The Great Depression of 1929-late 1930s was the largest economic downturn in the history of the modern world. Although capitalism's boom and bust cycle has been producing a bust roughly every decade or so since the early 19th century, this was the worst.
 The Roaring '20s come to a close
The atmosphere of the late '20s (financially speaking at least) can be summed up in the following likely apocryphal anecdote. In the winter of 1928, Joe Kennedy decided to stop to have his shoes shined before he started his day's work at the office. When the boy finished, he offered Kennedy a stock tip: "Buy Hindenburg." Kennedy soon sold off his stocks, thinking:
“”You know it's time to sell when shoeshine boys give you stock tips. This bull market is over.
A timely move considering that the stock market would soon resemble the fate of the airship Hindenburg itself.
 The Crash
Like most historical events, the Great Depression was multi-causal. We all know about the stock market crash. Whether the crash was a cause or a symptom of underlying weaknesses in the economy is a subject of much debate. For non-wonk purposes, it's usually treated as a proximate cause. The following factors are widely accepted as playing a role in the decline:
- Tight monetary policy.
- Corruption in the banking system, a.k.a. innovation in finance that made speculation easier.
- Bank failures.
- Adherence to the gold standard. The big problem with gold is that during a run on the bank, everyone trades in their paper money for gold. You can't go to the convenience store and buy a quart of milk with gold bricks (in many places, at least), so this has a huge deflationary effect.
- Debt. This hit farmers especially hard. After World War I, the global demand for foodstuffs declined, creating a glut as farmers overproduced. The agricultural sector went into massive debt during the '20s to stay afloat. Also, everyone who had their money in stocks was completely screwed, obviously.
- Income inequality. The income gap grew sharply during the Roaring '20s (yeah, it wasn't "roaring" for everyone). With a smaller market for consumer goods, the economy produced more than was necessary and created a general glut. The stock market became the "in" thing for rich people instead. They rode a wave of speculation until it exploded on them.
- Trade imbalance. Demand for European exports had fallen, while demand for American goods had risen. This let the the US exporting more than it was importing. Countries that bought American products would borrow from American banks to pay for them, and when the banks called in their loans...
 Hoover digs himself deeper
Wherever Hoover intervened, he either didn't intervene enough or got it bass-ackwards. See the page on Herbert Hoover for more than a bullet point list.
- Continued bank failures. The Fed and the RFC simply didn't make enough loans. The ones they did make just sat in the banks as reserves, doing nothing to curb deflation.
- Setting off a trade war with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs. Conventional wisdom at the time was to implement protectionist policy to spur domestic business. This didn't work out too well.
- Maintaining a pro-cyclical policy of fiscal conservatism, keeping budgets balanced.
- International markets and the collapse of the international money-go-round. Here's how it worked. Germany owed reparations to the British and the French. The British and the French owed war debts to the US. The US loaned to Germany. When the stock market tanked in '29, the financial contagion quickly spread out to the global market. Germany was hit extremely hard as US investors pulled out. From '29 on, US lenders also began to put the squeeze on Germany. In addition, German Chancellor Heinrich Bruning continuously attempted to buck payment of reparations. Hoover called a moratorium on Germany's reparations. With US credit withdrawing from Germany and German reparations payments no longer going to Britain and France, the flow of cash stopped. This only compounded the collapse of international trade.
 The New Deal
The economy continued to nosedive heading toward the 1932 election. Everything bottomed out around 1932-1933, but many expected things to (somehow) keep getting worse. The banking system had not completely stabilized. Not only had Hoover become wildly unpopular because of the Depression, the tide began to turn against him on Prohibition as well. Not to mention the Bonus Army of veterans that marched on Washington, who he turned away. Hoover's platform basically consisted of "It's gonna get better, promise!" Franklin Roosevelt ran as a fiscal conservative in some places and touted a New Deal in others. He wasn't very specific about what would be in it, though, he mostly talked about "reform."
Although FDR, then governor of New York, was still seen as a political lightweight at the time, he easily trounced Hoover and the Democrats took the majority in Congress. The election of 1932 was a radical political realignment. The Republican Party was in shambles. Not only had Hoover ruined their reputation, the rift between the conservative wing ("Taft Republicans") and the progressive wing (think Teddy Roosevelt) was blown wide open. Hoover's racial gaffes allowed FDR to pick up the black vote. He also picked up the young vote, the immigrant vote, the labor vote (labor had gone mostly Republican up until this point) basically everything but the old white guy vote. This was known as the "New Deal Coalition."
Some stuff that happened in FDR's first term:
- FDR bombarded Congress with a flurry of New Deal legislation in his first 100 days. Despite FDR being remembered as ultra-liberal today, the New Deal lacked a real driving ideology behind it besides "throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks." Most of the programs were expansions of Hoover's policies, adaptations of relief programs Gov. Al Smith had implemented in New York before FDR took over, and a mix of ideas from the Brains Trust. (See the New Deal page.)
- Bank holidays and the end of the gold standard brought stability to the banking system.
- Economic recovery begins.
- The Pecora Commission investigated financial fraud.
- Droughts and erosion brought on the Dust Bowl. Farmers, many of whom were already deep in debt, got screwed even harder.
- Rising Democratic Party star Huey Long was assassinated.
- The Business Plot was uncovered. Retired General Smedley Butler accused a number of businessmen of planning a coup against FDR and installing him as a puppet president. Only a few low-level lackeys confessed and the depth and seriousness of this plot is still in contention.
- Repeal of Prohibition.
- Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America.
- Strengthening of New Deal Coalition.
 FDR's Second Term
Alf Landon ran against FDR in 1936 on a platform of "I can do the New Deal, but better." He lost in a landslide, despite the increasing radicalization of wingnuts like Father Coughlin and the conservative wing of the Republican Party. FDR was demonized as a communist, fascist, etc. This is not too surprising considering that he had concentrated unprecedented power in the executive branch. FDR's response? "I welcome their hatred!"
In any case, FDR took the advice of the conservatives in his cabinet and tightened the belt on spending. See the page on the Roosevelt Recession. While most of Europe was coming out of the Depression, the US sank into a recession within the Depression. FDR's court packing plan was also an unpopular move. Technically Constitutional but still a fairly naked power grab.
 End of the Depression
By 1939, the US was recovering again and FDR became more involved in foreign affairs, specifically the whole Adolf Hitler thing. Heavy re-armament of US forces continued to help the nation recover, but the recovery was not complete until the US entered World War II. FDR beat Wendell Willkie in the 1940 election, but by a much slimmer margin than his previous elections.
The Great Depression was an ideal occasion for the brief rise of a number of personalities and movements (both wingnut and moonbat), promoting woo as a purported ticket out of the Depression, including:
- Father Coughlin - a ranting "radio priest"
- The Townsend Plan - a mathematically unsound old-age pension proposal
- John R. Brinkley - a quack doctor promoting goat testicle transplants as a cure for impotence, who twice almost got elected as an independent candidate for governor of Kansas
- Gerald Winrod - the "Jayhawk Nazi", a right-wing preacher from Kansas
- Gerald L.K. Smith - another preacher, originally a Huey Long supporter, later turned anti-Semitic demagogue
- Social Credit - an economic ideology based on consumer power in the marketplace directing production
- E.P.I.C. (End Poverty In California) - socialist Upton Sinclair's plan for California, promoted during his 1934 run for governor
- Edward R. Dewey and Ralph N. Elliot both claiming to identify cycles the economy runs in to explain the Depression (their two cycles mutually contradictory, of course).
- Technocracy movement - replace representative government with government by engineers and scientists, and replace money with the "erg", a hypothetical unit of energy
- Chemurgy movement - better living through
- And of course, the Communist Party
Sinclair Lewis' chilling novel about the rise of fascism in the U.S., It Can't Happen Here, featured Buzz Windrip (probably an amalgamation of some combination of these three: antisemitic preacher Gerald Winrod, Louisiana's dictatorial governor Huey Long, and the repressive colonial-era military governor of Puerto Rico, Blanton Winship) rising to power with the support of Bishop Prang (modeled after Father Coughlin).
 Popular culture
Economic hardship during the Depression displaced a lot of people. A large number of teenagers were forced to leave home to look for work because their parents could no longer support them, and dustbowl conditions led to a mass migration from the midwest, especially Oklahoma and Arkansas, to California. A popular culture grew up around such displaced people with the most popular including Woody Guthrie's folk music, John Steinbecks 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the 1940 film adaptation, the songs "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (Harry McClintock) and "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" (E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and Jay Gorney), and King Vidor's 1934 film Our Daily Bread. Novels and films from that era tended to run in two opposing directions: the realism school of fiction portrayed the hardships of the working class while sometimes also romanticising them, while others went in the other direction of escapism and portrayed the lifestyles of the wealthy. The period was rife with moral panic with a lot of drug scare movies like Reefer Madness, but conversely was also an era in which open inquiry and freethought flourished, typified by the popularity of Haldeman-Julius Publishing's Little Blue Books.
This influence on popular culture has continued to echo in influence in the U.S. The folk music scene typified by Woody Guthrie and the romanticisation of migratory people in general were both influential on the late 1960s hippie movement, while occasional popular films continue to play to the realism school of Depression-era fiction, examples being 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, 1973's Emperor of the North, and the more recent Seabiscuit and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era jobs program for young men, likewise continues to be cited as a model for programs today like Americorps, and is often romanticized as a golden age of construction due to the CCC's having built many buidings and trails in today's national and state parks.
- Freedom From Fear by David M. Kennedy (Full text)
- The Great Depression by Robert S. McElvaine
- The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction by Eric Rauchway