Fear of FERA: A New Class Struggle during the Great Depression

The crisis created by the Great Depression was like nothing the United States had ever seen, and the federal government had to scramble to create programs that addressed the nation’s problems. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, for instance, put young men across the U.S. to work on important, useful, long-lasting projects. But many programs of the time were both more controversial and less successful.

With an unemployment rate that reached as high as 25 percent, state and local welfare systems that had been established primarily to deal with “the unemployable” — the blind, the deaf, orphans, the aged — were faced with a growing population of educated, experienced, but unemployed adults. In 1932, President Hoover established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to help states create new unskilled jobs in local and state government and get people back to work.

But by 1935, FERA had grown into something that looked more permanent, was a drain on taxes, and simply wasn’t improving the situation. What’s more, as Dorothy Thompson argued in “Our Ghostly Commonwealth,” FERA was leading to a new class struggle — “not the class struggle according to Marx — not the workers against the capitalists, but the working against the workless, the haves against the people they support.” And it was creating the same type of social and economic environment that had allowed Adolf Hitler to seize power in Germany.


Our Ghostly Commonwealth

By Dorothy Thompson
Excerpted from the article originally published July 27, 1935

There exists in the United States, alongside our so-called normal social and economic life, another commonwealth, a ghostly one — ghostly because it is largely invisible to those who are not its members, and ghostly in the vague uneasiness which its haunting presence provokes. It is a commonwealth of people who live in a separate world of their own.

They are not isolated in some distant state, on some reservation set aside for them, but they live in the midst of us, in our cities and villages, in our very streets. They can vote — although it is suggested in some states that they should not — they look like the rest of us; they have the same desires, the same needs, the same urges. But not exactly, and always decreasingly, the same hopes. They belong to the same trades, professions, crafts, and skills as the rest of us, and, on the whole, to the same races, although there is a larger proportion of Negroes amongst them than in the other society, our own society, and a slightly larger proportion of Mexicans and Filipinos. There are mechanics and farmers, engineers and executives, lawyers and journalists, artists and teachers, laborers and musicians, dancers and actors, miners, carpenters, stonemasons, clerks, stenographers. They are, indeed, a pretty fair cross section of the United States. There are stockbrokers amongst them, and former $50,000-a-year men, and sharecroppers who never in their lives have handled more than $100 a year in cash money. And lots and lots of children. Curiously, there are, proportionately, rather more children amongst them than the rest of us have. They constitute between one-sixth and one-seventh of our population, because, all together, their number is around 20 million, and the experts tell us there are an additional 25 million potential members of their society.

They are the people on relief.

But the people on relief are not usually referred to as “people.” The society in which they live has a nomenclature of its own, as well as a social and economic organization of its own. They are usually referred to as “clients” or as “cases,” and, in groups, as a “case load.” Thousands of them live in barracks, under the supervision of Army officers, but they are not soldiers. They and many of the others work, and at all sorts of tasks: construction, manufacturing, transportation, education, building, mechanics, drafting, moving pictures. They play instruments, sew clothes, manufacture mattresses, till farms, but they do not work at jobs, but on “projects.” They work, but most of them do not receive wages, but “budgets,” and the amount which they earn is not decided according to their merits, but according to their minimum needs — as determined for them by careful investigation. They produce all manner of things, from iron cots and refrigerators to pictures and plays, but they may not sell anything they produce.

Their lives for 10 years back are investigated, recorded, catalogued, and cross-catalogued. More is known about them than about any other part of the population — about their race, and skills, work histories, diseases, even about their personalities — but the knowledge is in the files of state and federal government agencies, and is not part of the public awareness. In so far as the rest of our society is conscious of them, the attitude is a combination of bad conscience and hostility, and of this attitude they are also aware — and repay it, on their part, with a feeling of frustration and hostility.

Limitations of Local Relief

The poor have long been the charges of state, county, and township governments. But possible taxation for such purposes was severely limited. And the whole mentality of local poor administrators was awry. To them, the destitute were so because they were simply misfits. It was, in essence, their own fault. The attitude was embodied in some New England states by laws which disfranchised recipients of public relief. The local poor-law authorities were trained by tradition and experience to take care of the ne’er-do-wells, the village idiots, the aged, the infirm, the orphaned. But they were not prepared for a program of relief for Thomas Smith, able-bodied, aged 35, six years ago receiving a salary of $25 a week and a so-to-speak house owner, meaning that he had a house “worth” $5000 on which he had a $4000 mortgage; four years ago cut to $20; three years ago cut to $12, and unable to pay the mortgage; two years ago dismissed because of “lack of business,” and today totally without resources.

President Hoover, with the experiences of the war, the Belgian relief, the all-European campaign against typhus, the 1930 drought, and the Mississippi flood behind him as justification, believed that there was sufficient goodwill, energy, and organization power in the American people to deal with the administration of this problem on a local and largely voluntary basis.

But the analogy with the war and with President Hoover’s previous great relief administrations was fallacious in one important particular. The war, the postwar starvation, the drought, and the Mississippi flood were catastrophes which affected all parts of the population. People starved in postwar Belgium because there was actually no food. Everybody starved. The good and the bad, the poor and the rich, the deserving and the undeserving. In the war, the banker’s son needed bandages as well as the truck man’s. And the Mississippi rose upon the just as well as upon the unjust, upon the efficient as well as the unlucky. There was solidarity of action because there was solidarity of distress.

No such solidarity of experience exists between the employed and the unemployed. But one thing which President Hoover foresaw has come to pass. Many of the fortunate, being isolated from any participation in the troubles of the unfortunate, except to pay for them, are developing a callousness and hostility toward them which aggravate the whole social situation, and which no amount of press releases from the publicity bureaus of the various relief administrations can dissipate. This country is dividing into two classes — the employed and the people on relief. A genuine class struggle is emerging, but it is not the class struggle according to Marx — not the workers against the capitalists, but the working against the workless, the haves against the people they support.

The Working and the Workless

This is reflected in almost every conversation which one may have with people whom the depression has not touched severely. The Long Island ladies who are indignant that they cannot get a handy man to help lay a carpet; the newspaperman who has kept his job securely all through these last five years; the employers of cheap labor who can’t find men at prices they can afford to pay. Being cut off from the problem, which is isolated behind a bureaucracy, they generalize from their own experience, and there are plenty of experiences to bear them out. They see the relief problem in its bulk and implications only in the un-quieting growth of the extraordinary budget.

In the great cities, in the winter of 1932, the attempts at local relief had certainly broken down. The local charities were bankrupt. Milkmen could not deliver milk, because their cars were overturned and the milk looted. Grocery windows were smashed. There were riots. Gangsters joined the ranks of the unfortunate, and racketeering was coupled with destitution. There was a clamor from all quarters that something should be done.

And President Roosevelt came in, surrounded by youth and social indignation, pledged to action, and a lot of it. And gallantly flinging back their locks from their foreheads, and with a smile cheery and brave, this administration gathered the whole kit and caboodle of the destitute to its bosom.

Since then it has been exceedingly busy trying to bounce many of them off again.

The federal government had no more experience than anyone else in being an eleemosynary institution. It had vast quantities of goodwill, optimism, and idealism. It was manned with as attractive a crowd of people as ever were got together in Washington; for eagerness and earnestness, youth and enthusiasm are extremely attractive qualities. It is probably the most literate administration that this country has ever had since the early days when politics was believed to be a gentleman’s profession, and it is certainly the most talkative. It is also probably one of the most truly representative of administrations, for it shares practically all the illusions of the typical American intellectual. It believes that any action is better than none; that the scientific attitude is synonymous with being willing to try anything once; that economic reform can be interpreted in terms of social uplift; and that the lion and the lamb can be brought to lie down together by persuasion.

This is preeminently the administration of goodwill — on all sides. But the good, says the proverb, die young. It is the wise who die of old age.

A Sympathy All-Embracing

This administration has been truly encyclopedic in its sympathies. It has tried, in the midst of depression, to raise wages and preserve profits. It has encouraged monopolies and sought to protect labor. It has advocated high prices and the protection of the consumer; [Secretary of State] Mr. [Cordell] Hull wants to restore international trade, and so does [Secretary of Agriculture] Mr. [Henry] Wallace, but meanwhile Mr. Wallace scales down production to domestic consumption. It believes in inspiration and in the expert.

Now, the same ambivalence of feeling dominates the relief program. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration is accurately described by one word in the title, and somewhat accurately by another. It is almost “Federal,” and it is certainly “Administration.” But no one whom I have been able to find in the whole organization, whether in Washington or in the field, believes that it is “Emergency.” On the contrary, its members are convinced that we are settling down to deal with a permanent problem, and they are directing policy with this in view. It is not relief. It is — or intends to become — a system of employment and, as such, should be no more relief than the check I hope to get for this article.

The destitute, in the mind of this government, have a right to support. But there is something humiliating about the exercise of this special right. Therefore, work must be provided for them. But the work must not interfere with private industry. The relief worker must be free, but in order to live on his budget, he must be controlled. The relief worker must not be insulted, but the public must be scrupulously protected. The problems of the immediate present must be met. The problems of a distant future must be met. The chief aim must be to provide immediate projects to meet the needs of the individual unemployed; the chief aim must be to construct lasting works of public importance. Every destitute person in the country must be relieved, but the taxpayer must not be overburdened.

Benevolent Serfdom

I am amazed that some people consider that the work-relief system is a form of socialism. Go out and look at it, and you see that it is actually a new form of benevolent serfdom. I say “benevolent” because almost all the people in administrative positions from top to bottom are full of human kindness, full of sympathy. They are not well-paid themselves. They work extremely hard. They are, for the most part, vigorously honest. And most of them know that this system will not work in the long run. Some of them foresee its extension into a universal program of production for use, a sort of nationwide EPIC. Others believe that the government must openly compete with private industry and gradually expropriate it. They should observe that no country yet has managed to edge its way into socialism. Others believe that such a system can only be integrated with the rest of society by political means.

Now, the political means of integrating such a society with the rest is fascism. It is, as far as I know, the only political means which has been pragmatically successful.

Germany, from 1925 onward, built up a system of work relief very similar to this one. In fact, it is the only parallel which I can find in a study of social service in European countries. It had the same sort of projects — subsistence farms, unemployed production for unemployed, and in the Voluntary Works Corps, an organization not unlike CCC. It did not, under this system, stabilize the social order. The resentment of the unemployed against the state was prodigious.

According to the classes from which they came, the younger elements flocked to the extreme right or the extreme left. They furnished strong support for Hitler. And when he came into power, he took over the whole system. It was literally ready-made for him. He reorganized it along military lines. He put the workers in camps into uniforms, and the social workers, to a large extent, as well. He kept the system and changed the psychology.

Now the subsistence workers are not pariahs of the social order but are hailed as its pillars. They are the builders of the New Germany. They have parades. They are drilled, exercised, trained. Arrangements are made to keep many of them permanently in this status. And a vast propaganda machine with the whole field to itself is busy persuading them that they like it.

Well, perhaps they do. But would we?


President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7034 less than three months before this article was printed, establishing the more ambitious and unconventional Works Progress Administration. Like FERA, the WPA was accused of promoting communism, socialism, fascism, corruption, and political favoritism. But its results are difficult to argue against: 651,000 miles of roads, 124,000 public buildings, 800 airports, and 124,000 bridges built or improved; 225,000 public concerts presented; 475,000 works of art and 276 full-length books created; plus public swimming and wading pools, utility improvements, and over a billion school lunches.

FERA was dissolved in December of the same year.

Read Dorothy Thompson’s “Our Ghostly Commonwealth” in its entirety.

“What a Woman!” The Story of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis

The intelligence and intensity of Dorothy Thompson, which made her so successful as a reporter, could be nearly overwhelming in person. She attracted a great many admirers for her work—and for her personality. Post writer Jack Alexander tried to capture some of the force of her character in a 1940 article.

Great as her gifts, objectivity toward herself has never been one of them. She is one of the most extroverted of humans, aggressively gregarious and tireless in debate. For combined intellectual, physical, and emotional energy, she has no known equal, male or female.

Miss Thompson is statuesque and handsome. She is a master of the dramatic entrance and immediately makes herself the center of attention whenever she enters a roomful of people. It works unfailingly, whether the occasion is a birthday party for someone else, a cocktail soiree, or a christening. Women who go to the same social affairs begin by being annoyed and wind up sitting things out in a cold fury. The men surround miss Thompson and hang on her words.

It was inevitable that such a woman would find a determined admirer. In her case, the admirer was the Nobel-winning author, Sinclair Lewis. He first saw her in Berlin while he was on a book tour of Europe. With one look, he cancelled his tour and begged a friend to introduce him to Ms. Thompson at dinner that night.

Thus began one of the strangest of courtships. During the supper, Lewis’ eyes hardly left his hostess, and after the table had been cleared he maneuvered her into a corner and asked point-blank whether she would marry him.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I want to build a lovely house in Vermont and you are the only person I ever met that I wanted to share it with,” Lewis replied.

“That isn’t a good enough reason, but thank you very much—especially for asking me on this particular day,” Miss Thompson said. [It was both Ms. Thompson’s birthday and the day her divorce became official.]

Lewis said that his own divorce was not final as yet, but added, “I’m going to propose to you every time I see you, and from now on, in public and in private.”

Dorothy Thompson, newspaper columnist recently returned from Europe, calls on President Roosevelt at the White House.

Two days later his publisher arrived in Berlin and gave a public dinner in Lewis’ honor. Lewis insisted that Miss Thompson attend too. When called upon for a speech, the novelist arose and, ignoring everything else, faced her.

“Dorothy,” he said, “will you marry me?”  That was all there was to the speech.

Rioting broke out in Vienna a few days later and Miss Thompson left for Tempelhof airdrome to charter an airplane. Lewis, getting wind of her departure, taxicabbed after her. He hated airplanes and had never ridden in one, but he jumped in alongside her. “Marry me, Dorothy, will you?” he asked. Frances Gunther, the wife of John Gunther, who had come to see Miss Thompson off, was pressed into service as a chaperone, and the ship took off with Lewis grimly holding on to the armrests.

A low-hanging fog made visibility almost zero and for a couple of hours the plane yawed and groaned over roofs and treetops, then turned back to Tempelhof to wait for better weather. Lewis’ normally ruddy face showed signs of paleness, but he was aboard when the plane departed again. At the Vienna airport Miss Thompson bolted away in a cab and Lewis pursued her in another.

During the week that disorders lasted, Lewis proposed several times a day. Miss Thompson told him that she would consider his request if he wrote his own impressions of the riots for the Public Ledger syndicate. He did, at space rates.

In the fall, Miss Thompson slipped out of Berlin and flew to Moscow to cover the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevist revolution. The love-and-air-sick novelist flew after her. Lewis, whose interest in the Russian experiment was nil, was nevertheless rated a great man in the Soviet Union, where his novels were widely read in translation. News of his flight had preceded him and a delegation of notables met him at the air field with a brass band.

The band played a welcoming hymn. The chairman of the committee delivered an address of greeting. Then, perhaps in the hope of evoking a plug for the anniversary, he asked the author why he had come to Moscow.

“To see Dorothy,” was the reply.

The chairman, puzzled, asked him again.

“Dorothy,” Lewis explained, “just Dorothy.”

During the celebration, the Russians never did get to understand Lewis, and he wasn’t interested in understanding them. But the trip was a success for him. He got in dozens of proposals in Red Square when the tanks passing in review weren’t making too much noise.

Dorothy Thompson at a dinner party.

In March, 1928, Miss Thompson gave up her job in Berlin, preparatory to her marriage to Lewis in the Savoy Chapel, in London. For a honeymoon, they toured the English countryside in an automobile trailer which Lewis had bought in a moment of whimsey.  Trailers were an American oddity at the time, and everywhere the honeymooners went they aroused the curiosity of the simple natives.

Afterward, they lived a helter-skelter life. Lewis bought a farm in Vermont and a house in Bronxville, and when they weren’t living in one of these places they were traveling about Europe. Dorothy bore a son, Michael, who, in the fullness of time, learned to defeat her in argument, which is more than anyone else has succeeded in doing, and to put castor oil in her company cocktail shaker.

The movie inspired by Dorothy Thompson’s career, “Woman of the Year,” concerned a pair of writers juggling their careers and their marriage. The movie was successful partly because of the chemistry between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and partly because the writer didn’t try to write a script as unbelievable as the true-life courtship of Thompson and Lewis.

Dorothy Thompson: The Real Woman of the Year

Nobody had to tell Americans in 1942 who the “Woman of the Year” really was. The main character in that movie, played by Katherine Hepburn, was a star reporter known for her determination, independence, and an immense knowledge of world affairs. Who else could it be but Dorothy Thompson?

Well before the war started, Ms. Thompson had built an international reputation out of hard work and a readiness to go to any story. One evening in 1926, for example, as she entered the Vienna opera house, she overheard someone talking about a coup d’état in Poland. Telephoning an associate, she learned there was truth to the rumor. She instantly left the theater, grabbed a suitcase of clothes, borrowed $500 cash from her friend Sigmund Freud, and boarded the last train to Warsaw. When the train was stopped 50 miles outside the city, Ms. Thompson and another correspondent flagged down an automobile, which took them within five miles of the city. From there, she continued on in darkness, dragging herself and her suitcase across muddy fields to avoid militia patrols. Arriving in the city, she was refused entry to her hotel and so headed to the American Embassy, stepping across dead bodies in the streets. After writing her story, she was told that all telegraph offices had been closed by the government. She immediately hired another car and drove far out into the country. She eventually found a telegraph station that hadn’t heard the order to shut down, from which she filed her story.

Columnist Dorothy Thompson advocates repeal of Neutrality Act to allow U.S. freedom of policy. Washington, D.C., April 26 1939.

This sort of determination earned her a posting to Berlin in 1927, from where she watched Adolf Hitler’s rise from beer-hall demagogue to chancellor of Germany. In 1933, she wrote an article for the Post that analyzed how Hitler won a free election to become head of state. Much of his success, she stated, was his blatant appeal to “fear, hatred, envy and above all, ignorance.”

This much was obvious after the war, but it was still rare in the 1930s when many people were undecided about Hitler. Some saw him as a viable leader for his country, a man who could restore stability to Germany and oppose communism. Ms. Thompson wasn’t buying any of this wishful thinking. In her reporting of the Nazis’ assumption of power, she proved to be one of the very few who saw what was coming.

The German people have not had Mr. Hitler thrust upon them. He recommended himself to them and they bought him. More than 50 per cent of all Germans politically minded enough to exercise the right of suffrage—and nearly 89 percent of them went to the polls—deliberately gave away all their civil rights, all their chances of popular control, all their opportunities for representation. The German people went over to autocracy in March, 1933, in a body, burning all their bridges behind them.

That the vote came as a shock to most English and Americans is due to a couple of illusions fondly and incurably cherished by people whose tradition is largely Anglo-Saxon. One is the illusion that all peoples love liberty, and that political liberty and some form of representative government are indivisible. The other is that peoples are less aggressive than their rulers. For, essentially, in 1933,the German people voted to fight; to fight the war all over again if need be.

In a few days Hitler and his private army changed the whole form of political life in Germany.

Storm troops of Hitler were in possession of the streets. And in the days following the election, the streets of every municipality presented in a curious aspect. Germany had suddenly got into uniform. A strange deadness seemed to come over commercial life, but in the streets a mass moved constantly—a marching mass, with banners, with bands and with uniforms.

No whisper leaked out in the Berlin press of what was happening under the Third Reich. Hitler, still speaking night after night, talked of brotherly love and German unity to cheering masses. But his adjutant, Goering, master of Prussia’s police, made no secret of the government’s intention to exterminate everyone who showed hostility to the regime. “ I waste no sympathy over the eighty or hundred thousand traitors under arrest,” he said in a speech—and the public learned for the first time the possible extent of the government’s roundup.

Dorothy Thompson in 1920

Many journalists continued reporting from Germany throughout the 1930s, but only because they carefully avoided reporting anything that would offend Hitler. Ms. Thompson wasn’t interested in tact or compromise. So, in 1934, the Gestapo marched her out of the country, making her the first reporter deported from Germany.

It was hardly the end of her career. Back in the U.S., she continued reporting and began broadcasting her analysis of the news. By 1942, Time magazine reported that she was one of the most admired woman in the country, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ms. Thompson would have turned 118 years old this Saturday, and while you and I might think that an advanced age, she didn’t. She told a Post writer in 1940:

She feels cramped by the limitations of an ordinary lifetime and often speculates on how nice it would be to live two or three hundred years. To someone who once asked her what epitaph she would like, she replied, “Died of extreme old age.”

Next: “What a Woman!