…The social and political attitudes that had arisen out of the depression were stil firmly in control of the national mind. There were, as John Dos Passos had written, two Americas: the capitalistic one that saw the solution to its problems in low wages and repression of worker’s demands, and the rising liberal and labor faction ever pressing for higher wages, better working conditions, and improved social legislation. What the two had in common was that they were both reacting to the conditions of the depression.
For the businessman and factory hand alike, as H.M. Lynd wrote in Middletown,”The experience of the depression had been more nearly universal than any prolonged recent emotional experience in the city’s history; it had approached in its elemental shock the primary experience of birth and death.” Federal social security itself was something new; it had not existed before 1935, and up until 1939, when benefits were extended to include dependents, no one had been covered but the worker himself.
Politically, it was still the area of the popular front embracing Communism and liberalism- or was until August of 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet pact was to bring abrupt disillusionment to masses of American liberals and open the chasm between them and Communism that has been there ever since, despite periodic bouts of revival. In 1939 college students in many parts of the country still sang “Peat-Bog Soldiers” and “Freiheit” in romantic tribute to an already lost cause, that of the Spanish Loyalists. Communists, albeit in rather small numbers, dominated certain large and powerful labor organizations like the National Maritime Union; some of Hollywood’s leading writers were Communists, though the scripts they turned out were unexceptional at best.
Earl Browder, general secretary of the American Communist party, claimed in 1939 that his organization had one hundred thousand members, though the figure was likely far lower.At the other end of the political spectrum, Fritz Kuhn claimed the Nazi-oriented German-American Bund had twenty thousand members. ( to be continued)…