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A World in Crisis

What the thirties tell us about today.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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On December 13, 1931, there was a traffic accident in New York City. A man exited a cab on the Upper East Side and was crossing Fifth Avenue when he was hit by a car traveling around 35 miles an hour. The force of the impact threw the man to the pavement. He struck his head. Two of his ribs were cracked. A crowd formed around him; one of the witnesses hailed a taxi to take the man to the hospital. When he was admitted to Lenox Hill the doctors noted that he was bruised and battered but would make a full recovery. He had cheated death.

A World in Crisis

The patient remained in the doctors’ care for eight days. While he was there the driver who had struck him visited. The patient made it clear that the accident had been his own fault; the driver, an unemployed mechanic, had nothing to fear. The incident had occurred because the patient, an Englishman, had looked left as he crossed the street when he should have looked right. The grateful driver left the hospital carrying an autographed copy of the patient’s latest book. The New York Times wrote about the meeting the next day. The headline read, “Churchill Greets Driver Who Hit Him.” 

I’ve spent the last several weeks reading all sorts of newspaper and magazine articles from December 1931. But I keep coming back to the reports of Winston Churchill’s near-fatal mishap. The contingency of the episode is what’s striking: After all, if the car had been traveling just a little bit faster, the history of the twentieth century would have been irrevocably altered. Churchill himself was shocked that he had survived the ordeal. “I do not understand,” he wrote in an article for the Daily Mail dictated from his hospital bed, “why I was not broken like an egg-shell or squashed like a gooseberry.” 

The story also brings to life the granularity of history. It’s easy to think of historical epochs as smooth units with a few overarching characteristics. In the popular imagination the Great Depression began with the crash of ’29 and persisted, without interruption, until America entered World War II in 1941. The Great Depression calls to mind Hoover’s supposed passivity, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Dust Bowl, and Father Coughlin. We limit the story to America. We don’t think of the figures in one historical context as active in another.

But of course things are more complicated than the CliffsNotes versions of history we carry around in our heads. Rather than one big crisis that unfurled over time, the 1930s was a series of rolling crises that coincided with and were shaped by one another. There was not only one thunderclap. There were several. There were moments during the Great Depression, for instance, when the economy improved​—​only to have the floor fall out from underneath it. There were false springs that quickly turned into harsh winters.

I went looking through the sources from December 1931 because I wanted to see if there were parallels between then and now. Why that particular month? Because it was two years into the Great Depression, just as we are two years into the Great Recession. Needless to say, historical analogies are imperfect. No two eras are alike. But it’s nonetheless true that certain themes connect our time with Churchill’s. In both eras the crises were global in scope. In both eras the world’s financial and political order came under vicious attack. In both eras the question facing elites was whether they could prevent the threatening storm from making landfall. The political class of the 1930s was unable to meet that challenge. And the political class of today?

We’ll see.

At first blush, there are several affinities between the domestic political situation in December 2010 and that of December 1931. In both months the president’s party had just lost control of the House of Representatives while retaining a slim majority in the Senate. Both Decembers saw fights over taxes, with tax rates rising in the 1930s but staying the same today or in some cases being lowered. Both months witnessed debates over the repeal of controversial social legislation​—​prohibition in the 1930s, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in our time.

What’s more, the presidents in both Decembers shared a couple of qualities. Obviously, Barack Obama is not Herbert Hoover. But both men were criticized for being detached, overly logical, aloof. Both men, moreover, were celebrities when they took office. Hoover, the great engineer, was known for his feats as director of aid to Europe after World War I and as secretary of commerce under presidents Harding and Coolidge. Obama was known for being Obama.

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