Since Yesterday ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The 1920s were a time of economic prosperity and optimism in America. Ordinary people—factory workers, store clerks, school teachers—were able to turn a profit in the stock market. Everybody seemed to think the good times would last forever, but they didn’t. Too many people were investing in the markets “on margin,” meaning they were borrowing the money they were investing and didn’t necessarily have a way to pay it back if their investments didn’t turn out well for them. The big bubble burst in 1929 and the economic structure in America and just about every other country in the world came crashing down, ushering in the Big D: the Depression. No matter what else happened in the 1930s, the entire decade was marked by depression and a painful realignment of the economies of the world. In retrospect, people saw that things just couldn’t go on the way they had been since the end of the First World War.
Herbert Hoover of Iowa occupied the White House at the time of the stock market crash of 1929. He was more of an administrator than a politician and, no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t able to stop the economic decline or do much of anything to improve it. He was defeated for re-election in 1932 by Franklin Roosevelt, former governor of New York. Roosevelt had a very big job on his hands going forward. One of the things he did right away was to repeal Prohibition (the Volstead Act), which, by almost any standard, was a failure and had led to a rise in crime.
Repealing Prohibition, though, was easy compared to solving the country’s economic problems. Roosevelt instituted what was called the New Deal, which turned out to be a huge expansion of the power of the federal government. Millions of unemployed people were put to work as essentially employees of the government in “public works” projects. And, for the first time, the United States government became an enormous distributor of assistance to the needy.
Of course, during the 1930s, there were other things that happened besides the Depression, the repeal of Prohibition and the New Deal. In the plains states, millions of acres of topsoil blew away in epic dust storms caused by over-cultivation of the land. The region became known as the “dust bowl” and tens of thousands of farmers and their families were displaced and forced out of their homes. The Ohio River flooded, laying waste to Louisville and Cincinnati and destroying thousands of acres of crop lands. A freak tropical hurricane blew through New England, creating much destruction and killing 647 people. (I think there’s a pattern here.) “Lighter than air” transatlantic transport received its deathblow when the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. In the “crime of the decade,” aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped from his New Jersey home and later found dead. One Bruno Richard Hauptman, a German immigrant, was convicted of the crime and executed, proclaiming his innocence to his final breath. The 1930s also saw the rise of labor unions and sometimes bitter strikes between labor and management. To ease the pain of all the terrible things that were happening, Americans flocked to the movies. There were Mickey Mouse, Mae West, the Marx brothers, Shirley Temple, Clark Gable in It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty, Greta Garbo making a triumphant transition to talking pictures in Anna Christie, Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express and The Garden of Allah, Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon, and countless others to help people relieve the pain of living during such difficult times. There were tremendous strides also being made in the arts: music, painting, theatre, and literature. Unemployed painters were being put to work by the government painting murals in post offices and other public buildings. Classical music became popularized on the radio with regular programs by famed conductor Arturo Toscanini and other concert artists. “Swing” music with performers like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers became all the rage. In 1939, the New York World’s Fair opened. Called “The World of Tomorrow,” it called on people to look forward to the future with hope and optimism and set aside, as least for a time, the troubled past.
The 1930s were not to end on a very happy note, though. Whereas the beginning of the decade arrived with great economic uncertainty, it would end with fear of another war and foreign dictators: Mussolini but most particularly Hitler. He seemed to be gobbling up all the countries around him. What would the United States do if Hitler invaded its allies Britain and France? Most Americans were against getting involved in another European war. It was a time of great unease in the country.
Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America is an informal (meaning easy to read, not academic and not scientific) account of the 1930s—from September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939—by a person who lived through it and was there, historian Frederick Lewis Allen. He writes on nearly every aspect of American life during the 1930s. If you remember the 1930s, and even if you don’t, this is a very entertaining and informative journey down memory lane. Now it’s on the 1940s. If you lived in the 1930s, you were probably better off not knowing what awaited you just around the corner.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp