The Obama campaign’s recently released online documentary, The Road We’ve Traveled, opens by evoking the plight of the economy when Obama took office: “This will be as deep as anything we’ve experienced since the Great Depression,” and “not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt had so much fallen on the shoulders of one president.” It mixes a photograph of the Depression — “Unemployed — will take any job” reads one placard carried by a man — with a shot of suited office workers on the streets, presumably out of work, or about to be, because of the Lehman bankruptcy.
How historically accurate is the Great Depression comparison? The dizzying collapse of the housing and stock markets, followed by a deep and painful economic downturn, indeed was scary. It’s easy to forget the days when panicked investors were pulling their savings out of presumptively safe money market funds; the mega-layoffs that rocketed the unemployment rate to more than 10 per cent; the automobile industry going into intensive care; and the huge swathes of abandoned and foreclosed homes (“if you build it they will buy it” turned out to be a cruel mockery of the American fields of homeowners’ dreams). All that granted, the Great Depression comparison doesn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an admirer of both FDR and Obama but I don’t think the Great Depression and our current economic problems are in the same ballpark, or even the same league. On the day that FDR took office, March 4, 1933, the United States of America was plunging into an abyss. Every state had shut its banks or restricted their operation; there was not enough money in the Treasury to meet the federal payroll, and the New York Stock Exchange had shut down with no date set to reopen. Since the 1929 stock market crash, stock prices had plummeted 85 per cent, and manufacturing in the United States had all but ceased: The automobile industry was operating at 20 per cent of normal capacity and the steel industry at only 12 per cent. The year before, 273,000 families had been evicted from their homes.
“Millions stayed alive,” wrote historian William Manchester in his extraordinary account, The Glory and the Dream, “by living like animals.” Two million homeless Americans were wandering the nation’s roads or riding the freight cars, one quarter of them between the ages of 16 and 21. The writer Edmund Wilson, while visiting Chicago, witnessed 100 starving people clambering through a garbage dump, “falling on the heap of refuse as soon as the [garbage] truck had pulled out and digging into it with sticks and hands.” Each night 200 Chicago women slept on the ground without shelter in Grant and Lincoln Parks. (On the Vineyard, up-Islanders, in particular, actually fended better for themselves because, according to one oral history, they could hunt, fish and farm).
One-fifth of the students in the New York city school system suffered from malnutrition. Nationally, a third of a million children were no longer being educated because their schools had closed for lack of funds. Before the 1929 crash, there were almost no shoeshine boys in New York City; now there were thousands (19 on one block alone). And among the more than 15 million persons looking for jobs that were nowhere to be found, were nearly 22,000 graduates of Ivy League universities.
The Great Depression didn’t just destroy jobs and savings (to the point that an estimated 28 per cent of the population had no income), it damaged people’s souls. “I haven’t had a steady job in more than two years,” a man told a New York Daily News reporter in 1932. “Sometimes I feel like a murderer. What’s wrong with me, that I can’t protect my children?” A special suicide category, “altruistic suicides,” according to Mr. Manchester, was created for “men who killed themselves rather than become a burden to the community.” After looking into the faces of thousands of Americans on a campaign swing, FDR told a friend that “They have the frightened look of lost children.”
And shortly after noon on March 4, it all changed. The “only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech was a transformative historical event, like the Gettysburg Address. Roosevelt’s speech was the best thing his countrymen had heard in a long, long time — and that week, 450,000 wrote Roosevelt to tell him just that. Even Ronald Reagan, in the midst of a Presidency largely devoted to dismantling the New Deal, recalled how Roosevelt’s leadership revived American spirits: “It was that engrained American optimism, that sense of hope Franklin Roosevelt so brilliantly summoned and mobilized.”
President Obama deserves, in my view, great credit for intelligently and skillfully managing the country’s recent economic travails. But he did not face anything like the economic devastation of the Great Depression; nor did he create a magical, game-changing moment in the midst of an existential American crisis the way FDR did. He would do better, and The Road We’ve Traveled, would be more compelling, if he touted his achievements on their own merits and not on the basis of a mistaken analogy to the Great Depression.
Gregory Wallance is a longtime seasonal resident of Chilmark, a lawyer and writer in New York city. This piece is adapted from his forthcoming book, America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy, released on April 19.