Our Century: The Thirties

Our Century: The Thirties


Is It to Be Murder, Mr. Hoover?

Is it to be mass murder, Herbert Hoover? Murder by starvation, murder by disease, murder by killing all hope–and the soul?…

Do you know what is happening?… Have you not heard that city authorities in St. Louis and the charitable agencies have just turned adrift 13,000 families which they can no longer support, while the city of Detroit has dropped 18,000 who now have…no assurance that even a single crust of bread will be forthcoming for their support?… Did you read that eight hundred men marched into the Indiana State Capitol last week demanding food, declaring that if they were not given help they would return 300,000 strong? Have you learned that the police in St. Louis have already fired on a mob demanding bread? Have you not read of the town of Clinton, Mass., where on July 7 “more than three hundred men, women, and crying children crowded the corridors of the Town Hall appealing for food”–only to learn that the town treasury has been exhausted, that it is unable to borrow a cent from any bank, and that it has been, and still is, trying to support one out of every six residents of the town who are destitute?

–Editorial, August 3, 1932

The hardly bought achievements of the machine age in the hands of our generation are as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a three-year-old child.

–Albert Einstein, “The 1932 Disarmament Conference,” an anticipatory essay, September 21, 1931

A command was given and the cavalry charged the crowd with drawn sabers.

–Paul Y. Anderson, “Tear-Gas, Bayonets, and Votes,” on the military assault in Washington, DC, against the “Bonus Army” of poor veterans and their families, August 17, 1932

The Pot and the Kettle: Roosevelt and Hoover Militarists Both

We must not forget that Mr. Roosevelt favored our intervention in Mexico…. He connived in and welcomed the pulling down of the Haitian Republic. He has twice denied to The Nation that he made the remark attributed to him in the press…that he had written the Haitian constitution and forced it down the throats of the Haitians. But he does not deny that he was entirely satisfied with what was done in Haiti and particularly with the act of Smedley Butler in dispersing the Haitian legislature with a pistol in his hand and a battalion of marines at his back.

–Oswald Garrison Villard, October 26, 1932

Even though the change to a Democratic Administration offers no real relief…from the disaster in which the country finds itself, we cannot but take heart at the verdict.

–Editorial, “The End of Herbert Hoover,” on the election of Franklin Roosevelt, November 16, 1932

In the Driftway

The National Smile Contest was organized apparently in the interest of portrait photographers. Prizes to the number of 173 were offered as bait. “Maybe you have one of the 173 best smiles in the U. S. A.,” read the advertisement of one studio. “Have a smiling picture taken–it will automatically enrol you in the National Smile Contest.” A photograph of a young lady with a mouth like a tooth-paste advertisement bore the slogan: “What this country needs is a Smile!” What this country needs, retorted the Drifter, though he fears nobody heard him, is something to smile about.

–The Drifter, December 7, 1932

The Horrors at Shanghai

Shanghai, February 23

The Japanese…bombed and bombarded the North Station of the Shanghai-Nanking Railway; they bombed and burned to the ground the Commercial Press, the greatest Chinese publishing house in the world; they also bombed and burned to ashes the famous Oriental library attached to the Press, in which there were some million volumes and ancient manuscripts, many of which can never be replaced….

…An American consular official watched a Japanese marine catch a poor coolie and bayonet him, and every time the body showed signs of life, drive the bayonet through it from a new angle…. A German business man named Hans Kremm, trapped with his family for days in the war zone,…had seen Japanese creep up to the houses, set them on fire, and then when the families hiding inside were driven out by the flames, shoot them dead in their tracks…. It is not known how many thousands of Chinese civilians were killed. Mr. Kremm saw piles of dead bodies on which hungry, yelping dogs fed for days.

–Agnes Smedley, March 30, 1932

That Hitler has again lost the opportunity to head a German coalition Cabinet offered to him by President von Hindenburg is excellent news. His wavering, his vacillation, and his failure to take this chance to become Chancellor must certainly hurt him further with his followers. He has persistently boasted that he was his party…. Yet when confronted by the offer made by Hindenburg this bold dictator…conclude[d] that, after all, the conditions laid down by Hindenburg were too onerous. No Napoleon here–just a confused and weak demagogue in the process of being deflated. He now declares that he will be Chancellor within four months. Perhaps. But he has told his army of their impending victory so often that this need alarm no one.

–Editorial, December 7, 1932

[On January 30, 1933, Hitler would become Chancellor. By March he would proclaim the Third Reich.]

Gandhi Succeeds

A little brown naked man lies in a bare prison yard, and by his simple refusal to eat brings two warring classes of his countrymen together and the proud Empire to terms. It seems incredible, but it is true. Gandhi’s readiness to die of starvation has achieved this result on the sixth day of his fast, and the British government, whose India office worked Sunday and Sunday night lest Gandhi die suddenly, has agreed to revise that portion of its recent communal plan which provided for separate electorates for the depressed classes. When ever before did a political prisoner behind the bars achieve anything like this by a simple readiness to die rather than to accept what he considered an intolerable award?

–Editorial, October 5, 1932

Upton Sinclair’s Victory

If ever a revolution was due, it was due in California. Nowhere else has the battle between labor and capital been so widespread and bitter, and the casualties so large; nowhere else has there been such a flagrant denial of the personal liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights; nowhere else has authority been so lawless and brazen; nowhere else has the brute force of capitalism been so openly used and displayed; nowhere else has labor been so oppressed; nowhere has there been a falser or more poisonous press. It was time for some sign of rebellion….

[Mr. Sinclair] has made multitudes think and will make still more. He has won them…to his belief that the economic and political jungle we live in today is no more necessary and inevitable than were the foul horrors of that human cesspool of the stockyards which he–to his everlasting honor–revealed in his most famous book “The Jungle.”

–Editorial on Sinclair’s successful nomination as Democratic candidate for California Governor, September 12, 1934

Why should non-intoxicating beer be denied equality with the oyster or the milk shake, which are now widely sold across the bar?

–Editorial, March 8, 1933


The rank-and-file movement [of the United Rubber Workers in Akron, Ohio] really got under way in a curious and particularly American way. The story goes that one Sunday afternoon a couple of baseball teams composed of workers employed in two big rubber factories suddenly refused to play a scheduled game because they found out that the umpire…was not a union man. The players just sat down literally,…while the crowd, consisting mainly of workingmen…generally raised a merry din, till the non-union umpire withdrew and a union man called the game. It is said that the expression “sitdown” was first used in the discussions that followed that game.

Not long afterward a petty dispute over a point in working conditions developed between the workers–[about a dozen in all]–and the superintendent of a department in one of the great rubber factories…. [R]emembering the sitdown at the ball game, one of them blurted out, “Aw, to hell with ‘im, let’s sit down!”…

…In no time the most important departments of the factory were at a standstill. Thousands of workers sat down. Some because they wanted to, more because everything stopped anyhow.

And sitting by their machines, caldrons, boilers, and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works!

–Louis Adamic, December 5, 1936

New generations have to learn each time from their own experience–but they do not begin from the beginning, nor do they learn everything all over again…. The great tradition permeates the very marrow of the workers and facilitates the selection of the road.

–Leon Trotsky, “Revolutionary Interlude in France,” August 8, 1936

The Tragedy of the Political Exiles

The barbarity of fascism and Nazism is being condemned and fought by the persons who have remained perfectly indifferent to the Golgotha of the Russian politicals. And not only indifferent; they actually justify the barbarities of the Russian dictatorship as inevitable. All these good people are under the spell of the Soviet myth…. A recent appeal of the International Workingmen’s Association gives a heart-breaking picture of the condition of Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists in Stalin’s stronghold. Renewed arrests in Odessa, Tomsk, Archangel, and other parts of Russia have taken place…. No charge whatever is made against the victims. Without hearing or trial they have been sent away…to isolated parts…. [T]here is no hope of liberation during the much-praised Communist experiment.

–Emma Goldman, October 10, 1934

Dust Changes America

In a rising sand storm cattle quickly become blinded. They run around in circles until they fall and breathe so much dust that they die. Autopsies show their lungs caked with dust and mud. Farmers dread the birth of calves during a storm. The newborn animals will be dead within twenty-four hours.

–Margaret Bourke-White, May 22, 1935

That the fate of an empire embracing one-fourth of the world’s surface and population should hang so perilously on a woman’s attraction for a man is an undreamed-of triumph for the romanticists and a vindication of the “Cleopatra’s nose” school of history.

–Editorial, “Mrs. Simpson and the Constitution,” December 12, 1936

A few of the women got tired and sat down to rest upon the boxes bearing “No Trespassing” signs. The police began to chase them and an argument ensued. “We’ll show you,” growled one of the officers and began to shoot tear-gas. There were screams, shouts, turmoil, and in the midst of this excitement bullets began to fly.

–Rose M. Stein, on the Little Steel strike

The CIO Moves On

All profound social change involves danger, and the deeper and more rapid the change the greater the danger. The CIO is the most progressive and vital force in American life today. But you cannot release such a force in the very heart of American industry without raising up all the powers of reaction against it. The student of American labor cannot hope to understand our labor movement from now on without realizing that the mass industries cannot be organized without audacity–and they cannot be left unorganized. From now on labor must live dangerously. Every situation is of a kind where the leadership must take chances. The sitdown is dangerous. The need for exercising increasing political pressure is dangerous. The need for exposing the AF of L scabocracy without antagonizing its rank and file is dangerous. The mere fact that a strike in a basic industry is not a mere strike but an economic stoppage of vast consequences is dangerous. Even the victories of the CIO will be dangerous, for it would be silly to suppose that the Liberty Leaguers who own our basic industries will yield without a desperate struggle.

–Benjamin Stolberg, February 20, 1937

I Accuse the Hitler Regime

The mystery of the Word is great; the responsibility for it and its purity is of a symbolic and spiritual kind; it has not only an artistic but also a general ethical meaning; it is responsibility itself, human responsibility quite simply, also the responsibility for one’s own people, the duty of keeping pure its image in the sight of humanity. In the Word is involved the unity of humanity, the wholeness of the human problem, which permits nobody, today less than ever, to separate the intellectual and artistic from the political and social, and to isolate himself within the ivory tower of the “cultural” proper….

A German author accustomed to this responsibility of the Word…should he be silent, wholly silent, in the face of the inexpiable evil that is done daily in his country to bodies, souls, and minds, to right and truth, to men and mankind?… It was not possible for me to be silent.

–Thomas Mann, March 6, 1937

Fairy Tale in Five Acts

I can remember no finer moment in any film than this one when at sunrise in the forest the banks of eyes which have looked so sinister all night turn out to belong to rabbits, fawns, chipmunks, bluebirds, and turtles. The transition is from shadowy evil to the clearest and most blithesome benevolence. The antics of these charming beasts vary henceforth between the beatific and the absurd; the pride of the baby bluebird in his voice, the ticklish turtle offering his belly for a washboard when Snow White starts housecleaning for the dwarfs, and the squirrels undoing cobwebs with their tails are but understatements of the very touching love for Snow White which they share with a helpless audience. Then there are the dwarfs–in their seven foolish ways as irresistible as the heroine, and of course no less devoted to her than the animals are; though one of them, Grumpy, remains a misogynist almost to the end. Mr. Disney…lives somewhere near the human center and knows innumerable truths that cannot be taught…. [W]e can trust him with our hearts and wits.

–Mark Van Doren, on the premiere of Disney’s first full-length film, January 22, 1937

Palestine Is Divided

Once the principle of partition is accepted, the details of the commission’s plan stand out as a reasonable compromise. While territory assigned to the Jews represents a considerably greater value per inhabitant than the land assigned to the Arabs, the discrepancy will be partially made up by extensive irrigation projects in the Arab portion.

–Editorial, July 17, 1937

Laughter in Madrid

The thing about living in Madrid these days is that you never know when a shell is going to fall. Or where. Any time is firing time for Franco…. Tomorrow Franco’s big guns on the hills outside Madrid may decide to change their range-finders and bombard the city fan-wise, sending quince-y-medios from one side of town to the other. No matter in what section of the city you live, a shell may land in the kitchen of the sixth-floor apartment (whose inhabitants you’ve often passed on the stairs), penetrate several floors, and make its way to the street via your front room on the third floor….

Around the Cibeles Fountain in front of the Post Office the street cars still pass, although the fountain itself with its lovely goddess is now concealed by a specially built housing of bricks and sandbags, so that the good-natured Madrileños have nicknamed it “Beauty Under Cover,” laughing at their own wit.

Yes, people still laugh in Madrid. In this astonishing city of bravery and death, where the houses run right up to the trenches and some of the street-car lines stop only at the barricades, people still laugh, children play in the streets, and men buy comic papers as well as war news….

A million people living on the front lines of a nation at war! The citizens of Madrid–what are they like? Not long ago a small shell fell in the study of a bearded professor of ancient languages. Frantically his wife and daughter came running to see if anything had happened to him. They found him standing in the center of the floor, holding the shell and shaking his head quizzically. “This little thing,” he said, “this inanimate object, can’t do us much damage. It’s the philosophy that lies behind it, wife, the philosophy that lies behind it.”

–Langston Hughes, January 29, 1938

The Latest Anti-Jewish Horror

The remaining German Jews sit around waiting for their turn in the cattle cars. In Vienna, the Dutch papers report, eighty-two Jews, thirty-six of them women, have committed suicide in the last two weeks. That is what Hitler likes to hear. He can steal everything they leave. He would have Jews murdered out of hand, I have no doubt, if he dared. It would certainly be more merciful if he did.

[Since this article was written, a report has been received from the Netherlands that 40,000 Jews have already been herded into the “Jewish State” under such shocking conditions that typhus is rampant. A later dispatch, from Paris, indicates that the plan for the Lublin “reservation” has been abandoned in favor of a larger reservation of mixed Polish and Jewish population.
Editors of The Nation.]

–Oswald Garrison Villard, December 30, 1939

On May Day, while Communists marched in London with flaming banners proclaiming “Britain and Russia–the Hope of the World,” the New York Times ran a dispatch from Berlin, “Another ‘Little’ War Believed German Aim. Victory Over Poland Without a Break with Great Britain Would Meet Hopes of the Nazi Regime.” On May 3 the British Cabinet decided to reject the Russian offer of an alliance, and Chamberlain told the Commons he was ready to exchange non-aggression pledges with Germany.

–I.F. Stone, “Chamberlain’s Russo-German Pact,” September 23, 1939

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