The Great Depression of the 1930s was a ten-year long economic nightmare with 1932 being dubbed the cruelest year. People have dated their lives around this era. Children would say, “We used to have ice cream, but that was before the depression.”
The Great Depression stunned middle-class Americans, who had thrived in the 1920s. Angelo Colosi married just as it began in 1930 and would see two daughters added to his family during the worst years of the depression. In 1932, when his first child was born, one in every four Americans was unemployed.
The millions of unemployed suffered indignities they never dreamed they’d see living in America. Writer Edmund Wilson wrote, “There is not a garbage dump in Chicago which is not diligently haunted by the hungry.”
Economists still argue about the precise reasons for the economic crash, but most point to the crash of the New York Stock Exchange at the end of 1929. Millions lost the savings they had scraped together over their lifetimes. Some thirteen million people were faced with the terrifying problem of how to feed their families. Families that couldn’t pay their mortgages were thrown out of their homes; banks seized farms for non-payment of loans; and breadlines began to form.
Angry Americans began blaming President Hoover for the crisis. Hoover had a nonintervention philosophy and believed that government should not interfere with the business community. To complicate matters further, many families in the middle of the United States, from North Dakota to Texas, were forced to flee their homes due to the Dust Bowl of 1930 to 1936. It had developed from the decades of extensive farming without crop rotation, fallow fields, cover crops or other techniques to prevent wind erosion.
During the darkest hours of the depression, farmers and workers grew so desperate that some observers believed the country was ripe for violent revolution. Then came the election of Franklin Roosevelt. In his inaugural address he told the people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In sharp contrast to Hoover, Roosevelt used the government to try and break the grip of the depression with his “New Deal” program. Roosevelt passed many new laws during his first hundred days in office, and the government grew larger and larger.
Though more people had jobs and the banking system was sound, the depression dragged on. By 1937, the jobless figures that had begun to recede, once more approached the ten million mark. Some flamboyant leaders tried to push their share-the-wealth ideas. And then there was the Catholic radio priest from Detroit whose weekly radio broadcasts became more and more anti-Jewish and full of praise for Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
The Great Depression had been a world-wide calamity that contributed to the rise of totalitarian governments. The decade was a time of crisis that was only overshadowed by the coming of the bloodiest war in the history of the world.
Many people have tried to romanticize the hardships of the 1930s claiming that it toughened Americans and was good for the country. But those who lived through it would fully disagree.