Modern history

Depression, Dissent, and the New Deal



Anna Eleanor Roosevelt came from an old Dutch American family of wealthy merchants and bankers. In 1901, at the age of fifteen, she saw her uncle Theodore succeed William McKinley as president. Like other girls of her generation, Eleanor was expected to marry and become a "charming wife." Eleanor appeared well on her way toward doing so when she struck up a relationship with her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she married in 1905. Over a ten-year period, Eleanor gave birth to six children, further reinforcing her status as a traditional woman of her class.

Two events, however, set her life on a very different path than the one she had embarked on when she married Franklin. First, thirteen years into her marriage Eleanor discovered that her husband was having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. She did not divorce him but made it clear that she would stay with him primarily as a mother to their children and a political partner. Second, in 1921 the thirty-nine-year-old Franklin contracted polio. Although he recovered, Franklin would never walk again or stand without the aid of braces. From this point on, Eleanor threw herself into public life, taking a more active role in her husband's political career and writing about personal and political issues for a range of publications.

After her husband won the presidency in 1932, Eleanor did not function as a typical First Lady. She played a very public role promoting her husband's agenda, and she also took advantage of her own extensive network of friends and acquaintances in labor unions, civil rights organizations, and women's groups to advance a variety of causes. In many ways more liberal than her husband, Eleanor was a fierce advocate for the rights of women, minorities, workers, and the poor. Behind the scenes, she pushed her husband to move further to the political left.

Eleanor Roosevelt's proximity to power provided her with a unique position from which to confront the problems of her day. She was not, however, alone in her desire to work for social and economic justice. Luisa Moreno provides a striking example of an activist whose American story bears little resemblance to that of Eleanor Roosevelt. A native of Guatemala, Moreno moved to Mexico and then New York City, where she led a difficult life. In the midst of the Great Depression, Moreno worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop to support her young child and unemployed husband. Like tens of thousands of people disillusioned with capitalism, in 1930 she joined the Communist Party but quit several years later.

In 1935 Moreno went to Florida to organize cigar workers for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Despite numerous successes, she grew tired of the AFL's refusal to recruit unskilled workers and jumped to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which formed in 1935. That same year, she began working for the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), an affiliate of the CIO. Encouraged by the federal government's establishment of the National Labor Relations Board in 1935 to safeguard union organizing, by 1943 Moreno and her colleagues in the UCAPAWA had won more than thirty elections recognizing their union among cannery workers.

Moreno also promoted the advancement of Latinos throughout the United States. In 1939 she helped create El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Espanola (The Congress of Spanish-Speaking People). Besides championing equal access to jobs, education, housing, and health care, the organization pressed to end the segregation of Latinos in schools and public accommodations. Moreno was not nearly as well known as Eleanor Roosevelt, but she worked just as hard to fight poverty, exploitation, and racial bigotry on behalf of people whom President Franklin Roosevelt called “the forgotten Americans."

WHILE THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Eleanor Roosevelt and Luisa Moreno were very different, both of their lives were shaped in fundamental ways by the same global catastrophe, the Great Depression. The economic crisis that erupted in 1929 made a bad situation worse for the majority of Americans. Even before the Great Depression, most Americans lived at or near the poverty level, surviving month to month. By 1933, millions of Americans had lost even this tenuous hold on economic security, as unemployment reached a record 25 percent, a figure that did not include those who had stopped looking for work. Succeeding President Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt initiated policies that departed profoundly from the reliance on private charity and voluntary efforts that had characterized Republican responses to economic problems throughout the 1920s. Proclaiming the establishment of a New Deal for America, Roosevelt expanded the power of the federal government in ways that previously had taken place only during wartime, and he forged a new political order in which the Democratic Party ruled for generations to come.

Children of Mexican cotton laborers, Casa Grande, Arizona, 1937. Library of Congress

The Great Depression

Herbert Hoover had the unenviable task of assuming the presidency in 1929 as the economy crumbled. Given his long history of public service, he seemed the right man for the job. Hoover, however, was unwilling to make a fundamental break with the economic approaches of the past and proved unable to effectively communicate his genuine concern for the plight of the poor. Despite his sincere efforts, the depression deepened. Among the hardest hit were minority groups already suffering from discrimination. As unemployment rose and more and more farmers lost their land, many Americans, made desperate by their economic plight and angered by the inadequate response of their government, took to the streets in protest.

Hoover Faces the Depression

National prosperity was at its peak when the Republican Hoover entered the White House in March 1929. The nation had little reason to doubt him when he boasted in his inaugural address: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.” These words were still ringing in the public’s ears when the stock market crashed later that year.

Hoover brought to the presidency a blend of traditional and progressive ideas. He believed that government and business should form voluntary partnerships to work toward common goals. Rejecting the principle of absolute laissez-faire, he nonetheless argued that the government should extend its influence lightly over the economy—to encourage and persuade sensible behavior, but not to impose itself on the private sector.

The Great Depression sorely tested Hoover’s beliefs. Having placed his faith in cooperation rather than coercion, the president relied on voluntarism to get the nation through hard economic times. Hoover hoped that management and labor, through gentle persuasion, would hold steady on prices and wages and calmly wait until the worst of the depression passed. In the meantime, for those in dire need, the president turned to local communities and private charities. Hoover expected municipal and state governments to shoulder the burden of providing relief to the needy, just as they had during previous economic downturns.

Hoover’s remedies failed to rally the country back to good economic health. Initially, business people responded positively to the president’s request to maintain the status quo, but when the economy did not bounce back, they lost confidence and defected. Nor did local governments and private agencies have the funds to provide relief to all those who needed it. With tax revenues in decline, some 1,300 municipalities across the country had gone bankrupt by 1933. Chicago and other cities stopped paying their teachers. Benevolent societies and religious groups could handle short-term misfortunes, but they could not cope with the ongoing disaster of mass unemployment (Figure 22.1).

As confidence in recovery fell and the economy sank deeper into depression, President Hoover shifted direction. Without abandoning his belief in voluntarism, the president persuaded Congress to lower income tax rates and to allocate an unprecedented $423 million for federal public works projects. In 1929 the president signed into law the Agricultural Marketing Act, a measure aimed at raising prices for long-suffering farmers.

FIGURE 22.1 Unemployment, 19201945 Business prosperity and immigration restriction ensured low unemployment during most of the 1920s. When unemployment rose dramatically in the late 1920s, President Hoover failed to handle the crisis. During the 1930s, President Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives did lower unemployment to some extent. Still, only mobilizing the nation for war in 1941 created a significant increase in jobs.

In general, Hoover had the right idea, but he retreated from initiating greater spending because he feared government deficits more than unemployment. With federal accounting sheets showing a rising deficit, Hoover reversed course in 1932 and joined with Congress in sharply raising income, estate, and corporate taxes on the wealthy. This effectively slowed down investment and new production, throwing millions more American workers out of jobs. The Hawley-Smoot Act passed by Congress in 1930 made matters worse. In an effort to replenish revenues and protect American farmers and companies from foreign competition, the act increased tariffs on agricultural and industrial imports. However, other countries retaliated by lifting their import duties, which hurt American companies because it diminished demand for American exports.

In an exception to his aversion to spending, Hoover lobbied Congress to create the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to supply loans to banks in danger of collapsing, financially strapped railroads, and troubled insurance companies. By injecting federal dollars into these critical enterprises, the president and lawmakers expected to produce dividends that would trickle down from the top of the economic structure to the bottom. Renewed investment supposedly would increase production, create jobs, raise the income of workers, and generate consumption and economic recovery. In 1932 Congress gave the RFC a budget of $1.5 billion to employ people in public works projects, a significant allocation for those individuals hardest hit by the depression.

This notable departure from Republican economic philosophy fell short of its goal. The RFC spent its budget too cautiously, and its funds reached primarily those institutions that could best afford to repay the loans, ignoring the companies in the greatest difficulty. Whatever the president’s intentions, wealth never trickled down. Hoover was not indifferent to the plight of others so much as he was incapable of breaking away from his ideological preconceptions. He refused to support expenditures for direct relief (what today we call welfare) and hesitated to extend assistance for work relief because he believed that it would ruin individual initiative and character.

Hoover and the United States did not face the Great Depression alone; it was a worldwide calamity. By 1933 Germany, France, and Great Britain all faced mass unemployment. In Britain, one survey showed that around 20 percent of the population lacked sufficient food, clothing, and housing. As with American agriculture, European farmers had been suffering since the 1920s from falling prices and increased debt, and the depression further exacerbated this problem. In this climate of extreme social and economic unrest, authoritarian dictators came to power in a number of European countries, including Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Each claimed that his country’s social and economic problems could be solved only by placing power in the hands of a single, all-powerful leader.

Hoovervilles and Dust Storms

The depression hit all areas of the United States hard. In large cities, families crowded into apartments with no gas or electricity and little food to put on the table. In Los Angeles, people cooked their meals over wood fires in backyards. An observer in Philadelphia reported a house containing a family of eleven. “They’ve got no shoes, no pants,” he lamented. “In the house, no chairs. My God, you go in there, you cry, that’s all.” In many cities, the homeless constructed makeshift housing consisting of cartons, old newspapers, and cloth—shanties that journalists derisively dubbed Hoovervilles.

Thousands of hungry citizens wound up living under bridges in Portland, Oregon; in wrecked autos in city dumps in Brooklyn, New York, and Stockton, California; and in abandoned coal furnaces in Pittsburgh. In Chicago, a fight broke out among fifty men over scraps of food placed in the garbage outside of a restaurant.

Rural workers fared no better. Landlords in West Virginia and Kentucky evicted coal miners and their families from their homes in the dead of winter, forcing them to live in tents. Farmers in the Great Plains, who were already experiencing foreclosures, were little prepared for the even greater natural disaster that lay waste to their farms. In the early 1930s, dust storms swept through western Kansas, eastern Colorado, western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and eastern New Mexico, destroying crops and plant and animal life. The storms resulted from both climatological and human causes. A series of droughts had destroyed crops and turned the earth into sand, which gusts of wind deposited on everything that lay in their path. Though they did not realize it at the time, plains farmers, by focusing on growing wheat for income, had neglected planting trees and grasses that would have kept the earth from eroding and turning into dust. Instead, dust storms brought life to a grinding halt, blocking out the midday sun.

As the storms continued through the 1930s, most residents—approximately 75 percent—remained on the plains and rode out the blizzards of dust. Millions, however, headed for California by train, automobiles, and trucks looking for relief from the plague of swirling dirt and hoping to find jobs in the state’s fruit and vegetable fields. Although they came from several states besides Oklahoma, these migrants came to be known as “Okies,” a derogatory term used by those who resented and looked down on the poverty- stricken newcomers to their communities. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) portrayed the plight of the fictional Joad family, as storms and a bank foreclosure destroyed their Oklahoma farm and sent them on the road to California. “[Route] 66 is the path of a people in flight,” Steinbeck wrote, “refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.” By no means did all the migrants suffer the misfortunes of the Joads, and many of them succeeded in establishing new lives in the West.

Challenges for Minorities

Given the demographics of the workforce, the overwhelming majority of Americans who lost their jobs were white men; yet racial and ethnic minorities, including African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, suffered disproportionate hardship. Racial discrimination had kept these groups from achieving economic and political equality, and the Great Depression added to their woes.

Traditionally the last hired and the first fired, blacks occupied the lowest rungs on the industrial and agricultural ladders. “The depression brought everybody down a peg or two,” the African American poet Langston Hughes wryly commented. “And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.” Despite the great migration to the North during and after World War I, three-quarters of the black population still lived in the South. They worked mostly as farmers, but 80 percent did not own their own land. Mainly sharecroppers and tenant farmers, black southerners were mired in debt that they could not repay as crop prices plunged to record lows during the 1920s. As white landowners struggled to save their farms by introducing machinery to cut labor costs, they forced black sharecroppers off the land and into even greater poverty. Nor was the situation better for black workers employed at the lowest-paying jobs as janitors, menial laborers, maids, and laundresses. On average, African Americans earned $200 a year, less than one-quarter of the average wage of white factory workers.

The economic misfortune that African Americans experienced was compounded by the fact that they lived in a society rigidly constructed to preserve white supremacy. The 25 percent of blacks living in the North faced racial discrimination in employment, housing, and the criminal justice system, but at least they could express their opinions and desires by voting. In Chicago, the growing African American community elected a black congressman, the Republican Oscar DePriest. By contrast, black southerners remained segregated and disfranchised by law. The depression also exacerbated racial tensions, as whites and blacks competed for the shrinking number of jobs. Lynching, which had declined from fifty-nine murders of blacks in 1921 to seven in 1929, surged upward—in 1933 twenty-four blacks lost their lives to this form of terrorism.

Events in Scottsboro, Alabama, reflected the special misery African Americans faced during the Great Depression. Trouble erupted in 1931. Two young, unemployed white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, snuck onto a freight train heading to Huntsville, Alabama. Before the train reached the Scottsboro depot, a fight broke out between black and white men on top of the freight car occupied by the two women. After the train pulled in to Scottsboro, the local sheriff arrested nine black youths between the ages of twelve and twenty. Charges of assault quickly escalated into rape, when the women told authorities that the black men in custody had molested them on board the train. The accused narrowly escaped a mob lynching when the governor sent in the National Guard to ensure that they stood trial.

Going to court, however, did not guarantee a fair trial. The court-appointed attorney was less than competent and had little time to prepare his clients’ cases. It probably made little difference, as the all-white male jury swiftly convicted the accused; only the youngest defendant was not sentenced to death. The Communist Party, whose membership had increased as despair over the depression mounted, rushed to defend the youths, providing legal and financial assistance for them and their families. The Supreme Court spared the lives of the Scottsboro Nine by overturning their guilty verdicts in 1932 on the grounds that the defendants did not have adequate legal representation and again in 1935 because blacks had been systematically excluded from the jury pool. Although Ruby Bates had recanted her testimony and there was no physical evidence of rape, retrials in 1936 and 1937 produced the same guilty verdicts, but this time the defendants did not receive the death penalty—a minor victory considering the charges. State prosecutors dismissed charges against four of the accused, all of whom had already spent six years in jail. Despite international protests against this racist injustice, the last of the remaining five did not leave jail until 1950.

Racism also worsened the impact of the Great Depression on Spanish-speaking Americans. Mexicans and Mexican Americans made up the largest segment of the Latino population living in the United States at the outset of the depression. Concentrated in the Southwest and California, they worked in a variety of low-wage factory jobs and as migrant laborers in fruit and vegetable fields. The depression reduced the Mexican-born population living in the United States in two ways. The federal government began deporting unemployed workers back to Mexico, as many as 500,000, some of whom may have been American citizens. Many more returned to Mexico voluntarily when demand for labor in the United States dried up.

Those who remained endured growing hardships. Relief agencies refused to provide them with the same benefits as whites. Like African Americans, they encountered discrimination in public schools, in public accommodations, and at the ballot box. Conditions remained harshest for migrant workers toiling long hours for little pay and living in overcrowded and poorly constructed housing. Employers had little incentive to improve the situation because there were plenty of white migrant workers to fill their positions. The same held true in factories. Employers justified keeping pay low by claiming that Mexican workers would only spend pay raises on “tequila and worthless trinkets in the dime stores.”

The transient nature of agricultural work and the legal vulnerability of Mexican laborers who were not citizens made it difficult for workers to organize, but Mexican American laborers engaged in dozens of strikes in California and Texas in the early 1930s. Most ended in defeat, but a few, such as a five-week strike of pecan shellers in San Antonio, Texas, led by Luisa Moreno, won better working conditions and higher wages. Despite these hard-fought victories, the condition of Latinos remained precarious.

On the West Coast, Asian Americans also remained economically and politically marginalized. Barred from entry into the United States after passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, the Japanese population remained steady. Japanese immigrants (Issei) eked out a living as small farmers, grocers, and gardeners, despite California laws preventing them from owning land. Many college-educated Nisei (U.S.-born children) found few professional opportunities available to them, and they often returned to work in family businesses. The depression magnified the problem. Like other racial and ethnic minorities, the Japanese found it harder to find even the lowest-wage jobs now that unemployed whites were willing to take them. As a result, about one-fifth of Japanese immigrants returned to Japan during the 1930s.

The Chinese suffered a similar fate. They remained isolated in ethnic communities along the West Coast. Discriminated against in schools and most occupations, many operated restaurants and laundries. Chinese immigrants had been barred from entering the United States since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Yet approximately 45 percent of people of Chinese ancestry had been born in the United States and thus were citizens. During the depression, those Chinese who did not obtain assistance through governmental relief turned instead to their own community organizations and to extended families to help them through the hard times.

Filipinos, who lived mainly on the Pacific coast and worked as low-wage agricultural workers, were subject to the same kind of racial animosity as other darker-skinned minorities, despite their colonial relationship with the United States. In 1934 antiFilipino hostility reached its height when Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act. The measure accomplished two aims at once: The act granted independence to the Philippines, and it restricted Filipino immigration into the United States.

Families under Strain

With millions of men unemployed, women faced increased family responsibilities. Stay- at-home wives had to care for their children and provide emotional support for out-ofwork husbands who had lost their role as the family breadwinner. Despite the loss of income, homemakers continued their daily routines of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and child rearing.

Disproportionate male unemployment led to an increase in the importance of women’s income. The depression hit male-dominated industries like steel mills and automakers the hardest. As a result, men were more likely to lose their jobs than women, who were concentrated in low-paying jobs like domestic service, nursing, and secretarial work. Although more women held on to their jobs, their often meager wages had to go further, since many now had to support unemployed fathers and husbands. During the 1930s, federal and local governments sought to increase male employment by passing laws to keep married women from holding civil service and teaching positions. Nonetheless, more and more married women entered the workplace, and by 1940 the proportion of women in the job force had grown by about 25 percent.

As had been the case in previous decades, a higher proportion of African American women than white women worked outside the home in the 1930s. By 1940 less than 40 percent of African American women held jobs, compared to about 25 percent of white women. Racial discrimination played a key role in establishing this pattern. Black men faced higher unemployment rates than did their white counterparts, and what work was available was often limited to the lowest-paying jobs. As a result, black women faced greater pressure to supplement family incomes. Still, unemployment rates for black women reached as high as 50 percent during the 1930s. During more prosperous times, they had worked in white homes as domestic servants, but the depression forced white families to cut back on household expenses. Many African American women lost some of their domestic jobs to white working-class women who could find work nowhere else.

Despite increased burdens, most American families remained intact and discovered ways to survive the economic crisis. They pared down household budgets, made do without telephones and new clothes, and held on to their automobiles for longer periods of time. What money they managed to save they often spent on movies. Comedies, gangster movies, fantasy tales, and uplifting films helped viewers forget their troubles, if only for a few hours. Radio remained the chief source of entertainment, and radio sales doubled in the 1930s as listeners tuned in to soap operas, comedy and adventure shows, news reports, and musical programs.

The Season of Discontent

As the depression deepened, angry citizens found a variety of ways to express their discontent. Farmers had suffered economic hardship longer than any other group. Even before 1929, they had seen prices spiral downward, but in the early 1930s agricultural income plummeted 60 percent, and one-third of farmers lost their land (Figure 22.2). Some farmers decided that the time had come for drastic action. In the summer of 1932, Milo Reno, an Iowa farmer, created the Farm Holiday Association to organize farmers in order to keep their produce from going to market and thereby raise prices. Strikers blocked roads and kept reluctant farmers in line by smashing their truck windshields and headlights and slashing their tires. When law enforcement officials arrested fifty-five demonstrators in Council Bluffs, thousands of farmers marched on the jail and forced their release. The boycott spread to Nebraska and Wisconsin, and the violence increased. Despite armed attempts to prevent foreclosures and the intentional destruction of vast quantities of farm produce, the Farm Holiday Association failed to achieve its goal of raising prices.

FIGURE 22.2 Farm Foreclosures, 19321942 A drop of 60 percent in prices led to a wave of farm foreclosures and rural protests in the early 1930s. From 1934 on, federal programs that promoted rural electrification, crop allotments, commodity loans, and mortgage credits allowed many farmers to retain their land. But tenant farmers and sharecroppers, particularly in the South, rarely benefited from these programs.

Disgruntled urban residents also resorted to protest. Although the Communist Party remained a tiny group of just over 10,000 members in 1932, it played a large role in organizing the dispossessed. In major cities such as New York, Communists set up unemployment councils and led marches and rallies demanding jobs and food. In Harlem, the party endorsed rent strikes by African American apartment residents against their landlords. Party members did not confine their activities to the urban Northeast. They also went south to defend the Scottsboro Nine and to organize industrial workers in the steel mills of Birmingham and sharecroppers in the surrounding rural areas of Alabama. On the West Coast, Communists played an active role in the motion picture business, unionized seamen and waterfront workers, and led strikes.

One of the most visible protests of the early 1930s centered on events at the Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan. As the depression worsened after 1930, Henry Ford, who had initially pledged to keep employee wages steady, changed his mind and reduced wages. The paternalistic Ford declared that it was “a good thing the recovery is prolonged. Otherwise people wouldn’t profit by the illness.” His laborers thought otherwise. On March 7, 1932, spearheaded by Communists, three thousand autoworkers marched from Detroit to Ford’s River Rouge plant in nearby Dearborn. When they reached the factory town, they faced policemen indiscriminately firing bullets and tear gas, which killed four demonstrators. The attack provoked great outrage. Around forty thousand mourners attended the funeral of the four protesters; sang the Communist anthem, the “Internationale”; and surrounded the caskets, which were draped in a red banner emblazoned with a picture of Bolshevik hero Vladimir Lenin.

Protests spread beyond Communist agitators. The federal government faced an uprising by some of the nation’s most patriotic and loyal citizens—World War I veterans. Scheduled to receive a $1,000 bonus for their service, unemployed veterans could not wait until the payment date arrived in 1945. Instead, in the spring of 1932 a group of ex-soldiers from Portland, Oregon, set off on a march on Washington, D.C., to demand immediate payment of the bonus by the federal government. By the time they reached the nation’s capital, the ranks of this Bonus Army had swelled to around twenty thousand veterans. They camped in the Anacostia Flats section of the city, constructed ramshackle shelters, and in many cases moved their families in with them. After intensive lobbying efforts, the House approved a bonus bill, but the Senate rejected it. Discouraged, many veterans abandoned the makeshift camps and returned home.

The rest of the Bonus Army remained in place until late July. The Hoover administration declined to negotiate with the demonstrators. When Hoover decided to clear the capital of the protesters, violence ensued. Rather than engaging in a measured and orderly removal, General Douglas MacArthur overstepped presidential orders and used excessive force to disperse the veterans and their families. The Third Cavalry, commanded by George S. Patton, torched tents and sent their residents fleeing from the city. The “Battle of Anacostia Flats” left more than one hundred marchers wounded and one dead.

In this one-sided battle, the biggest loser was President Hoover. Through four years of the country’s worst depression, Hoover had lost touch with the American people. His cheerful words of encouragement fell increasingly on deaf ears. As workers, farmers, and veterans stirred in protest, Hoover appeared aloof, standoffish, and insensitive.


• How did President Hoover respond to the problems and challenges created by the Great Depression?

• How did different segments of the American population experience the depression?

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