Homelessness During The 1930s
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History Brief: Daily Life in the 1930s
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After nearly a decade of optimism and prosperity, the United States was thrown into despair on Black Tuesday, October 29, , the day the stock market crashed and the official beginning of the Great Depression. As stock prices plummeted with no hope of recovery, panic struck. Masses of people tried to sell their stock, but no one was buying. The stock market, which had appeared to be the surest way to become rich, quickly became the path to bankruptcy. And yet, the stock market crash was just the beginning. Since many banks had also invested large portions of their clients' savings in the stock market, these banks were forced to close when the stock market crashed. Seeing a few banks close caused another panic across the country. Afraid they would lose their own savings, people rushed to banks that were still open to withdraw their funds.
This massive withdrawal of cash caused additional banks to close. Since there was no way for a bank's clients to recover any of their savings once the bank had closed, those who didn't reach the bank in time also went bankrupt. Businesses and industry were also affected. Despite President Herbert Hoover asking businesses to maintain their wage rates, many businesses, having lost much of their own capital in either the stock market crash or the bank closures, started cutting back their workers' hours or wages.
In turn, consumers began to curb their spending, refraining from purchasing such things as luxury goods. This lack of consumer spending caused additional businesses to cut back wages or, more drastically, to lay off some of their workers. Some businesses couldn't stay open even with these cuts and soon closed their doors, leaving all their workers unemployed. Unemployment was a huge problem during the Great Depression. From to , the unemployment rate in the United States rose from 3. In previous depressions, farmers were usually safe from the severe effects of the depression because they could at least feed themselves.
Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, the Great Plains were hit hard with both a drought and horrendous dust storms, creating what became known as the Dust Bowl. Years of overgrazing combined with the effects of a drought caused the grass to disappear. With just topsoil exposed, high winds picked up the loose dirt and whirled it for miles. The dust storms destroyed everything in their paths, leaving farmers without crops. Small farmers were hit especially hard. Even before the dust storms, the invention of the tractor drastically cut the need for manpower on farms. These small farmers were usually already in debt, borrowing money for seed and paying it back when their crops came in.
When the dust storms damaged the crops, not only could small farmers not feed themselves and their families, they could not pay back their debt. Banks would then foreclose and the farmers' families would be both homeless and unemployed. During the Great Depression, millions of people were out of work across the United States. Unable to find another job locally, many unemployed people hit the road, traveling from place to place, hoping to find some work. A few of these people had cars, but most hitchhiked or "rode the rails.
A large portion of the people who rode the rails were teenagers, but there were also older men, women, and entire families who traveled in this manner. They would board freight trains and crisscross the country, hoping to find a job in one of the towns along the way. When there was a job opening, there were often literally a thousand people applying for the same job. Those who weren't lucky enough to get the job would perhaps stay in a shantytown known as "Hoovervilles" outside of town. Housing in the shantytown was built out of any material that could be found freely, like driftwood, cardboard, or even newspapers. The farmers who had lost their homes and land usually headed west to California, where they heard rumors of agricultural jobs. Unfortunately, although there was some seasonal work, the conditions for these families were transient and hostile.
Since many of these farmers came from Oklahoma and Arkansas, they were called the derogatory names of "Okies" and "Arkies. The U. Although President Hoover repeatedly spoke of optimism, the people blamed him for the Great Depression. They were struggling to look after their own peoples and deal with reincorporating their military into civilian society. The four horsemen of the apocalypse — pestilence, war, famine and death — so familiar during the middle ages, appeared again in the modern world. Politically, the impact of the war was also great. The once great powers of Japan and Germany looked as though they would never rise again. In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that their peoples, highly educated and skilled, possessed the capacity to rebuild their shattered societies.
And it may have been easier to build strong economies from scratch than the partially damaged ones of the victors. Two powers, so great that the new term "superpower" had to be coined for them, dominated the world in The United States was both a military power and an economic one; the Soviet Union had only brute force and the intangible attraction of Marxist ideology to keep its own people down and manage its newly acquired empire in the heart of Europe.
The great European empires, which had controlled so much of the world, from Africa to Asia, were on their last legs and soon to disappear in the face of their own weakness and rising nationalist movements. We should not view the war as being responsible for all of this, however; the rise of the US and the Soviet Union and the weakening of the European empires had been happening long before The war acted as an accelerator.
It also accelerated change in other ways: in science and technology, for example. The world got atomic weapons but it also got atomic power. Under the stimulus of war, governments poured resources into developing new medicines and technologies. Without the war, it would have taken us much longer, if ever, to enjoy the benefits of penicillin, microwaves, computers — the list goes on. In many countries, social change also speeded up. The shared suffering and sacrifice of the war years strengthened the belief in most democracies that governments had an obligation to provide basic care for all citizens. When it was elected in the summer of , for example, the Labour government in Britain moved rapidly to establish the welfare state.
The rights of women also took a huge step forward as their contribution to the war effort, and their share in the suffering, were recognised. In France and Italy, women finally got the vote. If class divisions in Europe and Asia did not disappear, the moral authority and prestige of the ruling classes had been severely undermined by their failure to prevent the war or the crimes that they had condoned before and during it.
Established political orders — fascist, conservative, even democratic — came under challenge as peoples looked for new ideas and leaders. In Germany and Japan, democracy slowly took root. In China, people turned increasingly from the corrupt and incompetent nationalists to the communists. While many Europeans, wearied by years of war and privation, gave up on politics altogether and faced the future with glum pessimism, others hoped that, at last, the time had come to build a new and better society. In western Europe, voters turned to social democratic parties such as the Labour party in Britain. In the east, the new communist regimes that were imposed by the triumphant Soviet Union were at first welcomed by many as the agents of change.
The end of the war inevitably also brought a settling of scores. In many parts people took measures into their own hands. Collaborators were beaten, lynched or shot. Women who had fraternised with German soldiers had their heads shaved or worse. Governments sometimes followed suit, setting up special courts for those who had worked with the enemy and purging such bodies as the civil service and the police. The Soviets also tried to exact reparations from Germany and Japan; whole factories were dismantled down to the window frames and were carted off to the Soviet Union, where they frequently rotted away.
Much of the revenge was to gain advantage in the postwar world. In China and eastern Europe the communists used the accusation of collaboration with the Japanese or the Nazis to eliminate their political and class enemies. The allies instituted an ambitious programme of de-Nazification in Germany, later quietly abandoned as it became clear that German society would be unworkable if all former Nazis were forbidden to work. In Japan, the head of the occupation, General Douglas MacArthur, broke up the zaibatsu , the big conglomerates that were blamed for supporting the Japanese militarists, and introduced a range of reforms, from a new school curriculum to a democratic constitution, that were designed to turn Japan into a peaceable democratic nation.
In both Germany and Japan, the victors set up special tribunals to try those responsible for crimes against peace, war crimes, and the catalogue of horrors that came increasingly to be known as "crimes against humanity". In Tokyo, leading Japanese generals and politicians, and at Nuremberg, senior Nazis those that had not committed suicide or escaped , stood in the dock before allied judges. Not a few people then and since wondered if the trials were merely victors' justice, their moral authority undercut by the presence, in Nuremberg, of judges and prosecutors from Stalin's murderous regime, and by the fact that in Tokyo, the emperor, in whose name the crimes had been committed, was shielded from blame.
The trials, inconclusive though they were, formed part of a larger attempt to root out the militaristic and chauvinistic attitudes that had helped to produce the war, and to build a new world order that would prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again. Well before the war had ended, the allies had started planning for the peace.
Among the western powers, the United States, by very much the dominant partner in the alliance, took the lead. In his Four Freedoms speech of January , President Roosevelt talked of a new and more just world, with freedom of speech and expression and of religion, and freedom from want and fear. In the Atlantic charter later that year, he and Churchill sketched out a world order based on such liberal principles as collective security, national self-determination, and free trade among nations. A host of other allies, some of them represented by governments in exile, signed on. The Soviet Union gave a qualified assent, although its leader Stalin had no intention of following what were to him alien principles.
Roosevelt intended that the American vision should take solid institutional form. The key organisation was the United Nations, designed to be stronger than the League of Nations, which it was replacing, and the economic ones known collectively as the Bretton Woods system, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. This time, Roosevelt was determined, the United States should join. Stalin again gave grudging support. While much of what Roosevelt hoped for did not come about, it was surely a step forward for international relations that such institutions were created and largely accepted and, equally important, that they were underpinned by notions of a common humanity possessing the same universal rights.
The idea that there were universal standards to be upheld was present, no matter how imperfectly, in the war crimes trials, and was later reinforced by the establishment of the United Nations itself in , the International Court of Justice in and Universal Declaration of Human Rights of It had already become clear at the top-level conferences of Teheran , Yalta February and Potsdam July-August that there was a gulf in what constituted universal values and goals between the United States and its fellow democracies and the Soviet Union.
Stalin was interested above all in security for his regime and for the Soviet Union, and that to him meant taking territory, from Poland and other neighbours, and establishing a ring of buffer states around Soviet borders. In the longer run, where the western powers saw a democratic and liberal world, he dreamed of a communist one. The grand alliance held together uneasily for the first months of the peace, but the strains were evident in their shared occupation of Germany, where increasingly the Soviet zone of occupation was moving in a communist direction and the western zones, under Britain, France and the United States, in a more capitalist and democratic one.
By , two very different German societies were emerging. In addition, the western powers watched with growing consternation and alarm the elimination of non-communist political forces in eastern Europe and the establishment of Peoples' Republics under the thumb of the Soviet Union. Soviet pressure on its neighbours, from Norway in the north to Turkey and Iran in the south, along with Soviet spy rings and Soviet-inspired sabotage in western countries, further deepened western concerns. For their part, Soviet leaders looked on western talk of such democratic procedures as free elections in eastern Europe as Trojan horses designed to undermine their control of their buffer states, and regarded the Marshall plan, which funnelled American aid into Europe, as a cover for extending the grip of capitalism.
Furthermore, their own Marxist-Leninist analysis of history told them that sooner or later the capitalist powers would turn on the Soviet Union. Within two years of second world war's end, the cold war was an established fact. Both sides built military alliances and prepared for the new shooting war that many feared was bound to come. In , the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, giving it parity, at least in that area, with the United States.
That the cold war did not in the end turn into a hot one was thanks to that fact. The terrifying new power of atomic weapons was to lead to a standoff suitably known as Mad — Mutually Assured Destruction. The cold war overshadowed another momentous international change that came as a result of the second world war. Before much of the non-European world had been divided up among the great empires: the ones based in western Europe but also those of Japan and the Soviet Union. Japan and Italy lost their empires as a result of defeat. Britain, France, and the Netherlands all saw their imperial possessions disappear in the years immediately after the war. The Soviet Union was not to lose its until the end of the cold war. The former imperial powers no longer had the financial and military capacity to hang on to their vast territories.
Nor did their peoples want to pay the price of empire, whether in money or blood. Furthermore, where the empires had once dealt with divided or acquiescent peoples, they now increasingly faced assertive and, in some cases, well-armed nationalist movements. The defeat of European forces all over Asia also contributed to destroying the myth of European power. The British pulled out of India in , leaving behind two new countries of India and Pakistan. Burma, Sri Lanka and Malaysia followed the road of independence not long after. The Dutch fought a losing war but finally conceded independence to Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies, in France tried to regain its colonies in Indochina but was forced out in after a humiliating defeat at the hands of Vietnamese forces.
The Europeans' African empires crumbled in the s and early s.