Tuesday, February 24, 2009
That Long Empty Road: America and the Great Depression
A note from Radarsite: In our current increasingly frightening financial crises, we are it seems being continuously bombarded with references and analogies to the Great Depression. But how much do we really know about this great American tragedy? Most of us are aware of those old familiar images of veterans selling apples on the street corners of our great cities, the bread lines and the soup kitchens, the catastrophic devastations of the Dust Bowl. But many of us would perhaps be surprised, as I was, to learn of some of the more drastic repercussions of this monstrous economic meltdown. Many of us would perhaps be shocked to learn just how close we came to losing it all. If, as some pundits dramatically proclaim, we are indeed at the threshold of yet another Great Depression, it would be in our interest to take a closer look at that original disaster.
In an earlier Radarsite article Hollywood and the Jews, we examined the origins of Hollywood's historic 'left turn', the role of Hollywood's Jews, and the ever-present specter of anti-semitism. Here, we move beyond that glittering fantasy world of Hollywood to the cities and farmlands of America in an attempt to better understand this grave and critical period in our American history, which we refer to as the Great Depression. - rg
Hollywood’s traditional political position — leftist (mostly Democratic) opposition to Capitalist (mostly but not always Republican) governments, though temporarily suspended during the astounding Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1938, can be traced back to at least the early 1930s when active far-left pro-Communist groups and guilds flourished under the protective umbrella of the seemingly benign “Popular Fronts.” However, to better understand the origins of Hollywood’s significant “left-turn”, we must go back a little further.
Just two short years after Al Jolson’s wildly popular (but by today’s standards, monstrously politically incorrect) “blackface” minstrel Jazz Singer (1927- D: Alan Crosland) launched us into the exciting -- and for some major Hollywood silent film stars, career-ending -- era of the “talkies,”* the skies over America, and most of the rest of the world, began to darken. On October 28, 1929, “Black Friday,” the U.S. Stock Exchange in New York City collapsed, plunging the world into an era of unprecedented financial chaos and political turmoil. To a stunned American public it seemed that, without any warning, in just a matter of days the unthinkable had happened—our eminently successful system of Capitalism had simply failed.
Of course nothing in history is simple. Beneath the purported gaiety of the “Roaring Twenties” and the fun-loving, self-indulgent escapism of the “Jazz Age,” there was another darker but equally valid tale of the twenties. In 1929, well before the onset of the Great Depression, more than half of all Americans were living below a minimum subsistence level. Throughout the 1920s, rural America—where more than half of all Americans lived—had been in a long, downward spiral. While the annual per capita income was only $750, farm people earned a mere $273, making the farm worker’s life one of unrelenting hardship and privation. In 1930, 95% of the rural population was still living without electricity.* Between 1920 and 1930, prices for crops fell by 40 to 60%, while the value of farmland fell 30 to 40%.
As bad as it was for the farmers, the cities were hit even harder—especially those that relied on heavy industry. From 1932 to 1933 (the worst years of the Great Depression), auto manufacturing fell from 5.3 million manufactured in 1929 to 1.3 million in 1932, helping to make Detroit the worst hit city of the Depression. Industrial stocks lost 80% of their value since 1930, while banks lost $2 billion in deposits since 1929. In other areas, construction was down by two billion dollars since 1926, and construction “new starts” fell to 10% of the norm. This precipitous downturn resulted in the loss of two million high paying jobs in the construction industry. To add insult to injury, in what was then termed “technological unemployment,” an estimated 200,000 workers per year were being replaced by automatic or semi-automatic machinery.
Although almost every class of American society was affected in some way, those with the least were hurt the most—90% of the poorest communities in the country were affected by the Depression. Thirteen million Americans had lost their jobs since 1929. Only one quarter of the unemployed were receiving relief. Thirty million Americans were without any income at all. By 1933, unemployment had reached its record high of 24.9%.
The word “hobo” entered our lexicon, as two million mostly young men roamed the country desperately looking for work. As men lost their ability to earn wages, they soon lost their sense of identity and self-esteem and the number of desertions (“poor man’s divorces”) increased. Families were torn asunder. For the first time in 300 years, America’s population rates actually decreased. There were an estimated 200,000 vagrant children on the road (one in five of our nation’s 21 million children were going to bed hungry, while the number of children placed in orphanages rose by 50%). We had, indeed, entered a “Dark Valley”* of apparent hopelessness and despair.
As though things weren’t bad enough, Nature herself seemed complicit in our national tragedy. Some thirty years before the First World War, homesteaders settled in the southern parts of the Great Plains—large sections of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado—planting wheat, row crops, and raising cattle on land that had originally been hardy grass plains. Soon the soil was exhausted and left exposed to the traditional droughts, torrential rains, and winds. Then, beginning in the early 1930s, the region experienced an unusually severe and long-lasting drought and the soil began to blow away. The results were devastating. Thousands of families, near penniless, their farms ruined, hoping to start a new life in the legendary promised land of California, left what had now come to be known as the “Dustbowl” and began their painful, and often humiliating, migrations westward (earning along the way the deprecating nickname “Okies” and providing the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s “Joad” family in his epic, previously mentioned, masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath).
Across the Atlantic, on hearing of the New York Stock Market Crash, our envious ideological rivals, Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, chortled with satisfaction and uttered their self-congratulatory “I told you so” having (they said) long ago foretold the inevitable demise of corrupt American/Jewish Capitalism. Their glee was, however, short lived as the gigantic, unstoppable tsunami wave of the Great American Depression was already rolling towards their unprotected shores.
For a while America seemed to be teetering on the brink of anarchy. As the Depression deepened, there was a growing sense of anger and resentment; there was talk of civil war and rebellion. And not just talk. In 1933, the so-called “Business Plot” came to light, when one of our most respected military figures, Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, came before a Congressional committee and testified that he had been approached by a group of several wealthy, well-known East Coast businessmen (allegedly including the DuPont family) to become part of a plot to overthrow Roosevelt in a fascist military coup. --“We need a fascist government in this country to save the Nation from the Communists who want to tear it down and wreck all that we have built in America,” ranted the groups purported leader, New York businessman Gerald C. MacGuire. “The only men who have the patriotism to do it are the soldiers, and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He could organize one million men overnight.” -- Thanks almost entirely to General Butler’s timely testimony, the proposed right-wing coup was foiled. Although a full Congressional investigation ensued, no one was ever charged in the case and it eventually disappeared from the headlines (causing endless speculation among liberal conspiracy-theorists of a right-wing cover-up).
However, this was just one threat among many. After the apparent failure of Capitalism, for the first time in our Nation’s history there was a distinct possibility that one of the three dark isms—Communism, Socialism, or Fascism—would creep out of the shadows to claim what was left of our broken American Dream. In the 1932 elections the Communist Party’s William Z. Foster won 103,000 votes; while the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas received 881,000 votes. Dozens of loony left-wing and right-wing movements crawled out of woodwork. The popular liberal “Utopian socialist” author Upton Sinclair advocated the creation of a “network of workers villages, model factories and rural colonies where production-for-use would replace production-for-profit”. In 1932, Howard Smith founded the “Technocracy Movement” which sought to “abolish the ownership and price system [and] give power to a technological elite.”
Although their coup had never materialized, the DuPont family, together with the Pew family (Sun Oil) and the Rockefeller Associates never relented in their vicious propaganda attacks against Roosevelt and his New Deal -- which they characterized as “Jewish Communism”. To “save the Republic” and to further their anti-Semitic, anti-Communist causes, they provided major support for the fledgling American Liberty League, which in turn spawned a whole new series of extreme right-wing groups and paramilitary bands, such as the Sentinels of the Republic, the Minutemen and Minutewomen, and—picking up on the Nazi Party’s apparent love of “shirt movements” (the Brownshirts and the Blackshirts)—they formed their own Silver Shirt Squad of the American Storm Troopers. These were followed in New York City with General Art Smith’s Khaki Shirts (who wanted to abolish Congress altogether and form “the largest Army in the world”); then, yet another Silver Shirt movement organized by North Carolina’s William Kelley, whose members were described as the “cream of Protestant Christian manhood,” and whose rather broad mandate was to fight against the “Jewish Conspiracy.”
Father Charles Coughlin, the immensely popular and controversial “radio priest of Detroit,” who began broadcasting his weekly sermons in 1926, was by 1931 reaching an astonishing 40 million listeners (one-third of the U.S. population). Considered “the most prominent Catholic spokesman on political and financial issues,” he endorsed FDR in the 1932 elections and was initially a strong supporter of the New Deal reforms. In 1934, however, he dramatically changed course and began denouncing Roosevelt as a “tool of Wall Street.” Virulently anti-Communist and anti-Semitic, by 1936, he was increasingly expressing sympathy with Hitler and Mussolini, blaming the Depression on (what else?) an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers.” In a speech on November 20, 1938, just two weeks after Germany’s infamous Kristallnacht, where innocent Jews across Germany were savagely attacked and killed and Jewish businesses and homes burned, Coughlin blamed the Jewish victims, claiming that, “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted.” By 1938 he was allied with the German-American Bund in a Christian Front against “Jews, unions, and Communists.” Finally, the new NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) code of 1939 forced radio stations to cancel Coughlin’s broadcasts and with the onset of the war his newspaper was subsequently banned from the mail under the Espionage Act for being pro-Nazi.
According to one prescient observer, we are now entering an "Axial Age". We are facing a great crossroads. Which direction will we take? Right, left, or straight off the precipice? God grant us the wisdom to make the right choices.
* For further reading on this subject Radarsite highly recommends The Dark Valley by Piers Brendon (Knopf)
This article was drawn from my yet-to-be-completed The Secret of Samson's Hair
Posted by Roger W. Gardner at 5:36 PM