U.S. News is 70
Unemployment, a falling stock market, a foreign menace--the headlines could be right out of today's magazine. But they captured the top stories from 1933, the year U.S. News began. Then a weekly newspaper, United States News was conceived by Publisher David Lawrence as a force "in a two-way system of communication between government and citizens." In the decades since, U.S. News has broadened its mission, evolving into an American institution with over 12 million readers a week. With this issue, we begin observing our anniversary (Page 12) with a monthly look back at stories that were momentous for U.S. News --and for history, as well. -Brian Duffy
A winter that `chilled like the world's end'
After three years of national despair, 1933 arrived with a dose of fleeting optimism. The worst was over, concluded a survey of businessmen, who agreed with Herbert Hoover that the Great Depression had bottomed out six months earlier, shortly before Hoover dramatically lost the presidency to Franklin Roosevelt. "The vague and formless notion of impending general ruin," said one commentator, "has disappeared."
But for millions of Americans 70 years ago this month, the sense of ruin had already arrived, and virtually no economic index suggested it would fade. "We could smell the depression in the air," wrote theater director Harold Clurman, who never forgot "that historically cruel winter . . . which chilled so many of us like a world's end. . . . The very houses we lived in seemed to be shrinking, hopeless of real comfort."
Life in the heartland was no less grim. In the two months before FDR's inauguration, angry farmers, many with pitchforks and shotguns, appeared at 76 land auctions and scared off prospective bidders. Passing the hat, they collected enough cash to keep banks from foreclosing on their neighbors.
At the same time, in a forerunner of the corporate scandals of 2002, the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency put the onus on the nation's financial rulers. Under ruthless interrogation, Charles Mitchell, president of America's second-largest bank, admitted to an array of shady practices during the '20s boom--tax evasions, ethical breaches, and the mishandling of other people's money. Compared with Mitchell, one observer said, Al Capone was a bungler.
For want of money, schools in Dayton, Ohio, opened only three days a week in January. In Georgia, more than 1,000 schools didn't open at all. In Chicago, teachers toiled without pay, some fainting in classrooms for lack of food.
Since the stock market crash in 1929, national income had fallen by more than half. One in four was out of work, and half of those with jobs worked only part time. The paradox was poverty amid plenty, certain evidence that the usual system of matching consumers with producers had gone awry. While millions of Americans wore threadbare clothes, 13 million bales of cotton went unsold. As reports of malnourished children soared, food rotted in fields and orchards.
The struggle against winter was incessant. Families stayed in bed to save heating fuel and calories. And the truly desperate huddled in "Hoovervilles," the shantytowns built from cardboard and burlap.
Most Americans--at least 80 million of them--were neither starving nor on relief. But many faced hard choices. With less than half the usual number of marriages taking place, birthrates declined. Young men gave their paychecks to their jobless fathers. Some left home to ride the rails. By early '33, the estimate of "wandering boys" topped 200,000.
With his departure not due until winter's end, Hoover somehow believed that the people who overwhelmingly repudiated him in November now realized that his hands-off approach was working. He privately urged FDR to endorse his policies. To the surprise of no one, the endorsement never came. Nor did Rudy Vallee meet Hoover's request for a song that would take people's minds off their troubles. The singer did score a Depression hit--but not exactly what the luckless president had in mind. Its title: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
This story appears in the January 20, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.