The Great Depression in United States History (5 page)

BOOK: The Great Depression in United States History
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When he woke up the next day, he could not move his legs. Franklin Roosevelt had contracted the polio virus a few weeks earlier. The swim tightened his muscles and put him into shock. Although he tried hard, he never walked unaided again. A few months later he received sevenpound leg braces, which would be his companions for the rest of his life.

Franklin Roosevelt refused to feel sorry for himself. His self-confidence allowed him to challenge this physical disability. His wealth permitted him to work full-time on rehabilitation.

In one respect, the ailment helped him in life. Before contracting polio, Roosevelt had seen suffering only from afar. Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, later commented, “The man emerged . . . with a deeper philosophy. Having been to the depths of trouble, he understood the problems of people in trouble.”
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By 1928, he re-entered the political scene. There were political wars to be fought, and he was one of the fighters.

The Happy Warrior

Politics came naturally to Al Smith. The New York City native, in his trademark brown derby hat, had a smile and a handshake for everyone. He rose through the ranks of Tammany Hall, New York’s political organization to become the state’s governor. Along the way he gained an ally—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Even after the polio attack, Roosevelt managed to help his friend. He aided in Smith’s 1922 re-election campaign. Two years later, Smith sought the Democratic nomination for president. Franklin gave the nominating speech. He also gave Smith a nickname that stuck—“The Happy Warrior.”

Four years later, Smith won the nomination. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (or FDR, as he was increasingly known) again placed Smith’s name in nomination for the presidency. It proved to be an important speech. Roosevelt, more than most, realized the importance of the new medium of radio. He intended his speech as much for a nationwide radio audience as for those in the convention hall.

Roosevelt charmed listeners with an excellent radio voice. He also knew how to communicate with that voice. He explained things simply and in a personal manner. Roosevelt peppered his speeches with “my friends” or “you know and I know.” When his speeches started, many in the radio audience were mere listeners. When he concluded, they were friends.

This charm helped him in the 1928 race for governor of New York. Republicans swept most of the nation amidst general 1928 prosperity. But the following Inauguration Day, it was Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was sworn in as governor of New York. He proved to be an energetic leader. Under his leadership, New York provided relief to unemployed residents and reform of the civil service system. Roosevelt won re-election in Depressiontorn 1930 by a landslide. At the 1932 Democratic national convention, there was little doubt who was the favorite.

“All You Have to Do Is Stay Alive”

Franklin Roosevelt had backed Al Smith for president in 1924 and 1928. In 1932, Smith refused to return the favor. Incumbent Herbert Hoover appeared weak. The now-wealthy Smith wanted the prize for himself.

Southerners wanted one of their own in the White House. Their choice was Texan John Nance Garner, speaker of the House of Representatives. Roosevelt, Smith, and Garner staged a bitter three-way battle for the Democratic nomination.

Delegates cast their votes, and Roosevelt received about half of them. This total ran far short of the two thirds needed for nomination. The second and third ballots showed little gain. Finally, Roosevelt made a deal with Garner. If the Garner delegates backed Roosevelt, he would choose the crusty Texan as his vice-presidential running mate.

Roosevelt secured the nomination on the fourth ballot. During the acceptance speech, he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”
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The “New Deal” would become the slogan of his administration.

Few things appeared more certain than Hoover’s defeat in 1932. According to one joke, Hoover asked Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon for a nickel so he could buy a friend a soda. “Here’s a dime,” said Mellon. “Treat them all.”
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After the nomination, California senator William McAdoo told Roosevelt, “Now all you have to do is stay alive until the election.”
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Garner, too, was convinced the election was a sure thing. He made only one speech—over the radio—during the campaign. Roosevelt, however, traveled and spoke anywhere and everywhere. He wanted to show that his polio was not a work-threatening disability. Roosevelt also wanted the good will of the American people. As president, he would introduce measures that were potentially unpopular. He could use that good will later.

“Landslide” barely described the Roosevelt victory. The Democrat won by 7 million votes and carried forty-two of forty-eight states. After the election, defeated candidate Hoover tried to work with the victor. Roosevelt refused. He wanted a clean start in his new administration. That meant no association with Hoover’s failures.

Roosevelt almost did not live to see the inauguration. On February 15, he was speaking in Miami. An anarchist named Guiseppi Zangara shot at the president-elect. The bullet missed him but hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. The mayor, who died a few days later, told the soon-to-be president, “I am glad it was me instead of you.”
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Chapter 5

“TRY SOMETHING”

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.”
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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.
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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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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BOOK: The Great Depression in United States History
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