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article number 345
article date 05-22-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Mid-1930’s in Pictures. A New President’s Agenda, Fallen Men of Finance, Labor Strikes and a Dust Bowl
by Frederick Lewis Allen, assembled by Agnes Rogers

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

The Depression was worldwide, and brought grim changes elsewhere. Below are parts of the front page of the “New York Times” for January 31, 1933.


A demonstration was held against Hitler in front of City Hall, Philadelphia, after he had begun his persecution of the Jews in Germany.


It was a smiling, courageous, and contagiously optimistic Roosevelt who took office on March 4, 1933, successfully re-opened the banks, and within a hundred days drove through an overwhelmingly Democratic and happily dazed Congress an extraordinary jumble of legislation.

The New Deal program, thus launched, was full of improvisations and inconsistencies, but at least it gave the country a wonderful sense of action and hope. The next picture was taken a year later, on April 13, 1934, when the President, returning to Miami, Florida, after a fishing trip, was greeted by General Hugh Johnson (Mayor Sewall of Miami stands between them, facing the camera, and James Roosevelt is at the right); but it suggests better than any other photograph, perhaps, how the Roosevelt who said in his Inaugural Address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” radiated energy and confidence.


Roosevelt liked to surround himself with a group of unofficial advisers, speech-writers, and confidants—but they were a changing group. The leading figure of his pre-election Brain Trust (or Brains Trust, as he himself called it) was Professor Raymond Moley (below) ; he became disillusioned by the President’s capriciousness by the summer of 1933, lingered on the fringes till 1936, and thereafter, on “Newsweek,” was an outspoken opponent.


Next, another early Brain Truster, along with Adolf A. Berle, Jr., was Professor Rexford G. Tugwell; he was placed in the Agriculture Department, became a chief target of conservative invective, and moved out in 1937.


Henry A. Wallace, not an original Brain Truster but Roosevelt’s first Secretary of Agriculture and a trusted friend, stayed with the ship and in 1940 became Vice President; scholar, idealist, able administrator, and combative politician, he remained a center of recurring and violent storms.


Then we have, laughingly accompanying Judge Ferdinand Pecora to a Congressional hearing, a leading figure of what might be called the second Brain Trust, of 1934-36: Tom Corcoran, the effervescent young accordion-playing drafter of bills to regulate business.


Below are two more recently familiar faces: those of Harold L. Ickes, the honest curmudgeon who became and remained Secretary of the Interior, and was at intervals a close adviser to Roosevelt; and (standing) Senator James F. Byrnes, who was chosen by Roosevelt for the Supreme Court, then became a leading war administrator, and later was President Truman’s able and energetic Secretary of State.


There is no space in these two pages for a complete gallery of presidential intimates and consultants:
- for Louis Howe, the loyal invalid who was Roosevelt’s personal political mentor until he died at the White House in April 1936;
- for Adolf A. Berle, Jr. of the original Brain Trust or;
- Benjamin Cohen of the second one;
- for Samuel N. Rosenman, the most durable of the inner group; or for others such as, for example,
- Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who was Secretary of the Treasury and a devoted follower of the President’s shifting financial policies from the day when he took over the Treasury from the dying William H. Woodin.

But room there must be for Harry Hopkins, the social worker who was brought to Washington to head up the government’s vast relief enterprise (which in 1935 took shape in the WPA), who was later Secretary of Commerce, and who during Roosevelt’s last years was closest to him of all, living at the White House and serving as confidant and troubleshooter on all manner of things, both domestic and foreign.

Hopkins is shown here as he looked in 1938, at the Washington Senators’ opening baseball game of the season.


The NRA, with the Blue Eagle as its symbol and the rambunctious General Hugh Johnson as its leader, was the most spectacular—if short-lived—of the early New Deal organizations. It is hard to believe, now, with what fanfare it was launched.

Here is New York NRA parade, 250,000 strong, going up Fifth Avenue (past 42nd Street) on September 13, 1933.


* * *

From the pinnacle of prestige, the bankers and brokers descended step by step to the doghouse. When the Panic first broke, a mere report that the leading bankers were meeting at “the Corner”— 23 Wall Street, headquarters of J. P. Morgan & Co.—had been enough to rally the market.

But as the Depression wore on, the awe decreased; and when congressional investigations disclosed many a shabby boom-time financial practice, all financiers, the incorruptible along with the rapacious, shared in the public disrepute.

Below are the three leading men of the leading financial house—Thomas W. Lamont (at the left), George Whitney, and J. P. Morgan, conferring at one of the numerous investigations.


Next is a sample of the gross impertinence which bankers now had to swallow; during a session of the Senate Banking Committee in the late spring of 1933, a man placed a circus midget on J. P. Morgan’s knee, to the photographers’ joy.


How were the mighty fallen! Here are O. P. and M. J. Van Sweringen, railroad holding-company promoters, looking sadder and wiser in 1933;


Then we have Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish match king, who fixed his books and then killed himself in 1932;


Samual Insull is shown here with Arnold L. Stuart and Samuel Insull, Jr., just before his acquittal in 1935, following the catastrophic collapse of his financial empire.


The crowning—or was it anti-climactic?—note of irony was added years later, after Wall Street had been thoroughly chastened and put under regulation.

When the Panic first broke on October 24, 1929, it had been Richard Whitney, vice president of the Stock Exchange, who had acted for the big bankers to stem the tide of selling: it was he who had walked out on the Stock Exchange floor to put in an order to buy Steel at 205. Subsequently he had been president of the Exchange.

And now in 1938 he was discovered to have been misappropriating trust funds, and went to Sing Sing! Below, he is being sworn in at an open hearing on his tangled affairs.


If you find the pictures on this page unexciting, there’s little wonder. For they record a dreary chapter in our national experience. When the soaring hopes of the “Hundred Days” faded, when business expanded, slumped, and then stagnated in 1934 and 1935, the New Deal, committed to the idea of federal responsibility for relief, tried this and that system and in 1935 set up the WPA.

The idea was magnificent: no more handouts, but pay for honest work. But what work? It must not compete with private business—and useful projects which did not were hard to find. Hence “boondoggles” — which originally meant weaving belts out of ropes, an came to mean silly or useless projects generally.

In the chart we show how the WPA grew in 1935 and did not shrink much in 1936, though times were better. It remained large, for it was habit forming; always open to political manipulation; and, despite some fine imaginative projects, an unhappy measure of our failure really to lift ourselves out of Depression.


Here is a typical WPA scene in a city— timbermen laying forms for concrete-pouring in New York in 1937.


Then we have WPA men on a useful rural job, building an earth fill and drop inlet to replace a bridge on a road near Blair, Nebraska.


Happier in its general effect was the CCC—Civilian Conservation Corps—which put young men, otherwise jobless, into rural camps where they did conservation work in the forests and National Parks. Here is a CCC boy is planting trees;


… below, another one is helping to put out a forest fire.


* * *

The most magnificent and widely useful of the New Deal projects authorized during the “Hundred Days” was the TVA—Tennessee Valley Authority—which not only built dams on the Tennessee River and provided public electric power (over which there was a great battle with the private utilities, led for a time by Wendell L. Willkie) but helped the farmers of the region to rehabilitate their farms.

Building the Fort Loudon Darn, one of the units of the TVA.

Few recent developments in America have won more worldwide attention than the TVA. Below, visitors at the Watts Bar Dam look from the control building down upon the powerhouse;


And here we show the Norris Dam switchyard.


America’s men of wealth, and her successful business men generally, watched the New Deal half hopefully—some of them enthusiastically—during the “Hundred Days” of 1933. They had been badly battered during the Great Nosedive.

Roosevelt’s first moves had been encouraging and exciting; and anything was better, anyhow, than to see prices sliding downhill. But they lost their equanimity when, later in 1933, the President tried to restore prosperity by raising the price of gold (with no very noticeable effect on the volume of business).

They became deeply angry when—as if they hadn’t had trouble enough already—he drove ahead with regulatory legislation in 1934 and 1935. And they burned red hot when in the 1936 campaign he threw restraint to the winds, called them “economic royalists,” and talked as if he were enlisting the American people in a holy war against them.

They looked with acute disfavor upon Tugwell, Corcoran, Cohen, Wallace, and others, and many of them ridiculed the peripatetic Mrs. Roosevelt; but it was “That Man,” a “traitor to his class,” who really stoked the fires of their wrath.

No chronicle of the interwar years would be complete without mention of their prolonged and wonderful incandescence. Since this was not readily recorded by photographers, we reproduce two of the numerous cartoons with which “The New Yorker" deftly held it up to satirical attention.

Richard Decker’s cartoon appeared in “The New Yorker” for May 2, 1936, before Roosevelt had coined the “economic royalist” phrase. Those were the days when the Supreme Court had already invalidated the NRA, the AAA, and other New Deal laws, and gentlemen like Stewart spoke very reverently about it—somewhat more so than in subsequent years.

“Now, Stewart, you know the doctor told you that you shouldn’t talk about Roosevelt.”

Wallace Morgan’s cartoon, on the other hand, appeared on February 17, 1940 — nearly four years later. Mighty fires burn a long time.

“… the need of an experienced hand at the helm. And so let us fervently hope that the great pilot who has steered us so surely through the perilous currents of the past eight years may be prevailed upon . . .”

Some people thought, not that the New Deal was doing too much, but that it was not doing enough.

- The Communists sniped at it for “organizing scarcity”;
- the Townsend Planners, millions strong, were out for $200 a month for all people of sixty or over;
- Father Coughlin’s radio tirades,
- Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (‘End poverty in California”), and
- Floyd Olson’s Farmer-Labor Party were all going strong.

And there was also Huey Long, the Louisiana Kingfish, who cried “Share Our Wealth” and liked machine-guns, graft, and power. We show him here in one conversational …


… and three oratorical poses.


Huey was a potential dictator—with the special American advantage of having a caustic humor. But he came early to a dictator’s end: late in 1935 he was assassinated.

* * *

The short-lived NRA, which gave business managements permission to organize as never before—remember the “codes”?—also gave labor the right to organize. The explicit permission was put into Clause 7a of the NRA’s enabling act.

Thereupon John L. Lewis, toughest and most aggressive of American labor leaders, saw his opportunity. The law was now on his side! He undertook a swift organizing campaign to sign up the workmen in hitherto unorganized mass-production industries.

In 1935 he and Hillman and Dubinsky and other leaders set up an aggressive organization inside the slow-moving American Federation of Labor, and called it the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization); the next year it was read out of the AF of L but remained the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).

It grew fast.

When the Supreme Court killed the NRA, and Clause 7a died with it, Lewis was not long handicapped; for Congress quickly passed the Wagner Labor Relations Act to fill the breach.

Thereupon began an era of labor militancy, and of red-hot strikes, unparalleled since 1919-20. Below is Lewis, pictured in 1939.


The strikes were at their fiercest in 1937, when the, CIO’s United Automobile Workers staged a “sit-down” against General Motors, and then—after the U. S. Steel Corporation had signed with Lewis—the CIO’s Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee led a strike against the “little steel” companies.

The bitterest battles were waged between the workers of Republic Steel and its unreconstructed management, led by the hard-boiled Tom Girdler; in May 1937 a crowd of pickets at South Chicago were pursued and shot down by police—four killed, sis fatally injured. Below, a Republic Steel striker is being restrained by friends after a battle with the police.


Next, a Republic Steel striker is led away, tear-gassed, after a battle with “vigilante” police at Monroe, Michigan, in June 1937.


In a time of rebellion and hot tempers, even a student strike can cause lively disorder. Here is a scene in a fight between striking and non-striking students of Columbia University in April 1932, after President Butler refused to reinstate Reed Harris as editor of the Columbia “Spectator.”


Sit down strikes became epidemic. The next picture shows girl employees of Woolworth’s five and ten cent store on West Fourteenth Street, New York, sleeping on the floor of the store during their strike in March 1937. (Sympathizers outside the building passed food and bedding in to them.)


What they were striking for reads a little strangely today: they wanted union recognition, a forty-hour week, and a minimum wage of $20 a week.

The strike wave lasted until late in 1937, when times suddenly became worse, and unemployment—which remained high all through the nineteen-thirties—increased sharply. The country was headed into that relapse into depression which became known by the polite name of “Recession.”

* * *

Beginning in 1933, a series of hot dry seasons afflicted the Great Plains. Farming had never made a real recovery after the collapse of farm prices in 1920-21; the Depression, which drove prices down to the cellar, had come as an additionally grievous shock; and no sooner did things seem to be improving than droughts and dust storms came as the worst shock of all to the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and parts of other states.

Below, you see an Oklahoma farm as it looked in 1937, after the topsoil of the Great Plains had been blowing away for years.

When the dust storms struck, it grew black as night, and when the sun came out again, dust was drifted ever where like snow. Both of the next two pictures were taken in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, in April 1936.

Great numbers of people had abandon their farms because of the dust storms; others had to because their inability to make both ends meet forced them to sell their land to people who could farm big acreages with tractors. The owners of the abandoned farm in the next picture—taken in the Texas Panhandle in 1938—had been “tractored” off.


No wonder the disaster which hit the Great Plains called national attention to the evils of soil erosion, as graphically shown in next picture, taken in Alabama.


Where could they go, these refugees from dust?

Year after year, most of them converged upon Route 66 to California, where they were not wanted in any such numbers and were ill-housed and ill-paid. Here we show an orange pickers’ camp in Tulare County, California, in 1938;


Next, a sample of the way the “Okies” traveled west. This family (from Missouri) reported, “Broke—baby sick—car trouble.” That was in 1937.


The flight from the Dust Bowl to California, and the tragedy of the displaced Okies, constituted together an important development in American history; yet few Americans grasped its scope and emotional impact until John Steinbeck (below) wrote “The Grapes of Wrath,” which became the runaway best seller of 1939.


More extensively publicized was the sad state of the share-croppers of the South; and one of the most effective advertisers of it was Jack Kirkland’s play, “Tobacco Road,” made from Erskine Caldwell’s novel of the same name.

Opening in New York on December 4, 1933, it combined a reputation for impropriety with a sociological lesson so effectively that it ran on and on until it had broken the record set in the preceding decade by “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Here is Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, the role in which he preceded James Barton.


The troubles of the American farmers during the years of Depression and drought had at least one favorable result. They so dramatized the need for better defenses against erosion that, with the aid of the effective educational work of the government’s Soil Conservation Service, a great change took place in many regions in methods of planting.

By the end of the decade travelers by air could see how many farmers had taken up contour plowing; and the government’s photographers now could find such lovely subjects as this farm in Brown County, Texas, a model of the use of terraced land for wheat, millet, and barley.

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