A shooting, a `holiday,' a madman's rise
This is the second in a series of monthly reports marking the 70th anniversary of U.S. News.
The month--February 1933--began with a dreadful rumor. Banks were no longer safe, people were saying, and depositors had better get their money out. Herbert Hoover, in his last full month as president, feared a national panic, and he had no idea how to avert it. But the man who would soon take Hoover's place didn't seem worried at all. Even as economic indicators showed the Depression worsening almost weekly, Franklin D. Roosevelt kept uttering cheerful generalities.
Nor did the future commander in chief appear bothered by the alarming news from abroad. Japan, censured for invading Manchuria, was bolting the League of Nations. Mussolini's Italy was helping arm Fascists in Austria. And on January 30 Adolf Hitler, to the delight of 100,000 Nazis in the torch-lit streets of Berlin, became chancellor of Germany.
At midmonth, Roosevelt's serenity would end. After 11 days on a yacht, he greeted well-wishers in a Miami park. Suddenly came angry words--"There are too many people starving to death!"--and gunfire. Five bullets were directed at FDR, but they instead mortally wounded Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was at his side. "I hate all presidents," the assailant, a jobless Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara, would tell the judge. A month later, he sat in Florida's electric chair and murmured, "Adios to the world."
Meanwhile, the bank rumor was proving true. People were queuing up, taking their cash, and stashing it away. Louisiana Gov. O. K. Allen declared February 5 a "bank holiday." In truth, he was letting a hard-pressed New Orleans bank close long enough to get more currency.
Almost overnight, banks nationwide were tottering and failing. Ordinary people hid their money in tins of baking powder and under the floorboards of Model T Fords. The rich drew fortunes from banks and shipped their money, in gold, to Europe. Hardly a ship sailed without a treasure aboard.
Three days after Michigan's banks closed, Hoover scrawled a letter to FDR. People feared the president-elect would devalue the currency, making a dollar buy only a dime's worth of goods. Would he, Hoover asked, pledge to not tamper with the currency and to keep a balanced budget? FDR's response: Mere words could not save the banks.
At month's end, while FDR worked on his inaugural address, news arrived that the Reichstag, Germany's legislature, had burned. Later the world would know that the Nazis set the fire. But for now, Hitler blamed the Communists. Damning Marxists, Jews, and the Versailles Treaty, the chancellor would use the inferno to grab absolute power in the German republic's final free election, the day after FDR's inauguration. On February's last day, reporters told of "wild rumors" in Berlin. The Nazis, it was said, planned to "massacre Jews and other political opponents."
About that time, final changes were made in FDR's speech. Inserted was a line remarkably similar to words in a volume of Thoreau that Roosevelt had at his side. "Nothing," Thoreau said, "is so much to be feared as fear."
This story appears in the February 24, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.