Fighting Authoritarianism: American Youth Activism in the 1930s

Fighting Authoritarianism: American Youth Activism in the 1930s

Fighting Authoritarianism: American Youth Activism in the 1930s

Fighting Authoritarianism: American Youth Activism in the 1930s


A major contribution to the historiography of the era of the Great Depression, Fighting Authoritarianism provides a new and important examination of U.S. youth activism of the 1930s, including the limits of the New Deal and how youth activists continually pushed FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other New Dealers to do more to address economic distress, more inclusionary politics, and social inequality. In this study, author Britt Haas questions the interventionist versus isolationist paradigm in that young people sought to focus on both domestic and international affairs. Haas also explores the era not as a precursor to WWII, but as a moment of hope when the prospect of institutionalizing progress in freedom, equality, and democracy seemed possible.

Fighting Authoritarianism corrects misconceptions about these young activists’ vision for their country, heavily influenced by the American Dream they had been brought up to revere: they wanted a truly free, truly democratic, and truly equal society. That meant embracing radical ideologies, especially socialism and communism, which were widely discussed, debated, and promoted on New York City college campuses. They believed that in embracing these ideologies, they were not turning their backs on American values. Instead, they believed that such ideologies were the only way to make America live up to its promises. This study also outlines the careers of Molly Yard, Joseph Lash, and James Wechsler, how they retracted (and for Yard and Lash, reclaimed) their radical past, and how New York continued to hold a prominent platform in their careers. Lash and Wechsler both worked for the New York Post, the latter as editor until 1980.

Examining the Depression decade from the perspective of young activists highlights the promise of America as young people understood it: a historic moment when anything seemed possible.


Young people between the ages of 18 and 25 experienced the Great Depression rather differently than adults. Their shared experience involved not only concern about finding a job and getting married, but also a deep-seated concern about the future of America for that future was their future. Millions of these young people, who were not even legally considered adults until the age of 21, came together in the 1930s to form organizations dedicated to actively shaping that future. Their vision for America rested securely on their collective idea of what America was supposed to be: a democratic nation based on the equality of man and freedom for all. As the foundation of their ideological outlook, this notion guided their actions.

Youth perspectives on the events of the 1930s were often radically different from those of adults and stand in stark contrast to current images of the Great Depression. Understanding those perspectives sheds new light on how the decade of the Great Depression affected America. It was not simply youthful naïveté that drove young people to seek fundamental change to American political, economic, and social structures; it was hope in what they saw as the moment for such change to occur. Bleak images of stark hopelessness had no home in young activists’ vision. Instead, they saw opportunity amidst the economic devastation to develop a free and equal political and social system. and those who came of age during the 1930s took the lessons they learned from their experiences with them into adulthood, helping to forge the movements that would later take up their calls for freedom and equality.

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