The Great Depression & the New Deal by Eric Rauchway: A Review

The Great Depression & the New Deal
Eric Rauchway
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Pp 150; $11.95

Eric Rauchway’s work is a concise synopsis of two major events in United States History: the Great Depression and the implementation of New Deal policies. Although his work is a mere 150 pages, Rauchway manages to cover these topics in great detail, pulling information from a bounty of sources. Rauchway brings the reader back to a time in American History when citizens felt that their only guarantee was that there were no guarantees. Many Americans were living day to day not knowing what tomorrow would bring. As the number of those affected by the recession rose the Hoover administration stood firm in its position to remain hands-off in the lives of its citizens. In regards to the economy Rauchway writes that Hoover “…saw himself as cheerleader to American enterprise, not as referee, coach, or player in the economy: he would call for teamwork and hope to see it produced” (p.26). As far as Hoover’s attitude towards helping to relieve the millions of struggling American families Rauchway tells readers “He opposed federal relief on principle, believing that Americans risked being ‘plunged into socialism and collectivism’ if the federal government provided aid directly to its citizens” (p. 32). The outlook for America was grim, the worst part being that the government was steadfast in its determination not to provide relief to American citizens. The only hope for salvation for the American people came during the election of 1932 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt came forward on behalf of the Democratic Party. Rauchway explains that although Roosevelt was among the elite class himself he truly connected with the everyday citizen allowing them to hope that there was a way out of the Depression. Through trial and era Roosevelt not only managed to get the country back on track, but also to get himself reelected for an unprecedented third term in office. It was during this time that Roosevelt decided to leave the New Deal behind and turn the country’s focus on winning the war. Throughout the work Rauchway manages to explain one of the most complex times in United States History with a series of smooth transitions from one complex theme to another.

One could argue that Rauchway chose to write on the Great Depression and the New Deal for this series of short introductions purely for the challenge but that was not his sole purpose. Rauchway’s work serves as an accessible explanation to the everyday reader what exactly the circumstances were that led up to the Great Depression, and how eventually Roosevelt, along with his administration, responded to the needs of millions of Americans with New Deal policies. Rauchway also stresses that even Roosevelt made mistakes along the way, such as placing restrictions on social security eligibility, but that made no difference to the American people. Rauchway believes that “This spirit of pragmatic experimentation became the basis for a generation’s faith in the new American way, not just in the United States but around the world” (p.2). Rauchway fully acknowledges that while his book is a simple outline of an era there may be many readers who would wish to see more in depth scholarship on the matter. To supplement this need Rauchway not only has an extensive list of sources at the end of each chapter but also a list of suggested further reading.

Rauchway has made his work accessible to the everyday American; specifically he has provided readers with a detailed and clear explanation of an extremely complicated era that can be read in a matter of hours. The concept of learning all about not only the Great Depression but also the New Deal could very well be overwhelming to any school-aged, college-aged, or adult American, but Rauchway has broken it down to the bare bones in order to get the main points across to the reader. The chapters in Rauchway’s work may be short, but the amount of research that has gone into each chapter is certainly not minimal. Rauchway cites between eighteen and forty-nine sources per chapter that range from studies done on the era to New York Times articles straight out of the 1930’s. In addition to the New York Times Rauchway also makes great use out of excerpts from the Wall Street Journal, the memoirs of President Herbert Hoover, and transcripts from the speeches and press conferences of Franklin Roosevelt. Even with a limited space Rauchway manages to make effective use of photographs. The photographs he uses are profound and show an America that was crying out for help. Rauchway shows the reader an America where men stood in line to receive food because they had no means to buy groceries and ill-built shanty towns or “Hoovervilles” (p. 45) that often served as temporary homes to young men who traveled in search of work. As the work progresses on the reader comes face to face with optimistic face of President Franklin Roosevelt, looking quite dapper in evening dress, addressing the nation during one of his fireside chats. Despite Roosevelt’s optimism the country was still in turmoil as Rauchway shows with photographs of poultry farmers in Virginia, young men weeding a nursery in Alabama, and a store front sign announcing only white trade was welcome. Rauchway’s chosen photographs may be few but they were well selected.

Essentially Rauchway’s argument is that the crippling effect the Great Depression had on millions of Americans could have been lessened if the government had taken a proactive stance on the economy. He goes on to say that while Roosevelt and his administration made history with their economic turnaround even they made errors along the way. Rauchway manages to take the reader from 1929 to the beginning of World War II in a relatively seamless transition. Although the reader may feel as though the work is a narrative piece due to its readability it is in fact an analytical work. Despite space constraints Rauchway looks at government policies throughout both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, what brought them about and how they affected the American people. Rauchway’s goal in writing this “Very Short Introduction” was to provide readers with a “…useful introduction to the subject” (p.3). He was by no means attempting the feat of cramming every point of importance, significance, and interest on the Great Depression and the New Deal into 150 pages. His goal was to make this topic accessible and understandable to all and he succeeded. Rauchway’s work is ideal for any student who wishes to obtain a clear and concise understanding of this era without spending an entire semester studying it; or it serves as an excellent introduction for anyone who is looking to venture deeper in to the subject matter. Rauchway’s work serves as a powerful reminder to modern-day Americans how recession has impacted our country in the past and why we need to do everything in our power to ensure that the government and the people intervene before it reaches that point again.

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