THE UNEMPLOYMENT CRISIS
Each of the two statements below reflect the gravity of the unemployment situation in 1932. The first is from Fortune Magazine and the second is an excerpt from Franklin Roosevelt's campaign speech at Boston. The Fortune Magazine article is perhaps most striking because it recognizes the grave threat to the social order if the millions of jobless become angry and violent.
Unemployment has steadily increased in the U.S. since the beginning of the depression... The number of persons totally unemployed is not at least 10,000,000... The number...next winter will...be 11,000,000...one man of every four employable workers...
This percentage is higher than the percentage of unemployed British workers…and higher than the French, the Italians, and the Canadian percentages, but lower than the German...
Eleven million unemployed means 27,500,000 whose regular source of livelihood has been cut off... Taking account of the number of workers on part time, the total of those without adequate income becomes 34,000,000 or better than a quarter of the entire population... It is conservative to estimate that the problem of next winter's relief is a problem of caring for approximately 25,000,000 souls...
And it is not necessary to appeal...to class fear in order to point out that there is a limit beyond which hunger and misery become violent.
From Fortune Magazine, September 1932
We have two problems: first, to meet the immediate distress; second, to build up on a basis of permanent employment.
As to "immediate relief," the first principle is that this nation, this national Government, if you like, owes a positive duty that no citizen shall be permitted to starve...
In addition to providing emergency relief, the Federal Government should and must provide temporary work whenever that is possible. You and I know that in the national forests, on flood prevention, and on the development of waterway projects that have already been authorized and planned but not yet executed, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of our unemployed citizens can be given at least temporary employment...
Third, the Federal Government should expedite the actual construction of public works already authorized...
Finally, in that larger field that looks ahead, we call for a coordinated system of employment exchanges, the advance planning of public works, and unemployment reserves.
From Franklin D. Roosevelt, Campaign Address in Boston, October 1932
Source: John M. Blum, The National Experience: A History of the United States (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), pp. 614 615.
COLLEGE STUDENTS AND THE GREAT DEPRESSION
While few could argue that college and university students were among those who suffered most during the Great Depression, the economic crisis reached into their lives as well. This account from a 1933 article, illustrates the creative ways they responded to economic adversity.
College students have probably developed more ingenious ways of betting the depression than any other group in America. Using their wits to earn money or cooking their own meals and living in shacks to save it, Joe College and Betty Co-ed are getting educated in spite of technological unemployment, bank moratoria, impoverishment of agriculture and a general scarcity of cash. For instance:
Two male students at Ohio State University have started a "dog laundry." They call for Fido, Bruno or Towser, take him to their "plant" and return him all nicely bathed, combed and manicured...
A student at Western Reserve University, Cleveland, has been able to hold a comparatively lucrative position right through the depression because he is accustomed to hold-ups. The large gasoline station at which he is a night attendant has been robbed three times by gunmen.
A couple of husky freshmen at West Virginia University who probably didn't know the difference between a casserole and a wash tub when they left home, have been going to school on less than $1.60 a week apiece by renting a back bedroom with a small stove in it and cooking cheap but nourishing foods.
Eight boys at the University of Washington are getting their meals at very small cost by cooking them in a basement and "taking in" several other students as boarders...
The University of Pennsylvania took action at the start of the present school year to turn over as many campus jobs as possible to students. As a result, collegians are now acting as night watchmen, janitors, secretaries, mail carriers, switchboard operators, locker room attendants, technicians and clerks.
Officials of Carthage College, in Illinois, let a miner pay his daughter's tuition in coal this past winter. At Notre Dame 300 students are earning their board by waiting on tables in the dormitory dining halls. They are so numerous that they serve a meal to their 2,000 fellow students in 20 minutes.
When the economic depression is finally over and commendations for valor are being passed around, some sort of special recognition should be given to the student who, with only enough money to last until June if he spent but 35 cents a day for food, quit a $100 a month job because it was keeping him from his studies.
Source: Gilbert Love's "College Students Are Beating the Depression," School and Society XXXVII (June 10, 1933), reprinted in David A. Shannon, ed., The Great Depression (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: 1960), pp. 104-105.
THE NEW DEAL: THE FIRST HUNDRED DAYS
In the account below historian Arthur Schlesinger describes both the transition of the presidency from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, and FDR's legislative agenda which was implement immediately after he took office.
The White House, midnight, Friday, March 3, 1933. Across the country banks had shuttered their windows and closed their doors. The machinery of American capitalism had broken down; the great depression had reached its symbolic climax. “We are at the end of our string,” the retiring President, weary and red-eyed, said to his friends as the striking clock announced the day of his retirement. “There is nothing more we can do.”
Saturday dawned gray and bleak. Winter clouds hung over the Capitol, where a huge crowd, quiet, somber, drawn almost by curiosity rather than by hope, gathered to watch the new President. The colorless light of the granite skies merged with the emotionless faces of the people who stood in huddled groups, sat on benches, climbed on trees and rooftops in front of the Capitol. “What are those things that look like little cages?” asked someone in the waiting crowd. “Machine guns,” replied a woman with a giggle.
On the drive to the Capitol the President-to-be was sociable and talkative. Herbert Hoover, his face heavy and sullen, could not conceal his bitterness. They separated inside the Capitol. The new President, waiting nervously in the Military Affairs Committee Room, started down the corridor toward the Senate ten minutes before noon. He was stopped; it was too early. "All right," he laughed, "we'll go back an wait some more."
The bugle blew at noon. Franklin Roosevelt, leaning on the arm of his son James, walked down a special maroon-carpeted ramp to the plat~ form. Charles Evans Hughes, erect in the chilly gusts of wind, administered the oath on a Dutch Bible which had been in the Roosevelt family for three hundred years.
Then the new President turned to the crowd, and microphones carried his words to millions across the land. “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” The crowd stirred as if with hope. “In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
The firm, resonant tone itself brought a measure of confidence. “This nation asks for action, and action now. . . . We must act and act quickly. . . It may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.
“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” he said in summation. “The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes.” Herbert Hoover stared glumly at the ground.
There was a diffused roar of applause, quickly dying away. The crowd began to break up, curiously excited as it had not been an hour earlier. Some saw dismal portents in the eloquent but ambiguous phrases. "The thing that emerges most clearly," wrote Edmund Wilson, down from New York to report the occasion for the New Republic, "is the warning of a dictatorship. But the people as a whole welcomed the promise of action—action to exorcise the dark spell that lay over the nation's economy, to break through the magic circle which be-numbed the powers of government."
"This NATION asks for action and action now... We must act, and act quickly." That night the new cabinet was sworn in quietly at the White House. The next day the President convened a special session for March 9 and, late in the evening, proclaimed a four-day bank holiday.
Yet, for all the audacity of his long-range plans, the President's intentions toward the banks were strictly conservative. His advisers were intent on restoring business confidence. Roosevelt himself had been impressed by the deathbed repentances. When Senator LaFollette gave him a plan of drastic reform, Roosevelt declared it wasn't necessary at all: "I've just had every assurance of co-operation from the bankers."
The problem, as he saw it, was to reopen the banks as quickly as possible. The Republican holdovers at the Treasury stood by. Leading bankers, frightened and panicky, converged on Washington. Phones rang incessantly with calls from distant cities. Four days of tense, weary, and endless conferences began. In the prevailing near-hysteria, only the President, who seemed to be exhilarated by crisis, and Secretary of the Treasury Woodin, who moved through turbulence in his own serene way, strumming his guitar in moments of perplexity, remained calm. As day was breaking on Thursday, March 8, Woodin left the White House with the emergency banking bill. "Yes, it's finished," he told newspapermen. "Both bills are finished. You know my name is Bill, and I'm finished too."
Congress met. The House passed the bill in thirty-eight minutes; most of the Representatives had only the sketchiest idea what it was all about. The Senate took three hours. In the evening the President signed the act in the Oval Room. The tired men at the Treasury took showers, shaved, and turned to the frantic twenty-four-hour task of deciding what banks should reopen.
Later that same evening Roosevelt handed party leaders his economy bill, aimed at reducing government expenses and cutting veterans’ compensation. On March 12 he called for the legalization of beer. With Republican support and progressive opposition, Congress passed the economy bill on March 15, 3.2 beer on March 16. By now the banks were reopening; a surge of deposits showed that the people were regaining their faith in the banking system. On March 15 the Stock Exchange resumed.
Source: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The First Hundred Days of the New Deal (1933) reprinted in Isabel Leighton, ed., The Aspirin Age, 1919-1941 (New York, 1949), p. 275-277, 284-285.
MAJOR NEW DEAL AGENCIES
1933 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)--Insures deposits in the nation's banks.
Farm Credit Administration--Provides long and short term credit for farmers.
Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA)--Assists farmers with commodity price supports and regulates farm production.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)--Provides work for unemployed youth in National Parks and National Forests.
Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)--Responsible for providing electricity to the Tennessee Valley.
Home Owner's Loan Corporation (HOLC)--Grants low-interest loans to home owners in financial difficulty.
1934 Federal Communications Commission (FCC)--Regulates radio, television, telephone and other communications systems.
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)--Regulates stock market practices.
Federal Housing Administration (FHA)--Insures private lending agencies against loss on home mortgage and home improvement loans.
1935 Social Security Board (SSB)--Oversees the Social Security system.
Works Progress Administration (WPA)--Provides work for needy persons on public works projects.
National Youth Administration (NYA)--Provides job training for unemployed youth and part-time work for needy students.
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)--Settles disputes between unions and management.
1937 Farm Security Administration (FSA)--Helps farmers purchase equipment.
1938 Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC)--Provides insurance protection against unavoidable loss of crops.
1940 Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB)--Regulates private and commercial aircraft.
HUEY LONG: AMERICAN DICTATOR
President Franklin Roosevelt had challengers on the left and right. One of those on the left was Huey Long, the popular governor (and simultaneously U.S. Senator) of Louisiana who proposed a plan to "Share the Wealth" of the United States by excessively taxing the fortunes of American millionaires. That the scheme was impractical did little to diminish its popularity among many people impoverished by the Great Depression. Reprinted below is an account of this "American dictator."
For newspapermen, those were...memorable days. You stood beside his hotel dining table, as he slopped up great tablespoonfuls of cereal with a sidewinding sweep or tore broiled chicken to pieces with his fingers, and you jotted down the incessant harangues against the lying newspapers, the city machine, and the battered enemy politicians, while the bodyguards glowered protectively near by. You didn’t like him, if only because the slugging of newspapermen didn’t seem justifiable even for vote getting, and especially when the strong-arming became personal. You were chased by militiamen across the parade grounds of Jackson Barracks in New Orleans and held a prisoner after you had sneaked in to discover whether the Governor was calling out the troops on the eve of the Senatorial election—in which the Governor was a candidate.
In a corridor of the garish Roosevelt Hotel, managed by a...former shoe clerk who was now his paymaster and treasurer, you watched a fellow reporter being hustled out of the Governor’s suite. ...The reporter had struck the Governor in retaliation for being cursed, and the Governor had struck back, but only after his bodyguards had pinioned his attacker.
You interviewed him after he had precipitated a silly international incident by receiving a German admiral in disheveled green pajamas, and you laughed in spite of yourself at his shrewdly appealing account of his gaucherie. You heard a pale-faced man, thrust before a microphone, identify himself as Sam Irby, who had been kidnapped by state police on the eve of an election because he had threatened to tell what he knew about his daughter and the Governor, who employed her as his secretary. And after Irby had told who he was, in front of the microphone in the hotel headquarters, you marveled at his exoneration of the Governor, and speculated upon the reasons therefore.
Afterwards, in the corridor, a fellow reporter was to have a gun thrust into his stomach as he sought to enter the elevator on which the mysterious Mr. Irby was being whisked away. And then you testified in United States District Court that a telegram, also absolving the Governor and purportedly coming from the mother of another kidnapping victim—the secretary’s ex-husband—was signed with the name she had borne before her second marriage. Counterfeit...was this telegram which you had seen and read on a speaker’s stand in New Orleans on one of the last heated nights before election. And so, endlessly, through brawling campaigns, brawling legislative sessions, brawls Such goings-on made of Louisiana a reportorial heaven.
Louisiana’s frightened, vengeful Governor surrounded himself with a half-dozen gun-ready, slugging bodyguards. He established a weekly newspaper, the Louisiana Progress, staffed it principally with skillful, conscienceless young newspapermen, and sicked it on his enemies. State employees found it good insurance to subscribe to the Progress, the number of subscriptions depending upon the size of their salaries, but with a minimum of ten to be sold, eaten, or used as wallpaper. No opponent big enough to be worthy of notice escaped its libeling. The voters of the nation’s most illiterate state could understand its cartoon obscenities even when they couldn’t spell out the text.
The public-works program went into high gear. The depression was rocking Louisiana. Public works meant needed jobs. And the administration could count on at least five votes for each employee; the votes of the aunts and uncles and cousins and wives and children of job holders who made it clear to their relatives that their fifteen to thirty dollars a week was secure only so long as they could prove their loyalty with political performance.
The first program was followed by a second and more ambitious one: a sixty-eight-million-dollar highway construction project, a five-million-dollar skyscraper capitol, and another twenty million dollars in assorted projects, all to be financed by an additional three-cent hike in the gasoline tax. With a year and a half yet to serve as Governor, and with the opposition organizing against the program, Huey decided to run for the United States Senate with the state program as his platform. Huey won hands down; and when his...Lieutenant Governor claimed the Governorship because of Long’s election to the Senate, Huey called out the state police and the National Guard, read the Lieutenant Governor out of office, and put in the president pro tempore of the Senate as acting Governor.
In 1934 Long formalized the program which he hoped would eventually win him the Presidency. The hazy concept of a national redistribution of wealth, presented fifteen years before by the obscure state Senator from Winn Parish, took definable shape in a national “Share Our Wealth” organization. No dues were necessary... No matter that the Share Our Wealth program was demonstrably impracticable as presented. It was believable: a limitation of fortunes to $5,000,000; an annual income minimum of $2,000 to $2,500 and a maximum of $1,800,000; a homestead grant of $6,000 for every family; free education from kindergarten through college; bonuses for veterans; old-age pensions, radios, automobiles, an abundance of cheap food through governmental purchase and storage of surpluses. The Share Our Wealth members had their own catchy song, "Every Man a King," their own newspaper, the mudslinging Louisiana Progress, expanded now to the American Progress.
As the Share Our Wealth chorus swelled, Huey, like a wise military tactician, took care to protect his rear. In a spectacular, degenerative series of special sessions in 1934 and 1935, his legislature reduced Louisianans almost literally to the status of Indian wards. Together with this final elimination of...democratic self-government—to the unconcern of a majority of the unconsulted electorate—came new benefits: homestead tax exemption, theoretically up to two thousand dollars; abolition of the one-dollar poll tax; a debt moratorium act; and new taxes—an income tax, a public utilities receipts tax, an attempted “two cents a lie” tax on the advertising receipts of the larger newspapers, which the United States Supreme Court pronounced unconstitutional.
Perhaps it seems inconceivable that any legislature, no matter how great the material rewards for its complaisant majority, could have so completely surrendered a people’s political powers and economic and personal safety to one man. But Louisiana’s legislature did. Administration-designated election supervisors were given the sole right of selecting voting commissioners, sole custody over the ballot boxes themselves, and the privilege of designating as many “special deputies” as might be necessary to guard the polls... The Governor could—and did—expand the state police force into a swarm of private agents, some uniformed and some not, their number and the identity of the uninformed alike a secret. The State Attorney General was empowered to supersede any district attorney in any trial. The State Tax Commission was given the right to change any city or county tax assessment, so that a misbehaving corporation or individual might know just who held the economic stranglehold. An ironically designated civil service board was created, with appointive control over all fire and police chiefs, and a school budget committee with the right to review the appointments of every school teacher and school employee. The Governor was even enabled to replace the entire city administration of Alexandria...[where] Huey had once been rotten-egged. There were other repressive measures, many others. But these are sufficient to indicate what had happened to self-government in Louisiana.
It is perhaps a corollary that in the last year of his life Long became obsessed with a fear of assassination. He increased his armed bodyguard, and took other unusual precautions to insure his personal safety. In July, 1935, he charged on the floor of the Senate that enemies had planned his death with “one man, one gun, and one bullet” as the medium, and with the promise of a Presidential pardon as the slayer’s reward. This plot, he said, was hatched in a New Orleans hotel at a gathering of his enemies. A dictograph, concealed in the meeting room, had recorded the murderous conversation. I was at that meeting. It was a caucus of die-hard oppositionists...trying to decide what to do for the next state campaign. The "plotting" was limited to such hopefully expressed comments as "Good God, I wish somebody would kill the son of a bitch."
And somebody did... On the night of September 8, a slender, bespectacled man in a white suit stepped from behind a marble pillar in the capitol as Long, accompanied by his closest aides and bodyguard, hurried to the Governor’s office. Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, the man in the white suit, drew a small pistol and fired once. Seconds later, the assassin lay dead, his body and head riddled by sixty-one shots. Huey Long staggered away with one bullet wound, perhaps a second, in his stomach. Thirty hours later he died.
Source: Hodding Carter, Huey Long: American Dictator (1935) reprinted in Isabel Leighton, ed., The Aspirin Age, 1919-1941 (New York, 1949), p. 339-40, 351-52, 353-56.
CALIFORNIA DREAMING IN THE DEPRESSION
University of Washington historian James Gregory, in his book, American Exodus, describes the so-called "Dust Bowl" migration which brought 250,000 Oklahomans, Texans, Arkansans and Missourians along Route 66 to California between 1935 and 1940, and which was immortalized by the film, "The Grapes of Wrath." In the following vignette Gregory shares the personal account of two of those migrants, Lonnie Nelson and Flossie Haggard, mother of country music singer Merle Haggard.
Nelson: I've live in Oklahoma since I was eight years old, stayed on the farm till I was sixteen. I went to railroadin' when I was 22. Come out durin' the big strike. I really believe in the Union. I got married in 1922, 12th of July--six o'clock in the evening. Then me and the bride went back to the farm, and stayed on the farm till '24. From that I taken up ginnin' and concrete work 'cause the drought hit and wasn't makin' nothing'...
I went back to the railroads in '26, with a different outfit and worked there till '32... The second day of January '32 I got...laid off fer good... The only think to do was to go back to the farm and stayed there one year. About this time, in '33, my wife was operated on fer thyroid goiter. Then I worked on C.W.A. for one year buildin' and such like as that.
In '34 I got a job with the Government killin' cattle. It lasted seven week and I killed form 26 to 135 head a day... After that was over I picked up odd jobs till January of '35 and went back to farmin'. The drought struck again in '35, and high waters come on in the late fall. In other words, what the drought didn't git the high waters did. I was overflowed five times in two months. A farmer can't stand the like of that. So there was nothin' to do but throw up my tail and go back on relief. We all got hit and hit hard. That was from '36 to '39, by gosh... So the 15th of January, 1940 we loaded up and come out here, leavin a snow storm to our back, sunny California to our belly and here we are. The good Lord is just lettin' me sit around the see what the hell will happen next.
Haggard: In July, 1935, we loaded some necessary supplies onto a two wheel trailer and our 1926 model Chevrolet which Jim had overhauled. We headed for California on Route 66, as many friends and relatives had already done. We had our groceries with us--home sugar-cured bacon in a lard can, potatoes, canned vegetables, and fruit. We camped at night and I cooked in a dutch oven. The only place we didn't sleep out was in Albuquerque where we took a cabin and where I can remember bathing.
[Things went well until the reached the desert and their car broke down]
We were out of water, and just when I thought we weren't going to make it, I saw this boy coming down the highway on a bicycle. He was going all the way from Kentucky to Fresno. He shared a quart of water with us and helped us fix the car. Everybody'd been treating us like trash, and I told this boy, "I'm glad to see there's still some decent folks left in this world.
Source: James Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York, 1989), pp. 31, 34.