The Great Depression

The importance of the link between the Great Depression and America in World War II cannot be overstated. On the brink of disaster and sometimes over it, ending the Depression signaled the greatest expansion of the federal government in American history. In her book, The Greatest Generation Grows Up, Kriste Lindenmeyer explores how the New Deal changed the lives of American children and young people in the 1930s, and how those changes led to the country’s response to World War II. In a way that it never had been before, the federal government took an active role in the well-being of the American people, and not just the market. Through the New Deal, many farmers received government subsidized electricity that changed how and when they could work.[1] FDR and the federal government created the CCC to put men back to work building national parks, etc., combining waged labor and service to the greater country in a semi-militarized organization.[2] Responses to the Depression not only supported fathers and working men, but emphasized the importance of young people’s safety and education. Camps and organizations arose to teach children the best way to be constructive members of their society – women in the home, and men at work – by promoting intellectual and financial independence and American exceptionalism. Public parks, swimming pools, and athletic facilities popped up in every town and city, bringing people together in new ways, spreading the message of the resilience and excellence of America.[3]

                Many see World War II as the great unifier of the “greatest generation,” and while there is no doubt truth in that, the United States’ response to the war would not have been anything what they were without the unity brought on by the Depression. The federal government and the first family were celebrated as they had never been before. More students learned about the history of the United States, especially the “Glorious Revolution” that set America apart from every other nation in the world. Pulling America out of the Depression involved so much more than stabilizing the economy, it meant literally turning over the depressed national consciousness with American exceptionalism.[4] And if America was exceptional, and the rights and way of life that existed there were the pinnacle of civilized society, then any attack on or threat to that warranted a response.

                The veterans we interviewed came from varied economic backgrounds, but they all experienced the change brought about by FDR and his New Deal attack on the Great Depression. However, many of them grew up in similar backgrounds, on farms or in coal mines throughout Kentucky, and their responses to the Depression are similar. Growing up poor, they said, they did not really notice when things were bad, because they had never been good to begin with. While none of them were left particularly destitute, many of them remember times being hard, and communities coming together to ensure welfare for children, at least.

                The letters collected for Brokaw’s second book on the greatest generation, The Greatest Generation Speaks, a collection of letters sent in as responses to his first book, echo similar sentiments. Poverty brought people together by necessity, and FDR became a national hero for his work in ending their suffering. America, no longer just a young country at Europe’s heals, positioned itself as the heir to the throne of western civilization, with a generation of men and women raised to believe that their country’s “values” were worth protecting. This mentality stems directly from the Great Depression.

1. Alvin Huston Perry served in the US Army and was captured in France. He lived as a POW in Germany for 10 months. 
2. Bluford Smith served in the US Army Signal Corps for 267 days of consecutive combat, specializing in radio communications. He lives in Floyd County, Kentucky, where he has lived his whole life. 
3. Prentice Ball volunteered for the US Navy at 17 years old, where he served as a member of the medical staff at the tail end of the war. He never saw combat. 
4. David Walker joined the US Navy after graduating high school, and was stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. 

[1] Kriste Lindenmeyer, The Greatest Generation Grows Up (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005), 207.

[2] Ibid. 211.

[3] Ibid. 224.

[4] Ibid. 242. 


The Great Depression