Great Depression

The Great Depression was a massive global economic recession (or "depression") that ran from 1929 to 1941. It led to massive bank failures, high unemployment, as well as dramatic drops in GDP, industrial production, stock market share prices and virtually every other measure of economic growth. It bottomed out in 1933, but it would be well after World War II before such indicators as industrial production, share prices and global GDP could surpass their 1929 levels.

What gave this downturn the name the "Great Depression" was that it is by far the largest sustained decline in industrial production and productivity from the century and a half where economic records have been kept with any regularity, and it reached virtually the entire industrialized world and their trading partners in peripheral nations. The Great Depression can refer to the economic event, but it can also refer to the cultural period, often called simply "The Depression", and to the political response to the economic events.

Missing image
Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother depicts destitute pea pickers in California, centering on Florence Owens Thompson, a mother of seven children, age thirty-two, in Nipomo, California, March 1936.

Causes of the Great Depression

Main Article: Causes of the Great Depression

Economists, historians, and political scientists have posed several theories for the cause, or causes, of the Great Depression with surprisingly little consensus. It remains one of the most studied events of history to economic historians. Major theories proposed include the stock market crash of 1929, collapse of the gold standard, collapse of international trade due to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, Federal Reserve policy, and many other influences. The question in economic theory is which effects drove the Great Depression, and therefore which policy actions may have caused or should have been taken to prevent, ameliorate, or end, the Great Depression.

Theories from mainstream capitalist economics focus on the relationship between production, consumption and credit, as embodied in macro-economics and on personal incentives and purchasing decisions as embodied in micro-economics. In these theories attempts are made to order the sequence of events which imploded the industrialized world's monetary system and its trade relationships. Theories from Marxian or Marxist economics focus on the relationships of the control of production and the concentration of wealth. For Marxists, the Great Depression is the kind of crisis which capitalism is prone to, and its occurrence is not surprising. These theories were more influential at the time, because of the existence of a communist government in the USSR, an area which covered present day Russia, Ukraine and the Central Asian republics.

Other heterodox theories of the Great Depression have been advanced, and from time to time gain favor. These include long cycle activity, and that the Great Depression was simply at the intersection of several concurrent long cycle troughs.

Experts are beginning to believe that the stock market crash of 1929 may not have played as large a part as previously thought in the Great Depression, pointing to telltale signs of an imminent economic disaster in various statistics leading up to the Depression.

Effects of Great Depression on Asia

Asia was also hit by the Great Depression due to its dependence on trade of rubber and tin with the West. These markets represented the biggest buyers of rubber and tin (for the automobile industry). Asian trade fell sharply as America and Europe became gripped in the depression. Companies in Asia responded by dismissing some of their workers.

Many of those workers who managed to keep their jobs had their pay reduced. Many people had to depend on the aid of their friends or relatives to find a job.

Life during the Depression

In the so-called Dust Bowl, a massive area of the Great Plains consisting mainly of Kansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas, people found themselves unable to make a living. On top of the economic crisis, the earth withered and blew away in a series of massive dust storms. For a farming people this was disastrous, and these migrants were led westward by advertisements for work put out by agribusiness in western states such as California. The migrants came to be called Okies, Arkies, and other derogatory names as they flooded the labor supply of the agricultural fields, driving down wages and increasing competition for jobs in a place that couldn't afford it. This story was dramatized in the famous novels The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The former is a Biblical reference, intimating that God himself was punishing America and indicating the dramatic scope of the suffering so caused. The latter harkens back to the famous phrase of Robert Burns, "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry", implying that the economic crisis was threatening to unravel America and her (then) 150 years of history. The dust bowl in the depression was the setting for the criminal antics depicted in Bonnie and Clyde. Life was challenging for those in Southern states also. Many migrated north by train to work in auto plants around Detroit.


The cause of the Great Depression was in large part due to the collapse of international trade as the result of restrictive trade practices globally. Many nations experienced a decline, though the severity and timing differed from country to country. For example, Britain hit its trough in the third quarter of 1932, while France did not reach its low point until April of 1937. Charles P. Kindleberger has provided the best international account of the Depression so far in his book The World in Depression.

End of the Great Depression

In the United States

For further details, see the main New Deal article.

It was not until the U.S. entered World War II that Roosevelt's ideas for massive public expenditures and deficit spending truly began to bear fruit. Roosevelt's administration, of course, had little choice but to increase expenditures, given the war effort. Even given the special circumstances of war mobilization, New Deal policies seemed to work exactly as predicted, winning over many Republicans, who had been the New Deal's greatest opponents. When the Great Depression was brought to an end by the Second World War, it was obvious that the turnaround had been caused primarily by the reinforcement of business through government expenditure.

In truth Roosevelt had foreseen from early in his Presidency that only a solution to the international trade problem would finally end the depression, and that the New Deal was, to no small extent, a "holding action". He contemplated precipitating a war with Japan early on, in hopes of dealing with the problem early. However, the intensity of the economic crisis convinced him that before the world situation could be dealt with, the United States would have to put its own fiscal house back in order. His original conception was that the New Deal would restore circumstances which would allow for a return to balanced budgets and an international gold standard. It was only gradually that he came to the conclusion that it was essential to remake the U.S. economy in a more extensive fashion, particularly because of the "Roosevelt Recession" of 1937, when he had balanced the budget by restricting fiscal support to the economy.

Thus the statement "it was World War II that ended the Depression", while often asserted by partisans as proof that the New Deal "failed" is, in fact, the view that the architects of the New Deal themselves saw as the reality: that as long as Europe was marching towards war, Japan was engaged in imperial conquest, and the international debt and trading system were still organized in an attempt by creditors to be paid back for World War I at pre-war values for gold, that a full solution to the economic crisis was impossible.

New Deal programs sought to stimulate demand and provide work and relief for the impoverished through increased government spending, by:

  • instituting regulations which ended what was called "cut throat competition" (in which large players supposedly used predatory pricing to drive out small players);
  • creating regulations which would raise the wages of ordinary workers, to redistribute wealth so that more people could purchase products.

The original implementation, in the form of the National Recovery Act, brought in direct unemployment relief, and allowed:

  • business to set price codes;
  • the NRA board to set labor codes and standards;
  • the Federal government to insure the banking system and provide price supports for agriculture and mining.

This is referred to as the First New Deal. It was centered around the use of the alphabet soup of agencies set up in 1933 and 1934, along with the use of previous agencies, to regulate and stimulate the economy.

The theories behind the New Deal matched the later prescriptions of British economist John Maynard Keynes, who advocated government spending in a crisis. In 1929 federal expenditures constituted only 3% of the GDP. Between 1933 and 1939, federal expenditure tripled, and Roosevelt's critics accused him of turning America into a socialist, or even Stalinist state. The primary purpose of the New Deal were as follows: to prevent the economy and banking system from going into a free fall; to provide effective relief until larger economic forces would end the slump; and to prevent those factors which had exacerbated the slump. The New Deal was both a program of national recovery and of reform. An interesting insight into what motivated Roosevelt came from the transition from the Hoover administration — both men agreed that it was a global maladjustment of prices, debts and production that was causing the slump. The disagreement came over whether the US government should act first to try and negotiate an end to the root causes internationally, which was Hoover's view, or act for domestic recovery and reform until the international situation could be resolved, which was FDR's view.

The New Deal was rooted in new ideas, but also in economic orthodoxy of balanced budgets, and restraint of federal power. It represented bigger and broader government than ever before, but not as big as government would later become: spending on the New Deal was far smaller than on the war effort. In short, federal expenditures went from 3% of the GDP in 1929 to about 33% in 1945. The big surprise was just how productive America became: spending financially cured the depression. Between 1939 and 1944 (the peak of wartime production), the nation's output more than doubled. Consequently, unemployment plummeted—from 19% in 1938 (already down from 1933's 24.9% peak) to 1.2% in 1944—as the labor force grew by ten million. The war economy showed just how large the fiscal stimulus required to end the downturn of the Depression was, and it led, at the time, to fears that as soon as America demobilized, that it would return to Depression conditions and industrial output would fall to its pre-war levels. There is general agreement that it was World War II which finally provided the United States Federal Government with the political will to buy its way out of the Depression, and resolve the global monetary crisis by the imposition of the Bretton Woods system.


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