Frustrated with President Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party and their response to the Great Depression, American voters were eager for a change in 1932. In that election, the Democrats easily won both the House and the Presidency, with New Yorker Franklin D. Roosevelt taking the White House. Roosevelt was elected as a symbol of hope, promising a better tomorrow as the country continued to struggle with the Depression.
As an interesting side note, Roosevelt, who contracted polio as an adult, was paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair. This was mostly concealed from the public and the press voluntarily downplayed the President’s disability, instead of exposing it as often happens today.
FDR presided over the country during two major—and in both cases, worst in American history—domestic crises. One of these was the Great Depression. FDR’s domestic policy was called the “New Deal,” unveiled in his inaugural address when he promised a “new deal for the American people.” He was elected because he promised to fix the problems of the Depression. In doing so, FDR and the Democrats thought the opposite of Hoover and the Republicans. They believed that government should do things to try and alleviate the suffering caused by the Great Depression. In fact, he believed in trying anything that might help.
FDR also used the new medium of radio to help spread his message of hope. He broadcasted weekly radio messages called the “Fireside Chats” where he spoke as if he was speaking directly to the listener, encouraging them and assuring them that everything was going to get better. “The only thing we have to fear,” he is famously quoted as saying, “is fear itself.”
Upon entering office, FDR and the Democrat-controlled Congress began passing laws to try and help. Many of these laws were passed in the first hundred days after taking office, and the 100 Days were a period of legislative fury as several laws were passed to try and help. Many of these New Deal measures created new government agencies remembered by their acronyms, earning them, as a group, the Alphabet Soup agencies. Historians have classified efforts made by FDR and the Democratic Congress in three categories: Relief, Recovery and Reform.
Relief refers to legislation passed to try and provide short-term assistance to people who were struggling to survive during the Depression. This government assistance was also hoped to jump start the economy, giving people money to spend. To stop the panic and ensuing crisis of bank closures, FDR ordered a bank holiday, closing all banks in the country to prevent further withdrawals. Congress then passed the Emergency Banking Act (1933) to allow the government to inspect banks to make sure they were financially sound before they could re-open. The purpose was to restore public confidence in banks and halt the panic that caused widespread closing of banks across the country.
Another example was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. Although in the works before the Depression, Hoover Dam project begun by the previous administration provided a valuable example for FDR’s administration. Through the project, the government created jobs, something desperately needed during the Depression. The CCC did the same thing by paying unemployed, unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 23 to work on public works projects paid for by the government. This removed these men from their parents’ homes, housed and fed them while sending most of their pay back home to help their families. Amongst other things, the CCC built the National Parks system in the United States as these young men cleared paths and landscaped land set aside by Teddy Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act. Another example of this came later in 1935 with the creation of the Public Works Administration (WPA). This agency created jobs through government commissioned public works projects, like schools, hospitals and libraries.
Other New Deal programs were designed on recovery, trying to put the country’s economy back on track to pull it out of the Depression. Passed in 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was an effort to try and help farmers. One of the reasons farms struggled before the Depression (and, of course, even more during) was due to overproduction. New farm machinery and techniques made American farms too productive, making prices on farmers’ produce plummet, making farming unprofitable. Under this law, farmers were paid by the federal government grow only part of what they were capable of producing. These government subsidies—when government pays money to supplement a farmer’s income—reduced the supply of crops, raising their market value.
The law was challenged in front of the Supreme Court in the United States v. Butler in 1935. In order to raise the money to pay the subsidies to farmers, the AAA taxed companies that processed agricultural goods. Butler, who processed raw cotton, refused to pay the tax. He was tried and the circuit court ruled in his favor. The government appealed the case to the Supreme Court. At issue was whether taxing the companies that processed agricultural goods and redistributing the money to farmers was in the “general welfare” of the whole country. The Court struck down this piece of New Deal legislation, citing that the federal government could not involve itself in matters that had been reserved for the states, such as regulating agriculture. A new version of the agency was created by the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, remedying the problem by not collecting the tax on processors. Government subsidies came from the federal government and still exist today to make sure farmers’ produce doesn’t outstrip demand, causing an unsafe drop in prices.
In 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act created the National Recovery Administration (NRA—no, not that NRA), one of FDR’s main new government agencies charged with fixing the economy. The problem it tried to tackle was cut-throat competition, attempting to set rules for fair competition in the marketplace. The agency advised the President, whom the law allowed to set prices, wages, working hours, encouraged labor unions and made other regulations about businesses. The NRA allowed the federal government to take a much more active role in the economy than ever before, justified by the crisis of the Depression.
But in 1935, the law was challenged in the Supreme Court with the Schechter Poultry Corporation v. the United States. Schechter Poultry, of Brooklyn, NY, was charged with sixty counts of violation of codes established by the NRA—such as avoiding inspections of the chickens it was selling. Losing its case in federal district court, the company appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court struck down the Act creating the agency, citing it as a violation of the separation of powers and commerce clauses in the Constitution. By allowing the President to write laws, he was doing the job reserved for Congress. Some of the reforms the agency was advocating re-emerged in the Wagner Act, but the Court was becoming on obstacle to FDR’s New Deal.
Reform measure taken as part of the New Deal were made in efforts to try and stop something like the Depression from happening again. As a direct response to the financial panic that caused the collapse of the banking industry, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created in 1933. Its goal was to build the public’s trust in banks by providing insurance of customers’ deposits in banks (at different times, the amount deposits are insured to changes; it is currently set at $250,000). This way, if a bank went under, deposits would be covered up to the specified amount by the corporation, eliminating the need for people to withdraw all their deposits at the first sign of financial crisis.
Other agencies also helped. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a government agency created in 1933 that was established to oversee the development the Tennessee River Valley, an area hit particularly hard by the Depression. It built power plants, dams (for flood control), manufacturing and government planning to modernize the region. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was created in 1934 as an agency to oversee the stock market to prevent abuses that helped cause the Depression. Today, it continues to regulate Wall Street. The National Labor Relations Act (aka the NLRA or the Wagner Act) was passed in 1935 to solve unresolved problems from the labor movement. It provided protection to unions and the process of collective bargaining. Its passage caused the growth of unions.
Social Security Act of 1935 was passed to address what was seen as a growing problem in American society. Social Security was designed to provide financial assistance to the elderly, unemployed, widowed and orphaned. Funded by a payroll tax (half paid by the employee, half by the employer) on current workers, Social Security was a safety net to help people in hard times. The Act faced some serious challenges in front of the Supreme Court, but was ultimately found to be Constitutional. In recent years, Social Security had been a hot political issue as the baby boomer born after World War II will be the largest group collecting on the program with a much smaller group paying for their benefits. Some fear that the system cannot survive and will have to be discontinued.
Because many New Deal programs were struck down by the Supreme Court, after FDR’s landslide victory for his second term, the President became cocky. FDR attempted to change the balance of justices by proposing to expand the size of the Court by asking his Democrat-controlled Congress to pass the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. The was infamously called his court packing plan (in a harsher way, some called it the court packing scheme). Since its creation after the ratification of the Constitution (the Court system has actually been created by laws because its structure is not laid out in the Constitution), the Supreme Court was made up of nine justices. Since the Court was more conservative than Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress, the Court—made of appointees from Republican administrations—kept finding New Deal legislation unconstitutional, the most famous examples being the Butler and Schechter cases.
FDR proposed to expand the court so that he could appoint justices that would be sympathetic to his policies. The proposed act was very unpopular. Most Americans saw it as an abuse of Presidential power and as an unfair way to circumvent the system of checks and balances. With such widespread opposition, the plan was dropped and is remembered as a glaring failure of FDR’s Presidency.
Despite all of these efforts, the New Deal only provided some relief from the Depression. It would take World War II to truly shake the United States out of the funk. All of these New Deal measures relied on increased government spending on social programs. These programs cost a lot of money. During the Depression, the government didn’t have the money to pay for it. It resorted to deficit spending—when government spends more money than it collects, creating a deficit. At the time, it was justified because the needs caused by the Depression were so great that it could all be paid for when things improved. Unfortunately, expectations for government to offer so many services did not go away when things improved and the United States government has amassed debt in its efforts to keep programs and not raise taxes too high, leading to a national debt of $14,000,000,000,000 (that’s $14 trillion).
The other domestic crisis was the Dust Bowl—the greatest ecological disaster in U. S. history. The once fertile lands of the Great Plains were over-farmed, making it hard to grow much of anything. A drought caused the topsoil to dry out and massive dust storms swept the nation between 1934 and 1936. A third of the farmers fled the Dust Bowl (notably the “Okies” described in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath), looking for opportunities that didn’t exist in California.
FDR had to deal not only deal with those two major domestic crises, but also an international crisis as World War II—which can really be thought about as two separate conflicts in Europe and Asia—began. Often overshadowed by the war in Europe, the war between America and Japan is perhaps more important and was primarily America’s to fight, with little support from the other Allies. The conflict between the countries built up over time.
The cause of the conflict was imperialism. America and European countries scrambled for colonies and markets in Asia around the turn of the century. Seeing what happened to other Asian peoples, the Japanese decided to modernize and copy Western nations, including rebuilding their economies and governments. They also began practicing imperialism, needing raw materials for their newly created industry. When the Japanese aggressively invaded Manchuria (northern China) in 1931, the United States was upset. By 1937, the Japanese invaded China proper, escalating the tension. In an effort to get the Japanese to back down, America put embargoes— laws prohibiting trade with a foreign country as a punishment—on steel and oil. To Japan, these embargoes were almost the equivalent of acts of war because they threatened to halt Japan’s ability to expand.
As a preemptive strike, the Japanese decided to knock the United States Navy with a sneak attack at the fleet’s base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack took place on a Sunday morning in an attempt to catch the sailors’ with their pants down, so to speak, on December 7, 1941. The infamous day that will “live in infamy.”
The war in Europe also built over time. The rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Germany and Italy was need seen as an imminent threat to America at first. Just as with World War I, when wars began in Asia and Europe, Americans overwhelmingly wanted to stay out of it. But that changed too.
World War II was created, more than anything else, by unresolved issues from World War I. The Axis nations—Germany, Italy and Japan—all felt mistreated by the Treaty of Versailles and wanted revenge. The Great Depression in the United States affected the entire world. Unemployment and financial instability caused major problems everywhere. People in the Axis nations turned to extremists who promised to solve these problems. All three Axis nations were expansionist—meaning they started taking over other countries. The League of Nations was unable to find peaceful solutions to the crises that arose.
Desperate to avoid another war like World War I, Allied nations gave in to Axis demands to try and keep the peace. This most famously happened at the Munich Conference when Hitler was appeased by Britain and France giving him half of Czechoslovakia if he promised to stop expanding. In 1939, Hitler broke the agreement when he invaded Poland. All the countries of Europe declared war on each other, starting World War II.
The United States watched this from afar, trying to stay out of it. FDR, however, saw the need for America to enter the war at some point and did what he could to help the Allies in the Conflict. In 1935-1937, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts. To avoid possible entanglement with the war, American companies were not to trade arms to countries at war. Americans were also prohibited from traveling on ships of those nations too. Roosevelt began preparing for war, even if the public wasn’t ready for it. He instituted the first peace-time draft in history. The Army and Navy were expanded. In 1941, FDR urged Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act, which removed the ban on trading arms and the United States started supplying Allied Nations war materials.
The United States would enter the war after the Japanese sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The Japanese planned to knock the American navy out just as their diplomats handed an official declaration of war to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the diplomats arrived late, after news had reached Washington about the attack. The Japanese attack did not inflict as much damage as anticipated and missed out on damaging the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers—the most important naval ship of the war—all of which were not at dock that morning. The rest of the fleet was repaired quicker than expected. The United States Congress declared war on Japan the next day after Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech. Japan’s allies declared war on the United States shortly after and the Americans joined the war.
America really fought two wars at the same time—one in the Pacific against the Japanese and the other in Europe against the Nazis and Italians (who, after deposing Mussolini switched to the Allied side). Just as in World War I, American industry was mobilized to help fight this war. Men were drafted into the military and women moved into their factory jobs while they were gone. Rosie the Riveter was created as a piece of American propaganda depicting this trend. African-Americans continued to move north to fill the factory jobs, as the Great Migration continued. As before, many goods were rationed to make them available for the war effort. To help finance the war effort, war bonds were sold by the U. S. government. All of the production of war materials pulled the economy out of the Depression.
During the war, FDR issued an executive order forcing Japanese-Americans to relocate to government-run prison camps. An irrational fear that any persons of Japanese descent were automatically a spy took hold with people. But German-Americans and Italian-Americans did not face the same discrimination. In 1944, an attempt to fight the relocation camps, the Korematsu v. the United States Supreme Court case. The Court did not agree that Japanese-Americans Constitutional rights were being violated for no reason. Instead, in a six to three decision, the Court said that it was in the best interest for the whole country, even if some people’s rights were trampled. The United States government would later pay reparations to the Japanese families that lost their homes and businesses due to the relocation.
American troops help the Allies turn the tide in the war. With victories in North Africa, Italy and France with the D-Day invasion at Normandy. Germany was getting squeezed from the west by the British, French and American forces and from the East by Soviet troops. The Japanese were also being pushed back to Japan through the American’s island-hopping campaign.
The leaders of the Allied nations met to discuss how to end the war. Winston Churchill (Britain) and Joseph Stalin (USSR) joined FDR at the Yalta Conference. There—along with the Potsdam Conference (which took place after Harry Truman replaces FDR as President after his death) five months later—they decided the end game of the war with an eye on preventing another future world war. They agreed that an unconditional surrender would be necessary. The Allies would all occupy the defeated nations and help them rebuild their countries. A new international peace-keeping organization called the United Nations would replace the beleaguered League of Nations. War criminals would be tried for their crimes by multi-national tribunals and held accountable for their crimes—most notably the crimes of the Holocaust, but other atrocities too. This led to the Nuremberg Trials and other war crimes trials that took place after the war.
When Hitler and many of the other Nazi leaders killed themselves with the Soviets about to take over Berlin, the war in Europe was abruptly over. For the Americans, this allowed them to concentrate on the war against Japan. Before the war with Japan could be brought to an end, FDR died. He was replaced by his Vice-President, Harry Truman. Truman was charged with the difficult task of wrapping up the war. And to do so, he would have to make a very difficult decision.