The overwhelming majority of black Americans still dwelled in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, the poorest and most disadvantaged people in America’s poorest and most backward region.And well before the Great Depression, almost as soon as the Great War concluded in 1918, a severe economic crisis had beset the farm-belt.The United States Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and rejected membership in the nascent League of Nations.
Yet for most of the 1920s the mood of much of the country, impervious to news of accumulating international dangers and buoyed by wildly ascending stock prices as well as the congenital optimism long claimed as every American’s birthright, remained remarkably upbeat. The Great Crash in October sent stock prices plummeting and all but froze the international flow of credit. Herbert Hoover, elected just months earlier amid lavish testimonials to his peerless competence, saw his presidency shattered and his reputation forever shredded because of his inability to tame the depression monster—though, again contrary to legend, he toiled valiantly, using what tools he had and even inventing some new ones, as he struggled to get the upper hand.
By 1932, some thirteen million Americans were out of work, one out of every four able and willing workers in the country.
Virtually none enjoyed such common urban amenities as electricity and indoor plumbing.
Other maladies began to appear, faintly at first, but with mounting urgency as the Depression began to unfold.
To those abundant physical and institutional ills might be added a rigidly doctrinaire faith in laissez-faire, balanced national budgets, and the gold standard.
All of this added up to a witches’ brew of economic illness, ideological paralysis, and consequent political incapacity as the Depression relentlessly enveloped the globe.From 1861 to 1877 the Civil War and Reconstruction affirmed the integrity of the Union, ended slavery, and generated three constitutional amendments that at least laid the foundation for honoring the Declaration’s promise that "all men are created equal." And between 19 the Great Depression and World War II utterly redefined the role of government in American society and catapulted the United States from an isolated, peripheral state into the world’s hegemonic superpower.To understand the logic and the consequences of those three moments is to understand much about the essence and the trajectory of all of American history.American prosperity in the 1920s was real enough, but it was not nearly as pervasive as legend has portrayed.The millions of immigrants who had swarmed into the nation’s teeming industrial cities in the preceding decades remained culturally parochial and economically precarious in gritty ethnic ghettoes.The United States had participated only marginally in the First World War, but the experience was sufficiently costly that Americans turned their country decidedly inward in the 1920s.They disarmed their military forces and swiftly dismantled the nation’s war machinery.Among those eventually excluded (though none could yet know it) were thousands of Jewish would-be fugitives from Nazi persecution.Militarily, diplomatically, commercially, financially, even morally, Americans thus turned their backs on the outside world.But even after due allowance has been made for the effects of the American stock market’s "Great Crash" in 1929 and for the policies of the United States Federal Reserve System, there can be little doubt that the deepest roots of the crisis lay in the several chronic infirmities that World War I had inflicted on the international political and economic order.The war exacted a cruel economic and human toll from the core societies of the advanced industrialized world, including conspicuously Britain, France, and Germany.