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The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II
The stock market crash of 1929 caused soup lines to become the order of the day for the skilled and unskilled alike in urban areas across the nation. African Americans in both cities and rural areas, many already living in poverty, suffered greatly from the economic depression. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he promised a &ldquonew deal&rdquo for all Americans that would provide them with security from &ldquothe cradle to the grave.&rdquo Although there were many inequities in the New Deal housing, agricultural and economic programs, blacks had opportunities to obtain employment, some in areas previously closed to them. Black writers, for example, participated in the New Deal's writing projects, while other black Americans interviewed former slaves for the Works Project Administration (WPA). These New Deal programs generated numerous documents that found their way to the Library's collections.
The New Deal programs did not end the Depression. It was the growing storm clouds in Europe, American aid to the Allies, and ultimately, U.S. entry into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that revitalized the nation's economy. Remembering their experiences in World War I, African American soldiers and civilians were increasingly unwilling to quietly accept a segregated army or the discriminatory conditions they had previously endured. Northern black troops sent to the South for training often had violent encounters with white citizens there. Black-owned newspapers protested segregation, mistreatment, and discrimination. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington, D.C. by hundreds of thousands of blacks in 1941 to protest job discrimination in defense industries and the military. To avoid this protest, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, reaffirming the &ldquopolicy of full participation in the defense program by all persons, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.&rdquo
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal
In the summer of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor of New York, was nominated as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt addressed the problems of the depression by telling the American people that, "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." In the election that took place in the fall of 1932, Roosevelt won by a landslide.
The New Deal Roosevelt had promised the American people began to take shape immediately after his inauguration in March 1933. Based on the assumption that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the depression, the first days of Roosevelt's administration saw the passage of banking reform laws, emergency relief programs, work relief programs, and agricultural programs. Later, a second New Deal was to evolve it included union protection programs, the Social Security Act, and programs to aid tenant farmers and migrant workers. Many of the New Deal acts or agencies came to be known by their acronyms. For example, the Works Progress Administration was known as the WPA, while the Civilian Conservation Corps was known as the CCC. Many people remarked that the New Deal programs reminded them of alphabet soup.
By 1939, the New Deal had run its course. In the short term, New Deal programs helped improve the lives of people suffering from the events of the depression. In the long run, New Deal programs set a precedent for the federal government to play a key role in the economic and social affairs of the nation.
The Great Depression and the New Deal
As the Great Depression ended the prosperity of the 1920s, the Pacific Northwest suffered economic catastrophe like the rest of the country. Businesses and banks failed and by 1933 only about half as many people were working as had been in 1926. The population in the Pacific Northwest continued to grow but more slowly, as many left the Dust Bowl states of the Midwest and Plains.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" aimed at promoting economic recovery and putting Americans back to work through Federal activism. New Federal agencies attempted to control agricultural production, stabilize wages and prices, and create a vast public works program for the unemployed. The West saw the heavy use of Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers in National Forests and National Parks, and on Indian reservations for work on natural resource related projects and a legacy of buildings, roads, bridges, and trails remains in the Pacific Northwest as a result of these many projects.
Built in the 1930s and 1940s, Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams brought electricity to rural areas that were not served by existing utilities. The economy of the Pacific Northwest was strengthened as manufacturing opportunities grew.
Many New Deal-era government agencies sponsored photography projects. Additionally, many agencies were tasked with verbally and photographically documenting projects they undertook. For the most part, these projects used a "documentary" approach that emphasized straightforward scenes of everyday life or the environment. Found attached to the written reports submitted by the various agencies, the images from these projects make for a detailed portrait of America during the 1930s and early 1940s.
An extreme dry spell in the fall of 1929 led depleted reservoirs to produce only 1/10th of the hydroelectric power needed to supply Seattle and Tacoma. Just two weeks after Wall Streets Black Monday, Tacoma leaders wrote in a telegrammed plea for assistance supply insufficient STOP We cannot hold out another week without shutting off inductors which will give great loss in employment and consequent suffering to entire community. The US Navy agreed to allow the steam power plants on the USS Lexington to be used to supply power to the City of Tacoma.
Not all Civilian Conservation Corps camps were as luxurious as this one in Idaho. Located in an isolated area 1 ½ miles northeast of Hagerman, CCC Camp DG 60 was nine miles from the nearest railhead in Bliss, Idaho. The camp, however, did have a swimming pool, seen in the foreground. (1936)
Men assigned to Company 990 from Big Sur, CA report to their foremen at CCC Camp DG-4 located one mile southwest of Springfield, Idaho. The camp was responsible for the eradication of poisonous plants, rodent control, and building minor roads and truck trails, reservoirs, and wells. (1935)
Built by the Works Progress Administration in 1934, Timberline Lodge nestles at the base of Mt. Hood, Oregon. Out of work artisans were used in the construction, leading to wondrous wood carvings and stone work throughout the lodge.
Many Civilian Conservation Corps and Emergency Conservation Work activities in the Pacific Northwest centered around projects involving natural resources administered by the Forest Service, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Much of the work was done using hand labor. Here men from the Emergency Conservation Works Carbon River Camp clear debris from a channel in Mount Rainier National Park. Note the burning slash and the use of hand tools. (ca. 1934-35)
An example of the type of amenities the Forest Service built to encourage visitors to the regions forests, the store and lunchroom at Stevens Pass in the Wenatchee National Forest (WA) was designed to be functional yet fit into the forest unobtrusively. It stood until it burned a few years ago. Note the snow still on the ground in June. (1937)
During the 1930s, it was common to incorporate Federally-funded public art into public works projects. A panel of designers from the Portland Art Museum, the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon, and also including an Oregon judge and a local engineer proposed that the powerhouses for Bonneville Dam be constructed in the shape of Paul Bunyan and is blue ox Babe. These two images show the artists conception of the project, one hand drawn and one sculpted. No money was appropriated for this venture. (1934)
Bonneville Dam was the first of a series of dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Columbia River in response to the Corps 1932 𣽬 Report. Designed to replace a canal and locks that had been in place since 1896, the dam was intended to serve shipping up the river, control flooding, and provide electric power. Construction began in 1933, and the jobs provided helped to lessen the impact of the Great Depression in the area. Although fish ladders were included in the construction plan, it has become clear that, as far a salmon were concerned, this system could not replace the free flowing river. This aerial view was reproduced from a glass slide. (ca. 1941)
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The Great Depression, the New Deal, and how disasters change politics
The coronavirus pandemic has the United States facing a social and economic crisis with businesses shutting down, financial markets tumbling, and millions of Americans losing their jobs.
The downturn has some economists wondering if the U.S. will face another depression, and even the president has compared the $2.2 trillion bailout package to the New Deal.
History professor Brent Cebul’s current book project, tentatively titled “Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Liberalism in the American Century,” is a history of how liberals from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to the New Democrats of Bill Clinton’s administration tried to create a foundation for progressive governance by stimulating economic growth.
Cebul spoke to Penn Today about lessons contemporary politicians can take from the Great Depression and the New Deal and how disasters like the current pandemic can change politics.
How did FDR react to the Great Depression, as compared to how this administration is managing the current crisis so far?
One of the things that’s really important to think about the New Deal as compared to the relief package Congress just passed, is that the package is a bailout, it’s not a long-running agenda to implement a variety of different policies over time, which is what the New Deal was. The New Deal was many different policy ideas and agendas that unfolded and cohered over the course of a decade.
The depression started in October of 1929, so there were three solid years of worsening economic conditions before voters turned the keys of the White House over to Roosevelt, making the New Deal possible. Something the pandemic is doing is showing how interconnected the world is, and that was actually something Roosevelt featured prominently in his first inaugural, that the depression laid bare how deeply interconnected Americans were. That was one of Roosevelt’s strengths he was the narrator-in-chief. He was able to fit the crisis into a framework for active and collective government.
How was FDR's reaction different than the approach to the crisis by his predecessor, Herbert Hoover?
To a certain degree, Hoover approached the depression in a similar way to how the Trump administration is approaching this crisis, but Hoover was far more sophisticated. Hoover didn’t want the government to have to step in and mandate things. He worked with business leaders and voluntary associations, who would then set prices and determine what was needed in a given market through associational and voluntary decision-making rather than through government directive.
Hoover had used those strategies and tactics to great effect in World War I and rebuilding efforts in Europe afterwards when he created really robust voluntary and associational solutions for ensuring the food supply and fighting hunger. He was an exceedingly competent broker of private actors. But when he was trying to get volunteers to stand in for the government during the depression, it couldn’t work because the scale of the crisis was far beyond what private actors could carry out.
Was the New Deal a tough sell to lawmakers and the public?
It’s important to situate the New Deal at the end point of a variety of labor movements, where people were looking for a more active government in terms of moderating capitalism and securing workers against powerful corporations. There was a hunger for bold experimentation.
Some 5,000 banks failed between 1929 and 1933, and what that meant was that everyone's savings in those banks went poof. The FDIC, which insures our savings accounts, was a product of the New Deal it had to be invented, and that was one of the first things FDR did. He shut down the national system of banking and when it reopened the federal government began insuring savings in banks and even became a shareholder in many banks to ensure they had enough capital on hand to resume regular operations.
Another stat that gets at the scale of the crisis: Around 1,200 cities and counties went bankrupt during these years. In industrial cities like Cleveland and Philadelphia, the number working-age adults out of work approached 40 to 50% at times. Charitable approaches to poverty and hunger just were devastated. One of the really poignant stories from the era was in Detroit, where they decided that they could no longer run the zoo, so all the edible animals were killed to provide for the hungry. The scale boggles the mind today.
The baseline American standard of living had just been devastated, and so Roosevelt had a strong mandate coming in 1932, when he got nearly 60% of the vote. All this expressed a real appetite for bold policy change and a tolerance for stumbles.
Would such social programs ever be possible in today’s political environment?
I do believe we are at a similar point especially given that we are more than a decade removed from the 2008 financial crisis, and we didn’t get bold changes then. We got a bailout and Obamacare, which is significant certainly but not the kind of paradigm shifting policies that the New Deal brought.
The good news is where this crisis comes in, which is late in Trump’s presidency. The depression started in 1929, and Hoover had a lot of runway ahead of him. There is a real opportunity to have a change of administration. But even if Trump is voted out, there’s the question of whether the Democrats will have the interest, stomach, and fortitude to build a real sustained program, which is far different than a bailout or a single policy. Could they really implement a vision, a paradigm shift in Americans’ relationship with government? Certainly Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were campaigning on such ideas and they were resonating.
One major challenge facing any sustained agenda today is how short our news and political cycles are and how quickly people sour on agendas. The question would be how to sustain something like this.
In this regard, one of the real strengths of the New Deal was it harnessed the self-interest of members of Congress. Some of the classic programs, like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, were profoundly local programs. While they were crucially important to delivering wages to out-of-work Americans, they were also a robust form of pork barrel spending. If a member needed a bridge or public library built, the New Deal was happy to subsidize that.
One challenge any president will have in the current environment is that the earmark system in Congress, which enabled members to use local pork projects as part of negotiations over broader bill, has been significantly curtailed in recent years. I think that is an overlooked cause of paralysis in Congress. Without these sorts of bargaining chips, members of Congress are forced to argue about abstract ideologies and principles rather than material interests.
What lessons can today's politicians take from the Great Depression?
Make no small plans. When you have conservatives readily agreeing to a $2 trillion bailout package, now is not the time for anybody to be negotiating against themselves. There is a window of opportunity here where politicians can make big asks. It’s become apparent that service workers deserve to be paid better, that there’s something peculiar about tying health insurance to a person’s ability to hold down a steady job. We have very live and tragic object lessons right now of just how porous and privatized the American system of social provision is.
It was just proven by the bailout that we can afford these things, and you can look at Vermont and Minnesota which have already said child care providers, firefighters, and nurses, doctors, and others are essential employees and are entitled to state-subsidized child care. We see renewed calls for more universal health care and insurance, for government to not simply offer unemployment insurance but to guarantee that private sector employees aren’t laid off in a time of crisis and continue to receive wages from government. Emergencies and emergency measures like these invite Americans to ask why wasn’t that the case before? Can it be in the future?
The New Deal
The New Deal was enacted from 1933 to 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide immediate economic relief from the Great Depression and to address necessary reforms in industry, agriculture, finance, water power, labor, and housing. The New Deal was grounded in the belief that the power of the federal government was needed to lift America from the Great Depression (Library of Congress, n.d.). These programs signaled both an expansion of federal power and a transformation in the relationship between the federal government and the American people (Hopkins, 2011).
Many of the New Deal policies were enacted in the first three months of President Roosevelt’s time in office, which became known as the “Hundred Days.” Roosevelt’s first objective was to address widespread unemployment by establishing agencies such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) . Such agencies dispensed emergency and short-term government aid and provided temporary jobs, such as work on construction projects and national forests (New Deal, n.d.).
Before 1935, the New Deal’s primary focus was on revitalizing business and agricultural communities. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) shaped industrial regulations governing trade practices, wages, hours, child labor, and collective bargaining. Moreover, the New Deal sought to regulate the country’s financial hierarchy to prevent another incident like the stock market crash of 1929 and the bank failures that followed. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) granted federal insurance for bank deposits in Federal Reserve System member banks, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) protected individuals from fraudulent stock market practices. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) controlled the production of staple crops through cash subsidies to farmers in order to raise prices, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) covered seven states to supply cheap electricity, prevent floods, improve navigation, and produce nitrates (New Deal, n.d.).
In 1935, the New Deal shifted its attention to labor and urban groups. The Wagner Act increased the authority of the federal government in industrial relations and gave further organizing power to labor unions under the execution of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) . In addition, one of the most notable New Deal programs, the Social Security Board (SSB) , was enacted in 1935 and 1939, providing benefits to the elderly and to widows, unemployment compensation, and disability insurance. Moreover, maximum working hours and a minimum wage were set in some industries in 1938 (New Deal, n.d.).
While many New Deal reforms were generally met with acceptance, certain laws were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stated that the federal government had no authority to regulate industry or undertake social or economic reform. In response, Roosevelt proposed in 1937 to reorganize the court. Ultimately, this effort failed, and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the contested legislation (New Deal, n.d.). By 1939, the New Deal had improved the lives of Americans suffering from the Great Depression, set a precedent for the federal government to help regulate economic social and economic affairs of the nation, and insisted that even poor individuals had rights, (Venn, 1998).
This work may also be watched through the Internet Archive.
For Further Reading:
Hopkins, J. (2011). The New Deal. A Companion to Franklin D. Roosevelt (238-258). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Library of Congress. (n.d.). President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1933-1945. The Library of Congress . Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/New-Deal
Venn, F. (1998). The New Deal . Edinburgh, SCT: Edinburgh University Press.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2017). President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/the-new-deal/
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Herbert Hoover on the Great Depression and New Deal, 1931–1933
The stock market crashed on Thursday, October 24, 1929, less than eight months into Herbert Hoover&rsquos presidency. Most experts, including Hoover, thought the crash was part of a passing recession. By July 1931, when the President wrote this letter to a friend, Governor Louis Emmerson of Illinois, it had become clear that excessive speculation and a worldwide economic slowdown had plunged America into the midst of a Great Depression. While Hoover wrote to Emmerson that "considerable continuance of destitution over the winter" and perhaps longer was unavoidable, he was trying to "get machinery of the country into . . . action." Since the crash, Hoover had worked ceaselessly trying to fix the economy. He founded government agencies, encouraged labor harmony, supported local aid for public works, fostered cooperation between government and business in order to stabilize prices, and struggled to balance the budget. His work focused on indirect relief from individual states and the private sector, as reflected in this letter&rsquos emphasis on "support[ing] each state committee more effectively" and volunteerism&mdash"appeal[ing] for funds" from outside the government.
As the Depression became worse, however, calls grew for increased federal intervention and spending. But Hoover refused to involve the federal government in forcing fixed prices, controlling businesses, or manipulating the value of the currency, all of which he felt were steps towards socialism. He was inclined to give indirect aid to banks or local public works projects, but he refused to use federal money for direct aid to citizens, believing the dole would weaken public morale. Instead, he focused on volunteerism to raise money. Hoover&rsquos opponents painted him as uncaring toward the common citizen, even though he was in fact a philanthropist and a progressive before becoming president. During his reelection campaign, Hoover tried to convince Americans that the measures they were calling for might seem to help in the short term, but would be ruinous in the long run. He asserted that he cared for common Americans too much to destroy the country&rsquos foundations with deficits and socialist institutions. He was soundly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
Roosevelt promised Americans a "New Deal" when he took office, and during his first "Hundred Days" as president, he signed a number of groundbreaking new laws. Roosevelt&rsquos aides later admitted that most New Deal agencies were closely modeled on those that Hoover had attempted, but Roosevelt&rsquos plans differed in financing and scope. New Deal bills supported direct federal aid, tightened government control over many industries, and eschewed volunteerism in favor of deficit spending, all in the hopes of jump starting both consumer confidence and the economy.
In a letter to a friend written seven months after he left office, Hoover expressed his fears about the flurry of New Deal legislation. Hoover saw the country already "going sour on the New Deal." He believed revolution inevitable "unless there is a halt" to the fundamental changes in government and the deficit spending. Roosevelt&rsquos reforms had led Americans to "cast off all moorings," and Hoover predicted that the United States would veer dangerously "to the &lsquoleft,&rsquo" followed by a reaction leading to "some American interpretation of Hitler or Mussolini." In 1934, after two years out of the public eye, Hoover made these same thoughts public in an article titled "The Challenge to Liberty."
Hoover was correct when he predicted that the role of American government would fundamentally change because of the New Deal.
A full transcript is available for Hoover&rsquos letter to Louis Emmerson.
Herbert Hoover to Louis L. Emmerson, July 10, 1931
Hon. Louis L. Emmerson
Governor of Illinois
My dear Governor Emmerson:
No matter what improvement there may be in our economic situation during the fall, we shall unquestionably have considerable continuance of destitution over the winter. I am wondering if it would not be advisable for us to get the machinery of the country into earlier action than last year in order that there may be provision for funds substantially made before the winter arrives.
Your organization last winter was one of the most admirable in the whole country and I had some thought that if all organizations were to begin their appeals for funds some time in October and run them over Thanksgiving we could make it more or less a national question and thereby support each state committee more effectively.
This, however, is just thinking aloud on the general situation and I would like your views.
I wish again to express my appreciation for the fine courtesies we received at the hands of Mrs. Emmerson and yourself and with kind regards to you both, I am
A full transcript is available for Hoover&rsquos letter to Bruce Barton.
Herbert Hoover to Bruce Barton, October 3, 1933
I have compiled with your momentous wish. Your friend does not need to send an exchange. A smoking President receives enough pipes to last a life time. Likewise fishing tackle. It is the only endowment he gets, except a troubled soul.
It seems useless to discuss the situation. The country is going sour on the New Deal, despite the heroic efforts of the Press. unless there is a halt, the real question will be that, having cast off all moorings, will we swing to the "right" or to the "left". I fear first the "left" and then when the great middle class (80% of America) realizes its ruin, it will drive into some American interpretation of Hitler or Mussolini.
There is no trouble finding a large occupation in California doing nothing and conducting a detached observatory of national trends.
Labor Unions During the Great Depression and New Deal
In the early 1930s, as the nation slid toward the depths of depression, the future of organized labor seemed bleak. In 1933, the number of labor union members was around 3 million, compared to 5 million a decade before. Most union members in 1933 belonged to skilled craft unions, most of which were affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
The union movement had failed in the previous 50 years to organize the much larger number of laborers in such mass production industries as steel, textiles, mining, and automobiles. These, rather than the skilled crafts, were to be the major growth industries of the first half of the 20th century.
Although the future of labor unions looked grim in 1933, their fortunes would soon change. The tremendous gains labor unions experienced in the 1930s resulted, in part, from the pro-union stance of the Roosevelt administration and from legislation enacted by Congress during the early New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) provided for collective bargaining. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) required businesses to bargain in good faith with any union supported by the majority of their employees. Meanwhile, the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the AFL and became much more aggressive in organizing unskilled workers who had not been represented before. Strikes of various kinds became important organizing tools of the CIO.
Depression and the New Deal - History
Remembering the Depression . Not many people are still alive who remember the Great Depression. Older people probably had parents or grandparents who lived through the Depression, and they may have transmitted their memories of that trying time to their children and grandchildren. For younger Americans, the Great Recession that began in 2007-2008 following the crash of the housing bubble may be a point of reference. In that latter economic crisis, thousands of people lost their homes and unemployment soared. People saw great chunks of their life savings shrink as the stock market plunged. Nevertheless, that experience is in many ways not quite comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s. What we have instead are documents, books, and films such as "Grapes of Wrath," adapted from the great novel by John Steinbeck. In this section we will attempt to convey what that period was about, both in the economic collapse, and in the attempts to remedy the situation through President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
In a school classroom, perhaps fourth or fifth grade, a teacher looks down at a slender little girl in clean but ragged clothes. The teacher says, “You look pale, dear. You should go home and get something to eat.”
The little girl answers, “I can’t, Miss Jones. It’s my sister’s turn to eat today.”
In a rundown village in Appalachia, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, watches a sad looking little boy who is holding and stroking a pet rabbit. A little girl, the boy’s sister, looks up at Mrs. Roosevelt and says, “He thinks we’re not going to eat it, but we are.”
A police officer in Chicago is walking his beat on a cold morning when he spies a ragged, skinny old man sleeping in a doorway. He prods the man gently with his nightstick and says, “Come on, buddy, time to move along.” Nothing. He pokes the man again, not quite so gently, and then looks closer. The man is dead. It’s the fifth one he has found this week.
Scenes like the ones above, as described in Caroline Bird’s Invisible Scar: The Great Depression, were common during the Great Depression, a time that is difficult for those of us living in the 21st century to imagine existing in America. Suicide became so common that people made bad jokes about it. Thousands of people lived in cardboard shacks, drainpipes, and tent camps on the fringes of America’s most affluent cities. Once prosperous men in three-piece suits stood in line for a piece of bread or a cup of soup. People stopped looking for jobs when it was apparent that there were no jobs to be had. How did it come about?
In the 1920s nobody thought an economic disaster of such proportions could ever touch the United States. In the aftermath of the Great War, while Europe was still cleaning up the mess, caring for the wounded, and mourning the dead, Americans felt a sense of disdain for the rest of the world. They saw a European-centered world that could not manage its affairs any better than it had done in the past. America had problems of its own to be sure: racism, religious differences, adjustments to the post-industrial age. But the mood of the 1920s was upbeat and positive, and as President Coolidge said, the business of America was business.
Then, on a day known as Black Tuesday, the market crashed, and within months the economic downturn was in full swing. It would be more than a decade later, when the massive government spending associated with World War II restored full economic health to the nation.
The Depression was caused by many factors, but it was triggered by the stock market crash. The huge increases in production through the application of new methods and technologies during the 1920s had an unintended consequence—excessive supply reduced demand, which in turn meant lower prices for consumer goods. At the same time, an increase in credit buying had caused the demand for consumer goods to rise artificially. As people stopped buying at an inflated rate, however, merchants found they could not sell their products. Orders to factories dried up, and factory workers were laid off. Thus personal incomes continued to fall, and the cycle repeated over and over in a downward spiral. The country produced and sold 8 million cars in 1928 and 2 million in 1932. Unemployment percentages varied from 15 percent to 25 percent, and even higher in some areas. In hard-hit regions such as Appalachia, entire towns seemed to be hopelessly trapped in poverty.
The depth of the Great Depression is difficult for us to fathom in these times of prosperity in the early 21st century. Recent recessions, upheavals in various sectors of the economy, layoffs, home foreclosures, bankruptcies and other casualties, as trying as they may be for those who suffer them, cannot compare with the massive losses of the 1930s. The loss of human dignity, the hopelessness and despair, the humiliation that many men felt at not being able to provide for their families is almost beyond out comprehension. There was hardly a sense of promise, a feeling that “this too shall pass.” Those feelings did not pass for a long time, and for some there seemed no way out but suicide. So frequent were the suicides that newspapers actually ran cartoons or comments on the phenomenon, perhaps in an attempt to cheer people up. It did not work—the Depression went on, and on, and on. Many Americans never got over the shock.
President Herbert Hoover was elected by a landslide in 1928. He was a brilliant engineer and an experienced manager well-versed in economic realities. Aside from wartime, however, the United States government had never faced a crisis of such magnitude, although the economic recessions that began in 1837, 1873 and 1893 may have provided a glimpse. Because government’s traditional relationship with business had always been one of laissez-faire, tempered by the Progressive Era’s relatively mild regulation, many people could not envision the government providing solutions for problems that government had not apparently caused.
President Hoover had been responsible for the food production program during the Great War, and his efforts in saving the Belgians from starvation had been recognized far and wide. Now, however, Hoover found himself in a position that seemed hopeless, and in which the government itself seemed helpless. President Hoover did not do nothing, however. The actions he took were unprecedented, far more than government had ever taken before in interfering with the affairs of private business. But he still believed in the principle of laissez-fair, and was confident that America could work itself out of its own economic doldrums. He reasoned that the country's economy had to be strong enough to recover with the limited support he was willing to provide. It simply was not enough.
President Hoover’s conservative nature led him to oppose direct financial relief to the unemployed. His program of relief called for the federal government to coordinate local and regional efforts of voluntary agencies in order to “preserve the principles of individual and local responsibility.” He requested federal spending on public works projects and created relief organizations at the national level headed by federal officials. In 1932 he encouraged Congress to create the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to extend loans to banks and railroads, which he hoped would reverse the tide of deflation. He also signed the Relief and Reconstruction Act to provide loans for construction and a Federal Home Loan Bank Act that provided home mortgages for individuals. President Hoover’s actions, however, amounted to far too little to stem the tide of depression that was sweeping across the country.
President Hoover sincerely believed that the American capitalist economic system was strong enough to work its way out from under the crisis. Like many conservatives, he believed that too much government interference would lead the country toward socialism. Furthermore, The Bolshevik Revolution had led to the Communism that engulfed Russia, sending shockwaves around the world. Socialist parties were strong all across Europe, but America had been through a Red Scare labor agitation and hints of “socialistic solutions” were seen by many as un-American, unnecessary, even dangerous. The income tax was relatively new, and government revenues were ample for most needs. But the burden of caring for the unemployed and unemployable soon became so large that local, state, and national government, let alone charitable organizations, lacked funds to deal effectively with the problem. As wages and incomes fell, raising taxes hardly seemed the solution.
In some parts of the country people were less affected than in others. People still went to the movies, listened to the radio, played golf and tennis, took vacations, and went about their lives as though nothing was wrong. They tried to ignore the desperate looks of people they often passed on the streets, sitting on benches, too proud to beg, but still hoping for a handout of a dime or a quarter that might buy a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
To make things worse, the middle of the United States went through an era known as the dust bowl as farmlands dried up, primitive irrigation projects were unable to keep the crops growing. Farmers discovered that with the falling prices they could not earn enough from the sale of their produce to cover the costs of getting it to market. They burned their corn to keep warm, slaughtered their livestock for their own food, and dumped milk in the streets to protest falling prices.
Hoovervilles. Herbert Hoover was not responsible for the depression, although the policies of his Republican predecessors could be cited as contributory factors. While his actions as president went beyond any previous attempts to stimulate economic recovery, he still bore the brunt of the blame for the conditions that deepened during his administration. All over the country people who had been evicted from their homes or who could no longer afford to pay rent, gathered on the outskirts of towns and cities where they constructed shacks out of scrap wood, metal, or cardboard. They lived in tents, abandoned buildings or cars and empty drainpipes. Most of these “Hoovervilles,” as they were called, lacked sanitary facilities or running water. Charitable workers often set up soup kitchens nearby, and residents who were skilled in the building trades did what they could to improve conditions.
Hoovervilles were to be found in all parts of the country one of the largest was in New York City’s Central Park. Thousands of people were camped along the Hudson River in the area alongside the Hudson River beneath the George Washington Bridge. Although attempts were made to remove Hoovervilles where people were camped on private property, they were generally seen as necessary or unavoidable, and the residents were left to make do as best they could.
The Bonus Army. Many of those who suffered were veterans of the World War I, who had been promised bonuses for their service and had been issued certificates in 1924. Those certificates did not mature, however, for 20 years. In June, 1932 the veterans were organized by a former Army sergeant, and thousands marched on Washington to protest and demand immediate payment. They lived in a Hooverville constructed along the Anacostia River. The veterans constructed facilities, laid out streets, held parades and protested in front of the Capitol. In July Attorney General William Mitchell ordered police to clear out the Bonus Army encampment. President Hoover then ordered the army to complete the evacuation, and troops under General Douglas MacArthur and Major George S. Patton moved against the protesters with fixed bayonets. General MacArthur continued the assault against the Anacostia camping site. Hundreds of veterans were injured and a number were killed. During President Roosevelt’s first administration, the veterans were offered jobs in various New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, and eventually the bonuses were paid.
The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. One additional government act during the Hoover administration was passage of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff. Although economists have reached differing opinions on the effects of the act, it is generally felt that the tariff contributed to the worldwide depression. During the 1928 campaign, Republicans had promised to assist farmers by raising tariffs on agricultural products. Although Hoover objected to some provisions of the bill and feared that it would lead to retaliation, he signed it because of strong backing by congressional Republicans. Although the short-term effects seemed to aid the U.S. economy, the effects of the act were felt in many countries, and retaliatory tariffs and shifts in trading practices followed, as President Hoover had feared. The failure of a large Asuch as the Civilian Conservation Corps,ustrian bank has been blamed in part on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Although Senators Smoot and Hawley were both defeated in the 1932 elections, the damage was done.
The Rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Into that troubled world of the Great Depression came Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To this day he is one of the most controversial presidents in our history, yet by almost any definition, one of our greatest. Like his progressive predecessors in the White House—his cousin Theodore and Woodrow Wilson, whom he served as assistant secretary of the Navy for eight years—FDR saw government as an instrument for helping people. He presided over two of the most challenging periods in American history—the Great Depression and World War II. Although one might argue that Abraham Lincoln faced a greater challenge—a nation divided against itself—Franklin Roosevelt’s contributions were nevertheless extraordinary. His unprecedented use of the power of government to attempt to aid the economy was meant to counter the economic decline, and while many Americans were no doubt aided by his New Deal programs, the precedents he set have come in for considerable criticism.
Franklin Delano was the only child of James and Sara Delano Roosevelt, a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. He was raised with an abundance of material things and the unstinting love of a doting mother. He grew up in the Hudson Valley, was educated by private tutors, and then attended the Groton School in Massachusetts, where he was taught Christian responsibility by headmaster-preacher Endicott Peabody. From Groton he went on to Harvard, where he lived an active athletic and social life. Though he never stood out as a scholar, he did become manager of the Harvard Crimson, probably the most famous college newspaper anywhere. Interested in politics from the beginning, he enthusiastically worked for his cousin Theodore’s presidential campaign in 1904 as a Young Republican at Harvard.
At Harvard Franklin met and fell in love with his cousin Eleanor, daughter of Elliot Roosevelt and niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. What seemed to some a strange romance blossomed, however, and the two were wed, over his mother's objections. As a doting mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt believed that no young woman could ever be good enough for her boy, and Eleanor was known as the ugly duckling of the family. Over the course of their marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt frequently found her mother-in-law's excessive attentiveness annoying, but she carried on like a good wife.
Those close to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt felt they were attracted to each other more intellectually than physically despite later troubles in their marriage, they invariably saw eye to eye on many subjects. The bride was given away by her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt himself, with the result that Eleanor played second fiddle in terms of attention, even at her own wedding. Franklin was attending Columbia Law School at the time of their marriage, and his mother bought the young couple a spacious home in New York City. She then bought and moved into the home next door, where she could keep an eye on things. Franklin and Eleanor eventually had five children, and the marriage seemed stable, despite Sara Roosevelt’s incessant meddling in the lives of her son and daughter-in-law.
Following graduation from Columbia, Franklin dabbled in the legal profession, but his real interest was always politics. In 1910 the young Roosevelt made his first foray into the political arena, as a Democrat, with cousin Theodore’s blessing. (Theodore Roosevelt was always able to work with members of the opposite party as long as he felt they were honorable men.) In a heavily Republican district, he was elected to the New York State Senate, which brought him to the attention of national Democratic leaders, including newly elected Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. When Wilson won the presidential election in 1912, he invited Franklin, who had pursued a progressive agenda in the New York legislature, to become assistant secretary the navy, a post that had been previously held by his cousin Theodore under President McKinley. Roosevelt accepted, and became an excellent assistant secretary, involving himself deeply in the affairs of the navy, in which he had great interest, and for which he had a great affection. He even vacationed on warships, often fishing off the stern of a destroyer or cruiser.
When the United States became involved in the First World War in 1917, Roosevelt was eager to serve. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and President Wilson insisted, however, that he remain in his post where he would be far more valuable. As assistant secretary he traveled to Europe and visited the front lines, where he was appalled by what he saw of the horrific slaughter of the trench warfare. When he returned from the Europe, he was stricken with a serious case of flu, and while Eleanor was unpacking his bags, she discovered letters providing unmistakable evidence of Franklin’s affair with her personal secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor offered to divorce Franklin, but as that would have ruined his political career, they stayed together. Although their marriage was never a romantic one thereafter, they eventually formed a unique and powerful political partnership.
In 1920 Franklin was named vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, and ran alongside Governor Cox of Ohio. Warren Harding easily won the election, but Franklin used the opportunity to broaden his political horizons, meet new people, and build support for his promising political career by campaigning all across the country for the Democratic ticket. Then, in 1921, he was struck with poliomyelitis, commonly called infantile paralysis, and for a time it seemed as though his political career might be over. In an extraordinary show of courage, however, he fought the disease, underwent the rigors of physical therapy, and although he was never again able to walk unaided, he grew strong enough that with the help of braces on his legs and someone to guide him, he could maneuver himself into an upright position. He was thus able to keep his political hopes alive. Although his infirmity was obviously known to many—he spent most of his time in a wheelchair—the public had no knowledge of the fact that he could not walk unaided. Despite his crippled legs, he projected a robust physical appearance and unmistakable vigor.
In 1928, after he had nominated New York Governor Al Smith at the Democratic National Convention as candidate for president, Smith persuaded him to run for governor of New York, hoping that it would help him with his electoral contest. Although Smith was defeated, Roosevelt won a resounding victory and became governor of the nation’s most powerful state. During his first year in office, the stock market crash of 1929 occurred, and the nation was soon plunged into the worst depression in its history. The Depression provided Governor Roosevelt with an opportunity to address the needs of his state, and he soon began experimenting with various relief programs of the kind that would become part of his New Deal program. Reelected by a wide margin in 1930, Roosevelt attracted national attention and became a clear contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 1932.
As a progressive, FDR worked hard for reform legislation, and instituted programs designed to help those suffering under the economic cloud. He also sought the advice of experts in the fields of labor, economics, law, and social reform. Those advisers, many of whom were professors and writers, were soon dubbed Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust.” He also built an effective team of leaders at the state level, including Frances Perkins, Henry Morgenthau, and Harry Hopkins, who, along with other members of FDR’s “brain trust,” would continue to serve him in Washington.
Franklin was charming, handsome, intelligent, athletic, and likable, but not all who met him were impressed with his depth. One of the most famous quotations about his character came from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “A second-class intellect, but a first class temperament.” By 1932 it was clear that Herbert Hoover had not been successful in addressing the issues of the Depression. The Democrats, eager to break the Republican hold on the White House, nominated New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt as their candidate. Defying precedent, Roosevelt flew from New York to the Democratic convention in Chicago to personally accept the nomination, the first time a nominee had so addressed a party convention. A powerful, vigorous speaker despite his infirmity, FDR told the assembled delegates:
This is no time for fear, for reaction or for timidity. . . . What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it and with work, a reasonable measure of security—security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security . . . the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead. These are the values that this program is intended to gain these are the values we have failed to achieve by the leadership we now have. . . .
. . . I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.
With those words Roosevelt set off on a campaign that swept him into the White House by a huge margin.
The campaign of 1932 was a single-issue campaign: what to do about the Great Depression. President Hoover had struggled sincerely but ineffectively to set the wheels of industry in motion again. Roosevelt, calling on his progressive roots, claimed that the Depression was rooted in underlying flaws in the American economy. He argued that Republican policies of the 1920s had aggravated the situation. In his Commonwealth Club address of September 1932 he argued that “the function of government must be to favor no small group at the expense of its duty to protect the rights of personal freedom and of private property of all its citizens.” Observing that the country was “steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy,” he proposed that “the task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order. … It is the minimum requirement of a more permanently safe order of things.”
The result of the election was a foregone conclusion: Roosevelt reversed the Republican landslide of 1928 and won 22.8 million votes to Hoover’s 15.7 million. Roosevelt garnered 472 electoral votes to 59 for President Hoover. The United States was about to enter the “New Deal” era, the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Franklin Roosevelt was not capable of ending the Depression by himself, but he was willing to try almost anything, and try he did. He brought a sense of hope to Washington and conveyed it to the American people. At the same time, FDR was by no means without his critics. Those on the left accused him of being a closet capitalist, and those on the right accused him of betraying his patrician class with socialist ideas. Roosevelt took it all in stride, commenting that because he was being attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, then he must at least be doing something right. FDR’s New Deal did not end the Depression, but it changed the relationship between the government and the American people forever, and its legacy is still with us. Memories of the Great Depression have all but disappeared except among the very old, but the effects of the Depression have never completely gone away.
The New Deal Spirit
Most Americans know the phrase from FDR’s first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But in addition to those encouraging words, his address contained much more, much of it couched in words that evoked military action:
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
That last sentence earned the loudest applause from the inauguration crowd. Serving under President Woodrow Wilson during the Great War, Roosevelt had watched President Wilson organize the economy to meet the emergency of World War I. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt came to Washington determined to use government to organize the economy again. This time he would deploy government power against the enemies caused by the Great Depression: unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness. His goal of easing suffering is understandable for all his methods remain the source of controversy. Whatever one decides, it is clear that the legacy of the New Deal is still with us in a powerful way.
Those who knew Roosevelt well found him unfailingly pleasant, optimistic, and good-natured. What came out of Franklin Roosevelt’s White House via his fireside chats, his regular meetings with the press (Roosevelt held more press conferences than any other president before or since), and reports of those who worked with him was a sense that something good was happening. Roosevelt always began his fireside chats with the greeting, “My friends,” and many people had a sense that he was indeed their friend.
As the New Deal progressed, however, Roosevelt’s manner disconcerted some, for in any conversation he always gave the listener the sense that he agreed with or was it least sympathetic to everything his interlocutor had to say. Thus a number of visitors learned the hard way that although Franklin Roosevelt seemed agreeable to their proposals, that did not mean he was necessarily going to follow their suggestions. Yet even as his political enemies found much to criticize—and Roosevelt developed many political opponents on both the right and left—millions of Americans felt that the government was finally hearing their cries for assistance.
Roosevelt was willing to try anything, and some of the New Deal programs fell far short of expectations indeed, the New Deal did not end the Depression. The huge outpouring of major legislation in the first hundred days of Roosevelt’s administration was unprecedented but Roosevelt himself knew well that whatever talents he might possess, and whatever programs his administration might devise, not everyone would agree with his approach to government: the problems were too vast and deep. But he gave people hope.
The Hundred Days: FDR in Action
The first one hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration constitute one of the most remarkable explosions of legislation in the history of the Congress. The long lame-duck session meant that Roosevelt was not inaugurated until March 4. It was the last time that occurred, as the 20th Amendment soon moved inauguration day up to January 20. (The 20th Amendment was known as the “lame duck” amendment. President elect Abraham Lincoln also had to wait four months before he was able to deal with the Civil War in 1861.) Between Roosevelt’s election and inauguration thousands of banks closed their doors many people had withdrawn their money and stuffed it under their mattresses for safe keeping, which only made matters worse.
President Roosevelt immediately called a special session of Congress to deal with the banking crisis. On March 9 he sent an Emergency Banking Act to Congress, where it was passed and signed by the president on the same day, an extraordinary accomplishment. The act gave the president broad discretionary power to regulate financial transactions, and he immediately called a national bank holiday. The Treasury Department granted licenses for banks to reopen, and the act also prohibited the hoarding of gold, requiring that anyone holding gold or gold certificates turn them in to the U.S. Treasury in exchange for other currency. Then Roosevelt went on the air with his first fireside chat, explaining his actions to the people “in terms even a banker could understand.” His precipitous action checked the money panic.
On March 20 the president signed the Economy Act, which sought to balance the budget by reducing government salaries 15 percent. It also cut private pensions and reorganized government agencies for greater economy in the end it saved about $243 million. The Democrats had promised an end of Prohibition, and with passage of the 21st Amendment, Congress passed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act of March 22, which taxed alcoholic beverages to raise federal revenue.
On March 31 Congress passed the Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestation Act, which established the Civilian Conservation Corps and provided 250,000 jobs for males ages 18–25. Wages were $30 per month, part of which was to go to dependents. (A family could eat on a dollar a day in those hard times.) Under the act, camps were built and run by different federal departments in order to facilitate conservation projects such as planting trees to combat soil erosion and to improve national forests, as well as creating fish, game, and bird sanctuaries. By 1941 two million young men had served in the CCC, and many of their works still stand in America’s forests.
A $5 Silver Certificate, redeemable in silver coin at any bank.
Within less than a month of FDR’s inauguration four major bills were passed, and more were to come. On April 19 the United States officially abandoned the gold standard, which some have called the “most revolutionary act of the New Deal.” This meant that paper money would no longer be redeemable in gold. The value of the dollar soon declined abroad, which stopped the drain of American gold to Europe. The government fixed the value of gold at $35 per ounce, and it became illegal for citizens to own gold, except in jewelry and other artifacts. At the same time the government purchased large quantities of silver, and silver certificates continued to be redeemable in silver, generally coins. (The “Washington Quarter” was mostly silver in content until 1964.)
Additional measures of the Hundred Days included:
- The May 12 Federal Emergency Relief Act created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, funded at $500 million, one half of which was to go to the states for direct relief. The remainder was to match state funds for unemployment relief at a rate of $1 for $3. Harry Hopkins was appointed relief administrator.
- Under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, Congress pulled out all the stops to help farmers, passing the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, and the Farm Credit Act. The acts provided for the elimination of surplus crops, establishment of parity prices, and the reduction of crop production by paying farmers to allow land to lie fallow. In the process, animals were slaughtered and crops plowed under, which Secretary Wallace himself called a “shocking commentary on our civilization.” Many were outraged that pigs were slaughtered while people were starving, although usable meat was distributed through the FERA. Portions of the Act were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but amendments and later acts made adjustments to meet the court’s objections.
- On May 18 the Tennessee Valley Authority was created as an “experiment” in social planning. The TVA was given authority to build dams and power plants and to develop the entire region economically by selling power for private and industrial uses. The TVA, a pet project of FDR’s, which he visited several times, became a yardstick for evaluating the operation of power companies, establishing fair rates, and so on. Nine dams were built, and existing dams were acquired by the TVA. During World War II power from TVA dams was used to produce munitions and support operations at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which were part of the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project.
- On June 16 the Banking Act of 1933 (the Glass-Steagall Act) created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which protected all bank deposits up to $5,000 and widened the power of the Federal Reserve Board over member banks. The act separated commercial and investment banking, and forced banks to get out of the investment business, restricting the use of bank deposits for speculative ventures. Today all bank deposits are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000 through December 31, 2013.
- The National Industrial Recovery Act of June 16 created the National Recovery Administration (NRA), probably the most controversial of the New Deal measures. The act established fair trade codes and provided for industrial self-regulation with government supervision. The act included restrictions of plant operations, the establishment of a minimum wage, prohibition against child labor, and limited the work week to forty hours. The NRA symbol was the Blue Eagle—which businesses could display after "Signing the pledge.” The NRA also created the Public Works Administration (PWA), budgeted with $3.3 billion to be spent on public works construction. The primary goals were to provide useful employment, raise purchasing power, promote welfare, and contribute to the revival of American industry.
- Additional acts included new laws to control information on new securities being offered to the public make paper legal tender establish a federal employment service to help people find jobs make loans for people to pay taxes, make repairs on homes, and refinance mortgages and improve efficiency of railroads by reorganization and creating a federal coordinator of transportation.
That huge outpouring of legislation brought the hundred days to an end, but the New Deal continued to expand government activity throughout 1933 and into 1934 and ’35. Although the New Deal measures were considered radical by many at the time, the social and economic reforms introduced by Roosevelt had been common in Europe for some time. In addition, beginning with the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the government had increasingly adopted policies that tended to soften the effects of laissez-faire capitalism. Progressives led by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had continued the process, and the New Deal sustained that trend.
The most remarkable aspect of the New Deal, especially in its early days, was the speed with which it was put into practice. The legislation produced in the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term was comparable to the entire amount of major business legislation passed during the Gilded Age. Just as remarkable, the New Deal suddenly brought millions of average Americans an awareness of government that they had never had before. The vast programs, along with FDR’s fireside chats, made government a part of people’s daily lives.
Many of Roosevelt’s critics have charged him with creating a welfare state, but Roosevelt continually supported programs designed to put people back to work. The Civil Works Administration, created in November 1933, provided jobs as diverse as ditch digging, making highway repairs and teaching.
The troubles of the American farmer were exacerbated by the great drought that began in 1931, creating what was known as the “dust bowl.” Severe storms blew clouds of dust raised from plowed fields and dried out prairies across the southern Great Plains. The storms destroyed crops and equipment, and people and animals suffered. Close to a million people, sometimes called “Okies,” left Oklahoma and other areas of the Midwest during the 1930s and 1940s and headed for California. (Their trials are chronicled in John Steinbeck’s classic work, Grapes of Wrath.) When the Agricultural Adjustment Act was declared unconstitutional, four additional programs were instituted, and by 1940 millions of farmers were receiving subsidies under federal programs.
Still the Depression lingered on, and the social dislocations resulting from extended periods of unemployment that kept thousands in abject poverty took a grave toll on substantial portions of the population, especially in areas such as Appalachia and in manufacturing regions where heavy industries had been brought almost to a standstill. Marriages were delayed, birthrates plummeted, and a federal bureau determined that approximately 20 percent of all American children were underfed. Armies of men, women, and even children rode the rails and lived in shanty towns in search of employment or any opportunity to improve their poverty-stricken lives.
The Second New Deal
Responding to the fact that people were still suffering, as well as to his critics, Roosevelt launched what became his Second New Deal. In 1935 Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which created the National Labor Relations Board. The act defined unfair labor practices and granted workers the right to bargain collectively through unions. It also prevented business owners from interfering with union matters. The NLRB supervised collective bargaining, administered elections, and ensured workers the right to choose their own union.
The most long-lasting and, according to Roosevelt, most important product of the New Deal was the Social Security Act of 1935. The act was a government insurance program for aged, unemployed, and disabled persons based on contributions by employers and workers. Critics complained that the Social Security system violated American traditions and might cause a loss of jobs. Although payments are made by the federal Social Security Administration, they are funded by payroll taxes on wages, which are paid by workers and their employers. Initial benefits were quite modest, ranging from $10 to $40 per month. Today, however, Social Security is one of the largest and most far-reaching programs administered by the federal government.
Although Social Security was never designed to be a full retirement system, many people have come to see it as just that, and attempts to modify or reform Social Security are generally met with strong opposition. As the baby-boom (post-World War II) generation approaches retirement, fears exist that payments made into the system will be insufficient to keep pace with the expanding aging population, although the age for collecting benefits has been raised in recent years. Thus a measure of the persistence of the New Deal’s legacy is the fact that Social Security is still central to the ongoing political debate in the country. Lobbying groups such as the AARP have kept the issue in the public eye.
Another important component of the Second New Deal was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which over the course of its lifetime built hundreds of buildings, bridges, roads, airports, schools, and other public buildings such as post offices. By the time it ended during the Second World War, more than 9 million people had been employed by the WPA. Cornerstones of many buildings still in use bear the WPA imprint. In order to raise more revenue, Congress also passed the Revenue Act of 1935 , which became known as the “Soak the Rich Act.” It raised tax rates on higher incomes, but did little to increase federal tax revenue, and it did not significantly redistribute income, which was a goal of the Second New Deal.
FDR Critics Left and Right. The massive injection of government funds into the economy did not end the Depression, though many of the programs brought temporary relief to thousands of people, and Roosevelt’s confident demeanor did give people hope. For a time it seemed as if every step forward would bring a reaction from businessmen and other conservatives, and critics on both the right and the left attacked FDR with increasing frequency. Roosevelt critics included men such as Father Charles Coughlin, a conservative Roman Catholic priest whose weekly radio show was heard by millions of listeners. Father Coughlin had initially supported the New Deal, but then became increasingly critical of the administration’s failure to institute reforms.
Another vigorous anti-Roosevelt activist was Dr. Frances Townsend, who created a plan calling for all persons over sixty years of age to get $200 per month if they promised not to work they would have to spend it within thirty days. Financing would come from a 2 percent national sales tax. Townsend Clubs eventually reached a membership of 2 million Americans, and in 1936 his followers aligned themselves with the Union Party.
The most formidable opponent of Roosevelt, however, was Senator Huey P. Long, the former populist governor of Louisiana. Rising from an impoverished background, Long was a self-made politician who quickly became a legend in his own time. Struggling against conservative Louisiana Democrats, Long was willing to invest heavily in programs for the state. He oversaw construction of thousands of miles of roads and provided free books for schoolchildren. He also helped convert Louisiana State University into a fine institution of learning and added a medical school to its programs. In addition he strengthened the economic foundations of the city of New Orleans by providing for additional infrastructure.
Long’s motto was “Every Man a King” his nickname was “The Kingfish.” Although he had supported Governor Roosevelt’s bid for the presidency in 1932, he became disenchanted when he felt that Roosevelt was not moving far enough to the left. He began to see FDR as a front man for capitalists and started attacking him. (FDR reportedly declared that Huey Long was “one of the most dangerous men in America.”) Long came up with a plan called “Share Our Wealth” in essence the idea was to tax estates and incomes in excess of one million dollars up to a rate of 100 percent and to guarantee to every American a home, an automobile, and an education through college. Long might have given Roosevelt serious trouble in the election of 1936, though it’s unlikely he could ever have won, but he was assassinated in 1935 by a disgruntled physician.
Huey Long was portrayed as the character Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men. A film based on the novel won the Academy award for best picture in 1949, and a recent version (2006) stars Sean Penn as Huey Long.
A New Deal for the Indians
In 1924 all American Indians were granted American citizenship. For over a century the development of Indian and white relations had centered around one basic dilemma: Should the Indians be “Americanized” and separated from their cultural surroundings to become everyday American citizens? Or should the Indians be encouraged to remain on reservations or in other protected areas so that they could continue to live according to their cultural traditions? The answer, of course, is that for much of American history, Indians have followed both paths. Some have become assimilated, and some have resisted assimilation. The topic remains controversial within Indian cultures, and it must be kept in mind that existing American Indian cultures are still quite diverse today. (As of 2006 there were 562 federally recognized American Indian Tribes in the United States.)
An example of a cultural issue that reflects Indian diversity is the ongoing debate over Indian “mascot” names. Many tribes object to the use of Indian names or symbols by athletic teams. On the other hand, the Seminole Tribe in Florida has no objection to the use of their name by Florida State University. As is true with most cultural issues, there are various sides to the story.
Many people assumed that the granting of citizenship to Indians would complete the process of assimilation. But many Indians continued to live on reservations and were more dependent than ever upon the government for much of their welfare. Forced assimilation had proved destructive to Indian cultures and did not provide a suitable economic basis upon which Indians could live their lives.
Franklin Roosevelt appointed Indian reformer John Collier as Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian affairs. Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes said, “Collier was the best equipped man who ever occupied the office,” as Collier had worked as an Indian reformer for some time and was familiar with many of the problems of Native American culture. Collier hoped to be able to preserve Indian culture and heritage and resolve the complicated issues of Indian lands and Indian government.
In 1934 Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which reversed the Dawes Act of 1887 that had divided Indian land among private owners and restored tribal ownership. Along with the IRA, Collier used various other New Deal programs to assist the Indians, including the Public Works Administration and the Civil Works Administration. He established an Indian Civilian Conservation Corps, and oversaw the construction of schools and hospitals as well as various training programs. Collier continued to work for the acquisition of new land for Indians and to establishment self-government for those tribes who lived on reservations. He continued his services throughout World War II, finally resigning in 1945. Accepting Collier’s resignation with regret, FDR praised his services and commended him for having reoriented government policies toward the Indians.
Most observers feel that John Collier's motives were of the highest and that he sincerely wanted to help the Native American populations, but more recently a number of historians have criticized the IRA and Collier's administration of it on various grounds. Tribal leaders, for example, have charged that federal programs are just heavy-handed ways of trying to control Indians. At present the federally recognized tribes have a formal relationship with the U.S. government, referred to as a government-to-government relationship, based on the fact that the organized Indian tribes living on reservations now possess a sovereignty that is higher than that of the states. In addition to relationships with the federal government, many tribes have special relationships with the states in which they are located.
Generally, the governing authority on Indian reservations is the tribal government. That means, for example, that if one is on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, one is subject to Navajo law. Indian governments on reservation areas include the full spectrum of generally recognized government agencies, from presidents or chief executives to legislative bodies, courts, administrative and police agencies.
The next section with cover Franklin Roosevelt's second term, 1937-1941. It would not proceed nearly as smoothly as his first term. Despite the enormous achievements of his first four years, critics would begin to emerge, from the Supreme Court, to conservative Democrats and other vocal critics on both the left and right. Before his second term was over, war would break out in Europe once more, and the president and the nation would have to shift their attention from domestic to international affairs. But before that could begin, Roosevelt would have to be reelected.
Since shortly after the treaty that ended World War I, the world economy struggled. Germany was straddled with harsh reparation debts and their economy stalled. Farm income in the United States fell dramatically with the end of wartime price supports, and with nearly half of the U.S. population living in rural areas, American buying power plunged. At the same time, the U.S. imposed tariffs on imported items, helping manufacturing but raising prices for consumers. The stock market boomed, and investors poured money into stocks far beyond their earning capacity. Eventually, these and other factors combined to bring the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the greatest economic downturn ever experienced in the United States.
Herbert Hoover and the Market Crash
Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1928 and assumed office while prosperity was still running high. When the market crashed in October, he and many other economists saw it as a temporary slide and predicted quick recovery. As unemployment continued to rise and business slumped, Hoover proposed some new efforts by the federal government. His main idea was to provide incentives and financial supports to business to get firms hiring and selling again. He favored lower taxes and a balanced budget. He also encouraged greater volunteer contributions to charities for the poor and unemployed, but he opposed any direct relief efforts to individuals fearing the welfare would discourage the unemployed from looking for work.
New Deal Programs
Anger against Hoover grew rapidly through 1931 and 1932, leading to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While Roosevelt also talked about balanced budgets during the campaign, he changed courses between his November election and March inaugural as national conditions became worse. With the Democratic majorities in Congress that were elected with him, Roosevelt pushed through a remarkable agenda of programs that radically changed the relationship of individuals to the federal government. The New Deal created work programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration that put people to work on public parks, roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects and hired teachers and artists. The Civilian Conservation Corps hired, fed and clothed teenage boys and sent most of their salaries back to support their families. The Agriculture Adjustment Act provided payments to farmers who agreed to limit their production. It was Roosevelt's policy that, in times of recession, the government should spend to spur economic growth, even if that means adding to the federal debt.
While New Deal programs provided a safety net to hundreds of thousands of American families, there is debate among economic historians about their overall effectiveness. What finally ended the Depression was American entry into World War II with a military draft and government contracts for planes, tanks, ships, munitions, uniforms and farm products. However, on the political side, the hope that the New Deal offered those struggling, including many Iowa farm families, was a factor that prevented rebellions against the government at all levels. It also reconfigured the American political landscape as African Americans, other urban-based minorities and labor unions leaving the Republican Party to form a strong Democratic coalition.
In many ways, Arkansas experienced the hardship of the Great Depression of the 1930s even before the stock market crash of 1929. In the 1920s, it led the nation in per capita indebtedness. As an agricultural state, Arkansans was affected by low crop prices, which left people unable to pay taxes. Schools and roads deteriorated. Without funding for road construction, some towns found themselves isolated and cut off from the rest of the state. Arkansas also suffered as it alternated between both drought and floods—the Flood of 1927, followed by the Drought of 1930–1931 and the Flood of 1937. Banks failed, wiping out savings and ready cash. Many Arkansans lost their land, being forced to become tenant farmers. Others could not even subsist that way. Tent cities and shantytowns often called “Hoovervilles” after the president at the time of the crash, Republican Herbert Hoover, sprang up around the state, including a camp for the homeless outside Forrest City (St. Francis County). Rural areas of Arkansas were not alone in the hard times. Even the state’s capital city of Little Rock (Pulaski County) was struggling with unemployment. Though Hoover did, later in his presidency, begin working on programs to help alleviate the Great Depression, his successor, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, elected president in 1932, put together a more comprehensive plan to overcome the collective hardships, a plan he called “a New Deal for the American people.” The people of Arkansas were among the millions who benefited.
In the first 100 days of the Roosevelt administration, banks were stabilized, foreclosures were slowed, jobs were created, and relief programs were put in place by New Deal legislation. Much of the momentum came from the New Deal’s so-called alphabet soup agencies. These included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), National Recovery Administration (NRA), National Youth Administration (NYA), Public Works Administration (PWA), and Works Progress/Projects Administration (WPA).
An important reason Arkansas got its share of New Deal programs was due to the state’s two U.S. senators, both Democrats: Hattie Wyatt Caraway (1878–1950) and Joseph Taylor Robinson (1872–1937). Both served Arkansas in the Senate during the Great Depression (Caraway from 1932 to 1944, and Robinson from 1913 until his death in 1937). Both were strong supporters of the New Deal and worked to bring relief programs to Arkansas. Caraway especially concentrated on farm relief, flood control, and constituent services. A well-known saying in Arkansas at the time was, “Write Mrs. Caraway—she will help you if she can.” Beginning in 1932, Robinson was majority leader of the Senate, where he ensured passage of FDR’s New Deal legislation. To celebrate the state’s centennial, which Caraway had helped to plan, President Roosevelt came to Arkansas on June 10, 1936, marking the first time a sitting president had visited the state. At that time, FDR publicly acknowledged Robinson’s many vital contributions, afterward going to Robinson’s Little Rock home for a private dinner.
The CCC put more than 200,000 young Arkansas men to work across the nation—many in one of the seventy-seven companies in four regions within the state. The men performed more than 100 types of jobs such as building parks, developing hiking trails, planting trees, and saving millions of acres of farmland from soil erosion. Many CCC projects in Arkansas are still enjoyed today, such as the Crowley’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, Mount Nebo, and Petit Jean state parks.
The NYA enlisted young women and men ages sixteen to twenty-five in various programs such as construction projects for the young men, and service projects, homemaking, and crafts projects for young women. Arkansas NYA projects included construction or repair of school facilities such as shop buildings, vocational agriculture structures, home economics cottages, and gymnasiums.
When WPA programs came to Arkansas in 1935, William Reynolds Dyess (1894–1936) was appointed the WPA’s first state administrator. After his death, the Dyess (Mississippi County) colony, a New Deal relocation program in northeastern Arkansas for displaced farmers, was named for him. The Dyess colony and the state of Arkansas received positive national publicity on June 11, 1936, in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column, “My Day.” She wrote, “My first glimpse of Arkansas was a drive through very rich country just before sundown on my way to the Dyess Colony.” For a state used to being ridiculed as a poor backwater, it was good press.
For other Arkansas projects, the WPA employed rural laborers in building bridges, courthouses, dams, farm-to-market roads, parks, rural schools, and recreational facilities such as band shells and swimming pools. The New Deal also provided resources for public buildings in Arkansas, including the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium in Little Rock, which was dedicated in 1940 to honor the late senator.
Other New Deal projects in Arkansas include the water tower in Green Forest (Carroll County) and the community center in Jonesboro (Craighead County). Known as the Earl Bell Center, it continues to serve the people of the Jonesboro community. New Deal projects such as the Camp Ouachita Girl Scout Camp Historic District at Lake Sylvia in Perry County, the Haggard Ford Swinging Bridge near Harrison (Boone County), and the Miller County Courthouse in Texarkana (Miller County) are still in use in the twenty-first century.
The Russellville Public Library was a joint effort of the WPA and the people of Russellville (Pope County). The building was used by the community from 1936 until 1976, when a larger library was built next door.
New Deal agencies provided opportunities for women, and, in 1935, Arkansas became the first southern state to fill all its WPA slots for women. In DeWitt (Arkansas County), Harrison, Malvern (Hot Spring County), and Paragould (Greene County), female WPA workers made clothing in sewing projects, served hot lunches to school children, taught adult education classes, and tended to the sick in household aid programs. Arkansas also housed one of only five NYA camps for young black women, where arts classes and vocational training were offered.
The New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project employed educators, historians, writers, and other professionals to research and write what were often the first comprehensive travel guides for each state. Arkansas: A Guide to the State was researched during the Depression and published in 1941. For many people across the nation, it was their first glimpse of Arkansas. The WPA also sponsored interviews with African Americans who were former slaves. In writing and recording their narratives, it served as a first look for many Americans into a part of American history they knew little about.
One of the most enduring projects of the WPA is the New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP). Across Arkansas, as with other states, post offices and other public buildings benefited from the FAP as murals were painted by unemployed artists. Many of them remain, including murals at the post offices in Clarksville (Johnson County), Dardanelle (Yell County), Heber Springs (Cleburne County), Lake Village (Chicot County), Morrilton (Conway County), Nashville (Howard County), Paris (Logan County), and Piggott (Clay County).
The Living New Deal website lists more than 160 buildings and other projects that still exist in Arkansas thanks to the New Deal. Along with much needed jobs and relief funds, New Deal programs in Arkansas often accomplished a great deal more: they gave the people of a state teetering on the edge of bankruptcy a sense of pride, hope, and self-respect.
For additional information:
“Arkansas Post Office Murals.” University of Central Arkansas. http://uca.edu/postofficemurals/home/ (accessed September 9, 2020).
Greene, Alison Collis. No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Hendricks, Nancy. Senator Hattie Caraway: An Arkansas Legacy. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.
———. Dear Mrs. Caraway, Dear Mr. Kays. Jonesboro, AR: Master Printing Company, 2010.
Hicks, Floyd W., and C. Roger Lambert. “Food for the Hungry: Federal Food Programs in Arkansas, 1933–1942.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 37 (Spring 1978): 23–43.
Hope, Holly. An Ambition to be Preferred: New Deal Recovery Efforts and Architecture in Arkansas, 1933-1943. Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 2006. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/News-and-Events/publications (accessed September 9, 2020).
Miller, Rachel M. We Will Persevere! The New Deal in Arkansas: Students Learning from Local and Statewide Historic Places. Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 2011.