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Reader Response: Robert McElvaine on the Great Depression

Great Depression; via U.S. National Archives

Comment: The coverage of the Great Depression by Robert McElvaine was so one sided it was unbelievable. [Editor’s note: You can watch the segment below.] Yes, the Great Depression was horrible, millions of people were out of work and out of food, but it was because of the executive orders Franklin D. Roosevelt kept making that forced business to lay off people.

To increase prices, he had crops destroyed in spite of people going hungry, and because prices were inflated, more people couldn’t buy food. Businesses were forced to stop production because the unions caused strikes that lasted for months, putting the businesses out of business. The list goes on and on. Why don’t you have an interview with Jim Powell, who wrote FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression? Cover BOTH sides of the story, not just the liberal side.

Paul Solman: I left this email alone when it came in over the transom because there’s been such a concerted effort out there to denigrate the New Deal on the part of emailers to all sorts of sites. I even noticed the identical negative text, from emailers with different names, in one thread of comments on The New Republic website — in response to a pointed review by Jonathan Chait of, among other books, Amity Schlaes’ supposed anti-New Deal The Forgotten Man.

But it occurs to me that if a political campaign is underway, the public ought to know the score. So, this response is not to a query, but a tirade.

Now look: FDR tried a lot of experiments during the New Deal. Some of them flopped. I’ve interviewed Schlaes and economic historian Eugene White, debating the issue.

But the Great Depression was a situation the American economy had not faced before. Yes, there had been plenty of downturns in the past. Panics even. Crashes. But when the economy peaked in 1929, until the time Roosevelt took over THREEAND-AHALF YEARS LATER, GDP was down not by 6 percent, as it is now from last year, but nearly 50 percent. The Dow Jones was not down by 40 percent as now, which seems like a lot, right? It was down by 90 percent! Unemployment was not up by 60 percent, as it is so far (4.9 percent to 8.5 precent) but by 800 percent (2.9 percent to 24.9 percent).

There is legitimate debate over how MUCH employment recovered in the Roosevelt years, since a lot of workers were on low-wage relief programs. (On the other hand, my father was one of them and to him the WPA was a godsend; his job, meaningful.) But there’s no legitimate debate that the New Deal DID lower unemployment. No debate either that GDP rose, almost doubling even before World War II.

As to the stock market, it too rallied dramatically and rallied even more if you subscribe to the logic of Mark Hulbert’s fascinating recent column in the New York Times.

One can, of course, argue that the economy would have recovered more quickly without the New Deal because, let’s face it, how could anyone know otherwise? It’s not like we can run the experiment again.

But for an emailer to the NewsHour to write that “the great depression was horrible, millions of people were out of work and out of food, but it was because of the executive orders Franklin D. Roosevelt” is such arrant nonsense it demands a response, and indeed the contempt it so splendidly earns.

We appreciate emails, truly. But if you’re going to label us politically with an actual argument, you could at least spend two minutes on Google before hitting “send” to see if there’s any validity to it.

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