David M. Kennedy is a Professor of History at Stanford University.
He is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945, which discusses how the New Deal redressed income and job insecurity after the Depression. Professor Kennedy also wrote The American Spirit Since 1865, and Over Here: the First World War and American Society.
New River Media Interview with David Kennedy
QUESTION: What are the most surprising things you find in studying the Great Depression?
DAVID KENNEDY: One of the most surprising things that I discovered about the Depression was the degree of passivity or docility with which people greeted it. Several commentators at the time remarked on this - including Franklin Roosevelt, as a matter of fact - that here was the greatest crisis in American institutions since the Civil War, and yet there was no rioting in the streets, and the people seemed rather curiously, mysteriously submissive, at least in the early years of the Depression.
I think this passivity is attributable to several things. First of all, for many people, the Depression was nothing new. The fabled prosperity of the 1920s did not extend to everybody. There were tens of millions of people living in poverty even before the great crash of 1929. So for them, there was nothing remarkable about this, and it wasn't particularly dramatic change in their circumstance.
Second, I think, is that we see here , you might say, the flip side of the famous American value of individualism, that if we congratulate ourselves for our success and give ourselves a pat on the back for boot-strapping ourselves up the ladder of social mobility, it follows naturally that if we don't do that or slip down that ladder, we have nobody but ourselves to blame. So their natural psychological reflexes seemed to be, for lots of people, in the early Depression, to blame themselves, to feel guilty and ashamed at their circumstance.
QUESTION: Before the 1929 crash, what was the mood of America?
DAVID KENNEDY: When we think of the 1920s and think about what the mood of the country was, much of our popular understanding of that is informed by famous old books like Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday, and we have this image of the 1920s as a decade that was slap-happy on bathtub gin and flappers and so on and so forth.
But in fact, for large portions of the country, the 1920s was a depressed decade. There had been an agricultural depression that, by 1929, was already nearly a decade old. Farm prices were way below what they'd been before the First World War, and even further below what they had been in wartime. Nearly half the American people still live in the countryside in the 1920s, and they lived in the grip of a chronic depression.
If you were black, if you were a farmer, or if you were a recent immigrant living in America in the 1920s, you did not share, generally speaking, in that so-called 1920s prosperity. If, on the other hand, you were a reasonably skilled urban worker, you probably were making out pretty well. There was real prosperity in certain pockets of the economy in the 1920s.
QUESTION: And what else of that economic volatility prior to the crash? How does it compare to today?
DAVID KENNEDY: The story of the American economy before the Great Depression or, more precisely, before the New Deal is a story of chronic volatility. From the onset of the American industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century right down to the 1930s, the American economy was essentially on a roller coaster ride, where they'd have these periodic boom and bust cycles - depressions in the 1830s, the 1850s, the 1870s, the 1890s; right after World War I was another one - on a scale that we have not seen for the last half century. So the New Deal really marks a substantial divide in American economic history, which takes a lot of volatility out of the system.
QUESTION: In 1929, the crash occurs. Do we know why it occurred and why at that moment?
DAVID KENNEDY: The basic reason the crash of 1929 occurred is because of excessive speculation, but that's too easy an answer. Most economic historians can't agree precisely, beyond that rather unhelpful generalization, why the great crash occurred. Insofar as there is a consensus, it seems to be that the First World War so destabilized the major industrial economies and so disrupted the international system of trade and finance that it left in its wake a highly vulnerable system that finally succumbed a decade after the war's conclusion, in 1929 or 1930, to all the liabilities that had been put into it, you might say, as a result of the disruptions of the First World War.
Further, I don't believe the great crash of 1929 caused the Great Depression. It may have been a contributory factor in sustaining the kind of doubt and fear and instability, particularly in the financial markets, in the credit and banking system, that persisted through the decade of the 1930s. But to call it the cause of the Depression, I think, is a fundamental mistake, not least of all because - and just a moment's reflection instructs us - that the Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon. It was not just an American phenomenon. It hit every advanced industrialized country at just about the same moment in 1930, 1931.
QUESTION: What about the role of the Federal Reserve policy?
DAVID KENNEDY: The Federal Reserve System certainly did not do anything to alleviate the Depression in its early years. In fact, it followed some very mistaken policies of tightening credit just when credit should have been loosened, in 1928, 1929. On the other hand, to give them their due, the Fed at that time saw that there was wildly excessive speculation in the stock markets and was trying to pursue a tight money policy, at least in part to dampen that speculation - a phenomenon we see in our time, when we worry about excessive exuberance in the stock markets. But that policy nevertheless constricted credit, not just for stock market speculators but also for legitimate businesses. So that exacerbated all of these trends that were converging to produce the great and prolonged crisis that we got.
QUESTION: How bad was the Great Depression?
DAVID KENNEDY: I think for people who have lived through the last half century of virtually uninterrupted prosperity, to grasp the degree of catastrophe that the Great Depression entailed takes a great leap of the historical imagination. I mean, we can recite the usual numbers - that 75 percent of all stock market values evaporated, gross national product was cut in half within a matter of two or three years, national income cut in half. Those are abstract numbers that don't really mean very much. Where the Great Depression, I think, takes on its most human face is with respect to unemployment. By 1933, by the time of Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural, 25 percent of the workforce was unemployed. One in every four able-bodied people seeking work could not find employment.
Now even that number, large as it is, underestimates or understates the impact of the Depression, because in that era, the typical household had only one wage earner in it. So when we talk about one in four people being unemployed, we're really talking about one in four households in the country with no visible means of support, no reliable income. Today the typical household has two wage earners in it. So even at a 25 percent unemployment rate - God forbid that we should ever see it - today would not mean the same thing in human terms as it did in 1933.
QUESTION: What impact did the Depression have on family life?
DAVID KENNEDY: The impact of the Depression is visible in the cold ciphers that - statistics that record the history of this era. The divorce rate went down because divorce, we think, is at least in part a function of women's economic opportunities, and there were fewer. The marriage rate went down. Family formation is less likely to happen in a depressed economic circumstance. The birth rate went down rather markedly in the early years of the Depression. And indeed it's the suppression of the birth rate in the 1930s that is partly responsible for the explosion in the birth rate after World War II, in the so-called "baby boom." Part of the baby boom is making up for the deficit in births in the 1930s. So on every index that we commonly look to, to measure the health of family life, we can see that the Depression really blighted people's behavior in their families to a considerable degree.
QUESTION: Did the Depression hit some people harder than others?
DAVID KENNEDY: The Depression fell hardest, you might say, on the most vulnerable people in the society, people with little savings, people with precarious employment. That meant African Americans. It meant farm workers, farm laborers of all kinds. It meant these vast immigrant communities that had arrived in the country essentially just about a generation earlier, around the turn of the century, mostly from Central and Southern and Eastern Europe. Many of those communities were tremendously affected, because their economic status was already so precarious.
QUESTION: Let's talk about the migrations that the Depression set in motion.
DAVID KENNEDY: Among the very visible effects of the Depression is the reversal of the historic trend of in-migration to the United States. The 1930s is the only decade for which we have numbers, from the eighteenth century forward, when net migration to the United States was negative. People actually left the country. In fact, many of those recent immigrants from the great Italian American, Polish American communities that had come just ten or fifteen or twenty years earlier - many of them went home again - very heavy repatriation back to the country of origin. About 40 percent of all the immigrants from that wave eventually went home again, and many of them in the 1930s.
Inside the country, the Depression set off other waves of migration. The exodus from the Dust Bowl was probably the most famous. But railroads kept track of or made estimates, at least, of the transient traffic in freight cars - the human traffic, hoboes, vagrants - which went up significantly in this decade. The Dust Bowl migration, I think, achieved some kind of mythic status, for one very simple reason: that John Steinbeck wrote a great book about it, called The Grapes of Wrath, which also became a pretty good movie. And I think that kind of canonized this development as one of the great stories in American history. But it's exceptional. In the context of the Depression, that kind of dramatic movement of large numbers of people in search of economic opportunity is actually an exception to the rule.
QUESTION: How could we conceptualize the extent of the Great Depression?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, here's a way to visualize just how big a crisis the Depression was: We talk about thirteen million people unemployed in 1933. The number all by itself doesn't mean much. But envision this: take the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. It holds 100,000 people. And let's say on New Year's Day 1931, there was an event in the Rose Bowl and that it was filled to capacity. And at the end of this event, all the people sitting in all the seats were heads of household and employed, and at the end of the event, they were all told, "You've just gone unemployed, and two-thirds of you, in fact, won't have reliable employment for at least four years." That approximates the unemployment statistics.
Then the second Saturday in January of 1931, you do the same thing - 100,000 people, they're all told on the spot they're unemployed, and so on. The third Saturday in January, the fourth, and then every Saturday in February and March and April, and in fact every Saturday through 1931 and every Saturday in 1932. And you can do the math in your head, eventually, if you - to get to the total of thirteen million in 130 Saturdays, two and a half years. If you started on New Year's Day 1931, it would take you until the summer of 1933, the end of the so-called Hundred Days, before you got to the total of thirteen million people. And - now it's a mental exercise, but in fact it's a very good - it's a precise statement of the number of people unemployed, and it's a pretty good approximation of the speed with which this happened.
QUESTION: Can you comment on Mexicans going back to Mexico?
DAVID KENNEDY: Roughly half a million Mexicans entered the United States as immigrants in the 1920s. And when the Depression came, they were among the very most vulnerable people in the country, and it was easy to deport them, because you only had to move them across a land border and get them back to Mexico. So there were a lot of forcible deportations of Mexicans - Mexicans and Mexican Americans, both citizen and non-citizen alike. And although the exact numbers may not be precisely known, at least tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants who'd been in the country a decade or so were exported back to Mexico, most of them against their will, in the 1930s.
QUESTION: One other thing that the Depression set in motion was the changing role of the federal government. What was that role prior to the Depression?
DAVID KENNEDY: Calvin Coolidge once said that if the federal government went out of business tomorrow, the average American wouldn't notice the fact for at least six months, which was a pretty true statement, actually, because in the 1920s and before, the federal government's role was essentially to deliver the mail and service the national debt, such as it was, and make a few payments to veterans. And that was about it.
That all changed with the onset of the Depression, both in the Hoover and in the Roosevelt administrations. One can get a sense of it if you look at federal expenditures. The federal budget in the 1920s was not quite $3 billion a year, which was roughly 3 percent of gross national product. New Deal budgets were typically $6 billion a year, and because gross national product had gone down, that was actually about 10 percent of gross national product. So by that crude, crude measure, the role of government more tripled in its incidence in American life. And the government started to take on all kinds of functions that it had never dreamt of performing before, not least of all public works projects on a huge scale and employment projects of various kinds.
The historic role of the federal government, in the face of the kind of economic downturn that began to be visible in 1930 or so, was to do little or nothing. Now in fact Herbert Hoover, as secretary of Commerce, in 1921, had taken a very active role, an aggressive role, in combating the recession of that year and had turned it around very quickly.
But with that singular exception, there was not much expectation on anybody's part that the federal government should take a role. Hoover, as president, in fact, in my judgment, broke a lot of precedent and moved very aggressively in this direction, but he had very little to work with. The federal government was a tiny instrument in his hands. And in fact, it remained a relatively tiny instrument for several years thereafter. The New Deal built up the institutions of the federal government only slowly and painfully and incrementally. And what we call "big government," the kind of thing that's been a catchword in American politics in the last part of the twentieth century, was really unknown in this era.
QUESTION: Didn't people rely on state and local governments for relief at the time?
DAVID KENNEDY: One of the traditional functions of state and local governments in the pre-Depression era was to undertake what was called "poor relief," or "outdoor relief" in some cases it was called, meaning relief outside of institutions, like mental hospitals and so on. And there was a long record of local governments - county and state, city - successfully coping with that. But the crisis of the Depression occurred on such a scale, such a magnitude, that it swamped the ability of these local institutions to carry on this function. They all tried, and some of them made quite heroic efforts. But they simply didn't have the resources and the tax bases and so on to be able to do this effectively.
QUESTION: What are the important institutional legacies of the Depression and New Deal era?
DAVID KENNEDY: The greatest single change that the federal government wrought in the face of the Depression was an institution that's still with us today, the creation of Social Security. We commonly think of Social Security simply as an old-age pension plan, but as originally legislated in 1935, it's an unemployment insurance plan, too, which the federal government and the states run jointly.
Together, unemployment insurance and old-age pensions introduced a degree of security and stability into individual lives, as well as into the economy as a whole, that simply wasn't there before. And it's measures like that, along with others, of course - but it's measures like that that have made this economy as stable and as predictable and secure as it has been for the last half century. That degree of security and predictability simply wasn't there before the 1930s.
QUESTION: How big an undertaking was the New Deal?
DAVID KENNEDY: If we measure the New Deal by the standard of the immediate task that it confronted, which was re-floating the economy in the 1930s, it's a miserable failure. The New Deal never does succeed in bringing back full employment. The unemployment rate averages 17 percent per year for the entire decade of the 1930s. It's only World War II that ends the Depression. But if we measure the New Deal by the degree to which it reshaped the nature of American life and left institutional arrangements in place thereafter that made the terms of life different for millions of people, once the economy did re-float after World War II, then it's a tremendous success. And in fact, it's a success on a scale that relatively few, if any, other administrations in the whole course of American history have managed to accomplish.
QUESTION: So would we have had these things without the Depression? And in what way did the severity of the crisis present FDR with an unusual opportunity?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, here's a hypothetical question: What if, by some miraculous means, Roosevelt and the New Dealers had found the key to re-floating the economy in the Hundred Days, in the spring of 1933, so that by the end of that year or early the following year, 1934, the economy's back to 1928 levels of production, there's full employment again, and everything is going swimmingly? In that scenario, would there have been a New Deal as we know it? I think the answer is probably not. It took this continuing crisis atmosphere in order to give Roosevelt the political maneuvering room to persuade the country to undertake these quite novel initiatives - things like minimum wage legislation, regulation of the securities markets, new labor legislation, the Social Security Act. These are all the products of the sustained crisis of the 1930s. And in a circumstance of business as usual, we would probably have had politics as usual, which would have meant none of these big reforms.
QUESTION: What would be the overall the legacy of the Depression and the responses to it?
DAVID KENNEDY: For the generation that lived through it, I think the principal legacy of the Great Depression was to give them a sense of almost obsessive preoccupation with the security of their own lives. This is certainly true of my parents and, I think, of everybody in their generation. We're familiar with this from our folklore, even if we don't have lived memory of it. But beyond that, I think, the greater legacy of the Depression is it comes down to us through the reforms of the New Deal. And the New Deal introduced the kinds of structural and institutional reforms that so far, at least, have kept us a long way from any economic crisis even remotely on the scale of that which happened in the 1930s. For the society as a whole, we've had the great good fortune and the luxury of living in a set of social arrangements that have forestalled any recurrence of a crisis on that scale.
The prosperity of the post-World War II era is truly phenomenal. In some ways, it's continued right down to the present day. So by some measures, it's a half-century-long economic expansion. But the twenty-five years after World War II is the quarter-century of the highest sustained economic growth rate in all of American history. We doubled the size of the middle class, for example, in a single generation, a phenomenal accomplishment.
Though there are many factors that explain that growth, one of them surely is the degree of stability and security built into the economy by the reforms of the New Deal. Speculation in the stock market became much more difficult after the onset of the Securities and Exchange Commission. All kinds of competitive practices that had made the economy volatile in various sectors were dampened. Individual lives became more secure because of things like Social Security and unemployment insurance. So in economic sector after economic sector and in millions of individual lives, there was much less risk in economic life after World War II than there had been before the Great Depression.
It's true the New Deal did not end the Great Depression. It took World War II to accomplish that. But along the way, during the decade of the 1930s, even while the depression persisted, the New Deal did give employment to several millions of people, so it provided real economic relief, not to everybody, but to a significant fraction of the unemployed, and it also raised the horizon of hope, you might say. People had the sense that the federal government was engaged, it was looking for solutions, it was delivering real relief in some cases, but it was committed to find a way out of this crisis. So in a sense, the New Deal changed people's expectation of government and changed the whole schedule, you might say, of our expectations about what it was legitimate for government to do.
QUESTION: The very first Gallup question in 1935 asked people, "Do you think the government spending on relief is too much, too little, or about right." Surprisingly, 60 percent said "too much." How do you explain this?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, we need to remember how novel was the New Deal and how novel was the idea that the government should undertake these positive steps to relieve economic suffering and so on. One of the great tasks that Roosevelt had to accomplish, and why I think he can claim to be a great president, is because he was a great teacher and a great educator. He educated the majority of the American public to the idea that it was right and proper and legitimate for government to do these things. People were not clamoring for these measures. They weren't rioting in the streets and demanding that the government do this and that and the other thing for them. In fact, there was a lot of popular resistance to the measures that Roosevelt undertook, even though they were of direct benefit to millions of people.
Some New Deal measures, like old age pensions, found a reasonably receptive audience because the plight of the elderly was so evident and it had been on the national conscience for so long. The idea of old age pensions was at least a generation old, had been first introduced in 1912 in the so-called Bull Moose platform. So that in a sense, in a limited sense, the old age pension part of the New Deal - the Social Security Act, rather, was a relatively easy sell. But even on that matter, Roosevelt undertook about a six or eight-month long public education campaign, speaking frequently about this matter in every public occasion that he could find, to try to educate the public about the viability and, not least of all, the legitimacy of this kind of government initiative.
QUESTION: What impact did the outbreak of World War II have on the U.S. economy?
DAVID KENNEDY: It's interesting to contrast the situation when the United States entered World War II, in 1941, and when it entered World I, in 1917. In 1917 the economy was at full employment, and the effort to move over to a war economy, to shift resources from civilian production to military production, was extremely wrenching and contorting and kicked off immediately a very sharp inflationary round. Prices doubled between 1917 and 1920. Huge inflation. World War II is a different story, not least of all because approximately 20 or 25 percent of the economy's resources were under- or unemployed in 1941, so the shift to a military economy or war economy could be undertaken without immediately encroaching upon the civilian economy because there was so much idle capacity, both human material. So, in a perverse and a curious way, the Great Depression facilitated the transition to a war economy in World War II.
QUESTION: How did the Depression affect economic thinking?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, just as an earlier generation of Americans at the end of the nineteenth century had thought that the closing of the frontier, the end of the frontier had closed a major chapter in American history, so, too, did many people in the 1930s think that the Depression marked the end of an economic era, the end of an era of growth. The economy had matured, was the way that they described it then. They thought it was not very likely that it would ever again grow at the rate that it had for the preceding century or so, that it had reached a plateau and it would stabilize there, and the best that could be done was to hold it there. Now, they were proved spectacularly wrong, in the great economic miracle of World War II and the great sustained period of growth thereafter, but this was their dominant idea. Certainly no one could conceive of the tremendous productive capacity that was unleashed in World War II. The doubling of national product within a three-year, four-year time span, between 1941 and 1945 was something no one could have anticipated.
QUESTION: How did the outbreak of war change America's spirit?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, the decade of the 1930s is a decade of paralysis. It's a decade of economic paralysis, social paralysis. Things just aren't moving. The decade or the period of World War II was a period of spectacular movement. It's as if the air had been cleared by a summer thunder squall. It was just energizing. It was as if the national ozone level went up. And the degree of movement and energy, this kinesis, you might say, in the American society in World War II is quite remarkable.
Not for nothing do we call World War II a 'good' war. It was good in all kinds of ways, not least of all, of course, because we won. But we were the only belligerent country, the only country that fought World War II that managed to increase its standard of living, civilian standard of living, even while it was fighting the war. If you take our two partner countries in the Grand Alliance, Britain and Soviet Union, in both of those countries, the civilian standard of living went down by about one-third during the war. People had one-third less food, fuel, shelter, clothing, the kinds of things that civilians buy. In this country, in stark contrast, the civilian standard of living went up by about 15 percent. We had more guns, and more butter, too. We're the only country that fought the war about which we can say that.
QUESTION: How would you characterize the internal migrations touched off by the War?
DAVID KENNEDY: The war touched off a set of migrations in the United States that really invite comparison with the great immigration waves of the turn of the century in their scale, not least of all the enormous migration of African-Americans out of the South and into the North and the West. Nearly a million blacks left the South during the war, and several million continued to exit the South in the decades after 1945, so that by 1960 or so, the racial distribution of African Americans, the demographic distribution is national, no longer regional. That is clearly a product of World War II. People left rural areas, these chronically depressed areas, and headed for industrial centers. One historian has described it as it's as if some great hand reached down and tipped the whole continent westward, and people just slid, especially from the Midwest and the South, to the West Coast, which nearly doubled its population.
So you might say the war was a kind of demographic cauldron in which the American people were churned as they hadn't been, probably, for a hundred years, as they first burst across the Appalachian Crest in the early nineteenth century.
The war is a gigantic creator of opportunity for millions of people. It drains people out of rural and agricultural areas and brings them into the industrial economy. That's the basic story of black Americans in this period, who had been historically employed as rural, farm laborers and now enter the industrial work force in unprecedented numbers. It's also the story of women in the war. Hundreds of thousands of women take up employments that have previously been forbidden to them, and industrial jobs as welders and so on. So the war is a great generator of economic change and social change thereby, particularly by reason of the wave that creates so many economic opportunities.
QUESTION: How important was the war to the lives of African Americans?
DAVID KENNEDY: When the Army began to expand, anticipating the crisis of World War II, the leaders in the black community, most notably A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, went to the White House and demanded that, unlike World War I, he wanted to be sure that black Americans had the opportunity to serve fully, proportionate to their numbers in the country, in the U.S. military. In fact, the Roosevelt administration and the Army and Navy and Marine Corps and so on did not fully respond to that, and blacks remained largely in segregated units for much of the war. And in fact, relatively speaking, they, proportionately speaking, did not serve in combat units to the degree that white troops did. So this remained a blot, I think, on the nation's record through the war that most black Americans were denied the opportunity to serve in the armed forces on an equal basis with whites.
Now, in a civilian economy, it's a different story, I believe, because what A. Philip Randolph did manage to extract from the Roosevelt administration in 1941, a promise to see to it that there was no racial discrimination in defense industry employment. And though that promise was not absolutely perfectly held, it held well enough to provide brand-new job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of black workers in defense plant industries, which was the first, you might say, step up the ladder of economic mobility for many blacks as they finally entered the industrial economy.
On the eve of World War II, in the census of 1940, about 80 percent of all African Americans still live in the old eleven confederate states, where they've been stuck, essentially, since the Civil War. World War II changes all that, sucks them out of the South into industrial employment all over the country and begins to redistribute the black population nationally.
QUESTION: You mentioned A. Philip Randolph. How important was this threatened march?
DAVID KENNEDY: When Philip Randolph threatened to bring 100,000 blacks to march in Washington, D.C., to demand free and equal access to service in the armed services and to defense industry employment, this was a huge threat to the political stability in the country, and potentially a gigantic embarrassment to the Roosevelt administration, which was trying to prepare the country to be unified in the face of the oncoming war. So, though Franklin Roosevelt tried and indeed Eleanor Roosevelt tried as well to discourage Randolph from ever mounting this, he persisted, and he outbluffed the Roosevelt administration and extracted from them this promise to create the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which oversaw policies of equality and nondiscrimination in war-time plants. So it was a great victory.
QUESTION: What was the war's legacy for African Americans?
DAVID KENNEDY: I think the war changed their circumstances in a number of ways. Number one, it made it much more embarrassing to argue for segregation on racial grounds, given the fact that we had just conquered a foe whose racist policies were clearly reprehensible. And number two, it drew blacks out of the South in sufficient numbers that the black community now had access to industrial sector employment, which it had never had before in large numbers.
And number three, by virtue of that movement, blacks now moved to places in the country where they could vote, which they could not do in any appreciable numbers in the segregated pre-World-War-II South. And they voted in the Democratic Party. So their presence in the Democratic Party in venues in the North and the South nudged the Democratic Party in the direction of supporting black civil rights. That culminates immediately after the war in the Truman administration's publication of this document called "To Secure These Rights" in 1947, and the commitment by the Democratic Party in its 1948 platform to a civil rights program. So the war is clearly the direct and immediate stimulus for moving this great national institution, the Democratic Party, in the direction of committing itself to progress on race relations.
If we look at the century from the Civil War, or Reconstruction, let's say, after the Civil War, to the so-called Second Reconstruction, in the 1960s, a full century later, when the federal government at last takes up the responsibility of guaranteeing racial equality, the pivot point in that century-long history, it seems to me, is World War II. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that Roosevelt's announcement in 1941 creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission was in a way a kind of second emancipation proclamation, in the sense that it's the first time since the Reconstruction Era of the nineteenth century when the federal government clearly states that it will undertake its commitment to apply the law of the land equally to all citizens regardless of race.
QUESTION: What was the effect of the war upon women?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, there's a lot of mythology about women and the war. First of all, it's clear that many women went to work during wartime, and many of them went to work in nontraditional jobs, in industrial plants of one kind or another. But the degree of that can be too easily exaggerated, I think. The fact is that the government had to undertake a propaganda campaign and create this mythic figure of Rosie the Riveter in order to urge women to leave their traditional domestic employments and enter the wage labor economy. Rosie the Riveter was a propaganda icon created by the government to encourage women to go to work. But in fact, if we look at what women were actually doing during the war, the typical woman war worker might better be called Wendy the Welder, because actually, relatively few women took up the high-skilled job of riveting. It took too much training to get them there. Welding was a much lower-skill employment. It took relatively little training to qualify as a welder. So many more women welded than riveted. And in fact, if you look at the whole distribution of what women were doing in wartime, you might say the typical woman war worker should be called Sally the Secretary, or, in fact, maybe even Molly the Mom, because most women persisted in their traditional functions during the war.
Among those groups of women with the most traditional commitments - that is to say, women who had small children at home under the age of six, pre-school children - there was very little change in their status during the war. In 1940, about 9 percent of all women who had children, small children at home, were also working for wages. A few, but not many. At the end of the war, that number had gone up to 12 percent. So it had gone up a bit. But what the numbers really tell us, I think, is that women were still quite wedded to their traditional functions as homemakers and as mothers, and even a crisis as great as the war, in this country, at least, was not about to change that.
QUESTION: Do you think there was a legacy for working women at the end of the war?
DAVID KENNEDY: The example of what women had set during the war, the kinds of jobs they had taken on, proved a powerful solvent later on of all kinds of ideas about women's proper social and economic and domestic role, because it was a fact on the historical record now that women, under certain circumstances, could undertake virtually any kind of employment that was out there. And that memory, I think, played a large role in energizing a subsequent generation of women to seek equal economic opportunity wherever they could find it.
QUESTION: What happened to the economy just after the war?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, World War II fuels the phenomenal economic growth of the quarter century after 1945 in all kinds of ways. It creates a big pent-up consumer demand, which is explosively powerful after 1945, and people are seeking to buy products that weren't available in wartime, and they've got all these fat paychecks from the war era that they weren't able to spend then, that they spend after the war.
A wartime measure that was another huge stimulus to the economy was the GI Bill because the GI Bill upgraded the educational level of eight million or more people in the post-war era. The way to put that in economic terms is that it improved the skill set and, thus, the productivity of a big fraction of the workforce. And indeed, studies of the component parts of what accounts for this period of economic growth after the war, most of them assign a heavy responsibility to improved educational levels, and in turn, much of that is owed to the effects of the GI Bill.
The GI Bill, ironically, was originally conceived as a way to ease the transition of demobilized veterans back into the economy, because many people feared that the Depression of the 1930s would return after the war, so some device had to be found to slow down the return to the workforce of these veterans. But the way the GI Bill actually played out was not as a parking lot to hold these people out of the labor markets for awhile, but as a tremendous bonus to their skill level, their educational level, which, in turn, fueled the productivity of the economy in the post-war era. Many students of the economic growth of the post-1945 period point to the increased educational levels that the GI Bill helped to foster as among the very most important factors in making the economy grow.
QUESTION: Tell us what Recent Social Trends was and how it came about.
DAVID KENNEDY: Recent Social Trends is an extraordinary document. It was a study commissioned by Herbert Hoover almost immediately after he arrived in the White House in early 1929. And he wanted, as he said, a solid statistical picture of the United States as the basis for the formulation of what he called "sound national policies." Which is a reminder that Hoover comes out of this older progressive era of tradition which is seeking to use government in active ways to reshape the social and economic environment - not our traditional image of Hoover, but there he was. So he commissioned this thing, and it ended up published in 1933 as a two-volume, 1,500-page, data-rich, packed with all kinds of information about all different aspects of American life. And it has become, ever since, one of the principal sources for understanding the nature of American society in the immediate pre-Depression era.
The authors of Recent Social Trends, who were some of the most distinguished social scientists in the country, were struck by several big themes. They benchmarked all their study to 1890; they took 1890 Census data as the starting point, and they were struck with how enormous and widespread were the social and economic changes since 1890. And in fact, they said there's been more change in the last thirty years or forty years than there have been in the preceding century, which was essentially true.
The big finding that struck them was the discrepancy between standards of living in countryside and city. And still, a near majority of Americans still lived in the countryside in the 1920s. The Census of 1930 shows, I believe, 44 percent of the population is still rural. And people lived - out there in the countryside in the 1920s, they lived lives little different from what people who lived in the countryside in the 1820s, or I dare say even in the 1720s. Virtually no one had electricity, virtually no one had indoor plumbing. They were cut off from all the amenities of modern urban life. And this was a gap between two large sectors of the society that had worried people for a long time, and it was a particular worry on the eve of the Great Depression.
The 1920s witnessed a huge outpouring of new consumer products from American factories - radios, refrigerators, automobiles, and so on. But what the authors of Recent Social Trends and others perceived was that the capacity of the society to purchase these goods was diminishing. So there was a discrepancy between the productivity capacity of society on the one hand, and its consuming capacity on the other hand. And much of the blame for that differential was laid to the difference in standards of living between rural America on the one hand, which was relatively impoverished and had been for a long time, and urban America, which was relatively affluent.
QUESTION: So this tremendously forward-thinking document, this useful tool for social policy is commissioned, and does it have a significant impact?
DAVID KENNEDY: Well, Hoover commissioned Recent Social Trends in a spirit of great hope. And the social scientists who undertook to do the research and write the report up, also, I think, commenced their work in a spirit of great expectation about what this would lead to.
But before they were very far into the exercise at all, the Great Depression hit. And so much of what they had probably contemplated as a long, leisurely study of the changes in the country in the preceding thirty years became a document that described the effects of the Depression itself in the immediate short term, the period in which they were working. And partly for that reason, Hoover distanced himself from the document eventually, because he read it, finally, as an indictment of his inability to come to grips with the Depression. But nevertheless, it persists as an extremely valuable source for understanding the nature of American society in that period.