Long Range Goals

President Obama’s “sweeping overhaul of the financial regulatory system … is not even close to the radical regulatory reforms … that Roosevelt accomplished during the Great Depression …”, was an opinion that we saw in a New York Times story the other day.

So what exactly did FDR accomplish in his attempts to bring the Great Depression to a halt? Well, first of all, he did a number of things that had little or nothing to do with “radical regulatory reforms”. The National Recovery Act of 1933 was passed in March of that year and within two weeks the Emergency Conservation Work Act was signed into law. That emergency work program became known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and operated in every U.S. state and in the territories of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The CCC was a public works program designed to bring relief to the unemployed 18 to 25-year old young men during the Great Depression by hiring them to carry out a broad natural resource conservation program on national, state and municipal lands.

The CCC was one of the most popular New Deal programs because the young men were disciplined, they wore uniforms, they lived in camps, they received a modest wage, and what was even more important than all that, the CCC program kept this volatile age group from rebelling, striking or otherwise demonstrating during those trying times.

But did this program solve the unemployment problem? Or did this effort create money-making industries? No, and no. It was a stop-gap measure. World War II awaited those young men.

Acknowledging the limited success of the CCCs, FDR’s next effort was to establish a more all-encompassing work program for the nation’s unemployed. The WPA – known as the Works Progress Administration, the Works Projects Administration, and finally the Work Projects Administration – was created in 1935 under the New Deal and was meant to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression while preserving the skills and self-respect of the unemployed by providing them useful work.

In 1943, when full employment was provided by the wartime economy, the WPA was terminated, but not before the effort produced thousands and thousands of buildings, bridges, walls and parks. More than 8,500,000 were employed in the program but the WPA had numerous critics, the chief objection being that the program wasted federal dollars on many projects that were not needed. Some who were critical of the WPA referred to it as “We Poke Along”, “We Piddle Along”, or “We Putter Around”. Ex-Dodger and Giant pitcher Billy Loes, who was selected by the New York Mets in the 1961 expansion draft, was credited with this quotation: “The Mets is a good thing. They give everybody jobs. Just like the WPA.”

But did this program solve the unemployment problem? Or did this effort create money-making industries? Again, no. World War II ended all controversy by absorbing most of the unemployed.

Those well-meaning attempts to end unemployment by concentrating money, material and temporary jobs on the nation’s infrastructure didn’t bring an end to the Great Depression of the 30s and that strategy won’t bring an end to this one either. The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 empowered the U.S. Maritime Commission to establish the Long Range Shipbuilding Program in 1937, and this move was the beginning of the end of the Great Depression. Because of technological advances in hull construction and propulsion machinery, ships in the U.S. merchant fleet were rapidly becoming non-competitive commercially and were of little value as support vessels for the Navy. Inactive U.S. shipyards had become stagnant in the years following the first World War and it was felt that rebuilding the commercial shipbuilding capacity in the U.S. was in the Nation’s best interest.

The Maritime Commission began by devising a program to build 500 merchant ships of new design, and it was this shipbuilding program that became known as the Long Range Program. The well-known and unusually successful C1, C2 and C3 type ships had their beginnings in this program.

Faring poorly in the Battle of the Atlantic and with losses of merchant vessels far exceeding the capability of British shipyards to replace those losses, the British Merchant Shipping Mission ordered replacement cargo vessels from U.S. and Canadian yards. Thus began the Emergency Shipbuilding Program which would eventually dwarf the Long Range Program. Directed by the U.S. Maritime Commission between the years 1940 and 1945, the program turned out almost 6,000 cargo ships and provided jobs for hundreds of thousands within U.S. shipyards and for millions of supporting workers offsite.

The rapid growth in production in the early years of the war was achieved in spite of a labor shortage in the coastal cities and towns where emergency shipyards were being built. To build a labor force, recruiting was directed toward inland areas in the belief that men accustomed to keeping farm machinery operating would be adept at building ships. Such a rapid migration of workers and families to these coastal localities brought about acute shortages in housing, schools, medical facilities and other needed services. Along with the labor force needed for the construction of new shipyards and ships, additional skilled workers were required to provide necessities within the growing communities.

In Article 17 of this Volume, we wrote: “Naval and maritime records narrate the achievements of Liberty Ships (‘Ugly Ducklings’), Victory Ships, C-1s, C-2s and C-3s, probably the most familiar of the many cargo designs built in U.S. yards, but dozens and dozens of different types were actually turned out during those years. Maybe a hundred or more. Who knows. Those many and diverse types of cargo vessels – and warships – were built and delivered by U.S. shipyards that sprung up almost overnight, and that massive and miraculous shipbuilding effort took place in about a half dozen years. Our single, simple, patented container ships, on the other hand, could be punched out like ‘cupcakes’ in existing yards, in an ‘emergency program’ that would create about 50 million new jobs and end our economic tailspin. In that scenario everyone would come out smelling like a rose.

“Employed Americans are the master link in the international supply chain, but unemployment has disabled that chain. Everything is shutting down and history shows that similar periods of destitution have produced tragic events. In those scenarios everyone would come out smelling.”