Hard Times in the Land of Plenty
Brinkley: When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as thirty-second President of the United States in 1933, America was deep into the economic depression that ensued from "Black Tuesday," October 24, 1929, the day the stock market crashed and sent the country into a panic. By 1933, one out of every four American workers was unemployed, twelve million in all. At the time there were no federal welfare programs.
President Herbert Hoover had taken the position that doing nothing was the best policy. This hardly comforted the starving throngs at soup kitchens or reassured the homeless families who packed into Salvation Army shelters. Across the nation, urban centers had turned into desolation rows. Grim shantytowns, bitterly dubbed "Hoovervilles," sprang up out of old crates and cartons in many cities, while a drought across the Southwest shriveled crops and turned the Great Plains into a wasteland.
In these "Dust Bowl" conditions a single storm could blow away three hundred million tons of topsoil, which is like tossing 3,000 hundred-acre farms into the wind. Farm families took to the highways, many in old jalopies, headed west hoping to sell their labor in the green valleys of California. Millions of men and boys, and women too, crossed the country in freight cars looking for work, living in hobo "jungles," asking for handouts at backdoors. Auto maker Henry Ford is reported to have remarked, without irony, that the young men and boys crossing the country in search of work were getting a good education.
The Great Depression threw the vast majority of Americans upon hard times, from the farms to the cities, and cast millions of American families into utter desperation. Failure and helplessness dropped like a shroud over the spirit of a starving nation; suicides soared as more and more people gave up hope of finding jobs to feed their children. When millions went hungry, farmers burned their crops or left them to rot in the fields rather than sell them at prices below the cost of production.
Suffering was the word of the day, and the song which best captured the era was Yip Harburg's "Brother Can You Spare A Dime." Song lyrics: "They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead. Why should I be standing in line, waiting for bread? Say, don't you remember I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?"
FDR and the New Deal
The new president was no stranger to suffering, though of a different kind. Franklin Roosevelt was raised in a world of privilege and wealth, and had the patina and optimism of his class. But at the age of thirty-nine he was stricken with polio and left partially paralyzed. For the rest of his life he would continue to be confined to a wheelchair, able to stand only with the aid of heavy metal braces locked around his legs.
For his first inauguration, Roosevelt was determined to lift his nation's mood, to electrify his countrymen through his own undaunted optimism. Roosevelt: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." A rain-soaked crowd at the Capitol as well as some sixty million radio listeners at home, saw that they had a new champion in the White House. And that champion was a contradiction in quite a few terms: an aristocratic Democrat who not only sympathized with the downtrodden but meant to put the full force of his executive powers to smashing the grasp of economic despair.
In this very first speech he made as President, Roosevelt made good on his campaign pledge of offering Americans a "New Deal," his collective remedy for the Great Depression. The deal consisted of a series of bold economic experiments his administration would launch to prove that both American democracy and its kind of capitalism were alive and well, and better than any other option. At its core the New Deal would funnel federal money to the relief victims of the Depression.
FDR proved a genius at bolstering the confidence of the American people. Over the next eight years his administration rolled out a string of new programs. The federal government became a virtual alphabet soup: The WPA, CCC, TVA, NRA, FSA, AAA, among many others.
Roosevelt's New Deal programs were most remarkable for their number and their commitment to making the federal government an active instrument in the pursuit of social justice. With the help of congressional Democrats and progressive Republicans, FDR rescued the banking system with deposit insurance; regulated America's stock exchanges back to stability; abandoned the gold standard to raise wages and prices; shored up the nation's faltering rail system; sent five hundred million dollars in direct relief to the states; saved a fifth of all American homes from foreclosure, and did the same for thousands of farms by refinancing their mortgages.
Roosevelt sold his New Deal program through the new science of public relations. He held an unprecedented number of press conferences, hired the first White House press secretary, and broadcast his empathy with the country's suffering into every living room through "fireside chats" on radio. The PR-minded Washington bureau chief of CBS Radio first suggested the term "fireside chat," but it was Roosevelt himself who targeted the audience, writing, "I tried to picture a mason at work on a new building, a girl behind a counter, and a farmer in his field."