Chapter 25: Politics and Society in the 1930s
Hitler comes to power in Germany • Unionized workforce at 3 million
Marian Anderson holds a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial • Huey Long is assassinated
Sit-down strike begins at General Motors • Franklin Roosevelt elected to a second term
CIO expelled from AFL
Roosevelt issues executive order banning discrimination in government jobs • Unionized workers at 10.5 million
IMPORTANT PEOPLE, PLACES, EVENTS, AND CONCEPTS
American Liberty League
Congress of Industrial Organizations
National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA)
Father Charles Coughlin
Popular Front strategy
Indian Reorganization Act
United Auto Workers
“Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that Yankee-Doodly dum
Half a million boots were slogging through Hell
And I was the kid with the drum
Say, don’t you remember, you called me ‘Al’—
It was ‘Al’ all the time
Say don’t you remember, I was your pal—
Brother, can you spare a dime.”
—Excerpt from the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” by Yip Harburg, 1932
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was not without important context. A variety of participants—political groupings, unionized workers, even the first lady—responded to the economic crisis of the 1930s in different ways and helped to shape the direction and content of New Deal legislation. Further, the culture of the 1930s also reflects responses to the Great Depression. Yip Harburg’s song, quoted above, expresses the frustration of a generation that came of age during World War I.
GROWTH IN THE 1930s
The Wagner Act, implemented after NIRA (see chapter 24) was shot down by the Supreme Court, legalized union membership in the United States. As a result, union membership, which had been falling in the 1920s, rose from 3 million in 1933 to 10.5 million by 1941. By the end of World War II, 36 percent of nonagricultural American workers belonged to a union.
The drive to organize workers led to tensions within the labor movement. The 50-year-old American Federation of Labor (AFL), a coalition of craft unions, had never shown much interest in organizing unskilled assembly line workers. Labor leaders such as John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers wanted the AFL to do more in this growing sector of the labor force. In 1935, Lewis and other leaders from primarily unskilled unions formed the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL. The Committee’s task of organizing basic industries met with the ire of AFL leadership, which ordered it to disband in 1936. When it refused, the AFL expelled the Committee unions in 1937. In 1938, the Committee reconstituted itself as the independent Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The CIO and the Sit-down Strike
The growth of the CIO was phenomenal. It had already boasted 1.8 million members when it was expelled from the AFL in 1937; by 1941, it had 5 million, more than the AFL. While unions were legal in America, employers were still under no compulsion to accept union demands. A wave of strikes ensued in the late 1930s. A new, militant tactic that CIO unions engaged in was the sit-down strike, where workers stopped work and refused to leave the shop floor, thus preventing the employer from reopening with replacement workers (or “scabs” in the parlance of the labor movement). The most famous sit-down strike took place at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in the winter of 1936–1937. The strike resulted in General Motors recognizing the United Auto Workers as the bargaining unit for its 400,000 workers.
POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS OF THE 1930s
The Growth of the Communist Party
The Communist Party had never found a large following in the United States, but in the 1930s, it attracted new members and exerted influence beyond its numbers. Some Americans were impressed with the achievements of the Soviet Union; others simply felt that the capitalist system was not working. The Communist Party also attracted potential members by dropping talk of impending revolution and adopting Stalin’s “Popular Front” strategy of cooperating with a spectrum of antifascist groups and governments, including Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Opposition to the New Deal
Some conservative critics saw the New Deal as socialism in disguise. They thought that the New Deal had pushed the government too far into new realms. Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme seemed especially heavy-handed. The most prominent group on the right was the American Liberty League, which consisted primarily of conservative businessmen. Father Charles Coughlin, using his popular national radio show, accused Roosevelt of being a communist and a dictator.
Although Roosevelt could count on the support of the Communist Party, other voices from the left criticized the New Deal as being overly cautious. Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle) ran for governor of California in 1934 under the banner “End Poverty in California,” proposing more sweeping, somewhat socialistic solutions. Francis Townsend, also from California, proposed a tax to generate enough money to give everyone over 60 years old a monthly stipend. The most serious threat to Roosevelt from the left came from Huey Long, the flamboyant populist governor, and then senator, from Louisiana. His “Share Our Wealth” Society proposed breaking up the fortunes of the rich and distributing them to everyone else. He talked of running against Roosevelt in 1936 but was assassinated in 1935.
CULTURE OF THE 1930s
Cultural developments of the 1930s must be seen in the context of the economic hardships of that decade. Some cultural products offered escape from the drudgery of everyday life, while others looked squarely at the plight of the downtrodden.
The movie industry, which had entered the “talkie” era in the late 1920s, thrived during the Great Depression (approximately 65 percent of the American public went to the movies every week). Escapist musicals with lavish sets and spectacular numbers, such asGolddiggers of 1939 and 42nd Street, proved popular. The Marx Brothers produced and starred in comedies such as Monkey Business and Duck Soup, while Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times satirized the capitalist system. Some movies attempted to grapple with the wrenching public issues of the time. The Grapes of Wrath, the film version of John Steinbeck’s novel, chronicled the conditions of Dust Bowl farmers fleeing to California, while Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington depicted the triumph of a decent, “everyman” politician.
Radio, which had become fashionable in the 1920s, continued its popularity in the 1930s. Americans listened to weekly serials such as The Shadow and The Lone Ranger, comedians such as Jack Benny and George Burns, soap operas, and big band and classical music. Radio and movies tended to create a more homogenous culture across the United States.
Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, a story of peasants in China; John Steinbeck’s tale of the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath; and Margaret Mitchell’s account of the Old South, Gone With the Wind, have endured as classics of 1930s literature. Several novels of the decade reflected the influence of the Communist Party on American culture. There were antifascist novels, like It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, and proletarian literature such as Jack Conroy’s novel The Disinherited and Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty.
THE DEPRESSION AND SOCIAL GROUPS
African Americans, in a vulnerable position in American society before the Depression, were especially hard hit by the economic difficulties of the 1930s. Many New Deal programs ignored African Americans; for example the Agricultural Adjustment Act did not help tenant farmers. Roosevelt was leery of losing the support of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, so he did not put African Americans on the New Deal agenda. Neither did he endorse federal antilynching legislation (which was never passed).
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes championed the civil rights cause. The most dramatic gesture made by Eleanor Roosevelt was her organizing of a concert by African American singer Marian Anderson in 1935 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after Anderson was blocked by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing at their concert hall.
President Roosevelt formed a “black cabinet” of advisers and in 1941 issued an executive order banning discrimination in government jobs. African Americans switched their allegiance from the Republican party (the party of Lincoln) to the Democratic party.
The limits of the justice system in terms of treating African Americans fairly was demonstrated in the highly publicized “Scottsboro Boys” case (1931–1935). Eight African American youths were convicted of rape in Alabama on flimsy evidence. The Communist Party supplied lawyers during the appeal stage, but several of the defendants served lengthy prison sentences.
Women suffered a double burden during the Depression—they were responsible for putting food on the table during difficult times, but they were scorned if they took a job outside the home (the argument was that they were taking jobs away from men). Further, New Deal programs tended to slight women: The CCC was only for men, and NIRA set lower wage levels for women than for men. Nonetheless, individual women such as Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member (Secretary of Labor), and Eleanor Roosevelt, an extremely active and public first lady, opened doors for women in general. Despite criticism, more women were working outside the home in 1940 than in 1930.
New Deal legislation profoundly affected Native Americans. The Indian Reorganization Act largely undid the assimilationist Dawes Act by recognizing tribal ownership of reservation lands.
Many Mexicans had moved to the southwest United States in the 1920s to work in agriculture. These Mexican Americans saw their wages plummet in the 1930s, and New Deal programs did little to help. For instance, the CCC and the WPA excluded migrant farm workers by requiring a permanent address.
While the realities of daily life for millions of Americans during the 1930s was grim, the decade also saw an outpouring of political and creative energy. The New Deal itself and Roosevelt’s “can-do” attitude inspired hope in people. New Deal legislation encouraged union organizing on an unprecedented scale. While Roosevelt’s program did not initially address the particular problems of African Americans in this country, African Americans themselves pushed civil rights onto the national agenda and laid some of the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement. Women, as a group, did not make significant gains in breaking down gender stereotypes, although they would during World War II. Americans participated in mass entertainment, keeping the movie industry healthy. Much of the literature of the decade, including that written from a left-wing perspective, showed a renewed appreciation for America and its people—especially as storm clouds gathered over Europe.
THINGS TO REMEMBER
• Lynching: The killing of African Americans, usually by hanging, carried out by white mobs primarily in the Southern states
• Sit-down strike: Technique of the labor movement in the 1930s that entailed stopping work but not leaving the factory floor, as owners were not able to hire replacement workers so long as the workers ocupied the shop floor
• Talkies: Motion pictures with sound; The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first movie to use sound in a significant way
1. Which of the following organizations, born in the 1930s, focused on organizing unskilled workers?
(A) Congress of Industrial Organizations
(B) Industrial Workers of the World
(C) Knights of Labor
(D) American Federation of Labor
(E) Communist Party
2. Pick the answer that correctly matches the artist and the cultural product he or she created:
X) John Steinbeck
Y) Frank Capra
Z) Margaret Mitchell
1) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
2) The Good Earth
3) The Grapes of Wrath
4) Gone With the Wind
5) Waiting for Lefty
(A) X-2; Y-4; Z-5
(B) X-3; Y-2; Z-4
(C) X-5; Y-2; Z-2
(D) X-3; Y-4; Z-1
(E) X-3; Y-1; Z-4
3. Sit-down strikes proved to be a successful strategy for some unions in the 1930s primarily because they
(A) were enthusiastically supported by the Roosevelt administration.
(B) prevented damage to company property.
(C) prevented the factory owners from carrying on production with strikebreakers.
(D) tended to gain public sympathy.
(E) were protected by federal legislation.
4. The National Industrial Recovery Act and the Wagner Act both dealt with the issue of
(A) the government’s right to set price controls.
(B) employers’ rights to exclude women from their workforce.
(C) workers’ rights to organize unions.
(D) states’ rights to regulate interstate trade.
(E) corporations’ rights to cooperate in setting industrywide standards.
ANSWERS AND EXPLANATIONS
The Congress of Industrial Organizations focused on organizing unskilled workers. While the Industrial Workers of the World and the Knights of Labor did attempt to organize unskilled workers, both of those choices, as well as the AFL, date back to the 19th century. The Communist Party was a political group in the 1930s, not a union, although it supported organized labor.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a film by Frank Capra about a decent politician. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is the most important novel about the suffering caused by the Depression. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, is an important, and somewhat racist, account of life in the Old South. The Good Earth is a novel by Pearl Buck about peasants in China, and Waiting for Lefty is a working class play by Clifford Odets.
The strikes closed down factories, such as the General Motors facility in Flint, Michigan. Roosevelt supported organized labor but not specifically sit-down strikes, which were not protected by law, making (A) and (E) incorrect. Choice (D) is incorrect because the public’s reaction was mixed—some saw the sit-down strikers as lawbreakers. Even if some sectors of the public supported the sit-down strikes, that is not what made them successful. Strikers had no vested interest in protecting company property, making (B) incorrect.
The Wagner Act was passed after NIRA was declared unconstitutional. Both made it clear that workers had the right to organize into unions. Roosevelt thought that if workers were in unions, they would win higher wages and have greater purchasing power. Some sections of NIRA established prices on products, but the Wagner Act did not. While there was pressure during the Depression on women to give up their jobs so that men could work, no specific legislation excluded women from the workforce. The Supreme Court dealt with the question of interstate trade in two decisions, Munn v. Illinois (1877) and Wabash v. Illinois (1886). The first upheld the states’ right to regulate railroads; the second held that only Congress could regulate interstate trade.