The Turning Points of the American History: Dust Bowl, the Great Depression

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Media, through its channels holds a certain power that can be used in various ways by its handlers; in a time where desperation takes its toll on people, media can serve as an agent of entertainment and can give relief to its subjects, whereas it can also be used as a propaganda tool by the government and serve its ideals to achieve partisan goals. Through many times, media was used to serve these purposes and one occurrence in history proved that when properly deployed, media can alter the history. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Roosevelt during his inauguration speech, to his fellow Americans as they listened to their newly elected president to lead them through the Great Depression. 

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Through its mediums, media was used to battle the depression as it gave the necessary assets which were used to lower its negative effects and support the government propaganda. Respectively, in our introduction section, the Great Depression is going to be discussed starting with the details regarding to the causes of the depression; which began in 1920’s consumerist society and its connection to the Stock Market, as well as the political decisions which were made after the WWI came to an end, which worsened the Great Depression. Moving on, in the second section, the medium of media, Radio’s usage is going to be explained and its importance on American lives, as they dealt with the Great Depression. 

The use for entertainment and propagandist purposes will play a major role in USA, as the first factor will be used as a relief system where various radio programs offer comfort and relaxation and the second, as to distribute the news of the government decisions and its positive effects on people. The radio’s importance as an informative tool will be discussed by giving examples from the live broadcasts of that time. Later, in the third section Photography’s usage will be covered, by explaining the propagandist idea of the New Deal Program, the Farm Security Administration and how certain technique deployed by the FSA photographers told the story of people that were hit by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. 

Lastly, the function of the cinema, as an entertaining factor during the depression will be shown. A notable genre, Screwball comedy is discussed as well alongside with notable movies of the time. To sum up, The Great Depression was the most destructive economic crisis which occurred during the 1930s. Countries around the globe faced harsh conditions and were challenged greatly against economic hardship. In this era of recession, media played a key role in the U.S. and helped the nation to overcome the negative effects of the Great Depression; therefore, this thesis focuses on three major mediums of media: photography, radio and cinema, to analyze media’s usage during the Great Depression Era in which US. used these elements to overcome and cope with the negative effects of the economic crisis.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was an era of economic hardship and extreme poverty, effecting United States of America and much of the world, leaving its disastrous mark in each nation and causing great harm and agony in people’s hearts. However, this period did not occur in a small amount of time, rather it was a product of many years of both political and economic decisions, that led to the eventual crash of the Stock Market in 1929, causing a chain of reactions and also starting what is known as The Great Depression. As World War I came to an end and United States emerged as one of the victors alongside the Allied powers, this kindled a sense of optimism throughout the nation; people were confident and looking brightly into the future. Dubbed as “The Roaring Twenties”, this era created a “consumer society” where people from all classes began to spend their money on newly invented daily-life products, ranging from radios to automobiles and so forth; at the same time people were interested in the Stock Market, buying and selling their shares in hopes of prosperity. 

Although, Stock Market always involves risky investments with a possibility of losing what you own, a lot of people put their life savings, but not always with their own money. Often people who didn’t have enough money to buy stocks, relied on brokers to lend loans for them. Known as “buying on margin”, an investor would give about 20 percent of the value of the stock whereas the broker completes the rest. However, if the price of the stock would go down lower than the loan itself, a broker could make a “margin call”, requesting the loan to be paid immediately which would result in a loss for the investor. From long-term financial investors to the common people, the investments that were made in the Stock Market helped it grow enormously until 1929. 

However, the rapid growth and fall of the Stock Market alone was not the cause of the Great Depression. In the aftermath of First World War, victorious European powers demanded war reparations from Germany to compensate for their losses, but were unable to receive it due to the fact that Germany’s economy failed in 1922, resulting in inflation and later turning it into a hyperinflation; at the same time, United States’ request to be repaid for the loans it issued to Allied Powers was not fulfilled and this brought the Allied Powers to a stalemate over financial issues. In 1924, headed by Charles G. Dawes, the Reparation Commission committee proposed a plan to solve the issue; known as the Dawes Plan, one part of the plan was that the United States would loan money to Germany which would stabilize its economy, and help the nation to meet its requirements for reparations to Allied Powers over time, and in turn, the Allies would repay for the loans United States issued during WWI. 

This plan proved to be useful and Dawes was elected as a co-recipient for Nobel Peace Prize. Although successful in its own terms, Germany became dependent on foreign banks to receive loans and financial backings from foreign markets; when the Great Depression occurred in 1929, a new form of committee was formed under Owen D. Young, to plan a final settlement for war reparations. Known as the Young Plan, this was the replacement for Dawes Plan, further improving conditions for Germany and thus, loans were made and were to put into the foreign markets, however the Great Depression put a halt on the Plan and it was not set in motion, reversing the positive effects of the Dawes Plan. US farmers also faced harsh conditions before the Great Depression. The need for food supplies in Europe during and after the World War I led farmers to plow and grow crops in excessive amounts, which led to overproduction. This did not pose a problem, since Europe was in demand and US exports on agricultural products made the farmers prosperous for a time. 

However, once the agricultural necessities were met, the overproduction made the food prices go down, resulting in a great loss of profit for farmers which made them become poorer. Additionally, with the introduction of tractors in farming many farmers borrowed loans to buy one, in hopes of profiting from gaining time; sadly, when the food prices went down, they could not pay back the loans they owed to banks, thus farmers lost their lands. Broadly, the political and economic decisions, as well as the attitude of a consumer society which dependent heavily on credits prepared a ground for the Great Depression and ultimately in the year of 1929, the Stock Market collapsed. By then, there was an already decline in factory production, especially on steel, construction works and car sales, which implied the society was weakening, and also leaving the stock prices in a higher value than they should be. 

As a consequence, in March, Stock Market suffered a mini-crash, resulting in margin calls by brokers and panic set in but the issue was dissolved after bankers reassured that they would keep lending loans which calmed down people, however this was a hint of what was going to happen in the following months. Stock Market reached its climax in September however the market fluctuation continued into October and finally on October 24, stock prices fell drastically, the stock ticker soon fell behind to write the stock exchange on time and panic set in; almost over 12 million shares were sold that day, foreshadowing the greatest crash to occur was very close. Nevertheless, bankers invested their own money into the market in an effort to stop people to sell their stocks. Four days later, on October 29, a record 16 million stocks were shared and marked the official day for the crash, named as “Black Tuesday”, it was the worst day in the Stock Market history, since every investor was selling their stocks and there was no buyer, the market collapsed and it did not recover for a long time. Banking was also affected by the crash. 

The panic that started with the collapse of the Stock Market left the people in fear for they might lose their savings they poured into their banks; this led a large number of depositors, investors and alike to withdraw their funds from their banks, all at once, hence the name “Bank Run”. Normally, banks hold a small amount of money in their reserves at a given time and use the rest to lend loans to borrowers and purchase beneficial assets. However, when a bank run occurs, a bank has a limited time to find the necessary amount in order to give it back to its depositors, often putting the solvency and credibility of the bank in danger. During the Depression, four different bank runs occurred throughout the US., that resulted in many of the banks to fail and bankrupt. 

One of the reasons of the bank runs was due to the fact that the financial confidence in banks and institutes was greatly tainted; the banks used the deposits of their clients in secret without their knowledge, to invest in the Stock Market. Sadly, the struggle of people was to no avail; in the US., before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that concerned about the insurance of depositors, there was no guarantee for a citizen to receive his funds if a bank would go bankrupt. Millions of people lost their life-savings and left them penniless. When the US economy collapsed, the government’s policy not to interfere with the situation and the decisions that were made during the depression worsened it. The economist Milton Friedman put it this way: “The Great Depression, like most other periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government mismanagement rather than by any inherent instability of the private economy.” (Friedman, 38) Months prior to the Stock Market crash, Herbert Hoover was elected as the 31st president of the United States. He believed in self-reliance and self-help, advocating that people should help their each other and can get through the depression eventually; his belief in Laissez Faire, defended that less the government interruption, the better the economy will be. 

However, this did not help the economy and further bankrupts occurred in the private sector. Federal Reserve’s mistake also affected the economy, since the distribution and transaction of currency was regulated by the Federal Reserve, it didn’t put enough money into circulation to battle the depression and reverse the effects. When the government decided that it should protect the local industries, it imposed the Smooth-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930; the idea was that by levying high tariffs on foreign goods, Americans would be forced to buy goods from local industries, stimulating the economy; however it backfired as it faced retaliation by other countries by doing the same for US imports, this resulted in the downfall of the International Trade, and thus worsened the effects of the Great Depression.

Consequently, we can see that the Great Depression was not something that happened on an instant, but rather a product of a consumer society which continued over a decade. We can say that the primary reason of such a thing is the optimistic approach of American people towards the future after emerging victorious from the World War I started a chain reaction;

the large amount of money transfers to the stock market and the desire to buy recklessly, the society began to pull down the economy after a certain time. The failure to repay the loans taken from banks and the fact that the banks used their customers’ money in secret for their own purposes destroyed the overall confidence. In addition, several decisions taken before and after the depression affected the global monetary balance alongside the international trade in a negative way and so the Great Depression broke out.

During the 1930s, as a medium, photography’s usage was vital, not only to capture the horrific effects of the Great Depression and the conditions of the people at that time but also to advertise the New Deal programs to Americans and gain their trust and support. In this case, initial purpose and inspiration for the usage of photography came from partisan reasons. This was an obligatory step to take to promote and defend a program’s validity, if it was to receive the necessary funds, by Congress. In fact, many of the iconic images that were taken during the Great Depression were the work of a group of photographers, in the service to photographic unit of Farm Security Administration. 

Launched in 1937 as predecessor to Resettlement Administration, Farm Security Administration was created to fight rural poverty, help poor farmers that were hit by the economic crisis and the Dust Bowl and relocate them to government-run camps for housing. However, this required a serious funding and maintenance and it was only possible if the program could prove its usefulness for the people. By the time FSA was created, Roy Stryker was already recruited to lead the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration and after that he was transferred to FSA to continue his work. He was chosen by Rexford Tugwell, an economist and advisor and mentor to Stryker during his university years at Columbia University. When Tugwell became a part of FDR’s brain trust, he was to lead Resettlement Administration; he needed a person who could undertake the mission to compile a complete photographic record of the RA’s activities. Although not a photographer himself, Stryker was able to create a group of photographers that worked in the field across the United States for eight years. He said:

I was pretty unsophisticated when I took that job as far as how to pick a photographer. Let’s be very honest about it. In that job and elsewhere, I began to realize it was curiosity, it was a desire to know, it was the eye to see the significance around them. Very much what a journalist or a good artist is, is what I looked for. And above all else, …, a sincere, passionate love of people, and respect for people. (Stryker, no page)

According to Michael L. Carlebach, an American photographer and historian who focused on early works of American Photojournalism, the purpose of the Photographic Unit of FSA was to “enlighten, to educate, to persuade, even at times to entertain the public.”(Carlebach, 10 ) In this regard, the purpose of the unit was to capture photos that expressed the need for change in the Agricultural sector and also show that the New Deal program was effective. FSA was the first program that used the medium as a tool of propaganda. 

Although it was obvious, Stryker denied that the photographs were used as propaganda. To his view, they were to become a collection that would serve as a visual encyclopedia of United States. Instead of just taking the pictures of farmers, dusty households and migrants, Roy Stryker wanted his photographers to capture the essence of their subjects, which made the pictures persuasive to be used in the future, aside from their propagandist usage. Therefore, Stryker wanted to leave a legacy to future generations as they would look upon the photographs and could feel the emotions through the camera lens.

There are great pictures today and they are not great tomorrow. There are great pictures today and they are going to be great pictures right on down time, not because they’ve been used a lot, but because they were great pictures probably and it took many, many people keep sensing the same thing. 

Stryker put his idea into practice by using “Documentary Photography”. It was a form of photography that approached to actual conditions with a straight-forward attitude. This form allowed the photographers to take pictures of what they see as they are, without making changes on it or create scenes to make the picture more appealing. Stryker knew that the pictures they would take have an impact on the rural America. In a writing of Stryker, Roy recounts the moment as Tugwell gave him a chance to lead the Historical Section of RA. He wrote: “Roy, you’ve got a real chance now to tell the people of America that those in distressed areas are the same as everybody else except they need a better chance”.(Carlebach, 17) With this thought in mind, Roy sent his photographers across the US, with instructions to get photos of people and places which would create emphasis on the subjects which in turn would help gain public support for the program. 

During this time, they photographed desperate farmers and migrant workers escape from poverty that the Dust Bowl brought. Years of over-cultivation and excessive farming destroyed the tall prairie grass which protected the topsoil of Midwest. The drought that started in the early 1930s and the high winds carried the dust away and created major dust storms, or “Black Blizzards”. Hundreds of thousands of people, farmers had to abandon their farms and homes in search of better conditions. Over 2 million people had to migrate from the Dust Bowl states, particularly from Oklahoma; most of the refugees tried to go to California where they hoped to find work. In Grapes of Wrath by John Steinback, the depiction of the struggle of the Joad Family was no different than those families in Oklahoma in reality. It says: 'Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes.”(Steinback, 5) 

As the photographers continued to take photographs of various people and alike, on a personal note they found that American spirit was alive and didn’t conform to the harshness of the reality; they were in fact, prideful and did not want the help of the government. During an interview, Arthur Rothstein, the first FSA photographer to be recruited said: “Back in those years, I found that a kind of individualism existed among the people, an inability to conform, a desire to be the master of their own fate. This is a sort of trait, I think, that even to this day exists among Americans.” (Rothstein, 23) Nevertheless, in the face of poverty, not every American citizen was strong to survive on their own. Dorothea Lange’s most famous, and most known photograph of the depression, “The Migrant Mother” showed how fragile the situation was. As one the few women photographers among the FSA photographic unit she photographed the plight of farmers and unemployed people, as she travelled across US. with her camera. In a later account to recall the experience, she said:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (Lange, no page)

With the usage of photography, under Roy Stryker’s administration of the photographic unit of FSA, the New Deal program proved to be effective to gain the much-needed public support and funds by Congress; although FDR’s one of the most controversial programs, the unit’s success brought a new sense of understanding into Americans’ minds who lived in the cities. It was to show city dwellers what it’s like to live in the rural areas of America and to put them in motion and support. The negatives of the FSA photographers, reaching almost one quarter million reflected the gloomy days of the Great Depression.

As a resolution, in the first section, we have explained the reasons that caused The Great Depression in 1929. It started to grow when, US emerged victorious from the World War I, Americans shared a collective of optimism and joy which resulted in a consumer society where people lived the life on the edge; named as “Roaring Twenties”, this era gave the way to a total consumerism that created a kind of new American. People bought new items for themselves, even in the expense of being in debt to banks. During the time, the Stock Market’s rise was also a reason which caused Americans to invest their life-savings and funds into the pool. 

Later on, we discussed the political decisions that were undertaken in the aftermath of WWI. These decisions were to help Germany to stabilize its economy, which in turn it would support the Allied forces as part of the war reparations. The intended program, known as Dawes Plan was initially successful as it stabilized the German market and gave relief; the Young Plan however failed when it was put on halt due to the fact that the Great Depression started and foreign banks requested the loans to be given back. Additionally, the farmers’ attitude to plow more land and grow crops led to a price drop which eventually lowered farmers’ income and made them unable to pay the debts they owned to banks. 

The ultimate crash of the Stock Market, which marked the start of The Great Depression caused a nation-wide panic as people were desperate to withdraw their money from the banks, which resulted in bank runs. We have discussed the government decisions which worsened the situation at hand; under Hoover’s administration, the Laissez Faire understanding of economy, which was the belief that the government should avoid participation in the economy left the market unattended and soon to fail. Then, the Smooth-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 greatly reduced the international trade when faced with retaliation from the countries who opposed the idea. An effort to protect local industries caused even more problems globally. 

In the second section, we stressed out the usage of the radio in broad terms. It was used as an entertainment device, where it gave relief to millions of Americans as they listened from their radios at their homes; their radio programs gave them joy and happiness, which was much needed during the depression era. Though, when one person decided to shape its purpose, it left many Americans terrified; Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds showed that mediums can be deceiving, and the results would often lead to disaster. Apart from this, we concluded that its usage as a propagandist tool served well for the government ideals as New Deal programs under Roosevelt administration were explained through radio. Roosevelt’s radio time, known as the “Fireside Chats” connected the president with the Americans and brought him to their homes. 

Moreover, the radio journalism also played as a key factor for distributing vital information to people. For an American, even a remote occurrence in a distant land could be a whisper-close in her ears. Afterwards, we discussed that, photography's usage consisted of propaganda. Initially, it was to persuade Americans that the New Deal program, Farm Security Administration was necessary; to achieve it, under Roy Stryker’s guidance, photographers were sent out across USA to capture photographs that would be used to support the idea. Unlike the thought behind it, Stryker opposed it, for in his eyes, photographs were to be a part of a legacy in the future and not just mere pictures of people, farms and barren landscape. The Documentary was a form of photography which helped Roy achieve his dream to capture “the moment”. 

Later on, we also described the Dust Bowl which occurred in 1930s and worsened the conditions of the farmers. In the final section, we talked about cinema and its importance to Americans as they faced the depression. Served to entertain, cinema helped people to forget the harsh reality of the effects of the Great Depression; Its accessibility made it possible for most of the Americans to go and see a movie, which helped them get away from the situation. Hollywood’s rise occurred during these hard times as it gained huge numbers of audience thanks to the low-ticket prices which enabled people to escape into a world of fiction, which was also the point of escapism that Hollywood emphasized on as it bolstered the confidence in American spirit.

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