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.