The news came with dessert on Christmas Eve, nineteen twenty nine, not quite two months after the disastrous stock market crash, President Herbert Hoover and his holiday guests were in the state dining room when they were told that the West Wing was in flames.
The Oval Office itself was burning. In black tie and smoking a cigar, the president excused himself to inspect the fire, The New York Times wrote. At times it seemed as if the flames were subdued. But there were occasional bursts of blaze through the roof, and the firemen had great difficulty in getting control of the situation in the main part of the mansion. The first lady tried to distract her guests by asking the marine band to play on Metaphor's don't come much more apropos.
The Hoover White House at the onset of the Great Depression, subject to the destructive whims of an uncontrollable force. Something seemingly invincible, impervious to destruction, was proving vulnerable.
I'm Jon Meacham and this is Hope Through History, episode one, The Great Depression. No people had lost farms and homes and small businesses. Well, how many people are we talking about? We're talking about a million unemployed or two million unemployed. Turned out it was about 13.
I want you to think about this. American troops firing on American veterans because we have to move forward as a trained and loyal army.
We need action. We need action now. The tremendous crowds which you see gathered outside the stock exchange are due to the greatest crash in the history of the New York Stock Exchange and market prices.
October 29th, 1929, also known as Black Tuesday, the New York Stock Exchange had crashed, triggering a period of economic turmoil, unlike anything the country had ever seen. Herbert Hoover was suddenly presiding over a national crisis of unimaginable proportions, which led to political disagreements and accusations, forcing Hoover to defend himself.
I out that the strategy of the Democratic Party has been an effort to implant in the I'm thinking, a man who deliberately representation the colossal falsehood that the Republican Party is responsible for this worldwide, but that the Democratic National Committee depression was man made. I agree with that. But they say the man who made a fool of myself personally. Well, you know, I will, in fact, that whoever got a bad rap in the history books, he was a failed president.
There's no question about that. But he was also a very capable individual.
This is David Kennedy. David is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor of history emeritus at Stanford University.
He was thought to be one of the few heroes that emerged from the peace negotiations of Paris in 1918. John Maynard Keynes, among others, thought he was one of the most capable people on the planet. And he would also, let's not forget, he'd been a progressive. He voted for Theodore Roosevelt 1912. He'd been a Woodrow Wilson's cabinet. And had it not been for the Depression, I think he would have gone down as a reformer of some considerable merit.
But he got walloped by this catastrophe on a scale that nobody had imagined up till that time. Nobody until I would say until late, nineteen thirty one, really, nobody called it the Great Depression, Capital G, Capital D took a long time for it to really sink in, that this was a catastrophe on a scale that was totally unfamiliar. And one of the repeated questions that came up was, well, how many people are we talking about?
Are we talking about a million unemployed or two million unemployed? Turned out it was about 13 million, but nobody knew the word a reliable. So given what Hoover was able to understand, some of his initial responses to the Depression were actually quite respectable. Yes, states and municipalities and counties to accelerate planned infrastructure improvements and upgrades. He asked the major employers not to fire people, but to furlough them or to distribute the work, maybe on a part time basis to more people, but not to actually just employ people.
So, again, given the framework through which he was seen, this oncoming crisis, which was still gathering scale and momentum, and I thought he behaved pretty well. But the scale of it, as I say, in the momentum of it, overwhelmed him as it did virtually everybody by 1930 to the Great Depression had consumed the United States, creating public anxiety and eroding trust in the most basic of institutions. America seemed on the cusp of a violent break from the ancient regime of democratic capitalism.
Would the nation save itself or would it go the way of Germany and of Italy seeking comfort and totalitarianism? Or might it choose the path of the Soviet Union casting its lot with communism? The questions weren't academic. It's estimated that twenty five percent of the workforce was jobless.
Mobs of hungry youths were loose in the countryside. Armed standoffs roiled placid places such as Sioux City, Iowa.
Hoover's successor knew all this. In the summer of nineteen thirty two, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York had told an adviser that the two most dangerous men in America were Huey Long of Louisiana and Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff. Long, the powerful Louisiana Kingfish could conceivably lead a national coup from the populist left, and MacArthur might manage the same feat from the right. The loudest cheers during Roosevelt's inaugural address on Saturday, March 4th, 1933, didn't come from his assurance that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself.
No, as Eleanor Roosevelt noted, the greatest ovation greeted the new president's assertion that the present emergency might require him to assume extended wartime executive powers, broad executive power to wage war against the emergency.
As great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by foreign.
You know, it's almost hard to remember the panic and the terror that spread across the land in nineteen thirty three. This is Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in some ways in mid-February, just weeks before Roosevelt took his inauguration. It was the full brunt of the Depression, having hit many banks and one state after another were bolting their door as people were lending, waiting on lines to get their money out and they couldn't. Then banks suddenly stopping altogether for a week and people in trying to get their savings out, unruly customers.
At the same time, people had lost farms and homes and small businesses and people hungry in the streets. So it was really the depths. The future of capitalism seemed really at the end. And President Hoover said, where at the end of our string. The first thing Roosevelt did when he took that inaugural oath, he realized that things had reached rock bottom before he came. In fact, he even said, I'm afraid the whole house of cards might collapse before I even take the inaugural oath.
But then once he spoke before the country, it was a combination of walking that fine line between accepting the reality of the situation and the rockbottom moment they were in and giving hope for the future. So he starts out saying, you know, this is preeminently the time to speak the truth.
Only a foolish optimist would deny the dark realities that the chief justice, my friend, this is a day of national competition. And I am certain that on this day, my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency, I will address them with candor and a decision with the present situation of our people in power. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.
But then when he says his famous phrase that the only thing we have to fear is fear.
So what was much more important than that phrase was that he told the country, I'm ready to act. I've got things to do, I'm going to Congress. And if they don't give me what I need, I'm going to ask them for broad executive authority to wage a war against this emergency because we have to move forward as a trained and loyal army. We need action. We need action now.
This nation is asking for action. And I can run this program of action. We address ourselves to putting them in action to disarm underlaid act. It was a mad and maddening time ask whether history had ever seen anything like the Depression, John Maynard Keynes replied, Yes, it was called the Dark Ages and it lasted for hundred years. Describing the plight of the unemployed, the historian William Manchester wrote, Although millions were trapped in a great tragedy for which there could plainly be no individual responsibility, social workers repeatedly observed that the jobless were suffering from feelings of guilt.
I haven't had a steady job in more than two years, a man facing eviction told the New York Daily News reporter in February 1932. Sometimes I feel like a murderer. What's wrong with me? That I can't protect my children?
It was the idea that every citizen is an empire unto himself or herself, totally the capital of his or her own destiny, the master of his or her own fate. And that's a powerfully liberating idea. It energizes people and it opens roads to opportunity and achievement and ambition. That's all good, I suppose, but there's a dark side to it as well. And people who have this individualistic psychology or habit in those days thought that if they should give themselves a pat on the back for everything they accomplished in this life, then they had nobody but themselves to blame if they failed to accomplish.
And I'll tell you, my father is a prime example of this. He would absolutely bust. He was unemployed for several years, years in the nineteen thirties, just after he got married and it broke his life into. And he I know on the rare occasions when I could get him to talk about this phase of his life at all, he would blame himself for having gone unemployed in nineteen thirty three and it just wasn't his fault. But he just couldn't get that into his.
As FDR took office on Saturday, March 4th, he was reassuring, but far from Panglossian, the next morning he went to work. The pace was dizzying for good reason. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote the machinery for sheltering and feeding the unemployed was breaking down everywhere under the growing burden. And a few hours before, in the early morning before the inauguration, every bank in America had locked its doors. He was now not just a matter of staving off hunger.
It was a matter of seeing whether representative democracy could conquer economic collapse. It was a matter of staving off violence, even at least some so thought revolution. It is not hyperbole to say that the fate of the nation depended on Roosevelt's ability to succeed where others had failed. I'll use this word advisedly.
I do think he was a visionary. I think he had an idea of what he wanted to accomplish before he got to the White House. And a lot of it was not just a response to the Depression, it was a use, the old cliche. He didn't let the crisis go to waste. He is this disruptive moment to do things that people have been talking about for a full generation before the 1930s, like the most famous and durable reform that came out of that period, familiar to everybody is Social Security.
The depression provided the political space to actually get those things accomplished. On March six, 1933, just two days after taking office, Roosevelt declared a bank holiday and ordered his team to come up with answers quickly. Officials Raymond Moley, a Roosevelt adviser recalled, had forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats. We were just a bunch of men trying to save the banking system, armed with expert policy provisions. Roosevelt spoke to the nation on the radio. He dictated his remarks to his secretary, Grace Tully.
Slazenger wrote, looking at a blank wall, trying to visualize the individuals he was seeking to help a mason at work on a new building, a girl behind the counter, a man repairing an automobile, a farmer in his field, all of them saying, our money is in the Lipski bank. And what is this all about? Will Rogers was so impressed with the result that he said Roosevelt had made everybody understand it. Even the bankers of America face the end of nearly all that was familiar joblessness, scarce credit, breadlines, nothing.
And no one seemed to be working anymore. After the bank holiday, Roosevelt embarked on his new deal of legislation creating large scale public works programs to build infrastructure and give hope and purpose to the millions who couldn't make a living any other way. It was expensive, and not every program was successful. But FDR believed in what he called the spirit of bold, persistent experimentation. The great thing about his programs to put people to work is that he had two very different people working on the same problem at the same time, and they had very different understandings of what should be done.
You had Ickes, who was the secretary of the interior, and he was wanting to prime the pump and do projects that would have a long term impact, you know, like LaGuardia Airport or the Bonneville Dam, you know, big infrastructure projects.
So he also had Harry Hopkins involved. And Hopkins just wanted to have people doing libraries, swimming pools, the federal arts project, the Federal Theatre Project, anything to get them jobs so they have the dignity of the jobs, even if some of these jobs may be producing something that's not going to have a long term effect. Roosevelt, like both ideas, kept both men going. At a certain point, they began to argue in public and he didn't like that.
So he took them on a trip on the Panama Canal for three weeks, where they went fishing for three weeks and he officially buried their controversy, just spending time drinking and fishing together and at least tempered it after that. So that's one other thing he did, was to try experimenting with different ways of dealing with that major problem of how to get jobs to people. I mean, one of the ways that he kept up with the American people during the Depression and he thought that was the most important thing, you said the American people will take anything on the chin so long as you give them the facts and you give them what you're doing to help.
So he had these fireside chats, the first one being the banking crisis, and then a series of them during the Depression. Not every day. He said he knew if he spoke every day, his speeches would lose their effectiveness and they couldn't become routine. But everybody listened.
Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, my friend, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking. I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days and why it was done and what the next steps are going to be.
So he kept in touch with the people that way. And each one of those fireside chats explained a problem in great detail. They would be a story and telling people why it had happened, what was happening, what they were doing to relieve it.
The people rallied to his side. He gave it to them straight. He never offered false hope. He told Americans that the road ahead was long and hard. But he also showed empathy a matter of months before Roosevelt was elected president. A group of World War One veterans known as the Bonus Army, assembled in front of the Capitol building to demand their bonuses. The Hoover administration responded by mobilizing the regular army to run them off to disperse an army of over 15000 demonstrators.
The administration calls our troops more veterans seeking payment of a promised bonus in order to tide over the hard times to disperse them tear gas and burn its soldiers to disperse soldiers.
When it was Franklin Roosevelt's turn to respond, it was actually his wife, Eleanor, who confronted the bonus army. She took a very different tack.
And so they go out without Secret Service, without the press corps, and they end up in Anacostia in the middle of the bonus Army encampment. This is a lead of black founding editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, and Eleanor gets out of the car, spends several hours with veterans of World War One who have lost everything and have literally been burned out of the PUP tent that they had established there before the inauguration to try to lobby Congress to get their veteran's pensions early.
Hoover had sent the army to dislodge them, led by MacArthur, Patton and Eisenhower. I want you to think about this. American troops firing on American veterans. Eleanor spent time with them, sings with them each beans with her fingers out of 10 cups, literally at one point shares a coat with a woman, comes back to report on them to FDR. The press finds out that she goes. Then the press writes on the front page of all three Washington papers.
This line, Hoover sent the troops, FDR sent his wife. Even then, though, there was dissension, partisanship, fear, Huey Long believed revolutionary change was at hand and he intended to be its tribute. A mob is coming in six months to hang the other ninety five of you damn scoundrels, he told a fellow senator. And I'm undecided whether to stick here with you or go out and leave them. He was a master at generating headlines, a Democratic colleague said of long.
Frankly, we are afraid of him. He is unscrupulous beyond belief. He might say anything about me, something entirely untrue, but it would ruin me in my state. It's like challenging a buzzsaw.
He will go to the limit.
It is safer for me and the rest of us to leave him alone.
How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what they intended for nine tenths of the people? They don't know whether you will ever be able to feed the people to make that man come back and bring back some. That grub ain't got no. Democratic Senator Reno and get my new wife when they want it, if that's what they want, but when they've got everything on the living earth that they can eat, they and where they can live in that.
Got to call Mr. Morgan and Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Rockefeller back as they come back.
I back on this tape that you took away at and from the right, Lawrence Dennis, a native of Georgia and a former foreign service officer, wrote a pair of books in the 30s. Is Capitalism Doomed and the Coming of American Fascism? Dennis wrote, I am in favor of a middle class revolution, arguing that the media of the age made Americans susceptible to suggestion. We have perfected techniques and propaganda and press and radio control, which should make the United States the easiest country in the world to indoctrinate with any set of ideas and to control for any physically possible ends.
Diversity, political, racial, religious, ethnic was the enemy. Talk of equality for women or for racial and ethnic minorities would give the fascist movement room to run to Dennis.
Undoubtedly, the easiest way to unite and animate large numbers and political association for action is to exploit the dynamic forces of hatred and fear.
While Long Politicked and Dennis wrote Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who built a broadcasting kingdom from the Royal Oak suburb of Detroit, was a prevailing voice over the airwaves in 1930. Testifying before Congress, he said, I think by 1933, unless something is done, you will see a revolution in this country. He started out as an anti-communist in the late 1920s. His populist message would morph through the years, settling mainly on a platform of anti-Semitism in broadcasts on economics.
When Alexander Hamilton came up, Kosslyn would say as if in passing that his original name was Alexander Levine.
And so Mr. Roosevelt was very loquacious in 1933 about driving the money changers out of the temple is now another policy, I think writing the middle of a lake that hope the man chosen to rescue the nation from the abyss.
Franklin Roosevelt, was hardly seen in a heroic light in the shadows of 1932. According to the New Republic, the New York governor was not a man of great intellectual force or supreme moral stamina.
Walter Lippmann, the most important columnist of the time, wrote Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president. Charming, cagey and courageous. FDR would spend the next dozen or so years winning four White House terms and trying with varying degrees of success, to prove his critics wrong.
Americans in his time were questioning the very viability of the constitutional order and of capitalism itself.
In his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in July 1932, he addressed himself to the future. Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want, there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of millions of our people who have suffered so much, so failed to offer them.
And it not only to betray their hope, but to misunderstand that this is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms how not to win votes alone, but to win in this campaign to restore America people. He was it is true, an unlikely crusader born into enveloping privilege at Springwood, his family's ancestral house at Hyde Park in New York's Hudson Valley, Roosevelt was educated at home at Endicott Peabody's Groton School at Harvard and at Columbia Law School.
It was by any measure, a dazzling life, and then in August, nineteen twenty one at his family's summer retreat at Campobello on the Bay of Fundy, Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with infantile paralysis caused by the polio virus. He would never walk unaided again. He was thirty nine years old. How did Roosevelt do it? How did the man scorned in the beginning die a hero, bringing innumerable ordinary citizens to tears in the streets and on the farms of the country he loved?
How did he salvage what seemed to be unsalvageable, rising to the occasion to lead a nation through depression? And later, World War One answer. And there more than a few, such as the complexity of history, lies in FDR sense of hope, a spirit of optimism forged in his own experience. It's not too much to say that a man who had personally survived cataclysm and overcome paralysis was well equipped, perhaps uniquely so, to prevail over national cataclysm and political paralysis.
Somebody said to him, how can you go to sleep at night when you have to make all these horrible decisions? And he said, I don't spend time walking the carpet at night so long as I know I've had the information I need it in the time I did. If it's wrong, I will do it over. I will make it right. I mean, I think he may maybe because he had had the polio and he had experimented with so many different ways of trying to learn to walk again, he knew that you just had to keep going until you found the right answer.
And if it wasn't the right answer, you knew and you just said so. Faith, powerful, resilient faith was key in Roosevelt's first inaugural, he said, in closing, the people of the United States have not failed in their needs.
They have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous back. They have asked for discipline and direction and the leadership. They have made me the present instrument of our wishes in the spirit of the gift, I take it. And in that spirit, he carried on privately, he wondered if all would come out right. A friend told him he might well be remembered as the greatest of presidents. Have he succeeded, but that he would go down as the worst if he failed?
If I fail, Roosevelt replied, I shall be the last one publicly, though, he never wavered. He long argued that leadership, even his own, was imperfect, a wise public, Roosevelt believed, would give a well-meaning, forward leaning president the benefit of the doubt. In nineteen thirty two, he said, it is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But above all, try something.
We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. His headmaster from Groton, Endicott Peabody, grasped the essence of his old pupil. It is a great thing for our country, Peabody wrote Roosevelt to have before it the leadership of a man who cares primarily for spiritual things. FDR thrilled to such praise and for all the exigencies of political life he had been shaped by and drew sustenance from the message of hope that Peabody had taught him long ago.
I remember that my old schoolmaster, Dr. Peabody, he said things in life were not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising to the height and all will seem to reverse itself and start down. A great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, sustained by this view of progress.
Roosevelt urged the nation forward.
We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately. But we still strive. We may make mistakes, but they must never been faced with results from faintness upon our abandonment of moral principles. Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument. It is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm basis upon which all manner of man of all races, color and breed, would build our solid structure of democracy. On April 12th, 1945, less than three months after delivering those words to the American people, Franklin Roosevelt died at the age of 63 from his beloved second home at Warm Springs, Georgia.
The body of Franklin Delano Roosevelt moves on the first stages of a journey to his final resting place. All along the 700 mile route, people gather to honor President Roosevelt and his idea. The salience of hope, the dangers of fear and the need for open American hearts were familiar Rosevelt themes throughout his presidency. This might sound sentimental, but real time evidence suggests it's truth unlearning of Roosevelt's death. His longtime adviser, Harry Hopkins, called the playwright and speechwriter Robert Sherwood.
You and I have got something great that we can take with us all the rest of our lives, Hopkins said. It's a great realization because we know it's true what so many people believed about him and what made them love him. The president never let them down. That's what you and I can remember.
Oh, we all know he could be exasperating and he could seem to be temporizing and delaying and he'd get us all worked up when we thought he was making too many concessions to expediency. But all of that was in the little things, the unimportant things. And he knew exactly how little and how important they really were. But in the big things, all the things that were of real permanent importance, he never let the people down. Robert Sherwood, the playwright and FDR speechwriter, could not fathom the reports he recalled.
I couldn't believe it when somebody told me he was dead like everybody else. I listened and listened to the radio waiting for the announcement, probably in his own Galey reassuring voice that it had all been a big mistake, that the banking crisis in the war were over and everything was going to be fine, grand, perfectly bully.
But it was true. Sherwood knew it finally crushed him.
He couldn't stand up under it any longer. The it was the awful responsibility that had been piling up and piling up for so many years. The fears and the hopes of hundreds of millions of human beings throughout the world had been bearing down on the mind of one man until the pressure was more than mortal tissue could stand.
And finally, I should like to say a personal word to you. I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people. And constantly I seek to look beyond the doors of the White House into the hopes and fears of men and women in my home. I always try to remember that reconciling differences cannot satisfy everyone completely. But I know that I must never give up to abandon our purpose of building a greater a more stable and a more tolerant America would be to miss the tide and perhaps to miss the point.
I propose to sail ahead. I feel sure that your hopes I feel sure that your help is with me. To reach support, we must sail. Sail, not lie at anchor sail, not drift. In his cottage at Warm Springs, where a porch had been designed to resemble the prow of a ship, giving the paralyzed president the illusion of movement of freedom, Roosevelt left the draft of a speech he had been scheduled to deliver on Friday, April 13th, on the occasion of the birthday of Thomas Jefferson.
Roosevelt was to have said today science has brought all the different corners of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another. Today, we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships, the ability of all peoples of all kinds to live together and work together in the same world at peace. The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.
Let us move forward with strong and active faith. They were, in a way, his last words.
In upcoming episodes of Hope Through History, we'll review other times our national character has been severely tested the influenza of 1918, the Second World War, the battle against polio and the Cuban missile crisis. In each case, our national character and our national leaders were tested.
They were in a crucible and we made it out.
Thank you for listening to Hope through history, a production of kadence 13 in association with history executive produced by me, Jon Meacham and Chris Corcoran, directed by Chris Corcoran, John McDermott and Lloyd Lakeridge, and edited, produced, engineered and mastered by Chris Bazil, Bill Schulz, Rich Berner and Sean Cherry.
Graphic Design, Marketing and publicity by Josephine Francis, Kurt, Courtney and Hilary show. Our theme song is Cold Little Heart by Michael Kibwana. Kate.