The frightening consequences of a nation’s economic collapse are often illustrated by Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler, but the USA also came close to national disaster during the Great Depression. I spent last week next to the air conditioner browsing some unread books. The opening chapter of William Manchester’s US.history. “The Glory and The Dream (1932-1972)” reads like an apocalyptic sci-fi film -: financial collapse, civil disobedience, rapid climate change and massive ecological damage, widespread starvation and despair, anger at the “haves”, and finally a gutsy, compassionate, but not entirely honest leader who saves the nation from collapse.
If you live in the east you might have been sweating without electricity, but 80 years ago 15,000 hungry and ragged World War I veterans and their families sweltered in makeshift camps in sight of the White House and across the Anacostia River. This was the so-called Bonus Army, unemployed veterans of World War I who converged on Washington in desperation to ask the government for the bonus of $500 they had been promised in 1924, or any other relief.
We finally got relief last week, but for most Americans in 1932 it was an unrelentingly miserable and frustrating summer, seemingly stagnant in the depth of the Depression. President Hoover asserted that a steady hand on the helm, not handouts, was what was needed, but failed to convince a country where one in four men was unemployed, millions wandered the roads raiding garbage cans or hitched slow freights, panhandling with little hope for anything better. Banks were foreclosing on homes by the millions and depositors were making runs on the banks for fear they would fail, as hundreds did. The nation was near mass panic; firearms and ammunition sales were increasing rapidly.
Like this summer, the midwest was also suffering. The Dust Bowl had not yet become a disaster and farmers had food, but crop and livestock prices had plummeted as consumer purchasing power withered after the 1929 Crash. Thousands of farmers lost their land, and the reputation of the bankers was, if anything, lower than what they enjoy these days (the term “bankster” appeared in Time magazine in 1932.) The populist rabble-rouser Governor “Kingfish” Huey Long was a media star and a savior to his fellow Louisianans, and the pro-Hitler Father Coughlin had his own radio network.
President Hoover and his advisors were not budging from policies that had taken the country to the brink of revolution, and declared the untidy protest in the capital an illegal embarrassment. The protesters had the ragged clothes on their backs and some cooking utensils. The U.S. Army came with bayonets, machine guns, tear gas, and tanks. General Douglas MacArthur and his aide Major Dwight Eisenhower organized a quick campaign to rout the protesters, and with a mounted saber charge led by Major George S. Patton Jr., chased the vets and their families across the Potomac, trampled the subsistence gardens they had planted, and burned the makeshift camp. Hundreds were injured and several died, including three children.
Hoover never backed down from his economic policies but the Bonus Army massacre was a tipping point for voters. Franklin D. Roosevelt promised nothing more specific than hope and change and was elected by a landslide in November 1932. He could do nothing until he was inaugurated the following March, but then could do nothing wrong, His basic policy was to try anything, because anything was better than doing nothing. His First Hundred Days was remarkable for proactive legislation to stabilize the financial system and kickstart employment. Not everything the New Dealers tried worked, and the failures (and successes too) were the target of industrialists and conservatives who make today’s Tea Partiers look like polite schoolkids. FDR felt he could handle the reaction and the hatred unleashed by his foes, including many Democrats in Congress, because public opinion was on his side. (The rich were called “the 2%” and paid even lower taxes than now.) Deficit spending to put money into the economy was a threatening concept even to FDR, but finally John Maynard Keynes, the most (and maybe only) famous economist in the western world, met the President and convinced him that it was the only solution. The conservative Supreme Court was a more formidable obstacle to his programs but the “nine old men” starting dying off on schedule and were replaced by liberals who continued to set the Court’s tone for decades. Yes, SCOTUS appointments really are important.
The Crash had made our parents and grandparents more conservative in the sense of not taking risks, but many also were won over to progressive ideas and were alarmed by the rise of Fascism in Europe. Isolationism was by the mid-1930’s as divisive a political force as was the economy. Roosevelt promised “no war”, but was sure that Hitler had to be defeated. His attempts to provoke war with Hitler by aiding Britain in the Atlantic failed but were concealed from the public. Less clear is that a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor could not have succeeded without Roosevelt’s consent, but the President got his war. The deprivation of the 1930s was such that 40% of draftees were rejected as physically unfit, but surviving the Depression seemed to give Americans the backbone needed for the all-out fight. The US emerged as an industrial and military superpower largely united by the war effort.
Scary headlines and ideological battles still dominate the media, but that summer 80 years ago and the following decade was undoubtedly the most terrifying in American history. Sadly, mistrust arose again during the Cold War and social and racial divisions never really went away. These have all been magnified in the current recession. Will there be another tipping point, and what could come after?