13 Hunger vs. Private Enterprise: First Round

FROM the nation's leaders in business and government, the 1929 crash and ensuing depression drew, in erratic succession, shocked disbelief, forced optimism, grudging recognition, and, finally, the slow gathering of remedial efforts. When Wall Street collapsed, the reaction of the President, his cabinet, and the nation's leading financiers was that the storm would soon blow over; only courage and confidence were needed.1 Whistling in the dark became wide- spread: Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York asked motion picture theaters to show only cheerful films, True Story Magazine advised wage earners to buy more luxury items on credit, and a new song was copyrighted in November entitled "Happy Days Are Here Again."2

To Fiorello LaGuardia and other progressives, the convulsions of October, 1929, did not come, as to the financial world, mysteriously and suddenly out of a monolithic prosperity, for they had been recording the seismic signals throughout the twenties.3 More-

____________________
1
In Washington, Andrew Mellon, whom Hoover had retained at his Treasury post, gave the press a cheerful New Year's prediction of "steady progress," while the President said that business could have "greater assurance" for the coming year. New York's leading bankers and merchants were also optimistic, seeing a return of prosperity in 1930 ( Mitchell, op. cit., 31).
2
Dixon Wecter, The Age of the Great Depression ( New York, 1948), 12-13.
3
Many of the letters of complaint to LaGuardia were from people who had been jobless even before the market crash. In October, for instance, he received a letter signed by four sons, asking aid in obtaining a job for their father, who had been out of work for three years ( Oct. 27, 1929, LaG. Papers). The precrash rise of economic distress is attested to by Lillian Wald, who watched the growing signs from her Henry Street "window." She tells of the winter of 1928-1929 when the children were sitting in the kindergarten drinking milk. One little boy said he would be a carpenter when he grew up, whereupon a four-year-old spoke up soberly: "Miss Wald, the carpenter that lives in our house ain't got any work" ( Windows on Henry Street [ Boston, 1924 ], 227-228). The general situation on the East Side became serious enough in February of 1929 to warrant a special meeting at the settlement house (ibid.).

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