Modern history

Chapter 5


In 1933, no one knew what to do about the Depression. But everyone saw a need for action. During his campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt had said, “The country needs . . . bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”1 During the next four years, Roosevelt would try and try and try again.

The First Hundred Days

From the beginning, Roosevelt showed his strength. “I shall ask the Congress for . . . broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were invaded by a foreign foe,” he said in his March 4 inaugural address.2 It was now a war against the Depression, and Roosevelt was commander-in-chief.

He showed determination. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he commented, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”3

This war began on the banking front. Roosevelt quickly announced a holiday for all American banks. They would be reorganized, he promised. The most stable banks would reopen right away. Others would open a little later. But he did not promise that all banks would reopen.

The next day, a Sunday, the new president called Congress into an emergency session. He called for an end to the export of gold. The precious metal, which was used to assure the value of a nation’s currency, could now only be sold to the government. Roosevelt sought a law limiting the power of banks to invest in the stock market. He also moved to cut government expenses.

Congress enacted his proposals a few days later. There was little debate. Most of the members, like Roosevelt, were Democrats. Few wanted to pick a fight with a popular chief executive. Most of all, they were desperate to end the Depression. They would follow any plan that looked good.

On Sunday, March 12, Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first “fireside chat.” More than one third of the nation’s radios were tuned to this address. Slowly and clearly, he explained the nation’s bank crisis. He told listeners what banks did with their money and why the government ordered their closure.

“No solid bank is a dollar worse than when it closed down last week,” he claimed. “I can assure you, my friends, that it would be safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.” He concluded, “Together, we cannot fail.”4

Roosevelt stated that the Federal Reserve would transfer currency to reopened banks. Any depositor who wanted money from the bank could get it. But Roosevelt’s confidence spread. When banks reopened a few days later, there were more deposits than withdrawals. Roosevelt soon created the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC), which insured money in all member banks.

Bank changes were only the beginning of the government’s revolution. Roosevelt took the dollar off the gold standard. For years, the government could only mint as much money as it had gold in reserve. By dropping the gold standard, the government could print more money. Since there was now more money than gold, the dollars themselves were worth less. But the increased number of dollars helped business. With more money available, businesses could pay their workers, and the workers could spend more money.

Farmers saw benefits. Roosevelt created a new agency, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). It paid farmers to reduce production of staple crops such as corn, cotton, wheat, and tobacco. This way, the remaining crops could fetch higher prices.

One program tackled a particularly hard-hit area. The Tennessee River Valley covered much of the Southeast. Many of the homes lacked electricity. Unemployment ran high. A bill passed in early 1933 created the Tennessee Valley Authority. This agency built a dam in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Other dams would follow. These dams created electric power, which the government sold at low prices. Available, cheap electricity revolutionized homes and helped businesses.

Unemployed young men got a boost. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed a quarter million of them. These youths planted 200 million trees, fought forest fires, cleared beaches, dug drainage ditches, and built reservoirs.

No one claimed the conditions were ideal. Each CCC worker was paid only thirty dollars a month, and most of that money was sent directly to their parents. Discipline was more like boot camp than summer camp. Ray Cordwell helped build a road in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. “When I got up, it was so dark you couldn’t see,” he recalled. “When we got done, it was so dark you couldn’t see.”5

Their work was worth the effort. George Swanson planted soil erosion dams in Iowa. “The effects wouldn’t show for twenty years,” he said. “The before and after pictures are amazing. Before, the land was sparse. Now it’s beautiful.”6

For adults who could not find work, Roosevelt created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. This agency loaned state and local governments money to distribute to needy people.

Roosevelt called for legalization of beer in states that favored it. Fourteen years earlier, the government had outlawed the sale of alcohol. Prohibition, as the ban was known, was a dismal failure. Even though liquor was outlawed, people still drank it. Now if people decided to drink, the government could at least levy taxes on alcoholic beverages.

During the Roosevelt administration’s first hundred days, a tidal wave of change swept the United States. No American was unaffected by the government’s changes. Since then, every president has been evaluated by his accomplishments during his first hundred days in office. None of their accomplishments have come close to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Alphabet Soup

The first hundred days did not mark the end of New Deal energy. Government agencies popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Most were known by their initials—CWA, WPA, PWA, FSA, SEC. There were so many programs with initials that some people referred to the government as “alphabet soup.”

Roosevelt’s first aid program, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), failed to meet the needs of the poor. Besides, a direct dole to the poor was not what the Roosevelt administration wanted. Thus the Civil Works Administration (CWA) was created to help the jobless through the winter of 1933–34.

At its peak, the agency employed 4 million men and women. For some, the CWA provided the first paycheck they had seen in years. Hank Oettinger grew up in Wisconsin. He said:

I can remember the first week of the CWA checks. It was on a Friday. . . . Everybody was out celebrating. It was like a festival in some old European city. . . . They had the whole family out. . . . If Roosevelt had run for President the next day, he’d have gone in by a hundred percent.7

The Public Works Administration (PWA) financed the creation of public buildings and more. It was responsible for 10 percent of all new transportation facilities in the country at the time and 15 percent of new hospitals. The PWA built 65 percent of all city halls and courthouses, and 70 percent of all educational buildings.

What did the PWA create? Almost anything. The Triborough Bridge in New York City was a PWA project. So was Boulder (now Hoover) Dam in Nevada, a swimming pool in Wheeling, West Virginia, the national zoo in Washington, D.C., a psychiatric hospital in Caramillo, California, and the Lincoln Tunnel connecting New York City and New Jersey.

A new agency began providing work in 1935. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) started with the largest peacetime expenditure in American history—$4.8 billion. Any work was better than none, said WPA director Harry Hopkins. “Give a man a . . . [handout] and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit,” he claimed.8

Nobody got rich doing WPA work. There was not enough money to pay large salaries to the army of WPA workers. And the government did not want to discourage workers from seeking jobs with private businesses.

Critics charged that some WPA jobs were make-work efforts that served no real purpose. Some jobs seemed out-and-out silly. The WPA paid a Californian named John Steinbeck to take a census of dogs on the Monterey peninsula.

Yet these jobs provided employment. They also meant opportunity for other people. Fourteen-year-old Marjorie Blakemore made sweet potato, apple, and apricot pies for Chicago WPA workers. “They made $27.50 every two weeks,” she remembered. “I sold pies on credit until payday. They always paid.”9

WPA projects also contributed to America’s cultural life. Private funding to the arts all but disappeared during the Depression. The WPA made the government a patron of artists, writers, musicians, and actors. Not all work was of the highest quality, but it gave these artists a creative outlet as well as a paycheck.

Post offices, schools, and other Depression-era buildings received the fruits of the WPA’s Federal Artists Project. Colorful murals adorned many of these buildings. Some of the murals had fanciful or abstract themes. Others celebrated history. Many showed an idealized version of Depression life.

The Writers’ Project chronicled America. Writers from each state produced books which detailed the state’s history, attractions, and culture. Other projects preserved priceless records of the country’s history. One project gathered the stories and experiences of two thousand former slaves.

Even if the WPA itself produced no literary classics, it played a major role in literature. Writers, assured of a steady check, could concentrate on other work. Richard Wright wrote his masterpiece Native Son while also doing Writers’ Project work. The Writers’ Project also employed future literary giants such as Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, and Saul Bellow.

Musicians were also hired by the WPA. Government-created orchestras played throughout the nation.

The Theater Project proved the most controversial of the artistic groups. Troupers such as Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, John Huston, Arlene Francis, and Burt Lancaster performed in popular and classic plays. In 1935, three hundred fifty thousand people saw Theater Project productions each week. Some acting groups also presented “living newspapers” which commented on current events. Some commentaries angered many people. Pressure from Congress members forced the WPA to drop the Theater Project in 1939.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) oversaw rural affairs. It recorded American life in a series of superb photographs. This was not a make-work project. Instead, top-notch photographers created valuable records of life in the 1930s. Project director Roy Stryker had a keen sense of history. He made sure that photographers included “the kinds of things that a scholar a hundred years from now is going to wonder about. A butter churn. A horse trough. Crank-handle telephones. . . . The horse and buggy. The milk pails and the cream separators. . . . Symbols of the time.”10

Stryker insisted that his photographers know about their subjects. Once a photographer was asked to shoot a story on cotton. He confessed to Stryker that he knew little about the plant. Stryker said:

We sat down and we talked almost all day about cotton. We talked well into the night. I told him about cotton as an agricultural product, cotton as a commercial product, the history of cotton in the South, what cotton did to the history of the country, and how it affected areas outside the country. By the time we were through, [he] was ready to go off and photograph cotton.11

Roosevelt sought to prevent a repeat of earlier stock market disasters. The 1934 Securities Exchange Act created the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This agency acted as a watchdog to protect investors. It required anyone offering stocks to file a statement of financial information about the stock being sold.

One major New Deal program was never referred to by its initials. Social Security provided an old-age pension for persons over age sixty-five, as well as unemployment compensation for those out of work. Other poor people—visually impaired and physically challenged people as well as dependent children—also were eligible.

Social Security money came from a tax on workers and employers. It was not a perfect plan. Many categories of workers (farmers, for example) were not eligible. Payroll deductions cut purchasing power. Since rich and poor people were taxed at the same rate, it indirectly penalized poor people. Some states, to recover money that was now going to the federal government, created sales taxes. These, too, were taxes that hurt the poor more than the rich. Despite its problems, Social Security quickly became an accepted part of American life.


Bands played, hundreds marched, and thousands watched along downtown New York City in 1933. The government sponsored this parade to rally Americans for the key program of the New Deal.

Roosevelt realized that all of the programs in the alphabet would not save the economy if the private economy did not improve. At the same time, an unregulated economy was not the answer. Cutthroat competition only made certain businesses richer while bankrupting many others. Something had to be done for the economic health of businesses and workers.

He proposed, and Congress passed, the National Industrial Recovery Act. This act created the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which sought cooperation among industries. Under the NRA, management and labor councils from each industry would agree to “codes of fair competition.” These codes set maximum working hours and minimum wages within the industry. Section 7a of the NRA permitted workers to bargain collectively through unions.

The government could not enforce the NRA. But the Justice Department could prosecute signers who later violated the codes. Mainly, it relied on public pressure for cooperation. Businesses that cooperated were allowed to post the NRA blue eagle emblem and use it in advertisements. “We do our part,” the emblem declared.

Americans at first rallied behind the plan. More than five hundred industries signed codes by midsummer, 1933. These industries included more than 21 million workers. Textile workers, shipbuilders, and even graveyard workers had their own codes.

Roosevelt signed the NRA into law on June 16. A fireside chat on October 22 declared its success. The president claimed the law put an end to child labor and long-hour sweatshops. NRA director Hugh Johnson claimed that 96 percent of commerce and industry were in compliance with the act.12

Other observers saw different results. Harper’s reporter George Leighton toured four Eastern states in the autumn of 1933. He found that companies openly or secretly violated the codes. NRA compliance boards often consisted of members with close ties to the area’s leading employers. Often they were afraid to criticize violators.

Critics attacked even a minimal regulation of business. Publisher William Randolph Hearst said NRA stood for “No Recovery Allowed.” Some African Americans did not feel they were getting benefits from the program. They claimed NRA meant “Negroes Ruined Again.”13

At first, the NRA was meant to last only two years. Roosevelt fought successfully for its renewal. His joy was short-lived. The Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional on May 27, 1935.

The administration salvaged part of the NRA. New York Senator Robert Wagner sponsored a bill to protect unions and those who joined them. This bill replaced a section of the now-deceased NRA. It created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This board could stop unfair practices by employers who sought to block union formation. Workers could bargain collectively and choose whom they wanted to represent them.

Dear Mr. (or Mrs.) Roosevelt

To millions of Americans, Franklin D. Roosevelt was more than just their president. They saw him as their friend, an honorary, and honored member of their family. No court decisions or newspaper editorials could shake their faith.

“Every house I visited had a picture of the President,” noted a South Carolina social worker.14 The picture might be a color print or a faded newspaper clipping. But it stood on the family’s mantle or another place of honor.

Eleanor Roosevelt also earned her share of that praise. Unlike previous first ladies who stayed in the background, Mrs. Roosevelt traveled throughout the country and wrote her own newspaper column. She, like her husband, was a friend to millions.

Adoration for the Roosevelts showed in the letters they received. More than four hundred fifty thousand letters reached the White House in the week following inauguration. For years, they received five to eight thousand letters weekly.

President and Mrs. Roosevelt did not read each letter personally. But aides showed them a sample of the mail. Louis Howe later commented, “a personal letter from a farmer or a miner or little shopkeeper or clerk who honestly expresses his conviction, is the most perfect index to the state of the public mind.”15

More women than men wrote. Men most often sought money or work, and they wrote to Franklin Roosevelt. Requests for clothing came from women. They wrote to Eleanor.

Conservative Roosevelt opponents also wrote to the president. They blamed their problems on poor people and opposed any redistribution of wealth. Rebellious souls of all varieties vented their complaints.

But many letters were admiring or even adoring. The writers compared the president and first lady to saints or religious leaders. The Roosevelts were perceived as parents of America or personal friends. There were problems in the country, letter writers admitted. But those problems were caused by bureaucrats in the administration, not the first family.

Only Maine and Vermont

Democrats swept the nation in the 1934 elections. The New York Times called it “the most overwhelming victory in the history of American politics.”16 Republican election winners of any kind were rare indeed.

Alfred Mossman Landon was one of those victors. Landon, a successful independent oil producer, won re-election as governor of Kansas. He was the only Republican governor west of the Mississippi River. Since many Americans blamed the Depression on “Eastern economic interests,” Republicans sought a 1936 presidential candidate from another region of the country. The likable Landon was an obvious choice.

Landon hardly seemed like a traditional Republican. He had supported former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, not the more conservative Republicans, in 1912. He had voted against Republican nominee Calvin Coolidge in 1924. He supported Social Security and other New Deal measures.

Roosevelt and Landon got along well. Even so, the campaign was bitter. Switchboard operators at the conservative Chicago Tribune answered phones by saying, “There are only __ more days to save the American way of life.”17

Democrats argued that the Republican leaders did not care about the common person. “Governments can err: Presidents do make mistakes,” Roosevelt said. “But better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”18

Class differences more than any other factor determined voting patterns. Win Stracke sang in the choir of Chicago’s affluent Fourth Presbyterian Church. “I looked out over the congregation . . . and it was one sea of yellow,” he recalled. “Everybody was decorated with large yellow Landon sunflower buttons. [It] suddenly made me realize there is such a thing as class distinction in America.”19

Literary Digest, a respected magazine, conducted polls before every presidential election. They employed the same method they had used in previous elections—polling by telephone calls. The magazine failed to consider that many impoverished Americans could not afford telephones.

The magazine predicted a Landon landslide—320 electoral votes for Landon to 161 for FDR. Young pollster George Gallup came up with a different result—477 electoral votes for Roosevelt, 42 for Landon, and two states undecided. Roosevelt’s campaign manager, James Farley, made a prediction that sounded outrageous. He declared that his candidate would carry every state except Maine and Vermont.

On election night, Farley had the last laugh. Roosevelt got nearly 28 million votes, while Landon took just under 17 million. Six million more Americans voted in 1936 than four years earlier. Of those 6 million, 5 million went with the Democrat. Landon carried Maine and Vermont, as Farley predicted. Roosevelt won the other forty-six states.

About 80 percent of union members, unskilled workers, and people on relief voted for Roosevelt. He even received the support of about 42 percent of upper-income voters. Roosevelt led the greatest landslide in presidential election history. Other Democrats came into office with him. Roosevelt’s party had more than a three-quarters majority in both the Senate and the House.

Roosevelt was now firmly in control of the executive and legislative branches of government. It appeared he could do anything he wanted.

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