Trials by Want and Fire

Freedom from Fear: American People in Depression and War, 1932-1945 by David M. Kennedy.  Oxford History of the United States. Oxford University Press. 1999.

I listened to the Audible edition.
Illustrations: Migrant mother by Dorothea Lange; US soldiers on the Baatan “death march.”

This volume begins in the midst of the crisis that arose from the political and economic issues left unsettled after World War One. The international scope of the forces that led to the Great Depression were clear, but almost impossible for the big economic powers to resolve. The gold standard hamstrung efforts to recover. Herbert Hoover, Republican President from 1929-1933, was a progressive by any standard, but fiscal conservatism doomed his efforts to stop the economic meltdown.

 The depth of the Great Depression was far beyond anything in my lifetime. The patience of America’s poor and miserable farmers and unemployed workers was one of the most surprising aspects. Inadequacy of local relief or private charity was obvious to anyone who compared the amount of lost wages to the funds available for relief. Franklin D. Roosevelt came into a nation fearful and on the verge of collapse; in his famous “hundred days,”  he managed to push through the critical reforms needed to save the banking system.  Roosevelt, however, spurned international efforts to shore up global economy, refusing to lend American financial resources to countries in default on WWI debts. The continuation of the Depression in Europe probably contributed to the rise of Fascism.

The New Deal, as it took shape during the first few years of his presidency, was more about key social reforms – unemployment insurance, old age security, disability and the right to unionize than about getting economy going again. Roosevelt did not like deficit spending. The men (like Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes) and women (like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member) who drove the effort were an amazing and diverse group of brilliant, quirky human beings. FDR’s hope for  a lasting progressive coalition was dashed, because the Democrats were stuck with extremely conservative southerners as a big part of the party’s base. After a series of unfavorable rulings, Roosevelt tried to push through changes to the US Supreme Court, which was a big mistake. This, with increasing labor unrest and opposition from the southern “barons,” led to electoral defeats for “New Dealers.” No New Deal legislation passed after 1938, although Congress left the crucial social reforms in place.

Meanwhile in Europe, Africa and East Asia, war was already underway. Isolationist sentiment was so strong in America, however, that Roosevelt, who was becoming aware of the danger, could do little to prepare the United States or help the democracies resist fascism. Gradually, Congress allowed him to support England, especially the vital Atlantic convoys.

Americans favored China in its war with Japan, but did very little except apply mild economic pressure. Oil export controls against Japan were enforced more strongly than Roosevelt intended in summer of 1941, but he couldn’t back down once a virtual embargo had been imposed. Kennedy speculates that if Roosevelt had paid more attention to developments in the Pacific, the Japanese might have settled for modest concessions on China and an end to the embargo. Maybe a truly horrendous war, marked by vicious racial hate and massive civilian casulaties could have been avoided  altogether. What would the consequences have been? Germany might have been defeated sooner and a better settlement achieved in Europe than the east-west partition and Cold War? Perhaps the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have given a demonstration of the power of nuclear weapons. Would that have made it easier or harder to prevent their spread?

It was lucky Germany and Italy chose to declare war on the U.S. right after Pearl Harbor, because Congress and the people might have been unwilling to declare war first, preferring the undeclared stalemate in the Atlantic and being full of lust to avenge the US on Japan. Roosevelt and Churchill soon agreed on a strategy of defeating Germany first, while holding Japan at bay. American military preparations went slowly, but the miraculously lucky defeat of Japan’s fleet in the Battle of Midway slowed their momentum and bought the time needed for American industry to begin pouring out war material. In Europe Roosevelt was caught in the struggle between Churchill, who was leery of a direct assault on northwest Europe, and Stalin, who demanded a second front to take the pressure off the Red Army. Two years of campaigning in North Africa and Italy, which Kennedy implies was of little value, preceded the Normandy landings.

In the chapter on the home front, he talks about the ways the war affected groups like Japanese Americans – they were unjustly interned, but that experience broke the grip of traditional ways and allowed succeeding generations to become successful in mainstream society. Roosevelt’s need to have the support of the powerful southern committee chairmen in Congress kept home from doing much for African Americans. Under pressure from A. Philip Randolph and the NAACP, he did produce the first anti-discrimination program since Reconstruction. This allowed many to get jobs outside the South and off the farm as well as beginning to open up the military. Far fewer women actually participated in the defense workforce than the image of Rosie the riveter suggests, and most willingly left after the war. Still, I wonder, didn’t many come to feel life as housewives was a bit dull, especially once the challenges of motherhood began to wear?

Another aspect of the home front was just how good most Americans had it, compared to the Depression and to so many millions in Europe, Asia and Africa. Although Roosevelt and the New Dealers were afraid the economy would slip back again once the war ended, in fact, just the opposite happened. The huge burst of productivity that underlay the enormous output of war material made between 1940 and 1945 just kept going, as postwar consumer bought cars, houses and new products made possible directly or indirectly by scientific and technological advances fueled by war. The GI Bill’s huge investment in education fueled still more productivity growth and upward mobility.

Kennedy concludes by pointing out that the boom years after 1945 represented an astonishing turnaround for a nation that just twelve years earlier many believed was headed for long term stagnation and even decline. This is an excellent historical overview of that critical period. There are many more interesting aspects, including much discussion of the way Hoover and Roosevelt supported in-depth studies of the state of the American people and the way the various artists’ and writers’ projects gave Americans new views of their country and themselves.

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