Great Depression, America’s unemployment rate had never been above
3.7%. By 1933 it reached 25%. Americans had to cut
back: milk was replaced by water and meat completely vanished
from most meals. Even those who had money learnt to save it
carefully, because they might lose their jobs at any moment, and many
of those who had jobs were working fewer hours for lower wages,
bringing home paychecks that might have been reduced by a third or
more. It seemed that the American Dream was over.
*Read from ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’ on page 374.
*Many people had their homes foreclosed upon or could not pay their
rent, and ended up homeless, sometimes living in cardboard or plywood
shacks grouped together in shanty-towns called Hoovervilles.
Those who could stood in bread lines or went to soup kitchens where
food was given away free by charities.
*In the South, as crop prices fell further and further, farmers lost
their farms to bank foreclosures and became tenant farmers or
sharecroppers. Others moved west looking for work, but even
Western farmers were in trouble, as a long drought had dried up the
soil on many Western farms. Eventually dams were built out west
that created reservoirs to make droughts less destructive, but in the
1920s and early 1930s, there was no such help.
*Tornadoes and other high winds blew this loose dirt around and turned
the region into a Dust Bowl. These farmers moved west, too,
looking for work picking oranges or doing other work in
California. Although they went there from all parts of the
country, so many came from Oklahoma that as group the farmers who went
to the west coast looking for work were called Okies.
*Throughout America, the Depression did not just affect people’s
income, it affected how they felt about themselves and their place in
society. Men who had once been their families’ breadwinners felt
worthless. Women sometimes became breadwinners, going to work at
odd jobs, often doing sewing work. Children could tell their
parents were depressed, even if they often did not understand
why. While these shared hardships brought some families closer
together, some families broke up under the stress.
*Things were particularly hard for minorities, particularly the
African-Americans who had moved north in the Great Migration. Due
to prejudice, they were often the last men hired and the first ones
fired. In 1932, the black unemployment rate was about 50%
*Mexican-Americans faced discrimination in the Southwest, where many
Anglo-Americans demanded their repatriation—return to Mexico (by force,
if necessary)—and hundreds of thousands did return to Mexico.
Nonetheless, many more remained in the Southwest.
*Herbert Hoover insisted that prosperity is just around the corner, and
he tried to bring America out of the Great Depression (he first used
the term depression, thinking it sounded better than the 19th century
terms ‘crash’ and ‘panic’).
*Hoover tried to keep the government from giving direct aid, feeling
that was not the Federal Government’s role. He tried, instead, to
encourage volunteerism, asking businesses to keep employing the same
people at the same wages and asking workers not to demand more.
He asked the rich to give more to charity.
Volunteerism had worked during and after World War I, but it was not
enough to correct the Great Depression (even though many more people
did give to charity and volunteer in soup kitchens and other charities).
*Hoover did want the government to cut taxes, lower interest rates,
create public works programmes, and even eventually began to lend money
to large corporations through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation,
hoping this would allow them to keep their workers employed, but for
the most part it did not. One of the few successes was the
construction of Boulder Dam, later renamed Hoover Dam. However,
the government’s first efforts did not reverse the Depression.
*For one thing, Hoover had faith in localism, and expected local
governments to solve local problems, knowing that if enough local
governments could solve their problems, eventually all the country’s
problems could be solved. However, the country was now so
interconnected by roads, railroads, and communication that each area’s
problems affected many others, and local governments were not up to the
*Some people wanted radical solutions. Some communists wanted a
socialist revolution that would make the government take care of the
people. Some fascists wanted a strong national government that
would force people to work together. Most Americans, though,
still had faith in progress and democracy—the American Dream.
*The most radical movement during the Depression was the creation of
the Bonus Army. In 1924, Congress had promised to pay all World
War I veterans a lump sum pension in 1945. However, as the
Depression got worse, 20,000 unemployed veterans marched on Washington
in 1932, demanding early payment of those pensions. When they
reached Washington, they set up camp outside town, and rioted when the
police tried to force them to leave.
*Hoover sympathised with the Bonus Army, but he did not want them
threatening the government, so he sent Douglas MacArthur to run them
off. He used excessive force, though, with the cavalry pulling
their sabres, tear gas being fired into the camp, and US soldiers
marching against ragged veterans with bayonets. As Americans saw
pictures of this and heard reports of hundreds of veterans being
wounded or killed, Hoover’s popularity, already low, fell further, and,
although he ran for re-election in 1932, had no real chance of winning.