The Great Depression in United States History (9 page)

BOOK: The Great Depression in United States History
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Chapter 8


A series of floods greeted Roosevelt after he took the oath of office for his second term. The Ohio and other rivers overflowed their banks during January 1937. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found itself under more than ten feet of water. The Ohio River rose eight feet higher than ever before in Cincinnati, Ohio, seven feet in Louisville, Kentucky. Only heroic efforts by local residents kept Cairo, Illinois, from being overrun by the river. The flooded river drowned nine hundred people and drove half a million from their homes. This was a natural disaster of major proportions. It would not be the only disaster Roosevelt would face.

Court Packing

President Franklin D. Roosevelt headed the executive branch of government. Congress, the legislative branch, was solidly Democratic and appeared to be on the president’s side. That left the judicial branch of government, headed by the Supreme Court.

Roosevelt chafed at Supreme Court decisions which had gutted some of his New Deal programs. The Court had nixed the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and National Recovery Act and declared state minimum wage laws unconstitutional. One critic wrote:

The Court not merely challenged policies of the New Deal but erected judicial barriers to the reasonable exercise of legislative powers . . . to meet the urgent needs of the twentieth-century community.

The Supreme Court did not reflect the feelings of the voters, who reelected Roosevelt in 1936 by a landslide. FDR did not have the opportunity to name any justices during his first term. All but two had been appointed by Republican presidents. Roosevelt proposed a plan that would prevent the high court from undoing his work.

Former United States Attorney General James C. McReynolds, the most anti-Roosevelt Supreme Court justice, once wrote a suggestion that the president have the power to appoint a new justice for every justice over age seventy who had served at least ten years and refused to retire. Roosevelt’s attorney general, Homer Cummings, saw that document. McReynolds’s words would return to haunt him.

Without consulting Democratic leaders beforehand, Roosevelt told them his court plan. Under it, the president could appoint a new judge for every federal judge over age seventy who did not retire. This proposal could expand the Supreme Court up to fifteen members, depending on how many resignations occurred. Roosevelt could appoint up to six new justices. These appointees could assure him a Supreme Court majority.

The reaction to his plan might have shocked the president. Not only Republican foes but also Democrats blasted the idea. His enemies disliked Roosevelt anyway, but even some allies felt his proposal tampered with the Constitution. Hatton Sumner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told his colleagues, “Boys, here’s where I cash in my chips.”
The former Roosevelt ally became a solid opponent afterwards.

Roosevelt finally gave up his “court packing” proposal. But the “nine old men” on the high court got his message. Instead of striking down every New Deal proposal, the court suddenly upheld them.

Aging Justice Willis Van Devanter resigned soon after the court packing announcement. Others also followed him. Roosevelt filled the Supreme Court with his own selections. Three of them—Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas—would later be considered among the greatest justices in Supreme Court history.

The court packing issue had its effect on Roosevelt. He had won a battle because the Court no longer opposed him. But he still suffered a loss. Opposition from Congress and the public showed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt no longer was invincible.

The Roosevelt Recession

“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” President Roosevelt said in his second inaugural address.
Although the economy showed some improvement by early 1937, Roosevelt’s view was correct.

By Inauguration Day, the economy was beginning to improve. This upturn was short-lived. An August recession cost 4 million workers their jobs. Production, sales, and the stock market plummeted for the next seven months. Roosevelt accepted blame for what his critics called the “Roosevelt Recession.”

Roosevelt decided government spending was the answer. He would create new federal programs, even if it meant creating a budget deficit. Three billion additional dollars went to relief, flood control, public works, and housing.

This “Second New Deal” met with less acclaim than the first. The programs were created to solve existing problems, although many were less than successful. The Resettlement Administration (RA) sought to help tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and migrant workers. The RA worked to end racial discrimination, which aroused opposition from many Southern politicians.

Roosevelt signed a labor bill in June 1938. This instituted a minimum wage of twenty-five cents an hour (eventually rising to forty cents) and a maximum work week of forty-four hours (to be reduced to forty). It also outlawed child labor for those under sixteen years of age.

He called it perhaps the “most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted in this or any other country.”
Not everyone agreed. Southern business owners, many of whom paid extremely low wages, disliked this forced wage hike. Some labor unions feared the government was taking over their power. Republicans and even conservative Democrats voiced opposition to the second New Deal.

Roosevelt targeted several Democratic congressional foes in the 1938 Democratic primary elections. His attacks backfired. All of his detractors won. Republicans posted gains in the November general elections. They picked up eight Senate seats and eighty-one seats in the House of Representatives. Statehouses saw thirteen new Republican governors. Even with those gains, Democrats still held wide majorities in Congress and among governors.

By 1939, it appeared that the economy was not going to heal itself fast. It would take some outside force to turn America around. That force was coming.

Chapter 9


Even in the depths of Depression, life was not all gloom and misery. People found ways to enjoy themselves. Some-times that enjoyment was something grand and epic. Often, it was as simple as a box in the living room.

Meet Me at the Fair

A sea of colored lights greeted people coming to Chicago’s lakefront in 1933. The hundred-year- old city was celebrating with the Century of Progress— a gigantic world’s fair.

Light from the distant star Arcturus was captured and converted into energy. This became electricity, which started up the fair.

The fair’s 16 million visitors saw exhibits celebrating science and industry. They viewed everything from a recreated Mayan temple to the dentures George Washington wore. Baseball celebrated the fair by holding an all-star game in the White Sox’s Comiskey Park. The popular game became an annual event.

Italy honored the fair. Dictator Benito Mussolini sent an air armada across the Atlantic Ocean. Chicago residents cheered as the planes landed near the fair. There would be no cheers a few years later. During World War II, many of these same airplanes would be attacking American soldiers.

Sports and Games

Americans continued their love of athletics. Baseball remained the national pastime. Fans followed the sixteen major league teams, although attendance at many ballparks dropped. The St. Louis Browns in 1935 drew only eighty-nine thousand fans all season—less than what most teams draw for a good weekend series today. Thousands of other fans saw Negro League games, with talented African-American players who were barred from the majors only because of their race.

Other sports also drew fan support. College football remained popular, and interest in the young National Football League grew. Boxing matches drew thousands of spectators. Americans cheered during the 1936 Olympic Games as Jesse Owens won four gold medals. Germany’s racist dictator, Adolf Hitler, left Berlin’s stadium instead of congratulating the African American.

The Depression era featured many outstanding athletes—Jesse Owens, boxer Joe Louis, and baseball stars Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Satchel Paige. But one of the most amazing athletes of the 1930s was a woman. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson played in many different sports and starred in all of them. She won gold medals in the javelin and hurdles, and a silver medal in the high jump during the 1932 Olympics. While touring with an all-male baseball team, she set a women’s record by throwing a baseball 296 feet. She won fifty amateur and professional golf tournaments, including fifteen in a row. She even tried boxing.

At-home activities also gained popularity. Jigsaw puzzles enjoyed a boom. Before the Depression, only the wealthy played bridge. Afterward, people throughout the nation enjoyed the card game. But a new game captured America’s imagination. Monopoly players vied to build hotels on ritzy Boardwalk and Park Place. People with barely a dime to their names could dream of amassing fortunes.

Over the Rainbow

Americans saved their pennies to go to the movies—from the film palaces of New York and Chicago to the tiny Idle Hour Theater in Glenwood, Missouri. Filmgoers bought more than 60 million movie tickets per week in the early 1930s.

These films rarely depicted daily Depression life. Instead, patrons bought tickets to journeys away from their worries. They went almost anywhere. Some followed King Kong up New York City’s Empire State Building. Others danced to sophisticated musical numbers with elegantly dressed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Young and old retreated to the wild west with John Wayne in
Millions laughed at the zany comedies of the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields. Filmgoers by the thousands followed Dorothy over the rainbow to visit the Wizard of Oz or raced with the seven dwarfs to save Snow White.

The most elaborate movie of all ended the 1930s. Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell wrote
Gone with the Wind
, an epic tale of the Civil War era. Movie fans waited breathlessly for the film version of the novel. Dashing Clark Gable was the obvious choice for handsome Rhett Butler. Producer David Selznick surprised many when he chose English-born Vivien Leigh to play the strong-willed Scarlett O’Hara. Movie fans adored the film.
Gone with the Wind
won ten Oscars, including a Best Actress award for Vivien Leigh.

Radio’s Golden Age

For the most popular entertainment, people stayed home. At night, families listened to the radio in their living rooms. Radio brought news, music, comedy, and sports from around the country. Best of all was the price. Once a family bought the radio set, the entertainment was free.

People could hear music of all types. There was jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman and his vibrant swing music. Southern listeners enjoyed Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry country music show. Silly novelty tunes like “Mairzy Doats and Doazy Doats” and “Three Little Fishies” gave millions a well-needed chuckle.

Radio produced stars that Americans considered close friends. One of them was Jack Benny. He was a vain, foolish cheapskate surrounded by a gang of eccentric friends. When a robber pointed a gun at Jack and demanded, “Your money or your life,” the comedian paused, then said, “I’m thinking it over.”
Listeners identified with the weaknesses of Jack and his pals. They loved them.

Listeners were thrilled by the adventures of the Lone Ranger, masked hero of the Old West. Women in particular enjoyed soap operas; tear-inducing tales of liars, cheaters, gossips, marital problems, and characters with amnesia. Children used their secret decoder rings to help Little Orphan Annie escape from a variety of villains.

Radio shows exercised listeners’ imaginations. One favorite program featured Fibber McGee and Molly. Each week McGee opened his closet door, and an avalanche of junk fell out. “You heard the junk fall out of Fibber McGee’s closet, but everyone used their imaginations to determine which junk fell,” one listener said.

On October 30, 1938, thousands of Americans panicked. “Everybody was terribly frightened. Some of the women almost went crazy,” one witness recalled.

What caused this terror? Orson Welles produced a radio program based on the science fiction novel
War of the Worlds
. Those who tuned in from the beginning realized it was only a radio play. But millions of people who joined the show in progress heard a frightening account of alien monsters invading New York. Even though columnist Dorothy Thompson assured readers, “Nothing about the broadcast was in the least credible,” the Columbia Broadcasting System and Welles issued apologies afterward.
Fears of a Martian attack proved unfounded. They would be replaced by more realistic terror of foreign enemies.

Chapter 10


While America reeled from the Depression in the 1930s, Germany lay in ruins. After being defeated in World War I, the Germans were forced to make reparations (huge payments) to the allied victors. Inflation struck so hard that the nation’s currency became nearly worthless. The Germans blamed the reparations for their plight.

BOOK: The Great Depression in United States History
11.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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