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The war exacted a cruel economic and human toll from the core societies of the advanced industrialized world, including conspicuously Britain, France, and Germany.

The lingering distortions in trade, capital flows, and exchange rates occasioned by the punitive Treaty of Versailles, as the economist John Maynard Keynes observed at the time, managed to perpetuate in peacetime the economic disruptions that had wrought so much hardship in wartime. To those abundant physical and institutional ills might be added a rigidly doctrinaire faith in laissez-faire, balanced national budgets, and the gold standard.

The United States had participated only marginally in the First World War, but the experience was sufficiently costly that Americans turned their country decidedly inward in the s. Congress in effectively closed the American market to foreign vendors with the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, among the highest in United States history, and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff eight years later.

Washington also insisted that the Europeans repay the entirety of the loans extended to them by the US Treasury during the war.


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And in the republic for the first time in its history imposed a strict limit on the number of immigrants who could annually enter the country. Among those eventually excluded though none could yet know it were thousands of Jewish would-be fugitives from Nazi persecution. Militarily, diplomatically, commercially, financially, even morally, Americans thus turned their backs on the outside world.

American prosperity in the s was real enough, but it was not nearly as pervasive as legend has portrayed. And well before the Great Depression, almost as soon as the Great War concluded in , a severe economic crisis had beset the farm-belt. It did not entirely lift until the next world war, more than twenty years later. Virtually none enjoyed such common urban amenities as electricity and indoor plumbing.

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Other maladies began to appear, faintly at first, but with mounting urgency as the Depression began to unfold. Some twenty-five thousand banks, most of them highly fragile "unitary" institutions with tiny service areas, little or no diversification of clients or assets, and microscopic capitalization, constituted the astonishingly vulnerable foundation of the national credit.

As for government—public spending at all levels, including towns, cities, counties, states, and the federal government itself, amounted only to about 15 percent of the gross domestic product in the s, one-fifth of which was federal expenditures. Ideology aside, its very size made the federal government in the s a kind of ninety-pound weakling in the fight against the looming depression.

Then in the autumn of , the bubble burst. The Great Crash in October sent stock prices plummeting and all but froze the international flow of credit. Banks failed by the thousands. Businesses collapsed by the tens of thousands. Herbert Hoover, elected just months earlier amid lavish testimonials to his peerless competence, saw his presidency shattered and his reputation forever shredded because of his inability to tame the depression monster—though, again contrary to legend, he toiled valiantly, using what tools he had and even inventing some new ones, as he struggled to get the upper hand.

By , some thirteen million Americans were out of work, one out of every four able and willing workers in the country. Even those horrendous numbers could not begin to take the full measure of the human misery that unemployment entailed. Given the demography of the labor force and prevailing cultural norms that kept most women—and virtually all married women—out of the wage-paying economy, a 25 percent unemployment rate meant that, for all practical purposes, every fourth household in America had no breadwinner.

Many Americans came to believe that they were witnessing not just another downswing of the business cycle, but the collapse of a historic economic, political, and social order, perhaps even the end of the American way of life.

The Great Depression

Yet curiously, as many observers noted, most Americans remained inexplicably docile, even passive, in the face of this unprecedented calamity. Among those who were perplexed by the apparent submissiveness of the American people as the Depression descended was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Repeatedly he spoke of this, saying that it was enormously puzzling to him that the ordeal of the past three years had been endured so peaceably. Those elusive but deep-seated and powerful American cultural characteristics go a long way toward explaining the challenge that faced any leader seeking to broaden the powers of government to combat the Depression.

Elected to the presidency in on a platform that promised "a new deal for the American people," Franklin Roosevelt now took up that challenge. He faced a task of compound difficulty: he had to find ways to counter-punch to the Depression crisis, put in place reforms that would make future such crises less likely, and convince his countrymen of the legitimacy of his precedent-shattering initiatives. FDR was destined to hold office for more than a dozen years.

He was thrice re-elected, a record matched by no previous incumbent and forbidden to all future presidents by the passage of the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution in FDR was then and has remained ever since a surpassingly enigmatic figure. His personality perplexed his contemporaries and has challenged his biographers ever since. His long-serving secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, called him "the most complicated human being I ever knew.

It is appropriate to call it a vision: that American life could be made more secure. Roosevelt, like Hoover before him, never did find a remedy for the Great Depression. It hung heavily over the land for nearly a dozen years of suffering and anxiety without equal in the history of the republic. For the decade of the s as a whole, it averaged 17 percent.

They gave birth to other institutions as well, including the Federal Housing Authority FHA and the Federal National Mortgage Association "Fannie Mae" to make mortgage lending more secure, thereby unleashing the money and the energy that made a majority of Americans homeowners and built the suburbs of the Sunbelt after World War II. They passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, abolishing at last the scourge of child labor and establishing minimum wage guarantees.

Most famously, with the Social Security Act of they erected a comprehensive system of unemployment and old-age insurance to protect laid-off workers and the elderly against what FDR called "the hazards and vicissitudes of life. These were on the whole market-enhancing, not market-encroaching initiatives. They sought not to nationalize core industries as commonly occurred in European states , nor even to attempt central direction of the national economy, but rather to use federal power in artful ways to make the private economy function more efficiently and less riskily as well as more fairly.

The New Deal serves to this day as a political talisman, invoked variously by Left or Right to promote or denounce activist government or an enlarged public sphere. So by what historical standard should the New Deal be judged? If appraised on grounds of swiftly achieving economic recovery, despite some modest success, the New Deal must be declared a failure.

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And on those grounds the New Deal can be said to have succeeded handsomely. Roosevelt most explicitly acknowledged that larger ambition in his second Inaugural Address in , when he boasted that "our progress out of the depression is obvious," but then added the startling observation that "such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster.

Artists of the New Deal

What could Roosevelt have meant when he linked economic recovery with political disaster? A clue may be found in the passage that immediately followed on that Inaugural Day. He was talking, rather, about those farmers and immigrants and African Americans who had long languished on the margins of American life and whom he hoped to usher into its main stream. One test of the logic of this argument might be to ask: If FDR had somehow found the solution to the Depression by, say, the end of the fabled but in the last analysis scarcely consequential Hundred Days in , would there have been a New Deal as we know it?

Roosevelt won an overwhelming victory in the presidential election.

By Inauguration Day March 4, , every U. Nonetheless, FDR as he was known projected a calm energy and optimism, famously declaring "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Stories from the Great Depression

Among the programs and institutions of the New Deal that aided in recovery from the Great Depression were the Tennessee Valley Authority TVA , which built dams and hydroelectric projects to control flooding and provide electric power to the impoverished Tennessee Valley region, and the Works Progress Administration WPA , a permanent jobs program that employed 8. When the Great Depression began, the United States was the only industrialized country in the world without some form of unemployment insurance or social security. In , Congress passed the Social Security Act , which for the first time provided Americans with unemployment, disability and pensions for old age.

After showing early signs of recovery beginning in the spring of , the economy continued to improve throughout the next three years, during which real GDP adjusted for inflation grew at an average rate of 9 percent per year. Though the economy began improving again in , this second severe contraction reversed many of the gains in production and employment and prolonged the effects of the Great Depression through the end of the decade.

German aggression led war to break out in Europe in , and the WPA turned its attention to strengthening the military infrastructure of the United States, even as the country maintained its neutrality. One-fifth of all Americans receiving federal relief during the Great Depression were black, most in the rural South. But farm and domestic work, two major sectors in which blacks were employed, were not included in the Social Security Act, meaning there was no safety net in times of uncertainty. Rather than fire domestic help, private employers could simply pay them less without legal repercussions.

And those relief programs for which blacks were eligible on paper were rife with discrimination in practice, since all relief programs were administered locally. The number of African-Americans working in government tripled. There was one group of Americans who actually gained jobs during the Great Depression: Women. From to , the number of employed women in the United States rose 24 percent from The 22 percent decline in marriage rates between and also created an increase in single women in search of employment.