American History
The Great Depression

*Before the 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 task.

*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.




This page last updated 3 October, 2009.