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Historian Discovers Positive Lessons, Community Values From Great Depression

March 27, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Great Depression historian Robert McElvaine found that economic downturns can lead people away from conspicuous consumption to a more community-oriented way of life.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We close with another report in Paul Solman’s series on making sense of the financial crisis. Tonight, the reflections of a historian with an unusual take on the crisis of the 1930s.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: Great Depression historian Robert McElvaine. Given today’s chaos, we asked him to reflect on the ethos of the ’30s, uninterrupted.

ROBERT MCELVAINE, Great Depression Expert: I’m Robert McElvaine. I teach history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and the author of 10 books, five of them, I believe, on the Great Depression. So, unfortunately, I’m in high demand these days.

The first book that I did, “Down and Out in the Great Depression,” is a collection of letters that people wrote mostly to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. And there was this enormous outpouring; like 15 million people wrote letters to the president and first lady. And you see over and over again in there this idea that they can get by with less, we need to share with other people.

Letters to President Roosevelt

LETTER WRITER: March, 1935. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, how people can sit down at a banquet and enjoy themselves when millions are going to bed hungry is more than I can understand. Signed, a lover of the poor, Hudson, New York.

LETTER WRITER: Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, this nation could be made an ideal pace to live if everyone would work together for the common good of everyone, instead of for selfish purposes. H.S. Avery, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

LETTER WRITER: Dear President Roosevelt, can't some of these high salaries be cut just a wee bit so the money allotted for salaries will be more evenly divided? Signed, a housewife, Columbus, Ohio.

Films reflected community values

ROBERT MCELVAINE: In a way, it seems ironic. The more people have in the '20s or in the post-World War II period -- and, particularly, I suppose in the last few decades -- the more they have, the more people seem to want to accumulate and have this sort of acquisitive individualism.

But under the impact of the depression, people started thinking that, well, maybe all these material things -- even food -- as long as you've got enough to get by on is not as important as it is to have these values of working together with others.

JIMMY STEWART, Actor: All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Payne does.

ROBERT MCELVAINE: You see it in films of the time, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

JIMMY STEWART: Just one plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor. And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust.

ROBERT MCELVAINE: One of the most striking examples is "Grapes of Wrath."

ACTRESS: Well, I don't know what to do. I've got to feed the family and...

ROBERT MCELVAINE: These community-oriented values come out again and again, where people, the less they have, the more willing they are to share with other people.

ACTRESS: I can't send them away. Here, take your plates and go inside. Now, look, all you little fellers, you each go and get you a nice flat steak, and I'll cook what's left for you, huh? Now get!

CHILD ACTOR: The lady's going to feed us. Get yourself a tin can.

CHILD ACTOR: Oh, you're taking too much.

Diminishing emphasis on consumption

ROBERT MCELVAINE: Public opinion polling was in its infancy in about the middle of the '30s. About 1935 or '36, they did the first scientific polling. "Do you believe that the government should assure everyone of basic health care?" Something like 75 percent or 80 percent would say, "Yes."

"Do you think that the government should take some money away from those who have a great deal and provide some for those who have less?" A substantial majority of the entire population said, "Yes," to a question like that.

I don't want to be the Pollyanna for the second Great Depression. Almost nobody even looking at the good community values that emerged or re-emerged during the Great Depression would think it would be a good idea to have another Great Depression to bring those out.

However, it does seem to me that, if we're going to have to suffer through some hard times, that it would be good to at least see some beneficial things that might come out of it.

And I -- I really believe that trying to move away from such an emphasis on consumption as a way of life is something that, while it's going to be bad for the economy in the short run, is something that we really desperately need to do. Perhaps under the impact of a new economic collapse, we might move away from that and find some other solution to our economic problems.

PAUL SOLMAN: That, at any rate, is the view of Great Depression historian Professor Robert McElvaine.