Most historians agree that the Second World War is the single most important event shaping and directing subsequent developments throughout the balance of the 20th century. Indeed, no single other event so shaped the world or influenced the events leading to that war than did the great worldwide depression. In this wonderful book by historian Robert McElvaine, we are treated to a terrific account of the human ordeal of the 1930s, which, as noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Notes, "does justice to the social and cultural dimensions of economic crisis as well as to its political and economic impact." Here we take a busman's tour into a world literally turned upside down by the massive and systematic economic dislocations that suddenly arose in the late 1920s.
Moreover, this is a quite fair-minded and scrupulously researched effort that imaginatively recreates the amazing social, economic, and political conditions of the Great Depression for the reader in a most entertaining and edifying way. Today it is difficult, especially for younger readers, to understand just how traumatic and dangerous the crisis in democracy that the events surrounding the Great Depression were, not only in this country, but also in all of the constitutional democracies of the west. To the minds of many fair-minded Americans, the capitalist system had failed, and it was the man in the street with his family who bore the cruelest brunt of this failure. Millions were set adrift, and everywhere ordinary human beings were stripped of their possessions, their livelihood, and their dignity as thousands and then millions of businesses and enterprises went bankrupt.
For a time it appeared the government itself would lost the confidence of the people, and that civil order would be sacrificed along with all of the material dispossessions millions had already suffered. Socialism and even communism flourished as alternative answers in academic circles, and no one seemed sure or even confident that the system could be saved or resurrected as it continued to fail. The rise from the ashes of the Great Depression was uncertain, fitful, and quite painful, and only the advent of the circumstances surrounding the Second World War really cured the economic ills that Americans struggled with in those times. The fact that we seem to have forgotten the fact that capitalism is a god that can and does fail is worrying to the author, and he examines some of the dangerous and misguided tacit assumptions of contemporary politicians such as the supply side "voodoo" economics of Ronald Reagan's administration.
I found the book to be a valuable aid in understanding how ordinary Americans, forged in the crucible of hard times and make-do, were given the character, self-reliance, and native ability to improvise that so influenced our conduct in the Second World War. Many scholars attribute our military success to the brilliant efforts by our young company and platoon leaders both in Europe and in the Pacific with providing the decisive ingredient to win the war in terms of the hand-to-hand combat. As David Kennedy argues so persuasively in "Freedom From Fear" (see my review), it was the young Americans whose characters were forged in the hard times of the Great Depression who so the moral courage and strength of character to rise up from their foxholes to win the Second World War. This is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it.
on May 2, 2004
This is a good book on the HISTORY of the Great Depression era. If you are writing a college paper or just want to read an authoritative book on the subject, read this book.
I was impressed with how thoroughly the author detailed the people, the times, and the policies that were enacted (and the political reasons they came about in that form) and kept the book moving along. There are details and more details.
I was surprised with some of the things I read. Messy politics seemed to drive many of the policies adopted to deal with the Great Depression. The New Deal was not a tidy, consistent program but a series of pragmatic reforms in a sea of economic turmoil. You get a good feel for that era.
It is obvious that most people back then felt that capitalism was "obviously" flawed because of the "self-evident" disaster in the economy called the Great Depression. There had been a feeling since Theodore Roosevelt's big stick attacks against "the malfactors of great wealth" that capitalism needed to be tamed. The Great Depression brought those concerns to a head. Many people living back then acquired a deep fear of laissez-faire capitalism, and many people wanted something done. FDR was reelected by landslides.
Some of FDR's political maneuvers detailed in this book seemed designed to neutralize some of the more radical activists at that time, like Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and the Townsend plan. The Townsend plan and Huey Long's share the wealth programs were radical schemes to redistribute wealth. They had huge followings of millions in America. So FDR moved to cut them off with what was then a slim version of Social Security (later expanded by others).
In retrospect, FDR appears in this book as a master politician, an opportunist, and a pragmatist. In a sea of Depression era politics, he navigated himself and the country (like the sailor he was) from the center-right (an advocate of balanced budgets, reduced government payrolls, and mild relief efforts) to the center-left (Social Security, more extensive relief programs, populist speeches attacking "economic royalists"). The result is that he disarmed the more radical elements of society and saved the free market system.
My only complaint with the book is the obviously-biased introduction that the author has written for the most recent edition in which he assails Reaganomics. The author clearly mistrusts capitalists and suggests that Reagan was trying to undo the New Deal stabilizers put into place during the Great Depression. The rest of the book, however, is excellent.
In fact, if you read Reagan's memoir "An American Life," Reagan makes angrily clear that he voted for FDR four times and would never undo the New Deal. Instead, he made it clear that he tried to undo Lyndon Johnson's Great Society from the 1960's. The SEC, FDIC, Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, and other pragmatic New Deal measures are still operating strong. So the author's opinions have been shown to be wrong.
Yet I think the author's opinions are very revealing, even if I do not agree with most of them. The Great Depression was a great trauma. I think it is important to understand the time as it was back then.
In short, this book is an authoritative study of the HISTORY of the Great Depression era, with a dose of the author's liberal opinions. The dates, facts, people and events are explained thoroughly and in a way that is easy to read. Personally, I think a good biography of Franklin Roosevelt is a better place to start, but this book is an important addition to the literature.
Robert McElvaine has taken a different approach to studying the Great Depression - instead of looking primarily at how the Roosevelt administration attacked the depression, he looks at how the years affected the people of the United States.
This is not to say that he excludes consideration of Hoover or FDR and thier respective administrations from the book - quite the contrary, in fact. McElvaine explains that the American people thought Hoover was exactly what they wanted in 1928 when they elected him, and how the Roosevelt administration attempted to focus its goals on improving the lot of the general populous (i.e. making the banks feel safe again, as opposed to the nuts & bolts of the legislation to resolve the banking crisis that FDR faced immediately upon taking office).
I found McElvaine's consistent use of letters from affected Americans to the President and First Lady to be very interesting and a valuable addition to the argument that McElvaine was making; that FDR was a source of hope & inspiration to so many, although he may not have been the world's greatest economic theorist.
The one complaint I have about this book is the all too-frequent referrals to the Reagan administration, or how something similar happened forty years later. I understand that the author is simply attempting to put the history in a context that the reader may understand better, but this will not serve the readers of today that don't know the Carter/Reagan years as well as some of us that are a little older.
Overall, I would recommend this volume to anyone who has an interest in what effect this horrendous economic crisis had on the people of America, as long as the reader expects to look at the people & not the policies of the administration.
on October 8, 2006
McElvaine provides a well researched and scholarly account of an era that changed a nation and unsufficient political system forever. He does so through meticulous research and close examination of social, political, economic, ethnic, and individual structure leading up to, and directly after the great fall. Once more, McElvaine ties together a copious amount of research with astute, well reasoned observations that actually lessen the complexity of the often misinterpreted era. Like many of the other reviews state, this book is truly a great source for research. It is unfortunate, however, that McElvaine, time and again, attempts to correlate Depression era failure(s) to Reagan administration policy of the 1980s - largely the time when McElvaine was compiling information for this book. In the first few chapters alone, Reagan's name, or policy, is brought up repeatedly. By the time you have reached the middle of the book, you may begin to feel as though you are not only reading about the Great Depression but are also playing a game of "Where's Waldo" (except inserting the name of Ronald Reagan instead). I do not bring this point up to defend Ronald Reagan's legacy or his tenure in office. In fact, I am neither Republican nor did I vote for Ronald Reagan. It is simply that the tone that the author presents, reminiscant of whining, distracts one from the book's actual theme - The Great Depression. However, if you are able to get beyond this single point, the work presented here stands on its own, and regardless of distractions, is well worth exploring.
on May 17, 2009
Having just read "The Forgotten Man" by Amity Shlaes, and "The Great Depression" by Robert McElvaine, back-to-back, I have the opportunity to compare how both authors treat this complex topic.
What struck me is that Shlaes' approach seems to be "top-down" while McElvaine's approach is "bottom-up". McElvaine sprinkles into his text the correspondence from ordinary Americans to the Roosevelts; the language is rich, heartfelt, evocative, and infuses the text with a deep sense of melancholy. Shlaes focuses more on the major players, people in a position of power, thought leaders.
Both authors approach the topic of the New Deal from diametric economic and political camps. McElvaine's commentary is definitely biased toward a liberal belief in government. His swipes at President Reagan may seem anachronistic (I believe the book was published in the early eighties, and then re-published in the early nineties) so Reagan-bashing may have been more au courant at the time, but now it seems like cheap jabs. Fortunately, these remarks are not too distracting.
Shlaes makes a strong case that the New Deal was concident to the easing of the economic downturn, while McElvaine plays both sides - he attributes the New Deal as "saving capitalism" but as having little influence on ending the Depression.
Both books emphasize the experimental nature of FDR's attempts at righting the economy, and ascribe much of the direction of the New Deal to political rather than economic forces. Both books are required reading for the student who wishes to understand how America changed from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression.
on September 9, 2005
Robert McElvaine's account of the economic collapse and cultural shock wrought by the Great Depression effectively re-creates this singular national trauma. The author clearly traces how Presidents Hoover's and Roosevelt's responses shaped the country's modern-day expectations of the role the federal government is expected to play in the daily lives of its citizens. In addition to its causes, McElvaine paints a compelling picture of the challenges faced by working class people in the Depression's wake, as well as its affects on traditional American values. For example, he writes of how the uniquely American characteristics of independence, rugged individualism, and self-reliance that had been celebrated throughout our country's history were called into question in light of the impact of the economic collapse. Although these attitudes were revived as World War II brought a return to prosperity, the new roles assumed by Washington - both as the provider of societal entitlements and as consumer watchdog - had become irrevocably entrenched.
The author's central thesis is based upon the demonization of those twin capitalistic ideologies derisively labeled by McElvaine as the "consumption ethic" and the "philosophy of unlimited productivity," which he claims escalated out of (government) control until the economy collapsed in 1929. American society's single-minded pursuit of riches might have received the endorsement of Adam Smith during simpler times, claims McElvaine, but the modern automated mass-production techniques employed by huge corporations had destructively warped America's free-market system. What emerged from the economic wreckage was recognition by the intelligentsia that unregulated capitalism was insufficient for the needs of modern-day America. It was subsequently conceded by the country-at-large that the power of the state would be needed to stimulate both prices and consumption. As a result, the conservative "hands-off" philosophy of Herbert Hoover was rejected by voters, to be replaced with the progressive "tax, spend, and regulate" agenda of Franklin Roosevelt.
Utilizing a wide variety of historical books and monographs by prominent Washington insiders, labor leaders, and historians, the book is chronologically organized into fifteen chapters beginning with the end of World War I and progressing through two decades to the start of U.S. involvement in World War II. McElvaine effectively weaves a tale outlining philosophies and day-to-day machinations of Roosevelt's "brain trust" with the everyday hardships endured by the "great unwashed" as both groups struggled against the tide of America's economic calamity. Each chapter begins with an illuminating picture from the era that provocatively sets the emotional tone for that chapter's topic.
Displaying a clear bias against wealthy achievers and entrepreneurs in favor of the working poor ("The self-interest of the poor coincides with justice, that of the rich with injustice.") the author also displays an unapologetic admiration for Roosevelt's policies, though he does admit to their ultimate ineffectiveness. But McElvaine forgives these failures because the president's intensions were noble. Roosevelt is thus judged by the author on the basis of his intensions, not by the success of his programs. The book is clearly moralistic in its structure, and McElvaine's descriptions of America's pre-industrial habits, customs, and family life are compared favorably with old-fashioned ideals. McElvaine longs for those pre-industrial virtues, bemoaning the fast-moving, mass-producing, conspicuous consumption of post-World War I America.
on November 20, 2013
While this book is extremely well written and the author's expertise is obvious, I was hoping for more of a historical overview of the era; the causes, the crash, the aftermath, the solutions, the people and their lives, etc. What I got was more of a cautionary tale and an "I told you so" by the author. The book seemed to focus more on recent presidents (Regan especially) than on those of the era in which the book (was supposed to) take place. Heck, the introduction to the new edition was 15% of the book (according to my Kindle).
As I said, there is no dispute that the author is an authority on both this subject and general economics. I just wish this book was less about economics and more about history.
on December 27, 2009
I am still only about half way through the book. It definitely is not a quick read. But I also can't put it down and consider not finishing it. I still need to find out - as Paul Harvey would say - the 'rest of the story'.
What is so striking and frightening to me is that, although the book was written many years ago, - you could easily believe the author was referring to our current economic mess and this deep recession that has gripped not only our country, but the world. The more I read in the book, the more it feels as if we are revisiting the past.
So many of the things that happened back then are still continuing today. Greed, dishonesty, rampant speculation, market manipulation - that hasn't gone away. We certainly have not learned from our mistakes, and the incredible gap between the haves and the have nots is just as bad as it was in those days.
I am very glad I purchased the book - scary as it is. The author's discussion of the politics of the time seems eerily similar to the partisan politics we see today.
on March 25, 2008
This book was written in 1983, in the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. It's very interesting to see how angry the Reagan fans are at reading it. Biased! they cry, and so it is... forthrightly biased against Reagan, but intelligently skeptical toward the alleged success of Keynsian solutions to the Depression. Critics of FDR today seem widely to assume that the New Deal was strictly a Keynsian operation; McElvaine takes pains to distinguish FDR's policies from Keynesian thinking. Roosevelt, says McElvaine, was never a thorough Keynsian.
Historiography is a leapfrog occupation; the history written in 1983 becomes the source material of 2007. Much better statistical analysis of data from the 1930s is now possible because of computers. Letters and hidden files from the 1930s are now available. Thus "we" think ourselves better positioned to know what was really happening than poor Robert McElvaine, who wrote his book without our telescopic hindsight. The most interesting material in this still widely read textbook, for me anyway, is found in the last chapter, titled Perspective. McElvaine was highly alarmed at the economic policies he foresaw Reagan instituting. Here's what he wrote:
Keynsianism had offered a temporary way out of the Depression, but by itself it could provide no permanent solution. The fundamental problem in the economy remained maldistribution of income. ...there were some significant changes in income distribution in the United States between 1929 and 1981. There were important reductions in the shares going to the top 5 percent and the top 20 percent. Most of these declines...took place during the Great Depression. ...the redistribution from the top fifth went mostly to the second and third fifths; to the middle class. ...Although the poorest Americans have not benefited greatly, it is reasonable to conclude that the redistribution from the richest to the middle-income brackets helped sustain purchasing power in the postwar years of relative prosperity. Ronald Reagan's 1981 imitation of Andrew Mellon's tax cuts favoring the rich reversed this beneficial trend, and did so quite intentionally.
Yes, one can see why the Reaganites would hate this book! Later, McElvaine declares that the real solution to the Depression that emerged from the New Deal and wartime spending was to return to the old-time American faith in more or less constant expansion. Two factors, he argues, have prevented a major depression in the postwar years: the Keysian 'skills' the government had learned to apply to recession and inflation, and the ability of the many programs left from the New Deal to work automatically "to counter economic downturns."
If McElvaine were to write a 16th chapter to his book today, He'd have a lot to gloat about as a prophet. Reaganomics sharply reversed the redistributive justice of the New Deal, transferring wealth and ownership to the richest of the rich from the potential earnings of the middle class, and doing nothing to preclude the re-emergence of a poverty class just as miserable - though not as numerous in percentage - as the breadline unemployed depicted on the cover of this book.
Robert McElvaine sets himself the task of writing a complete history of the Depression years, and he does so from the perspective of a liberal in the time of Reagan (the first edition was published in 1984 and a new forward added in 1993.) He attempts to include both the broad scope of politics and economics, as well as insight into every-day life and especially the values of American society as a whole. In his new forward, he chides himself for not including more about the Dust Bowl, radio, and sports, so his intended scope is wide.
But what the book actually contains is mostly the Depression as viewed through the Presidency. He focuses a great deal of time and attention on the ideas and actions of Hoover (not as bad as you might think) and on Roosevelt (not an economic theorist so much as a politician and a pragmatist.)
His attempt to also include the voices of ordinary Americans is rather awkwardly stuck mostly into one chapter and based mostly on the letters these Americans wrote to President and Mrs. Roosevelt, so the focus is still very much on the Depression as seen from the White House. He also includes an interesting chapter on the moral and economic meaning of popular films of the 30s.
His analysis of "values" seems vague, general, and ultimately naive. In the 20s and 80s, the general tone was selfish. In the 30s, and to an extent throughout the post-War period, people were less selfish, less individualistic, more community-minded. It seems to me, from the perspective of someone who lived through both "selfish" decades and "selfless" decades, that people will be community-minded to the extent that they see themselves as also beneficiaries of that community. He admits that the sudden interest in "sharing" in the 1930s arose from those who expected to benefit by a more "unselfish" attitude towards wealth, not from those with power or wealth suddenly feeling generous with it. In my view, people are willing to be taxed for projects such as public schools and libraries and roads and social programs to the extent that they believe these projects will be of use to "us," but not if they see them as being of use to "them." That is going to be true no matter what happens. It is foolish to wish for selflessness as public policy. What perhaps matters most is the ability of political leaders to create a broader sense of "us."
To the extent that the book provides economic analysis of the causes of the Great Depression, it suggests, as we hear suggested today, that people became "greedy" and individualistic, and that caused trouble. But people will always be greedy. This is not a trait that waxes and wanes, bringing us good times and bad times. The ultimate economic question is: Given human nature as it is, how can an economy best be run for the common good? The 1920s, the 1980s and the past 8 years have answered that question by saying, Get government out of the way, let people make as much money as possible, don't tax it, don't regulate business, and everyone will be better off in the long run. The 1930s and the present crisis suggest otherwise, that such a course of action will concentrate wealth in too few hands and will lead to an excess of financial, rather than economic, activity, which will create a bursting bubble that will slow overall economic growth and prosperity.
Yes, this book is biased, but its bias is very obvious, and it is open about the fact that all history is biased, that no one can tell a story about the past without interpreting it in terms of the present. Reading a book written 25 years ago, we also interpret it in terms of our own present.