1930s America: Was the Nation at Risk from Radicals & Communists?

1930s America: Was the Nation at Risk from Radicals & Communists?

Radical Opposition to the New Deal: To What Extent Was America in Danger of Falling into the Hands of Radicals and Communists in the 1930s?

The 1930s marked a tumultuous period in American history. With the grip of the Great Depression strangling the economy and leaving millions unemployed, societal discontent grew. The New Deal, introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, stood as a beacon of hope for many Americans, yet it simultaneously acted as a lightning rod for criticism and opposition. Among the most vehement of these detractors were radical and communist groups who saw in America’s struggles an opportunity to further their own agendas. This paper delves into the extent to which America was in danger of succumbing to the allure of these radical ideologies during the 1930s.

Historical Context

To comprehend the climate of the 1930s, it’s pivotal to recognize the broader global and national backdrop. The end of the First World War had ushered in the Roaring Twenties – an age of prosperity, innovation, and cultural evolution. However, this era’s unchecked economic exuberance set the stage for the stock market crash of 1929, marking the commencement of the Great Depression.

As businesses shuttered and banks failed, unemployment rates soared, reaching a staggering 25% by 1933. The average American found themselves grappling with economic hardship, with many losing their homes, livelihoods, and savings. Such widespread despair and disenfranchisement were fertile grounds for discontent, pushing people to question the very foundations of capitalist America. The system, it seemed to many, had failed them.

Internationally, the interwar years were witnessing a surge in radical ideologies. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had already demonstrated communism’s potential to uproot established orders. European nations, notably Germany and Italy, were veering towards fascism and authoritarianism. This global atmosphere of political extremism further influenced the American milieu, introducing ideas that were previously marginalized.

It was within this cauldron of economic downturn and global radicalism that the New Deal emerged. While it was seen by many as a saving grace, a testament to the flexibility and resilience of the American system, to others it was insufficient, or even symptomatic of a diseased system. The stage was set for a decade where ideologies would clash, and the future direction of America was uncertain.

The New Deal: A Response to Radicalism?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, initiated in 1933, was not just a series of government programs; it was a robust response to the dire economic conditions that had gripped the nation. The primary intent behind these reforms was to provide immediate relief, instigate economic recovery, and curtail the damaging impacts of the Depression. But beyond the immediate economic implications, the New Deal was a political strategy to reaffirm faith in the democratic-capitalist system.

Central to the New Deal were the “Three R’s”: Relief, Recovery, and Reform. These encompassed programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Social Security Act. Such programs aimed to provide employment opportunities, stimulate economic growth, and introduce a safety net for the elderly and unemployed. Not only did these programs help in alleviating the immediate suffering of the masses, but they also aimed at bolstering the faith of the American people in their government and economic system.

Yet, there’s an underlying argument among historians that the New Deal was as much about economic recovery as it was about preventing a shift towards radicalism. Roosevelt himself was acutely aware of the growing popularity of radical ideologies, both on the right and left. The fear was that if the government did not act decisively, the populace, particularly the working class, might be lured by the promises of radical parties and movements. In essence, the New Deal can be seen as a preemptive strike against the potential radicalization of American society.

However, while the New Deal certainly introduced unprecedented government intervention in the economy, it fell short of the sweeping systemic change that more radical factions demanded. Instead, it worked within the confines of the capitalist system to alleviate its harshest effects. This middle-ground approach attracted criticism from both sides of the ideological spectrum. Conservatives lambasted it for its perceived socialist inclinations, while radicals deemed it as mere window dressing, insufficient in addressing the fundamental flaws of capitalism.

In summary, the New Deal, with its dual aims of economic recovery and political stabilization, attempted to strike a balance. By providing immediate relief and instituting reforms, it sought to keep at bay the rising tide of radicalism, ensuring that America remained anchored in its democratic-capitalist traditions even in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Rise of Radical Movements in the 1930s

The economic and social turbulence of the 1930s provided fertile ground for radical ideologies. With mainstream political solutions appearing inadequate, segments of the American populace began entertaining more radical alternatives. Both the extreme right and the far left saw upticks in popularity, advocating for profound changes to the status quo.

Foremost among the radical movements was the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union, the CPUSA envisioned a proletarian revolution in the United States. They aggressively critiqued the New Deal, viewing it as a capitalist ploy to pacify the masses without addressing systemic inequalities. The party gained traction, especially among labor unions and intellectual circles. Their influence was evident in several strikes and labor movements during the decade, particularly in industrial sectors.

Simultaneously, other radical movements, such as the Socialist Party of America, under the leadership of individuals like Norman Thomas, also gained momentum. They presented a slightly more moderate alternative to communism, advocating for a peaceful transition to socialism through democratic means. Their approach resonated with many who found the CPUSA’s revolutionary rhetoric unsettling.

Yet, it wasn’t just the left that was agitated. Right-wing movements, such as the Silver Legion of America and the German-American Bund, found followers among those disenchanted with the government’s handling of the economic crisis and its seeming drift towards socialism. Some of these groups openly admired European fascist leaders and their ideologies.

An emblematic event highlighting the discontent of the time was the gathering of the “Bonus Army” in 1932. Thousands of World War I veterans converged on Washington, D.C., demanding immediate payment of a bonus that was due to them. Though not inherently radical, this movement underscored the widespread disillusionment and the potential for radical mobilization.

The 1930s, thus, were marked by a vibrant and sometimes volatile mix of political ideologies. Radical movements, buoyed by the Depression and the perceived inadequacies of mainstream politics, endeavored to reshape the American socio-political landscape. Their rise posed genuine questions about the future trajectory of the nation.

Counter-Movements and Opposition to Radicalism

As radical movements gained momentum, they were met with staunch opposition from various quarters. This opposition ranged from government action and media campaigns to grassroots counter-movements, all aimed at preserving the status quo and stemming the tide of extremism.

One of the most significant government responses to the perceived threat of radicalism was the intensification of the Red Scare. Building on post-World War I fears of communist infiltration, federal and state agencies, under the aegis of figures like J. Edgar Hoover, embarked on campaigns to surveil, infiltrate, and sometimes dismantle radical organizations. Members of the Communist Party USA and other leftist groups often found themselves under scrutiny, blacklisted, or even imprisoned.

The media played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion against radical ideologies. Newspapers, radio broadcasts, and later, films, portrayed communists and radicals as threats to the American way of life. Stories of espionage, sabotage, and subversion were routinely circulated, often with little evidence, sowing seeds of mistrust and fear among the public.

Prominent public figures, from politicians to religious leaders, voiced their disapproval of radical ideologies. They championed the virtues of the American system, often conflating radicalism with un-American values. In their narratives, the United States was a beacon of freedom and prosperity, and radical ideologies threatened to extinguish this light.

At the grassroots level, various organizations and movements sprouted in defense of the American system. The American Legion, comprising war veterans, was particularly vocal in its opposition to communism and radicalism. They organized rallies, participated in counter-protests, and sometimes even clashed with members of radical movements.

In tandem with these overt forms of opposition, there were more subtle methods employed. The educational system, for instance, was leveraged to instill patriotic values, emphasizing the merits of capitalism and democracy, while sidelining or demonizing radical alternatives.

In sum, the rise of radical movements in the 1930s was met with a multi-pronged opposition that sought to safeguard the prevailing socio-political order. Whether through force, persuasion, or education, the establishment undertook concerted efforts to stymie the growth of radical ideologies and to reaffirm the values upon which the United States was built.

Comparing the Threat

To gauge the true danger posed by radical movements in the 1930s, it is essential to differentiate between the perceived threat and the actual potential these groups had for instigating revolutionary change.

On the surface, the threat seemed substantial. Radical parties were gaining members, strikes with radical undertones disrupted industries, and the rhetoric of change was resonant. The media and governmental narratives amplified these threats, sometimes out of proportion, feeding into the anxiety of an already beleaguered population.

However, a closer examination paints a more nuanced picture. The Communist Party USA, while vocal and active, never amassed the widespread support necessary to orchestrate a nationwide revolution. Their membership, though growing, was dwarfed by the broader population, and within the party, there were divisions about strategies and alignment with the Soviet Union.

Similarly, while socialist ideas found traction among intellectuals and certain segments of the working class, there was no cohesive, well-organized movement that threatened to overthrow the established order. Much of the support for socialist ideas was more an expression of discontent with the present system than an endorsement of a complete socio-political overhaul.

On the right, fascist-leaning groups remained fringe entities. The American public, having seen the rise of fascist regimes in Europe and their associated atrocities, was largely averse to such ideologies. Moreover, America’s deep-rooted democratic traditions acted as a buffer against authoritarian inclinations.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that many Americans, while sympathizing with some grievances aired by radicals, were wary of revolutionary change. They hoped for reforms, better living conditions, and economic recovery, but within the framework of the familiar democratic-capitalist system.

In conclusion, while the 1930s saw a proliferation of radical ideologies and movements, the actual threat they posed to the overarching American system was limited. The inherent resilience of American democratic institutions, coupled with the multifaceted opposition these movements faced, ensured that radicalism, though a significant chapter in 1930s America, remained a challenge but not an existential threat to the nation’s core values.


The 1930s stand as a defining decade in American history, a period marked by economic upheaval, political flux, and the oscillation between hope and despair. The backdrop of the Great Depression and the global rise of radical ideologies introduced an array of challenges to the United States, testing the resilience and adaptability of its democratic-capitalist system.

While radical movements undeniably gained traction, leveraging the discontent and economic hardships of the time, their actual ability to upend the American system remained limited. The multi-pronged opposition they faced, combined with the inherent strengths and values of American society, acted as bulwarks against the spread of extreme ideologies.

The New Deal, for all its criticisms and shortcomings, played a crucial role in this context. It represented the system’s capacity to introspect, reform, and adapt, thereby restoring faith in democratic mechanisms and precluding the mass appeal of radical alternatives.

In reflecting on the 1930s, it becomes evident that America’s brush with radicalism was less about the imminent danger of a revolutionary overhaul and more about the nation’s ability to confront, negotiate, and integrate diverse ideological perspectives. The decade serves as a testament to the enduring strength of American democracy, even in the face of profound internal and external challenges.

Course Outline and Notes: To what extent was America in danger of falling into the hands of radicals and communists in the 1930’s?

I. Radical Opposition to the New Deal
A. What about the Communist Party appealed to many Americans during the Depression?
1. Earl Browder and William Foster 2. Preached equal division of wealth, all would be equal. 3. Attracted union leaders, intellectuals, entertainment stars.
B. Why did Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana appeal to many during the Depression?
1. Share Our Wealth crusade. 2. Tax rich, guaranteed $2500 dollar a year income, housing, college education. 3. Long was assassinated while running for nomination to run on the Dem. Line.
C. What was the message of Father Charles Coughlin?
1. Michigan radio priest. 2. Called for a mix of socialist and populist programs. Coughlin often argued in favor of a benevolent dictator to run the government without opposition. He felt unions should be destroyed as they would be a threat to this national power. 3. Later, when ignored by Roosevelt, denounced New Deal as communistic. 4. Coughlin, despite great support from his radio listeners eventually appeared more and more radical as he opposed Roosevelt.
D. What was the message of Francis Townsend?
1. Concocted a pension plan that would appeal to older Americans. Under this plan older Americans would receive a set monthly pension, approximately $200 a month. 2. Those receiving the pension would be forced to spend all or some of the money. 3. Townsend believed that this would help all Americans by helping older Americans to survive and by creating spending to speed up the economy. 4. Townsend eventually joined forces with Father Coughlin and formed the Union Party. The put up a candidate named Earl Lemke. Lemke never gained much support despite Coughlin’s promise of 9 million votes. Lemke, Coughlin and Townsend at that point were considered fringe element right wingers.
E. Why did Norman Thomas oppose Roosevelt.
1. Thomas was the socialist candidate and had run for office several times. 2. He was more committed to world socialism than to eliminating Roosevelt. He was considered a left wing radical.
F. Why didn’t these radical ever gain power?
1. While reactionary leaders took power in Germany, Italy and Japan, America has a stronger history of democracy. These radicals all appeared to be part of the lunatic fringe and were eventually dismissed by the American people. 2. Roosevelt was a strong democratic leader whop inspired confidence and trust.