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The widespread prosperity of the 1920s ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October 1929 and the great economic depression that followed. The depression threatened people’s jobs, savings, and even their homes and farms.
At the depths of the depression, over one-quarter of the American workforce was out of work. For many Americans, these were hard times.
The New Deal, as the first two terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency were called, became a time of hope and optimism. Although the economic depression continued throughout the New Deal era, the darkest hours of despair seemed to have passed.
In part, this was the result of FDR himself. In his first inaugural address, FDR asserted his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” As FDR provided leadership, most Americans placed great confidence in him.
The economic troubles of the 1930s were worldwide in scope and effect. Economic instability led to political instability in many parts of the world. Political chaos, in turn, gave rise to dictatorial regimes such as Adolf Hitler’s in Germany and the military’s in Japan.
(Totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Italy predated the depression.) These regimes pushed the world ever-closer to war in the 1930s. When world war finally broke out in both Europe and Asia, the United States tried to avoid being drawn into the conflict.
But so powerful and influential a nation as the United States could scarcely avoid involvement for long.
When Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States found itself in the war it had sought to avoid for more than two years.
Mobilizing the economy for world war finally cured the depression. Millions of men and women joined the armed forces, and even larger numbers went to work in well-paying defense jobs. World War Two affected the world and the United States profoundly; it continues to influence us even today.
Americans React to the Great Depression
The Great Depression began in 1929 when, in a period of ten weeks, stocks on the New York Stock Exchange lost 50 percent of their value. As stocks continued to fall during the early 1930s, businesses failed, and unemployment rose dramatically. By 1932, one of every four workers was unemployed.
Banks failed and life savings were lost, leaving many Americans destitute. With no job and no savings, thousands of Americans lost their homes.
The poor congregated in cardboard shacks in so-called Hoovervilles on the edges of cities across the nation; hundreds of thousands of the unemployed roamed the country on foot and in boxcars in futile search of jobs. Although few starved, hunger and malnutrition affected many.
In a country with abundant resources, the largest force of skilled labor, and the most productive industry in the world, many found it hard to understand why the depression had occurred and why it could not be resolved.
Moreover, it was difficult for many to understand why people should go hungry in a country possessing huge food surpluses.
Blaming Wall Street speculators, bankers, and the Hoover administration, the rumblings of discontent grew mightily in the early 1930s. By 1932, hunger marches and small riots were common throughout the nation.
In June of 1932, nearly 20,000 World War I veterans from across the country marched on the United States Capitol to request early payment of cash bonuses for their military service that weren’t due to be paid until 1945.
The marchers, who the organizers called the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” but who became widely known as the Bonus Army, spent several days in Washington, D.C., pressing their case, but a Congressional bill to pay the bonus was defeated.
On July 28, U.S. troops and tanks commanded by General Douglas MacArthur dispersed the marchers and destroyed their makeshift camps in the city.
However, not all citizens were caught up in the social eruptions. Many were too downtrodden or busy surviving day to day to get involved in public displays of discontent.
Art and Entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s
Even during hard times and wartime, people need to be entertained. The American people in the 1930s and 1940s were no exception. They enjoyed many forms of entertainment, particularly if they could do so inexpensively.
With the addition of sound, movies became increasingly popular. Comedies, gangster movies, and musicals helped people forget their troubles.
In the early 1940s, some of the great dramas of American film reached theaters. Radio was also wildly popular, offering many kinds of programs, from sermons to soap operas.
In the 1930s, big bands and swing music were popular, with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller popular bandleaders. In the 1940s, the bands started to break up, and band singers like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan went out on their own. War songs became popular.
Among the unemployed in the Depression were artists and performers of many types. Government programs to assist these people resulted in production of plays and artworks for all to enjoy.
As you examine the documents in this section, compare arts and entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s with arts and entertainment as you know them today. What similarities do you see? What differences? How might you explain the continuity you see, as well as the change?
The Dust Bowl
Between 1930 and 1940, the southwestern Great Plains region of the United States suffered a severe drought. Once a semi-arid grassland, the treeless plains became home to thousands of settlers when, in 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act. Most of the settlers farmed their land or grazed cattle.
The farmers plowed the prairie grasses and planted dry land wheat. As the demand for wheat products grew, cattle grazing were reduced, and millions more acres were plowed and planted.
Dry land farming on the Great Plains led to the systematic destruction of the prairie grasses. In the ranching regions, overgrazing also destroyed large areas of grassland.
Gradually, the land was laid bare, and significant environmental damage began to occur. Among the natural elements, the strong winds of the region were particularly devastating.
With the onset of drought in 1930, the overfarmed and overgrazed land began to blow away. Winds whipped across the plains, raising billowing clouds of dust. The sky could darken for days, and even well-sealed homes could have a thick layer of dust on the furniture.
In some places, the dust drifted like snow, covering farm buildings and houses. Nineteen states in the heartland of the United States became a vast dust bowl. With no chance of making a living, farm families abandoned their homes and land, fleeing westward to become migrant laborers.
In his 1939 book The Grapes of Wrath, author John Steinbeck described the flight of families from the Dust Bowl: “And then the dispossessed were drawn west–from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out.
Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless–restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do–to lift, to push, 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.” In all, 400,000 people left the Great Plains, victims of the combined action of severe drought and poor soil conservation practices.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal
In the summer of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor of New York, was nominated as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt addressed the problems of the depression by telling the American people that, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” In the election that took place in the fall of 1932, Roosevelt won by a landslide.
The New Deal Roosevelt had promised the American people began to take shape immediately after his inauguration in March 1933.
Based on the assumption that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the depression, the first days of Roosevelt’s administration saw the passage of banking reform laws, emergency relief programs, work relief programs, and agricultural programs.
Later, a second New Deal was to evolve; it included union protection programs, the Social Security Act, and programs to aid tenant farmers and migrant workers. Many of the New Deal acts or agencies came to be known by their acronyms.
For example, the Works Progress Administration was known as the WPA, while the Civilian Conservation Corps was known as the CCC. Many people remarked that the New Deal programs reminded them of alphabet soup.
By 1939, the New Deal had run its course. In the short term, New Deal programs helped improve the lives of people suffering from the events of the depression. In the long run, New Deal programs set a precedent for the federal government to play a key role in the economic and social affairs of the nation.
Labor Unions during the Great Depression and New Deal
In the early 1930s, as the nation slid toward the depths of depression, the future of organized labor seemed bleak. In 1933, the number of labor union members was around 3 million, compared to 5 million a decade before.
Most union members in 1933 belonged to skilled craft unions, most of which were affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
The union movement had failed in the previous 50 years to organize the much larger number of laborers in such mass production industries as steel, textiles, mining, and automobiles.
These, rather than the skilled crafts, were to be the major growth industries of the first half of the 20th century.
Although the future of labor unions looked grim in 1933, their fortunes would soon change. The tremendous gains labor unions experienced in the 1930s resulted, in part, from the pro-union stance of the Roosevelt administration and from legislation enacted by Congress during the early New Deal.
The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) provided for collective bargaining. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) required businesses to bargain in good faith with any union supported by the majority of their employees.
Meanwhile, the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the AFL and became much more aggressive in organizing unskilled workers who had not been represented before. Strikes of various kinds became important organizing tools of the CIO.
Race Relations in the 1930s and 1940s
The problems of the Great Depression affected virtually every group of Americans. No group was harder hit than African Americans, however. By 1932, approximately half of African Americans were out of work.
In some Northern cities, whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work. Racial violence again became more common, especially in the South. Lynchings, which had declined to eight in 1932, surged to 28 in 1933.
Although most African Americans traditionally voted Republican, the election of President Franklin Roosevelt began to change voting patterns. Roosevelt entertained African American visitors at the White House and was known to have a number of black advisors.
According to historian John Hope Franklin, many African Americans were excited by the energy with which Roosevelt began tackling the problems of the Depression and gained “a sense of belonging they had never experienced before” from his fireside chats.
Still, discrimination occurred in New Deal housing and employment projects, and President Roosevelt, for political reasons, did not back all of the legislation favored by such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
When the U.S. entered World War II, labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington to protest job discrimination in the military and other defense-related activities.
In response, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, stating that all persons, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, would be allowed to participate fully in the defense of the United States.
World War II
On December 7, 1941, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, after Germany and Italy declared war on it, the United States became fully engaged in the Second World War.
U.S. involvement in the Second World War was quickly followed by a massive mobilization effort. With millions of men and women serving overseas in the nation’s armed forces, most of those who remained at home dedicated themselves to supporting the war effort in whatever means was available to them.
Women, who had worked as homemakers or had held jobs outside military-related industries, took jobs in aircraft manufacturing plants, munitions plants, military uniform production factories, and so on. As the need for steel and other resources increased, American citizens participated in rationing programs, as well as recycling and scrap metal drives.
Americans also supported the war effort with their hard-earned dollars by purchasing Liberty bonds. Sold by the U.S. government, the bonds raised money for the war and helped the bond purchasers feel they were doing their part for the war effort.
The U.S. entry into the war helped to get the nation’s economy back on its feet following the depression. Although just ten years earlier, jobs were very difficult to come by, there were now jobs for nearly everyone who wanted one.
With the creation of 17 million new jobs during the war, workers were afforded the opportunity to pay off old debts, as well as to begin saving some of their earnings.
Not all Americans remaining at home gained favorably from the war. Fearing that Japan might invade the West Coast of the United States, the government rounded up thousands of Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast, and confined them to internment camps.
By 1948 when the internment program ended, tens of thousands of Japanese had suffered as internees. In addition, German Americans, Italian Americans, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians were also interned.
On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945, and the Second World War came to an end. The war cost the lives of more than 330,000 American soldiers. Many more were permanently injured or maimed.
Credit: the Library of Congress (Backlink)