Stormy Weather

1930—The Year of Change

A Review of August C. Bolino’s From Depression to War

August Bolino is currently the Professor Emeritus in the Department of Economics and Business at The Catholic University of America and Vice President for Research of the Ellis Island Restoration Commission. He has written multiple historical books in hopes to inform the public about these historical events.


The year 1939 was a time of calm and more optimism for most Americans. There were also major social and economic concerns of the American people. Concerns such as religion, race, and crime were still over the heads of many people who lived during this time. America as a nation was finally pulling out of a depression but signs of the coming of war were beginning to be visible. However, at the time, America was developing their prosperity and building up technology for advancement. John Brooks wrote, “I see 1939 as the watershed year between the older America and the newer one, partly because various technological developments that were to be of great importance happened.”1 Many new inventions sprang out of the minds of great inventors. America as a nation was finally pulling out of a depression. Scientific developments that offered promising new developments were used as tools of war that was to come and it also improved the lives of the citizens in their daily lives. 1939 was a year of contrast, from the ending of depression, rising of the media and technology, to the beginning of the rising tensions of war.

The year 1939 stood between the Great Depression and the U.S. entrance to World War II. In this transitional year, the birth rate was falling and many predicted that the United States would suffer from a long-term population decline. By 1939, the Depression was finally waning, but vestiges remained. Unemployment, which had declined each year from its peak was still seventeen percent. Ideas to help these people who were unemployed to get jobs were planned such as the Golden Gate International Exposition which was held on Treasure Island. This created 3 million man-hours of work and proved to be a success. These projects encouraged other states such as New York to do the same. The New York World’s Fair was a very grand one whose idea came from Joseph Shadgen by way of his daughter. Other great exhibits like the Futurama gained much popularity from the public. On the seventh of June, George VI of Great Britain came to visit Washington DC along with other majesties to visit these great exhibits and festivals. This turned out to be a success and the public had great responses as well. These events united the people of U.S. together. However, there were some factors that discouraged unity among the people of the U.S. such as religion. The United States in 1939 was firmly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. They were mostly intolerant of other religions such as Catholicism and Atheism. Many had problems with Negro churches that were being formed as well because of the different style of services that they held. Protestants developed the idea that the lack of job opportunities, failure of businesses, and the rise of crime came from the blacks and the many Jews who had immigrated to the United States. Leaders such as Haynes were the leaders to these ideas. However, some WASPs were tolerant to the people of different religions and races and accepted them. Taylor, the retired Chairman of the United States Steel Corporation, who was Roosevelt’s personal convoy to the Vatican during Christmas week of 1939 shocked many Americans when he resigned in 1939 to meditate on problems of modern civilization. Another figure who was influential at this time was Father Charles Edward Coughlin, an Irish Canadian. He was the leader of one of the most influential “America First” movements. He was a great speaker; he spoke often times on the radio that caught the attention of everyone listening. This year had a series of positive and negative things socially and economically.

Technology really kicked off as people started inventing things such as the radio and the movies. Large and small studios alike produced movies for the public to enjoy in the local theaters. Arguments about the precise role of films in the Depression existed. Major film studios controlled all aspects of movie making and distribution when they engaged in block-booking with their own theaters. In 1939, several movies were about wars and how to train for them. The top movie stars at this time included Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Sonja Henie, and so on. In 1939, 65 percent of all Americans watched a movie in the theaters at least once every week. The most famous movie at this time was the movie Gone With the Wind which had been called “‘the greatest literary smash hit of all time.’”2 Other movies such as the Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach were very popular as well. The Jack Benny Show, shown on TV, came into million homes as a Sunday night family show and it quickly became very popular. Toscanini, the world renowned conductor came to New York to create his own orchestra in the 1930s. Popular music was often times distinguished by geography. In Kansas City, Jazz was popular, country music in Appalachia, and Broadway hits in New York City. “The origins of jazz claims to have come from New Orleans by Schuller, but major figures in jazz and swings got their starts in white bands.”3 The one music that came to dominate was the Big Band Sound. It was swing music with a jazz base and was characterized by a driving beat with many solo improvisations. Benny Goodman, a famous jazz musician is sometimes linked with Toscanini. He was a rigid taskmaster and he insisted on perfection from his orchestra just as Tuscani did although their style of music was different. The Goodman sextet was able to make the first recording in 1939, the “Flying Home.” Goodman worked only with the best soloists and musicians of the time and truly changed the course of music in America. Another great noticeable maestro that was uprising at this time was Glenn. He was a musician who started off very poor and could only afford to hire low-paid musicians. However, as time went on Glenn Miller was able to be recognized in America. He also demanded perfection and often times kicked out band members who were not able to provide him with excellent performances. Billie Holiday, the first female singer of jazz had a wide influence. “There are elements of her style in Helen Forrest, Anita O’Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole..”4 She was known as “Lady Day” as well. The rising of these individuals with musical talents definitely shaped music to what it is today.

American painters went to Europe in order to live and absorb the styles of European styles. These artists came back to America with a strong sense of patriotism during the time of Depression. Thomas Benton, a Kansas City social realist painted many murals and a series of American Portraits. As the book says, “He developed a deep interest in all things American.”5 Artists like him who had strong patriotism rose up at this time and painted for the country. The FAP employed people of every art style. It was the WPA (Works Progress Administration) for all artists. Three major schools came up about: the abstractionists, the regionalists, and the social propaganda school. In all of the other part of the world, various artists with great talents and passion for art sprung up such as Vasily Kandinsky who painted the Blue Rider. Artists such as Picasso had his works in large exhibitions opened in places like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A popular form of art known as photography was becoming very popular in this time. At first, photographers had a very hard time being recognized for being artists but worked very hard to gain respect from the critics around them. As much as the arts flourished, many inventions and discoveries in the science department were made as well. The television was able to be developed which created a huge tool for entertainment for the people of America. As many experts such as Farnsworth and Zworykin worked together and built off of each other’s works, they were able to create the television. Eckert and John W. Mauchly developed the first computer in 1937. They were both curious scientists who wanted to experiment and perhaps create a digital computing machine. They named this machine ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer). Advancements in science meant that they were beginning to come up with better cures and medicines in the health departments. In 1922, Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered lysozyme, a bacteria-dissolving enzyme found in body secretions. Taking this same enzyme, Dr. Howard W. Florey was working to create a medicine. Advancement in transportation made life easier as well. By 1939, there were 26,000 automobiles on highways. Cars were dominating the streets and by now the automobile industry was skyrocketing. Not only were advancements made on the ground transportation, but in the air also. The United States had eighteen domestic air carriers in 1939. People were able to get from a place to another by utilizing these airplanes. New sports and games rose in this time as well. In 1939, baseball was celebrating its centenary. The New York Yankees had won the World Series for the fourth time and everyone was involved in baseball one way or another. Big players like Gehrig were loved by the public. The New York Yankees were loved by most people of the country. The Negro-League was existent in baseball. Blacks were not allowed to play on the same team or field as whites. It was not until Jackie Robinson, who was recognized for his great talent in baseball, was admitted into the white league that blacks could play with the whites. Another sport that was widely popular was football. Football legends such as Tom Harmon rose up and dominated the era. It created a reason for people to celebrate together. All of these different sorts of entertainment built up to the pop culture of America. The various types of music and sports the people could enjoy contributed to the pop culture society of America.

Though America was doing a good job in having prosperity within its own country, it could not escape the effect of the devastation that the rest of the world had been facing. The Spanish Civil war of 1936 was a popular resistance to an attempt to bring about a military coup by the fascist leaders of Italy and Germany. As Francisco Franco set out from Morocco with a small army to conquer Spain and to destroy the Communist Government, he increased the size of his army to about 750,000 men. Seeing this, Mussolini and Hitler had the confidence that they could indeed do the same. He participated in World War I and developed a strong sense of patriotism. On April 7, 1939, a large contingent of Italian troops assembled at the ports of Bari and Brindisi for the invasion of Albania. In another part of the world, Russia was facing problems of its own. Joseph Stalin rose up to power and led to the Russian downfall. Russia had no vegetation growing because everything had been covered with Concrete and Asphalt. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito declared himself as the god of the universe. Under Hirohito, Japan gobbled up a lot of territory in Asia, particularly China as it went under a Communist revolution. The people in China were tired of being poor and so weak so they looked towards Communism to solve their problems. Throughout the world, alliances between countries formed and sides were divided. Germany and Russia formed the Russo-German Alliance. As Hitler made this alliance he said, “Stalin and I are the only ones who see the future,” later adding that “We shall crush the Soviet Union.”5 With all these ongoing affairs and corruption going on in the world, the United States was bound to face war. Roosevelt urged Hitler and Mussolini to give up the use of force for 10 or 20 years. Roosevelt wanted to avoid war as much as possible. It was quite evident that Hitler would launch an attack on Poland if the United States were to do nothing. On September 8, 1939, the president declared a limited national emergency in order to gear up and get ready for the war that was about to come. He increased the number of people who served in the army and spent a vast amount of money on weapon productions. Roosevelt appointed George Marshall to replace General Malin Craig as the United States Army Chief of Staff. Initially, the United States had declared to stay neutral when the war erupted, but as the problem got worse for the European nations that were being dominated by Germany, the United States had no choice but to step into war.

This book provides a great account of everything that went on in 1939. The author wanted to get across the message that in this one transitional year, the United States was able to spring up from a series of Depressions to the equipping of war. The factor in doing so was that the United States’ industry and pop culture grew heavily. The author wants to get across the point that this bounce could not have happened without the events such as baseball which seems irrelevant to Depression and war. Historiography had great influence on this book. It provides detailed factual information about all of the subjects that could be possibly covered for America in 1939.

For the author, the 1930s was truly a time of change. Especially Bolino who chose to write about 1939, where critical things happened that changed the course of history. He saw The United States pulling out of the depression and overcoming it through various advancements. Also, the inevitable war that could not be avoided was faced with us and America had no choice but to break neutrality and face the war. Bolino describes the 1930s as a time where prosperity and troubles both coexist that leads the United States into WWII.

The 1930s was a time of prosperity, fun, and inventions but also a time of great sorrow. The Great Depression led to the starvation of many and to the loss of hope to most Americans. Though America as a nation managed to bounce back as a nation, still many individuals were suffering the consequences of the Depression. Many people were not able to enjoy the luxuries of the new technologies. However, the various forms of arts and music provided a way to escape reality and to find happiness for these people who were hopeless. The pop culture that developed in America generally led to prosperity and turned the tides of the Depression around. Most importantly, the various pop cultures, whether it be baseball, art, or music brought the people together. The 1930s are an example of how strong the United States was by proving the nation could defeat this big problem of a Depression.

The many events that went on in 1939 are summarized in this book. From the ending of the Great Depression, to the rise of pop culture, to the preparation of war, all things were achieved. The culture that existed during this time truly made life more enjoyable for everyone. Also, it created a way of escaping reality to some extent. The manufactures of cars and planes and other inventions made life a much easier task for people. Depression died as new job opportunities came with art and music. However, the destiny of America being in a war could not be avoided. America was destined to fight in the upcoming World War II and was affected by the much instability going on outside of the US. As the U.S. geared up for war under Roosevelt, its strong determination continued and eventually led to winning the war. All of these series of events had an effect on one another in building up what was to happen later on.



1: Bolino, August. From Depression to War. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: Praeger
Publishers, 1998. 40.
2: Bolino, August. 102.
3: Bolino, August. 182.
4: Bolino, August. 204.
5: Bolino, August. 250.

Student Bio

Simon Paik is a junior at Irvine High. He was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States when he was eight. As a hobby, he enjoys singing and spending time with his friends. He hopes to go to a good four year university and become an elementary school teacher in the future.


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