Listen to New Voices on Studs Terkel our partnership with 826CHI-here! Read the Story

00 / 00

Ed Paulsen discusses the Great Depression its impact

BROADCAST: Oct. 1, 1981 | DURATION: 00:25:31


Ed Paulsen discusses the Great Depression its impact.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel You know we're talking about NYA, I mean, you almost, you know, run for Congress, but you were set now, you were head of the

Ed Paulsen -- What happened was this. You see, I got into school and I did well, I made the athletic teams, I organized a dance band, Lawrence Welk and I are contemporaries from South Dakota. He was down at Yankton with his, with his in those days, yeah, and he had an outfit called the Honolulu Fruit Gum, he had a franchise for some gum and he was on every noon from Yankton in South Dakota when he wasn't on the road, and he had a truck, he hauled his team. He was a wonderful guy, he always was a wonderful guy, very kind and a good fella. And so I began to build, and then I got to running amateur shows for the theater there, and I

Studs Terkel What year

Ed Paulsen This is 1935 and six. Thirty-four, '35, '36. And I got a pretty wide reputation as an emcee, and all of a sudden I was master of ceremonies and Toastmasters at dinner for oh, for senators and for congressmen and people, because I by this time I had developed a kind of a flair for informal chit-chat, and kind of an opportunistic humor and I had this vaudeville assignment, this amateur vaudeville thing, and I was on the air some and I got acquainted with the theater people, and they'd ship me around from Aberdeen to Watertown to here in the Sioux Falls. And I was working under a tough guy named C.B. Stiff, Clean Basement Stiff. He was out of -- I'd become a theater manager then, and I was working for the theater company all the time. That was how I got to earning money and I got widely acquainted through that, and then I was very politically alert and very much committed Roosevelt, and in the campaign in '36 we pretty much swept the state and I was very active in that campaign and became a candidate for president of the Young Democrats of the state in '37. And by 1938 having come into the state on a freight train in 1935, by then I am telling the governor he shouldn't run for a third term. He did, he lost. But we became good -- this is governor Tom Berry, one of the great guys I ever knew, an old cowpuncher and a wonderful guy. But I always think of it as a period of unbelievable good fortune and growth, and the state was kind to me, and the people, I was at home, I still like it, I go there whenever I can. It was a, it was an interesting period and I look back on it in a way that the creation of the great federal programs serve like a great vacuum sweeper. It pulled -- in a way, the reason the Middle West quickly lost its democratic orientation was because the bright young guys in the Middle West, there were very few Democrats in there. Dakotas, Kansas, down there, that wasn't democratic country, and very often with the creation of these great federal programs, the guys who had been active at the great grassroots were swept up into the federal machine and were legislated out of political participation, and we lost the kind of fervor and leadership

Studs Terkel Now this is interesting. What way were they sucked out of it? This is an interesting point.

Ed Paulsen Well, if you're a young lawyer, if you were a young lawyer who had come out into this field, you were pulled into the various labor, NLRB and to PWA and to the Department of Agriculture

Studs Terkel Taken out of the community.

Ed Paulsen Taken out of the community.

Studs Terkel I see, either sent to Washington or

Ed Paulsen Absolutely, or to Denver or to someplace else, to the regional offices.

Studs Terkel Hold just one second -- so now.

Ed Paulsen This created a dearth of political leadership and because the Democratic Party in these States had not had a good, strong base when all these young voices left, and I can think of a dozen young friends from those states that were really the basis for our action, they all got pretty good jobs and left the state. Consequently, by 1938 the whole Democratic position again in the Midwest began to slip, if you remember, and by 1940 Willkie was running, he had a popular flavor for the Middle West, and most of those states went back into the Republican column around there. I stayed in this area until -- actually until the war broke out. I stayed with the NYA, I became a county supervisor and then a district director and had a lot of great and wonderful experiences, but -- and all the time I was working with kids in need, young people in need, and relief families. And then I saw the war come and the big draft went on and the early draft was a very punishing thing towards the poverty group. I don't know whether you remember this or not, but most of the draft boards kind of, they came from the middle-class, upper-middle-class structure, and they took their anger out on these reliefers. It was funny. If you read the editorials of that time, you see they'd had an anger about supporting all these young guys and all these poverty families and what have you, and they did a very foolish thing. Just about the time the economy was climbing out of its doldrums in '38 and '39, the big draft came along and the first guys that were drafted were the reliefers, the inequities of the draft didn't -- are not just existing now, they were existing then, 'cause I went very early. I was married and had a son by this time and it wasn't up for that particular to grab, but I, I was emotionally involved with the war very early. I was an ardent Roosevelt -- I loved then, love now, will love forever Roosevelt. He was he was God on a white horse to me, and I went up with the American Red Cross as a kind of a social worker called the "field welfare worker," something with the Red Cross, and I had occasion to see this, because these fellows were pulled out of their families and in those days the pay for, for an army soldier was $21 a month. And many of these guys had just gotten on a job, just beginning to earn something in the in the new flush of the growth in the economy and the prosperity of '38 and '39 when they got drafted and their families thrown back into a need situation again. And that used to come through to them as young soldiers and they worry about them and they'd come to us and we'd give them grants and loans and this sort of thing, to help them out. It was, it was not a pretty picture to tell you the truth. It was a vindictive action.

Studs Terkel That's interesting. So the war, then the war it was then as far as

Ed Paulsen the The

Studs Terkel And this is -- Paul -- this is an excellent [source?], some questions now. Questions, thoughts, reflections now. The men you remember on that march to city hall in San Francisco where [winless?] -- why do you think conjecture? Well, first of all, you think a Depression of this dimension could happen again

Ed Paulsen No, because I think the people have learned that they can -- the government can and does and will respond. I think, I think that a certain small segment of the American population now is trapped in a -- I think this is what the poverty march is about down in Washington. This is a group that are still winless. This is, this is still a loser group, and they and they too are on the muscle. They figure that you've got to push this, this participation down another notch in order to reach him. I think they're going to get it. I think it's going to work. I think there's going to be great resistance. But there is a whole, there a whole, there's a whole batch of wisdom in the United States nowadays to the effect that that it's foolish to have this group in this position costing society. It's cheaper to treat them like people. I mean, you know it's just silly to do

Studs Terkel I come to another question. The men didn't really fight back. There was violence, but suppose there were a Depression, would the reaction of people who are poor be different today than it was in the '30s?

Ed Paulsen I think it would.

Studs Terkel In what way?

Ed Paulsen I think that somehow or other there's, there is a different type of anger. Ours was a bewilderment, not an anger. And I think that, I think that the whole feeling of people today has a different emotional root than ours. Ours was injury and bewilderment, not a sense of being particularly harassed or put upon. I think today that with the widespread comfort status of our society that anybody that's outside of it's angry, and it, it permeates such a high percentage of the people that the fewer, the few that are outside are not bewildered. I mean, after all in the Depression year there was a totality to the thing, it reached clear across a broad span of people. Now it's a little segment and they're on the muscle about it.

Studs Terkel That's a difference. Another -- oh, the words that came to mind. You mentioned NRA, [Blue Eagle?], mystical ring, now, things were happening then

Ed Paulsen Right.

Studs Terkel With the New Deal.

Ed Paulsen Right.

Studs Terkel What was the impact emotionally upon you recall or your friends when

Ed Paulsen Yes, I do. In the first place, Roosevelt was an amazing experience. I had -- I'd been politically alert since boyhood. My dad supported La Follette in 1924. I remembered, I remember from when I was a kid

Studs Terkel Itinerant preacher supported La Follette.

Ed Paulsen Oh, my dad had Eugene V. Debs speak from his church when the -- 'cause nobody let him use any place in the hall -- when he was in North Dakota at Fargo, and dad was a, he was a ringer in that profession.

Studs Terkel Well, did your father represent something -- was he an exception or did he represent something in that strain?

Ed Paulsen Well, he did. He was the old populist strain, you know, he came out of Indiana. My dad was an educated man. I say itinerant, I mean well, he liked to move. There was a movement in my family, still goes on. We're still at it. That's why I work the way I do. But he was an educated man, he was a lawyer early as 44 years of age and got the faith and went into the ministry. But he took with him a lively interest, he'd be -- had run for office, he'd been prosecuting attorney. He beat Wendell Willkie's father twice for prosecuting attorney in Lake County, Indiana, yeah, down at Elwood. And so he was a concerned and alert guy in this area, and we had that at breakfast, noon, and lunch, and there was always two newspapers in the household and as I say, we had so much fun in our family we didn't, we weren't conscious of being poor, because it was good and live, you know?

Studs Terkel I detoured you. We were talking about the alphabet agencies.

Ed Paulsen Yeah. When Roosevelt came on, he was a, he was a completely different flavor. We'd had pretty much an indifference, because the federal government didn't touch you. It was all that was -- it was a remote thing. There was a senator, some congressmen, but nobody knew them. Most people didn't know who they were, even, and then all of a sudden here was this guy in the White House on the radio, and the federal government reaching out over all these people and people -- it turned up in the form of appointments of people you knew to government jobs, and this is something weird itself. I mean, Joe Blow was some guy from down on the corner

Studs Terkel The new

Ed Paulsen development The

Studs Terkel Appointments of people you personally knew.

Ed Paulsen Exactly. Outside of the postmaster, you must remember, that was damn little representation in the federal government, and all of a sudden a guy in our town an engineer, of whom they [run off?] the railroad in Aberdeen is appointed to a big job. What seems like a big job to us. He's getting $2600 a year, and things started happen to people you knew, and families that you'd been associated with were all of a sudden started to get cash money from the farm program, or from FERA or the WPA and these things became operative in your life, and this and somehow or other the personalities that Roosevelt picked were vivid people. There was Harry Hopkins, one of America's really great men of all time. The guy that I admire above all else in that period, there was old Ickes who could always coin a phrase, it came right down to Main Street, and everybody knew it. Half of them loved it and half of them hated it, and buildings started going up, the armories and what have you, so that there was an invasion, yeah, there was an invasion of your life with actual manifestations, and this immediacy had an effect on you, and it was a good, it was a good thing because whether -- and you know, a funny part of it, half a man, half of the town is fighting it. Main St.'s fighting it, you know. They're delighted to get those green checks

Studs Terkel Keep talking now, let's say a typical town.

Ed Paulsen I'm talking about a town of 16,000 people.

Studs Terkel This Aberdeen?

Ed Paulsen Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Studs Terkel And Main St. you say was frightened.

Ed Paulsen Yes, but they, but they hated -- they had a, they had a, addiction to those green relief checks that were being cashed in their cash registers, and they would been out of business had it not been for

Studs Terkel So they objected to [socialism?]

Ed Paulsen The programs.

Studs Terkel So-called government interference.

Ed Paulsen Right.

Studs Terkel At the same time, they recognized it as their salvation.

Ed Paulsen Absolutely totally. And it was, it was a very split thing. They had, you know, that Main St. would have been shut up had it not been for those checks.

Studs Terkel So the storekeepers then were doing what? They were cursing Roosevelt

Ed Paulsen They were cursing Roosevelt, they were cursing the big invasion of private affairs and intrusion into their lives and this kind of thing. And at the same time they were living off it. But, and you know they never did get over it. Main St. still has

Studs Terkel this What

Ed Paulsen Well, when the -- I think and I -- since those days I've administered relief at state level, national level, and in about 10, 12 countries around the whole world. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Pakistan, Philippines, you [name it?]. And I learned -- everything I learned in Brown County, South Dakota, Aberdeen was just as valid as -- Pakistani, yeah. Was just as valid in Pakistan as it was in Brown County. The responses of human nature to relief -- what, if I, if I were to kind of explain it I'd put it this way. There's the desperate period, and people always have to seem to -- we require them to reach a state of desperation before we do anything about it. Then there's a momentary assuagement of feeling and a momentary flush of gratitude. But that's a brief and luxury emotion, and because the, because the guy has to stay whole, he begins to figures out reasons why he deserved it, why he deserves more. And he becomes comparative. The next stage is he becomes comparative. Look at me. I'm only getting six dollars a week and three cans of beef and there's Joe Hensen down the road, he's getting eight fifty, and I know he's got in his cellar's so-and-so, you know. You become comparative, you begin to justify it. And then as a result of that, you become critical of the source. Now you just put that over against the U.S. foreign aid program, and see if it hasn't happened on an international basis. The desperate period when they want it, need it, now a great emotional flush, then all of a sudden the Philippines says, "Look! They're getting more money in Indonesia per capita than I am, or this and the other."

Studs Terkel Have to ask you, or just a couple of more questions [unintelligible]. Do you think the attitude of Main St. or generally toward people on welfare today is different than it was toward people on relief in the '30s?

Ed Paulsen No, I don't. I think I think it's tragically no.

Studs Terkel It's the same.

Ed Paulsen It's the same basic attitude. Same basic attitude, same basic att-- that they're, they're dragging on me for taxes to support them. There is no real generosity in the average businessman's heart about this problem. Now, when you get up to the big corporate level where you get economic advice, and they understand the negativism of poor people, that they're -- nobody's a zero in this society, either you add to it or take from it. And when you get the economists' advice at that at the big company level and what have you, I think there's enlightenment, but if you're talking to me about Main St., no.

Studs Terkel One other question -- this is great. One of the -- when these guys were marching, they ever talk about changing society? Overthrowing? Revolution, whatever the word was. They ever talk about things like that?

Ed Paulsen You know something, I have to say no. I never heard, I am gonna tell you, I never heard the word "revolution," I never had a Communist Party in all this rambling, I never had even the opportunity to join the Communist Party. And we weren't talking revolution, we were talking jobs, and work. Exactly. Bewilderment and anger.

Studs Terkel Well, gee, this is fantastic! Anything, any base we haven't touched as a farewell? I think we got

Ed Paulsen I don't think so, I think we

Studs Terkel Fantastic. Ed Paulsen is a good name. Thank you. Mar -- a very quick postscript. Ed Paulsen, I'm holding you. See, the reason I'm doing the book is basically I think 'cause to America, it's the Depression, the watershed. In England it's the Battle of Britain, my British friends tell me this and in Europe it's war, World War II really was not it for America, nor was any war, 'cause there's been no war in our land, outside a civil war, people in the South, and you were saying something.

Ed Paulsen Yeah, I'm saying that a thing that disturbed me, I stayed in Europe after World War Two from '45 to '48, and I worked in Czechoslovakia and German and Poland and various places, and then I came back to that -- to the Cold War, the last, the last thing that I handled as head of IRO in Germany, U.S. zone, was the evacuation of Berlin from, from the displaced persons from Berlin. I brought them down at the time of the of the airlift, and I came back to U.S. When I went -- when I left Europe, people were terrified, shaken at the prospect of World War, of World War III [come enlist?]. I came back to U.S., and here was a country approaching this crisis almost with a sense of gaiety. Now, that's a frivolous word, but I mean it. The headlines were great. Walter Winchell was popping off. And you had all this kind of brinkmanship that characterized that period. What I'm saying is this: in the last analysis, as the late Bobby Kennedy would say, World War II was fun for America. We came out of a Depression and that had affected 16 million unemployed people in our country. We had put together the greatest economic productive unit in the history of man. We had eradicated as far as the public generally was concerned the element of poverty. Jobs were plentiful. People owned the land. People were getting two dollars and 38 cents a bushel for wheat out where I had known them getting six cans of bully beef and six dollars in a half a week to eat in the Depression, and there was an exhilaration in the land. Now, posed against this in Europe was the fact that people had reached the point where civilization as we know it was vanishing. They had reached the point of cannibalism. Really cannibalism. I mean it. I sat and worked in Czechoslovakia with people who had been part of the siege of Leningrad. Every cat, every dog, every rat in the city had been eaten. People had re-- there were instances where people had resorted to cannibalism. Now, you, you flippantly talk about war to these people as we did. And we had a secretary of state who boasted of brinkmanship, you know, bringing us up to the brink of this thing. Here were, here were the Americans fat, prosperous, full of joy, full of excitement. They'd had the great national unification experience. Look, in no instance do I, do I belittle the loss of the boy or the family. I don't mean it that. I'm talking about the great national psyche. I'm talking about what happened in my town of 20,000 people where we had maybe three or four funerals a year. In a year's time out of that size population of boys who had been killed or died in action then. And such events were moments of great tragedy for that family. And I've never belittled that loss. But for the community, it was a kind of a spiritual masturbation. It was a kind of a kick thing, and everybody had a chance to fly his flag and declare his loyalty and be noble and all that crap, when really what was happening was his bank account was mounting, his ownership was mounting, his cash balances were good, his profits were long, his land was profits. The insurance salesman -- the guy who took a job with me who left to be an insurance agent made himself a half a million dollars in those years out of, out of farmers that that that were -- their patriotism had a hell of a lot of roots in what happened to them financially. That's a cruel accusation, but it's true.

Studs Terkel Therefore it is the Depression that is the watershed.

Ed Paulsen It's the Depression is the spiritual watershed, is a historic watershed in America as we lived it to date in my view.

Studs Terkel There's one last thing, Ed Paulsen, we haven't talked about, and that's the matter of money and credit. And the Depression, the impact of the Depression on people who happen to have dough and the idea of being in debt. You were saying something about young today, and.

Ed Paulsen Well, in the first place, there were -- credit was in the Depression had to have a tinge of charity. I mean, nobody gave you credit there because you have the unsureness of your earnings, and if you got credit it was because there were some old guy, some kind guy, some might, you might be a doctor, you might be a grocery man, who, who -- there was compassion, not judgment was involved in credit because you were so unsure if you were this great unstable economic mass of the country, and the -- it was hard to come by, and the credit bureaus were really credit bureaus, and it was, it was, it was a limited cash economy, and people just couldn't carry you. I can't help but contrast this with the contemporary buying of young people. I saw it first when I came back to the U.S. about 1950 and I went in the furniture business and young people would walk in the front door and the old salesman would look at them and say, "Oh, what the hell, I don't want to deal with these kids." But I soon found when I was selling that these kids were good for a thousand-dollar purchase where a person of my age might think like hell before he'd buy a $179 sofa! You could, you could sit down with the young, newlywed, or they were planning to get married, you sketch out a little apartment, you say, "Look, I can furnish this for you for twelve hundred dollars. How much money, how much money you got?" "Oh, I've got $150 to pay down." "Good." And you had yourself a fifteen-hundred-dollar sale just like that, because credit, taken for granted, debt, what's the problem? Always a job, always employed, a frivolous approach to tomorrow. No worry about tomorrow. They believed in it. We were scared of tomorrow. We were scared of tomorrow in mind those days. We didn't know. We -- today we've got a few dollars. Today we could eat. We didn't take on debt, even if we could have gotten it, we were afraid to take it on, you know?

Studs Terkel The Depression was [the role?], the kids didn't do the Depression, therefore the credit is an easy thing.

Ed Paulsen Right.

Studs Terkel So you can sell them easily.

Ed Paulsen Easily.

Studs Terkel Whereas the Depression baby or the Depression person

Ed Paulsen He's still riding with that ghost. He still has the ghost of those days when things came hard.