(HOST) The current economic crisis is now regularly described as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. This morning, commentator Barrie Dunsmore, long-time diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, explains why we want to hope today’s economy can be turned around before it actually becomes that bad.
(DUNSMORE) I was born in 1939 to young parents whose lives were forever shaped by the Great Depression. I grew up to their stark stories of coping with extreme deprivation. What I didn’t realize until later was the extent to which both the future of capitalism and democracy itself, hung in the balance in those dark days.
I recently re-read Jonathan Alter’s book, "The Defining Moment" on President Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days and was reminded again of just how bad things were when FDR was sworn in March of 1933. The unemployment rate was officially at 25% but that was widely thought to be understated. Non-farm workers unemployment was 37% and in some areas such as Toledo Ohio it reached 80%. By the Saturday before the inauguration the banks in 34 of the 48 states had been closed indefinitely and hundreds had gone bust.
Meantime the country was dangerously teetering on the brink of insurrection. Mobs were breaking up bankruptcy auctions in the farm belt. 4000 men occupied the state house in Nebraska. 5000 people stormed Seattle’s county building. In Chicago police clubbed teachers who were protesting over not having been paid for a year. The governor of South Carolina was predicting a violent revolution.
It was in this atmosphere that the idea of a dictator began to be endorsed as a remedy for the Depression, by establishment figures ranging from the New York Daily News, then America’s largest circulation newspaper – to Water Lippmann, the country’s most influential newspaper columnist. Even the liberal Eleanor Roosevelt suggested privately that a "benevolent dictator" might be what the country needed. This of course was before men like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler gave dictatorships a bad name.
Still it is hard to imagine that for numerous prominent Americans the notion of a dictator was attractive. In author Jonathan Alter’s words, "the vague idea was not a police state but deference to a strong leader unfettered by Congress nor other inconveniences of democracy."
Early on, Roosevelt himself apparently considered mobilizing the American Legion to maintain law and order under his personal command. Had he done so, he would have had in effect, his own personal army of hundreds of thousands of unemployed, desperate men. As we know, Roosevelt chose not to go the dictator route. He moved aggressively to enact laws to mitigate some of the pain while starting to construct the social safety net that is helping Americans through the present crisis.
Remember, by the time FDR became president the stock market had already collapsed and the economy was in a depression that had been deepening for more than two years.
Things aren’t that dire – yet. But it’s important to be aware that harsh economic times can have violent, even revolutionary consequences. This is true especially if the people feel that their leaders are not trying mightily to help them. In that context, President Barack Obama’s performance so far, should be seen as reassuring.