printed 04/10/2020


The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 started in the spring, but was most deadly from September through January of 1919.

Soldiers returning from WWI brought it back.

The final wave of deaths was from February of 1919 through the beginning months of 1920. Many years later it was figured out that once the Spanish Flu arrived in America it was spread by mailmen.

It brought on a severe depression in America from 1920–1922 that many economists believe was more severe than the market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression.

How did the jobs and the financial markets come roaring back? What did Presidents Harding and Coolidge do?

If the deaths from the Spanish Flu in 1920 were translated to today’s population numbers, 1,500,000 Americans would have perished.

We will come back to what Warren Harding, president in 1920, and Calvin Coolidge, 1923–1929 (“Silent Cal”), did to get the country out of the influenza-induced depression in just two years.

First, let’s talk a bit about what Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.) did—the Kitchen Sink approach—to get us out of the Great Depression that started with the market crash of 1929.

By 1932, F.D.R. was aggressively throwing “the Kitchen Sink”’ at the Depression, but did it work?

His fireside chats started in March of 1933. His sympathy for the working man was legendary and would make him the most popular president in American history. But did his actions work?

Many academic economists will tell you we didn’t get out of the Great Depression until 1942, 10 years later, after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and we were immersed in the World War.

World War II is what pulled us out of the Great Depression, not Hoover or even Roosevelt.

Prior to F.D.R., President Hoover started the Federal Farm Board, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the much-maligned imposition of tariffs in the Smoot-Hawley Act in 1930.

Smoot Hawley tariffs garnered much of the blame for prolonging the Great Depression. This blame seems to be deserved, but what did F.D.R. do? Did it work?

F.D.R. started the very popular New Deal, helping the poor. Congress passed the Banking Act that gave many powers to government, some of which were good:

a) In March to May of 1933 Glass-Stiegel, separating brokerage firms from banks, was passed. This was good, however it was reversed by Clinton in 1999 and Dodd-Frank did nothing to re-impose the separation. The Banking Act was initially resisted by F.D.R.

b) Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (F.D.I.C.) was adopted on July 1, 1934, insuring bank deposits up to $2,500. It became part of his New Deal.

c) Powers for the Federal Reserve to print money were instituted for the first time.

d) Powers expanding the Treasury’s ability to borrow money (neither c nor d existed in the 1920 depression) became part of the New Deal.

e) Social Security was adopted in 1933 giving old and disabled Americans a paycheck for life.

f) The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was adopted in 1938 giving labor the minimum wage and 150 percent of the minimum for overtime. FLSA also started the 40-hour work week.

All of these changes were part of FDR’s New Deal, but did they work?

Some months after FLSA and all the above had been implemented, the U.S.

Unemployment rate was still at an unacceptable 19 percent. It had gone from 23.6 percent in 1932, when Roosevelt was elected, down to 14.3 percent in late 1936, only to dip again to 19 percent in early 1939, the beginning of WWII.

Our entering the war in 1941 is broadly recognized as the end of the Great Depression, raising the obvious question of whether seven years of throwing “the Kitchen Sink” at the Great Depression did any good.

What about the Spanish Influenza from 1918–1920? What did the government do?

What about the depression of 1920, keynoted by 1,500,000 deaths from influenza in today’s terms? The American Communist Party began in 1917. May Day riots started in 1919, led by the Communist Eugene Debs. The year 1919 was voted the worst in American history.

A sharper drop in the market came, then the 1920 crash and spikes in unemployment. So, what did Harding and Coolidge do to bring it back by 1923, a period of only two or three years?

Harding’s Policy was Laissez Faire, he ignored both the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic as well as the 1920 depression that followed. Although he did impose tariffs in 1922, no government policies were taken to fight the influenza or the depression.

Calvin Coolidge did nothing, ushering in great prosperity and limited interference.

In a little over two years the influenza pandemic and the depression had ended and turned into a booming economy. In contrast, F.D.R. threw “the Kitchen Sink” at the Great Depression, which dragged on for almost a decade. Only World War II bailed the economy out almost 10 years later.

Makes one wonder what the Congress, most of the governors and of course the President are doing today?

Tony Christ

Ocean City

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