Many Americans are intrigued by the Roaring 20s and the â
€œGreatest Generationâ€� of the 1940s. But we tend to forget
the generation between--those hardy people who survived the
hardest economic times to hit this country, the Great Depression.
The Depression began in October, 1929, when the collapse of
the stock market wiped out 40 per cent of its paper value. Vast
improvements in technology had increased national productivity
faster than people could consume the goods. Sharply rising
profits led to speculation in stock and real estate.
Republican Herbert Hoover, who had become president eight
months earlier, feeling pessimistic and hopeless, failed to take
decisive action, depending instead on natural processes for
Meanwhile, severe drought hit the plains, causing crops to die and
dust to blow from the over-plowed and over-grazed land.
Despite optimistic forecasts, by 1933 the value of stock had fallen
to less than a fifth what it had been in four years earlier. As a
result, businesses went under, factories closed, banks failed, and
agricultural income plummeted. Approximately one in four
Americans was unemployed. Bread lines were common, and
thousands roamed the country, searching for food and work.
Hoovervilles, or shantytowns of makeshift residences for the
unemployed or homeless, sprang up. Other widely-used terms
included â€œHoover blanketsâ€� (old newspapers used for
bedding), â€œHoover flagâ€� (empty pocket turned inside out), â
€œHoover leatherâ€� (cardboard used to line a worn-through
shoe), and â€œHoover wagonâ€� (horses pulling a car that the
owner couldnâ€™t afford gas for).
In his race for reelection, Hoover faced a formidable opponent.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the aristocratic governor of New York,
had been crippled by polio. He understood suffering. He
brought an air of confidence and optimism that the country deeply
needed. â€œThe only thing we have to fear is fear itself,â€� he
declared in his inaugural address.
Roosevelt promised a New Deal, abandoning laissez-faire
capitalism and introducing America to social and economic
reforms that were common in Europe. He declared a four-day
bank holiday, during which the Emergency Banking Act was
passed. With the FDIC insuring deposits, peopleâ€™s faith in
the banking system increased. Stock sales were regulated, and
inflation caused prices to rise, giving relief to some debtors.
New government agencies provided credit to farmers and
industrialists. Programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps
and the Civil Works Administration helped put the nation back to
work conserving natural resources and repairing the infrastructure.
The Dust Bowl led to a great migration westward. As John
Steinbeck describes it in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, â
€œCar-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand
and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred
thousands. They streamed over the mountains hungry and
restless--restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do--to lift, to
push, to pull, to pick, to cut--anything, any burden to bear, for
food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants
scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.â€�
The influx of people into the West led to reduced wages. In
Californiaâ€™s San Joaquin Valley, the largest agricultural strike
in Americanâ€™s history began. More than 18,000 workers
went on strike for 24 days.
Two men and a woman were killed and hundreds were injured.
The union was recognized by growers, and wages were raised.
The New Deal improved economic conditions, though it wasn't
until the fall of 1939 that rain brought an end to the drought, and
the buildup of the defense industry before World War II brought