Economic historians differ as to whether the October 1929 New York stock market crash caused the Great Depression of the 1930s. The rumblings of depression had gone on since the end of the First World War, as returning soldiers competed for jobs and industry geared down from its wartime footing. American agriculture was already in a state of crisis in the 1920s. Confidence in the economy plummeted after the crash, spending fell, causing business and economic activity to descend into a vicious circle of decline, despair, and fear. Unemployment increased to record levels. Depressions and financial panics had affected the United States before, but the nation was little prepared for financial stagnation of this magnitude.
The depression hit agriculture, which was in poor shape at that outset, particularly hard. In an unfortunate combination of circumstances, an ecological disaster coincided with the financial difficulties. The vast agricultural center of the country of the Great Plains suffered from drought during much of the 1930s. Windstorms swept up the unprotected soil into immense black clouds (“Black Blizzards”) that choked everything it their path. Up to three-quarters of the usable top soil of the region disappeared. This was the “Dust Bowl” era, during which over a million families lost their farms. Many became migrant workers, as portrayed in John Steinbeck’s novel of the era The Grapes of Wrath. In the cities, as whole industries failed, life seemed equally bleak.
The depression also saw the beginning of the presidential career of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office in 1933. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” instituted dozens of social programs in a largely unsuccessful attempt to roll back the depression. The depression saw the creation of towns of homeless people, called “Hoovervilles” (after Herbert Hoover, the previous president, thought responsible for the difficulties), largely built from cardboard boxes and anything handy. In the cities, former businesses executives and bankers sold apples on the street, and people lined up at soup kitchens in the hope of a meal. Despite the repeal of Prohibition, a new era of crime and gangster activity came into being, seeing celebrated criminals and bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd. The 1930s were probably the only era during which emigration from the United States exceeded immigration to the United States.
One effect of the depression and the New Deal was a massive increase in the size of the federal government. Despite growing international troubles including the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe, large segments of the American public became isolationists, strong believers in avoiding participation in Europe’s wars. Many people saw no benefit in America’s previous participation in the first world conflict. Nevertheless, Europe’s road to war during the late 1930s had positive economic consequences for the United States. Orders for weapons from the Europeans helped elevate the economy. As war approached, the government’s own heavy military spending kept up the economic momentum. Although the depression finally lifted, it left lasting scars on the American psyche.
When the Second World War began in Europe in September 1939, Roosevelt’s government maneuvered to help the British with supplies and weapons for their struggle against Nazi Germany and yet steered clear of actual commitment of troops, given the abiding isolationist sentiment of large segments of the American population. The war continued for two full years without American participation.
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