Orientation to the 1930s

We have talked at several points about instituting an Expedition to the 1930s. I’ve been advised by several wise heads who watch over the Project that this would be a good thing, and we have the wonderful Montana resource of Mary Murphy’s Hope in Hard Times, which not only covers the history but provides lots of good information and good models of documentary photography, for which I, at least, have a particular fondness.

I’ve been reading materials to help make recommendations for teachers who want to know more about this critical period in American history.

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945 won a Pulitzer for Stanford professor David Kennedy in 2000. Kennedy offers a detailed history of the period told with a smooth narrative thrust. It may be the best one-volume (a very big volume, though--936 pages) history of the period. Though generally sympathetic to FDR, Kennedy draws on recent research and acknowledges that FDR’s New Deal policies did not reverse the Depression.

This book gives details of what life was like in different parts of the country. Much attention is given to the rural/urban divide in American politices, and the extent of the suffering in rural areas is made clear. The book tells the stories of how policies were being made and adjusted by the various players. Roosevelt appears in a favorable light in terms of his sympathy if not always his competence.

A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 by Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz was published in 1963. Economist Hugh Rockoff at Rutgers ranks it as “the most significant book in the field of economic history in the twentieth century.” About a third of this hugely influential book is given to an analysis of the Great Depression, and Friedman and Schwartz helped convince most economists that the Keynsian interpretation of the Depression was inadequate. “The Great Depression, and the way it was interpreted by Keynesian economists, convinced a generation of American intellectuals that only socialism (or near-socialism) could save the American economy from periodic economic meltdowns” says Rockoff. But this book changed the interpretive direction of much 1930s history.

The book is written for a lay audience without specialized statistical knowledge. No formulas appear in the text. It’s a tome though, approaching 900 pages. The book’s influence is due in part to its accessible and majesterial style.

Rethinking the Great Depression is one of the more interesting of a good many books that argue that the Depression was worsened by FDRs politicies. Gene Smiley argues that the American economy had started to recover in the second quarter of 1933 and the summer of 1935, only to be stalled by mistaken New Deal policies. In his view, the Hoover administration was an unmitigated disaster, and the FDR administration compounded the nation’s economic problems through folly. Though the argument is based on sophisticated analyses, the writing is clear and concise. The book is short--only 175 pages.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/31 at 05:53 PM
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