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by Justus D. Doenecke


Hoover to Hiroshima

So you think American history from the Great Depression through World War II holds no surprises? Read on.

The tumultuous period from 1929 to 1945 has been exhaustively covered in scholarly monographs and popular histories alike, yet as two recent books attest, there is always room for a fresh look at what we thought we knew. With both vividness and grace, Stanford historian David M. Kennedy covers this era in his volume in the Oxford History of the United States, a series designed to acquaint the broad public with fresh research. At first sight, the 858 pages of text can appear intimidating to the general reader, while to the specialist the narrative format and capsule biographies might seem somewhat old-fashioned. But lively prose does not necessarily connote intellectual shoddiness. Kennedy's account is superbly written, and even readers quite familiar with the major events of the Great Depression and World War II can learn much from it.

In For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s, Alonzo J. Hamby of the Ohio University ably covers some of the same ground. He ends his account with 1939, but he widens his scope to include the economic policies of Britain and Germany. Indeed, much of his account involves a comparison of Franklin D. Roosevelt's measures to those of Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and Adolf Hitler.

Both authors offer some surprising material. They note, for example, that during the "prosperity decade" of the 1920s, a significant number of immigrants to the United States were disillusioned by the lack of opportunity and hence returned to their homelands. Included were nearly a third of the Poles, Slovaks, and Croatians; about half the Italians; and over 50 percent of the Greeks, Russians, Rumanians, and Bulgarians. Furthermore, many Americans remained impoverished longer than is often supposed—in particular farmers, who did not fully recover until 1939. In other countries as well, the depression of 1929 hit hardest where the economy was already in decline, not just agriculture but textiles, petroleum, and coal. ...

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