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The Great Depression and the Great Recession: Thinking Back to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Great Recession is upon us, and while the situation seems to be slightly improving (fingers crossed), it’s the perfect time to take a look back at the Great Depression, that pivotal time in US history.

Author: Paul Thomson
Date: Feb 12, 2010 - 7:27:17 AM

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The Great Recession is upon us, and while the situation seems to be slightly improving (fingers crossed), it’s the perfect time to take a look back at the Great Depression, that pivotal time in US history.  People losing their jobs left and right, giant companies folding – now that doesn’t sound familiar at all, does it?

Let’s start with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (good old FDR).  He was the defining figure of the Great Depression, holding the presidency from 1933 to 1945.  That’s four terms, which only came to an end with his death – the two-term limit hadn’t yet been enacted.  This period of history was quite a time to be president.  The stock market’s famously gigantic crash in 1929, nicknamed Black Thursday, had signaled the start of difficult times, and while America was dealing with painfully high unemployment, World War II was brewing.

Which of FDR’s messages might be helpful today?  We’ve all heard his famous assertion that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” a tidbit from his first inaugural address in 1933.  In other words, the best way to fight something scary is to simply stop being afraid of it.  That goes for worrying about finding a new job just as much as it does for the monster under your bed or a military adversary overseas.  That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Franklin D. Roosevelt also tried to frame the struggle heroically: “To some generations much is given.  Of other generations much is asked.  This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” he intoned to the Democratic National Convention of 1936.

Destiny is a tricky thing, though, and has to do entirely with how you frame the story.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and it’s easy to let memories of hard times become distorted and glorified.  We’re not trying to say that FDR was an old windbag – rather, it’s an interesting way to think about the present time.  Are future generations going to remember the present time as a story of ordinary Americans overcoming obstacles, or as a mere blip in history – or, worse, as jumbled mess of a downward spiral?  It’s impossible to say, but there’s no doubt that taking a positive outlook simply can’t hurt.  We’re going to be the ones telling the story, and whether we plan to frame it as failure or resourcefulness just might make a difference in how we carry ourselves today.

In the time of today’s recession, we also have a president whose message of hope has gotten some rave reviews.  The election of Barack Obama was a turning point in US history, any way you look at it, but whether or not he’s lived up to his message of reform and progress is something you can decide for yourself.  We can only hope that the hard times of today make a turnaround soon and avoid the infamy of the Great Depression, and whether Obama’s destined to be remembered as the kind of noble, powerful figure that we see in FDR remains to be seen.

View all articles by Paul Thomson

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