The Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)

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The Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)

How They Were Governed

The Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established in 1933 to bring flood and navigation control, electricity production, and agricultural and industrial development to parts of southern Appalachia. It played a vital role in national defense during World War II by providing electricity to industries important to the war effort and to a top-secret government complex that helped develop the atomic bomb.

The Tennessee Valley

The Tennessee River flows southward from the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, across northern Alabama, and then northward across western Tennessee into Kentucky. The river basin, as well as the nearby Ohio and Mississippi rivers, was prone to floods that brought malaria-bearing mosquitoes and hardship to local residents. Decades of flooding and soil erosion, combined with local farming practices, had depleted the agricultural productivity of the area. Navigation of the Tennessee River was complicated by steep drops in elevation along its course and a series of massive sandbars in the Alabama stretch.

During World War I the federal government built a dam on the river and operated nitrate plants for munitions production near the town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Oklahoma Senator George Norris (1861–1944), a progressive Republican who championed the causes of small farmers, persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) to use the government-owned complex at Muscle Shoals as the headquarters for a new agency devoted to improving the environmental, economic, and social conditions of farmers in the valley. Roosevelt created an independent agency that operated almost like a private corporation.

In May 1933 Congress passed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act to “improve the navigability and to provide for the flood control of the Tennessee River; to provide for reforestation and the proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley; to provide for the agricultural and industrial development of said valley; to provide for the national defense by the creation of a corporation for the operation of Government properties at and near Muscle Shoals in the State of Alabama, and for other purposes.” The new agency developed fertilizers, planted trees, controlled forest fires, and improved habitats for fish and wildlife. It also began an ambitious dam-building program along the Tennessee River to rein in its unpredictable waters.

The Dam Controversy

The first dam was completed in 1936 and named for Norris; more than a dozen more were constructed by 1944, an unprecedented feat of U.S. engineering. Besides much-needed jobs, the projects provided electrical power that was distributed through a network of municipal power boards and rural electric cooperatives—the TVA law had specifically called for the extension of electrical service to rural areas. By the end of World War II the agency was the largest electrical supplier in the country.

Because the dams were built to generate electricity, private utility companies viewed them as unfair competition from the government and took TVA to court. The U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue in Ashwander v. TVA (1935) and Tennessee Electric Power Company v. TVA (1939). In both cases, the constitutionality of the TVA was upheld.

The War Effort

During World War II TVA played a vital role by providing nitrate for munitions and electrical power to key industries in the region, particularly the Alcoa Company near Knoxville, Tennessee, which operated the largest aluminum plant in the world. Nearby was a small community, Oak Ridge, that was chosen for a top-secret government complex devoted to development of the first atomic bomb.

The Postwar Decades

Following the war TVA continued to operate and expand its growing electrical network. During the 1950s the agency began building coal-fired power plants in the Tennessee Valley. Eventually those plants provided more electricity than the hydroelectric plants at TVA’s dams. In 1959 Congress passed amendments to the TVA law, allowing the agency to sell bonds to finance its operations, instead of depending on government appropriations. By that time the Tennessee Valley had evolved into a thriving region with a huge appetite for electrical power. During the 1960s and 1970s TVA constructed three nuclear power plants in the area. The agency’s expansion slowed over the following decades because of increasing energy costs and deregulation within the utility industry. Nevertheless, TVA remains the largest public power supplier in the United States.

The Federal Communications Commission

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created in 1934 to regulate interstate communications via the airwaves. The telecommunications industry, at the time in its infancy, included only telegraph, telephone, and radio transmissions. Technological advances since then have greatly expanded the types of transmitting services subject to FCC jurisdiction and raised questions about the relevancy of the agency.

Formation of the FCC

In January 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) suggested that the regulation of interstate communications be centralized in one agency. Regulatory authority had been fragmented between the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Postmaster General, and the Federal Radio Commission. Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934 with little debate because it made only modest changes to the existing regulatory framework. Title I of the law established the Federal Communications Commission to oversee telephone-service providers and radio broadcasting. The Federal Radio Commission was abolished.

The FCC had a seven-person board appointed by Roosevelt. Eugene Sykes (1876–1941), a Democrat from Mississippi, was its first chairman.

The Telephone Giant

When the FCC was created the nation’s telephone service was dominated by one company, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), which included a number of companies that handled local telephone services (the Bell Operating Companies) and Western Electric, which manufactured telephone equipment. In 1935 AT&T companies serviced nearly 96 percent of the nation’s 14 million telephone subscribers. The federal government chose to tighten regulation of the corporate giant, rather than dismantle it.

After focusing intense scrutiny on the policies of AT&T, the FCC in 1938 released a report (known as the Walker report, after Commissioner Paul Walker) that harshly criticized the company’s business practices. The backlash from AT&T and the press caused the FCC to issue a milder version of the report a year later. World War II precluded any government action for a decade. In 1949 the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company, using many of the same arguments that had been raised in the Walker report. After a seven-year court battle AT&T agreed to change some of its operations.

Regulating Radio

As successor to the Federal Radio Commission, the FCC assumed jurisdiction over commercial AM and FM radio and amateur (ham) radio transmissions. In the Radio Act of 1927 Congress had declared that the electromagnetic frequencies over which radio waves are propagated are a national resource because they are limited—radio signals can be transmitted over a finite number of frequencies. That decision created fierce competition for licenses from the FCC.

The authority of the FCC to regulate and license radio stations was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in two major cases, Columbia Broadcasting System v. United States (1942) and National Broadcasting System v. FCC (1943). In the majority opinion in the first case Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote: “The Act itself establishes that the Commission’s powers are not limited to the engineering and technical aspects of regulation of radio communication. Yet we are asked to regard the Commission as a kind of traffic officer, policing the wave lengths to prevent stations from interfering with each other. But the Act does not restrict the Commission merely to supervision of the traffic. It puts upon the Commission the burden of determining the composition of that traffic. The facilities of radio are not large enough to accommodate all who wish to use them. Methods must be devised for choosing from among the many who apply. And since Congress itself could not do this, it committed the task to the Commission.” The opinion in the second case, also written by Frankfurter, used similar language: “Regulation of radio was therefore as vital to its development as traffic control was to the development of the automobile.”

Universal Access

The Communications Act of 1934 required the FCC to “make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” This clause has been interpreted to mean that universal access to telephone service should be provided. During the 1930s few rural areas were serviced by AT&T because the costs to the company of installing telephone lines and associated facilities were prohibitive. A similar problem with electric power was addressed by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), an agency created by President Roosevelt in 1935, which brought electricity to rural areas not served by private utilities. In 1949, when just over a third of all farms had telephones, Congress added the provision of rural telephone service to the REA’s mandate. By 1979 REA loan programs had helped provide phone service to more than 90 percent of the nation’s farms.

The Telecommunications Explosion

The decades that followed the creation of the FCC witnessed an explosion in new telecommunications services. Television became popular following World War II and fell under the jurisdiction of the agency. Initially television signals were transmitted through the airwaves. The development of cable television raised questions about the FCC’s regulatory authority. In 1968 the Supreme Court upheld the agency’s jurisdiction in United States v. Southwestern Cable Company. Fifty years after its passage the Communications Act was amended by the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which established policies relating to cable ownership, channel usage, subscriber rates, and other issues. Congress also clarified the jurisdictional boundaries between federal, state, and local governments regarding the regulation of cable television.

The space age presented new challenges to the FCC as well. Satellite transmissions, fiber optics, cell phones, and digital and broadband technologies have greatly changed telecommunications. Deregulation and competition in the telephone industry have eliminated the job of the FCC as a monopoly regulator. Some critics question whether the agency is still relevant and blame it for slowing industry innovations. The FCC has defended its actions, claiming that regulatory barriers on the telecommunications industry have been put in place by Congress and the courts.

The Works Progress Administration

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a massive federal jobs program implemented by President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) during the Great Depression to relieve high unemployment. The WPA employed millions of people, primarily as construction workers or laborers on public works projects, such as dams and bridges. Smaller programs created work for unemployed people in the arts—writers, artists, musicians, and actors. The WPA paid just enough for people to afford the bare necessities of life.

The WPA was a part of the New Deal, Roosevelt’s program to revitalize America. The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935 authorized the president to fund programs providing aid and work to Americans. Executive Order 7034 created the WPA, which was placed under the leadership of Harry Hopkins (1890–1946)—a close adviser to Roosevelt with a history of social work. Because of the size and budget of the programs under Hopkins’s control, he was often referred to as the second most powerful man in America.

The WPA was widely criticized. Labor leaders complained that it depressed wages for workers in private industry. Roosevelt’s Republican critics accused him of using the WPA to buy votes from the nation’s unemployed. Some people viewed it as a government boondoggle that created “busy work.” Said Roosevelt in response: “If we can boondoggle ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the people for many years to come.”

Blue-Collar Jobs

The bulk of employment provided by the WPA was menial labor. Workers constructed more than six hundred thousand miles of roads; built or repaired thousands of schools, hospitals, sports stadiums, police stations, city halls, courthouses, museums, and bridges; enlarged and improved hundred of airports; planted millions of trees in parks and other public areas; and laid thousands of miles of storm drains and sewer lines around the country. The vast majority of WPA workers were men. Women were employed primarily in lower-paying positions as seamstresses or in educational and recreational fields, such as nursery schools or school lunch programs.

The Arts Program

The WPA’s Arts Program was known as Federal Project Number One—Federal One, for short. It originally included four components—the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project. In 1936 the Historical Records Survey, a part of the Federal Writers’ Project, was designated a separate program under Federal One.

The Federal Writers’ Project employed approximately 6,500 people at its peak and produced nearly a thousand publications, including some very popular tourism guidebooks. Some writers interviewed thousands of people around the country to create anthologies about Americans from different walks of life. The material was never published, but is maintained by the Library of Congress for researchers interested in the life stories of people who lived during the Great Depression. The Historical Records Survey made an inventory of all county government records; incomplete when Federal One ended, it was taken over in some cases by county and state officials.

The Federal Theatre Project funded plays, musical revues, and circuses, which were performed around the country, either for free or for a small fee. The project was led by Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969), a longtime friend of Hopkins. Government funding of plays proved to be especially controversial and attracted the scrutiny of the Dies Committee, a House committee that investigated “un-American activities.” The WPA’s theater program was accused of employing many Communist sympathizers and was shut down in 1939. The Federal Music Project financed traveling orchestras and paid for the writing of new musical compositions. Those employed by the Federal Art Project created thousands of sculptures and murals for public buildings, primarily post offices.

The Legacy

By December 1942 the nation was deeply involved in World War II and facing a labor shortage. Roosevelt ended the WPA, noting that it had wielded “a creative hand” and “strengthened the country.” The creative mission of the WPA’s Arts Program was resurrected in 1965 in the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, an independent government agency created to promote the humanities, arts, and cultural heritage of the United States. Its programs have grown to include the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the first agency to fight crime on a national level, built a strong reputation during the Great Depression for capturing gangsters and during World War II for thwarting wartime espionage. The agency, which was created from an existing agency in 1935, gained prominence under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), who was its director for more than three decades. Hoover realized his vision of establishing a force of well-trained professionals equipped with high-technology tools for fighting crime. His leadership, however, also raised serious questions about the agency’s infringements of citizens’ civil rights and abuse of its power. He left a mixed legacy for an agency motivated by the motto “Fidelity. Bravery. Integrity.”

The Roots of the FBI

In 1908 U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (1851–1921) formed a squadron of special agents within the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate federal crimes—crimes that crossed state lines or occurred on federal lands, such as Native American reservations. A year later the squadron was named the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). Although it was headquartered in Washington, D.C., it established a network of field offices around the country to handle the few offenses that were federal crimes—at the time state and local authorities had jurisdiction over most crimes. Nevertheless, the agency’s work increased as Congress passed such laws as the Mann Act (1910), which outlawed interstate transport of women for “immoral purposes,” and the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act (1919), which outlawed interstate transport of stolen vehicles.

During World War I the BOI investigated people suspected of spying for foreign governments or conducting espionage, sabotage, or sedition (speech or conduct intended to incite insurrection against the government). Following the war the BOI concentrated on rooting Communists and their sympathizers out of the United States. In 1919 a bombing by radicals of the home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936) sparked a series of raids, conducted without search warrants, during which hundreds of people were rounded up on suspicion of engaging in radical activities. Many were later deported. The raids were spearheaded by Hoover, then a young investigator. He so impressed his superiors that in 1924 they appointed him director of the BOI.

Prohibition and the Depression

With the passage in 1919 of a constitutional amendment that prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages—Prohibition—a national crime wave was brought on after the amendment became law the following year. Liquor laws were widely violated, and bootleggers flourished. Automobiles made them and other criminals more mobile—they could simply move from one law-enforcement jurisdiction to the next and avoid capture. Eventually criminal syndicates gained power and exploited corrupt law-enforcement officials to further their organizations. A spirit of lawlessness took hold.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression made the public cynical about government authority. Magazines, novels, and movies specialized in hard-core crime fiction that featured tough-guy gangsters. The exploits of real criminals were widely covered in the media and made celebrities of such outlaws as Bonnie Parker (1910–1934), Clyde Barrow (1909–1934), Al Capone (1899–1947), John Dillinger (1903–1934), Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1901–1934), and Kate “Ma” Barker (1871–1935) and her gang.

Hoover launched a media campaign to turn public opinion against these romanticized criminals. His effort was helped by two tragic events. The first was the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the infant son of the first aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean nonstop. The BOI joined the investigation at the invitation of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) and, through painstaking detective work, tracked down Bruno Hauptmann (1899–1936), who was executed for murdering the baby. That case led to the Federal Kidnapping (or Lindbergh) Act, which made kidnapping a federal crime. In 1933, in the “Kansas City Massacre,” four law-enforcement officers were killed when Pretty Boy Floyd tried to free a friend being transported to prison. The shootings mobilized the public and Congress to action. A series of new federal laws greatly expanded the role and scope of the BOI. For the first time its agents were authorized to carry guns and make arrests.

Under Hoover’s direction the agency conducted research in criminology and forensics, which led to new methods for investigating crimes and to sophisticated laboratory equipment for identifying suspects. In 1935 the BOI was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the FBI National Academy was established to train law-enforcement officials from around the country (and later from around the world). Hoover’s public-relations efforts succeeded as well: government agents (eventually referred to as “G-men”) became the heroes in the movies and the media, feeding the public’s desire for some order in a chaotic time of economic depression.

Subversion and World War II

By 1936 all of the notorious gangsters were dead or captured, so Roosevelt authorized the FBI to focus on national security concerns. Growing political unrest in Europe and the Far East had Roosevelt worried about Fascist and Communist threats in the United States. When the nation entered World War II in 1941 the FBI was already deeply involved in investigating subversive activity. The Smith Act (or Alien Registration Act) of 1940 made it illegal for anyone to conduct any activity or make any statement advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. With the help of a double agent, the FBI broke up a spy ring, headed by Frederick Duquesne (1887–1956), that was working on behalf of Nazi Germany. Thirty-three people were convicted. After Congress created the first peacetime military draft, the FBI became responsible for tracking down draft dodgers and military deserters.

Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval station in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the FBI began rounding up Japanese citizens who were considered security threats and turned them over to military or immigrations officials. Because Hoover considered this action sufficient to protect national security, he viewed as unnecessary the relocation of many Japanese American and Japanese-born citizens to internment camps. Other government officials—especially the military—thought otherwise. In 1942 the FBI captured a group of German agents that had come ashore on the East Coast intent on conducting sabotage. One of the men turned himself in and helped the agency capture the others. That incident, in particular, helped bolster confidence in the FBI. By the end of 1943 the agency employed more than thirteen thousand people, including some four thousand specially trained agents.

In 1940 Roosevelt established an elite corps of FBI agents called the Special Intelligence Service (SIS). Working undercover, SIS agents were dispatched throughout Central and South America where they rooted out hundreds of Nazi spies, smugglers, and saboteurs and discovered dozens of secret radio stations that passed information to Germany. U.S. agents destroyed many of the stations, but used others to feed misleading information to the German military. Although the SIS was abolished after World War II, its work was continued by the Central Intelligence Agency, which was created in 1947.

Civil Rights

In 1939 U.S. Attorney General Frank Murphy (1890–1949) created the Civil Rights Section (CRS) of the Department of Justice. Relying on the investigatory skills of the FBI, it prosecuted cases in which the civil rights of citizens had been infringed. Because segregation was legal throughout the South, the CRS concentrated on more easily prosecuted issues, such as peonage—involuntary work to pay off a debt or obligation. For example, because laborers were scarce during the war, young African-American men were often lured to farms with promises of well-paying jobs—only to learn that their transportation or room and board had to be paid off through labor. In 1942 the U.S. Sugar Corporation was indicted on charges of holding laborers in peonage in Florida, but the charges were dropped.

At the same time that the FBI was investigating alleged civil rights abuses, it was also collecting information and spying upon U.S. citizens who were believed to pose threats to national security. In 1949 the FBI learned that Soviet spies had infiltrated the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was established to develop an atomic bomb, and had obtained key data. Information about the spy network came from the Venona Project, a secret undertaking by U.S. and British intelligence agencies to decode Soviet diplomatic messages they had intercepted. The decryption revealed activities by Soviet spies within the United States and led to the convictions of several people, most famously Julius (1918–1953) and Ethel (1915–1953) Rosenberg, who were executed. Hoover believed the “red menace,” as communism was called, extended deeply into U.S. society, so he authorized intelligence gathering on many prominent Americans. Labor leaders and vocal advocates of civil rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), the president’s wife, were his primary targets during the 1930s and 1940s.

An Expanded Role for the FBI

The FBI played a much larger role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s as the government acquired greater legal leeway to prosecute violations at the federal level. FBI agents investigated cases involving voter rights, murders of civil rights workers, and the Ku Klux Klan, the fraternal organization that advocated white supremacy. Organized crime became the focus in 1957 after Congress created or broadened federal jurisdiction over crimes involving racketeering and gambling. In addition new laws expanded the FBI’s authority to use electronic surveillance techniques.

Until 1971 the FBI operated the Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, in which it spied on people and organizations it deemed to be threats to national security, including civil rights leaders and antiwar protesters. After the public learned about COINTELPRO, new limits were placed on the FBI’s abilities to conduct such investigations.

Hoover remained as director of the FBI until his death in 1972. During his long tenure he collected a wealth of personal and often embarrassing information about many public figures for his “private files.” Although he is credited with building a highly professional and effective crime-fighting force, the revelations about his personal files and COINTELPRO seriously damaged the FBI’s reputation. During the subsequent decades the agency has increasingly dealt with nontraditional threats to law and order, such as white-collar crime, gangs, the international drug trade, Internet-related crime, and terrorism.

A Trail of Gold to the Lindbergh Baby

The kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby was considered the “crime of the century” in 1932. The twenty-month-old toddler was the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974), who had thrilled Americans with his nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, and writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906–2001). The baby disappeared from his second-story bedroom on the evening of March 1, 1932. The local police found a broken, homemade wooden ladder outside the house, which suggested that the kidnapper had fallen as he escaped. A crudely written note left on the windowsill demanded a $50,000 ransom. News of the crime spread quickly, and the Lindberghs announced publicly that they intended to pay.

The day after the kidnapping President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) asked the FBI—then called the Bureau of Investigation—to assist local and state authorities, even though kidnapping was not then a federal crime. The case took many bizarre twists. The baby’s nurse committed suicide after being questioned repeatedly by authorities. A retired school principal in New York, John Condon, placed an ad in a newspaper, offering to pass messages between the kidnapper and the Lindberghs. Surprisingly, the kidnapper contacted Condon and passed along additional ransom notes and the baby’s pajamas. After the ransom was paid, the kidnapper gave Condon a note with the supposed location of the baby, but it proved to be false. On May 12, 1932, the baby’s body was found by accident only a few miles from the Lindbergh home. He had died of skull fractures. Authorities believed the baby died instantly when he and his kidnapper tumbled from the ladder on the night of the crime.

The Lindberghs had paid the ransom in gold notes—a form of paper currency that could be exchanged immediately for gold. The FBI had recorded the serial numbers of the gold notes and began to look for them at banks and businesses. Their mission was made easier by the president’s decision to require Americans to turn over nearly all of their gold to the government. Gold coins and gold notes streamed into federal banks. More than two years after the kidnapping the notes used in the ransom were found and traced back to the businesses that had deposited them. At one of those businesses, a gas station, an employee had scribbled down the license-plate number of a car driven by the man who had given him the gold note. Investigators captured that man, Bruno Hauptmann (1899–1936), at his home in New York. Hauptmann was convicted of murder and executed by electrocution. The FBI earned high praise for its role. The case spurred Congress to make kidnapping a federal crime.

Japanese American Internment

During World War II the U.S. government forcibly relocated 120,000 Japanese immigrants and their descendants from their homes on the West Coast because it feared they could aid the Japanese war effort. More than 60 percent of those affected were U.S. citizens. Approximately ten thousand people were relocated to cities in the interior of the United States, while the remainder were resettled in internment camps. Although the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy and there were far greater numbers of German-born and Italian-born immigrants in the country, no blanket action was taken to avoid possible treason by members of those groups. The U.S. government officially apologized for this policy nearly forty years later.

Fear after Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval station in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, plunged the nation into war with Japan and its European allies, Germany and Italy. The attack also temporarily crippled the Pacific Fleet, which had been headquartered and docked at Pearl Harbor. Fear rose that Japan, taking advantage of that weakness, would attack or even invade the U.S. mainland. At the same time apprehension grew that Japanese agents inside the country could aid an attack through espionage or sabotage.

Political Support for Internment

Soon after the attack politicians and citizens’ groups in California began accusing Japanese Americans on the West Coast of collaboration with Japan and called for Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans to be “secured” by the federal government. Among the prominent politicians supporting these measures were California Representative Leland Ford (1893–1965) and California Attorney General Earl Warren (1891–1974), who would later be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the military, support for evacuation of these groups from the Pacific Coast was led by Major General Allen W. Gullion, the U.S. Army’s chief law enforcement officer, and Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, the commander of the army’s Western Defense Command.

Many of those calling for action had actually supported laws to restrict Japanese immigration long before hostilities broke out. In the early twentieth century labor groups and farming concerns on the West Coast formed anti-Asian associations to fight the economic effects of inexpensive Asian labor. In 1907 agitation by such groups led to a gentlemen’s agreement, under which Japan agreed to stop issuing passports to Japanese citizens for travel to the United States, in effect curtailing new immigration. In return the United States agreed to allow the immigration of current residents’ spouses, children, and parents and pledged that Japanese schoolchildren would not be forced to attend racially segregated schools.

The Government Takes Action

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the creation of “military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions” the military decided to impose. Roosevelt’s order did not name the Japanese specifically, but rather delegated blanket authority to exclude “any and all persons” to the secretary of war or to any military commanders designated by the secretary. That meant DeWitt—who was famously quoted as saying, “A Jap’s a Jap.… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not”—would eventually have the authority to evacuate Japanese Americans from the western states.

On March 2, 1942, DeWitt issued a proclamation declaring the Pacific Coast Military Area No. 1 and informing all persons of Japanese ancestry that they would eventually be evacuated from the area. On March 24 he declared a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for Japanese Americans in Military Area No. 1. Three days later, seeing that Japanese were leaving the Pacific Coast of their own accord, DeWitt issued a proclamation prohibiting any person of Japanese ancestry from leaving Military Area No. 1 without military authorization.

Through Executive Orders 9095 and 9102, the president created the Office of the Alien Property Custodian, which had the authority to freeze or confiscate the property of non-U.S. nationals, and the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which would be responsible for the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans. To head the WRA the president chose Milton S. Eisenhower (1899–1985), brother of General Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), who commanded U.S. troops in Europe during the war and became president in 1953.

On May 3, 1942, DeWitt issued a Civilian Exclusion Order requiring all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Military Areas to report to assembly areas, bringing with them only as much luggage as they could carry. From the assembly areas, they were taken to the WRA’s internment camps.

Life in the Camps

WRA operated ten internment camps in California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Idaho. The most famous of them was the Manzanar War Relocation Center in inland California, which at its peak held more than ten thousand internees. Accommodations at most camps consisted of crudely built wooden houses with tar-paper roofs and shared latrines. Families lived together in a single room, and single individuals shared rooms with people to whom they were not related. The camps had schools for the many interned children.

The internees were required to sign loyalty oaths, in which they proclaimed sole loyalty to the U.S. government. Signing such an oath did not ensure release from the camps, but refusing to sign targeted people for transfer to tougher camps or for deportation to Japan. Within the camps, tension ran high between those who opposed internment and those internees suspected of cooperating with the WRA.

Some internees joined the armed forces to prove their loyalty to the United States, serving in Europe during the war. Others were able to leave the camps by securing employment away from the West Coast or by having churches or other organizations in the interior of the country sponsor them. Most remained interned until the war was nearly over.

Legal Challenges to the Internment

With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, internees mounted legal challenges. Four of those cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Hirabayashi v. United States and Yasui v. United States were both brought in 1943 on behalf of Japanese Americans who violated curfew, but the Court found that the curfew imposed by DeWitt’s orders was constitutional. A third challenge was brought on behalf of Fred Korematsu (1919–2005), a U.S. citizen who disobeyed the relocation order. In a 1944 ruling the Court upheld the constitutionality of the order, citing the judgment of military commanders that the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast was a “military imperative.” At the same time the Korematsu v. United States decision set forth the principle that any law that singled out a racial group for disparate treatment would be subject to “strict scrutiny”—that is, the highest standard of judicial review regarding an action’s constitutionality. That concept would later be used in such segregation cases as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

In the fourth case, Ex parte Endo, the Court ordered the WRA to release Mitsuye Endo, a Japanese American who had continued to be held in an internment camp despite having been granted leave, but the case was considered a limited victory because the decision turned on technical rather than constitutional issues. The December 1944 ruling came too late to inspire additional challenges to the internment. In January 1945 President Roosevelt decided that the camps had served their purpose and ordered the WRA to release the internees.

Aftermath and Reparations

Many of the interned Japanese Americans returned from confinement to find that nothing tangible remained of the lives they had left behind. Many had sold their farms, homes, and businesses at steeply discounted prices prior to being sent to the camps. Those who had not sold their property frequently found that they had been foreclosed upon in absentia or that their property had been vandalized while it lay vacant. The vehicles of many internees had been appropriated by the military “to aid in the war effort.” Some internees who had left their personal property in the charge of churches or in storage for safety found that those places had been looted.

Many could not return to the West Coast. They had been released to work or into the custody of charitable groups in the interior of the country. Japanese Americans who returned to California faced the threat of violence from those who saw their release as “a second Pearl Harbor.”

In 1948 Congress passed the Evacuee Claims Act, which was meant to provide restitution for monetary losses suffered by those who had been evacuated or interned. Payments under the law, however, generally fell far below the losses that the evacuees and internees had suffered, and activists continued to press for equitable reparations and an apology from the government. In 1976 President Gerald Ford (1913–2006) officially rescinded Executive Order 9066, and twelve years later Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which authorized an official apology from the government and a payment of $20,000 to each surviving internee, at a total cost of $1.2 billion.

Korematsu v. United States (1944)

In the U.S. Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States, the Japanese internment was challenged on behalf of Fred Korematsu (1919–2005), a U.S.-born citizen of Japanese descent who disobeyed orders to relocate to an internment camp. The following excerpt is from the Court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black (1886–1971):

It should be noted, to begin with, that all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. It is to say that courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny. Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can …. Like curfew, exclusion of those of Japanese origin was deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group, most of whom we have no doubt were loyal to this country. It was because we could not reject the finding of the military authorities that it was impossible to bring about an immediate segregation of the disloyal from the loyal that we sustained the validity of the curfew order as applying to the whole group.… That there were members of the group who retained loyalties to Japan has been confirmed by investigations made subsequent to the exclusion. Approximately five thousand American citizens of Japanese ancestry refused to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and to renounce allegiance to the Japanese Emperor, and several thousand evacuees requested repatriation to Japan.

This excerpt is from the dissenting opinion written by Justice Robert H. Jackson (1892–1954):

Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country.… Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived. Even more unusual is the series of military orders which made this conduct a crime. They forbid such a one to remain, and they also forbid him to leave. They were so drawn that the only way Korematsu could avoid violation was to give himself up to the military authority. This meant submission to custody, examination, and transportation out of the territory, to be followed by indeterminate confinement in detention camps …. Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one’s antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him, for it provides that “no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.” But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign.


Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), U.S. Government Printing Office, (accessed February 7, 2007).

Important Figures of the Day

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), the thirty-first president of the United States, started his administration with optimism: “I have no fears for the future of our country,” he said in his inaugural address in March 1929. “It is bright with hope.” That hope was crushed the following October when the stock market collapsed and the nation plunged into the Great Depression. Despite Hoover’s efforts to ameliorate its effects, he became the scapegoat for the economic woes that befell the nation.

Early Public Service

Born in Iowa to a poor Quaker family, Hoover was raised by relatives after his parents died. He earned an engineering degree from Stanford University and developed a successful mining company, which made him a millionaire. Hoover was also a dedicated public servant. During World War I he headed the U.S. Food Administration, which ensured that farmers produced enough food for the nation and its allies. Following the war he headed the American Relief Administration, which transported food to millions of people in Europe. Hoover served as secretary of commerce in the administrations of two presidents—Warren Harding (1921–1923) and Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929).

Hoover’s Presidency

In 1928 the Republican Party, which had held the presidency and dominated Congress throughout the prosperous 1920s, nominated Hoover for president. He won easily, garnering 444 of the 531 electoral votes, even though he had never been elected to public office before. He was rather shy and tended to speak in a dull monotone, but he was viewed as a compassionate humanitarian and a practical problem-solver—his nickname was the Great Engineer.

Hoover initiated a number of programs and reforms: he cut taxes for low-income Americans; established a Federal Farm Board to aid struggling farmers and the Veterans Administration to assist war veterans; and reorganized the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal criminal justice system—reform of the prison system shifted the focus from punishment to rehabilitation. The legacy of Hoover’s presidency, however, was to be the Great Depression.

Onset of the Great Depression

In previous years the federal government had taken a hands-off, or laissez-faire, approach to the economy. So when it began to falter, his secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon (1855–1937), and other economists advised him to limit government intervention. They held the traditional view that factors of supply and demand would eventually allow the economy to recover on its own. Hoover was not convinced.

During his service as secretary of commerce Hoover had forged strong ties with the business community, so as president he held several conferences at which he asked industry leaders to raise production, to keep employment rates high, and to avoid cutting wages. At first the business community was agreeable—industrialist Henry Ford even raised wages as a sign of confidence; eventually, however, the measures could not be sustained as prices and profits fell.

Past economic turndowns had been temporary dips in prosperity, so the nation remained optimistic through early 1930. Food prices began to recover, indicating improving conditions for farmers, and Hoover received the credit. The recovery was short-lived. The summer of 1930 brought a devastating drought to the South and Midwest, with repercussions across the country. During the 1930 midterm elections Democratic candidates capitalized on the nation’s dissatisfaction with Hoover and took control of Congress. Throughout the remainder of his term Hoover accused his opponents of sabotaging his efforts for their own political gain.

The Depression Deepens

In 1931 the Depression swept across Europe, which was still struggling to recover from World War I. Part of the blame went to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which Hoover originally championed as a way to get better prices for U.S. agricultural products. The act had grown in scope, however, creating high tariffs on many imported goods. The nation’s trading partners retaliated by imposing their own tariffs. As a result international trade dropped sharply, spreading the economic downturn worldwide.

Although Hoover agonized in private over the Depression’s effects, in public he refused to acknowledge that it was as serious as it was. In fact, he often assured the public that it would soon end. His radio addresses were filled with economic statistics and did not speak to the suffering endured by millions of people. Hoover’s critics persuaded the public that he was a cold and callous man. Shantytowns that sprang up around the country were called “Hoovervilles.”

A staunch believer in personal responsibility, Hoover was at first opposed to federal aid programs for individuals. His Reconstruction Finance Corporation borrowed money from the U.S. Treasury and lent it to ailing banks and railroad corporations, public works projects, and state agencies engaged in relief efforts. As conditions got worse, however, he changed his mind and began providing some direct financial aid to individuals. The money arrived too late to mitigate the damage already done to his image.

As the Depression lingered it severely curtailed the amount of money received by the federal government. Spending outpaced revenues, creating a federal deficit. The Revenue Act of 1932, which instituted broad tax increases, primarily on the consumption of goods, hit Americans already burdened by high unemployment and low wages. Hoover began his campaign for reelection as a very unpopular president.

Hoover Leaves Office

The presidential election of November 1932 pitted a demonized Hoover against the charismatic Democratic governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945). Roosevelt, exuding confidence, promised a “new deal” for Americans, which captured the hearts of the voters. He won the election in a landslide.

Hoover’s final months in office were filled with turmoil. In February 1933 a banking crisis led to the failure of many banks. Hoover blamed the crisis on investor nervousness caused by Roosevelt’s continuing silence about his plans for the economy—he had revealed few details about the New Deal. Hoover asked Roosevelt to make public assurances that the federal budget would be balanced and that paper money would be backed by gold, but Roosevelt refused to do so. By the time Hoover left office on March 4, 1933, nearly every bank in the country had ceased operating for lack of currency.

Hoover’s Postpresidential Life

Hoover’s memoirs and personal papers reveal that he left the White House a bitter man. He insisted that his programs were working and would have succeeded had they not been thwarted by a Democratic-controlled Congress and an uncooperative Roosevelt. Throughout the remainder of the Depression he toured the country, denouncing Roosevelt’s New Deal programs as excessive meddling by government in economic affairs.

Following World War II Hoover advised President Harry Truman (1884–1972) about food relief for war-torn Europe and, later, streamlining the executive departments of the government. The Hoover Commission Reports, as they came to be called, included a variety of suggestions for making the government “do more with less.” Many of the recommendations were adopted. In 1953 Hoover headed a similar committee for President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969). Hoover continued to advise presidents, write books, and give speeches until his death in 1964 at age ninety.

Hoover’s Legacy

Hoover’s actions to stem the Great Depression get mixed reviews. Some criticize his reluctance to render direct government aid to millions of lower- and middle-class Americans, while others believe he interfered far too much in the economy and laid the groundwork for the radical social programs of Roosevelt’s New Deal. All agree that Hoover failed to connect with the people in a way that made them confident about his leadership and vision.

Huey Long

Huey Long (1893–1935) was a colorful, controversial figure in Louisiana politics who advocated national wealth redistribution by taxing the rich and giving the money to the poor. The Kingfish, as he called himself, dominated government in Louisiana because of the political machine he created while serving nearly simultaneously as the state’s governor (1928–1932) and senator (1930–1935, but he did not take office until 1932). A charismatic speaker, Long used national radio addresses to garner support for his views. He was considered a strong contender for president in 1936 against Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945), but was killed by an assassin in 1935.The fiercely dedicated “Longites” who held government positions continued to wield power in Louisiana for decades after his death.

Early Life

Long was born into a middle-class farming family in northern Louisiana in 1893, one of ten children. After only a year in law school he passed the bar and began practicing law in 1915. Long quickly made a name for himself in local and regional politics and in 1924 ran an unsuccessful campaign to win the state’s Democratic nomination for governor. Four years later he ran again and won using the campaign slogan “every man a king”—a phrase borrowed from William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), the Populist politician. Like Bryan, Long championed himself as a defender of the rural poor and an enemy of big business and the wealthy.

Building an Empire

Long was elected governor in 1928 and immediately began fulfilling the promises he had made during the campaign: his administration built nearly thirteen thousand miles of roads in Louisiana; provided free textbooks to public schoolchildren; and secured funding to expand the state’s hospital and university systems and to enlarge the port of New Orleans. Despite these accomplishments Long’s administration was tainted by corruption and cronyism. In 1929 the Louisiana House voted to impeach Governor Long for a variety of misdeeds, including abuse of power and misuse of state funds. The charges were dropped by the Louisiana Senate.

While Long was popular among the poor, he was lambasted by the major newspapers in the state. In 1934 the state government adopted a newspaper tax, which Long called “a tax on lying, at two-cents a lie.” The newspapers took the state to court, claiming that the tax violated the First Amendment right to freedom of the press. In 1936 the U.S. Supreme Court, in American Press Co. v. Grosjean, ruled the tax unconstitutional.

Senator Huey Long

In 1930 Long was elected to the U.S. Senate; he did not, however, assume his duties until January 1932, after state elections had been held. He chose one of his most dedicated cronies—Oscar Kelly Allen (1882–1936)—to succeed him as governor and used his political power to ensure that Allen and other Longites were elected before he moved to Washington, D.C. Critics scornfully called the new governor O.K. Allen for his role as a puppet controlled by Long.

In the U.S. Senate Long carried his radical platform to a national audience. He supported Roosevelt in his presidential bid of 1932, but became disillusioned when he realized the president’s programs, which were called the New Deal, would not achieve wealth redistribution. He made his presidential aspirations clear in two books, Every Man a King (1933) and My First Days in the White House (1935), in which he described how he would run the nation, humiliate his political rivals, and see his “Share-the-Wealth” plan successfully upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt called him “one of the two most dangerous men in America.” (The other, according to Roosevelt, was General Douglas McArthur.)

The Assassination

In August 1935 Long announced his intention to run against Roosevelt. A month later Long was shot and killed while walking through the state capitol with armed bodyguards. His suspected assassin, Carl Weiss (1906–1935), was the son-in-law of a judge who, Long had stated publicly, had African-American ancestors—a statement that could destroy the career and social status of a white Louisianan at the time. Because Long had so many enemies, his assassination spurred conspiracy theories that persisted for decades. Speculation arose as well that the senator had been accidentally shot by one of his bodyguards because of the barrage of gunfire they unleashed during the incident.

Following his death Long’s wife, Rose (1892–1970), was appointed to complete his Senate term. A “Longite” named Richard Leche (1898–1965) was elected governor in 1936, but was forced to resign after being indicted for fraud. Lieutenant Governor Earl Long (1895–1960), Huey Long’s younger brother, then became Louisiana’s governor.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), the thirty-second president of the United States, led the nation during most of the Great Depression and World War II. Through a variety of programs, which he called the New Deal, he changed the government’s role in the economy and the people’s expectations of what the government could—and should—do for them. His stewardship of the war effort brought the United States to new prominence as a leader among nations.

Early Life and Career

Born into a wealthy family in Hyde Park, New York, he attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School. In 1905 he married a distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). They had six children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1910 he was elected to the New York Senate as a Democrat, where he caught the attention of President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), who appointed him assistant secretary of the navy. In 1920 Roosevelt was a candidate for vice president with James Cox (1870–1957). Although they lost the election, Roosevelt gained valuable political experience during the campaign.

In 1921, when he was thirty-nine years old, Roosevelt was diagnosed with poliomyelitis—a viral disease that attacks the spinal cord. The disease left him paralyzed from the waist down. He refused to believe the paralysis was permanent, however, and moved to Warm Springs, Georgia, because its natural spring waters were considered therapeutic. After an intense course of swimming therapy he was able to walk with braces. Roosevelt was so enamored with the Warm Springs facility that he bought it. Meanwhile, his wife had immersed herself in New York politics and, in 1928, helped persuade him to run for governor. He was elected by a narrow margin.

In his two terms as governor, Roosevelt made a name for himself in state and national politics. In 1932 he began campaigning for president, promising the public “a new deal.” Roosevelt’s charismatic style captivated voters. He defeated President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) in a landslide, capturing 472 of the 531 electoral votes.

The New Deal

When Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933 the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Millions of Americans—approximately 25 percent of the nation’s labor force—were unemployed. Those who had jobs found their wages and benefits slashed, as company profits declined. People stood in long lines at soup kitchens. Almost all the banks had closed.

The newly elected president benefited from a heavily Democratic Congress. During his first one hundred days in office his congressional allies passed more than a dozen pieces of New Deal legislation, creating such programs and agencies as the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put young men to work on public works projects, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which tried to raise farm prices by limiting agricultural production. Other New Deal innovations tightened banking regulations, provided aid to the unemployed, and subsidized mortgage payments.

Some of the legislation from the first one hundred days was later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and had to be modified or discarded. The most notable example was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which encouraged companies within industries to form alliances and set prices and wages. In 1935 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled the law unconstitutional on the grounds that it improperly delegated legislative powers to the executive branch. It was one of several judicial setbacks that greatly aggravated Roosevelt. In 1937 he proposed a reorganization plan for the Supreme Court that would have allowed him to expand the number of sitting justices. Quickly dubbed the “court-packing plan,” the legislation was quietly dropped.

One revolutionary program, Social Security, which was introduced in 1935, provided federal benefits to the elderly and assisted the states in providing for “aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of unemployment compensation laws.” Social Security was decried by Roosevelt’s critics as “socialist,” but was viewed by people in crisis as a much needed safety net.

A Popular President

From the beginning of his presidency Roosevelt used his oratorical skill and personal charm to persuade the people that he understood their problems and would do his utmost to alleviate them. In his 1933 inaugural address he assured the nation “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In the following years he gave more than two dozen radio addresses, called “fireside chats,” in which he laid out in simple, folksy language his ambitious plans for the nation.

While it was largely World War II and not the New Deal that pulled the country out of the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s programs did bring relief and comfort to millions. For his efforts, he enjoyed enormous popularity was easily reelected in 1936, 1940, and 1944.

Throughout his presidential years Roosevelt hid his disability from the public as much as possible. While campaigning he rode in the back of open-air cars equipped with steel bars that he could use to support himself while standing and addressing crowds. In other public appearances he leaned on specially designed podiums or discreetly held the arms of aides to maintain his balance. He also established a gentlemen’s agreement with the press to ensure that he was not photographed in his wheelchair. All of these maneuvers were designed to further his public image as a strong and able leader.

Roosevelt Prepares for War

Following World War I, the United States took an isolationist stance, determined to stay out of foreign conflicts. The 1930s, however, saw the rise of powerful dictators in Germany, Italy, and Japan, and Roosevelt became concerned as they launched military campaigns against their neighbors. In 1939 Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada declared war on Germany after it invaded Poland. By mid-1941 German forces occupied France, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and large parts of Eastern Europe. German troops had also invaded the Soviet Union and North Africa. The very survival of Britain was threatened. Meanwhile Italy had invaded Ethiopia, Greece, and other areas along the Mediterranean, and the Japanese military had attacked China and islands in the South Pacific.

Publicly Roosevelt assured the people that the United States would stay out of the war; as early as 1939, however, he began quietly expanding the nation’s military capabilities and increasing the defense budget. He got Congress to pass the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which created the nation’s first peacetime draft. He sent his advisers on secret missions to Britain and offered all possible U.S. aid short of direct military action. In August 1941 he met secretly with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965), with whom he had been corresponding for months about possible American involvement in the war.

Officially the United States had to remain neutral, as dictated by the Neutrality Act of 1935. In early 1939 Roosevelt urged Congress to repeal the law, but it refused. It did, however, amend the act to allow the sale of certain military assets to warring nations in exchange for cash. Roosevelt knew that this measure was not enough because Great Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1940 he used his presidential powers to bypass the Neutrality Act and trade fifty aged destroyers for British naval bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. In October 1941 he achieved passage of the Lend-Lease Act, which granted him permission to “lend” U.S. goods to “any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Roosevelt authorized the first shipments to Britain even before the act was passed.

World War II

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces waged a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval station in Hawaii. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy” and asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Within days, Germany and Italy had declared war on the United States, and the country had entered World War II. The nation’s industrial strength became a huge asset, as the country began to churn out war goods worth billions of dollars. Roosevelt abandoned his longtime commitment to a balanced federal budget, believing the war had to be won at any cost.

The federal government established a host of agencies to oversee wartime production, labor relations, and prices. Some goods were rationed to prevent dramatic price increases. Businesses rushed to increase production and hire workers to produce the goods needed for the war effort. Unemployment dropped dramatically and even unskilled laborers found themselves in high demand. This employment effectively ended the Great Depression.

Throughout the war Roosevelt took a hands-on approach, carefully selecting and sometimes overruling his military commanders. U.S. strategy and manpower, plus the flood of American-made materiel, helped defeat Germany and Italy by early 1945. In August of that year Japan surrendered after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs had been developed in a top-secret program initiated by Roosevelt in 1939.

Roosevelt did not live to see the end of World War II. He died in April 1945 after suffering a massive stroke at age sixty-three.

A New World Order

Part of Roosevelt’s political legacy was the postwar alignment of nations. When he met secretly with Churchill in August 1941, Britain was already at war and the United States would soon join the effort. The two leaders developed a document, the Atlantic Charter, which spelled out their commitment to a postwar world in which differences between nations would be settled diplomatically. Roosevelt wanted an international body ruled by democratic principles, a successor to the failed League of Nations, and suggested it be called the United Nations. He believed the organization would need the active support of the United States to be successful and obtained congressional approval for U.S. membership. He persuaded the nation’s allies to pledge their participation as well.

In February 1945 he met in Yalta, a resort town in what is now Ukraine, with Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). The war in Europe was nearly won by that time, and the three leaders gathered not to discuss battle strategy, but to map out the future of world. They negotiated territorial boundaries and the fate of governments. A new world order was established that recognized the economic and military prowess of the world’s new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Under Roosevelt’s leadership the United States had evolved from an isolationist nation to one of prominence in world affairs.

Roosevelt’s domestic legacy exists in many government programs, for he greatly expanded the influence of the executive branch and the federal government in social and economic matters. Conventional wisdom prior to the Great Depression had been that supply and demand would eventually fix an ailing economy. Roosevelt dismissed that notion and manipulated the economy with program after program. While those efforts can be seen as only marginally successful—it was largely World War II that pulled the nation out of the economic abyss—Roosevelt’s attempts at reform did have far-reaching effects on the nation’s psyche: they accustomed many Americans to the idea that the government has a responsibility to provide for their social and financial welfare.

Eleanor Roosevelt

(Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945), was more visible and vocal than previous first ladies—she was the first to hold a press conference—and developed her own agenda on social issues. She elicited both praise and criticism for her outspokenness, particularly her support for minority rights.

Early Life and Career

Roosevelt, born into a well-to-do family in New York, was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), who would become president while she was a teenager. By age ten her parents had died, so she was raised by her maternal grandmother. She attended a prestigious school in England. After returning to the United States she became engaged to Franklin Roosevelt, who was a distant cousin. They married in 1905 and had six children, one of whom died in infancy.

During the 1920s she worked as a teacher and for a variety of social and humanitarian causes, including the Red Cross. A trip to Europe, which had been devastated by World War I, touched her deeply and ignited a fierce antiwar sentiment. She was devoted to her politically ambitious husband and watched as his career progressed from state senator to assistant secretary of the navy. In 1921 he was stricken with poliomyelitis, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. He moved to Warm Springs, Georgia, where he spent seven years in water therapy trying to regain the use of his legs. During that time she became active in the Democratic Party, developing political savvy and confidence, maturing from a shy young woman into an accomplished public speaker. She persuaded her husband to run for governor of New York in 1928; his victory was a surprise. Four years later he was elected president of the United States.

First Lady

Like her predecessors, she graciously entertained guests at the White House; nevertheless, she also had her own agenda for her public life. She held press conferences; gave lectures and radio talks; and wrote books, magazine articles, and a daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.” She also traveled extensively, interacting with the public as much as possible. As one reporter noted, “Eleanor uses No. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. less as a home than as a base of operations.”

Her speeches and writing conveyed her passion for social reform and the government’s responsibility to care for people in need: she was an enthusiastic advocate for her husband’s programs, which he called the New Deal. Because she understood the ability of the press to spread her message, she developed a reputation as a publicity seeker. Her friendly, unassuming style charmed many Americans, but some were put off by her vocal social activism.

Civil Rights

In a 1933 magazine article she urged Americans to write to her. Over the next twelve years she received more than half a million letters. Many writers sought help with problems brought on by the Great Depression and World War II, but racial discrimination was an equally frequent subject. After a young African-American man wrote to complain about racist treatment in a drugstore, she urged him to keep working on behalf of his race for better treatment and noted “you are gradually gathering behind you a larger and larger group of white people who are conscious of the wrongs and who are helping to correct them.”

She often met and corresponded with leaders of the early civil rights movement, including Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955), A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979), and Walter White (1893–1955). When African-American singer Marian Anderson (1897–1993) was barred from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in 1939, Roosevelt protested by resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the building. Along with White, she encouraged the secretary of the interior to arrange a free concert by Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than seventy-five thousand people attended.

World War II

Like many Americans in the 1930s, she was opposed to U.S. intervention in the escalating conflicts in Europe. In 1935 she declared that war was “obsolete.” International problems, she said, could be dealt with much better through diplomacy. Her optimism faded as Nazi Germany’s plans for conquest in Europe became clear. By 1939 she was hinting in public that U.S. neutrality might not be possible—or right. Two years later the United States entered World War II.

During the war she visited U.S. troops and toured veterans hospitals to bolster morale. She lobbied Congress unsuccessfully for changes in immigration law that would have allowed fleeing European refugees, particularly Jews, to enter the United States. As women and African-Americans entered the workforce in large numbers, she spoke out in favor of “equal pay for equal work” and urged her husband to sign Executive Order 8802, which prohibited government contractors from engaging in employment discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.

After the White House

When her husband died in April 1945, just months before the war’s end, she moved back to New York, expecting to fade from public view. In December 1945, however, her husband’s successor, Harry Truman (1884–1972), asked her to join the U.S. delegation to the newly created United Nations (UN). It was a task for which she was well suited. In 1948 she helped draft and oversaw passage by the UN of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that affirms the fundamental rights of all human beings.

She considered Truman woefully inadequate for the job he had inherited, however, and wrote him hundreds of letters containing both advice and scathing criticism during his presidency. Although he complained about her privately, he knew that she was a political asset and called her “first lady of the world.” She resigned from her UN post following the election of President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) in 1952. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) reappointed her to the post in 1961. She died in 1962 at age seventy-eight.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Legacy

By most standards Eleanor Roosevelt was a distinctive first lady. She stepped out of the shadow of her charismatic and popular husband and expressed her own political views. As one magazine of her time put it, “She is a one-woman show in herself.” In 1998 Time declared her among the one hundred most influential people of the twentieth century. She is most remembered for her social activism and outspoken support for minority causes.

Mrs. Roosevelt and Lynching Legislation

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) was an avid supporter of civil rights for minorities. One of the most contentious debates of her era centered around making lynching a federal crime. Lynching incidents involving African-Americans increased dramatically during the early years of the Great Depression. Achieving federal anti-lynching legislation was a top priority in the 1930s for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP president Walter White (1893–1955) was of mixed race and had a very light skin color. As a young man during World War I he had interviewed members of lynch mobs in the South by passing as a white person. Shortly after the war ended ten African-American veterans were lynched by white mobs—two of the men were burned alive.

In 1918 Missouri Congressman Leonidas Dyer introduced a federal anti-lynching bill, which passed the House in 1922. However, it was derailed by a filibuster in the Senate led by Southern legislators. The same technique doomed a 1935 bill championed by New York Senator Robert Wagner and Colorado Senator Edward Costigan. Nearly three hundred African-Americans were lynched by white mobs in the years between the two failed bills. In 1937 a white mob in Mississippi used blowtorches to torture two African-Americans seized from a local jail. The men were killed after their forced confessions. A third African-American man, their supposed accomplice, was burned alive. Horror at this act sparked the House to pass the Gavagan bill, introduced by New York Congressman Joseph Gavagan. Once again, a southern filibuster blocked passage of the act. The following year Wagner and Indiana Senator Frederick Van Nuys tried again, but were thwarted in a similar fashion.

Civil rights leaders like White had the ear of Mrs. Roosevelt and desperately hoped that her reform-minded husband would use his influence to push through federal anti-lynching legislation, but they were disappointed. In a 1936 letter the first lady told White that she was “deeply troubled” about the issue, but the president believed lynching to be a state matter and outside the constitutional jurisdiction of the federal government. Historians agree that the president was actually afraid of angering his large bloc of southern supporters in Congress, whom he needed to pass his New Deal agenda. Mrs. Roosevelt’s letter to White was marked “personal and confidential.” The political constraints of the time prevented her from speaking openly and publicly on this polarizing subject.

In 2005 the U.S. Senate issued a formal apology for failing to pass any of the nearly 200 federal anti-lynching bills presented to it for consideration between 1882 and 1968. During that time period, more than 4,700 people—primarily African-Americans—were killed by lynch mobs.

Charles Evans Hughes

Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948), chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1930 through 1941, worked effectively behind the scenes to defeat an attempt in 1937 by President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) to reorganize the Supreme Court. Hughes and other critics claimed Roosevelt was trying to “pack the court” with justices friendly to his programs, which he called the New Deal.

Early Career

Hughes was born in New York, the son of immigrant parents from Wales. After graduating first in his class from Columbia Law School he went into private practice. In 1906 he was elected governor of New York as a Republican, defeating publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951). After two terms Hughes was nominated and confirmed as a justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held from 1910 to 1916. Hughes ran for president in 1916 but lost by a narrow margin to his Democratic challenger, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924).

From 1921 through 1925 Hughes served as secretary of state under two presidents—Warren Harding (1865–1923) and Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933). In 1930 Hughes became chief justice after being nominated by President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964).

Hughes as Chief Justice

At the time of Hughes’s appointment, four of the eight justices were considered conservative and three liberal. The eighth justice and Hughes were more centrist in their views. In 1935 and 1936 they heard several challenges to New Deal legislation. In Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan and Schechter Poultry Corp v. United States the justices declared unconstitutional portions of the National Industrial Recovery Act, a law that gave the federal government broad powers over private businesses. In writing for the majority, Hughes argued that the law granted power to the executive branch that rightly belonged to the legislative branch.

Roosevelt, reelected in a landslide in 1936, became frustrated by Supreme Court rulings against his programs, so he pushed Congress for legislation that would allow him to reorganize the Supreme Court and increase the number of justices. Hughes quietly joined forces with Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler (1882–1975) of Montana to fight the Judiciary Reorganization Bill, which was ultimately dropped.

Hughes served as chief justice until 1941, when he retired at age seventy-nine. By that time Roosevelt had appointed eight justices who tilted the court in favor of New Deal reforms.

The Legacy of Charles Evans Hughes

Hughes earned a reputation as a socially progressive, but practical, reformer. While he supported Prohibition, which prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, and regulation of business, both of which strengthened the power of the government, he also fiercely protected civil rights, property rights, and free speech under the Constitution. During the late 1930s he began supporting New Deal legislation; he was opposed, however, to the more extreme goals of the Progressive movement, such as wealth redistribution.

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins (1882–1965), secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945, was the first woman to be appointed to a cabinet-level post. She advocated reform of wage and employment laws and spearheaded the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935.

Early Life and Career

While still in college Perkins—who was born into a well-to-do Boston family—visited factories to learn firsthand about working conditions. What she witnessed began her lifelong quest for social reform. In 1910 she joined the National Consumers’ League, an organization devoted to improving industrial safety and health conditions. The following year she witnessed a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York that killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant girls and women. Survivors claimed that one of the exit doors had been locked by management. The deaths not only intensified Perkins’s efforts, but also elicited public support for many of the reforms she had been advocating.

Secretary Perkins

In the 1920s she held a number of labor-related posts in New York state government. When President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) asked her to join his cabinet, she agreed only after gaining his assurance that he supported her goals—reform of state and local labor laws, limits on work hours and child labor, minimum wage laws, and programs of government assistance for unemployed and retired workers. Perkins was instrumental in gaining passage of such legislation as the Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933, which established a national system of public employment offices; the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which granted workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers and created the National Labor Relations Board; and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set minimum wage standards and prohibited child labor. All were parts of Roosevelt’s program, which he called the New Deal.

In 1934 Perkins chaired the Committee on Economic Security, which was established by the president to make recommendations regarding unemployment and “old-age” insurance. Its suggestions led to a new government program, Social Security. Perkins worked diligently for passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, speaking on the radio to a national audience on many occasions. In one of those addresses she said, “We have come to learn that the large majority of our citizens must have protection against the loss of income due to unemployment, old age, death of the breadwinners, and disabling accident and illness, not only on humanitarian grounds, but in the interest of our national welfare.”

Later Life

Perkins resigned her post in 1945 following Roosevelt’s death. The next year President Harry Truman asked her to serve on the federal Civil Service Commission, a position she held until her retirement from government service in 1952. She spent the remainder of her life teaching and lecturing at universities. Perkins died in 1965 at age eighty-three.

Transforming Government’s Role

Perkins once described her motivation to become secretary of labor as follows: “I came to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen.” Her view of the government as a protector of working people was typical of New Deal liberalism. She helped to achieve workplace reforms and strengthened the government’s authority to intervene in business-labor relations.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) was a photographer best known for her poignant photographs of impoverished Americans during the Great Depression and of Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II. Her photographs are valued for their frank depiction of the gritty conditions endured by her subjects

Early Life and Career

Lange got polio at age seven, which left her with a disfigured leg and a limp. After taking photography lessons in New York, she set up a photography studio in San Francisco and specialized in portraits for well-to-do clients. The onset of the Great Depression awakened within Lange a passion to evoke through film the misery endured by many Americans. Exhibitions of her early photographs captured the attention of state and national authorities.

Lange was employed first by the California State Emergency Relief Administration and later the federal Resettlement Administration, whose goal was to garner public support and government funds for the construction of livable work camps for the thousands of people migrating into California each month. In 1937 Lange reported to her supervisor that “the region is swamped with homeless moving families. The relief association offices are open day and night twenty-four hours. The people continue to pour in and there is no way to stop them and no work when they get there.”

While some of Lange’s photographs were exhibited or published, most were not embraced by mainstream publications. Some were even published out of context with captions fabricated to put a more optimistic spin on the nation’s condition.

Lange’s Photographic Style

Lange’s black-and-white photographs are noted for capturing the mood and circumstances of her subjects. Her shy, low-key manner allowed her to circulate unobtrusively among the migrant workers, so her photographs were not posed for effect, but starkly realistic. One of her most famous photographs, which she titled “Migrant Mother,” shows a weary dark-haired woman staring woefully into the distance. She has two small children huddled against her. Lange snapped the photograph in 1936 in a field in California where the woman, a widow at age thirty-two, lived in a shabby tent with her seven children. According to Lange’s account, they survived by eating leftover vegetables from the fields and birds the children caught.

During World War II Lange was one of several photographers hired by the War Relocation Authority, a federal agency that moved thousands of Japanese Americans to internment camps in the West. Lange documented the story of the internees as they left their homes, registered with the government, traveled to the camps, and were resettled. Unlike many of her contemporaries Lange was appalled by the camps. The government and most photographers of the time presented the camps to the public as pleasant places with cheerful inhabitants, but Lange saw them as prisons: she purposely included barbed wire and guard towers in many of her photographs. As a result the government censored her work; many of her photographs were not seen by the public for decades.

A “Social-Documentary” Photographer

Lange continued to take photographs until her death in 1965 at age seventy. A year later her husband donated her portfolio, which included more than twenty-five thousand images, to the Oakland Museum of California. Lange is now referred to as a “social-documentary” photographer because she captured her subjects in their natural conditions and publicized their plight in the hope of social reform.

A. Philip Randolph

A. (Asa) Philip Randolph (1889–1979) was an African-American labor leader and civil rights activist. He successfully fought for the rights of railroad porters to form a union during the Great Depression and pressured the government to eliminate job-related discrimination against African-Americans as the United States geared up for World War II.

Early Life and Career

Randolph was born in 1889 in Florida, but moved as a young man to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. He joined the Socialist Party and campaigned vigorously for Socialist causes.

In 1917 Randolph and his friend, Chandler Owen, started a newsletter, the Messenger, which addressed issues of importance to African-Americans, particularly discrimination in the workplace. They called it “the first voice of radical, revolutionary, economic and political action among Negroes in America.” During the late 1920s the title changed to the Black Worker. It continued to address the ongoing struggle of thousands of African-American men.

During the 1920s trains were the primary means of long-distance travel, so the Pullman Company built luxuriously equipped train cars, called sleeping cars, in which passengers could relax on long journeys. About twelve thousand porters, almost all African-American men, attended to the needs of passengers. Frustrated by their working conditions, which included long hours at low pay, a group of porters asked Randolph to help them organize a labor union. Negotiations with the company dragged on for more than a decade. In 1937 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was recognized and won the right to negotiate wages, hours, and working conditions for its members.

Pressuring Presidents for Change

When war broke out in Europe in 1939 the United States began ramping up its military forces and defense industries, which provided much needed jobs in a depressed economy. African-Americans were thwarted, however, by racist recruiting and hiring procedures. Randolph and other civil rights leaders organized African-Americans for a protest march through the nation’s capital on July 1, 1941. President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) feared the march would arouse racial strife. At the urging of his wife, Eleanor (1884–1962), he signed Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, which prohibited discrimination in employment by government contractors. Randolph canceled the march planned for Washington; smaller protest marches, however, were held throughout the early 1940s in other major cities. Although Executive Order 8802 was poorly implemented and enforced during Roosevelt’s administration, it demonstrated the growing political influence of the civil rights movement.

In 1948 Randolph and his allies used the threat of civil disobedience to pressure President Harry Truman (1884–1972) into issuing Executive Order 9981, which banned discrimination in the nation’s armed forces. It led to an arduous transformation of the military into a desegregated institution.

A Civil Rights Pioneer

Randolph is considered one of the most influential pioneers of the civil rights movement. His effective use of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to achieve political change inspired social activists of the 1950s and 1960s, including Bayard Rustin (1912–1987) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). In 1963 Randolph organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which King made his now famous “I have a dream” speech. Randolph continued to speak out against discrimination until his death in 1979 at age ninety.

George C. Marshall

George C. Marshall (1880–1959) was a brilliant military strategist during World II and architect of the Marshall Plan, a postwar relief and reconstruction program for Europe. The Marshall Plan provided billions of U.S. dollars in aid to war-devastated Western Europe both for humanitarian reasons and to ward off the encroachment of communism.

Early Life and Career

Marshall was born into a prosperous Pennsylvania family with a long and distinguished history of government service. After graduating from the Virginia Military Institute he served as an army officer at posts in the Philippines and in the United States. During World War I Marshall was appointed to the military’s General Staff and planned decisive battles in France. He was a favorite of General John Pershing (1860–1948), serving as his assistant through 1924. During the following fourteen years Marshall held a variety of roles in the peacetime army, primarily as an instructor of infantrymen. By 1939 he had been promoted to general and named army chief of staff by President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945).

World War II

Following the horrors of World War I the United States assumed an isolationist stance in international affairs. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939 the United States had only a poorly trained army of fewer than two hundred thousand soldiers; Marshall expanded it into a fighting force of more than eight million. When the United States decided to enter the European war, Marshall planned Operation Overlord, the massive invasion of Normandy, France, by Allied troops on June 6, 1944, which became known as D-day. Roosevelt put General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) in command of the invasion, telling Marshall “I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country.” Throughout the remainder of the war Marshall guided U.S. military policy in Europe. He also served on the committee that oversaw the development of the atomic bomb.

The Marshall Plan

World War II left most of Europe in ruins. Infrastructure, industries, and agriculture were devastated. Millions of people were displaced from their homes and faced severe food, fuel, and job shortages. U.S. and British leaders feared that communism, which had been forced upon Eastern European nations by the victorious Soviet Union, would attract the disenfranchised masses of Western Europe. To counteract that possibility and to save Europe from starvation, Marshall devised the European Recovery Program. Marshall, who had been appointed secretary of state by President Harry Truman (1884–1972) in 1947, outlined the plan in a commencement speech at Harvard University. “Our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine,” Marshall said, “but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” Despite its worthwhile goals the plan—which quickly became known as the Marshall Plan in honor of its chief protagonist—was not initially well received in the United States: war-weary Americans were not anxious to assume new foreign responsibilities, and Congress was not keen on spending billions of dollars in foreign lands. That attitude changed in February 1948 when Soviet-backed Communists seized control of the Czechoslovakian government. Two months later Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, which implemented the Marshall Plan.

Between 1948 and 1952 the program funneled approximately $13 billion in U.S. aid to Western Europe. In addition to food, it financed the reconstruction of key industries and the redevelopment of agriculture, allowing nations to become self-sufficient and politically stable. The plan also benefited the United States by fostering goodwill and creating robust markets for U.S.-made goods and services. For his role in the European Recovery Program, Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

Marshall served as secretary of state from 1947 to 1949. He went on to head the American Red Cross and was secretary of defense for one year during the Korean War. He resigned in 1951 because of poor health. He died in 1959 at age seventy-eight.

Marshall’s Legacy

Marshall was a true public servant, during both war and peace. First he rebuilt the army as World War II was erupting and then, when the United States decided to enter the conflict, created the military strategy for U.S. participation. In peacetime the Marshall Plan, which he championed, not only gave immediate help to war-torn Europe but later gave impetus to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Common Market as well.

Hugo Black

Hugo Black (1886–1971) was a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1937 through 1971. As the first Supreme Court nominee of Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945), Black was a fervent supporter of the president’s programs, which were called the New Deal. During his long tenure on the Court he was best known for rulings that protected civil rights, particularly those of minorities, and the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and the press.

Early Life and Career

Born in Alabama, Black never finished high school, but graduated from the University of Alabama Law School in 1906. He spent the next two decades in private practice, as a county prosecutor, and in the U.S. Army. In 1926 Black, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he backed issues associated with the Progressive movement and southern Populism, which advocated government aid for farmers and working-class people, stronger labor unions, and a crackdown on corporate corruption.

During Black’s second term, he was an ardent supporter of Roosevelt and his New Deal agenda, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set minimum wages and maximum working hours. Black also supported Roosevelt’s effort in 1937 to reorganize the Supreme Court—which quickly became known as the “court-packing plan.” Roosevelt was unhappy with rulings against New Deal legislation by justices he believed to be overly conservative. The plan was quietly dropped. Later that year, when conservative Justice Willis Van Devanter (1859–1941) resigned, Roosevelt nominated Black for the vacated position.

The Ku Klux Klan Controversy

During his confirmation hearings questions arose about Black’s membership during the 1920s in the Ku Klux Klan, the fraternal organization that advocated white supremacy. In a series of articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reporter Ray Sprigle revealed that Black had joined the Klan in 1923 and relied heavily on Klan support to win his Senate seat. Although Black resigned from the Klan before taking office, Sprigle claimed that the Klan never recognized the resignation and had given Black a card conferring lifelong membership in the organization. After calls for his resignation, Black addressed the controversy in a national radio address, a rare action by a Supreme Court justice. He admitted that he had joined the Klan, but insisted that he later resigned and never rejoined. He acknowledged that the Klan had presented him with a card but called it “unsolicited” and said he had not kept it or used it and did not consider it “as a membership of any kind in the Ku Klux Klan.” While his address helped to calm concerns that he was a racist, his decisions on the Court would vanquish any doubts about him.

The Record of Justice Black

Black served on the Supreme Court for more than four decades. His record is largely one of ardent support for civil rights under the First Amendment (particularly freedom of speech and the press), due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment (for instance, the right to a fair trial), and strict separation of church and state.

During the 1930s and 1940s segregation and discrimination against African-Americans was institutionalized throughout the South. Black greatly angered his former southern supporters by siding with the majority in decisions that overturned convictions of African-American defendants in cases that involved forced confessions, poor legal representation, and all-white juries. Black publicly described the courts as “havens of refuge” for the weak, the helpless, and “victims of prejudice and public excitement.” This protection, however, did not extend to Japanese American civilians interned by the U.S. government during World War II. In a departure from his historical support for civil rights, Black wrote for the majority in Korematsu v. United States (1944) that the detention was justified for reasons of national security.

During the anticommunism fervor following World War II, Black criticized Senate hearings delving into activities deemed un-American and defended the rights of people to criticize the U.S. government. In 1962 he wrote the Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale, which banned state-sanctioned prayer in public schools. He died in 1971 at age eight-five, just two days after retiring from the Court.

See also Japanese American Internment

Political Parties, Platforms, and Key Issues

The New Deal

The New Deal was the name given to a massive campaign of economic and social reform waged by the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) during the Great Depression. The reforms greatly expanded the size of the federal government and increased its influence over banking, investment, farming, utilities, and business-labor relations. The New Deal also provided relief to impoverished Americans and set up temporary job programs for the unemployed. Although it lessened the hunger and hardship of millions of people, it did not pull the country out of the Great Depression. That occurred only when the nation entered World War II.

Roosevelt Connects with the People

Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) was president when the stock market crashed in 1929. He quickly became the nation’s favorite scapegoat for the severe economic crisis that followed. During the presidential campaign of 1932 Americans became enraptured with Roosevelt, then the Democratic governor of New York, who was a charismatic politician. He made people believe that he cared about their desperate condition and would do everything he could to alleviate their plight. When he accepted his party’s nomination in July 1932, he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”

Although Roosevelt gave few details about his plan, he indicated that he would focus on relieving the suffering of Americans, recovery of farms and businesses, and reform of the stock market and banking industry. To do so he relied on a trusted circle of political, academic, and economic advisers, known as his “brain trust.” Roosevelt’s win was so decisive and so many Democratic candidates were swept into Congress that legislation he and his brain trust championed was nearly guaranteed passage, particularly during the early years of his administration. Dozens of new agencies were created to oversee the administration and funding of New Deal programs—they were often called “alphabet soup” agencies because their names were quickly turned into acronyms and initialisms.

During his first two years in office Roosevelt focused primarily on building government-business-labor relations and providing financial aid to the states for distribution to the needy and unemployed. In 1935 the priority shifted to large-scale public works programs; the responsibility to provide direct financial aid to people reverted to state and local governments, as it had been under the Hoover administration. The programs created after this policy shift are often called the “second New Deal.”

Banking and Investment

One of Roosevelt’s first acts under the New Deal was to increase confidence in the nation’s banks. Banks had begun to collapse after the stock market crashed. Because deposits were not insured at that time, people lost their savings when the banks failed. In addition “bank runs”—when large numbers of nervous depositors rush to remove their money all at once—forced many banks out of business because they had insufficient assets to meet demand. Between 1929 and 1933 depositors lost in excess of $1 billion when banks failed.

Immediately after his inauguration in March 1933 Roosevelt declared a nationwide bank holiday, freezing all deposits until U.S. Treasury inspectors could verify the soundness of the banks. The Emergency Banking Relief Act—quickly passed by Congress to legalize what Roosevelt had done—required closed banks to meet certain criteria before they could reopen. Later in the year the Banking Act of 1933 (also called the second Glass-Steagall Act) extended federal oversight to all commercial banks and created a temporary agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), with authority to regulate and supervise banks and to provide them with deposit insurance. The FDIC was made permanent by the Banking Act of 1935. Other new laws regulated savings and loans companies and authorized the formation of federally chartered credit unions.

Several New Deal laws addressed problems that were believed to have contributed to the crash of the stock market. The federal Securities Act (1933) regulated the selling of investment instruments, such as stocks, to ensure that buyers were better educated about their purchases and to prevent fraudulent practices. The Securities Exchange Act (1934) regulated the stock exchanges and created the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to enforce the regulations.


The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933 paid farmers to reduce production of specific crops and set target prices. Decreasing supply was intended to increase prices, which would improve the living standards of farmers. The money to pay the farming subsidies was raised by levying a tax on the companies that bought agricultural goods and processed them. In 1936 the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Butler invalidated parts of the AAA. The law was revamped and passed again in 1938.

Other New Deal legislation provided farm mortgage holders with easier credit terms; lent money to farmers so they could recover foreclosed property; and allowed farmers to reduce their debts to avoid bankruptcy. A 1933 executive order created the Farm Credit Administration to provide credit to farmers and ranchers. The Taylor Grazing Act (1934) set up a system for orderly grazing by private ranchers on public lands—an effort to prevent the type of overgrazing that helped turn parts of the Great Plains into a dust bowl. The Drought Relief Service (DRS), created in 1935, purchased cattle from farmers and ranchers who could not afford to feed their livestock. The beef was turned over to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which was created to distribute surpluses to people without food. The Resettlement Administration, established in 1935 by Executive Order 7027, was responsible for a variety of programs, including resettling poor families and providing loans and grants to small farmers.

Labor and Business

The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933 was groundbreaking legislation because it gave the federal government a major role in the financial and labor affairs of private businesses. The NIRA encouraged companies within industries to form alliances, set production quotas, and fix prices and wages. The companies that participated were exempted from antitrust laws, which ordinarily would have forbidden such collusion. The National Recovery Administration was established to develop “codes of fair competition” to which businesses were required to adhere. The codes were highly controversial and unpopular, particularly with the owners of smaller companies, who believed the codes favored big businesses.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, that the codes section of the NIRA was unconstitutional, the administration abandoned that approach to business regulation. The NIRA had also, however, guaranteed the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. Furthermore, it barred employers from requiring or prohibiting union membership as a condition of employment. Those labor stipulations were resurrected in the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act of 1935, which was administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That law was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp in 1937.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a national minimum wage of twenty-five cents per hour and a maximum workweek of forty-four hours in some industries. It also prohibited child labor. Unlike legislation of the early days of the Roosevelt administration, this bill languished in Congress for more than a year as various factions bickered over its provisions. Although controversial for its time, the legislation was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in United States v. Darby Lumber Company in 1941. The Fair Labor Standards Act was the last major piece of legislation of the New Deal era.

Public Works Programs

In 1933 Congress passed the Reforestation Relief Act, which created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It put hundreds of thousands of young men to work building roads and developing national parks for tourism. NIRA, also passed in 1933, created the Public Works Administration, a program of temporary jobs constructing roads and public buildings. Later that year Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which provided millions of other temporary jobs.

The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 provided funding for a variety of programs, including the National Youth Administration (NYA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). NYA provided grants to students so they could stay in school and economic aid and job training for unemployed youths. WPA became one of the most popular New Deal programs, providing jobs for as many as three million people at a cost of more than $1 billion per year. WPA workers built or repaired thousands of schools, hospitals, sports stadiums, and bridges; planted millions of trees; and laid thousands of miles of storm drains and sewer lines. Other WPA programs provided work for actors, authors, artists, and musicians.

Public Utilities

During the 1920s private utility companies experienced a business boom, thanks to strong demand for electricity. By the end of the decade a handful of electric corporations held a near monopoly. Many of them had unstable financial structures, however: they were made up of layers of companies, some of which were “holding companies” that sold securities (stocks and bonds) for “operating companies” beneath them. In addition, because large holding companies often had assets in several states, they were able to skirt state regulations that were supposed to control them. These vast pyramids of businesses suffered huge losses when the stock market crashed in 1929. One of the goals of the New Deal was to tighten government control of utility holding companies. To do so Congress passed the Public Utility Holding Company Act in 1935. The Federal Power Act, enacted the same year, gave the federal government the authority to regulate electricity rates.

Roosevelt also wanted to make electricity available to rural areas that were not served by the private utilities. In 1935 he issued Executive Order 7037, which created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). The Norris-Rayburn Act (1936) provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the REA, which became a permanent federal agency with passage of the Rural Electrification Act (1936). By the end of the decade 25 percent of the nation’s rural households and farms had electricity, up from around 10 percent at the beginning of the 1930s.

Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act of 1933 created a corporation to oversee agricultural and industrial development of government-owned lands near the Tennessee River. As part of its mission TVA built dams to improve the navigability of the river and to implement flood-control measures for the benefit of people living in the river basin. The corporation became controversial because many of the dams it built to control flooding also generated electricity. Private utility companies fought the program in court because they viewed it as unfair government competition. The constitutionality of selling government-generated electric power was upheld by the Supreme Court in Ashwander v. TVA (1935) and Tennessee Electric Power Company v. TVA (1939). More than a dozen TVA dams were constructed during the Roosevelt administration to provide jobs and electricity to the region.

Social Security

One of the most sweeping New Deal programs was Social Security. In a June 1934 speech to Congress Roosevelt introduced his concept of “social insurance” to prevent “social unrest and economic demoralization.” The following year Congress passed the Social Security Act to provide federal benefits to retired workers and to assist the states in providing for “aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of unemployment compensation laws.”

Social Security, which required millions of Americans to apply for Social Security numbers, was funded by taxes paid by employers and employees. In 1939 the program was expanded to include benefits for the spouses and children of retirees and of covered workers who died before they retired. In January 1940 the first monthly Social Security benefit checks were mailed. Although repeatedly challenged in court, the Social Security system withstood constitutional scrutiny and became one of the enduring legacies of the New Deal era.

New Deal Taxes

Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were expensive undertakings during a time of economic depression, so a variety of tax measures were implemented to help cover the costs. The Revenue Act of 1935 significantly raised taxes for the wealthiest corporations and individuals in society: the so-called Wealth Tax Act required payment of up to 75 percent of income by some Americans. Estate and gift taxes were also increased—critics called it the “soak the rich” plan. In 1939 taxes were raised on corporations and, for the first time, levied on the compensation of state employees. In addition the repeal of Prohibition, which had prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages since 1920, allowed the government to collect taxes on the sale of alcohol.

The Supreme Court

Roosevelt’s early New Deal programs may have sailed through Congress but they often encountered opposition in the courts. During the mid-1930s the U.S. Supreme Court declared some of the new laws unconstitutional, particularly the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Relations Act. Roosevelt was incensed by the rulings and believed the Supreme Court was dominated by overly conservative justices. In 1937 he proposed a “reorganization” plan under which he would be allowed to expand the size of the Court. Quickly dubbed the “court-packing plan,” it was seen by many as a brazen attempt to load the Court with justices sympathetic to the New Deal. The plan received little public or political support and was soon abandoned. The issue became moot as the more conservative justices began to retire and Roosevelt nominated more liberal replacements.

Legacy of the New Deal

Most New Deal programs were considered temporary, emergency measures for dealing with an unusual circumstance, the Great Depression. Roosevelt himself referred to some of them as “experiments.” Although many of the programs disappeared as the Depression abated, some have become fixtures in society—most notably Social Security and the TVA. The farm subsidies begun during the New Deal became permanent components of U.S. agricultural policy. Perhaps the greatest effect of the New Deal was the planting of the idea in the national psyche that the federal government can be—or should be—a manipulator of economic forces and a provider of benefits to individual citizens.

Roosevelt Goes for the Gold

In April 1933, in one of the most controversial actions of his administration, President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) nationalized private gold supplies. Executive Order 6102 required all private citizens and businesses to turn their gold over to the federal government by May 1 in exchange for cash. Exceptions were allowed for gold used for industrial, professional, or artistic purposes and for rare gold coins that were in collections. In addition each citizen was allowed to keep up to $100 worth of gold. Violation of the order was punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to ten years.

Roosevelt claimed authority to nationalize private gold under existing law. The Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, a relic of World War I, granted the president power to prevent the hoarding of gold during wartime. Only days after Roosevelt took office Congress passed the Emergency Banking Relief Act (1933), which amended the 1917 law to apply during “any period of national emergency declared by the President.” Roosevelt and Congress deemed the Great Depression to be a national emergency.

The gold grab had a variety of objectives. The administration wanted people to spend cash to spur the economy, which they could not do if their assets were hoarded in gold. It also wanted to induce inflation, which occurs when demand outpaces supply, making prices go up. Higher prices, the New Deal officials believed, would encourage more production and raise employment. They also knew that, under the gold standard, each U.S. dollar was backed by a specified amount of gold. One way to encourage inflation is to devalue money by not backing it with gold. That was essentially what the government did, because it refused to exchange paper money for gold. While that action did cause a spike in inflation, it did not bring about the desired drop in unemployment.

The federal ban on private ownership of gold remained in effect for more than four decades. It was finally reversed in 1974 when President Gerald Ford (1913–2006) issued Executive Order 11825.

Current Events and Social Movements

Black Tuesday

Black Tuesday refers to Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the day on which the stock market “crashed,” reducing the value of stocks in corporations and utilities by billions of dollars. The day is generally considered the starting point for the Great Depression. The crash severely damaged the U.S. economy and caused the public to lose faith in the soundness of big business, the banking system, and the government.

The Plenty of the 1920s

The 1920s had seen robust economic growth in the United States. Mass-production techniques and the growing availability of electricity allowed industries to increase their output—and profits—dramatically. Employment levels surged, and many workers saw improvements in their standards of living. Consumer demand for new products also drove creation of new loan programs: for the first time middle-class Americans were able to purchase such goods as refrigerators, washing machines, and automobiles by making payments, rather than by paying cash up front. Many people, optimistic that prosperity would continue, borrowed heavily, certain that they would be able to pay back the loans.

By the end of the decade the stock market had become a major influence on the economy. Investors were being richly rewarded as stock prices increased, which caused some observers, including President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), to worry about “speculation”—when overly optimistic investors buy stocks rashly, driving their prices higher than their actual value.

One reason for the concern was the common practice, by both individuals and companies, of buying stocks with money borrowed from banks. Investors also bought stock “on margin,” an arrangement that allowed them to make a small down payment (often as little as 10 percent) on a stock purchase. The remainder of the balance would conceivably be paid by the future increase in the value of the stock. Margin purchases allowed many people to invest heavily in the stock market without using much of their own money.

A Selling Frenzy Erupts

During the autumn of 1929 the stock market became erratic, with stock values dropping unexpectedly and then recovering. Suddenly on October 24, 1929, a frenzy erupted as people tried to sell stocks they thought might be overvalued. The day became known as Black Thursday. The following day the market rebounded somewhat; nevertheless, the recovery was short-lived.

On Tuesday, October 29, frantic sellers sold their stocks for prices far below what they had paid for them, which started a downward spiral that hurt all investors, but particularly those who had bought stocks on margin. As stock values dropped, lenders demanded that margin buyers pay cash to keep their stocks. If margin buyers could not pay, the lenders sold the stocks to recoup the money. Throughout the day desperate margin buyers turned over their cash in hopes of saving their stocks for an expected recovery, but no recovery came. As stock values kept falling, lenders demanded more money. By the end of the day many margin buyers had lost both their life savings and their stocks. Those who managed to keep their stocks found they were worth only a fraction of their former value.

Causes of the Crash

Economists disagree about the causes of the crash. Some point to excessive speculation, which created a stock market “bubble”—a state in which stock prices are much higher than their actual worth—that was followed by a “market correction” that went too far. Other economists insist that stocks were not overvalued; instead, they assert, skeptics spooked investors into setting off a selling frenzy. Additional forces cited include the federal government’s decision to increase interest rates; investor nervousness over the impending Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act; widely publicized scandals in the British financial markets; and warnings from U.S. regulators about the economic soundness of some public utilities.

The consequences of Black Tuesday were not immediately apparent. The next day the headline in the New York Times read “Stocks Collapse in 16,410,030-Share Day, but Rally at Close Cheers Brokers; Bankers Optimistic, to Continue Aid.” The stock market did in fact recover dramatically several times during the following months, but it always fell again, finally bottoming out in 1932. By that time many businesses had failed, banks had closed, workers were out of jobs, and homes and farms had been lost to foreclosure.

Black Tuesday did not immediately affect a large number of people, for only about 5 percent of Americans owned stocks at the time. The ripple effects of the crash were far-reaching, however. So much of the money had been borrowed for investments that banks were ruined when loans could not be repaid. That made less money available for everyday purposes, such as building homes and businesses. Companies that had invested their profits in the stock market suddenly found themselves in financial difficulty and had to lay off employees and cut wages. Unemployed people and underpaid workers could not pay back loans and were reluctant to spend any money, further crippling the nation’s banks and businesses.

The crash had psychological repercussions as well, for the public lost faith in the stock market and, by association, the banking system, big business, and the government. Heady optimism about the nation’s future was replaced with disillusionment, and the country sank into an economic depression that would last for more than a decade.

The Government Response

After holding hearings, Congress passed the Securities Act of 1933, which required companies that sold stocks and other securities to communicate important information to consumers and set up systems to prevent fraud. The law was strengthened in 1934 when Congress created the Securities and Exchange Commission, a federal agency charged with overseeing the securities markets. Additional laws were enacted during the 1930s and early 1940s to strengthen government control over the nation’s banks, public utilities, and investment companies and advisers.

See also Great Depression

The Bonus March

The Bonus March brought thousands of World War I veterans to Washington, D.C., in 1932. They sought early payment of a cash bonus the government was scheduled to pay them in 1945. When the early payment was denied, many of the protesters refused to leave the city and were forcibly ejected by the U.S. Army. The event was a public-relations disaster for President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) and a major impetus for passage of the GI Bill of Rights during World War II.

Origins of the Bonus

In 1924 the nation was enjoying financial prosperity. Congress decided to reward World War I veterans with a bonus called the Veteran’s Compensation Certificate to be payable in 1945. Each bonus was based on the number of days a veteran had served during the war; the average bonus was $1,000. When the Great Depression began in 1929 veterans started pressuring the government for early payment of the bonus. In 1932 Representative Wright Patman (1893–1976), a Democrat from Texas, introduced legislation to authorize payment of the bonuses immediately.

Walter Waters, a veteran living in Oregon, heard about the Patman bill and recruited veterans to travel to Washington, D.C., as a show of solidarity for its passage. Waters called the group the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small groups of veterans in the Northwest began making their way toward the nation’s capital, often hitching illegal rides on freight trains because cross-country travel by car or passenger train was too expensive. Word of the march spread; by the time Waters’s group reached Washington, the city was packed with thousands of veterans. Some had brought their entire families with them.

Waters, determined to keep the Bonus March peaceful, worked closely with Washington, D.C., police superintendent Pelham Glassford (1883–1959), who was a veteran and sympathetic to the cause. Glassford arranged for the protestors to get food and supplies and allowed them to set up camps around the city. Waters and other march organizers formed a military-type hierarchy for maintaining order. They forbade drinking alcohol, panhandling for money, or engaging in “radical” activities. Suspected anarchists, such as Communist agitators, were forced to leave the camps.

Violence Erupts

By June 1932 an estimated twenty thousand protesters were in Washington. During that month the Patman bill was narrowly passed by the House, but defeated in the Senate. Some of the protesters left town quietly; many did not. Tension intensified when Waters announced that they would stay until the bonus was paid. City leaders feared violence and decided to evict the BEF from camps near the White House and Capitol. Violent confrontations erupted and at least two protesters were killed by police. In July the city asked the federal government to send in troops.

Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) was convinced that the BEF was a Communist plot to spread anarchy. On July 28, 1932, his troops fixed their bayonets, drew their swords, and swept through the camps in the heart of the city. They used tear gas to force protesters to leave. MacArthur disobeyed orders from Hoover and cleared out the main BEF camp across the Anacostia River from downtown Washington. Shacks in the camp burned to the ground; how the fire started was never determined. The next morning the New York Times reported “a pitiful stream of refugee veterans of the World War walked out of their home of the past two months, going they knew not where.”

The Fallout

The government’s handling of the incident sparked outrage, much of it directed at Hoover. The Bonus March was one of many factors that led to his defeat by Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) in the 1932 presidential election. During World War II memories of the Bonus March debacle spurred veterans groups to push Congress for passage of a bill granting financial incentives to future war veterans. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which became known as the GI Bill of Rights, passed in 1944.

The Dust Bowl

Dust Bowl was the name given to parts of the Great Plains in the 1930s after severe drought and high winds degraded farmland. Huge dust storms literally buried farmhouses and equipment, forcing people to flee. The disaster was not entirely due to natural causes: years of overproduction and poor farming techniques had stripped the land of protective topsoil and left it vulnerable to the winds. The Dust Bowl spurred a massive migration of people, desperate for work, from the plains into California. The struggling migrants became symbols of the misery endured by so many Americans during the Great Depression.

Overproduction and Drought

The Great Plains, a swath of land east of the Rocky Mountains, extend from North Dakota and eastern Montana in the north to western Texas in the south. During the early 1800s explorer Zebulon Pike (1779–1813) reported that the prairies were “incapable of cultivation.” Hordes of pioneers moved into the area and began farming and ranching anyway. Cattle overgrazed the land, stripping it of the shrubby grasses that had held the soil in place for centuries. Farmers unfamiliar with the semiarid climate of the region used growing methods common to the more humid eastern United States. Although droughts occurred occasionally, the land provided abundant crops, particularly of grains, such as wheat.

During World War I demand for agricultural goods skyrocketed, particularly in Europe. Optimistic U.S. farmers took out loans to buy more land and newly developed mechanized equipment. Plains farmers ramped up production, using tractors and plows that churned the ground more deeply than before. In the 1920s, however, many farmers suffered economic hardship when agricultural supply outpaced demand and pushed prices downward. The agricultural sector was already in crisis when the stock market crashed in October 1929.

The drought began in the summer of 1930 in the southeastern United States and spread across the plains. The Southeast suffered until late 1931, when rain fell regularly again. The central plains, however, experienced nearly continuous drought for almost a decade. As the dust storms turned the sky black and scoured the landscape, people lost their farms and homes to foreclosure and farmworkers and tenant farmers—those who live on and farmland that is owned by others—lost their livelihoods.

Western Migration

Thousands of farmers uprooted from the Dust Bowl traveled west, hoping to find jobs in the fertile agricultural fields of California. Some found temporary work picking crops—usually for very low pay and usually competing for work and wages with each other and the Mexican and Filipino farmworkers already in the state. Migrants wandered from place to place, living in tents and makeshift shacks or in their cars. Although not all were from Oklahoma, they were commonly called “Okies.”

In the mid-1930s the federal government erected more than a dozen camps in California to provide clean living quarters for the migrant workers. For the residents and government of the state of California, however, the camps were small comfort. They considered the dilapidated shantytowns and temporary camps to be menaces to the public health. Sheriffs set up roadblocks at the state’s border and refused entry to bedraggled migrants. For a few months in 1936 the Los Angeles Police Department deployed more than a hundred officers to border towns to stop vehicles and freight trains as part of a “bum blockade.” California began enforcing a decades-old law that prohibited anyone from transporting into the state “any indigent person who is not a resident of the state.” In 1941 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. People of State of California that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the freedom of interstate commerce. The Court acknowledged that migrants produced “staggering” problems for the state in terms of “health, morals, and especially finance,” but insisted that it could not be allowed simply to “shut its gates” as a remedy.

Labor Unrest

Tension between California residents and migrants was aggravated by ongoing labor strife: dozens of farm strikes erupted in 1933, some led by Communist organizers or their sympathizers. In response a group of wealthy farmers and businessmen formed an antiunion group, Associated Farmers (AF), which recruited local sheriffs and citizens to harass migrant workers who were considered troublemakers. Major strikes in 1936 by lettuce pickers in Salinas and in 1937 by cannery workers in Stockton ended in violence when the AF sent hundreds of armed vigilantes to break up the strikes with tear gas. In 1939 Senator Robert La Follette, Jr. (1895–1953), a Republican from Wisconsin, formed a committee to investigate the AF and its union-busting activities. The La Follette Civil Liberties Committee found many activities that violated labor laws; its findings, however, were overshadowed by the nation’s entry into World War II in 1941.

Public Attention

The plight of the migrant workers was publicized widely. Some newspapers and magazines printed the photographs of Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), who became famous for her frank portrayals of down-and-out people and their living conditions. More common were articles such as “The Harvest Gypsies,” a series written by John Steinbeck (1902–1968) in 1936 for the San Francisco News. “They arrive in California,” wrote Steinbeck, “usually having used up every resource to get here, even to the selling of their poor blankets and utensils and tools on the way to buy gasoline. They arrive bewildered and beaten and usually in a state of semistarvation, with only one necessity to face immediately, and that is to find work at any wage in order that the family may eat.”

In 1939 Steinbeck used his research to write a novel about a fictionalized migrant family, the Joads, who were tenant farmers from Oklahoma. Driven west from the Dust Bowl, they roamed the migrant camps, encountering discrimination against Okies and mistreatment by local authorities and farmers. The novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which became the definitive work about the Great Depression, created a storm of controversy. Californians were outraged by the negative depiction of their state. Some critics complained that Steinbeck exaggerated the poor condition of the migrants and that he had Communist leanings. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) came to his defense, praising the book in her daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.”

The Rain Returns

Not all farmers left the Dust Bowl. Those who remained behind scraped out a living as best they could or depended on government aid. Twenty-one percent of rural residents in the plains states received federal emergency aid in 1936—as many as 90 percent of the residents in the hardest-hit counties. The government supplied cash payments, farming supplies, and feed for livestock and set up medical-care facilities to meet the everyday needs of poor farmers and ranchers. It also conducted research to determine and implement better land-management techniques for the region. During the spring of 1938 the rains finally returned. By 1941 the drought was over, and the prairies of the Dust Bowl had been rejuvenated.

The Legacy of the Dust Bowl

The drought of the 1930s would have been ruinous on its own, but its arrival at the same time as the Great Depression greatly magnified its effects. Local relief agencies—the traditional source of aid to rural America—were overwhelmed, so the federal government became involved in the lives and financial affairs of the nation’s farmers in an unprecedented way. Besides financial aid, it created programs to inspire new farming methods. The Soil Erosion Service (1933) fostered such techniques as contouring, terracing, and crop rotation to preserve valuable topsoil. The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935 established the Soil Conservation Service (now the National Resource Conservation Service), which made land use and conservation a high priority in agriculture.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was a deep economic crisis that began in 1929 and lasted until the nation’s entry into World War II in 1941. Depressions had occurred several times before, but had always been short-lived. The Great Depression, by contrast, lasted for more than a decade and brought long-term unemployment, hunger, and hardship to millions of people. It completely dominated the social and political landscape of American life and dramatically altered the relationship between the nation’s government and the people.

The Roaring Twenties

The roots of the Great Depression lay in the prosperous 1920s, when U.S. industries embraced techniques of mass production that allowed them to increase their output and their profits. High employment levels meant that standards of living improved. Consumer demand increased dramatically, especially for such newly available products as electrical appliances and automobiles. Many people were so optimistic about the future they borrowed money to finance their purchases or bought items through installment plans. The stock market was on a bullish—or upward—trend, providing handsome profits to investors. In fact, the stock market had become a popular investment vehicle, despite its inherent risks.

Prosperity was not shared by all sectors of the economy in the 1920s. Farmers, in particular, had financial difficulties because of overproduction. During World War I demand for agricultural goods had soared, particularly in Europe. Optimistic farmers had borrowed money to invest in new equipment, only to see food prices plummet during the 1920s when supply outpaced demand. Lower profits made it difficult for farmers to pay back their loans, which stressed banks in rural areas. At the same time there were downturns in the coal mining and railroad industries.

The Depression Begins

By early 1929 demand had slackened for some goods, even automobiles. Wages in the industrial sector were not keeping pace with huge gains in production and profits. Business and government leaders, however, were still confident about the economy. During the autumn of 1929 the stock market began behaving erratically. Several sharp dips were quickly alleviated by rallies. On October 29, 1929, the stock market dropped so severely that the event became known as “the great crash.” Stocks lost billions of dollars of value in a single day. Fortunes were wiped out. Investors who had borrowed money to buy stocks were particularly hard hit, as were the banks that had lent the money.

During the following months the stock market occasionally rebounded, only to fall again. Investor and consumer confidence faded, and people began holding onto their money instead of spending or investing it. The economy underwent deflation—a condition in which depressed demand pushes prices downward. Lower prices for agricultural and industrial goods hurt farmers and businesses, particularly those with high debt. Businesses laid off employees to cut costs and did not hire new employees. As more people became unemployed or fearful about their jobs, they spent even less, which led to more business cutbacks and closures.

To make matters worse a decade-long drought began in 1930; dried-out and degraded soil, loosened by high winds, turned parts of the Great Plains into a “dust bowl” and scattered homeless migrants across the West. By 1933 the nation’s unemployment rate stood at nearly 25 percent, up from only 3 percent in 1929.

The Banking Crisis

The stock market crash spurred a crisis in the banking industry. The prosperity of the early 1920s had encouraged the development of many new banks and the granting of many loans. At the time the banking system was only loosely regulated by the government, and deposits were not guaranteed and could be lost when banks failed. Many banks did fail after the stock market crash because they had invested their depositors’ money in the stock market or lent large amounts of money to stock market investors. Fear of additional failures caused “bank runs” in which large numbers of depositors rushed to withdraw their money at the same time. By the beginning of 1933 nearly every bank in the country had been forced to close for lack of funds.

Hoover Responds

President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) had been in office only a few months when the stock market crashed in October 1929. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (1855–1937) advised the president not to interfere, believing that the forces of supply and demand would allow the economy to correct itself. Hoover was not convinced, so he tried a variety of measures: he adjusted taxes, asked industry not to cut wages, and pushed for public works projects. None of these measures was effective. As the Great Depression deepened, Hoover got the blame. Homeless people built shantytowns that were called “Hoovervilles.”

In the summer of 1932 thousands of World War I veterans traveled to Washington, D.C., demanding early payment of a war bonus that was scheduled to be paid them in 1945. Federal troops armed with bayonets used tear gas to forcibly expel the “bonus marchers” from the city. The negative publicity damaged Hoover’s already poor image.

Roosevelt’s New Deal

In late 1932 Americans overwhelmingly chose a new president—New York State Governor Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945), who promised “a new deal” for the nation. Roosevelt initiated a variety of programs to revive the economy, with various levels of success. Unemployment was reduced, but still averaged above 10 percent throughout the 1930s. Many people, particularly young men, were employed through public works projects, building roads, dams, bridges, airfields, and post offices and developing national parks for tourism. The government began paying farm subsidies to stabilize agricultural markets.

Some of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs did not survive U.S. Supreme Court challenges and had to be discarded or revamped. They did, however, bring reform to the banking and investment industries. A series of new laws regulated the stock market, ensuring that investors were educated about their purchases and preventing fraudulent investment practices. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which safeguarded bank deposits, helped greatly to restore confidence in the nation’s banking system.

In 1935 Congress passed two pieces of New Deal legislation that would have long-term repercussions. The National Labor Relations Act guaranteed the right of employees in most private industries to organize, form labor unions, and bargain collectively with their employers. It also established the National Labor Relations Board to investigate unfair labor practices. The Social Security Act established a program to provide federal benefits to the elderly and assist the states in providing for “aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of unemployment compensation laws.”

Roosevelt’s New Deal greatly expanded the size and scope of the government, with more than a dozen new federal agencies influencing the nation’s social and economic systems. To offset some of the costs, Roosevelt implemented a number of tax increases. In 1933 Congress repealed Prohibition—a constitutional amendment passed in 1919 to prohibit the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages—and the government began collecting liquor taxes.

Breadlines and Soup Kitchens

During the Great Depression hunger and unemployment became a way of life for millions of people. Breadlines and soup kitchens became symbols for the era: churches and charities in major cities served free meals to hundreds of thousands of people each day. Those who lost their homes and jobs traveled the country looking for work—some illegally hopped aboard freight trains. Shantytowns called “jungles” sprang up near rail lines.

Much of the population lacked the most basic necessities—food, shelter, and clothing. While people with farms or gardens grew food to sustain themselves, malnutrition became a serious problem among children, particularly in the big cities. The drought and winds that turned parts of the Great Plains into the Dust Bowl drove hundreds of thousands of migrant workers into California looking for a better life, only to find little work and poor living conditions. African-Americans migrated in large numbers from the rural South to northern cities in search of factory jobs, but found work scarce and encountered racist employment policies that made it difficult for them to compete in the workplace.

The early years of the Depression were the toughest, particularly for young people. Some that could not find work left their homes so their parents would have fewer mouths to feed. The government estimated that as many as 250,000 people younger than age twenty-one wandered the country aimlessly, getting food and shelter where they could. Several New Deal programs were created specifically for young people, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put young men to work on conservation projects; the National Youth Administration, which provided training and jobs for youths; and a college aid program under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

Labor Unrest

Labor unions played a minor role in the booming economy of the 1920s. Once the Great Depression set in they took on greater importance, particularly after the election of pro-union Roosevelt. In 1933 union membership stood at about three million. In June of that year Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which was the first federal law to give employees the right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. The law forbade employers from requiring or forbidding union membership as a condition of employment.

Passage of the NIRA gave unions the impetus to strike for better pay and working conditions. During 1933 and 1934 major strikes were organized in California by agricultural workers and longshoremen and in the Midwest by autoworkers and teamsters. Although sometimes violent, the strikes ultimately achieved their goals, which served to make unionization more appealing.

During the mid-1930s the economy began to show signs of improvement. Unemployment dropped to around 15 percent. Then in 1937 and 1938 the stock market took a steep dive, and unemployment spiked to 20 percent. This “depression within a depression” coincided with labor troubles in the nation’s largest industries.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935—passed because parts of the 1933 law had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court—required businesses to negotiate with any union supported by a majority of employees. At that time the dominant organization of labor unions in the United States was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which concentrated on organizing trade unions of skilled craftspeople, such as electricians and typesetters. In 1935 a faction of AFL organizers split off and formed a committee—later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)—with the goal of unionizing unskilled workers in mass-production jobs, mostly in the steel, rubber, automobile, and meatpacking industries.

CIO unions, including the United Auto Workers (UAW), embraced a militant organizing strategy that encouraged confrontations between workers and management. In late 1936 the UAW began a series of sit-down strikes at General Motors (GM) plants around the country. After several tense months violence broke out between strikers and police in Flint, Michigan. Dozens of people were injured. Under pressure from Roosevelt, GM officials met with UAW leaders and ultimately agreed to bargain with the union. Similar campaigns began at other major industrial plants. By 1940 more than 20 million workers had joined unions.

Roosevelt easily won reelection in 1936 and 1940, even though his New Deal programs had had only mixed results. While they had reduced the hardship experienced by many Americans, they had not pulled the nation out of the Great Depression. In 1941 the unemployment rate stood at 10 percent, still high historically.

Later that year, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval station in Hawaii, the United States entered World War II. The government poured billions of dollars into wartime industries, which put millions of people back to work. By 1942 the unemployment rate had fallen below 5 percent and continued to drop. The economy recovered from the depths of the Great Depression and maintained its healthy state even after wartime spending ended.

A Lasting Imprint

The Great Depression left its imprint on an entire generation of Americans. The length and breadth of the hardship changed people’s expectations about the quality of their lives and made them receptive to a more active role for the federal government in the day-to-day business of the population. They had seen where the “hands-off” approach to the economy had taken them and began to appreciate government as a caretaker with responsibilities for the economic and social well-being of businesses and individual citizens. Many New Deal programs, which created safeguards and regulations that became fixtures of the U.S. economy, often had their most important effect on the national psyche: they offered reassurance and optimism, which were frequently missing for more than a decade.

Nativism during the Great Depression—Mexicans and Filipinos

Nativism is the policy of giving preference to natives over aliens. During the Great Depression American nativists argued, often successfully, that aliens from Mexico and the Philippines took American jobs, placed an burden on the government, and should be repatriated (returned to their country of origin).

During the prosperous 1920s Mexican workers crossed the border illegally to work in the United States. Many found employment in the agricultural industry in the southwest, particularly California. The Great Depression brought unemployment and wage cuts to these people, as it did to most Americans. However, nonnatives were often denied relief from state and local agencies. Expulsion of these people became a priority on many political agendas. Beginning in 1931 the Los Angeles County Department of Charities paid for repatriation trains to transport thousands of Mexicans back to their homeland. Officials argued that the aliens were a drain on relief funds and posed a health risk because they were not clean.

The Philippines became a U.S. territory after Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898. As such, Filipinos were considered “nationals” and entered the United States in large numbers during the early decades of the twentieth century. Many settled in southern California. Racial tensions reached a climax between Filipinos and white Americans during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Tydings McDuffie Act of 1934 established the Philippines as a U.S. Commonwealth, but changed the legal status of Filipinos from “nationals” to aliens. A year later Congress passed the Repatriation Act, which provided funds to repatriate Filipinos as long as they agreed not to return to the United States. Before the Act expired in December 1938 only approximately 2,000 Filipinos were repatriated.

Mexican and Filipino workers who remained in the United States during the Great Depression played a major role in organizing dozens of agricultural labor unions in the West. Strikes by these unions resulted in most cases in better wages and working conditions for the employees.

World War II

World War II, a nearly worldwide conflict during the late 1930s and early 1940s, pitted the armed forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan (known as the Axis powers) against the Allies—primarily the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain and its dominions (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand). The war profoundly affected the course of U.S. history. It permanently brought the nation out of its isolationist stance toward foreign conflicts and established America as one of the world’s economic and military superpowers.

Unrest Stirs the World

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of several powerful militaristic governments. In 1931 Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria and set up a puppet government. During the following years Japan greatly increased its military might until, in 1937, it began a full-scale war against China that spread throughout Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. Meanwhile in Europe the armies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were launching their own wars of conquest. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia. Three years later Germany seized control of Austria and the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. In May 1939 Germany and Italy signed an agreement to support each other militarily—they called it “the pact of steel.” When German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union did not react, because it had recently signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. The United States officially remained neutral.

In 1940 Italy declared war against Germany’s foes. Japan, Germany, and Italy then signed a pact, sealing their alignment as the Axis powers. By that time Germany’s relationship with the Soviet Union had soured. In June 1941 German forces surged across the Soviet border, opening a second front in what was rapidly becoming a worldwide war. German forces had already seized France and parts of North Africa and were planning an invasion of Britain.

America Clings to Isolationism

The United States was preoccupied with the Great Depression during the 1930s, but watched uneasily as war spread in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many Americans had developed an isolationist attitude following the horrors of World War I. In 1935 the first of several neutrality acts was passed by Congress to ensure that the United States would not be dragged into international conflicts. The next year a Senate committee, led by Gerald Nye (1892–1971), a Republican from North Dakota, investigated U.S. involvement in World War I. The committee’s report suggested that the nation’s munitions industry had wielded considerable influence over the political decision to enter the war and had profited handsomely from it. A peace movement swept across college campuses and was embraced by many other parts of society. As he campaigned for reelection in the fall of 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) repeatedly promised that the United States would not enter the war. He won the election easily and began his third term in office.

Despite his assurances to the contrary, Roosevelt had already begun preparing the nation’s military and industries for war and was using every political tool at his disposal to render aid to Britain. In 1939 he asked Congress to repeal the Neutrality Act; while it refused, it did amend the law to allow the United States to sell military assets to Britain. Knowing that Britain was nearly bankrupt, in 1940 Roosevelt worked around the Neutrality Act to trade fifty older American destroyers to Britain in exchange for some of its naval bases. He also got Congress to enact the Selective Training and Service Act, creating the nation’s first peacetime draft.

In December 1940, Roosevelt gave a radio address in which he reiterated his goal to keep the United States out of the war; nevertheless, he also warned the public that the very survival of the United States would be jeopardized if Britain were defeated. He pledged to provide the country’s allies with war implements, saying “we must be the great arsenal of democracy.” In July 1941, after months of private correspondence, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) met for the first time on a ship off the coast of eastern Canada. They created a document, the Atlantic Charter, in which they pledged “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny” and laid out plans for a postwar world based on diplomacy, rather than aggression. A few months later Roosevelt attained passage of the Lend-Lease Act, which granted him permission to “lend” goods to other countries in the interests of U.S. defense. He authorized the first shipments to Britain even before the act was passed.

America Enters the War

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval station in Hawaii. Within days the United States was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy. In an address to the nation Roosevelt said, “We don’t like it—we didn’t want to get in it—but we are in it and we’re going to fight it with everything we’ve got.” The nation’s military, relatively small and ill-equipped for war at the time, was expanded quickly through recruitment and the draft. Eventually a fighting force of some eight million soldiers would be trained and equipped.

Civilian industries quickly converted to produce military goods, with new federal agencies to oversee wartime production, labor relations, and prices. Businesses hired workers, so unemployment dropped dramatically, effectively ending the Great Depression. The growth in employment spurred workers to join labor unions in record numbers, consolidating their power to seek better working conditions.

Although Roosevelt gave the war in Europe first priority and wanted to liberate France as soon as possible, the British suggested—and he eventually agreed—that U.S. forces should fight the Germans in the air over Europe and launch their first ground attacks in North Africa. Soon thereafter the German war effort began to falter: the influx of U.S. troops and equipment and the military supremacy of the Soviet army took their toll. By late 1943 the Axis powers had been driven from North Africa and parts of Italy. On June 6, 1944—which became known as D-day—U.S. and British forces began an offensive to take back France. By the end of the summer they had liberated Paris. At the end of the year they fought back a fierce German offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, in which the United States suffered more than nineteen thousand causalities. By the spring of 1945 the Allies occupied Germany—Soviet troops had swept in from the east and U.S. and British forces from the west. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered.

The War in the Pacific

The first months of the war in the Pacific did not go well for U.S. forces. During early 1942 Japanese troops captured a number of islands in the South Pacific, forcing thousands of American soldiers to surrender. The turning point came in May 1942 when the United States achieved a decisive victory on Midway Island. From then on U.S. forces, suffering heavy casualties, fought their way island by island, wresting Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Wake Island, Guam, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Okinawa from Japanese control. Meanwhile British forces liberated Burma.

In the spring of 1945 the U.S. military began preparing for Operation Downfall, an invasion of Japan. Nevertheless, the possibility of a huge American death toll from an invasion, as well as other political considerations, led to another tactic: on August 6, 1945, a U.S.-made atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, killing thousands of people immediately. When the Japanese did not surrender, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered. World War II had ended.

The human toll of the war was staggering. An estimated 40 million to 60 million people were killed worldwide. U.S. military casualties included more than 400,000 dead and more than 670,000 wounded.

Changes in the Economy

On the home front life changed dramatically during World War II. The federal government imposed widespread controls over the economy to ensure that the military received the goods it needed. Sales of many products, such as gasoline and sugar, to the civilian population were rationed. The wartime production boom put many unemployed Americans to work and put more money into their pockets. Shortages and rationing, however, dampened consumer spending. Americans were encouraged to buy war bonds to help the government raise money.

Roosevelt abandoned his Depression-era attempts to balance the federal budget: he believed the war had to be won at any cost. Wartime government spending far outpaced federal revenues. By 1945 the government was spending around $90 billion per year and taking in about half of that amount. The national debt skyrocketed from about $40 billion in 1940 to $258 billion in 1945.

Labor Issues

In 1942 Roosevelt obtained commitments from the large labor unions that they would not organize strikes during the war and that labor disputes would be settled peacefully. He also issued Executive Order 9017, creating the National War Labor Board (NWLB), which was to mediate any labor disputes that could not be settled by unions and employers themselves. Despite these measures, a number of strikes erupted during the war, most notably in 1943 by the mine-workers union. The government responded by taking control of the coal mines.

The War Labor Disputes Act (1943) gave the government the power to seize businesses in which labor disputes were believed detrimental to the war effort. In 1944 Roosevelt used that power to take control of Montgomery Ward—a large company that manufactured consumer goods. The company’s chairman, Sewell Avery (1873–1960), was carried out of his office and into the street by two soldiers after he refused to cooperate with labor directives from the NWLB.

The NWLB was notable in that it insisted on equal pay for equal work by minorities. Women and African-Americans entered the workforce in large numbers during the war, particularly in factory jobs that had previously been closed to them. The NWLB abolished the separate classifications of “colored laborer” and “white laborer,” which were commonly used by industries at the time. The agency pointed out that “discrimination on account of race or creed is in line with the Nazi program.” Such measures met with various success in practice. Many of the strikes during the war were “hate strikes” waged by white workers protesting the employment or promotion of African-Americans.

At the urging of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), and civil rights leaders, Roosevelt issued several executive orders during the war intended to eliminate employment discrimination by government contractors and in the war industries. In 1943 he created the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which had limited success at integrating the nation’s workplaces.

Civil Rights Issues

The prospect of good-paying factory jobs during the war lured many African-Americans from the South to northern industrial cities. Many white factory workers resented this influx and staged slowdowns and protests. Away from the factories a severe housing shortage increased racial tensions until street violence erupted. In the summer of 1943 race riots in Detroit killed dozens of people. Cars were overturned and set afire and people beaten at random based on the color of their skin. The police arrested more than eighteen hundred people, most of them African-Americans. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, including Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, complained bitterly about the police response. The president sent federal troops to the city to maintain order; he avoided, however, making the riots a political issue for fear of alienating his southern supporters. Racial problems continued to simmer around the country during the war and intensified as returning African-American veterans ran into segregation and discriminatory labor practices.

Elsewhere another civil rights issue festered: the forced internment, or relocation to camps, of thousands of Japanese Americans during the war. In February 1942 Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 granting authority to the military to exclude people for national security reasons from designated “military areas.” The Pacific Coast region was declared a military area, and all people of Japanese descent were ordered to relocate to internment camps away from the coast. The order applied even to U.S. citizens. The government’s actions were challenged in the courts, but in Korematsu v. United States (1944) the Supreme Court ruled the internment constitutional. In January 1945 Roosevelt disbanded the camps and freed their inhabitants. Decades later the surviving internees received an official apology and reparations from the government.

A New Role for the United States

World War II catapulted the United States into a position of world leadership. U.S. agriculture and industry were not damaged during the war, as they were in every other major country, so the nation’s economy flourished. It decided to extend economic aid to rebuild Japan and Western Europe, creating valuable allies and trading partners in the process. It also abandoned its prewar isolationist stance and took a leading role in the new United Nations, a body designed to use diplomacy to settle international differences. The United States also, however, began to build and maintain its military might and nuclear arsenal: it had become a superpower and saw a need to provide a deterrent against future aggressors.

The Decision to Use Atomic Bombs

The government’s decision to use atomic bombs in World War II started with a 1939 letter from physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) to President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945). Einstein told the president about ongoing work in nuclear physics that could possibly lead to the construction of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type” and suggested the U.S. government become involved in the research. Just as important, he warned that Nazi Germany was likely engaged in a similar program. The result in the United States was the Manhattan Project, a top-secret partnership that combined the efforts of academics, military strategists, and industrial planners.

The goal at first was to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans did. By early 1945 it was obvious that Germany was not going to win the war and had made little progress in atomic-bomb research. The U.S. government turned its focus toward Japan. An invasion of Japan was expected to lead to many U.S. casualties, so government officials hoped to use the atomic bomb to persuade the Japanese to surrender unconditionally—and quickly: U.S. leaders wanted the surrender before the Soviet Union entered the war in the Pacific and gained any control over the future of the region.

Shortly after Roosevelt died in April 1945, some of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project petitioned his successor, Harry Truman (1884–1972), hoping to persuade him to demonstrate the atomic bomb on uninhabited territory before dropping it on Japan. They had begun to realize the terrible destruction their invention could cause, and they thought a demonstration would be enough to bring about Japan’s surrender. The president’s advisers did not believe such a demonstration would deter a fanatical enemy. Truman, reminded of the many casualties the United States suffered throughout the South Pacific and fearing an even larger death toll if the United States invaded Japan, decided to go ahead with the bombing.

On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Approximately seventy thousand people died in the blast or soon afterward. America warned the Japanese that more bombs of that type would be used against them if they did not surrender. Stubborn elements within the Japanese military refused to agree. On August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Approximately forty thousand people were killed immediately. Japan’s emperor intervened and forced the Japanese government to surrender, ending World War II.

U.S. Ratification of the United Nations Charter

On July 28, 1945, the U.S. Senate ratified the United Nations (UN) charter, making the nation one of the founding members of an international organization formed to achieve peace in the world through diplomacy. The organization grew out of a 1941 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965), at which they developed the Atlantic Charter: the document laid out their hopes for a world in which differences between nations could be settled by diplomats, rather than armies. Roosevelt suggested an international organization called the United Nations to ensure that peace and security were maintained. The UN was to have much more authority than the League of Nations, which had resulted from the peace treaties that ended World War I but which had failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II.

Representatives of fifty countries met in San Francisco, California, in April 1945 to finalize the UN charter, which was based on an outline drawn up the previous year at Dumbarton Oaks, a mansion in Washington, D.C. The charter contained 111 articles describing the goals, structure, and activities of an organization whose stated purpose was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Among the most important elements of the organization’s framework was the Security Council, which was made up of eleven (later fifteen) member states. Five nations—Great Britain, the Republic of China, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States—were designated permanent members of the Security Council. The remaining positions were to rotate among the other member countries. Most important, each permanent member of the Security Council got veto power over resolutions dealing with substantive issues, even if those resolutions had been approved by all other members of the Security Council.

Fifty countries signed the charter; nevertheless, for the United Nations to become an official organization, the charter had to be ratified by the governments of the five permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of the other signatories.

The Senate Ratification

The U.S. Senate spent just six days considering ratification of the UN charter. In the end only two senators voted against it—Henrik Shipstead (1881–1960), a Republican from Minnesota, and William “Wild Bill” Langer (1886–1959), a Republican from North Dakota. Senator Burton Wheeler (1882–1975), a Democrat from Montana, gave an impassioned three-hour speech against the charter, but reluctantly voted to ratify.

The most serious objections were aimed at Article 43, Section 1, of the charter, which read: “All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.” Opponents argued that the provision took war power away from Congress, violating the U.S. Constitution.

On October 24, 1945, the last required ratification was obtained, and the UN became an official organization. World War II had ended only two months before. The major victors in the war were the permanent members of the Security Council. It was hoped that they could ensure international peace and security. The United States had been allied with the Soviet Union and China during the war, but their relationships soured over the following decades as the cold war came to dominate world politics.

Legislation, Court Cases, and Trials

Near v. Minnesota

In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could not prevent publication of materials by the press, except in “exceptional” circumstances. The case involved a tabloid, the Saturday Press, published in Minneapolis by Jay Near. In 1927 Near published several articles that accused local officials and citizens of wrongdoing. County officials ordered him to cease publishing because of a state law that barred publication of “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory” information. Near complained that the order violated his right of freedom of the press under the Constitution. The Supreme Court agreed and invalidated the Minnesota law.

Background of the Case

In his newspaper Near claimed that Jewish gangsters were blatantly conducting criminal acts in Minneapolis and that police and local government officials knew about the crimes, but did nothing to stop them. The stories accused the chief of police of being in cahoots with the gangsters and alleged that the city’s mayor and major newspapers were also involved in the conspiracy.

Near was ordered by the county attorney not to publish “any future editions” of the newspaper, which in legal terms is known as abatement or prior restraint. It is equivalent to issuing a gag order to prevent someone from making information public.

The Court Decision

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948), writing for the Court, noted that freedom of the press had historically been interpreted to mean that the government could not censor or prevent publication of materials except in certain “exceptional” circumstances. As an example, he wrote, “No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.”

Hughes warned that the Minnesota law could lead to situations in which government officials forced newspaper publishers to disclose what they intended to publish in the future. This, he reasoned, would be “a step to a complete system of censorship.” The Minnesota statute under which Near had been charged was ruled to be an infringement of freedom of the press guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court noted that freedom of the press does not protect publishers against prosecution for publishing material that is libelous or slanderous. That determination, however, has to be made after the material is published, not before.

The Ramifications

Four decades later the issue of prior restraint was raised when the New York Times began publishing excerpts from the so-called Pentagon Papers, a massive U.S. Department of Defense document that examined how and why the United States had become involved in the Vietnam War. Copies of the document had been leaked to the press by a government employee. The Nixon administration took the newspaper to court to stop it from publishing additional excerpts. The U.S. Department of Justice used the “exceptional” example cited by Hughes in 1931 as grounds for its attempted abatement. The Supreme Court ultimately heard the case and ruled in New York Times v. United States (1971) that the government did not have sufficient reason to exercise prior restraint.

Powell v. Alabama

In Powell v. Alabama (1932) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to due process had not been afforded to nine young African-American men convicted of raping two white women in Alabama. The “Scottsboro boys,” as they became known, had received hasty trials without being given a chance to hire lawyers. All nine were convicted, and eight of them were sentenced to death. Their cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, which invalidated their convictions in concurrent rulings in Powell v. Alabama, Patterson v. Alabama, and Weems v. Alabama.

The Criminal Trials

On March 25, 1931, groups of white and African-American male youths got into a fight while riding a freight train in northern Alabama. The train was stopped by a local sheriff, and nine African-Americans were arrested and charged with assault. Two young white women who had been aboard the train claimed the youths in custody had raped them. Six days later a grand jury indicted the Scottsboro boys, and a week after that the trials began. Huge crowds of angry whites congregated around the courthouse during the trials, so the military was called in to guard and transport the defendants.

The Scottsboro boys were tried in groups, with each trial lasting only a day or two. By April 9 eight of the defendants had been found guilty and sentenced to death. The trial of the ninth defendant—the youngest of the group at fourteen years of age—ended in a hung jury when one jury member held out for life in prison instead of a death sentence.

The verdicts received national attention and were soundly condemned by socially progressive groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the International Labor Defense. The executions were delayed while the convictions were appealed to higher courts.

The Supreme Court Rulings

In May 1932 the Supreme Court considered appeals based on three issues: the lack of a fair and impartial trial, the denial of the right to counsel, and the lack of African-Americans on the juries. In Powell v. Alabama, the Court considered only the issues related to the denial of right to counsel.

The judge who had presided at the criminal trials had vaguely appointed “all members of the bar” to represent the defendants. At the outset of the first trial, he asked if all parties were ready to proceed. No one answered for the defense. An attorney from out of state told the court that he was present at the request of the defendants’ families to observe the proceedings and would lend his assistance to whatever local attorney took the case. He pointed out, however, that he had not prepared a defense and was not familiar with Alabama law. He was promptly appointed to represent the defendants and reluctantly did so. Justice George Sutherland (1862–1942), writing for the Supreme Court, noted that “until the very morning of the trial no lawyer had been named or definitely designated to represent the defendants.” He added: “[Given] the ignorance and illiteracy of the defendants, their youth, the circumstances of public hostility, the imprisonment and the close surveillance of the defendants by the military forces, the fact that their friends and families were all in other states and communication with them necessarily difficult, and above all that they stood in deadly peril of their lives—we think the failure of the trial court to give them reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process.” The convictions were overturned.

The Trials Continue

The saga of the Scottsboro boys continued to unfold for decades after the Supreme Court decision, as most of the youths were retried in Alabama courts, convicted, and sentenced to death again. The executions, however, were delayed as legal maneuvers continued. The International Labor Defense persuaded well-known attorney Samuel Leibowitz (1893–1978) to take one of the cases, and in 1935 he argued before the Supreme Court that the criminal convictions were invalid because African-Americans had been intentionally left out of the jury pools. The Court agreed in Norris v. Alabama (1935). Another round of criminal trials resulted in convictions and lengthy prison sentences. Continued public scrutiny helped most of Scottsboro boys achieve parole by the end of the 1940s.

The Legacy of the Cases

To many Americans the trials of the Scottsboro boys have come to epitomize the racial injustices common to the era. The Supreme Court decisions gave the burgeoning civil rights movement new vigor to fight racism, particularly the Jim Crow—or separate-but-equal—laws that were common throughout the South. During the 1950s and 1960s this battle achieved such results as Brown v. Board of Education, which abolished segregation in the public schools, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935

The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 granted President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) the authority to establish programs to provide aid and work during the Great Depression. Ultimately nearly $5 billion in funding was devoted to these programs, which were part of the New Deal, the president’s socioeconomic agenda. The programs included the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, the Resettlement Administration, and the Rural Electrification Administration.

The Second New Deal

When Roosevelt took office in 1933 his programs focused primarily on direct aid. Relief funds were provided to the states to distribute to the unemployed and needy. Three work programs did exist: the Civilian Conservation Corps employed young men in forestry and conservation projects; the Public Works Administration provided jobs in the construction of roads, dams, and public buildings; and the Civil Works Administration created short-term employment during the winter of 1933–1934.

In January 1935 the president decided to change New Deal policies to put more able-bodied Americans into work programs and return the responsibility for providing direct financial aid to state and local governments. In most cases direct aid was reserved for people unable to work, usually because of age or disability. The programs that resulted from this policy change were dubbed the “second New Deal.”

Executive Order 7027 established the Resettlement Administration (RA), whose mission included resettling “destitute or low-income families” from rural and urban areas to new communities; setting up programs devoted to forestation, soil and beach erosion, water pollution, flood control, and drought relief; and providing financing to farmers and farmworkers for the purchase of land and equipment. The RA also supervised the migrant-worker camps that were built in California to handle the huge influx of refugees from the Great Plains, where drought and winds had created the Dust Bowl.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), created by Executive Order 7034, employed millions of people who built and repaired schools, hospitals, sports stadiums, and bridges; planted trees in parks; and installed public storm drains and sewer lines. Other WPA programs provided work for actors, authors, artists, and musicians. Executive Order 7086 created the National Youth Administration, which gave grants to students so they could stay in school and supplied economic aid and job training for unemployed youths.

Executive Order 7037 established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which brought electricity to rural areas not served by private utilities. The REA received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding after passage of the Norris-Rayburn Act in 1936. With REA help 25 percent of the nation’s rural households and farms had electricity by 1939, up from around 10 percent at the beginning of the decade.

Paying for Relief

Roosevelt hoped his emergency relief programs would jump-start American business, but that did not happen. His critics complained that the programs created “busy work” for the unemployed at the expense of the nation’s more affluent citizens. Four months after passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, a massive tax bill made its way through Congress. It included sharp tax increases for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, which some observers now believe may have stymied investment in new businesses at a time when it was most needed.

Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States

In Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935) the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated portions of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which created a government-business-labor partnership during the Great Depression. The Court ruled that the NIRA was unconstitutional because it allowed the president to set “codes of fair practice” for industries and because it attempted to enforce the codes on businesses engaged in in-state commerce that did not directly affect interstate commerce. (Interstate commerce may be regulated by Congress under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.)

The NIRA (1933) gave the federal government a major role in the economic and labor affairs of private businesses, for it encouraged companies within industries to form alliances, set production quotas, and fix prices and wages. The law exempted these arrangements from federal antitrust laws, which would have forbidden such collusion. The law created the National Recovery Administration to develop the fair-competition codes and, in Section 3, specifically authorized the president to approve them. The codes, which regulated work hours, wages, and other business practices, became extremely unpopular, particularly with smaller companies whose owners believed that the codes favored big businesses. Violations of the codes were criminal misdemeanor offenses punishable by fines.

Within a year the law was challenged in court. The case involved chicken slaughterhouses and markets operated by the Schechter family in New York City, which were subject to the Live Poultry Code. Authorized by Executive Order 6675-A, the code specified a forty-hour workweek for most employees and a minimum wage of fifty cents per hour. The business operators were tried and convicted in New York for eighteen violations related to trade practices, minimum wages, and maximum work hours. They appealed the conviction, arguing that the NIRA represented an unconstitutional delegation by Congress of legislative power to the president and that the law attempted to regulate in-state transactions that were outside the authority of Congress.

In 1935 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Schechter that the codes section of the NIRA was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948), writing for the Court, acknowledged that the NIRA was crafted by Congress in the midst of a grave national crisis, the Great Depression. He cautioned, however, that “extraordinary conditions do not create or enlarge constitutional power,” adding that “Congress cannot delegate legislative power to the President to exercise an unfettered discretion to make whatever laws he thinks may be needed or advisable for the rehabilitation and expansion of trade or industry.” In addition the Court ruled that the code’s attempted regulation of in-state transactions was invalid because the transactions did not directly affect interstate commerce.

President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) was said to be infuriated by the Court’s decision in Schechter. It played a major role in his attempt in 1937 to “reorganize” the Supreme Court: he pushed legislation that would have allowed him to appoint one additional justice for each sitting justice aged seventy or older. His proposal, which failed to pass, was criticized widely as an overextension of presidential power, just as the NIRA had been denounced by the Supreme Court.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 was designed to improve labor relations during the Great Depression by encouraging workers to form labor unions and bargain collectively with their employers. It granted authority to enforce the law to a National Labor Relations Board. Because the stated purpose of the law was to limit the effects of labor disputes on interstate commerce, the law passed U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny in 1937.

Background of the Law

Although the NLRA is often heralded as a revolutionary step in labor history, its provisions actually evolved from a series of older acts. The government’s national labor policy had its roots in the War Labor Board, a temporary agency established in 1918 that recognized the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively. In 1926 Congress passed the Railway Labor Act, which guaranteed that right to workers in the railway industry. The law was amended in 1934 to create the National Mediation Board, an independent agency that helped settle railroad labor disputes.

Prior to the Great Depression the federal courts usually considered labor organizing activities and strikes to be impediments to interstate commerce, so court injunctions or restraining orders were commonly issued. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 greatly limited this court authority and clarified federal labor policy, recognizing the freedom of employees to unionize and bargain collectively. The policy was reinforced in 1933 by passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which contained a number of provisions affecting the government-business-labor relationship. Section 7(a) of the law specified that employees had the right to organize and bargain collectively and that employers could not interfere in those activities or force employees to join or refrain from joining a union.

When the Supreme Court invalidated other sections of the NIRA in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), the provisions of NIRA’s section 7(a) were incorporated into the NLRA. Section 1 includes the following statement: “It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” The NLRA, also known as the Wagner Act—one of its chief proponents was Robert Wagner Sr. (1877–1953), a Democratic senator from New York—was administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent agency that had been created earlier. The NLRA greatly strengthened the scope and power of the board.

The Supreme Court Ruling

The NLRA was widely condemned by business and employer groups; in 1937, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to four, in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., that the law was constitutional. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948) wrote that the NLRA served “to safeguard the right of employees” to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. He called it a “fundamental right” and noted that “employees have as clear a right to organize and select their representatives for lawful purposes as the respondent has to organize its business and select its own officers and agents.”

The Smith Committee

The controversy festered, however, as business leaders complained bitterly that the NLRB was biased against them. In 1939 Howard Worth Smith (1883–1976), a conservative Democratic representative from Virginia, formed a committee to investigate their claims. Smith, who believed that the NLRB espoused a Communist agenda and wanted to limit its power, complained that more strikes had taken place between 1935 and 1939 than in any period since the early 1920s. The NLRB defended its actions and pointed out that fewer workers had been involved in the strikes in question than in previous strikes. Smith introduced legislation in 1940 that would have curtailed the NLRB’s power, but the bill died in the Senate. His hearings, however, did tarnish the image of the NLRB and led to internal changes in the board’s administration.

The Decades Since

The NLRA was substantially amended in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, which incorporated some of the changes that Smith had sought. Strikes were common at the time, which was also the beginning of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the West. Many Americans had suspicions about ties between labor unions and communism. The Taft-Hartley Act granted greater power to government and business to prevent union activities and strikes. In particular the president was given the authority to obtain court injunctions to end strikes considered damaging to the national economy. That authority has been exercised on several occasions.

The Social Security Act of 1935

The Social Security Act of 1935 established a federal program of pensions for retirees and financial aid for the disabled and needy. A groundbreaking law, it was designed to help the most vulnerable victims of the Great Depression. During the following decades the scope of the program was greatly expanded to provide coverage for more segments of the population. Social Security is one New Deal program that survives to the present day; its survival, however, has been repeatedly threatened by funding shortages.

Building a Safety Net

The early twentieth century witnessed the establishment of a number of state programs to provide benefits or pensions for the unemployed, elderly, blind, disabled, or needy. The payouts were small, however, and tight restrictions limited the number of people who could participate. These drawbacks did not become a major issue until the Great Depression, when the idea of a national benefit system gained popularity.

Several pension schemes were proposed, including the “Share-the-Wealth” plan of Louisiana Governor Huey Long (1893–1935), which called for heavy taxes on the wealthiest Americans to provide monthly benefits for everyone else. By the mid-1930s Share-the-Wealth clubs claimed to have more than 7 million members around the country. Another program, the Townsend Old-Age Revolving Pension Plan, was championed by Francis Townsend (1867–1960), a California doctor. It called for a national sales tax to fund pensions for every American aged sixty or older.

In 1934 Congress passed the Railroad Retirement Act, a centerpiece of the New Deal agenda of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945). It established benefits for retired and disabled workers in the industry and lump-sum payments to their survivors. Although it was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, the law provided a blueprint for a larger and more sweeping program. The Committee on Economic Security, established by Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6757, developed recommendations that became part of the Economic Security Bill of 1935. While it was being deliberated in Congress, the bill’s name was changed to the Social Security Act. After the House of Representatives and the Senate both passed it by wide margins, Roosevelt signed it into law on August 14, 1935.

The president referred to Social Security as “social insurance.” It was a contributory program that required wage earners and their employers to pay taxes into the system; when they retired those workers could collect monthly payments to sustain them in their old age. In addition Social Security assisted the states in providing for “aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of unemployment compensation laws.”

Social Security Evolves

The new law was not universally embraced, particularly by those who had supported other alternatives. A filibuster led by Long prevented passage of a budget bill in 1935, which included funding to set up the new program. Congress finally provided the funding the following year.

The law was challenged repeatedly in the courts—conservatives believed it was an improper expansion of government power and an intrusion into the private lives of citizens, and businesses opposed the new taxes created by the law. In 1937, however, a series of Supreme Court decisions upheld the constitutionality of the Social Security Act. The rulings came in Helvering v. Davis, Steward Machine Company v. Davis, and Carmichael v. Southern Coal & Coke and Gulf States Paper.

In 1939 the law was amended to provide benefits for the dependents (spouses and children) of retired workers and for the survivors of covered workers who died before retiring. Additional amendments in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically increased benefit levels, included coverage for the disabled, and lowered the age at which retirees became eligible for benefits. In 1965 Congress created Medicare, a program that provided medical health insurance to covered retirees in exchange for deductions from their Social Security checks.

By the early 1970s the Social Security program was in financial difficulty. Expansion of benefits and coverage, combined with longer life spans for beneficiaries, put the future of the program in jeopardy. In 1940 the program included slightly more than two hundred thousand beneficiaries. By 1970 that number had jumped to 26 million and was growing rapidly. Congress responded by amending the Social Security Act to increase the taxes collected, raise the retirement age, and reduce benefits. When the post–World War II baby boom ended, the drop in the birthrate resulted in fewer workers to pay into the system even as more retirees reached retirement age. Most observers believe that, unless a politically acceptable solution to the funding problem is found, a serious shortfall will occur, resulting in sharp cuts in benefits.

The Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937

The Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 was an attempt by President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) to increase the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices. The “court-packing plan,” as it was quickly called, was assailed by critics as an effort to create a court more favorable to the New Deal, Roosevelt’s socioeconomic agenda. He was known to be frustrated by the Court’s repeated invalidation of early New Deal legislation. The plan did not gain political popularity—in fact, the opposite happened. It is considered one of Roosevelt’s greatest missteps as president.

The Early New Deal in Court

Roosevelt, who had won the presidency by a landslide in 1932, was reelected easily in 1936, which he took as a sign that the voters were overwhelmingly in favor of his New Deal programs. During its first few years in office his administration pushed dozens of bills through Congress. New Deal–type legislation was also adopted in some states. Many of the new laws were challenged in court, with a few of the cases reaching the Supreme Court. The Court declared unconstitutional portions of the Railroad Retirement Act (Railroad Retirement Board v. Alton, 1935), the National Industrial Recovery Act (Schechter Poultry v. United States, 1935), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (United States v. Butler, 1936), and New York state’s minimum-wage law (Morehead v. New York, 1936).

The plan Roosevelt presented to Congress in February 1937 specified that, in the future, a president could make a new appointment for any federal judge or justice who did not retire at age seventy. In 1937 six of the nine Supreme Court justices were older than seventy. His proposal capped the total number of justices at fifteen—an increase from nine, the figure most common throughout the nation’s history. He presented this plan to the people in a March 9, 1937, radio address—one of his “fireside chats”—arguing that “the Court has been acting not as a judicial body, but as a policy-making body.” He noted that the Supreme Court was acting to “thwart the will of the people” and “reading into the Constitution words and implications which are not there.” Roosevelt complained of “hardening of the judicial arteries” and urged his listeners to “save the Constitution from the Court and the Court from itself.”

Roosevelt’s critics considered the plan a brazen attempt to appoint liberal-minded justices who would look favorably upon New Deal legislation. Even some Democratic members of Congress were aghast at the proposal. It was debated on the Senate floor in July 1937 but was not enacted.

The Switch

In the spring of 1937 the Supreme Court made several rulings that seemed to indicate a change in attitude. They upheld as constitutional the state of Washington’s minimum-wage law (West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish), the National Labor Relations Act (National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp), and the Social Security Act (Helvering v. Davis, Steward Machine Company v. Davis, and Carmichael v. Southern Coal & Coke and Gulf States Paper). The media jokingly called it “the switch in time that saved nine,” a twist on the common proverb. Historians still debate whether the “switch” occurred because the justices were intimidated by Roosevelt’s reorganization plan or because later New Deal legislation was more carefully written to be within constitutional bounds.

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette

In West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) the U.S. Supreme Court held that the government could not require children in public schools to salute the American flag. The family that brought the case to court believed saluting the flag constituted worship of an icon, which violated their religious beliefs. Barnette reversed the Court’s decision of three years earlier in which it said that civic responsibility to salute the flag outweighed religious sensibilities.

The Salute

During the early decades of the twentieth century it was common practice to salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance by holding the right arm stretched upward toward the flag. The so-called Bellamy salute was named after Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), who first suggested it in 1892 when he printed the pledge in his youth magazine. During World War II the Bellamy salute lost favor in the United States because it was similar to the salute used by the Nazi Party in Germany. The salute was replaced by a hand-over-heart gesture, which Congress officially made part of the Flag Code in 1942.

In 1940 the Supreme Court debated the case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis. Two children of the Gobitis family, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, had been expelled from a public school in Pennsylvania for refusing to salute the flag. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religious group who believe they are forbidden by biblical text from worshipping anyone or anything other than God. They found the flag salute objectionable on these grounds. The Supreme Court ruled in an 8–1 decision that the government’s interest in maintaining “national cohesion” justified the mandatory flag salute in public schools.

A Change in Perspective

In 1943 the Barnette family of West Virginia, who also were Jehovah’s Witnesses, protested the local school district’s policy requiring that all children salute the flag during the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. The school district’s policy specified a Bellamy salute with the palm of the hand turned upward. Children who refused to salute the flag could be expelled, and their parents were subject to criminal prosecution under West Virginia law for contributing to the delinquency of minors.

The Supreme Court ruled 6–3 that West Virginia authorities had exceeded constitutional limits on their power by requiring mandatory flag salutes. Justice Robert Jackson (1892–1954), writing for the Court, stated that the “validity of the asserted power to force an American citizen publicly to profess any statement of belief or to engage in any ceremony of assent to one, presents questions of power that must be considered independently of any idea we may have as to the utility of the ceremony in question.”

In 1919 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841–1935) had established the “clear and present danger” test as a measure of whether utterances in public were covered by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Jackson noted in the West Virginia case that the government was not even alleging that failure to salute the flag constituted a “clear and present danger” to the nation. Furthermore, he wrote, “to sustain the compulsory flag salute we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual’s right to speak his own mind, left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind.” He concluded that the mandatory flag salute “invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”

By either odd coincidence or purposeful action, the Supreme Court’s decision in this case was handed down on June 14—Flag Day. Debates over the government’s authority to regulate the behavior of Americans regarding the flag have not abated since that day. In 1989 the Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson that a Texas law forbidding desecration of the flag—in this case the burning of an American flag during a political protest—was unconstitutional. On several occasions since then politicians have tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment to the Constitution that would make flag desecration illegal.



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The Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)

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