Friday, June 3, 2011

Freedom from Fear- a book report

The American people in Depression and War,
By David M. Kennedy

My friend Jim Terlep lent me this book to read as he knows my interest in history, particularly American history, 858 pages later I have finally completed reading. It is an outstanding effort. It is the most complete and thorough report of the circumstances and the people involved during those critical decades. It is so monumental that trying to report on any one aspect would not do justice to the author.
There have been many books written about FDR, some favorable and some negative. This author tried to expose the events and in particular the New Deal Legislation enacted as to whether positive or negative. Chapter 12 puts it all in perspective as to whether it was positive or not. In my opinion it was. People’s bank deposits were protected where before they had lost everything when the banks fell. The Glass-Steagall Banking act separated investing from commercial banks. (President Clinton allowed this to be repealed which started the banks on their reckless behavior with devastating consequences. To this date our current President and Congress have not seen fit to re-enact.). Social Security was created to provide funds necessary to help the elders to live decent lives. Unions were allowed to grow to provide security and improve the lot of workers. Child labor was abolished. Many roads, bridges, dams, hiking trails, clinics, and schools were built by Americans working for the CCC or WPA.
In all the history of America up until then the Federal Government was not a factor in the economy of the country. The States had the most power but even there the free market system had nearly total control. There were many factors at play which resulted in the Depression, mostly from overproduction of farms, the dust bowl and irresponsible speculation in the markets. Over half of America lived of small farms. When the prices for agriculture products fell the suffering began. President Hoover attempted to stabilize market prices with limited success. It was FDR’s New Deal that really got the Federal Government into the process of correcting imbalances when the market place proved inadequate to the challenge. Were there programs that failed, yes, but then again there were programs that worked. Most important of all was the positive effect of FDR’s communication with the people. In spite of their hardship they believed their President was doing all he possibly could to relieve their suffering.
Columnist Dorothy Thompson summed up FDR’s achievements in 1940 with these words, “WE have behind us eight terrible years of a crisis we have shared with all countries. Here we are, and our basic institutions are still intact, our people are relatively prosperous and most important of all, our society is relatively affectionate. No rift has been made an unbridgeable schism between us. The working classes are not clamoring for communism. No country is so well off”.
The author takes us step by step in the buildup to WWII. He is convinced that the Versailles Treaty written after WWI planted the seeds that resulted in the Second World War. In it Germany was made to accept full responsibility for the conflict and onerous reparations demanded to compensate the Allies for their costs. This created great hardship for the German people and created an atmosphere where a radical like Adolf Hitler could come to power. He brought them out of their Depression by ignoring the treaty and beginning his military buildup. The comment is made that had we rearmed as they did we could have risen out of the Depression faster than we did. Certainly the results of building the “Arsenal of Democracy”, the Depression was over.
There is a chapter on the buildup and the genius of American Industry leaders to switch overnight from peacetime manufacturing to military. Henry Ford and Henry Kaiser were in that group. Ford created a factory from the ground up to produce B-24s. He produced 18,000 B-24s in four years. At its peak a B-24 rolled off the line every sixty-three minutes. Kaiser built twenty-seven hundred Liberty Ships. By 1943 a ship was launched every forty-0ne days. These were remarkable achievements and were representative of all of American industry. By war’s end we had produced 5,777 merchant ships, 1,556 naval vessels, 299,293 aircraft, 634,569 jeeps, 88,410 tanks, 11,000 chain saws, 2,283,311 trucks, 6.5 million rifles and 40 billion bullets.
He takes us thru the war years capturing the important events including battles and leadership conferences. I will not attempt to list them. You should read for yourself. He is quite thorough.
See page 857 for his conclusion as follows;
An astounding fact is that the United States at the end of the war commanded fully half of the entire planet’s manufacturing capacity and generated more than half of the world’s electricity. America owned two-thirds of the world’s gold stocks and half of its monetary reserves. The United States produced two times more petroleum than the rest of the world combined; it had the world’s largest merchant fleet, a near monopoly on the emerging growth industries of aerospace and electronics, and, for a season at least, an absolute monopoly on the disquieting new technology of atomic power.
By wars end unemployment was negligible. In the ensuing quarter century the American economy would create twenty million new jobs. Within less than a generation the middle class more than doubled. By 1960 the middle class included almost two-thirds of all Americans. As he concludes, small wonder that Americans chose to think of it as the good war. It was a war that had brought them as far as imagination could reach, and beyond, from the ordeal of the Great Depression and had opened apparently infinite vistas to the future.

Jack B. Walters
June 3, 2011

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