The Great Depression 1929-1938
Chapter 23 opens with a discussion of the Great Depression's impact on people's lives. The human story includes the increase in malnutrition and starvation, altered marital patterns, the sufferings of drought- and debt-ridden farmers, the plight of industrial workers, the desperation of marginal workers, and changes to family life.
Hoover's response to appeals from the people that the government extend aid was at first defensive. Hoover was convinced that the nation's economic problems could be solved by business organizations and professional groups voluntarily working together to find solutions, with the government coordinating their efforts. As the depression deepened, Hoover reluctantly began to energize the government. At the same time, however, he pursued policies that caused further deterioration of the economic situation.
In the midst of the depression, few Americans thought in radical, revolutionary terms. However, some did begin to strike out at what they believed to be the cause of their distress. The Farmers Holiday Association attempted to drive prices up by withholding agricultural products from the marketplace. Unemployed Councils engaged in protest that sometimes became violent. Racial violence also increased as some attempted to find scapegoats on whom to blame their problems. The most spectacular public confrontation occurred when the Bonus Army converged on Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932. However, in the case of the Bonus March, it was the government, not the people, that overreacted.
An understanding of Franklin Roosevelt's background, his perception of himself, his society, and American government is important to an understanding of his approach to the Great Depression. That background and Roosevelt's frame of reference are outlined as part of the discussion of the presidential election of 1932. In this discussion, we also see that in spite of a deepening crisis, Americans did not adopt radical solutions. Instead, they continued to follow tradition by peacefully exchanging one government for another.
Roosevelt's initial actions, outlined in Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Launching of the New Deal, demonstrate both the conservative nature of his approach and his realization that the psychology of pessimism within the country was as great an enemy as the depression itself. The legislation that was passed, as well as the fireside chats, provided a sense of movement that helped break the mood of pessimism.
An attempt to solve the problem of overproduction through centralized planning provided the theoretical framework for passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Belief in giving direct relief to states and to individuals may be seen in acts such as the Federal Emergency Relief Act and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). As these and other measures passed during the Hundred Days were implemented, unemployment began to fall. However, as the immediacy of the crisis began to abate, groups and individuals became more outspoken in their criticism of and opposition to the New Deal. The range of criticism indicates that Roosevelt was a political moderate in the route that he chose. Furthermore, opposition from popular critics like Huey Long, the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt and other advocates of social reform, and the political realities of having to maintain the allegiance of interest groups that were part of the emerging New Deal coalition, help explain the launching of the Second New Deal.
The Second New Deal stemmed from the view that underconsumption was the nation's basic problem, that business and banking interests had to be regulated more closely, and that the government had a responsibility to the aged and the needy in American society. These assumptions were behind the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the Social Security Act, and the Wealth Tax Act. The Second New Deal and the forging of the New Deal coalition carried Roosevelt to victory in the 1936 election.
Having discussed the reforms of the New Deal, the authors consider the impact of the New Deal era on organized labor, which benefited from both Section 7(a) of the NIRA and the Wagner Act. Therefore, despite determined resistance by management and a division within the labor movement that led to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the union movement made impressive gains during the 1930s.
In Federal Power and the Nationalization of Culture, we turn to a discussion of the profound change that the New Deal caused in the relationship between Americans and their government. Examples are offered to support the authors contention that the federal government, by gaining more control over water, hydroelectric power, and land in the West, gained more control over the region's future. Furthermore, passage of the Indian Reorganization Act not only indicates a more enlightened governmental approach to American Indians, but also demonstrates that federal activism extended to people in the West, not just to the region's natural resources. We also see, through discussion of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Roosevelt administration's successes and failures in its attempts to transform the South and integrate the region into the nation's culture and economy.
After examining the impact of the radio and movies on the breaking down of regional boundaries and the emergence of a national culture, we look at the limits of the New Deal. Mistakes, and political reality meant that Roosevelt did not enjoy successes during his second term like those experienced in his first. He made a political and tactical mistake in his request for a restructuring of the Supreme Court. His dislike of deficit spending and desire for a balanced budget led to drastic cuts in federal spending, which in turn led to a new recession in 1937 and to a renewal of deficit spending. Such mistakes undercut some of Roosevelt's charisma; therefore, even though the New Deal coalition held together in the 1940 presidential election, Roosevelt did not achieve the landslide victory he had enjoyed in 1936.
The experience of African Americans and Mexican Americans demonstrates that racism continued as a force that was detrimental to the lives of nonwhites and was clearly a reason that all Americans did not benefit equally from the New Deal. The Scottsboro case serves as a symbol of the ugliness of race relations in the Depression era. Furthermore, despite the presence of the Black Cabinet, President Roosevelt was never fully committed to civil rights for blacks, and some New Deal measures functioned in a discriminatory way. However, there were some indications that change was on the horizon. First, in relation to cases arising out of the Scottsboro trial, the Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment made the criminal protection procedures (the right to adequate defense counsel and the right to an impartial jury) of the Sixth Amendment applicable to the states. Second, Roosevelt created the Black Cabinet and had within his administration people committed to racial equality. In addition, Eleanor Roosevelt, the conscience of the New Deal, demonstrated her commitment to racial equality through her vocal and public support of Marian Anderson. Furthermore, African Americans continued, as they had throughout their history, to work on their own behalf to overcome the injustices and abuses associated with white racism.The chapter ends with a discussion of the way in which historians view the legacy of the New Deal.
Reform: The Great Depression created new opportunities for reform and allowed Franklin Roosevelt more scope for changing the role of the federal government than any president before him. Among other things, the New Deal created the basis for a federal welfare system, especially through the creation of a federal program of Social Security, which would help to provide for the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and those with dependent children. While limited by the standards of many other industrial countries, New Deal programs nonetheless acknowledged a new level of government responsibility for the nation's citizens. The New Deal also put into place the idea of the "broker state," in which the federal government would act as a mediator between large interest groups. New Deal policies helped to elevate labor and farms groups to the level at which they could balance the power of corporate interests, at least in some cases.
Economic Transformations: Although the New Deal failed to restore prosperity and end the Great Depression, it did create a number of important regulatory mechanisms that allowed the federal government to prevent the conditions that had led to the economic disaster of the late 1920s through the regulation of the stock market and the banking sectors. The New Deal provided a basis for post-World War II experiments in federal fiscal policy, as Roosevelt began to experiment on a limited basis with macroeconomic tools such as deficit spending to stimulate economic growth. The New Deal also promoted economic growth in the South and West, helping to improve lives in those regions and bring them to a standard of living closer to that enjoyed by people living in other parts of the country.
Politics and Citizenship: The New Deal helped to create a Democratic coalition that would shape national politics until the late 1960s. While the party had been badly divided between its urban and rural wings during the 1920s, FDR was able to shift the Democrats from a focus on divisive cultural issues to an emphasis on economic issues and thus unite a number of different constituencies. By the end of his first term in 1936, Roosevelt had brought together African Americans, organized labor, women, urban residents, southerners, and traditional liberals and progressives, creating a powerful grouping that made the Democratic Party the nation's natural majority for several decades.
American Identity: The New Deal fundamentally transformed how Americans thought about themselves and their relationship to the state. Traditional American ideology had stressed the nation's abundance and the equality of opportunity that was open to all who were willing to work hard in pursuit of prosperity. The Great Depression caused Americans to question their unbounded optimism and faith in individual initiative as the key to material progress and well-being. While the New Deal was criticized by conservatives for bringing the government into people's lives to too great a degree and by those on the left for not going far enough, the acceptance of FDR's programs by the vast majority of Americans represented their acceptance of a new belief in the possibilities of government and its ability to positively affect their lives.
The Great Depression was steeper and more protracted in the United States than in other industrialized countries. The unemployment rate rose higher and remained higher longer than in any other western country. As it deepened, the Depression had far-reaching political consequences. The Great Depression transformed the American political and economic landscape. It produced a major political realignment, creating a coalition of big-city ethnics, African Americans, organized labor, and Southern Democrats committed, to varying degrees, to interventionist government. It strengthened the federal presence in American life, spawning such innovations as national old-age pensions, unemployment compensation, aid to dependent children, public housing, federally-subsidized school lunches, insured bank depositions, the minimum wage, and stock market regulation. It fundamentally altered labor relations, producing a revived labor movement and a national labor policy protective of collective bargaining. It transformed the farm economy by introducing federal price supports. Above all, it led Americans to view the federal government as an agency of action and reform and the ultimate protector of public well-being.In addition to assessing the ideas that informed the New Deal policies, this section examines the critics and evaluates the impact of the New Deal. The Depression vastly expanded the scope and scale of the federal government and created the modern welfare state. It gave rise to a philosophy that the federal government should provide a safety net for the elderly, the jobless, the disabled, and the poor, and that the federal government was responsible for ensuring the health of the nation's economy and the welfare of its citizens.
Biography of America
FDR and the Depression (series 21)
Professor Brinkley continues his story of twentieth century presidents with a profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Brinkley paints a picture of America during the Depression and chronicles some of Roosevelt's programmatic and personal efforts to help the country through its worst economic crisis. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is at FDR's side and, in many respects, ahead of him as the decade unfolds.