The Great Depression lasted from October 24, 1929 until the economic recovery of the 1940s. On October 29, Black Thursday, the stock market crashed heavily, and continued to fall sharply throughout the coming weeks. As a result, the United States and the world were thrown into a decade of poverty and unemployment. The depression affected all sectors of the economy. Farm owners and agricultural workers suffered from falling crop prices. Businesses failed from a lack of investment support and a decline in the ability of the masses to afford their products. Banks closed their doors as the nation’s citizens hoarded their money and defaulted on loan payments. Unemployment and abject poverty enveloped the nation.
Herbert Hoover was President of the United States at the onset of the depression. His message to the people was one of continued belief in recovery, even in the face of worsening conditions. Though he eventually sparked some government action in an effort to curb the effects of the depression, he believed in the power of the economy to right itself without government intervention. The situation did not improve, and dissent grew throughout the nation. Hoover lost the presidency to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 election.
FDR quickly shifted from a stance of non-intervention to a government policy of regulation and relief. During the first hundred days of his presidency, he and his highly trusted advisors, known as the Brain Trust, created the New Deal. Marshalling a previously unseen executive power, Roosevelt created a number of agencies to aid agriculture, business, and the unemployed. The nation mobilized, and it appeared the economy might improve. However, the economy remained troubled, and criticism of the New Deal rose up in the government and in some political circles. A number of Supreme Court Rulings effectively dismantled the primary mechanisms of FDR’s plan.
Undaunted, and gaining a public mandate with the Democratic successes in the 1934 midterm election, FDR set forth the Second New Deal in 1935. This program reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to public support of the nation’s troubled people. Great steps were taken in attempts to solve the unemployment problem and stimulate economic recovery. The legislation passed during this period would be the framework of the New Deal throughout the remainder of the decade. The economy showed some signs of recovery but was set back by the 1937 recession. After that, FDR enacted few additional measures to cope with the depression. Finally, economic recovery took place under the war economy of the early 1940s, with levels of poverty and unemployment returned to pre-depression levels.
The Depression brought marked changes to the political and entertainment culture of the United States. A culture of dissent and disillusionment produced ample political outlets, such as Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth program. Dissent and disillusionment sparked by the depression affected popular culture as well. The 1930s were the golden age of radio. Radio shows, most of them comedies and soap operas, took people’s minds off their troubles and provided happiness in a time of great sadness. Hollywood also flourished, as people flocked to the theatres to escape their everyday world of poverty and despair. In contrast, intellectuals and authors delivered a sharp dose of realism. Many were directly critical of capitalism and supported political alternatives, such as socialism or communism.
The Great Depression was a time of sadness and poverty for many, and became an abiding historical watermark in American history and consciousness. It produced a distinct political response that defined the Democratic Party throughout the twentieth century; some New Deal policies, such as Social Security, are now considered bedrock rights of American citizens. Under FDR, a new conception of the federal government emerged, based on the belief in economic regulation and social welfare.