The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-05-27
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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In The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes, one of the nation's most-respected economic commentators, offers a striking reinterpretation of the Great Depression. She traces the mounting agony of the New Dealers and the moving stories of individual citizens who through their brave perseverance helped establish the steadfast character we recognize as American today.

Author Biography

Amity Shlaes is a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and a syndicated columnist at Bloomberg

Table of Contents

Cast of Charactersp. xi
Timelinep. xiii
Introductionp. 1
The Beneficent Handp. 15
The Junketp. 47
The Accidentp. 85
The Hour of the Vallarp. 105
The Experimenterp. 147
A River Utopiap. 173
A Year of Prosecutionsp. 189
The Chicken Versus the Eaglep. 214
Roosevelt's Wagerp. 246
Mellon's Giftp. 284
Roosevelt's Revolutionp. 296
The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirtp. 318
Black Tuesday, Againp. 334
"Brace Up, America"p. 352
Willkie's Wagerp. 366
Codap. 385
Afterword to the Paperback Editionp. 391
Acknowledgmentsp. 397
Bibliographic Notesp. 401
Selected Bibliographyp. 421
Indexp. 439
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


The Forgotten Man
A New History of the Great Depression

Chapter One

The Beneficent Hand

January 1927
Average unemployment (year): 3.3 percent
Dow Jones Industrial Average: 155

Floods change the course of history, and the Flood of 1927 was no exception. When the waters of the Mississippi broke through banks and levees that spring, the disaster was enormous. A wall of water pushed down the river, covering the area where nearly a million lived. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover raced to Memphis and took command. Hoover talked railroads into transporting the displaced for free and carrying freight at a discount. He commandeered private outboard motors and built motorboats of plywood. He urged the people who were not yet flooded out, such as the population around the Bayou des Glaises levee, to evacuate early, then rescued with the trains those tens of thousands who had ignored his warning. He helped the Red Cross launch a fund drive; within a month the charity had already collected promises of more than $8 million, an enormous figure for the time.

Several hundred thousand ended up in new refugee camps, many planned, right down to the latrines, by Hoover and his team. Hoover asked governors of each state to name a dictator of resources—he used the word "dictator"—and the governors complied. The dictators then managed the dysentery and the hunts for the missing along the floodwaters in their states hour by hour. He and the Red Cross sent the refugees to concentration camps—a phrase not so freighted then as it is today—at Vicksburg, Delta, and Natchez. One hundred thousand blankets from army warehouses were shipped to warm the refugees.

Things felt calmer on Hoover's watch. By mid-May, though the flooding was far from over, the anecdotes began to compete in the news with the reports of tragedy. Northerners read in Time magazine that a town called Waterproof, Louisiana, had not proven waterproof, and that its switchboard operators were still working—albeit from new posts, high up above the waters, on scaffolding. Not far from Memphis, Tennessee, bootleggers had also set up shop on high, in treetops. New babies were receiving flood names—Highwater Jones, Overflow Johnson. Now from Memphis, now from Little Rock, now from the Sugar Bowl, the itinerant flood manager, Hoover, wired or broadcast his analyses of the meaning of the disaster. Such flooding, he said, "is a national problem and must be solved nationally and vigorously." But the commerce secretary also spent a lot of time reassuring. The waters might hide the land, the crops might be lost, but the mood was now hopeful. More than any single figure, Hoover was succeeding in making Americans feel that the South would be all right again.

Hoover was already so famous that his name was a verb—to Hooverize, after the efforts in food rationing that he had led from a post as Washington's food administrator at the end of World War I. Americans recalled that he had led the humanitarian drive to feed occupied Belgium during the war. Now Hoover had outdone himself—and on a home territory whose geographic area covered more than Belgium's. What the public liked about Hoover was their sense of him as guardian, that he would protect them and what they had. If Hoover could win the presidential election the following year, then he might hold back whatever waters of adversity threatened. He was a Republican, like the sitting president, Calvin Coolidge. He would pick up where Coolidge left off—though he might update things, for everyone knew that Hoover, a mining engineer, could do amazing things with technology. One of Hoover's neatest feats—and he pulled it off right around the time of the flood—was to acquaint the public with an early version of television. "Herbert Hoover made a speech in Washington yesterday afternoon. An audience in New York heard and saw him," the New York Times wrote in awe, adding that Hoover had "annihilated" geographic distance and commenting in a headline: "Like a Photo Come to Life." It was not yet modern television but wired images and the telephone combined. Still, the idea took hold in the minds of the reporters. Under Hoover, it was easy to believe that the 1920s were merely the American beginning.

The idea of philosophical continuity from Coolidge to Hoover seemed ironic to one man: Calvin Coolidge himself. The two were party allies. Hoover had loyally campaigned for Coolidge in 1924—indeed, had helped to defeat a Coolidge opponent in 1924 in California to clear the Republican presidential nomination for Coolidge. But Coolidge did not especially like Hoover. In the very period when the Mississippi waters were rushing, in fact, Coolidge's press spokesman had taken an explicit shot at Hoover, telling reporters that the commerce secretary would not be considered for the job opening if the secretary of state happened to retire.

The differences between the men had started with small things. Hoover was a fly fisherman. Coolidge fished with worms. Hoover liked the microphone. Coolidge shied away from it. After a landslide presidential victory in 1924 Coolidge had sent a clerk to read aloud his State of the Union address. Hoover ignored politics for the first thirty-five years of his life. Coolidge held his first office, that of city council member in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-eight, and had rarely been out of government since. Hoover was a mining engineer; Coolidge was a country lawyer. Hoover was a worldly American, a blend of regions and cities, the most successful in his field of his generation. He believed in the Anglo-American gold standard, not only because it had made him rich but because he had seen firsthand how it kept the world running, like a grandfather clock. Coolidge was a pure New Englander who seemed to re-create New England wherever he went. The very concept of "overseas" was a bit vague to Coolidge. The typical Republican of his day, he supported tariffs in the belief that they strengthened the United States. His failure to recognize the consequences of his policies, both abroad and for his country, was his greatest shortcoming.

The Forgotten Man
A New History of the Great Depression
. Copyright © by Amity Shlaes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes
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