As Americans anxiously watch the stock market’s daily fluctuations, the rising unemployment rate, housing foreclosures and the scandals that have rocked the financial world, the fear of another Great Depression hovers in our minds. Like Lord Voldemort, it is a terror that cannot be named. Yet it is the duty of historians and teachers to explore the connections between past and present, and to examine the context that past policies create for future ones. Most importantly, we must remind our students and readers that the past never actually repeats itself.
The essays in this issue of History Now achieve all of these important goals. Our six distinguished contributors examine the particular circumstances that created and surrounded the Depression of the 1930s, the impact of policies chosen and paths untaken, and remind us that many of the institutions, programs, regulations and safeguards in place today were born in the crucible of an earlier era. There could be no better time to look closely once again at the Great Depression and the New Deal than 2009.
In his essay “The Great Depression: An Overview,” David Kennedy offers us a broad perspective on the causes and consequences of the Stock Market Crash and the economic crisis that followed. In “WPA: Antidote to the Great Depression?” Nick Taylor helps us take a closer look at one of the central programs that defined the New Deal and asks us to consider its achievements and its shortcomings. Like Taylor, Anthony Badger poses a critical question: “The 100 Days and Beyond: What did the New Deal Accomplish?,” offering an in-depth analysis of programs and policies so closely associated with FDR’s administration. In “Women and the Great Depression,” Susan Ware reminds us that economic crisis affects women in distinctive ways and that women’s experiences add an important dimension to any critique of the Depression and the New Deal. In “The New Deal, Then and Now,” Alan Brinkley brings attention back to our current situation as he looks at the lessons that can be learned from both the successes and the failures of the New Deal. Finally, Elizabeth Braun examines the role of artists during the Great Depression. Taken together, these essays provide teachers and students with a richer, more complex understanding of one of the most dramatic moments in our national history.
Our interactive feature, “Hard Times: The Great Depression on New York’s Lower East Side,” was produced in partnership with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It offers a visual reminder of the human cost of the economic crisis in the lives of ordinary citizens. In addition, our master teachers, Bruce Lesh and Phil Nicolosi, suggest strategies for approaching the era in the classroom. As always, teachers from around the country provide lesson plans for elementary, middle school, high school and AP classes that can be adapted to fit the needs of your individual classroom. And, should you want to read further or to locate primary sources on any and all of the topics covered by our scholars, you can turn to our archivist Mary-Jo Kline's pages for guidance.
It is our hope that Spring will bring better headlines and brighter futures for us all.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.