The author uses the Depression of the 1930s as an opportunity to take potshots at Ronald Reagan (who was a teenager at the time). Although I don't know much about the era (hence my motivation for reading the book), it made me somewhat suspicious of the author's explanations for the [conservative] causes of the Depression - and its [progressive] cure. I wanted to read an objective history, but instead wound up with something that sounded more like an editorial.
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109 of 126 people found the following review helpful
Terrific Overview Of The Great Depression Of The 193Os20 Nov 2000
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Most historians agree that the Second World War is the single most important event shaping and directing subsequent developments throughout the balance of the 20th century. Indeed, no single other event so shaped the world or influenced the events leading to that war than did the great worldwide depression. In this wonderful book by historian Robert McElvaine, we are treated to a terrific account of the human ordeal of the 1930s, which, as noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Notes, "does justice to the social and cultural dimensions of economic crisis as well as to its political and economic impact." Here we take a busman's tour into a world literally turned upside down by the massive and systematic economic dislocations that suddenly arose in the late 1920s. Moreover, this is a quite fair-minded and scrupulously researched effort that imaginatively recreates the amazing social, economic, and political conditions of the Great Depression for the reader in a most entertaining and edifying way. Today it is difficult, especially for younger readers, to understand just how traumatic and dangerous the crisis in democracy that the events surrounding the Great Depression were, not only in this country, but also in all of the constitutional democracies of the west. To the minds of many fair-minded Americans, the capitalist system had failed, and it was the man in the street with his family who bore the cruelest brunt of this failure. Millions were set adrift, and everywhere ordinary human beings were stripped of their possessions, their livelihood, and their dignity as thousands and then millions of businesses and enterprises went bankrupt. For a time it appeared the government itself would lost the confidence of the people, and that civil order would be sacrificed along with all of the material dispossessions millions had already suffered. Socialism and even communism flourished as alternative answers in academic circles, and no one seemed sure or even confident that the system could be saved or resurrected as it continued to fail. The rise from the ashes of the Great Depression was uncertain, fitful, and quite painful, and only the advent of the circumstances surrounding the Second World War really cured the economic ills that Americans struggled with in those times. The fact that we seem to have forgotten the fact that capitalism is a god that can and does fail is worrying to the author, and he examines some of the dangerous and misguided tacit assumptions of contemporary politicians such as the supply side "voodoo" economics of Ronald Reagan's administration. I found the book to be a valuable aid in understanding how ordinary Americans, forged in the crucible of hard times and make-do, were given the character, self-reliance, and native ability to improvise that so influenced our conduct in the Second World War. Many scholars attribute our military success to the brilliant efforts by our young company and platoon leaders both in Europe and in the Pacific with providing the decisive ingredient to win the war in terms of the hand-to-hand combat. As David Kennedy argues so persuasively in "Freedom From Fear" (see my review), it was the young Americans whose characters were forged in the hard times of the Great Depression who so the moral courage and strength of character to rise up from their foxholes to win the Second World War. This is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it.
73 of 86 people found the following review helpful
Great Book on the History of the Great Depression2 May 2004
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This is a good book on the HISTORY of the Great Depression era. If you are writing a college paper or just want to read an authoritative book on the subject, read this book.
I was impressed with how thoroughly the author detailed the people, the times, and the policies that were enacted (and the political reasons they came about in that form) and kept the book moving along. There are details and more details.
I was surprised with some of the things I read. Messy politics seemed to drive many of the policies adopted to deal with the Great Depression. The New Deal was not a tidy, consistent program but a series of pragmatic reforms in a sea of economic turmoil. You get a good feel for that era.
It is obvious that most people back then felt that capitalism was "obviously" flawed because of the "self-evident" disaster in the economy called the Great Depression. There had been a feeling since Theodore Roosevelt's big stick attacks against "the malfactors of great wealth" that capitalism needed to be tamed. The Great Depression brought those concerns to a head. Many people living back then acquired a deep fear of laissez-faire capitalism, and many people wanted something done. FDR was reelected by landslides.
Some of FDR's political maneuvers detailed in this book seemed designed to neutralize some of the more radical activists at that time, like Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and the Townsend plan. The Townsend plan and Huey Long's share the wealth programs were radical schemes to redistribute wealth. They had huge followings of millions in America. So FDR moved to cut them off with what was then a slim version of Social Security (later expanded by others).
In retrospect, FDR appears in this book as a master politician, an opportunist, and a pragmatist. In a sea of Depression era politics, he navigated himself and the country (like the sailor he was) from the center-right (an advocate of balanced budgets, reduced government payrolls, and mild relief efforts) to the center-left (Social Security, more extensive relief programs, populist speeches attacking "economic royalists"). The result is that he disarmed the more radical elements of society and saved the free market system.
My only complaint with the book is the obviously-biased introduction that the author has written for the most recent edition in which he assails Reaganomics. The author clearly mistrusts capitalists and suggests that Reagan was trying to undo the New Deal stabilizers put into place during the Great Depression. The rest of the book, however, is excellent.
In fact, if you read Reagan's memoir "An American Life," Reagan makes angrily clear that he voted for FDR four times and would never undo the New Deal. Instead, he made it clear that he tried to undo Lyndon Johnson's Great Society from the 1960's. The SEC, FDIC, Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, and other pragmatic New Deal measures are still operating strong. So the author's opinions have been shown to be wrong.
Yet I think the author's opinions are very revealing, even if I do not agree with most of them. The Great Depression was a great trauma. I think it is important to understand the time as it was back then.
In short, this book is an authoritative study of the HISTORY of the Great Depression era, with a dose of the author's liberal opinions. The dates, facts, people and events are explained thoroughly and in a way that is easy to read. Personally, I think a good biography of Franklin Roosevelt is a better place to start, but this book is an important addition to the literature.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
Nice social history of the Depression Years8 Oct 2006
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Robert McElvaine has taken a different approach to studying the Great Depression - instead of looking primarily at how the Roosevelt administration attacked the depression, he looks at how the years affected the people of the United States.
This is not to say that he excludes consideration of Hoover or FDR and thier respective administrations from the book - quite the contrary, in fact. McElvaine explains that the American people thought Hoover was exactly what they wanted in 1928 when they elected him, and how the Roosevelt administration attempted to focus its goals on improving the lot of the general populous (i.e. making the banks feel safe again, as opposed to the nuts & bolts of the legislation to resolve the banking crisis that FDR faced immediately upon taking office).
I found McElvaine's consistent use of letters from affected Americans to the President and First Lady to be very interesting and a valuable addition to the argument that McElvaine was making; that FDR was a source of hope & inspiration to so many, although he may not have been the world's greatest economic theorist.
The one complaint I have about this book is the all too-frequent referrals to the Reagan administration, or how something similar happened forty years later. I understand that the author is simply attempting to put the history in a context that the reader may understand better, but this will not serve the readers of today that don't know the Carter/Reagan years as well as some of us that are a little older.
Overall, I would recommend this volume to anyone who has an interest in what effect this horrendous economic crisis had on the people of America, as long as the reader expects to look at the people & not the policies of the administration.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Well written historical account.9 Oct 2006
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McElvaine provides a well researched and scholarly account of an era that changed a nation and unsufficient political system forever. He does so through meticulous research and close examination of social, political, economic, ethnic, and individual structure leading up to, and directly after the great fall. Once more, McElvaine ties together a copious amount of research with astute, well reasoned observations that actually lessen the complexity of the often misinterpreted era. Like many of the other reviews state, this book is truly a great source for research. It is unfortunate, however, that McElvaine, time and again, attempts to correlate Depression era failure(s) to Reagan administration policy of the 1980s - largely the time when McElvaine was compiling information for this book. In the first few chapters alone, Reagan's name, or policy, is brought up repeatedly. By the time you have reached the middle of the book, you may begin to feel as though you are not only reading about the Great Depression but are also playing a game of "Where's Waldo" (except inserting the name of Ronald Reagan instead). I do not bring this point up to defend Ronald Reagan's legacy or his tenure in office. In fact, I am neither Republican nor did I vote for Ronald Reagan. It is simply that the tone that the author presents, reminiscant of whining, distracts one from the book's actual theme - The Great Depression. However, if you are able to get beyond this single point, the work presented here stands on its own, and regardless of distractions, is well worth exploring.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
The Depression from the bottom-up18 May 2009
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Having just read "The Forgotten Man" by Amity Shlaes, and "The Great Depression" by Robert McElvaine, back-to-back, I have the opportunity to compare how both authors treat this complex topic.
What struck me is that Shlaes' approach seems to be "top-down" while McElvaine's approach is "bottom-up". McElvaine sprinkles into his text the correspondence from ordinary Americans to the Roosevelts; the language is rich, heartfelt, evocative, and infuses the text with a deep sense of melancholy. Shlaes focuses more on the major players, people in a position of power, thought leaders.
Both authors approach the topic of the New Deal from diametric economic and political camps. McElvaine's commentary is definitely biased toward a liberal belief in government. His swipes at President Reagan may seem anachronistic (I believe the book was published in the early eighties, and then re-published in the early nineties) so Reagan-bashing may have been more au courant at the time, but now it seems like cheap jabs. Fortunately, these remarks are not too distracting.
Shlaes makes a strong case that the New Deal was concident to the easing of the economic downturn, while McElvaine plays both sides - he attributes the New Deal as "saving capitalism" but as having little influence on ending the Depression.
Both books emphasize the experimental nature of FDR's attempts at righting the economy, and ascribe much of the direction of the New Deal to political rather than economic forces. Both books are required reading for the student who wishes to understand how America changed from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression.