“After the Crash,” an “American Experience” segment airing tonight at 9 on KCET Channel 28, is the perfect companion piece/counterpart to last November’s “The Crash of 1929.” Whereas “The Crash of 1929" was a charming, lighthearted look at the giddy optimism and human folly that led to the Great Depression, “After the Crash” is a somber, painful study of the bitter deluge that followed.
The images of “After the Crash” resonate today: homelessness, hunger, unemployment. Herbert Hoover opposed giving federal money directly to individuals; the lifelong Republican believed that aid was the responsibility of private charity and that the best help was self-help. This set up a confrontation with Congress in 1931 over aid--a “trickle-down” leader against a legislature alarmed over the growing millions of impoverished constituents back home.
“Crash” (which limits itself to the early years of the Depression and which will be included in a nine-part PBS series on the Depression scheduled for 1993) concentrates on three stories to show the extent of the devastation: Arkansas farmers who organized an unprecedented demonstration to force the Red Cross to authorize emergency food distribution; the Ford Motor Co. layoffs in Detroit, which months later culminated in a march that ended with violence and four dead, and the convergence of the “Bonus Army"--20,000 World War I veterans and their families--on Washington to demand early payment of a cash bonus for wartime service.
The Bonus Army segment is particularly moving. The veterans did not get their money and were driven out of the nation’s capital, their shantytown torched by Army troops. As one witness put it: “It was too bad that the richest country in the world couldn’t do a better job of caring for its own people . . . America didn’t give a very good account of itself that night.”
“After the Crash” is well balanced--Hoover and Henry Ford are praised as well as damned--and its mix of interviews, vintage footage and narration clearly illustrate the complex issues of the day. It is a bracing history lesson well worth a look.