This is a dense, interesting book. Lots of details but still a pretty nice read. The chapters I’ve finished in the past few weeks are:
- Chapter 6: The Ordeal of the American People
- Chapter 7: Chasing the Phantom of Recovery
- Chapter 8: The Rumble of Discontent
- Chapter 9: A Season for Reform
- Chapter 10: Strike!
I’ve never appreciated just how hard times were in the Great Depression; my mom, aunt, and uncle have told me stories from their lives, but to read about the magnitude of hunger and need for much of the 1930s is heartbreaking.
As I mentioned earlier, Hitler was able to capitalize on similar problems in Germany to rise to power. There was certainly a big undercurrent of discontent in our country but it never really coalesced under one person or one ideology. This is most likely because of the immense size of the country and the resulting diversity. Different group saw the problems and solutions differently. The farmers in the great plains had different solutions in mind than the displaced industrial workers in the northeast or the landed cheap labor farmers in the south.
Father Coughlin and Huey Long built large constituencies; but their solutions were really not workable. When Kennedy writes about the thrall of Coughlin using the new media (radio), I can’t help but think of the Tea Party and cable networks today:
“He played guilefully on his followers’ worst instincts; their suspicious provincialism, their unworldly ignorance, their yearning for simple explanations and extravagant remedies for their undeniable problems, their readiness to believe in conspiracies, their sulky resentments, and their all too human capacity for hatred” (p234)
Long and others hoped for the 1934 midterm election to go to the conservatives, which would push back the small progress the Roosevelt administration had made. This would result in a backlash and the possibility of Huey to become elected and perhaps become a dictator in 1937. FDR saw this radicalism building and feared that they might succeed inteh short term. But the resulting damage to the existing parties and social discourse would result in a sustained period of paralysis. “Not social revolution but statis was the worst plausible outcome of the radial agitation” (p 244)
FDR was a brilliant politician; he co-opted much of the platform for the 2nd New Deal. Kennedy argues that he turned against the upper class, the capitalists and industrialists in order to pull a following from the admirers of Coughlin, Long, and others.
In Chapter 10, Kennedy outlines the steady improvements of union organization. The sit down strike against GM resulted in the biggest organized labor gains in decades. Because the governerships had fallen into the Democrats power, industry could not always count on the police and National Guard to beat the workers into submission. “For virtually the first time in the history of American industrial conflicts, state officials determined to sit on their hands, leaving labor and capital to negotiate their own way out of the impasse. Discipline and raw economic power, not legal injunction or political intervention, would determine the outcome” (p 312)
I’ve got another couple of chapters to read on the Great Depression before Kennedy takes up World War II. This is a fascinating book.