The Great Depression was a crucial episode in the history of the United States. It was also a pivotal moment in the global history of modern capitalism. These two points are vital for comprehending the tasks facing Americans in the 1930s as they confronted this unprecedented disaster. People of all backgrounds had to cope with the utter collapse of the economic system, a collapse so extensive that it exposed the failure of government, business, and society to control the market. As people responded to the Great Depression, they initiated a fundamental rethinking about the essence of capitalism in America – in short, they inspired a reform movement we call the New Deal.
The 1930s were years when a great deal went horribly wrong. In March 1933, a full forty-one months after the 1929 stock market crash, about one-fifth of the American workforce was jobless. Nearly one-third of those who could find employment worked only part time. Unemployment remained high throughout the decade, standing at just above 11 percent in 1939. It took the nationwide mobilization for World War II to drive unemployment to its twentieth-century low, 1.23 percent, in 1944. Never before in the history of the United States had the country faced such a severe and long-lasting economic downturn. During the years between 1929 and World War II, a wide range of politicians, ordinary citizens, businessmen, and others attempted to make sense of what often appeared to be a world turned upside down.
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