The 1930s in the United States began with an historic low: more than 15 million Americans–fully one-quarter of all wage-earning workers–were unemployed. President Herbert Hoover did not do much to alleviate the crisis: Patience and self-reliance, he argued, were all Americans needed to get them through this “passing incident in our national lives.” But in 1932, Americans elected a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pledged to use the power of the federal government to make Americans’ lives better. Over the next nine years, Roosevelt’s New Deal created a new role for government in American life. Though the New Deal alone did not end the Depression, it did provide an unprecedented safety net to millions of suffering Americans.
The Great Depression
The disaster had been brewing for years. Different historians and economists offer different explanations for the crisis. Some blame the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth and purchasing power in the 1920s, while others blame the decade’s agricultural slump or the international instability caused by World War I.
In any case, the nation was woefully unprepared for the crash. For the most part, banks were unregulated and uninsured. The government offered no insurance or compensation for the unemployed, so when people stopped earning, they stopped spending. The consumer economy ground to a halt, and an ordinary recession became the Great Depression, the defining event of the 1930s.
President Herbert Hoover was slow to respond to these events. Though he believed that the “crazy and dangerous” behavior of Wall Street speculators had contributed in a significant way to the crisis, he also believed that solving such problems was not really the federal government’s job. As a result, most of the solutions he suggested were voluntary: He asked state governments to undertake public-works projects; he asked big companies to keep workers’ pay steady and he asked labor unions to stop demanding raises. The shantytowns that were popping up as more and more people lost their homes were nicknamed “Hoovervilles” as an insult to the president’s hands-off policies.
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The crisis worsened, and life for the average American during the Great Depression was challenging. Between 1930 and 1933, more than 9,000 banks closed in the U.S., taking with them more than $2.5 billion in deposits. Meanwhile, unemployed people did whatever they could, like standing in charity breadlines and selling apples on street corners, to feed their families.
“A New Deal for the American People”
By 1932, many Americans were fed up with Hoover and what Franklin Roosevelt later called his “hear nothing, see nothing, do nothing government.” The Democratic presidential candidate, New York governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, promised a change: “I pledge myself,” he said, “to a New Deal for the American people.” This New Deal would use the power of the federal government to try and stop the economy’s downward spiral. Roosevelt won that year’s election handily.
The First Hundred Days
The new president acted swiftly during his first hundred days in office to, he said, “wage a war against the emergency” just as though “we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” First, he shored up the nation’s banks. Then he began to propose more comprehensive reforms. By June, Roosevelt and Congress had passed 15 major laws–including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Glass-Steagall Banking Bill, the Home Owners’ Loan Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act–that fundamentally reshaped many aspects of the American economy. This decisive action also did much to restore Americans’ confidence that, as Roosevelt had declared in his inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
American Culture During the 1930s
During the Depression, most people did not have much money to spare. However, most people did have radios–and listening to the radio was free. The most popular broadcasts were those that distracted listeners from their everyday struggles: comedy programs like Amos ‘n’ Andy, soap operas and sporting events. Swing music encouraged people to cast aside their troubles and dance. Bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson drew crowds of young people to ballrooms and dance halls around the country. And even though money was tight, people kept on going to the movies. Musicals, “screwball” comedies and hard-boiled gangster pictures likewise offered audiences an escape from the grim realities of life in the 1930s.
The Second New Deal
President Roosevelt’s early efforts had begun to restore Americans’ confidence, but they had not ended the Depression. In the spring of 1935, he launched a second, more aggressive set of federal programs, sometimes called the Second New Deal. The Works Progress Administration provided jobs for unemployed people and built new public works like bridges, post offices, schools, highways and parks. The National Labor Relations Act (1935), also known as the Wagner Act, gave workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively for higher wages and fairer treatment. The Social Security Act (also 1935) guaranteed pensions to some older Americans, set up a system of unemployment insurance and stipulated that the federal government would help care for dependent children and the disabled.
In 1936, while campaigning for a second term, President Roosevelt told a roaring crowd at Madison Square Garden that “The forces of ‘organized money’ are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.” He went on: “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match, [and] I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces have met their master.” He won the election by a landslide. Still, the Depression dragged on. Workers grew more militant: In December 1936, for example, the United Auto Workers started a sit-down strike at a GM plant in Flint, Michigan that lasted for 44 days and spread to some 150,000 autoworkers in 35 cities. By 1937, to the dismay of most corporate leaders, some 8 million workers had joined unions and were loudly demanding their rights.
The End of the Depression
By the end of the 1930s, the New Deal had come to an end. Growing Congressional opposition made it difficult for President Roosevelt to introduce new programs. At the same time, as the threat of war loomed on the horizon, the president turned his attention away from domestic politics. In December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II. The war effort stimulated American industry and the Great Depression was over.