THE years of our national economic life here described were crowded with emotion and event. They registered the crash from 1929 superconfidence and the descent into the depression—at first dismaying, then disheartening, then desperate. Came hope in a New Deal, with new men and new measures. Though some had severe misgivings, most accepted eagerly the experiments of government to meet the emergency. As we shall see, few of these devices were altogther as novel as critics would have had the country believe; some were extensions of proposals made by the Hoover administration, others were as old as distress of the public purse. But all were invested with urgency and drama. Moreover, the plight of the American economy was linked with that of the world, both as cause and as effect.
Promising improvement turned to woeful relapse in 1937, and recurrence of hard times brought reversal of certain policies and renewal of others. Despite all efforts, millions of unemployed remained a national reproach. Then loomed war—first in local conflicts in Europe, Africa, and Asia, next in foreign rearmament orders, followed by the outbreak of the general struggle and leading us to a defense program, to endeavors to make ourselves an "arsenal of democracy," to the attack on Pearl Harbor and our entry as a frank belligerent.
This "rush of history" means that a brief account, unless it is to be a mere chronology, must select the more significant events and developments for scrutiny. Only in this way is interpretation possible. The most significant feature of this depression period was the unexampled intervention of the federal government in the economic life of the country. Measures of relief and reform increased in variety and scope. The depression was proof that the self-sufficiency of the economy had broken down. Few economic forces continued independent of government assistance or correction. Autonomous economic developments were in a peculiar degree suspended. Therefore emphasis has been given to public policy as expressed in legislation and administration.
This being a volume in a series covering the whole of American economic experience, it seemed proper to take time, here and there, to relate the period to earlier history. This procedure was suggested by the fact that the volume, coming almost up to the present, necessarily lacked the wisdom of hindsight. While the outbreak of war in Europe in September, 1939, foretold the end of business stagnation, the period of defense production belongs in an account of the depression in the United States; the story has been stopped at the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.
New York City