Hidden History: Roosevelt Opts for Austerity

The Great Depression – Part 7 Arsenal of Democracy

PBS (1993)

Film Review

For me the most significant segment of this final episode concerns the austerity cuts Roosevelt enacted in 1937, in response to business critics who attacked the burgeoning national debt.

As FDR laid off half the workers employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the effects rippled throughout the economy. The stock market crashed in October 1937, even faster than in 1929. Businesses failed in record numbers and unemployment climbed to 20%. Once again, thousands of unemployed Americans were on the brink of starvation.

The 1937-38 depression is known as the “Roosevelt Depression.”

Part 7 also explores the mass migration of indigent Americans to California, under the misguided belief they would find plentiful food and jobs. Like 20 or so other states, California enacted laws to keep out the unemployed. With the help of local residents groups, police patrolled California’s borders for six weeks in 1938. They turned back all newcomers without $10 on their person.

Many of the state’s new migrants were housed in giant federal camps, as there was nowhere else for them to live.

After Eleanor Roosevelt testified to Congress about her fact finding tour to the camp, FDR introduced (and passed) a $5 billion spending bill.

In September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland. By May 1940, Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium had fallen to the Nazis and Hitler was bombing the UK.

A year later, FDR initiated the first peace time draft in US history. Jobless men flocked to enlist because there were still no jobs. Forty percent failed their physicals due to lingering health effects of starvation.

A few weeks before the November 1940 presidential election (which he won), FDR authorized $7 billion in military aid to Britain, opening up thousands of jobs in the defense industry.

Yet it would take another three years – and US entry into the war – before the country returned to full employment.

Why FDR Opposed the 1937 Anti-Lynching Bill

The Great Depression – Part 7 To Be Somebody

PBS (1993)

Film Review

This episode covers Depression-era lynching, racial segregation and antisemitism.

The 1930s saw a big increase in southern lynchings of African Americans. In 1935, this would lead to a major campaign by the National Association of Colored People to win FDR’s support for a federal anti-lynching bill. Still fearful of southern Democrats, Roosevelt declined to support the bill when it passed the house in 1937 and was blocked by a Senate filibuster.

In 1937 the Daughters of the American Republic (DAR) blocked African American opera singer Marion Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall. Instead Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 25,000.

This episode also explores the 100+ Nazi groups that emerged during the thirties in the US. They would hold marches in full Nazi regalia in 19 cities. Without a following of over 10 million listeners, antisemitic radio host Father Coughlan delivered weekly rants about “America for Americans.”

After the November 1938 Kristalnacht* resulted in the mass destruction of Jewish businesses, the arrest of 20,000 Jews and the death of 38, human rights advocates pressed FDR to accept Jewish refugees from Germany. He refused.


*Kristallnacht was a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians.