Introduction to the Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)

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Introduction to the Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)

The era of the Great Depression and World War II was a roller-coaster ride for the United States. When the stock market crashed, ending the plenty of the 1920s, the country slid into an economic crisis that brought unemployment, hunger, and hardship to millions of people. A severe drought deepened the misery, as winds scraped dried-out soil into dust storms and turned a huge part of the Great Plains into a desolate dust bowl. America’s entry into World War II rejuvenated the economy but also thrust the nation into years of hard-fought battle with high casualty rates. In the end massive U.S. military might and a new weapon—the atomic bomb—made the difference. Victory by the United States and its allies brought euphoria and a hope that the new United Nations could avert future warfare.

The United States came out of World War II extremely strong, both economically and politically: it had become one of the world’s true superpowers. This amazing transformation—from destitution to power and wealth—occurred in little more than a decade.

Two presidents served during most of those years—Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) and Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945). Hoover was elected in 1928 during a time of prosperity for most Americans. He left office in 1933 as the scapegoat for the nation’s deep economic troubles. In 1932 Roosevelt was elected in a landslide with promises of a “new deal” for Americans. The population, enchanted by his charismatic, folksy style, returned him to office three more times. Only death could stop the political juggernaut that he became.

The Depression era was a time of great law-making. Dozens of new programs and agencies were created, largely because Roosevelt enjoyed a highly cooperative Congress that agreed with most of his agenda. The U.S. Supreme Court was not as cooperative, at least during his early years in office. It declared several of the New Deal laws unconstitutional, which so angered the president that he tried to reorganize and expand the Court—critics called it his “court-packing plan.” A major misstep, his proposal did not find political support. Ultimately the New Deal was an economic and social experiment with mixed results. While many of its efforts were temporary, some of its programs and agencies have survived to the present day.

Within his own party Roosevelt walked a tightrope between northern and southern Democrats. Much of the South was still dominated by “Jim Crow laws,” under which African-Americans were supposed to have access to “separate, but equal” facilities. While separation was strictly enforced, equality was nowhere close to a reality. The burgeoning civil rights movement found enthusiastic supporters in some quarters, including the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). Her more cautious husband chose to tread carefully on matters of race, lest he offend his southern supporters. The result was an era with mixed messages for minorities. Some progress was made, and some opportunities were lost.

The overriding political story of the era was federalism—the division of power between the federal government and state and local governments. Before this time the federal government had little impact on the everyday lives of Americans. They were much more affected by the actions of their state and local authorities. The Great Depression and World War II were such overwhelming events—truly national emergencies—that Americans accepted a much more powerful role for their federal government, particularly the executive branch. Millions were desperate; they put their faith in Roosevelt. This political shift had a long-term effect on the national psyche, considerably raising people’s expectations of the federal government.

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Introduction to the Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)

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Introduction to the Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)