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.

Hidden History: How the New Deal Ripped Off Farmworkers and Blacks

The Great Depression – Part 5 Mean Things Happening

PBS (1993)

Film Review

While the National Recovery Administration, created in 1933, theoretically guaranteed workers the right to unionize, company bosses continued to fire (and shoot) employees who went on strike for the right to form unions.

In 1933 John L Lewis formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Unlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), membership in the CIO was open to blacks, immigrants and communists (women continued to be shut out of the union movement until World War II).

For political reasons, the New Deal right to unionize didn’t extend to agricultural workers. The primary New Deal farm program was the Agriculture Adjustment Act, which gave plantation owners direct payments for destroying surplus cotton crops. Despite federal requirements that owners share their payments with tenant farmers* and sharecroppers,** they rarely did so.

Both approached socialist leader Norman Thomas, who helped them organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Association (STFA), which had 1,000 members by the end of 1935. Arkansas lawmakers responded by evicting tenant farmers and share croppers suspected of organizing, murdering black members and passing ordinances banning public gatherings.

Despite white terrorism, the STFA organized a successful cotton pickers strike (for higher wages) in 1935.

By 1935, the STFA had 25,000 members in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee and ongoing terrorist activities by whites began to receive national attention. The same year, FDR declined to meet with union leaders during a trip to Little Rock.***

In 1938, Congress finally passed legislation granting direct federal relief to tenant farmers and sharecroppers – plantation owners responded by evicting 251 families in order to keep the relief payments for themselves.


*A tenant farmer used his own seed and animals to cultivate an owner’s land and paid him 1/4 of his crop for this privilege.

**A sharecropper used the landowner’s seed and animals and paid him 1/2 of his crop for this privilege.

*** Aside from FDR’s inherent racism, southern tenant farmers and sharecoppers didn’t vote because they couldn’t afford the $1 poll tax. More importantly the President relied on the votes of southern Democrats to pass New Deal legislation.

Hidden History: How FDR Blocked Upton Sinclair’s Election as California Governor

The Great Depression – Part 4 We have a Plan

PBS (1993)

Film Review

Part 4 is largely about famous author Upton Sinclair’s campaign for California governor. This is something they definitely don’t teach in school. Because he nearly won.

The parallels with Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign are uncanny. Sinclair, also a socialist, registered as a Democrat for the 1934 campaign. He received the same massive popular response from Californian workers that Sanders and UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have received. Thousands of young people flocked to join the California Democratic Party, which hadn’t won a gubernatorial race in  35 years.

Sinclair easily won the Democratic primary and polled ahead of his Republican opponent until he was betrayed by the Roosevelt administration. After trying to pressure him to quit the race in favor of the third party candidate, they made a deal for California Democrats to support Sinclair’s Republican opponent – in return for the latter’s support of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.

In the last weeks of the campaign, Sinclair was also hurt by the massive media smear campaign launched by MGM studio boss Louis B Meyer.

Although Sinclair lost the election, 27 members of Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) organization team won seats in the California legislature.

This episode also covers San Francisco’s 1934 general strike and FDR’s unsuccessful attempt to create a national health service as New Zealand did in 1938.