction. The winter of 1932-1933, however, was a season of growing economic crisis; and traditional patterns seemed to many Americans to be irrelevant. Among those who believed that the president-elect should act forcefully even before taking office was Herbert Hoover, who argued that international economic stability depended on a clear affirmation by the United States of the sanctity of the gold standard. He argued as well that fear of "radical" economic measures by the new administration was unsettling the domestic financial climate. In a series of brittle exchanges with Roosevelt in the months following the election, Hoover tried to exact from the president-elect a pledge to maintain policies of economic orthodoxy. Roosevelt genially refused. In February, only a month before the inauguration, a new crisis developed. The American banking system had been in desperate trouble since the middle of 1930. By 1932, it was beginning to collapse. Public confidence in the banks was ebbing; depositors were withdrawing their money in panic; and one bank after another was closing its doors and declaring bankruptcy. In mid-February, the governor of Michigan, one of the states hardest hit by the panic, ordered all banks temporarily closed. Other states soon followed, and by the end of the month banking activity was restricted drastically in every state but one. Once again, Hoover wrote to Roosevelt insisting that the problem was a result of "steadily degenerating confidence" in the incoming administration. The only way to restore calm, he insisted, was for Roosevelt to give prompt public assurances that there would be no tinkering with the currency, no heavy borrowing, no unbalancing of the budget. "I realize," he wrote a Republican senator at the time, "that if these declarations be made by the president-elect, he will have ratified the whole major program of the Republican Administration." Roosevelt realized the same thing and refused to comply.

March 4, 1933, was, therefore, a day not only of economic crisis but of considerable personal bitterness. The nation waited anxiously as Herbert Hoover, convinced that the United States was headed for disaster, rode glumly down Pennsylvania Avenue with a beaming, buoyant Franklin Roosevelt, who would shortly be sworn in as the thirty-second president of the United States.

 


 

 



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