The Great Depression (1920–1940)
Beginning in 1929, the United States saw one of the most dramatic upheavals in its history, in just a few short years the nation crashed precipitously from the prosperity and glamour of the Roaring Twenties to the desperate hardship and poverty of the Great Depression. Never had the highs been higher or the lows been lower. The Great Depression—the worst economic crisis in the country’s history—left an indelible scar on American society and culture, causing millions of people to languish in joblessness, homelessness, and starvation for nearly a decade. In an American culture that measured self-worth by success, many breadwinners from the Roaring Twenties felt deep humiliation when they found themselves unable even to put food on their families’ tables. Even today, nearly every survivor of the Great Depression can still recall the feelings of hunger and desperation.
The Great Depression in the United States also caused a major worldwide depression, as virtually every industrialized economy—Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and others—was brought to its knees in the 1930s. The fiscally conservative U.S. government, led by then-president Herbert Hoover, refused to provide any direct relief to the masses. Britain and France took out their economic woes on Germany and demanded payment of exorbitantly large World War I reparations. In this sense, Germany was perhaps hit the hardest, as its economy had already experienced the devastating effects of hyperinflation before the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929. The German economy was saved from complete collapse—only temporarily—by the United States’ offer of the 1924 Dawes Plan to reschedule reparation payments. Even with the aid, the emerging German leader, Adolf Hitler, could only make vague promises to strengthen and revitalize the country’s failing economy.
Not until the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt did the United States begin its long, slow recovery process. FDR’s New Deal policies and programs not only provided relief, recovery, and reform but also drastically changed the federal government’s role in politics and society. During FDR’s terms in office in the 1930s, the federal government had unprecedented control over and direct involvement in the daily lives of American people. Many critics denounced the New Deal, saying that the policies were transforming the United States into a welfare state. Indeed, the budget deficit skyrocketed every year and the national debt more than doubled in just ten years. Roosevelt applied the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes to his new domestic policies, and the positive results were so widespread that even long after the Great Depression was over, Democrats continued to fight for more government intervention in the economy, greater redistribution of wealth, and increased aid for the neediest.
Despite the criticism that the New Deal attracted, its policies and legislation must be considered a success simply by virtue of the fact that they enabled millions of Americans to survive the Great Depression. Unlike his Republican predecessor, Hoover, Roosevelt’s goal was to help as many Americans as possible, regardless of Congress’s or the Supreme Court’s disapproval. Whereas Hoover’s perspective had been to wait for the storm to pass and let the economy correct itself, Roosevelt took immediate action, passing legislation that created new jobs, constructed houses and shelters, and handed out food to the hungry. Roosevelt did not stop with the average American: he helped inflate agricultural commodity prices in order to assist farmers, he helped banks return to solid ground, and he greatly improved the national infrastructure through public works programs.
Despite these numerous benefits, however, the New Deal ultimately failed to end the Great Depression. More than ten years after the Crash of 1929, millions of Americans were still hungry, homeless, and unemployed. Some historians argue that Roosevelt could have ended the depression completely if he had put more federal dollars into the economy, but this conclusion is debatable. The depression ended only after the United States entered World War II in 1941, when the increased demand for wartime commodities such as ships, tanks, and munitions gave the U.S. economy the jump start it needed.