A Review of Robert Leighninger Jr.’s Long Range Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal
Robert D. Leighninger Jr., a sociologist at Arizona State University, has also written Building Louisiana: The Legacy of the Public Works Administration. A specialist in public building programs of the New Deal, Leighninger edits the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. He graduated from Oberlin College and Syracuse University with a Ph.D in sociology.
BY ANDY PALM
The Great Depression—a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II—caused unemployment rates to skyrocket, international trade rates to plunge, and personal incomes to plummet. This depression of the 1930s was “the most severe and most persistent economic setback of any major western nation.”1 While many would believe that such harsh economic times would result in all time lows in American spirit, author James R. McGovern believes otherwise. In his historical study And A Time For Hope: Americans in the Great Depression, he argues that, although the 1930s and the Great Depression were characterized by devastating economic lows, they were a time of high hopes, optimism, and morale for the American people.
McGovern starts by introducing the harsh conditions of the Great Depression, which include “deserted factories, unprecedented numbers of embittered men on city streets, and farmers frightened that they would soon lose their farms.”2 Due to the disastrous economic state of the nation, many families struggled to survive during this period of time. Poverty was prevalent, and the relief organizations were full of poor Americans asking desperately for financial aid. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt inspired confidence and optimism in the American people through his calm assurances and comforting appeal. To the people, he was the right man at the right time, a strong and moving leader to help navigate America through the economic depression. His New Deal policies and legislations provided a wide variety of reform and relief organizations to help stimulate the economy and assist those in need of financial stability. Although Roosevelt’s New Deal did not completely rescue America from the Great Depression, it improved the quality of life for many Americans as the Gross National Product rose from its low figures from the Hoover years. Additionally, the New Deal policies engendered hope—hope that America was going in the right direction toward economic recovery. The nation’s morale was boosted with overall approval of Roosevelt’s actions, greater opportunities for social mobility, and improved healthcare. Thus, despite being stuck in a depression, the people believed in Roosevelt’s policies and that the nation was taking a step in the right direction towards recovery.
Different social and racial groups had varying amounts of success in dealing with the Great Depression. Due to their isolation, self-sufficiency, and confidence, the rural population was rather successful in surviving the depression. With tight-knit communities based on the main influences of family, church, and community, farmers fought the threats of mechanization of farm labor and low prices with calm and confidence—key factors to their survival of the Great Depression. Contrary to popular belief, the migrant Okies—who moved from the South and Midwest to the West Coast—were not exploited severely. Furthermore, they did not suffer more excessively than the rest of America. They were a group of industrious, optimistic, and confident migrants that traveled west to escape the depression. Intelligent, moral, and religious, the Okies sacrificed education for urban labor. At the bottom of society and with the worst conditions of all struggled the African Americans of the cotton South. Living in the poorest region of the United States during the 1930s, blacks “were ensnared in a comprehensive and exceptionally hostile racial system, designed and enforced to perpetuate their poverty.”3 Blacks suffered immensely as they were exploited for cheap labor, violently lynched, and excluded from the white population. Despite their disadvantages and abuses, African Americans remained a resilient, solid, and unified force, optimistic and hopeful in their advances due largely to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, benefits from Roosevelt’s New Deal, and collective strength and solidarity.
Although locked in an economic depression, Americans were still able to achieve progress in society and civilization. Major construction projects and various world fairs helped Americans believe in a positive future. Quality of life improved as the aegis of science and technology advanced, as confidence in the future and progress rose, and as comfort and convenience developed from the increasing availability of luxury goods. Furthermore, movies in the 1930s became instruments of popular culture and boomed as the entertainment business gained popularity. Films provided relief to the stressed American people and were used as tools for advertising and propaganda. Another example of newfound success in the 1930s was the radio, which “was comparably distinguished through the entire decade both for its impact and as a source of national morale.”4 Radios soon became a household fixture as they provided family-oriented programs and comedic relief to ease the people’s tensions of the depression. The increasing popularity of radios also became beneficial for women, who were accepted and given roles in radio programs. Thus, despite economic hardships, the 1930s were still a time of progress and advancement as movies and radios dominated popular culture, influencing traditional American social and value systems.
Urban America contained a diverse group of workers who achieved varied successes and failures. Despite the fact that unemployment rates were high and the New Deal was not providing much aid to the common workers, the urban dwellers remained enthusiastic, maintained their patriotism, and participated in less strikes and labor violence. Additionally, they gained many significant labor rights due to the Wagner Act, which granted workers the rights to bargain collectively, create labor unions, and participate in strikes, proving their solidarity by creating the American Federation of Labor to support unions and collective bargaining. Many of the workers came from different backgrounds and homelands. Immigrants were exploited by their employers for cheap labor, and they faced harsh racism and discrimination in the workplace. Without much support in the workplace, racially similar immigrants formed neighborhoods interlaced with communal relationships that initiated mass action campaigns. The urban areas were known not only for their diversity of workers, but also for the several great cities of America—in other words, enviable places to work and live. The attractions of the great cities gave the community a sense of elite status, and avant-garde policies of constantly upgrading technology represented the exciting and advanced appeal of the great cities. These great cities such as New York buffered the depression, displayed signs of progress, and generated American optimism through its appealing entertainment, popular sport life, and evolving culture. Therefore, amidst the hardships of the disastrous depression, people had “overlooked [America’s] diverse strengths, poise, creative adaptability, and, above all, [its] triumphant retention of positive values and commitments.”5 The Great Depression should not, then, be characterized by the economic adversity the people faced, but by the strength of America’s hope and optimism in combating and escaping one of the most severe and widespread financial crises of all time.
McGovern takes a new and refreshing perspective on the Great Depression, claiming it to be a time of America’s greatest hope and highest morale as opposed to the morose period of economic hardships. The adversity of the depression brought out the best in one of the most successful nations, which at the time required a “responsive and innovative government under Roosevelt, together with protective social institutions of a voluntary nature, public confidence in the virtues of America, the promise of American technology and the American Dream ... to produce a remarkably stable and productive society in difficult times.”6 McGovern’s thesis is accurate because America was able to climb out of a most brutal and complex economic depression while maintaining democratic and social stability successfully. This different point of view characterizes the depression as a time of hope, widening the scope of the reader’s knowledge of the 1930s. The book provides new information, which in other books is usually buried under statistics and laments over the hardships of these difficult times. This new interpretation and viewpoint of the Great Depression also influences historiography. McGovern seeks to portray “the American people in widely different dimensions of their experience in order to attempt a new and challenging interpretation of those times.”7 McGovern’s work departs from the commonplace theory that the 1930s were an entirely disastrous period distinguished by excessive poverty and adversity. Instead, he takes a new approach by introducing the reader to an entirely different image of the 1930s by emphasizing the progress and advances of the nuclear time. He distinguishes it as a period of high hopes and optimistic expectations for the future. McGovern thus argues that during the 1930s, the only thing depressed about and within America was the economy, and not, by any means, the American spirit.
In his book review, John Joseph Wallis in Book Reviews positively praises McGovern’s central theme of American high hopes and optimism during the Great Depression. Wallis agrees that the 1930s were a time that should be characterized by progress and a confident belief in a promising future, not a time of dismal despair that affected people to have a bleak outlook on the future. He also appreciates McGovern’s interestingly different point of view of the Great Depression and full-heartedly supports McGovern’s ideas, describing it as “a relentlessly nice, positive, and upbeat book about Americans in the Great Depression.”8 Wallis recognizes the significance of McGovern’s contribution to historiography by looking at the positive rather than the negative aspects of the 1930s and, thus, takes pleasure in the upbeat and progressive history of this time period. In a different book review in the Canadian Journal of History, David L. Lightner accepts McGovern’s thesis, while pointing out several flaws in McGovern’s work. Although Lightner admits that the overall theme, facts, and social history of the book is accurate, he criticizes its ignorance of the many social and racial groups present during the 1930s, over-dramatization of the main thesis and viewpoint, and misinterpretations of data. Lightner further complains that McGovern’s work fails to discuss the lives, conditions, and emotions of the wealthy elite, women, and workers of different backgrounds—such as Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans—during the 1930s. Lightner also criticizes McGovern’s work in saying that McGovern overuses and overkills the main theme that the 1930s were a time of high hopes, additionally labeling the theme as neither a new point of view nor a challenging one. In fact, Lightner points out that the belief that the 1930s were years of progress is a generally accepted theory by most historians, negating it as a new, unique idea and challenging thought compared to the conventional viewpoints on this time period. While Lightner may believe that McGovern overstresses the central theme that the 1930s were a period of optimism and hope, Lightner is wrong. The basic idea that the 1930s were a time of American positivity forms the thesis of the book and correlates to each topic that McGovern writes about. McGovern does not overuse this theory and does not overemphasize it because the new viewpoint that McGovern presents is proven by each chapter, and it adds a significant contribution to historiography and helps form a new image of the 1930s. The central theme of this book is also a new one because it deviates from the viewpoint of most textbooks, which mainly stress the difficult times of the Great Depression and associate it with adversity and immense human suffering. This, however, is not true because the Americans were full of hope and optimism towards a bright future full of progress and prosperity. Furthermore, Lightner accuses McGovern of misinterpreting the causes for the decrease in labor strikes during the 1930s. Lightner claims that McGovern overemphasizes American positive sentiment by labeling it as the main cause for the decrease in labor strikes. In reality, Lightner cites that labor strike participation went down mainly due to the workers’ lack of financial stability and other job opportunities. Because of the hard economic times during the 1930s, it was more likely that labor strike participation decreased due to the lack of employment opportunities than from a positive attitude from the American people. Even though McGovern makes several errors in his work, his study is generally accepted and his ideas agreed upon.
The 1930s marked a watershed in American history by proving the strength and stability of the American system in recovering from the Great Depression. McGovern believes in the significance of this time period because the depression showed and substantiated the people’s belief in the government and its confident president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The successful recovery from the depression displayed the potency of American democracy and government where the governments of European nations fell victim to revolution, inspired confidence in the people that the American system was dependable and that the people would be rescued from even the toughest of hardships, and set the precedence for American policies on how to deal with future major economic crises. The 1930s also marked the transition to and success of Keynesian economics. While the devastating effects of the depression crippled most European economies, America successfully escaped and recovered from the depression and proved the viability of deficit spending, government economic stimulus programs, and the mixed economy of public and private sectors. Even though the New Deal and the American economy “never made any serious attempt to redistribute wealth,” both policies were effective enough to allow America to climb out of the depression with surprising success and last out the storm of the 1930s.9 In addition to proving the lasting strength of America, the 1930s marked the changing of popular culture. The tensions of these times brought about the popularity of the radio and movies, which soon became major influences on society. Not only did they ease the tensions of the depression with comedic and family-oriented programs, but they also provided a mode of advertising to the masses. Such advances in technology represented the avant-garde policies and constant progress of America in the 1930s, showing off new and stunning inventions at the world fairs. Advanced technology combined with the stunning attractions of the great cities combined to excite America with high ambitions for the future, with visions of progress on the horizon.
During the Great Depression, America was short on wealth, but not short on morale. The 1930s were thus an important time in American history as they showed the strength of American positivity and optimism. American spirit was high as progress occurred daily and the evolution of popular culture was continual. America persevered through the hardships with sound economic policies and a sound leader in Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 1930s and the Great Depression were both times of a depressed economy, they were not times of a depressed people. The economic hardships were unable to break the high hopes and optimism of the “typically confident and hopeful” people and the 1930s marked a watershed in American history by proving the strength and resilience of the United States of America.10
1: Leighninger, Robert D. Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, Andy Palm moved to America at the age of eight. He works hard with the hope of attending a four year university, although the major is yet undecided. Some of his numerous pursuits in his free time include running, reading, and enjoying good music.
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