United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

$87.99

Per volume

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

$87.99

Per volume

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 23: The Great Depression

Pre-Chapter Discussion - Level 5

Answer the following questions before you begin the chapter. What do you know about the Great Depression? What do you think caused it? How long do you think it lasted and how did it end? Are there any iconic images or events of the era that you can describe?


Chapter Overview

America’s economic fortunes have always swung between times of soaring prosperity and periods of extreme downturn. The U.S. economy experienced considerable market volatility as industrialization outpaced agriculture by the 19th century. The depressions of 1873 and 1893 had stripped the country of jobs, diminished stock values, and closed banks, but nothing could possibly prepare the people of the United States for the unprecedented impact of the economic collapse beginning in 1929. The interconnectedness of the nation’s economy meant that no region remained unscathed. Even those who did not own stock shares or bank accounts felt the aftereffects, losing jobs, houses, families, and all sense of hope. It seemed possible that the United States, a nation for less than 150 years, might very well cease to exist, destroyed by collective despair and mass chaos. When private charities and local governments proved limited in their ability to relieve the growing misery, desperate Americans looked to the federal government as a last possible recourse. 

President Herbert Hoover, true to his conservative Republican outlook, initially rejected such a role as too interventionist; the economy would mend itself in due time, or so it was initially thought. Rising unemployment, labor unrest, and fear of a possible revolution gradually changed his mind; Hoover initiated a process of federal intervention to remedy the economic distress on a limited scale. It would prove too little too late. The American people were prepared to place their trust in another president promising to do whatever possible to set things right. 

Saving the nation was Franklin Roosevelt’s primary concern when he took office on a blustery Monday in March 1933. He could not know for certain whether or not the federal government possessed the means of bringing the country out of the cavernous pit it struggled to escape. He did, however, know that it was necessary to restore some sense of confidence and reassure the people that the bad times would pass eventually. Over the course of Roosevelt’s presidency, his administration championed a number of revolutionary advances. The programs and bureaucracies that developed during his more than twelve years in the White House fundamentally changed people’s perceptions of the federal government’s role. In many respects, Roosevelt’s greatest weapon during his presidency, including the darkest days of the Great Depression and World War II, proved to be his indomitable grin. If he, bearing all the pressures of a terrified nation upon his shoulders, could muster a smile, why not the average American?   

Chapter Objectives

  • Gain insight into the causes and immediate impact of the Great Depression
  • Trace how the New Deal redefined Americans’ expectations for the federal government’s responsibilities
  • Examine the various New Deal programs and their responsibilities
  • Understand how Franklin Roosevelt modernized the presidency
  • Consider how the political ideology of fascism gained popularity in Europe in the interwar period



23.01 - Level 1

In what year did Wall Street experience a collapse that culminated in an international economic depression?

A

1927

B

1928

C

1929

D

1930

E

1931


Question 23.02

23.02 - Level 5

Explain the Republican-backed philosophy of government and business relations in the 1920s.

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.02.

Flaws in the Economy During the 1920s

Some vestiges of the Progressive Era, particularly its emphasis on efficiency, lived on into the 1920s. Herbert Hoover proved an ideal advocate for increased productivity as president, drawing upon his extensive background as a bureaucratic chief, which included his tenure as the head of the Food Administration Board during World War I and his postwar position as Commerce Secretary under Harding and Coolidge. Hoover’s business experience convinced him of the need to curb governmental regulation so as not to stifle America’s unique innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. The closeness between the federal government and corporate interests established in the 1920s would continue into his presidency, one that began as the country continued to exhibit many hallmarks of prosperity and growth. At the start of Hoover’s presidency, the 1920s continued roaring, with corporations reaping record profits, investors taking away large dividends, and consumers purchasing a steady stream of brand new household goods to make their lives easier and contribute to the nation’s progress. Not everyone prospered equally. As the 1920s drew to a close, farmers and labor unions continued struggles that had begun at the end of World War I. The twin challenges of overproduction and low agricultural prices without a protective federal tariff kept many farmers locked in a cycle of debt and frustration. In contrast, industrial workers enjoyed steady pay increases throughout the 1920s, but the absence of strong union leadership stymied efforts to pass bills guaranteeing a work day of twelve hours or less and a five-day work week. President Coolidge expressed support for such legislation, but Congress did not share his enthusiasm and neither did the American public. Memories of the strikes and unrest of 1919 remained strong reminders of labor unions as assumed refuges for socialists and communists. The lack of sympathy for unions enabled employers to impose “yellow-dogcontracts obligating workers to refrain from unionization or risk termination. Union membership dropped by almost one-third by the end of the 1920s. 

Question 23.03

23.03 - Level 5

Based on what you’ve learned about the rise of organized labor in American industry, how do you account for the relative weakness of labor unions by the end of the 1920s?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.03.

Question 23.04

23.04 - Level 5

What were the challenges that farmers faced in the 1920s?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.04.

While organized labor lay dormant, Wall Street investors marvelled at the precipitous ascent of stock values and profits. The prospect of making a quick and easy fortune from the meteoric rise in a stock’s value encouraged both rampant speculation and lending to those wishing to buy stocks and cash out after reaping a nice profit. Many of the stocks bought by 1927 had been purchased “on the margin,” using a down payment typically near 5% of the stock’s value. The remainder came from stockbrokers or banks who retained the margin as security in the event of the market losing ground or the investor failing to make additional payments. Purchasing stocks “on the margin” reached a fever pitch in 1927, just as the demand for consumer goods such as appliances and automobiles reached its saturation point and consumer spending entered a decline. Used to years of American consumers happily buying on credit, manufacturers maintained their steady tempo of production, confident that sales would perk up, while warehouses and stores filled with items fewer people were willing to buy, particularly with prices rising. Strategies that might have promoted greater consumer activity, namely an increase in workers’ wages to reflect the rising cost of living, were not explored. Instead, business owners reinvested their profits back into production to improve efficiency and meet what they presumed would be an ongoing demand for goods. Their faith in a state of perpetual economic growth would prove unfounded.

Hoover observed nothing on Wall Street that troubled him. He saw the rampant speculation as a confirmation of the strength of American free enterprise (Figure 23.1). Upon accepting the Republican nomination for president in the summer of 1928, he observed, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.”    

Question 23.05

23.05 - Level 5

Why didn’t wages rise for laborers in the 1920s? What factors kept wages stagnant and what effects did this have?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.05.

23.06 - Level 1

The practice of buying “on the margin” involved purchasing what?

A

A new car

B

Stocks

C

A new home

D

Land

E

Government bonds


Figure 23.1: Those seeking to make a quick profit during the mid-1920s often invested in Florida real estate, precipitating a land boom before the bubble burst. This was just one type of speculation exploited by unscrupulous individuals that helped to bring the economy crashing down in 1929. [1]
23.07 - Level 2

Which of the following was not a major economic problem in the years leading up to the Great Depression?

A

Consumer over reliance on credit

B

Stagnant wage growth

C

Rampant speculation on Wall Street

D

Sluggish growth of the stock market

The Troubles Begin

The stock market of 1929 reflected an illusory economy, one propped up by the rampant speculation of recent years. Additionally, the market had reached its absolute limit; it could no longer accommodate continued consumer spending based largely on credit. Things began to unravel on October 23 when stock values took a plunge before experiencing a mild recovery. Six days later on “Black Tuesday,” stocks once again went into a free fall that compelled many investors to rid themselves of stocks before they lost all value. With the value of stocks down by nearly 40% by the end of October, a destructive chain reaction began. Shockwaves on Wall Street rippled outwards across the country, disrupting the banks reckless enough to provide loans to prospective investors. Unscrupulous bankers gambled on a stock market that would be dominated by the bulls for years to come, using money from their depositors to purchase stocks or offering loans to those wanting to play the market. Without any regulation to fear, bankers and financiers worried little about the repercussions of their actions. When depositors across the nation descended upon banks to close their accounts, it triggered hundreds of bank failures in the process (Figure 23.2). Finding their options disappearing quickly, farmers and small business owners often declared bankruptcy. Business owners, looking to shore up the eroding value of their companies, began firing low-level and easily replaceable workers and reducing the hours and wages of those who remained. People of color proved easiest to dismiss under the widely practiced credo of “last hired, first fired.” 

 Some downplayed Wall Street’s recent losses with a sense of perspective. The nation had weathered such downturns before, as recently as 1921, and always managed to recover in due course. It was expected that those without the means of providing for themselves and their families could find support from private charities and local churches until the financial storm passed. Few political leaders spoke of the need for the federal government to mount a relief effort on behalf of the downtrodden. President Hoover initially rejected the prospect of taking action, asserting that “It is not the function of the government.” He diagnosed a lack of confidence in the economy as the reason for the crisis and looked to business leaders to provide a cure in the form of a provisional loss of profits so that wages might still be paid and mass firings could be avoided. In exchange, Hoover encouraged unions to eschew strikes or demands for pay raises until the economy righted itself. His recommendations went largely ignored.

Question 23.08

23.08 - Level 5

How can we explain the lack of initiative on the part of President Hoover in reaction to the economic downturn starting in the late 1920s? Why might the American people have rejected early attempts by the federal government to restore economic confidence?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.08.

23.09 - Level 2

What event in 1929 marked the start of the Great Depression?

A

The failure of major railroad companies

B

A nationwide coal miner strike

C

France and England refusing to repay war debts owed to U.S.

D

A dramatic rise in the price of oil

E

The collapse of Wall Street


23.10 - Level 2

The week before Black Tuesday, the stock market experienced some unusual activity. What was it?

A

The market dropped drastically but then partially recovered

B

The market rose drastically and then dropped

C

The market dropped and did not recover

D

The market rose drastically


23.11 - Level 2

Which of the following factors is widely regarded as the proximate cause of the Great Depression?

A

A massive national debt

B

Stock market bubble

C

Savings and loan crisis

D

Stagflation


Relatively few Americans demanded or even expected a federal plan of action to deal with the Depression as it began. For many Americans, assuming responsibilities beyond accepted functions, such as national defense and mail delivery, constituted overreach by the government. But as the full extent of the economic downturn became more evident and showed no signs of dissipating, more Americans advocated for the federal government to assume powers to deal with the crisis. No one seemed secure; companies and industries of all sizes buckled as the nation’s economic fault lines widened. Even U.S. Steel, a once mighty symbol of American industrial might, eliminated all 225,000 of its full-time positions within three years of “Black Tuesday.”

Figure 23.2: Bank runs, such as this one from 1933, became an all-too-common sight during the Depression years. Many banks, already weakened by their participation in speculation schemes, had little money available to give customers when they demanded to close their accounts.​ [2]


23.12 - Level 2

Which of the following occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Wall Street collapse?

A

Federal seizure of all banks

B

Bank closures

C

President Hoover’s resignation

D

Mass firings

E

Farmers declaring bankruptcy

F

An increase in inflation rates


Question 23.13

23.13 - Level 5

Before reading the following sections, based on what you know about the 1920s, what would you say was the most important factor that led to the economic collapse?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.13.

23.14 - Level 2

At the beginning of the Great Depression, most Americans did not consider it the federal government’s responsibility to help them.

A

True

B

False


Early Reactions to the Collapse

Desperation engulfed much of the nation as recovery remained elusive into 1930. National unemployment rates crept above 20 percent with some urban centers seeing jobless rates in excess of 50% of the employable population. Such cities accumulated lines of desperate men and women waiting outside of factories, hoping to be one of the select few to be offered a day’s work, but more likely having to wait for a free meal in a breadline or seeking a night’s lodging in a shelter. When charitable groups exhausted their funds to run soup kitchens, the jobless turned to local governments for aid and found little. Many men took to the rails, riding inside or on top of boxcars in search employment somewhere else. Their intended temporary absence often remained permanent due to shame, alcoholism, or suicide, breaking up families and placing enormous pressures on mothers attempting to look after the needs of their children. Four million families possessed no means of support by September 1930. In their frustration and despair, many took to making President Hoover the convenient scapegoat for the Depression. Newspapers the homeless wrapped themselves in to ward off the nighttime chill became “Hoover blankets,” and thousands of those evicted from their homes took up residence in ramshackle communities called “Hoovervilles” when there was nowhere else to go (Figure 23.3).


Figure 23.3: The barren desolation of a “Hooverville” comes through in the photograph of one such community in Texas from 1934. Some grew large enough in size to support businesses and services such as post offices. [3]


23.15 - Level 2

Which part of the government became most identified with failing to assist Americans in need during the Depression?

A

The Supreme Court

B

The Congress

C

The Federal Reserve

D

The presidency

E

The Treasury


Question 23.16

23.16 - Level 6

Imagine that you have just lost your job as a result of the Great Depression. Without much money and in need of a way to earn more in order to feed your family, what do you think you would do? Where would you seek help from?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.16.

The beleaguered Congress, increasingly fearful of the violent strikes and protests sweeping the country, decided to reduce taxes in 1930, a measure Hoover approved. But shortly after, Congress decided a tax increase was necessary instead. Still more damage to the American economy came in the form of the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which raised tariffs on thousands of items imported into the United States to record highs. Other nations, namely Great Britain, responded with their own protectionist measures that did irreparable damage to international trade and bolstered the prominence of ultra-nationalist movements in Italy and Germany. As had long been the case, American farmers suffered disproportionately more from the effects of these higher duties. 

1932 saw some preliminary efforts by the federal government to address the economic crisis. With a reluctant President Hoover offering support, Congress created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a bureaucracy with the power to grant emergency loans to struggling banks, railroads, insurance companies and other financial institutions. The RFC began its relatively short existence with a half billion dollars and the ability to borrow $2 billion more, but the loans satisfied few Americans who viewed such efforts as beneficial to those of the upper classes rather than those with more pressing financial concerns. Hoover, who assumed that the revitalization brought about by RFC loans would bring about improvements for all, expanded the RFC with the Emergency Relief Act that granted states relief loans totaling $300 million as well as close to $2 billion to benefit public works at the local, state, and federal levels. 

23.17 - Level 2

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act best embodies which of the following concepts?

A

Protectionism

B

Fascism

C

Free trade

D

Socialism


Question 23.18

23.18 - Level 3

How did President Hoover’s preliminary actions to stabilize the American economy differ from previous responses to economic crisis by the White House?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.18.

Hoover’s relief efforts, relatively modest though they were, represented a dramatic departure from the federal government’s traditional laissez-faire approach to economic crises. Such activism, regardless of its precedent, did little to assist most Americans without jobs. Farmers continued to feel that their ongoing tribulations went ignored by elected officials. Another such disenchanted group consisted of veterans of World War I who’d been promised a cash bonus for their military service to be paid in 1945. Needing immediate financial assistance, 15,000 anxious veterans and their families converged upon Washington, D.C. in May of 1932 as members of the “Bonus Army,” in the hopes of convincing Congress to give out the checks immediately. With the eyes of the nation fixed on the capitol, Congress held an emergency session to discuss the bonus marchers’ demands. The House of Representatives voted in favor of the veterans, but the Senate opposed the measure. Upon hearing the news of Congress’ decision, most of the protesters vacated Washington, but roughly two thousand stayed behind, setting up a makeshift community located on the National Mall (Figure 23.4). Attorney General William D. Mitchell, fearing possible violence, dispatched the Washington Police to expel the Bonus Marchers. The two groups clashed on July 28, during which a police officer shot and killed two of the protesters. President Hoover decided it best to barricade himself inside the White House and send in troops commanded by General Douglas MacArthur to clear the National Mall, a task they completed easily with the use of tanks and gas. The draconian response resulted in still more loss of life, including that of a young infant.

Question 23.19

23.19 - Level 4

What makes the ill-fated Bonus March such a pivotal event in the Great Depression? How do you account for the federal government’s violent response to it?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.19.

Figure 23.4: Members of the Bonus Army huddled together on the lawn of the Capitol Building in mid-July 1932. The violent clashes between veterans desperate for relief and the Washington, D.C. police and later federal troops showed with vivid clarity how close the nation came to disintegration. [4]​

The Rise of Franklin Roosevelt          

Ominous images of the Bonus Marchers clashing with federal troops and the subsequent burning of their shanty town hinted at the prospect of a popular uprising. The more immediate reaction to the events in Washington was one of anger at the shameful treatment of former soldiers who had served and sacrificed on behalf of democracy and now sought to provide for their families. Hoover, now viewed by many as heartless, ignored advice that he assume greater control of the government in order to end the Depression. In 1932, unemployment reached 25 percent, half a million Americans lost their homes and farms, and thousands more banks failed. The president further disregarded suggestions to utilize deficit spending to bring relief. 

Question 23.20

23.20 - Level 5

What aspects of the Democratic Party under Roosevelt seem consistent with policies it followed in previous administrations?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.20.

23.21 - Level 3

Which characteristic of the New Deal marked a radical departure from previous federal programs?

A

It would be funded on a voluntary basis by the American people

B

It was based on communist principles

C

It would utilize deficit spending

D

It would depend upon taxes imposed upon the wealthiest Americans


After an elite education at Harvard University and the Columbia School of Law, Roosevelt first gained national attention during his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, a position famously held by his illustrious relative at the start of the Spanish American War. His exposure increased with the Democrats’ failed bid for the White House in the election of 1920 as the vice presidential running mate to James M. Cox. The youthfulness, charisma, and energy of Franklin Roosevelt suggested a bright future in politics was all but guaranteed until misfortune befell the up and coming politician. In the summer of 1921 while swimming at the family’s summer estate at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Roosevelt contracted polio. Doomed to limited mobility that necessitated cumbersome leg braces to stand, and made walking staggeringly difficult, it seemed the end to his political ambitions. But Roosevelt found the inner strength to harness his withered muscles and continue to move forward (Figure 23.5). In the course his struggles, FDR also seemed to discover a hidden reservoir of empathy that would serve him well in dealing with the American people during trying times. 

Much of Roosevelt’s success as president derived from his amicable dealings with the press. As a rule, reporters and photographers respected the White House’s resistance to mentioning the president’s frailty in newspaper accounts or capturing his strained efforts to walk on film. The few who failed to respect the “gentlemen’s agreement” found their cameras confiscated and their relationship with the president facing irrevocable damage. Roosevelt cultivated a good relationship with the press, fully aware of the modern media’s ability to shape public opinion. While many of his predecessors had kept journalists at arm’s length, FDR held weekly press conferences, the first president to do so, and cheerfully answered the questions of those in attendance. His press secretary usually prepared journalists with lists of suggested questions on topics that FDR wished to cover. Roosevelt also regularly consulted opinion polls, a recent phenomenon developed by George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion and other such groups. He generally avoided making any decisions without guaranteed public support.

Roosevelt’s unconventional approach to the presidency dovetailed with the equally unconventional attitude towards the position of First Lady adopted by his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, the favorite niece of Theodore Roosevelt. Theirs was a marriage based less on romantic love than a sense of mutual respect and complementary ambition. Due to his polio Roosevelt could hardly be a traditional public figure, a circumstance that further necessitated good relations with the press. But Eleanor could travel across the country, and she relished the opportunity to enjoy the independence that came from leaving Washington to tour pockets of the country where the impact of the Depression often went ignored. She traveled without a retinue of Secret Service agents (who gave her the code name “Rover”) and assistants at the start of FDR’s presidency, initially going unrecognized by those she met and spoke to. This would prove increasingly difficult as her visibility and popularity increased. By Roosevelt’s third term, she enjoyed a higher favorability rating than he did. Eleanor shared her husband’s sense of compassion for others. The daily reports she compiled based on the day’s activities for FDR to read just before bed called attention to the plights of those who’d slipped between the cracks of the New Deal bureaucracy.     

Figure 23.5: Franklin Roosevelt spent as much time possible visiting the polio treatment center that he helped found in Warm Springs, Georgia. It was here that he felt most at ease, free of reporters, in the company of those who shared in his ongoing struggle with the disease many thought would destroy his political career. He’s pictured here at the “Little White House” with his wife Eleanor, their son Elliot, and his wife in May 1932. [5]

The “Bank Holiday”

FDR’s presidency began in March 1933 with the Depression at its nadir and 16 million Americans unemployed. Promising “action, and action now,” the newly elected president made reassuring the American people his first order of business. His inaugural address included the cryptic reassurance that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and his willingness to do that which Hoover had refused—to claim “broad executive power to wage war against the emergency” if Congress failed to act with the requisite speed. Emphasizing an openness to creative solutions of all types, Roosevelt’s agenda centered on restoring hope and preventing despair while implementing programs to restore stability to the economy. Political and financial experts offered up myriad solutions as members of the president’s “brain trust.” The fundamental debate came down to either adopting economic isolation and finding solutions to the problems of overproduction and joblessness, or expanding overseas trade in the hopes that foreign purchases of American-made goods might restore strength to the economy. Roosevelt opted for the former strategy in order to save American capitalism. Many of the Roosevelt administration’s programs drew upon the largely untested theories of British economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes postulated that the only solution to correcting an economic imbalance the scale of the Great Depression was through concerted deficit spending and reduced taxes by the central government. Once conditions improved, Keynes argued, the state could impose higher taxes to cover the debt accrued during the crisis period.

23.22 - Level 1

In his first inaugural address, what did President Roosevelt claim to be the only thing worthy of fear?

A

The “specter of communism”

B

A “house divided”

C

“Fear itself”

D

The “death of hope”

E

The “mischief of factionalism”


To prop up the sagging banking sector, Roosevelt committed to a temporary nation-wide bank closure, dubbed a “holiday,” to prevent customers from withdrawing their funds and perpetuating the banking crisis. The holiday began on March 6th, a mere two days after Roosevelt’s inauguration, and extended over the next four days. During the interim, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Emergency Banking Act (EBA) on March 9th at the insistence of the president. The EBA expanded the president’s powers to deal with the banking crisis and enabled the government to make available $2 billion in loans to banks judged to remain solvent. On the evening of March 12, the day before the banks were to reopen, Roosevelt addressed the American people in a radio address, the first in the series of monthly “fireside chats” he would deliver over the course of his presidency. In a tone that was conversational, reassuring and down-to-earth, a marked departure from the more aloof speeches delivered by previous presidents, FDR explained to the 60 million Americans listening to their radios how the banking system worked. Humorist Will Rogers wryly observed, “Mr. Roosevelt stepped up to the microphone last night and knocked another home run. He made everybody understand it, even the bankers.” Roosevelt’s calm reassurances that the people’s money would be safer in banks rather than under a mattress reached his audience; on March 13th, the American people deposited more money in their accounts than they withdrew. The new president’s projection of confidence and optimism proved catching.  

23.23 - Level 1

What form of media did President Roosevelt utilize to reach the American people and inform them of his policy decisions?

A

Weekly newspaper columns

B

Newsreels

C

Television appearances

D

Monthly radio addresses


The First New Deal Programs

Heartened by the success of the bank holiday, the Roosevelt Administration moved forward with myriad efforts within the New Deal. In his famed first “hundred days” as president, FDR enjoyed the uniform support of Congress in passing an unprecedented number of laws that expanded the size and intervention of the government unseen since the days of Lincoln’s presidency. New bureaucracies came into existence to provide assistance to those in most immediate need of it and created new employment opportunities. One of the first of the newly created New Deal programs, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), stood upon the foundation of the now-defunct RFC. Under the leadership of its head, a compassionate social worker named Harry Hopkins, the FERA sought to relieve unemployment by making available to state governments federal grants, rather than loans, to assist their most desperate inhabitants.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Roosevelt’s personal favorite of the federal programs created during his first 100 days in office, provided jobs specifically for single young men between 18 and 25 without employment, the demographic most likely to turn to crime or political extremism in times of economic downturn. FDR’s request to Congress envisioned a labor force “to be used for simple work, not interfering with normal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects.” Organized along military lines in many respects, the CCC dispatched its recruits to construct pathways, lodges and other public works projects in state and national parks located in locations such as the Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon (Figure 23.6). CCC participants sent home $25 of their monthly $30 paychecks to help support dependent family members. Volunteering for the CCC entailed a commitment to work a minimum of six months, rising every morning at 6 a.m. to put in a full day of calisthenics and labor interspersed with free time and classes. In addition to steady employment, the program created additional opportunity by providing education programs and granting high school diplomas.  

Question 23.24

23.24 - Level 2

What was the intended purpose of the Civilian Conservation Corps?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.24.

Figure 23.6: This CCC work crew erected fences at Glass Buttes in eastern Oregon, one of the numerous projects that the federal program completed during the Depression era, improving state and federal lands while providing jobs to young men so that they might help support their families. [6]

New Deal programs created in 1933 that significantly expand the size and reach of the federal government included the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). By overseeing the construction of several dams and hydroelectric plants in seven states, the TVA reclaimed thousands of acres for agricultural use, controlled flooding, and provided electricity and clean drinking water to one of the poorest areas in the United States (Figure 23.7). Some residents of the impacted area lost their homes to the reservoirs constructed by the TVA, and some of its construction practices resulted in rampant pollution, but the overall positive impact of the project seemed to vastly exceed its drawbacks. The availability of electricity made it possible for industry to expand the area, bringing with it numerous new jobs that paid far more than sharecropping and subsistence farming, which had dominated the Tennessee Valley before the arrival of the TVA.

Figure 23.7: An African American worker tending an electric phosphate smelting furnace which is producing elemental phosphorus at a TVA chemical plant in the Muscle Shoals area. True to the times, most of the New Deal programs enforced segregation. White Americans usually took precedent over African Americans when it came to receiving federal assistance. [7]​


23.25 - Level 1

Which of the following did the TVA not do for the Tennessee Valley?

A

Provide electricity

B

Reduce pollution

C

Promote industry

D

Make available clean drinking water

E

Reclaim farmland


Question 23.26

23.26 - Level 4

How might the creation of early New Deal programs such as the CCC and the TVA have reshaped Americans’ perceptions of the federal government and its expected responsibilities?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.26.

23.27 - Level 2

Click on the region of the United States that was the main focus of the New Deal program known as the TVA.

Spotlight on Primary Source



Millions of Americans went to the movies on a weekly basis as a form of entertainment, but also to catch up on the latest news presented in newsreels and short informative films. The Road is Open Again from 1933 and A Better Ohio from 1937 are two such examples of short films produced to bring theater attendees up to date on the efforts of the federal government to improve the state of things during the Depression. These films give some background in the NRA and WPA and how they were anticipated to restore confidence to a people traumatized by the nation’s direst economic crisis.

A Better Ohio (1937) by the Commercial Department of Pathé News for the Works Project Administration

Question 23.28

23.28 - Level 5

How do these short films depict New Deal programs as being uniquely American in character?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.28.

Question 23.29

23.29 - Level 5

How do these New Deal informational films depict the expanded role of the federal government in a positive light?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.29.

Question 23.30

23.30 - Level 5

Which film would you consider more effective in communicating how the NRA or WPA operates and benefits their participants?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.30.

Attempts to Stabilize Industry and Agriculture 

Congress turned its attention to stimulating the nation’s industry with the Public Works Act, an ambitious bill that created the short-lived National Recovery Administration (NRA), an agency intended to assist industrial firms in finding firmer footing in the Depression Era. With its distinctive blue eagle symbol, the NRA involved corporate members who voluntarily agreed to set production quotas and fix prices based on recommendations from the federal government. Doing so would theoretically reduce overproduction and overpricing. NRA-member companies would further agree to set wages and establish safe working conditions to benefit their workers. Under the tenets of the NRA, workers possessed the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Well-intended as the NRA may have been, its voluntary membership and the relative weakness of labor unions undermined any enforcement of these expectations by the federal government. Furthermore, the Supreme Court, questioned the constitutionality of this close working relationship between the government and private business.   

Similar questions applied to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), a bureaucracy intended to do in agriculture what the NRA was expected to achieve in industry: set prices and reduce competition while maintaining a degree of profitability for those who participated. American farmers continued to agonize over dwindling profits caused by overproduction. The resulting bankruptcy led some farmers to consider organized intimidation against judges and elected officials to forestall foreclosures. Some warned FDR of the possibility or rural uprisings before the end of 1933. The Roosevelt administration grasped the need to raise crop prices and reduce overproduction; it would improve conditions in rural areas while providing farmers with additional revenue to buy industrial goods. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace designed the program to pay subsidies to the farmers who voluntarily participated, in exchange for a reduction in the amount of land harvests and the size of livestock raised. An unintended consequence of the AAA was the destruction of millions of acres of land and the killing of millions of farm animals, a harsh practice at a time when hunger and possible starvation was a strong possibility for so many. Most farmers in the AAA enjoyed rising incomes until 1935, although larger farms that could scale back the size of production with less impact fared better than those with less acreage.  

23.31 - Level 2

What undermined the effectiveness of the NRA?

A

Participation was voluntary rather than mandatory

B

It did not include the involvement of workers

C

NRA officials tended to be corrupt

D

It was very expensive to join


The natural disaster of the “Dust Bowl” did much to eliminate the progress enjoyed by farmers living in the central U.S. After decades of plowing the Great Plains to make it suitable for farming, clearing it of much its characteristic tall grasses, the exposed topsoil became vulnerable to the windstorms that swept across the region beginning in 1935. 25,000 square miles of farmland became a barren wasteland. In addition to the soil, the winds carried off farmers’ hopes that they might make a go of things with AAA assistance. Many living in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska, and other states had no other recourse but to declare bankruptcy and load up their few possessions into rattling cars and trucks for the long journey west to California, where work was believed to be abundant. Known collectively and derisively as “Okies,” the transplanted families more often encountered hostility and possible jail time than steady employment.    

23.32 - Level 2

Click the states hardest hit by the Dust Bowl on this map.


23.33 - Level 1

Which of the following New Deal programs was not designed to directly address unemployment?

A

CCC

B

WPA

C

TVA

D

AAA


Challenges to the New Deal

New Deal programs often proved far more effective at creating hope than measurable results. Jobless rates hovered around 20 percent through 1934 while workers remained largely dissatisfied with their low wages and inability to unionize. Roosevelt’s expressed support of labor unions encouraged workers to strike in the spring of 1934, beginning with dockworkers in Seattle and then spreading south along the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, the site of the most violent altercations between strikers and police. Following a massive funeral procession for two dockworkers killed by company guards, workers united behind the dockworkers in support of their demands, effectively shutting down the city for four days. The city-wide strike resulted in a victory for the longshoremen. 

Other strikes of various sizes—1,800 in 1934 alone—continued throughout the 1930s, encouraging fears of communism’s growing acceptance in the U.S. During the Depression, 100,000 American industrial workers relocated to the Soviet Union to work in the communist state, one of the few nations left largely untouched by world events. In the New Deal, some claimed to find evidence of a radical communist takeover already in the works, with President Roosevelt as its mastermind. Questions of the New Deal’s constitutionality transmuted into accusations of its promotion of extreme leftism. William Randolph Hearst, still the most powerful media mogul in the country, contacted the president through intermediaries to express his growing concern with his perceived radicalism. As the owner and overseer of a vast network of newspapers, radio stations, and movie studios, Hearst proved one of Roosevelt’s most avowed and effective opponents. Others sharing Hearst’s critical views included industrialists, bankers, and Wall Street investors angry at the Roosevelt administration’s unprecedented control over the financial sector.

Still other demagogues accused the New Deal of not going far enough to cure the nation’s ills. One such agitator was Detroit priest Charles Coughlin, who urged for the nationalization of the country’s banks to destroy an imagined conspiracy of Jewish bankers he claimed to be responsible for creating the Depression. On a less absurd note, Dr. Francis Townsend, a retired physician, criticized the Roosevelt government for neglecting one of the population’s most vulnerable segments, the elderly, many of whom had been abandoned by family members due to financial stresses (Figure 23.8). Townsend advocated for the creation of a federal program to assist those too old or enfeebled to find work with monthly checks totaling $200. A more prominent and potentially disruptive detractor of Roosevelt and his polices erupted from Louisiana: the ruthlessly ambitious governor-turned-senator Huey P. Long. The “Kingfish,” as Long was called, cultivated a colorful persona to accompany his populist message, namely to redistribute wealth or “soak the rich,” although his intended methods remained murky. The simplicity of Long’s scheme, and his promise of free houses and cars, appealed to those who saw the wealthy as both responsible for the Depression and largely immune from its effects. Long supporters in the South, Midwest, and Northeast joined “Share the Wealth” clubs and planned to support their champion in a tentative run for the White House in 1936. FDR appraised Long, with his penchant for absolute power, as “the most dangerous man in America.” Just how dangerous he was would remain unknown; an assassin gunned down Long inside the Louisiana capitol building in September 1935.    

Figure 23.8: Dr. Francis Townsend, circa 1939, manning the microphones for one of his many radio addresses. Townsend, an influential advocate on behalf of older Americans, felt compelled to start his popular movement after witnessing a trio of elderly vagrants searching through trashcans for something to eat. The economic devastation of the Depression divided families and often compelled children to force their aged parents from their homes when it proved impossible to care for them. [8]


23.34 - Level 2

Which of the following was not a criticism of the New Deal?

A

It was communistic

B

It promoted desegregation and racial equality

C

It failed to provide assistance to older Americans

D

It didn’t do enough to help lower income Americans by redistributing wealth


23.35 - Level 3

Of Roosevelt’s many domestic critics, whose rhetoric was most closely allied with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini?

A

Father Charles Coughlin

B

Huey Long

C

Dr. Francis Townsend

D

William Randolph Hearst


A Second New Deal 

Roosevelt’s initial efforts, despite their size and ambition, failed to bring an end to the Great Depression—but they did restore an overall sense of confidence that the crisis would eventually reach a conclusion. More importantly, the country no longer seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse. With the public’s growing ease with the federal government escalating size and interventionism, FDR advanced a new agenda in 1935 of greater ambitions than that of two years earlier. Responding to the criticism of populist leaders such as Dr. Townsend and Huey Long, the Roosevelt administration’s next round of programs placed a greater emphasis on providing welfare for individual Americans than it did stabilizing banks and businesses. Referred to by many as the “Second New Deal” or the “second hundred days,” this large-scale package of “must” legislation was passed by a Congress still steadfast in backing the president’s efforts to mend the broken economy and provide for those still seeking relief. 

The bill judged to be in most-dire need of ratification, the Social Security Act, marked the most sweeping welfare piece of legislation to appear before Congress. Its provisions included unemployment compensation for young mothers, those with physical limitations that prevented holding a steady job, and other eligible groups. For older Americans, the Act provided a monthly pension at a time when many families found it impossible to care for aged and infirmed parents and grandparents. 

Question 23.36

23.36 - Level 5

Of the many programs created during the New Deal era, Social Security proved to be the most enduring and widely accepted. Why do you think this is?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.36.

Another federal program created in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created nine million jobs in projects, including a series of construction projects that created public buildings such as schools, city halls, and post offices. The WPA employed thousands of artists to decorate buildings and playwrights to produce shows made available to the American public, even in the most isolated of communities. The WPA also chronicled the experiences of past generations. Musicologist Alan Lomax travelled throughout the country, making audio recordings of bluegrass and blues musicians. Other WPA representatives recorded interviews with some of the last surviving former slaves. Over three million Americans found work on behalf of the WPA before its elimination by the federal government in 1940. 

The Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration, was also founded in 1935 as an umbrella agency for programs that had been working to resettle into self-sufficient communities unemployed industrial workers and rural Americans previously trying to farm sub-marginal land. The most famous of these communities at Arthurdale, West Virginia was a pet project of the First Lady's, inspired by her witnessing the extreme poverty of the Appalachian coal-mining region on one of her cross-country tours. Arthurdale was designed (at heavy expense) as a model community of modern homes with gardens to help supply residents with food, a school with a progressive curriculum, and local industries to provide jobs. Eleanor Roosevelt remained a patron of the community and visited Arthurdale numerous times throughout her life. 

Photographers who worked on behalf of the RA/FSA helped to create a visual record of the Depression and its impact. Dorothea Lange’s heartrending photos of migrant families did much to put a human face on the mass suffering of the period (Figure 23.9). Photographs by WPA photojournalists appeared on the pages of new magazines such as Time and Life, reaching the homes of millions.          

Figure 23.9: Photographer Dorothea Lange is best remembered for her evocative black-and-white photographs depicting individual suffering during the Great Depression, but she also worked with color film, capturing the experiences of displaced people struggling to find work and establish new homes. This photograph from December 1935 shows a young girl assigned to live with her family on Bosque Farms in New Mexico, a federal resettlement project intended to assist those displaced by the Dust Bowl. [9] ​

Question 23.37

23.37 - Level 5

How might the wide circulation of photographs of those most impacted by the Great Depression have influenced public opinion of the Roosevelt administration’s policies?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.37.

23.38 - Level 2

The Works Progress Administration

A

Employed millions of Americans in federal building projects

B

Encouraged closer relations between industrial workers and their employers

C

Assisted American farmers with monthly subsidies

D

Constructed numerous hydroelectric facilities in southern states


Labor unions, battered and repressed throughout the 1920s and 1930s thanks to their ongoing association with communism and anarchism, caught a break with Congress’ passage of 1935’s National Labor Relations Act, better known as the Wagner Act. This new bill, though limited in its reach, provided some workers with the right to form or join labor unions and engage in collective bargaining, the first such federal guarantee since World War I. Congress established the National Labor Relations Board and endowed it with the power to mediate disagreements between employers and employees and investigate accusations of wrongdoing by management. The Wagner Act renewed union activism and offered workers substantially greater leverage when negotiating for such things as increased pay and safer working conditions. Union members subsequently pledged their loyalty to the Democratic Party for decades to come.     

While campaigning for reelection in 1936, FDR informed one crowd of supporters, “You look happier today than you did four years ago.” His campaign song in 1932 was the appropriately titled “Happy Days Are Here Again.” As expected, Roosevelt won a landslide victory in 1936 against Republican challenger Alf Landon, gaining the most impressive margin in the history of presidential elections. FDR read his effortless reelection as an obvious sign of approval from the constituents, which emboldened him to still more action. He acknowledged the ongoing presence of the Depression in his second inaugural address when he spoke of “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” 

Figure 23.10: Gallup Poll, 1937

Roosevelt’s “Court-Packing Scheme”  

With Roosevelt ensconced in the White House for an additional term and the Democrats in firm control of Congress, the only source of dissent concerning the constitutionality of the New Deal came from the Supreme Court. Dominated by older justices with a decidedly conservative outlook, the Court struck down the NRA and AAA programs as unconstitutional in 1935 and 1936 respectively, much to the chagrin of the president. FDR devised a scheme whereby he might wrest control of the Supreme Court by “packing” it with up to six hand-picked new justices, raising the number of judges from nine to fifteen, depending on how many justices over the age of 70 opted not to retire. Merely the rumor of the president’s plot compelled the Court to shift its support behind the New Deal, thereby achieving FDR’s intended goal of protecting his agenda. The rattled Court justices took a hard left on their decisions after Roosevelt’s proposal fell apart, as evidenced by their decision in the West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish case of 1937, which permitted Washington State to enact a minimum wage. But the president’s intrigue, upon its reveal to the public, infuriated Americans who believed that Roosevelt’s unprecedented accumulation of presidential power hinted at dictatorship. Republicans and Southern Democrats drew closer in a tentative alliance marking the start of a Conservative movement.  

23.39 - Level 1

Arrange these events in proper sequence of occurrence.

A

Congress passes the Social Security Act

B

Creation of the AAA

C

Dockworkers in San Francisco go on strike

D

FDR threatens to “pack” the Supreme Court


Looming Threats Abroad

The high cost of World War I convinced many Europeans of the inherent weakness of democratic governments. Democracy’s failure to prevent the outbreak of this destructive war, coupled with growing fears about the spread of communism, allowed for the growing acceptance of a new political ideology: fascism. An ultra-nationalistic dogma, fascism first appeared in Italy in the immediate aftermath of the First World War espoused by Benito Mussolini, a veteran of the conflict and former communist. Mussolini was one of many agitators of various political backgrounds competing for followers in postwar Italy. As a member of the victorious Allies, the Italian people expected to be well-compensated for their sacrifices in the form of Austrian territory, which they did receive, but not enough to justify the losses they’d incurred. With the economy in ruins, communism gained support among members of the industrial workers and the peasantry, both of which began to occupy the factories and farms where they worked. Mussolini presented himself to Italy’s middle and upper classes as a leader with the resolve necessary to crush communism before it threatened to engulf the country. The response was initially tepid. 

Mussolini compensated for his lack of supporters with a pronounced sense of showmanship. His small band of followers, many of them also veterans, wore matching black shirts and carried banners depicting an ancient Roman symbol of unity and authority, the fasci. Their brutish tactics involved menacing, beating, and murdering their critics and opponents, particularly leftist journalists. Mussolini fancied himself a 20th century Caesar who would build a “new Rome.” He emphasized martial values, remilitarization, and conquest as ways of demonstrating the glory of Italy. When he organized a dramatic march on Rome in 1922 with his fascisti or “black shirts,” (Mussolini travelled most of the way by train) the Italian monarch, King Victor Emmanuel III decided it best to make Mussolini his prime minister, bringing him into the government where he might be more easily controlled rather than allowing the aspiring dictator to be a volatile and unpredictable outsider. Mussolini, once installed in his new post, transformed it into an authoritarian position that gave him extensive powers. He exchanged his formal black suit for a trim uniform and set about building an empire.

Mussolini’s impressive rise to power inspired many, including another World War I veteran: the Austrian Adolf Hitler. Hitler harbored many of the same frustrations as his Italian counterpart, including a belief that his adopted nation of Germany had been mistreated and a deep hatred for communism. While adopting the principles of fascism as his own, Hitler’s corrupt worldview factored in a level of racism that Italian fascism lacked. Following his taking over of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis for short) in 1921, Hitler indoctrinated his fellow party members in his teachings of the innate superiority of the German people and the need to suppress or destroy supposedly inferior peoples, namely the Slavs and the Jews. Like Mussolini, Hitler attempted a bold takeover of the government in 1923, but his effort, the ill-fated Munich “beer hall putsch” ended in failure and a brief imprisonment (Figure 23.10). 


Figure 23.11: Hitler pays a visit to Mussolini in Venice in 1934. The Italian dictator’s meteoric rise to power in the early 1920s filled Hitler with ambitions of achieving a similar result in Germany. His unsuccessful coup attempt in 1923 resulted in a brief prison sentence, during which he dictated his treatise Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which outlined his plans for European conquest. His subsequent emergence as Germany’s chancellor and later dictator far exceeded anything Mussolini dared dream of.​ [10]


23.40 - Level 2

Which of the following are not a component of fascism?

A

Reaction to communism

B

Emphasis on ultra-nationalism

C

Development of a large military

D

Encouraging free trade

E

Strong authoritarian leadership

F

A free press


Had it not been for the crash of 1929 and resultant Depression, Hitler likely would never have been heard from again. As American stocks tumbled, the U.S. government suspended their loans to Germany, intended to assist with the reparations payments to the French and British and its economic recovery. The subsequent collapse of the German economy and the accompanying runaway inflation and unemployment provided Hitler with a ripe opportunity. He reemerged from obscurity to pledge his determination to lead the suffering nation towards a glorious future: a German empire within Europe, a “thousand-year Reich” that would deprive Russia of much of its land. As the Nazi Party acquired more seats in the German Parliament, or Reichstag, the aged President Paul von Hindenburg decided it best to make Hitler his Chancellor in late 1932, a position he assumed the following year, the same time Roosevelt assumed the office of the presidency. 

23.41 - Level 2

Locate on this map the two European nations where fascist governments developed in the 1920s and 1930s.


23.42 - Level 3

Which of the following distinguished German fascism from Italian fascism?

A

Frequent use of violence against ideological opponents

B

Ultra-nationalist rhetoric

C

Obsession with racial hierarchy

D

Persecution of political dissidents


From the start, FDR regarded Mussolini and Hitler with concern. Both men acted with startling aggressiveness in 1935. Mussolini ordered his troops to invade the African kingdom of Ethiopia, one of the few areas in the continent free of European control. Using warplanes and poison gas against Ethiopians and civilians alike, in flagrant violation of international law, the Italians soon gained the upper hand. The ineffectual League of Nations imposed modest economic sanctions against Italy but refused to do little else. That same year, an emboldened Hitler declared an end to Germany’s payment of reparations to France and Britain. He then began a covert remilitarization effort to provide Germany with the means of carving out an empire for itself within Europe at the expense of Poland and Russia, two nations he considered to be inhabited by subhuman peoples, the Slavs. Unlike the Italians, Hitler’s imperial endeavors began without firing a shot. He dispatched troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, former German territory designated as a buffer zone between Germany and France. Neither the French nor the British offered much protest; the weary nations had little interest in tempting fate and risking war so soon after World War I. Hitler’s campaign continued until hostilities became the only available recourse. 

Roosevelt watched events unfolding in Europe with growing concern, wishing the United States might do more to intervene on behalf of those nations threatened by Italian and German fascism. But he understood all too well the limits of his power as a popularly elected leader. The American people, still bitter over the First World War, expressed their collective desire to avoid involvement in foreign matters that might result in a second such conflict. For the time being, Roosevelt respected their wishes, refraining from using rhetoric that might seem aggressive towards Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in his radio addresses and public speeches. But in private, FDR contemplated the possibility of diminished American neutrality and eventual participation in the hostility he predicted was coming to Europe. 

 Question 23.43

23.43 - Level 5

How do you explain the general lack of concern on the part of the American people to the growth of fascism in Europe? Why did most Americans fail to see Mussolini and Hitler as threatening?

Click here to see the answer to Question 23.43.

Sports and Leisure during the 1930s

Confrontations between Americans and the Germans during the 1930s occurred in the sporting arena rather than the battlefield. The German capital of Berlin hosted the Olympic Games in the summer of 1936. Hitler intended to use the venue to showcase the superiority of the German athletes, who he hoped would dominate most of the events. An African American track and field star out of the Ohio State University did much to frustrate his plans. Jesse Owens, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, took four gold medals during the games, including two for the long jump and the 100-meter dash. Another American sports star of color, boxer Joe Louis, became the heavyweight champion of the world following his victory over the German Max Schmeling in 1937 (Figure 23.11). Owens and Louis’ athletic accomplishments brought glory to the nation at a time when professional athletics continued to be segregated along color lines. 

Figure 23.12: Dubbed the “Brown Bomber” by the press, Joe Louis took with boxing world by storm during the mid-1930s, winning 27 consecutive bouts, all but four by knockout. Louis would later serve with distinction as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II. [11]

Movie theaters offered a temporary escape from the difficulties of life during the Depression. Even those in dire financial straits always seemed to manage to scrounge up a nickel or a dime to pay for a matinee showing. Films of the period both reflected and obscured the era in which they were made. Charlie Chaplin, a colossal star of the 1910s and 1920s, remained enormously popular. His screen persona of “The Little Tramp” resonated now more than ever with audiences in films such as 1931’s City Lights and 1936’s Modern Times, both of which depicted some degree of urban squalor and the challenges of retaining a job. The appearance of murderous criminals such as John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd both fascinated and disgusted the public, evoking reactions comparable to lucrative gangster pictures such as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface. Tough guy stars like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney infused their performances as flawed protagonists with considerable charisma before the inevitable fusillade of bullets did them in, a requirement of the Hollywood Production Code. Lavish musicals starring the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers emphasized a detachment from realty with elegant sets and costumes, an emphasis on escapism that reached its pinnacle in fantasy films such as King Kong and The Wizard of Oz in 1933 and 1939, respectively. 

For entertainment at home, Americans relied upon the less visual medium of radio as it cemented its position as the indispensable source for news, sports, and entertainment programs. New radio stations continued to appear across the nation throughout the 1930s, bringing a growing variety of programming to accommodate all ages and tastes. Comedians such as Jack Benny and Bob Hope crafted routines specifically for radio audiences, building national followings in the process. The credibility of news radio came to surpass that of print journalism, a reality made apparent on Halloween of 1938, when millions of Americans listened to a radio broadcast of a dramatic recreation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds adapted by an ambitious 23-year old named Orson Welles. Due to the news bulletin-style formatting of the program, many listeners believed the program was actual live news coverage of a Martian invasion of the Earth, despite several disclaimers aired throughout the show. Reports of mass hysteria across the country confirmed the new medium’s power to color perception. 

23.44 - Level 1

Match the following

Premise
Response
1

Jesse Owens

A

Creator of famed radio broadcast in 1938

2

Jack Benny

B

Winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics

3

Orson Welles

C

Boxing heavyweight champion

4

Joe Louis

D

Famed radio comedian


23.45 - Level 2

Match the celebrities of the 1930s with the genre for which they were best

Premise
Response
1

James Cagney

A

Science fiction

2

Orson Welles

B

Athletics

3

Ginger Rogers

C

Crime dramas

4

Jack Benny

D

Musicals

5

Joe Louis

E

Comedy


The New Deal Ends     

Americans grew increasingly wary of the possible long-term impact of deficit spending needed to fund the New Deal indefinitely. Even Roosevelt harbored concerns about the government’s spending habits. Keynes gained more adherents of his belief in deficit spending to resuscitate a failing economy, but the idea seemed fundamentally un-American. Attempts to reduce federal spending in 1937, after four years of general economic improvement, served to trigger a recession that raised unemployment to 20% and reduced industrial production by nearly one-third. 

The New Deal came to an end in 1939, due in large part to increasing productivity and employment led by private business rather than the federal government, but the Depression lingered on until the start of World War II. Wartime demands eliminated most of the remaining New Deal programs, such as the CCC. Others lived on, having become an accepted component of the federal government; Social Security was foremost among these. No president dared roll back the program and most, including conservative Republicans, permitted expansions of the benefits and the number of participants. New Deal programs revolutionized the way the American people perceived the role and responsibilities of the federal government. It ceased to be an impersonal entity with little direct impact on their lives. Monthly welfare checks, WPA murals on post office walls, and enormous construction projects such as Hoover Dam made tangible the federal government’s ability to transform America. 

23.46 - Level 1

What ultimately ended the Great Depression?

A

The discovery of gold in Alaska

B

Increased consumer confidence and spending

C

The Second World War

D

The collective impact of the New Deal


Question 23.47

23.47 - Level 5

Why do you think many Americans began to feel uneasy about the continuance of most of the New Deal programs?

 Click here to see the answer to Question 23.47.

Conclusion

FDR’s activism did much to modernize the presidency, and even to revolutionize the office and its powers far beyond anything his fifth cousin Theodore would have imagined possible. From his time in office forward, the White House, not Congress, would set the agenda and provide the most overt leadership. The New Deal increased the acceptability of federal welfare programs, but it also encouraged a political realignment that more clearly defined Republicans and Democrats. America’s domestic worries were about to be overshadowed by the rise of fascist, expansionist states in Europe and the bellicose aims of imperial Japan. President Roosevelt, having led the nation out of the wilderness of one crisis, was about to find himself enmeshed in a second trial with far more at stake for the nation and the world.


Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 23.01

Class Discussions 23.01 - Level 2

In what ways was President Roosevelt’s strategy a continuation of what President Hoover’s administration had started?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 23.01.

Class Discussion 23.02

Class Discussion 23.02 - Level 4

What circumstances precipitated the start of the Great Depression?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 23.02.

Class Discussion 23.03

Class Discussion 23.03 - Level 2

How did President Roosevelt utilize the media to benefit his presidency?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 23.03.

Class Discussion 23.04

Class Discussion 23.04 - Level 4

What factors in postwar Europe enabled fascist governments to emerge in Italy and Germany during the 1920s and 1930s?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 23.04.

Class Discussion 23.05

Class Discussion 23.05 - Level 4

How does the activism of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency compare with those of the Progressive Era?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 23.05.



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Suggested Additional Material

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Mariner Books, Reprint Edition, 2006.

McElvaine, Robert. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. Times Books; Reprint Edition, 1993.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Great Crash 1929. Mariner Books, Reprint Edition, 2009.

Watkins, T. H. The Great Depression: America in the 1930s. Back Bay Books, 2009.


Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 23.02

World War I witnessed a close collaboration between the federal government and business that continued into the 1920s. Corporate leaders in positions of power stressed the need for a laissez-faire approach to government policy and the economy. This included reduced taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, in addition to limited regulation of business. Republican leaders throughout the decade imposed tariffs on foreign made goods to protect domestic businesses and promote the purchase of products manufactured in the U.S. 

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Answer to Question 23.03

The Russian Revolution and subsequent spread of communism across Europe after World War I heightened fears of communist infiltration in the U.S. Numerous Americans already viewed labor unions as havens for radical leftists, many of them foreign-born; their suspicions grew heightened in the aftermath of postwar strikes across the nation and a campaign of bombings by anarchists. When the economy stabilized and then prospered in the early 1920s, there seemed little need for assertive organized labor activity.

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Answer to Question 23.04

Mechanization and improved growing and harvesting techniques allowed American farmers to be much more productive at the start of the 1920s than ever before. During World War I, the demand for American produced food from European nations resulted in a steep increase in the price of agricultural goods. Sensing an opportunity to make substantial profits, American farmers invested heavily in new machines and additional acreage, often borrowing to do so. Production expanded rapidly, but when the war ended the demand for American agricultural goods went into decline. Prices plummeted and many farmers went bankrupt. Calls for the government to set prices or impose tariffs of foreign agriculture to protect American farmers went unheeded. Federal official placed greater importance on industry than agriculture.

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Answer to Question 23.05

Business owners believed that the demand for their products would continue unabated and raised prices accordingly, little recognizing that wages would need to be increased. Rather than raise pay for their workers, corporate leaders instead invested much of their profits back into their companies in order to improve efficiency. When the demand for many consumer products reached its saturation point, businesses found themselves with bulging inventories and no one to purchase them, due in large part to the stagnant wages they’d imposed.

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Answer to Question 23.08

As a conservative Republican with a strong background in business, Herbert Hoover did not believe the federal government should involve itself in regulating economic affairs. Most Americans shared this view; the general tendency in the early days of the Great Depression was to blame the individual rather than larger economic forces. Sweeping attempts to restore stability would have been viewed as obtrusive and inconsistent with the popular perception of the role of the federal government.

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Answer to Question 23.13

Historians continue to debate the single most important cause of the Great Depression. Overproduction, coupled with increasing prices and a failure to raise wages, was certainly a key factor. The growing use of credit to purchase consumer goods by those lacking adequate funds to obtain them otherwise encouraged companies to maintain their high production rates, and overinflated the worth of corporate stocks on Wall Street, which themselves were being bought on credit. When things began to fell apart, the first impulse of companies was to reduce the size of the workforce rather than seek out other options. The newly unemployed often cleaned out their bank accounts, a trend that resulted in bank failures across the nation.

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Answer to Question 23.16

Private charities and churches were the only sources of relief when the Great Depression began. Their limited resources ran out quickly. Millions of men took to the road, looking for employment wherever they might find it so that they might be able to provide for their families. Many disappeared permanently.

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Answer to Question 23.18

Hoover attempted to secure a “gentleman’s agreement” from business leaders that they would not use lay offs to protect their dwindling profits. They would instead reduce the length of work shifts so that workers would continue to earn a living until the economy corrected itself. This proved impossible to enforce when many companies began the reduce the size of their workforces despite pledging not to do so. But it did mark an indication on the part of the Hoover administration to take limited action on behalf of those whose employment was most vulnerable.

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Answer to Question 23.19

The American people were shocked and appalled by images of war veterans clashing with police officers and military personnel inside the nation’s capital. Such sites seemed more appropriate to postwar Europe than the Unites States. The violence following the failed efforts of the Bonus Marchers hinted at the possibility of greater violence culminating in a revolution. The fear of just such an event justified the harsh response of the Washington D.C. police and U.S. Army. Should more disaffected Americans have joined the ranks of the Bonus Marchers, it might have proven far more difficult to remove them from the city without a pitched battle taking place.

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Answer to Question 23.20

FDR followed in the footsteps of the last Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, in his willingness to use the power of the presidency to improve social welfare through limited regulation of business, which would be largely voluntary rather than imposed. The Democrats under Roosevelt continued to foster loyalty among urban voters, as had been the case in previous years.

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Answer to Question 23.24

Roosevelt intended the CCC to provide employment from American men aged 18-25, the demographic most likely to turn to crime or political radicalism in times of distress. They would also find it more challenging to find work due to their relative lack of experience and education. The CCC did much to improve state and and national parks with extensive construction projects, but the political considerations made the program far more important to the Roosevelt administration.

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Answer to Question 23.26

The CCC, TVA and other related programs made manifest the federal government’s commitment to improving social welfare at a time of unprecedented economic crisis. After some initial trepidation regarding federal intervention, most Americans supported the job creation and renewed sense of hope the first round of New Deal programs provided and made possible the expansion of federal efforts after Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936.

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Answer to Question 23.28

The Road is Open Again is obvious in its use of some of the most esteemed presidents from America’s past to endorse the New Deal. But both films make clear that New Deal programs such as the NRA and WPA are only temporary measures that would allow out-of-work Americans to return to their previous autonomy and sense of self-reliance. There’s a strong emphasis on the New Deal as a program designed to deliver the nation from its crisis, not to lay the groundwork for socialism or communism.

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Answer to Question 23.29

The focus of these films is on individual initiative rather than dependence on the state. The benefits of construction projects and improvements to existing infrastructure also receives a substantial amount of emphasis, with the sense that they will provide long-term advantages well after the Depression ends.

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Answer to Question 23.30

A Better Ohio, as it is based more in reality and provides more extensive coverage of the WPA and what is does is perhaps more effective as a source of information than the more fanciful The Road is Open Again, which seems designed to be more introductory than informative.

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Answer to Question 23.36

The Great Depression disrupted family life across the United States. Financial pressures often made it impossible for extended families to stay together; when funds dwindled to nothing, parents and grandparents were often turned out from the homes they shared with their children and grandchildren. The mounting problem of elderly Americans without homes or adequate resources spurred the government to introduce Social Security as a part of the Second New Deal, protecting the lives and dignity of senior citizens.

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Answer to Question 23.37

Heartrending photographs such as those taken by Dorothea Lange, though often staged, served to put a human face on the suffering going on across the country caused by the Depression. In creating a sense of immediacy, such images served to justify the steady number of New Deal programs coming online from 1933 until 1937.

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Answer to Question 23.43

The aftermath of World War I left a general perception in the U.S. that its participation had done little overall to change the state of things in Europe. The realization that many accounts of German atrocities had been fabricated by the British and French governments to encourage American involvement in the war further predisposed the American public towards isolationism and non-intervention in European affairs. This coupled with the sense of urgency caused by the Depression prevented most Americans from giving adequate consideration of the threat caused by Hitler and Mussolini. Any peril caused fascism was seen as more a European concern than an American one; the nation had enough on its plate in regards to fixing the economy.

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Answer to Question 23.47

The Second New Deal of 1937-38 expanded the size of the federal bureaucracy and its powers to create jobs and heal the broken economy. It represented a tipping point for conservatives who believed that Roosevelt was carrying things too far, a fear seemingly validated by his attempt to had up to six new justices to the Supreme Court in order to silence those who opposed some of the more unconstitutional aspects of the New Deal. FDR seemed to many to be behaving in a manner more dictatorial than presidential as the New Deal continued to grow.

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 23.01

To a large extent, the structure of Roosevelt’s New Deal was built upon a foundation laid by the Hoover administration, specifically his attempts to improve dealings between labor and management and the creation of government agencies that would to an extent those created under the New Deal. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation created in 1931 enjoyed some success in protecting smaller, more vulnerable banks from collapse.

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Answer to Class Discussion 23.02

A drop in consumer activity caused by stagnant wages and rising prices caused a steep correction in the value of stocks on Wall Street and an accompanying sell-off in late October of 1929. In growing desperation, companies began to fire large numbers of workers who then turned to banks to withdraw whatever they’d managed to save. Many banks, having made available risky loans to Wall Street investors, collapsed in the face of their depositors’ demands, eliminating the savings of millions of Americans with nowhere to turn for help. 

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Answer to Class Discussion 23.03

Roosevelt was the first to hold regular press meetings in order to articulate his intentions and circulate his policy. He used the radio to give monthly addresses that reassured the public that every effort was being made by the federal government to get the country back on track. He consciously made his rhetoric easy to understand and his tone personable and friendly. His speeches spoke to individual Americans as a confidant rather than a distant, aloof leader.

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Answer to Class Discussion 23.04

Anger and frustration felt by the German and Italian people after World War I gave rise to fascist movements during the 1920s and 1930s. Italy, although a member of the victorious Allies, did not receive what it considered to be appropriate compensation in territorial acquisitions. Hundreds of thousands of Italians lost their lives in the war, which further devastated the Italian economy. Communism began to gain more followers in cities as well as the countryside, creating enormous concern for the landowning class and the Catholic Church, both of which saw the fascist leader Benito Mussolini as a preferable alternative. Similarly, conservative Germans rallied around Adolf Hitler and his fascist Nazi Party for fear that a communist revolution might break out in Germany as it had in Russia. The German people further responded to Hitler’s promise to right the wrongs against them after World War I, to restore lost territory, halt the payment of reparations to France and Britain and give them the victory they’d been denied in World War I. 

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Answer to Class Discussion 23.05

Roosevelt emulated Progressive presidents in his willingness to use the media to deliver his message to the people. He further displayed a commitment to negotiate with large corporations in the hopes of reducing unemployment without resorting to outright control. FDR expanded the federal government’s commitment to social welfare through policies such as Social Security.

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Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of the Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration ARC#195559 in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs division under digital ID cph.3a00515 in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management under CC BY-SA 2.0.

[7] Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration ARC# 196447 in the Public Domain.

[8] Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID hec.27728 in the Public Domain.

[9] Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[10] Image courtesy of courtesy of the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b45656 in the Public Domain.

[11] Image courtesy of United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b09981 in the Public Domain.