President Roosevelt: Fireside Chat on the Current Recession Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After five years of slow but steady recovery, the US economy once again faced major difficulties in 1938. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered this radio address as many Americans experienced another round of layoffs and foreclosures, reassuring them that the federal government would continue to invest in the social and economic programs necessary to restore balance. He explained that overproduction had once again caused a decline in purchasing power and that the joint efforts of individuals, businesses, and the government were required to bring the situation under control. He told the public not to be alarmed by the rising national debt because the money would return to the Treasury in the form of tax payments once workers were employed and total wages returned to previous levels. He concluded by assuring the public that, while his efforts might not always be perfect, he had their best interests at heart and would strive to understand the difficulties they face so the government could help facilitate a lasting solution to the economic crisis.

Summary Overview

After five years of slow but steady recovery, the US economy once again faced major difficulties in 1938. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered this radio address as many Americans experienced another round of layoffs and foreclosures, reassuring them that the federal government would continue to invest in the social and economic programs necessary to restore balance. He explained that overproduction had once again caused a decline in purchasing power and that the joint efforts of individuals, businesses, and the government were required to bring the situation under control. He told the public not to be alarmed by the rising national debt because the money would return to the Treasury in the form of tax payments once workers were employed and total wages returned to previous levels. He concluded by assuring the public that, while his efforts might not always be perfect, he had their best interests at heart and would strive to understand the difficulties they face so the government could help facilitate a lasting solution to the economic crisis.

Defining Moment

In the United States, the economic boom of the 1920s abruptly gave way to the Great Depression, led by the stock market crash of October 1929. In the years that followed, millions of workers lost their jobs, farmers lost their land, companies went out of business, and banks became insolvent. By the time the Depression reached its height in 1933, the United States was experiencing its worst financial crisis since the Civil War. The stock market plummeted to about 20 percent of its pre-crash value, one in four American workers was unemployed, and thousands of US banks had collapsed.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, and within weeks of taking office in early 1933, he was working closely with the legislature to stem the immediate financial crisis and prevent a further downward spiral. The result of these efforts was a series of programs known as the New Deal. Key components included establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps to help put people back to work, providing federal subsidies to small banks to ease the burden of mortgage and credit debt, and lending or granting money to states and counties to spend on immediate relief for their hungry and homeless residents. Later, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to administer relief programs and create additional public sector and infrastructure improvement jobs. Before its dissolution in 1943, the WPA provided more than eight million jobs to American workers, but it was never intended to be a permanent solution.

Initially, the New Deal seemed to be working–the economy showed small but immediate signs of improvement in 1933 as people went back to work and the foreclosure rate slowed–but progress stalled the following year. A new injection of funds from the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act sparked another upward shift in 1935, but by 1937, many areas of the United States experienced a resurgence of unemployment and foreclosures.

By the time Roosevelt made his radio address in 1938, Americans were exhausted by the struggles caused by the Depression. Financial analysts, businessmen, and workers worried that the New Deal programs were insufficient to reverse the downward trend and feared that the huge price tag–and the accompanying national debt–would make the situation worse in the long term. Roosevelt's address was primarily designed to reassure the public that he would continue working with the legislature both to provide necessary immediate relief to those in need, and to find a long-term solution to the crisis.

Author Biography

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. He attended Groton School in Massachusetts and received his bachelor's degree in history from Harvard University in 1903. He studied law at Columbia University in New York, but, upon passing the bar examination, left school without completing his degree in 1907. He practiced law in New York City for three years, before being elected to the New York State Senate in 1910.

President Woodrow Wilson appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy from 1913 until 1920. Following an unsuccessful campaign to become US vice president with running mate James M. Cox, Roosevelt briefly withdrew from politics. After a partial recovery from polio that he contracted in 1921, he was elected governor of New York State in 1928. In 1932, Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. He was inaugurated during the height of the Depression and saw the country through World War II. Roosevelt died in office on April 12, 1945.

Document Analysis

Roosevelt opens his radio address by apologizing for his timing: it is Easter week, and while he wanted to postpone political talk, he felt it was important to address the public to provide some peace of mind going into the holidays. He explains that, while the nation had recovered significantly from the Great Depression of five years prior, the economy had recently experienced another downturn. While not as widespread or severe, people in some areas had been, once again, hit hard by layoffs and foreclosures, and he wants to provide information about how the federal government plans to assist recovery.

Roosevelt explains that the downturn is the result of overproduction, largely in the manufacturing sector, and cites cotton goods and automobiles as some of the items with significant surplus. He notes that again the purchasing power of the American public had failed to keep pace with production, and the price inflation of raw materials is further increasing the cost of finished goods at a time when Americans are already struggling to afford them.

Roosevelt emphasizes that his primary objective is to restore security to the American people. He proposes additional funding and expansion of the work projects and infrastructure improvement programs under the New Deal. He addresses concerns about the growing national debt by assuring the public that the money will be made back in tax revenue once wages have been restored to their usual levels, and he tries to rally support by reminding Americans that gainful employment is the key to protecting American democracy, especially at a time when democracies around the world are falling to dictators as citizens grow tired of being hungry. He says, “We are a rich nation; we can afford to pay for security and prosperity without having to sacrifice our liberties into the bargain.”

Regarding the improvements of the previous years, Roosevelt admits that the economic gains and increase in overall wages were not only the result of the federal government pumping cash into the system. Instead, he says, the government funding was the trigger for the economy to right itself, as it helped American households regain purchasing power. As people used this money to purchase food and manufactured goods, companies, in turn, were able to hire more workers, thus creating a positive financial cycle.

Roosevelt concludes by emphasizing that it will require the effort of individuals, businesses, and government to finish turning the economy around. He ends on a personal note, explaining that he takes seriously the stories he hears, whether from bankers, farmers, or ordinary citizens and tries to understand the difficulties each person faces within his or her different circumstances. He admits that his proposed measures under the New Deal might not be perfect, but insists that he always has the best interest of the American people in mind.

Essential Themes

As the economy started slipping again, Roosevelt's New Deal programs came under fire because of their significant cost. Critics argued that private industry, not the federal programs, caused the economic recovery during the mid-1930s. Roosevelt did not deny this. He maintained that the plan all along was to establish “partnerships” between the federal government and private industry, and that federal money was necessary to kick-start this process–not that federal dollars were meant to single-handedly save the economy.

Financial analysts and the general public worried about rising national debt during this period as well. The New Deal was expensive–the national debt nearly doubled during Roosevelt's first two terms in office–and in some cases, the government borrowed money to finance the programs. Despite the growing criticism, Roosevelt expanded the New Deal programs anyway, emphasizing the need to maintain Americans' personal security and trust in democracy–an important prospect as many European countries adopted socialism, Communism, and even dictatorships because their citizens were tired of starvation and unemployment. But the federal government could not continue borrowing money to feed the American people indefinitely, and the enormous bureaucracy created by the New Deal, as the number of government employees jumped from 600,000 in 1932 to nearly 1,000,000 by the end of the decade, could not sustain itself forever.

The United States was still recovering from this second wave of economic depression when it entered World War II in December 1941. The demand for food, transportation, raw materials, ammunition, and other goods brought about by the war helped lift the United States out of its economic slump, as factories and farms suddenly needed employees at unprecedented levels to feed, transport, and supply troops for the war effort.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. National Archives, n.d. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • “The Great Depression (1929–1939).” Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. George Washington U, n.d. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • “Great Depression and World War II, 1929–1945.” American History. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. New York: Times, 1993. Print.
  • Smiley, Gene. “Great Depression.” Library of Economics and Liberty. Liberty Fund, n.d. Web. 6 June 2014.
  • Smith, Jean Edwards. FDR. New York: Random, 2007. Print.
  • “Timeline of the Great Depression.” American Experience. PBS, n.d. Web. 6 June 2014.
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