In 1932, with a staggering number of Americans out of work, soup kitchens and private charities overwhelmed, Franklin D. Roosevelt — a leader ready to act — brought the New Deal to the country. Bill Moyers explores America’s Depression-era shift to the left and shows how the rapid growth of government made Washington the center for the nation’s recovery and a purveyor of hope to millions.
BILL MOYERS: These are the American soldiers who fought to make the world safe for democracy. They returned from World War I to a nation so grateful and so prosperous that Congress in 1924 voted every doughboy a bonus, payable in 1945. But by 1932, in a Depression-racked America, 22,000 veterans joined ranks to say that they needed the money now.
QUESTION: Why was it that you came to Washington?
MALE VOICE: I came to Washington to get my bonus. And I’m going to wait for it till I get it, if I have to wait until 1945.
QUESTION: And what was it that brought you to Washington?
SECOND MALE VOICE: Well, to beat the undertaker. Spend the money before the undertaker gets it.
BILL MOYERS: Critics called them radicals. They called themselves the bonus expeditionary force in memory of more triumphal times. In truth, most we’re simply hungry, homeless victims of bad times asking their government for help. A few leaders understood.
SMEDLEY BUTLER: I never saw such fine Americanism as it is exhibited by you people. You have just as much right to have a lobby here as any steel corporation. We’ve got a God-given form of government. And whether it’s run right or not depends on the people who do the voting.
BILL MOYERS: But Congress, afraid to put the Treasury in debt, voted against early payment of the bonus. And President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army, whose Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur was aided by Majors George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower, to clear the veterans from the capital. It was July, 1932, the third year of the Depression and a few months from a presidential election.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Herbert Hoover could stop the bonus marchers but not the Depression. Millions of Americans who already saw him as helpless in the face of suffering now thought him callous toward it. He lost to Franklin Roosevelt in an election that drastically changed American government.
It’s hard to imagine today, but in 1932, we had almost no provision of any kind for the federal government to offer up a helping hand to the victims of economic collapse. The old credo said that the individual and his family were responsible for their own well-being. And if hard times struck, well, they’d have to shift for themselves or rely on the providence of neighbors whose own cup might be empty and a stiff upper lip.
BILL MOYERS: But now that vast numbers of people were out of work with no resources of their own, private charity and local government were not enough. The soup kitchens and poor farms of America were simply overwhelmed. People had nowhere to turn but to Washington for a safety net.
The Great Improviser who came to the White House in 1933, was ready to act with a New Deal for the country. An unprecedented assortment of programs came flooding from the White House and Congress aimed at putting people to work while preserving the system from more radical alternatives. It was the beginning of the welfare state, American style. That’s history, history oft told. But in this broadcast we’ll take a look back on those times through the lenses of the government’s own cameras and with the help of some old, endearing memories.
BILL MOYERS: Fortunately for those of us who like to rummage in the past, the government made films in the 1930s showing just how it was offering people a helping hand. They weren’t what we’d call objective. They were self-portraits, and very often flattering self-portraits.
Their purpose was to inform people as well as to encourage and rally them, to put heart into the bewildered and fearful, of whom there were millions in those days. These films are important to us today because in their own way they tell us what the social engineers of the New Deal thought they were doing and how they wanted their monuments to be seen. The films were often made in documentary style, using real people and real voices. And they were shown sometimes in movie houses along with the commercial newsreels of the day that illustrated and echoed the themes of government.
BILL MOYERS: First, we’ll look at some of the films and the people in them — brave, sad, funny, awkward, and touching as men and women are apt to be in the camera’s eye. And then we’ll meet a few survivors of that era who were actually lifted by the helping hand. When we’re finished, I hope we’ll have caught something of the spirit of those times when government was called in to put out a fire and stayed on to become part of the household.
NEWSREEL: Discouragement, fear, failure. Only a few years ago, these stalked the nation. Depression haunted America. We groped. We struggled. We found the way to better times. Today, depression is a fading memory. Millions of men and women have found employment and with it confidence and hope.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: We have survived all of the arduous burdens and the threatened dangers of a great economic calamity. Fear is vanishing, and confidence is growing on every side.
BILL MOYERS: One of the first recovery efforts was NRA, the National Recovery Administration. It got industries to adopt codes of fair competition — no slashing of wages, prices, and quality; no stretch out of hours. 3 million people went back to work on private payroll.
WORKER: I’m in favor of the New Deal, it means shorter hours with the same old pay.
SECOND WORKER: The NRA means to me a steady job with more pay. The extra time comes in handy.
THIRD WORKER: I got a new job —
BILL MOYERS: Henry Ford call it creeping socialism, but other employers signed on encouraged by the prominent.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: I’m very glad that we’ve been able to come in under the agreement, the NRA in spite of being a very small shop, for I know it is harder for the small employer to meet the conditions. And I hope that all of them will be successful in doing so.
BILL MOYERS: Employers who agreed to NRA codes could show off blue eagle, proof they were doing their part for the common good. But rallying public opinion has two sides. There was a un-subtle implication that a businessman not showing the eagle was thumbing his nose at 15 million jobless Americans.
Statistics tell us how many were jobless, but they cannot weigh the cost in self-esteem, especially in a time when society believed that unemployment was always the fault of the unemployed. NRA codes raised the total of adult jobs by banning child labor and setting a maximum 40-hour week — 40 hours for $12. But NRA couldn’t enforce its will on employers who cheated. Soon it was clear that the private sector could not create enough jobs alone. So in 1935, the WPA was formed to make government itself the employer of last resort.
WPA NEWSREEL: New York City — federal jobs for thousands at the rate of 100 a minute, while all over the nation Works Progress administrators are hurrying to transfer millions of idle from relief rolls to work payrolls. That means the $4 billion emergency fund is flowing. At WPA placement bureaus, there’s no let up for clerks products registering the vanguard of New York City’s million unemployed. General Johnson’s order is work or no relief. This scene is typical of activity in 48 states.
MAN: 138 Green Street, New York, tomorrow morning, 9:00.
NEWSREEL: And to work they go on airfields, roads, bridges, parks, and 10,000 other projects. As these men shift from doles to jobs, Paramount News, in parley, presents typical individual reactions.
SECOND MAN: Well, after six years being out in the street, I guess, and working down on Wall Street, it’s pretty good getting a job paving the roads. My wife told me, where you going, 12:00? I says, I got to get on that line and get a ticket. And here I am. So if you see me, I’m not lying.
HUGH JOHNSON: There’s been a good deal of talk about the vast multitude of people who are on home relief not wanting to work, not wanting jobs. The demonstration given in New York in the last three or four days, vast crowds of people from home relief, clamoring for the work that is now ready for them on work relief should refute that charge against the destitute American worker forever.
THIRD MAN: Well, I think Johnson’s full about of bull giving out this coolie wage of $55. I, for one, don’t approve of it. I demand my rights as a skilled worker to get skilled pay.
BILL MOYERS: But despite the critics, WPA went on for eight years. And in that time it used films like this to extol its accomplishments.
WPA NEWSREEL: …developed plans and manpower does the work. In Chicago, street improvements trail behind traffic increase, sewage systems are inadequate for the city’s growth. Thus while thousands find gainful employment, the city’s welfare is served.
BILL MOYERS: Government was concerned not only with a job for the breadwinner, but with the whole fabric of family life.
WPA NEWSREEL: The great works program has removed a vast —
BILL MOYERS: That meant saving homesteads, or helping to find new ones, and encouraging families to hang on.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: We come to the relief, for a moment, of those who are in danger of losing their farms or their homes. I have publicly asked that the foreclosure on farms and chattels and homes be delayed until every mortgager in the country has had full opportunity to take advantage of federal credit. And I make the further request that if there is any family in the United States about to lose its home or its farm, that family should telegraph at once either the Farm Credit Administration or the Home Loan Cooperation in Washington requesting their help.
WPA NEWSREEL: Here’s the first home in New Jersey to be saved by a government loan. 12-year-old Adam Schmidt heard President Roosevelt on the radio and wrote him a letter. What did you have to say, Adam?
ADAM SCHMIDT: I am 12 years old, and I’m going into eighth grade. Please, sir, President Roosevelt, I feel sorry for my mother. Mother cries day and night because we are going to lose our home.
WPA NEWSREEL: And what does the family think of you now, Adam?
ADAM SCHMIDT: Oh, they feel fine. They think I’m the big shot of the family. They raised my allowance from $0.02 to $0.05.
WPA NEWSREEL: Depression towns. Families clustered around silent and inactive mills, have led to government plans for transplanting 300,000 families to farm homes near industrial cities, homes run to ruin, people on the brink of despair. But the huge project gets under way, out of the old home and off to a new life where some sort of a job will combine with a self-supporting homestead farm.
ALASKA BOUND MAN: When we get in Alaska, things will be better up there. And I can make a living without asking anyone for help.
SECOND ALASKA BOUND MAN: Our ancestors weren’t afraid to go to a new country, why should we be?
WPA NEWSREEL: For years, life here has been severe. But in Alaska, 40 acres of land for each family, a $3,000 loan, farm equipment, a new chance to live. It’s a 3,500-mile journey, but none are happier to go than these wives and mothers who close a cheerless door behind them for the last time —
THIRD ALASKA BOUND MAN: Bye, folks! Bye, everybody!
WPA NEWSREEL: Pioneers of the 20th century. Interested? Write to Harry L. Hopkins, FERA, Washington, who is doing the job for the president.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: In the short space of these few months, I am convinced that at least 4 million have been given employment. Or, saying it another way, 40% of those seeking work have found it. That does not mean, my friends, that I am satisfied, or that you are satisfied, that our work is ended. We have a long way to go, but we are on the way.
BILL MOYERS: People saw Franklin Roosevelt only now and then in the newsreels, but they heard him frequently on the radio. There, his voice was a superbly effective tool. The devoted always felt comforted. Detractors were left sputtering with rage. Early in the first term, of course, the devoted were many. But honeymoons end and the Depression didn’t. It lingered on despite vast infusions of federal dollars.
The paradoxes grew as fast as the alphabet agencies. Paradoxes like the government paying farmers to kill surplus hogs and plow under surplus cotton while city folk were hungry and shivering, and packing houses and textile factories were closed down. The contradictions multiplied Roosevelt’s critics. The left said he wasn’t changing the profit system enough. The right said he was destroying it.
BILL MOYERS: Under the political noise-making, great issues were at stake. How much could and should government do for the general welfare without becoming, as Lincoln once put it, too strong for the liberties of its people? In 1935, there came one of those small legal challenges that shift the course of great events.
Four Brooklyn, New York poultry merchants — well, they weren’t poultry merchants, they were chicken sellers. They sold chickens for a living — The Schechter brothers sued to invalidate an NRA penalty against them for the code violation of selling a sick chicken to a local butcher. They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. And they won. Congress, said the court, couldn’t interfere in a purely intra-state transaction nor delegate its lawmaking function to a presidential agency. NRA was declared unconstitutional. The blue eagle was grounded. It was a stunning upset for Roosevelt. And the reactions in the country laid bare the basic argument.
NEWSREEL: Nearly 800 codes directed from Washington are suspended. The parked cars of thousands of NRA workers soon may be going away for good. The Supreme Court has spoken. A million blue eagles go. Conservative Senator King of Utah says —
SENATOR KING: It is to be hoped that the great bureaucratic machine that has been organized and functioning under it may be promptly dissipated, and that no further efforts shall be made to impose upon industry, upon states, and upon individuals autocratic and centralized authority foreign to the theory of our government and to the Constitution of the United States.
HUGH JOHNSON: NRA is a principle of righteousness, of decency in business conduct. The sick chicken opinion didn’t knock that principle down. Tell your congressman what its loss means to you. Tell them to give it back to you. Be a sheep and the wolves will eat you. It is time for you to do a little while wolfing for yourselves. You will stand up and fight. You haven’t even begun to fight.
BILL MOYERS: New Deal planners didn’t intend to quit. They fought back with new programs, less hasty, less clearly stamped for emergency only. These programs were more carefully aimed to extend help whenever times got tough, even in the future. 600,000 kids stayed in school, thanks to one such program that gave them part-time work and the first student loans.
FIRST YOUTH: I ain’t had a job in so long a time, I wouldn’t remember. What’s this job all about?
SECOND YOUTH: Drainage systems.
FIRST YOUTH: Who’s doing it?
SECOND YOUTH: We are. NYA, National Youth Administration. All these fellas are on it.
FIRST YOUTH: All these guys?
SECOND YOUTH: Sure, but they’re just a few. There are over 300,000 fellas and girls all over the country.
THIRD YOUTH: In Maine, there are 2,000 of them.
SECOND YOUTH: In California, 10,000.
BILL MOYERS: A lot of young people got a start with government’s helping hand. Richard Nixon was able to stay in law school because of the NYA. A youthful Lyndon Johnson ran the program in Texas. NYA was for the young. For the old, there was a profound change — Social Security. Never before had the United States government taxed both bosses and workers to run a permanent system of benefits that would shelter against the storms of illness and age.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: This Social Security measure gives at least some protection to 30 millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions, and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention —
BILL MOYERS: A hue and cry of opposition raged. What about the virtue of private thrift? Was FDR turning us into a people of grasshoppers instead of ants? A few privately solvent Americans were willing to sound a fanfare for the common man.
VOICE: What do you think about government old-age payments, Mr. Swope?
MR. SWOPE: I think it is one of the best and most constructive things we have done for working people. Many companies have had an old-age pension system for years. But this makes it apply to all. Men and women who spend the greater part of their lives in industry, when they reach the age of 65, will now have a monthly income, and have it as a matter of right and not as charity or relief.
NEWSREEL: A ray of home in declining years. Their days of youthful work are over, but not their dreams.
MAN: I think this pension is a benefit to us all, all of us old fellows.
SECOND MAN: Yes, I think it’s very nice. It helps us old fellows. And it helps a generation of people that are coming along. Our men have all worked hard. And now their in a condition where they’re incapacitated, and to have a pension would be very, very nice for them. And they’d appreciate it very much.
VOICE: And what would you do with all this money, if you get a hold of it?
MAN: Well, plenty of uses for it. Possibly, you might want to get married again.
NEWSREEL: To show how job insurance works, let’s introduce Steve, a Louisiana worker who has just lost his job.
BILL MOYERS: As New Deal programs became more sophisticated, so did the government-made films that explained and sold the programs.
NEWSREEL: Steve needn’t hesitate about going in because this office was set up just to help people like him. After a quick check-up shows that Steve has not already registered at this office, he is introduced to the interviewer who will help him register for work. Steve’s financial —
BILL MOYERS: Unemployment insurance was simply a part of the Social Security law. But in this inspirational dramatization, it looked like a positive blessing bestowed by a government that was not Big Brother, but kindly uncle.
NEWSREEL: Job insurance — this is the way the state of Louisiana is doing its part in the nationwide crusade against unemployment, fear, and insecurity.
BILL MOYERS: FDR became the paternalistic symbol of that family-like benevolence, enough so to win a second term in 1936. There was a redoubtable first mother playing her role, too.
FDR’S MOTHER: I believe that this is the happiest birthday in my 80 years. It is nice to be here with my son and all my family. It seems especially delightful to celebrate it here in my own dear home, which has already been the sweetest and most beautiful place in the whole world to me. Of course, that is what a home should mean to everyone. And I believe the thing I’ve proudest of and what my son is trying to do is the movement to enable so many people to brighten and beautify their homes. Where and how we live has so much to do with our happiness. And this is bound to bring about a more prosperous and a happier country.
NEWSREEL: Now, here’s a young couple with an eye for the future, strolling through the colony of miniature model homes. Each house is an architect’s original design. And each will cost less than $7,000 to build.
BILL MOYERS: The New Dealers came as emergency repairmen, but began to sound like crusaders. Take a simple idea, like federally financed home loans to revive the basic housing industry.
NEWSREEL: First, it’s old. Then, presto, it’s new.
BILL MOYERS: What better way to promote the idea that in a film?
NEWSREEL: —whose imaginary owners needed more room. So flip it over, and we find the addition of a spacious attic and a new wing.
BILL MOYERS: A film that didn’t just illustrate but enticed — a hymn of praise to the American home. They made it look so easy.
NEWSREEL: Your house starts to grow before your eyes. Soon it’s finished. And you have the thrill of saying that is mine. With the National Housing Act insured mortgage, you can pay for a home in monthly installments, like rent, over a period as long as 20 years. For instance, a 20% down payment and $40 a month will buy an attractive bungalow like this.
BILL MOYERS: The prices now seem absurdly low, but in those days, they were barely within reach of thousands still living in shanties or tenements. The government said it was patriotic to make that middle class upward reach.
BILL MOYERS: There’s no secret to why the government turned to films to get its point across. America had learned to go to the movies in the Jazz Age. And now, in the ’30s, the new age of film offered for $0.15 a few hours of escape from the grind and grief of depression. That was a bargain even hard hit families couldn’t resist. So if the government wanted to reach to the American mind, it’s best bet was to go to the movie palaces on every Main Street where America was being entertained. If that meant going into the entertainment business itself, so be it.
The first movies the government made to show us what it was doing were simple instructional films like those shown to soldiers in training, or straightforward promotions of particular New Deal measures. But in time, their subject matter broadened as Washington began to help us with advice on many other aspects of living. The style of the films changed, too, as the producers tried to be catchy. It wasn’t easy competing for attention with Shirley Temple and Busby Berkeley dance numbers.
BILL MOYERS: But there’s something in the nature of bureaucracy, even in this land of the free and home with the dubious, that finds it hard to resist being heavy-handed or condescending. So in many of these films, Uncle Sam knew best about everything. He said so in firm, but simple words so the slow pokes would get it right the first time.
The subject matter was limitless — how to, when to, why and why not to do almost anything. Following the movie style of the day, there was always upbeat music and happy endings for those who did it right. When the bureaucrats promised a simple solution for every problem, they were, after all, only going Hollywood.
BILL MOYERS: In the official filmmakers’ America, there were no Hoovervilles, apple sellers, or despairing Okies, only productive citizens rich in spirit who could help themselves through anything with just a touch of guidance from public agencies. Authority took many roles, but always as a wise helper — a cop, for instance, pointing out the perils of the street. The voice of our government was heard in the kitchen, guiding us to nutritional virtue and economy. And in promoting the general welfare, the government even followed us into the barnyard and the sheep pen. What in the world is happening here, I don’t know. Little Bo Peep must have cringed at this sight.
NEWSREEL: Trained government inspectors grade the meat and mark it with its type and quality — an unmistakable guide for the housewife purchaser.
WOMAN SHOPPER: May I the grade stamp on that?
WOMAN SHOPPER: Well, that looks OK.
BUTCHER: As one of the many retail butchers of this city, we feel as though this new grade stamp law has helped our sales tremendously as the customer can be assured that she will get her money’s worth.
BILL MOYERS: Wise Uncle Sam would help you get your money’s worth — once you had some money. People would try anything — old-fashioned gold panning or new-fangled schemes. Denver, for example, was flooded with chain letters, each envelope a token of someone’s need to believe in a get-rich quick scheme. Money made dreams come true, whether it came in a government check when Congress finally did pay that World War I bonus —
NEWSREEL: Funds for the bonus, a billion-nine hundred million dollars. Postmen all over the country carry them to the 3,518,000 veterans of the World War who are glad to get them for reasons as numerous as their many needs. Country post offices receive their share of the payments, which range from $60 to $1,500 each. Most of the money is expected to be spent at once.
NEWSREEL: Joe, what are you going to with your bonds?
JOE, VETERAN: Well, I’ve been waiting for this check a long time. I’m going to buy a half a dozen caskets and I’m going into the undertaker business.
NEWSREEL: What are you going to do with your bonds, Harry?
HARRY, VETERAN: Move out of the Eastside slums and fix my teeth.
NEWSREEL: Show us your smile.
NEWSREEL: American losers in the annual Irish —
BILL MOYERS: Or in the happy payoff on a sweepstakes ticket.
NEWSREEL: Close to 2 million Americans have paid $5 million for sweepstakes tickets. A thousand prizes, small, and a few large, came to this country. And now a tailor and his wife Mr. And Mrs. Sam Maasch of Brooklyn, who know exactly what they’re going to do with the money.
MRS. MASH: Well, Sam, after 53 years hard work, we’re goin’ away…close the store. Goin’ away, take a rest. Rest, I’m gonna have in my old age.
NEWSREEL: Lots of luck.
SAM MASH: That’s all?
MRS. MASH: All? That’s all!
BILL MOYERS: Naturally, with money so hard to come by, and the mania for it sweeping the country, Uncle Sam worried about the wolves and sharks.
NEWSREEL: And bad news for the counterfeiter has become an accomplished fact. As warning notice after warning notice is distributed throughout the country, it becomes increasingly difficult for the counterfeiter to ply his trade.
NEWSREEL VOICE: Uh-oh. What’s this? Some new kind of wallet? I guess these boys will bear watching.
BILL MOYERS: Counterfeiting was a real-enough problem. But the helping hand filmmakers dressed their lecture in movie-land togs.
NEWSREEL: This young lady, knowing her money, pretends she has no change and calls the manager. The Secret Service encourages close cooperation of this sort from all merchants and law enforcement officers. You, too, can do your part if you know your money.
BILL MOYERS: Like most movies in the ’30s, this one had the happy ending that people hungered for.
BILL MOYERS: Movies might end happily, but the Depression did not. In January of 1937, at his second inaugural, FDR spoke of 1/3 of America ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished — 1/3 of whom so many were suffering children. Emergency work programs like WPA and NYA were supposed to be temporary to take up the slack until the private sector got back on its feet. But with 9 million still unemployed, the helping hand of government was all that kept some people for giving up altogether.
From the distance of our times, it may seem hard to understand the heart of the Depression experience when so many people were caught up in a web not of their own spinning. But their common sorrows can still be felt in the photographs of a Dorothea Lange or the novels of a John Steinbeck.
BILL MOYERS: There are among us today people with firsthand memories of what life was like in those hard times. They were young then. They remember the holes in their pockets and the holes in their dreams. But they also remember what kept their hopes alive. And for the men you’re about to meet, it was the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, one of the most successful ventures of the whole New Deal.
BILL MOYERS: The CCC answered a number of needs, one being the urgent necessity to replenish overused land that was turning the Midwest into a dust bowl. The other was to get thousands of impoverished and aimless young man off the roads and onto some productive path. No one knows exactly how many took to wandering during the Depression.
YOUNG MAN: Well, I’m from South Dakota. My home’s in Rapid City, a very small town. And I’ve got a girlfriend there. And the reason I’m in this large city is because you turned me down because I didn’t have a job to show her good times.
BILL MOYERS: Henry Ford thought these vagabond boys would get a better education in the hobo jungles than they could in college. That wasn’t a universally held opinion. A diet of thin soup might only teach them about hunger or stealing. But reclaiming and developing lost land, now that might help them reclaim and develop their own natural resources. So the first recruits went off to camp in the summer of 1933. The pay was $30 a month, of which $25 was sent home.
SONG: YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE: You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. So please don’t take my sunshine away. The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms. When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken. And I held my head and I cried.
BILL MOYERS: Now, nearly 50 years later, the CCC still claims the hearts of many alumni. This group met for a picnic in West Milford, New Jersey, at what once was the site of CCC Camp 1201. They’re part of a national brotherhood of ex-CCCers. For most, even the bitterest times have turned sweet in memory.
1ST EX-CCCer: Many of the guys had never seen snow. They were from —
2ND EX-CCCer: From the South?
1ST EX-CCCer: Mississippi, yeah. You got the food shopping contest, the cooks — we all hated it.
3RD EX-CCCer: That’s me right there.
BILL MOYERS: You had quite a few men in your company, didn’t you?
4TH EX-CCCer: Yeah, we had a big outfit. Different barracks for different men.
SAL BASCOTTI: I’m Sal Bascotti. I live in Bloomfield, New Jersey. I was 16 years old when I went in in October of 1934. And I was in until March of 1935. I came out. I was out for six months. And I went back and I re-enlisted. And I came out in September of 1936. I primarily went in because I couldn’t get a job. And there was something to do. And my mother was getting that $25 a month, which was almost enough to support a family in those days.
BILL MOYERS: Did your father have work?
SAL BASCOTTI: My father had a shoemaker shop, but he was working the barter trade then. He used to get the goods in return for the services. And he couldn’t make no money. But there were six of us home, so that $25 a month was really a big help.
BOB MEAD: My father bragged that as a machinist he made $0.73 an hour sometimes, 60 hours a week. But he was down to two weeks working in middle of 1930, so he came East to seek his fortune. And he was down to no weeks work for the next 10 years.
NICK DE JOHN: I tell you, I don’t care how they say times are now. This could never compare with the Depression. No way. No way. I would never in my life want to see another depression. No way. They can say a dollar isn’t worth this or that, but if I can put my hand in my pocket today, tonight, tomorrow, I can buy a cup of coffee. I can buy a sandwich regardless of how things are. But I couldn’t then. No way. You couldn’t.
Now, I’m talking about working on a farm and making $1.60 a week, if you were lucky. And that was from sun up to sun down at 8 and a 1/2 cents an hour. Your biggest enjoyment was getting an ice cream cone or a sundae on your way home. But this was, you know, you give you mother the rest of the money.
OTTO SCHWARTZ: In those days, we were eating lard on bread when we came home. I was going to a high school where some of my classes were up in a tower. And I had big holes in my shoes. And I remember being ashamed that the kids behind me would see these holes in my shoes. And joined the CCCs and the food was tremendous. And I had all kinds of clothes. And it was like going to heaven, really.
CCC LEADER ON NEWSREEL: I’ve assembled you here to tell you something of what we’re going to do with you and for you. You will be well housed and well fed. You can find congenial friends here. And you will find that you will be happiest and will make us happiest if you obey all the orders that are given to you by those placed over you. [CHEERING]
BILL MOYERS: If recruits thought they were going to heaven, they found themselves in something that bore a strong resemblance to the army. Tents and equipment were left over from the Great War. The daily routine included a very early reveille. From the start, the CCC was an all-male endeavor, single men only, ages 18 to 25. The jokes, the songs, the menus, too, were regulation army.
NICK DE JOHN: I’ll never forget the first meal that I had in the CC camp. And it wasn’t in New Jersey, in Alpine. Was they had pork chops.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, boy.
NICK DE JOHN: Now, you know, and this pork chop’s — all the pork chops in the world were right there.
BILL MOYERS: Right there. [LAUGHTER]
NICK DE JOHN: I mean, I’ve never seen so many port chops. And you could have as many as you want. And this was stacked up. This was something that I couldn’t believe. But you’d never seen anything like this.
FRED GISCHWINDER: This is me. My name is Fred Gischwinder. I’m from Martinsville, New Jersey. This picture was taken in 1940 in Flint Creek, Montana. I was 136 pounds then. Today, I go 240, stripped. The years have been good to me.
BILL MOYERS: Why’d you join the CCC?
FRED GISCHWINDER: Well, my father was on a disability retirement from Motermen in New York. And we didn’t have too much funds coming in. And I couldn’t get any work. I had a couple of cousins just come back from Utah told me all about it. And I said, that’s for me. So I went. My father didn’t want me to go, but I gave him an alternative. Either you sign those papers or I’ll forge your name to army papers.
BOB O’CONNELL: You thought you were nobody. If you didn’t have a job, you were just like dirt. I can’t say just exactly how you would feel, but to me every child when they grew up and graduated from high school felt that they were going to have a living for them when they get out. We didn’t have it. It wasn’t there.
BOB MEAD: The only job I could get was a theater doorman. After being a theater doorman for three years, I was so damn sick of standing there and saying thank you 3,000 times a day to people I didn’t like. No exercise, no fun. So I joined the CCC. I could contribute more with $25 a month sending home than I could being fed and feeding my father then.
ROBERT EGAN: Evidently, I was more fortunate than most of the boys here in that my father was steadily employed by the town of Harrison, New Jersey. But I had a sense of adventure. I wanted to see what’s on the other side of the mountain. And the candy store that I used to patronize had a number of what they used to call hangers. All the neighborhood gossip was exchanged in the neighborhood candy store. And I was always the runt of the litter.
And I saw this friend of mine come in one day. And he had developed muscles and his chest had expanded. And I said, that’s for me. So I joined the CCCs. And they sent me out to Nevada. And, actually, I felt like a murderer because I was put on a rodent control crew. And I had to distribute poisoned oats to the prairie dogs. And they’d sit on top of their burrows just like this. And I’d be throwing them poisoned oats.
BILL MOYERS: Did you get the muscles you went after?
ROBERT EGAN: No. [LAUGHTER] Never.
BILL MOYERS: If you didn’t get muscles, you did get a strong sense of camaraderie and of contributing to the common good. That had great appeal to these young men. Ultimately, 2 and 1/2 million of them signed on. The recruiters barely needed to recruit. A hitch was supposed to last six months, but with jobs still scarce, a lot of fellows re-enlisted using a mother’s maiden name or some other ruse. For some, the CCC was a way out of trouble, like Joe Tolton, who joined because a judge gave him a choice between CCC and reform school.
JOE TOLTEN: Everybody going to talk about when they were in the CCCs and how good it was? Because I know my mother bought a home with the money I sent her and my brother sent me. She paid $3,000 for the house, $300 down. And I was in two years. My brother was in six. We paid the house completely with that. Two full years. Now, that house is worth $100,000, $200,000. But the money that the CCC sent home really built up the economy. We gave the economy of the United States $2 billion, which is about $200 billion for you in today’s money.
JOE TOLTEN: This is for the surveyor. Each outfit got a different type of insignias. So they — This here, this is the original badge that we wore on the uniforms 50 years ago. All the enrollees wore that.
BILL MOYERS: Beautiful, Joe.
JOE TOLTEN: Now, this here is the CCC timber saw. That’s about eight feet —well, six and 1/2 feet long. And a guy at each end would cut down the trees two feet wide. First you would chop the one end so you can know where it’s going. Then two guys back and forth, sing-song. But once you got into it, it was nice. You go back and forth, maybe half-hour to cut down one tree, sometimes an hour, depends how good and how sharp the saw was. But this is the timber saw.
BILL MOYERS: You were a city kid, weren’t you?
BOB TOLOSO: We learned. We learned. Yes, I didn’t know nothing. All I knew how was to rob people or to break open stores. Yes. And I was good at that, believe me.
BILL MOYERS: Most of the CCCers were city kids and Easterners, but their projects were often in wilderness areas far from the streets. The work was planned for them by the National Parks Department and the Forest Service. They planted seedlings, cut fire breaks, and fought pine twig blight like an army whose enemy was anything that preyed on trees.
CCC NEWSREEL: Today, we understand what safety means.
BILL MOYERS: And as with other soldiers, the government used film to teach them to take care of themselves in combat.
CCC NEWSREEL: But do we always practice what we know? Instead of telling you what is wrong, see if you can pick out for yourself the blunder. Pay close attention so you can remember the details.
BILL MOYERS: Even in the depths of the Depression, even in the most remote CCC camp, not all was endless work. Among other things, the CCC cut ski trails to help desperate mountain towns attract the tourist trade. Of course, the corpsmen found time to use them. Youth always has excess energy and finds ways to burn it off. When all else fails, a young man’s heart can still turn to that most timeless of sports.
JOE TOLTEN: I loved to roller skate at that time. In fact, that was one of the — in fact, I had roller skates with lights and they had bells on the bottom.
BILL MOYERS: I remember that.
JOE TOLTEN: In fact, we started that idea. Then it went all over the United States.
LOU HORNSBY: How about the girls? Where you meet the girls at in the CCs?
JOE TOLTEN: Right in the roller-skating rink. We would go there.
LOU HORNSBY: I met them in church on Sunday. Sunday night, yeah. Sunday night, we’d have church. And you go in there, and I always met my girlfriends right there.
BOB TOLOSO: In Tennessee, we want to hillbilly dances. There were hillbilly girls there. The boys — their boyfriends — they resented us, you know.
JOE TOLTEN: They didn’t like that.
BOB TOLOSO: They didn’t like it too much
JOE TOLTEN: They waited for you outside?
BOB TOLOSO: Well, we had a good time. The girls —
JOE TOLTEN: Dancing with them.
BOB TOLOSO: The girls really — well, you know, the kids from New York. They called us the kids from New York, New Jersey. And when the dance was over, around midnight, and we had to go back home, oh, my God.
JOE TOLTEN: They were waiting for us, huh?
BOB TOLOSO: Oh, my god. BB guns and 22s. Throwing rocks at us. And we’d go every Saturday night. Nothing could keep us away.
BILL MOYERS: Nothing could keep them away, indeed. Knowing this would be so, the army leaders made sure all CCCers took in yet another government classic, a special kind of advice for the lovelorn.
CCC ADVICE: Controlled, the sex impulse like the horse may be a source of power and service. Masturbation may seriously hinder a boys progress towards vigorous manhood. It is a selfish, childish, stupid habit. Syphilis causes a large amount of insanity and paralysis. Locomotor ataxia, a progressive form of paralysis, is due to syphilis.
BERN BERNIE & CCCers: (SINGING) Oh, the coffee that they feed you, they stay it’s mighty fine — good for cuts and bruise, tastes like iodine. I don’t want no more of CC life. Gee, Ma, I want to go home.
JOE TOLTEN: I got so tough, so strong, that when I got home, I told the boy, the kids, hit me in the stomach. They would bounce off. And I’d laugh at them.
BILL MOYERS: That’s why you’re in good shape.
JOE TOLTEN: Their eyes would pop open. Hey, Joe. I says, when you get old enough, you’ll go into the CCC. It’ll make a man out of you, like it did me.
BERN BERNIE & CCCers: (SINGING) I don’t want no more of CC life. Gee, Ma, I want to go home. [CLAPPING]
BILL MOYERS: Listening to those men, it’s obvious that, for them, the trials and tribulations of the Depression led to travel, adventure, and maturity, to confidence in themselves and their country. That was important as America went down the road to the Second World War. Actually, it was the war — not the New Deal — that finally restored prosperity. And it was the war that sealed big government solidly and permanently into place. But that’s another story.
For the moment, it’s enough to know that the films we’ve seen are small souvenirs left from a great transformation in American life. A New Deal that began essentially for the relief of the hungry and jobless soon was providing Social Security, policing the stock market, reclaiming farmland, building hydroelectric power plants, clearing slums, mediating labor relations, curbing the sweatshops, and otherwise beginning to reach into every nook and cranny of our land and lives. It just kept growing.
BILL MOYERS: By one reckoning, 1/2 of the population today depends on spending by government at some level for some or all of their income. And the federal government is attacked by its critics for running amok and acknowledged, even by its champions, to be overly responsive to too many constituencies, to have attained unintelligible complexity at a largely uncontrollable cost. But that, too, is another story for another day.
Neither the deficiencies of the New Deal, nor the excesses of the system that later grew up from it, diminish the fact that in desperate times, this nation stirred itself to offer a helping hand where none had existed. If this didn’t put the economy back on its feet, it kept millions of Americans off their knees. We cannot measure the difference that meant to them or to the survival of the democratic experience in America at a time when the world was swept by totalitarian forces and it seemed that freedom and self-government might perish from the Earth.
BILL MOYERS: So we’ll close this small window on those times with the judgment of the historians who wrote The Growth of the American Republic. It was, they said, of utmost importance to the peoples of the world that American democracy had withstood the buffetings of depression, and that the American people were refreshed in their faith in the democratic order. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.