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Economics & Finance

Depression or Recession? Parallels with 1929

John Godfrey Morris |
Relief line waiting for food in San Antonio, Texas, March 1939

John Godfrey Morris can tell you a little about The Depression. He lived through it. As one of the more respected photojournalists of the past century, he worked with such names as Robert Cappa and Henri Cartier-Bresson and such publications as Time Life, National Geographic and The New York Times. An American, Morris covered the landings in Normandy on D-Day for Time Life and followed the allied troops into Paris. He returned to the city in 1983 and is still there today, having been made a member of the French Legion of Honour. Now, at the sprightly age of 94, John shares his recollections of the Great Depression with INSEAD Knowledge.

Recession or Depression? Call the present economic downturn what you will, but many oldsters like me, who grew up in the unquestioned Depression of the Thirties, wax a little nostalgic when asked about “Those Times”.

Why? Because we actually enjoyed the Depression. Some of us.

I grew up in middle America. Middle in every way. Geographically, my home was in Hyde Park, more recently the home of Barack Obama, on the South Side of Chicago.

My father was vice president and sales manager of LaSalle Extension University, America's leading correspondence school.

We lived comfortable middle-class lives. We did not speak of money at the family dinner table. My father invested his savings in stocks and bonds. I remember going to the University State Bank on the one night a week the bank stayed open, to descend into the vault to clip coupons. His values were those of the country club he belonged to. He had little idea what it was like to be underprivileged. He believed that charities should and would take care of the poor. We did our bit by taking Christmas baskets to families who lived in the slums behind the stockyards.

When the stock market crashed on Wall Street in October 1929, Chicago stood aloof at first. That was New York's problem. But things soon went from bad to worse throughout the country as businessmen lost confidence. Factories closed. Thousands, and then millions, were out of work.  Farmers could no longer sell their produce; farms were foreclosed. Banks failed. But we were fortunate.  Almost alone on Chicago's South Side, our University State Bank stayed solvent, offering to pay off its depositors in full if they wished. So of course we stayed with them. The bank is still there today.  

In 1932, I took my first college courses in economics and politics at the University of Chicago. The country faced a crucial election that November. Political science professor Jerome Kerwin told us to read the campaign tracts of all the presidential candidates, even the Communist, and go to the polls to work for the candidate we thought best. The Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, whose slogan was "a chicken in every pot" (borrowing the phrase from Henri IV), was facing New York's governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, and Norman Thomas, a Socialist. I thought the Socialist platform sounded best.

The country was still committed to capitalism. So was my family. My sister, now 101, recalls  that I cried my eyes out upon the news that Herbert Hoover had been defeated. Taking office in March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt warned that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.  He proclaimed a New Deal, with one federal government initiative after another: a Public Works Administration to rebuild America's infrastructure; a Farm Security Administration to protect farmers; a Rural Electrification Administration to give them power; a Civilian Conservation Corps to give young men and women work; and a Works Progress Administration to employ the otherwise unemployable. 

With Eleanor Roosevelt at his side, Roosevelt soon became the people's president, winning a landslide re-election in 1936, but his programmes did not have it easy. The Eastern Establishment, which owned most of the press, opposed his every move. The conservative Supreme Court declared some measures unconstitutional.

The country could not easily shake off the Depression. The unemployed gathered around campfires in vacant lots. Breadlines fed the homeless. Picket lines could be seen everywhere as workers organised, often against violent opposition.

Then, as now, the battle lines were drawn between those who favoured "big government", necessitating higher taxes, and those who favoured "private enterprise", with tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. The wealthy, more concerned by Europe's Marxist experiments than by the menace of Nazism and Fascism, saw "Red" on the left. I remember my father, passing a bearded beggar in a poor neighbourhood, saying "Bolshevik" as an excuse for not stopping. The Chicago police had a special "Red squad" assigned to watch such people. In my sophomore year at the University of Chicago, druggist Charles R. Walgreen, charging that there were "Communists on Campus" because his niece had brought home a copy of the Communist Manifesto, got the Illinois state legislature to investigate. Fortunately civil libertarians, led by the university's great president Robert Maynard Hutchins, prevailed.

When I graduated from the university in 1937, an honoured Senior Marshal, I could not find a job. I wanted desperately to work for one of Henry R. Luce's magazines.  I took "The Time Test" for beginning writers and presumably passed, but was simply put on a waiting list. For a year I stayed at the university, editing football programmes and creating a student magazine called Pulse, frankly modelled on Time and Life and Fortune. I started it with three other students as associate editors. One, Bob Speer, had been rescued from poverty by the Civilian Conservation Corps. He knew that more than half the student body lived off campus, working their way through school.  One night in the Pulse office he sat down at a typewriter and wrote a piece we called The Ragged Edge. It spoke of the students "who live at the bare edge of necessity, who every so often crack up completely and commit messy suicides which rarely reach the papers … Not infrequent are the cases of students living in cellars, stoking furnaces, waiting on tables, hating the work that means low grades, that makes them only shabby blurs to the campus and people they would like to take to their hearts."

By the end of the fall quarter my three talented associate editors had all gotten jobs. I had to carry on alone. Finally, in November 1938, I was offered a starting job as a Time Inc. College Boy Office Boy, for $20 a week, and moved to New York. I had it easy there; the cost of living was low. A nickel would go a long way - a subway ride, a bowl of soup, a piece of pie, a cup of coffee. Time Inc represented capitalism at its best. Luce was not afraid of hiring writers who disagreed with him - he knew he had the last word. I joined the Newspaper Guild, and for a while collected dues from Life's Science writer Andrew Heiskell, who later became CEO of Time Inc.  

Private enterprise did not end the Depression. It was not until 1939, with Hitler's conquest of Poland which began World War II, that I got meaningful employment as a researcher/reporter on Life magazine. On December 7,1941, the Japanese celebrated my 25th birthday by bombing Pearl Harbor. At last, with America's full engagement in World War II, virtually every American found useful employment. Times were still tough but the Depression was over.


Sadly, as I see it, the world's current economic situation, particularly that of America, is not unlike that which I experienced in the late 1930s. Let us hope that the world finds a solution short of war.


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