The Great Depression (1920–1940)
The First New Deal: 1933–1934
The First Hundred Days
Americans voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 on the assumption that the Democrats would dole out more federal assistance than Hoover and the Republicans had. Indeed, immediately after taking the oath of office, FDR set out to provide relief, recovery, and reform in his bundle of programs known as the New Deal.
Roosevelt drew much of his inspiration for the New Deal from the writings of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who believed that a government’s deficit spending could prime the economic pump and jump-start the economy. With the support of a panicked Democratic Congress, Roosevelt created most of the “alphabet agencies” of the First New Deal within his landmark First Hundred Days in office.
The Banking Acts
On March 6, 1933, two days after becoming president, Roosevelt declared a five-day national bank holiday to close banks temporarily. During Hoover’s presidency, roughly 1,500 banks had closed each year, and FDR hoped that a short break would give the surviving banks time to reopen on more solid footing. Several days later, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Relief Act, which gave Roosevelt the power to regulate banking transactions and foreign exchange.
Several months later, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Banking Reform Act to protect savings deposits. The act, in turn, created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insured an individual’s savings of up to $5,000 (today, it insures deposits of up to $100,000). The act also regulated lending policies and forbade banks from investing in the stock market. After the banking crisis was resolved, Roosevelt aired the first of his “fireside chats” to over 50 million radio listeners, encouraging Americans to redeposit their money in the newly opened banks.
The Civilian Conservation Corps
In March 1933, Congress created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which hired unemployed young men to work on environmental conservation projects throughout the country. For a wage of thirty dollars a month, men worked on flood control and reforestation projects, helped improve national parks, and built many public roads. Approximately 3 million men worked in CCC camps during the program’s nine-year existence.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration
The “Hundred Days Congress” also created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), in May 1933, to dole out roughly $500 million to the states. About half of this money was earmarked to bail out bankrupt state and local governments. States matched the other half (three state dollars for every one federal dollar) and distributed it directly to the people. FERA also created the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which helped generate temporary labor for those most in need.
The Agricultural Adjustment Administration
Roosevelt also encouraged the creation of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) to assist America’s farmers. The AAA temporarily reset prices for farm commodities, including corn, wheat, rice, milk, cotton, and livestock, and then began subsidizing farmers to reduce production. Before the depression, many debt-ridden farmers had increased crop production in order to earn more money. Ironically, this increased production had led to overproduction, which flooded the market and drove prices down, forcing farmers to plant even more the next year in a never-ending cycle. The AAA, however, began paying farmers extra to plant less or destroy their surplus crops in order to raise prices again. Congress also passed the Farm Credit Act to provide loans to farmers in danger of bankruptcy.
The AAA was quite controversial, as many critics wondered why landowners rather than sharecroppers and tenant farmers were receiving federal aid. Indeed, some landowners who received aid unjustly used it to purchase farm equipment, which had the potential to eliminate farm owners’ need for sharecroppers and tenant farmers entirely. Furthermore, many poorer and hungrier Americans were outraged that the government was paying farmers money to destroy perfectly edible crops in order to inflate prices. Despite these criticisms, however, the AAA did manage to raise prices to their pre–World War I highs.
The Tennessee Valley Authority
Congress also created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), whose goal was to modernize and reduce unemployment in the Tennessee River valley, one of the poorest and hardest-hit regions in the country. The agency hired local workers to construct a series of dams and hydroelectric power plants, which brought cheap electricity to thousands of people. The public corporation also created affordable employee housing, manufactured cheap fertilizer, and drained thousands of acres for farming.
The TVA, like the AAA, was highly controversial. Many conservatives claimed that government production of electricity was a mild form of socialism and that it disrupted market prices too much. Competing electric companies also attacked the TVA for selling cheaper electricity and lowering their profits. Still, the TVA had such a profound impact on the economy and quality of life in the Tennessee River valley region that the federal government initiated similar projects throughout the West and South. Within a decade, many major U.S. rivers were set up to produce hydroelectric power that provided both electricity and jobs.
The National Industrial Recovery Act
The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act was the federal government’s first attempt to revive the economy as a whole. The bill created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to stimulate industrial production and improve competition by drafting corporate codes of conduct. The NRA also sought to limit production of consumer goods to drive up prices. Furthermore, the act helped set up the Public Works Administration (PWA) to construct public roads, bridges, and buildings. In accordance with Keynesian economic theories, Roosevelt believed that improving the public infrastructure would put more money into the economy.
Restructuring American Finance
Finally, Roosevelt also lobbied Congress to establish new regulations on the financial sector of the economy. After taking office, he took the country off the gold standard, which allowed citizens and foreign countries to exchange paper money for gold. To prevent people from hoarding the precious metal, the president also ordered all private gold stocks to be turned over to the U.S. Treasury in exchange for paper dollars. Congress also created the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate trading on Wall Street and curb the out-of-control speculation that had led to the Crash of 1929.
The Three Rs and Their Legacy
Although the New Deal sometimes comes across as a cohesive package, much of the individual legislation passed during the First Hundred Days was conceived on the fly. So many special interest groups, such as big business and organized labor, were hounding the government for change that Roosevelt and Congress often felt they were being pulled in opposite directions.
Nevertheless, the New Deal policies did much to get Americans back on their feet. They not only provided relief, recovery, and reform but also drastically changed the federal government’s role in politics and society. Roosevelt’s successful application of Keynes’s economic theories transformed the Democrats into social welfare advocates. Even decades after the Great Depression, Democratic politicians would continue fighting for more government intervention in the economy, redistribution of wealth, and aid for the neediest.
Much of the legislation that the Hundred Days Congress drafted doled out immediate relief for the American people that President Hoover and the Republicans had failed to provide. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s relief assistance, for example, provided millions of Americans with enough money to make ends meet. The Civil Works Administration put the unemployed to work, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Recovery Administration, and the Public Works Administration kept millions of others alive as well. Americans were so relieved by the federal government’s quick action that many became die-hard Democrats and Roosevelt fans. The president’s optimism and can-do attitude, combined with the success of his immediate relief programs, made him almost politically untouchable during his first term.
Many of the same programs designed to provide immediate relief were also geared toward long-term economic recovery. The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration put millions of men to work not only to keep them employed but also to improve the national infrastructure. When the United States finally emerged from the Great Depression during World War II, it had hundreds of new roads and public buildings, widespread electrical power, and replenished resources for industry.
The third goal of the New Deal policies was to reform the banking and financial sector of the economy to curb bad lending practices, poor trading techniques, and corruption. The president’s decision to take the country off the gold standard proved to be a smart move because it boosted people’s confidence in the U.S. dollar. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, created under the Glass-Steagall Act, eliminated untrustworthy banks that had plagued the country for more than a century. Once Americans became confident that their funds would be safe, the number of bank deposits surged. Likewise, the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934, which weeded out bad investment habits, gave Americans more confidence in the stock market.
The Good Neighbor Policy
Although foreign policy often got lost in the shuffle amid the domestic economic concerns of the New Deal, Roosevelt did create a major international initiative with Latin America in the Good Neighbor Policy of 1933 and 1934. As part of the initiative, Roosevelt embarked on a tour of the region; signed new, friendlier treaties with several Latin American countries; pledged to avoid military intervention in Latin America; and shunned the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine by withdrawing troops from several countries.