Saturday History: Some of the Drastic Changes During Our Young Lives, 1932 – WWII
by Letty Owings
I remember standing in front of an upstairs window in the isolated farm house. The date was November 8, 1932. My father and my grandfather were riding away in a buggy in a cloud of snow. Women had the right to vote, but my mother left such decisions to the men. Besides, she would never ride in a buggy in a snow storm if she could help it. The men’s destination was the nearest polling place, and their purpose was to cast their votes for Herbert Hoover, the incumbent Republican President. The Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, former Governor of New York among other positions, had an eastern accent and smoked cigarettes in a holder—that among other suspicious characteristics. Hoover was conservative, rich and safe. Why would farmers vote for Hoover when the depths of the Great Depression left those who tilled the soil in a state of dire poverty?
The answer to the choice of candidate was simple for my father and his father. My family were of German descent, so they voted Republican, even if they starved. Also 1932 was long years before mass communication, so issues were more to be imagined than studied. But Herbert Hoover did not prevail, and a massive transformation came to America. Franklin Roosevelt became the key figure in the transformation, but he did not control all the events that led the country into a new era. The New Deal under Roosevelt gave the country more than alphabet soup. Whether it was the CCC, the WPA or the , PWA, the new program initials became the butt of jokes as they ushered in drastic changes. During this same time, Hitler was making his way across Europe and the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This was long before the days of mass media and terrorists killing terrorists all over the globe. These events happened to the good ol’ USA where every day was predictable, and they came at the same time citizens were attempting to grope their way through the maze of new government programs. People struggled to understand their new President who took to the airways to urge the banks to stay open and to remind the citizens that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt may have been a controversial figure, the lion and the fox at the same, but he had no competitor for the title of “silver-tongued orator.” He wrote his own appealing speeches which came to be called “fireside chats.” His voice enchanted and mesemerized all who sat with their heads leaning toward whatever kind of radio they might have available. Since many folks such as our family had no radios of any sort, we had to listen to neighbors who might have had access to the airwaves. Roosevelt had grandiose plans and innovative programs, but without his assistance, rains came again to the Middle West, ending the punishing dust-bowl years. Gradually business began to move again. Seeds sprouted, crops flourished and harvest time became productive. As Americans celebrated better economic times, they marched off to war on two fronts. Some came home again, carrying the memories and battle scars. Some never came home. Their lives snuffed out, their bodies left in foreign cemeteries, their hopes and dreams buried with them.
Yes, I remember well the day Roosevelt beat out Hoover in the election of 1932. I was eight years old. When death ended his Presidency on April 12, 1945, I was sitting by the old wind-charger radio nursing my first baby. All my young life, I had known only one President. For better or for worse, he was our leader. It was his long tenure that led to the limitation of Presidential tenure. A larger-than-life figure, F.D.R. had his dark side. His extra-marital affairs were no secret, but TV coverage did not yet bring them into every living room. The books written about him and about Eleanor could fill a library. They generated books and theories and admirers and enemies. During his years, America matured through trial and error as well as through victory and defeat. How much Roosevelt influenced the change remains an arguable subject.
The title of this chapter in history calls World War II “The Great War,” a title which comes from the Russians who suffered through so many horrific wars that they had to distinguish it in some way. The United States could truthfully use the same title. This country had begun in war, the one called the Revolutionary War—which was really a colonial uprising. Small wars came on the scene from time to time until the Civil War when the citizens of the United States enjoyed the luxury of killing one another. Had the two oceans not acted as a barrier, surely other nations would have come in and taken advantage of a weakened, sickened country whose citizens murdered each other. The results still haunt us today. “Damn Yankee” remains one word to some in the South, and racism did not end when Lee surrendered to Grant.
In 1914, one hundred years ago last year, a shot was fired, and a man was killed. Then the world went mad. Nations who bragged about being civilized unleashed a four-year orgy of killing, like nothing the world had ever seen. Millions died in lonely trenches. Millions who lived, survived with hate in their hearts. A vindictive peace enforced a food blockade that led the way for an angry people to accept Adolph Hitler, a virtual incarnation of evil. The conflagration was World War I. My father would have been in the next draft had the war continued. He had two small children by that time, my sister and my brother. A story goes that on the night when plans were in the making for the Versaille Treaty to end the war and dictate the terms, Herbert Hoover, a diplomat but not yet a President, told a friend as they walked the streets, “They are planning World War II.” He knew that revenge and hate could only lead to another bloody conflagration.
If the first world war accomplished anything, it was to teach people that another way had to be found to solve the disputes between nations. Also, it left America with a bad case of isolationism, the idea that what happened “across the pond” meant nothing to the citizens of the United States. Wrong! President Woodrow Wilson emerged from the fray a broken man. His dream of a League of Nations was not even ratified by his own country. The best that could be said of the attempt was that it was a forerunner of the United Nations. Then came a different set of circumstances that propelled the United States into yet another war. Hitler ran rampant across Europe, and Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. That set off the Great War which governed our young lives.
When the conflict in Europe began with Hitler’s rise to power, I was in grade school. Without the benefit of mass communication available to us, the reports of the first years of war in Europe trickled to us. It got to be serious news when people talked about our possible intervention. My folks with acute memories of the first world war, were adamant pacifists. They were sure Roosevelt was dragging us in a mess we should ignore. Distant relatives from Germany sent word to some in America that Hitler was what Germany needed. It was not until I was in college and studied the conflict in detail that I learned what really happened. If the depression had determined my early life, its end led directly into the involvement in the war. Ours was a generation virtually without choices, at least major choices.
Lest anyone believes the statement that the war ruled all our young lives is an exaggeration, remember that when Hitler rose to power, I was in grade school. When Chamberlain declared giving him what he demanded amounted to “peace in our time” I was in early high school. When we entered the war, I was sixteen. When it was over, I had a child. That covers the young years. Songs still bring back some of the feelings. “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square;” “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano;” “When the Lights go on Again, All Over the World;” “Give Me One Dozen Roses,(and put my heart in beside them); “The White Cliffs of Dover;” “Anchors Aweigh;” and on and on. I had to wait some years before I ever saw Dover or Berkley Square or a number of other locations we sang about, but that did not keep them from speaking for our generation. We had our songs and our stories, crazy, funny, sad, but they were ours. The sound of them on a CD or a tape brings back some emotions too intense to bear.
Creative Commons photo courtesy of Sergey Yeliseev on flickr.