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Tim Blagg

FDR could teach them

Lessons from the Great Depression

Back during the Great Depression, Americans were confused and frightened. Nobody seemed to understand why this country, with its great factories, farms and commerical enterprises, had suddenly come to a halt.

There were no jobs, no production, no money and often, little food.

Grown men jumped freight cars and rode off into the sunset, looking for work, anything to get some cash so they could feed their families.

It was a terrible time.

And then we elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He was an unlikely champion of ordinary Americans — a rich man’s son, educated at all the right places, friends to the high and mighty of the nation’s elite. He had been crippled by polio as an adult, but most Americans didn’t really recognize that fact ... and he went to great lengths to conceal it.

He inherited a mess from his predecessor, must as did our current president, Barack Obama.

And he faced a recalcitrant Congress, rife with hostility between the parties.

But he went to work with a vengeance, creating new agencies where there had been none, launching a veritable alphabet soup of federally funded efforts to turn the economy around. The WPA, the CCC, the OPC ... they were designed to use government dollars to prime the nation’s economic pump.

Some worked, some didn’t, and some were eventually declared unconstitutional.

But most created jobs. Men built bridges, tunnels, national parks, highways, hydroelectric dams, even golf courses and tennis courts. Much of the infrastructure created during that time is still being used today.

It was what we would call today a “stimulus package.”

Even Roosevelt’s Lend Lease agreement with Great Britain, his circuitous way of aiding the British in their battle against Hitler, served to stimulate production and readied the country for the great effort to come in World War II.

But the most important thing FDR did ... much more crucial than the flood of federal dollars ... was to calm American fears and reignite their belief in their country.

His “fireside chats” were weekly radio broadcasts to all Americans, done in a style pioneered by Arthur Godfrey, in which the broadcaster speaks directly to the listener ... no bombast, no slogans, but a simple conversation, from the president of the United States right to every American.

They were reassuring, they were inspiring, they were comforting, they were optimistic.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” FDR told us, and slowly, eventually, we began to believe it.

It’s a lesson our current crop of leaders has not learned ... that we need to believe in them, that we need to be confident that things will get better, and that they will act in ways that make success more likely.

Instead, they continue to try to score political “points” against each other, not realizing that the effect is to diminish our belief in our common future.

So we don’t invest in long-term things, but choose to wait and see ... which is a recipe for disaster.

FDR was not a perfect human ... in some respects he had feet of clay.

But he knew what was needed in the worst economic slump in our history, and he delivered.

Where is his like today?

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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