FDR's Response to the Great Depression
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The stock market crash of 1929 set in motion a chain of events that would plunge the United States into a deep depression. The Great Depression of the 1930's spelled the end of an era of economic prosperity during the 1920's. Herbert Hoover was the unlucky president to preside over this economic downturn, and he bore the brunt of the blame for the depression. Hoover believed the root cause of the depression was international, and he therefore believed that restoring the gold standard would ultimately drag the United States out of depression by reviving international trade. Hoover initiated many new domestic works programs aimed at creating jobs, but it seemed to have no effect as the unemployment rate continued to rise. The Democrats nominated Franklin Roosevelt as their candidate for president in 1932 against the incumbent Hoover. Roosevelt was elected in a landslide victory in part due to his platform called "The New Deal". This campaign platform was never fully explained by Roosevelt prior to his election, but it appealed to the American people as something new and different from anything Hoover was doing to ameliorate the problem. The Roosevelt administration's response to the Great Depression served to remedy some of the temporary employment problems, while drastically changing the role of the government, but failed to return the American economy to the levels of prosperity enjoyed during the 1920's.
When Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, the nation faced a desperate situation, but the first 100 days of his presidency indicated how his administration would combat the depression. As a graph indicating unemployment of nonfarm workers shows, nearly 40% of the workforce was out of a job in 1933. This period was a bleak time for American families as men and women suffered equally. Meridel Lesueur stated in New Masses, that "there must be as many women out of jobs in cities and suffering extreme poverty as there are men. What happens to them?" Roosevelt's administration sought to alleviate the problems of the depression by focusing on domestic issues. In his first 100 days in office, the president along with a strong Democratic majority in Congress pushed through 15 bills aimed at combating the depression. One of his first acts was to grant a national bank holiday aimed at getting banks back into solvency. The Glass-Stegall Act provided federal guarantees on loans of less than 5,000 dollars. In Roosevelt's "Bombshell message", he took the United States off the gold-standard in an effort to focus on domestic issues without dealing with international trade. Other notable acts included the Federal Emergency Relief Act, which gave 500 million dollars to state welfare programs. Also, the Agricultural Adjustment Act which sought to stabilize farm prices by controlling production. Roosevelt used his ability as a speaker to communicate his plan to the American people through "fireside chats". These chats gave the American people confidence in the president. After the first 100 days, Roosevelt's administration focused on getting people back to work. The National Recovery Administration established industry codes, work hours, and wage schedules for various industries. The Civilian Conservation Corp hired many men to work in national parks and forests. The Civil Works Administration was created to employ workers in building roads, schools, and playgrounds. The CWA was followed in favor of the Works Progress Administration which would employ some 3.5 million people in construction projects. Roosevelt's first administration would combat the depression through government spending aimed at providing work for the unemployed.
Roosevelt's presidency indicated a marked change in the role of the federal government. All of his new administrations designed at creating jobs required government money. During the 1930's, the government started spending more money than it was taking in, which created a large deficit. Other administrations engaged in deficit spending, but none on the scale of what Roosevelt's administration did in the 1930's. As shown in a poster touting "A monthly check to you", the Social Security Act of 1935 gave citizens over the age of 65 a monthly check. This act changed the American people's perception of the role of government, and gave many people a sense of entitlement. Some believed that this change in the role of government was a necessary event, as stated in an editorial in "The New Deal in Review" that "the government as an instrument of democratic action in the future has also been strengthened and renovated". Others believed that the new Social Security Act and excessive spending was not good for the role of the government. In an opinion voiced in a letter to Senator Robert Wagner, the writer states that "It seems very apparent to me that the Administration at Washington is accelerating it's pace towards socialism and communism". Undoubtedly, Roosevelt's "New Deal" legislature had drastically changed the role of the federal government in American life. William Lloyd Garrison, Jr. summarized his feeling on the expanding government when he stated that "An enormous outpouring of federal money for human relief and immense sums for public-works projects started to flow to all points of the compass Six billion dollars was added to the national debt a bureaucracy in Washington grew by leaps and bounds and commenced the plan of buying Utopia for cash.". The Roosevelt administration had ultimately changed the role of the government for years to come.
The "New Deal" alleviated some of the problems of the Great Depression, but failed to restore the United States' economy to the prosperity it enjoyed in the 1920's. After Roosevelt was reelected in 1936, he cut government spending because he believed that the economy was recovering. This cut in spending sent the economy into a recession. As shown on the graph illustrating unemployment, there was a sharp increase in the unemployment rate during this recession. Roosevelt's popularity had already taken a strong hit with his "court-packing scheme" aimed at creating a favorable Supreme Court to his New Deal legislature. The New Deal had decreased unemployment, but to many it did not do enough. In an editorial in "The Roosevelt Record" the author chastises the administration for not offering more jobs for African Americans. He state that, "To declare that the Roosevelt administration has tried to include the negro in nearly every phase of its program for the people of the nation is not to ignore the instances where government policies have harmed the race " Roosevelt also came under attack from liberal Democrats such as Huey Long who advocated a socialist program under the title of "Share Our Wealth". These liberal democrats forced Roosevelt to push his rhetoric farther towards the left. Roosevelt's New Deal legislature succeeded in some aspects, but leaves one to wonder whether it was worth the enormous cost or the strong doctrinal shift in the role of government.
The Great Depression was a trying time in American history. Unemployment reached levels that are unknown to us today and millions lost all of their life savings. Franklin Roosevelt offered hope to the American people in a time of need. The New Deal offered sweeping legislature that radically changed the role of the American government. For all of Roosevelt's efforts, the American economy never extricated itself fully from the Depression. It would take the most horrific war of the twentieth century to bolster economic production and finally end the depression.