how bad was the depression? -- 8/9/16

Today's selection -- from Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild. Viewed from a distance of over eighty years, the Great Depression takes on a benign and familiar quality. It was anything but, and was filled with starvation, riots, death and despair:

"The country ... simmered in misery. Thirty­-four million Americans lived in households with no wage earner. In every city, long lines of jobless men in cloth caps or Homburgs waited outside soup kitchens, but the churches and charities operating them sometimes ran out of funds and had no food to serve. Families rum­maged in trash bins and garbage dumps for anything edible and tried to keep warm in winter over sidewalk hot-air grates. In Pennsylvania, homeless unemployed steelworkers and their wives and children lived inside idled coke ovens. The economic abyss was deepened by a drought of historic proportions that sent millions of people stream­ing westward from the Great Plains under vast clouds of topsoil turned to dust. Midwestern farmers who managed to harvest a crop sometimes could find no grain elevator willing to buy it. The city of Detroit slaughtered the animals in its zoo to provide meat for the hungry. When the Empire State Building opened to great fanfare, it could rent only 20 percent of its space. For the jobless, telephones became an unaffordable luxury: between 1930 and 1933, the number of households with phone service shrank by more than three million.

In 1931, hundreds of people line up for the Christmas dinner at the New York Municipal Lodging House.

"A mood of national despair was punctuated by moments when the desperate tried to seize what they needed to survive. Some 300 men and women gathered on the main street of the town of England, Ar­kansas, and refused to move until shop owners distributed bread and other food. In Oklahoma City, people forced their way into a grocery store and took food off the shelves, while in Minneapolis it required 100 policemen to break up a crowd doing the same thing.

"Labor turned militant. More than 300,000 textile workers walked off the job in 1934 in the largest strike America had yet seen. From Maine to Georgia, clothing mill employees clashed with police, strikebreakers, and the National Guard in violence that left some dozen people dead. The Georgia governor put the whole state under martial law. Elsewhere, by the hundreds of thousands, small farmers and homeowners lost their property to foreclosure -- or sometimes gathered neighbors with shotguns and refused to move.

"In the summer after his first year at Berkeley, [a young man named] Bob Merriman worked on a Ford auto assembly line in the nearby industrial city of Richmond and was appalled to find that the workers, not even allowed bathroom breaks, were routinely splashed by battery acid. The next summer, in 1934, he would be swept into a far more political world than the one he had known in Nevada. Some 15,000 West Coast longshoremen had formed a union and, when shipping firms refused to recognize it, walked off the job. Sailors, harbor pilots, and truck drivers carrying cargo to the docks joined them. In a display of solidarity rare for that era, the strikers and their allies -- whites, blacks, Chinese and Filipino Americans -- marched eight abreast up San Francisco's Market Street under a union flag. ...

July 1934, Police use tear gas as strikers battle police on the Embarcadero.

"All major Pacific coast ports were shut down, but the heart of the battle was in San Francisco, then a rough-edged, blue-collar city and the country's biggest union stronghold. A thousand men at a time blocked the waterfront in 12-hour shifts. Tensions rose, and any truck that tried to drive through the line of picketing workers was met by fusillades of rocks and bricks. From the hills that overlooked the wharves, thousands of San Franciscans watched the ensuing street fighting and listened to police gunfire. When tear gas grenades lit a hillside of dry grass on fire the city looked even more like a war zone. In several days of fighting, two strikers were killed and well over 100 injured people were taken to hospitals. A solemn crowd of 15,000 es­corted the bodies of the dead along Market Street in silence. The San Francisco Labor Council voted, for only the second time in Ameri­can history, to call a general strike. Throughout the Bay Area, nearly 130,000 people stopped working.

"Some 500 special police were sworn in, and vigilante groups joined them in wrecking union offices and a kitchen feeding the strikers. The attackers smashed furniture, threw typewriters out of windows, and beat up union members and other radicals. 'Reds Turn Black and Blue' ran the triumphant headline in the San Francisco Chronicle. Well over 250 unionists and their sympathizers were arrested, and the governor mobilized 4,500 National Guardsmen. Along the water­front, helmeted soldiers manned sandbag barricades and a machine-gun nest."


Adam Hochschild


Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2016 by Adam Hochschild


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