The Year of Our Lord 1938 was good and bad, just like any other year, but it certainly was eventful. The world was still in the midst of the Great Depression, while news about Germany’s territorial ambitions continued to trickle into the American consciousness. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the midst of his second term and remained wildly popular. Even though Americans kept perhaps one ear cocked to their crackling radios about mysterious and disturbing news emanating from Europe, Roosevelt’s fireside chats broadcast a pugnacious optimism that “Happy Days Were Here Again” even though millions of Americans were unemployed and facing dire poverty.
In Europe, the mustachioed Austrian-born soap-box orator, Adolf Hitler, had ruled Germany since 1934 and was advancing unopposed on his mission to provide the Lebensraum that Germans wanted to carve out of their neighboring countries. During 1938, Hitler abolished the War Ministry and created the High Command of the Armed Forces, giving himself direct control of the German military. In addition, Hitler sacked political and military leaders considered unsympathetic to his philosophy and policies. General Werner von Fritsch was forced to resign as Commander of Chief of the German Army following accusations of homosexuality, and replaced by General Walther von Brauchitsch.
Adolf Hitler and Herman Goering greet the masses in 1938
The Mauthausen concentration camp was built in Austria. Until its liberation by the American army in 1945, Germany's National Socialist government exterminated between 120,000 to 320,000 at the camp. Many of the victims came from the educated and socially-prominent classes of Poland and the Soviet Union, including Boy Scouts, university professors, artists, scientists, and teachers.
Reich Aviation Minister Hermann Göring, in a speech at Nuremberg, called the Czechs a "miserable pygmy race" who are "harassing the human race." Czechslovakian President Edvard Beneš received a visit from representatives of the French and British governments who tell him France and Britain will not fight Hitler if he decides to invade. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated in a speech that it is "100% wrong" the America would join a "stop-Hitler bloc" under any circumstances, and clarifies that the United States would remain neutral.
The German government expelled 12,000 Polish Jews living in Germany; the Polish government accepted 4,000 and refused the remaining 8,000, who are forced to live in the no-man's land on the German-Polish frontier. In the so-called Anschluss, German troops occupy Austria and annexation is declared.
The Vatican recognizes Francisco Franco as the legitimate ruler of Spain, where a deadly civil war would continue until April 1939.
Mexico nationalized all foreign-owned oil properties within its borders.
Japan invades China and seizes Canton.
Arab raiders murdered 19 Jewish immigrants in Tiberias, a city by the sea in British-controlled Palestine.
Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia.
DuPont called it new synthetic fibre "nylon." Toothbrushes are the first commercial product to use the new fibre. Nylon would go on to become useful in the war effort when it was used to produce parachutes and women's hosiery.
László Bíró patented the ballpoint pen in Britain.
And on his return from a fateful meeting with Hitler, British premier Neville Chamberlain declared that his conversation with the Fuhrer has yielded “Peace for our time,” despite Germany’s visible military buildup and its invasion of neighboring countries.
In the United States, the country appeared to be unprepared for the coming World War. Many celebrities, such as aviator Charles Lindbergh, and politicians such as Joseph P. Kennedy, were openly opposed to entanglements with the United Kingdom and fighting another war barely 20 years after the disastrous Great War in Europe. Kennedy, who as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, rejected Winston Churchill’s warning that any compromise with Nazi Germany was impossible, supported the British premier's policy of appeasement. Then throughout 1938, while the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany and Austria intensified, Kennedy sought a meeting with Hitler in an effort to find a compromise.
America was still facing the greatest economic crisis in its history. Even despite the reforms and make-work projects offered by the Roosevelt administration, there was still dire poverty in many parts of the country. Even so, some had money to watch Hollywood’s latest offering: for example, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first cel-animated feature in motion picture history, was released following a premiere the previous year. A national minimum wage law was passed. Marineland opened in St. Augustine, Florida.
Max Schmeling (L) and Joe Louis (R) face off in 1938
Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis “The Brown Bomber” knocks out Aryan German Max Schmeling in the first round of a rematch at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Millionaire moviemaker and aviation magnate Howard Hughes set a new record by completing a 91-hour airplane flight around the world. Establishing himself as a by-word, “Wrong Way” Corrigan takes off from New York, ostensibly heading for California, but lands in Ireland instead.
The international Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron, Michigan, to Sarnia, Ontario, was completed.
A panic ensues in New Jersey and New York during the broadcast of a radio adaptation by actor Orson Welles of H.G. Welles' "War of the Worlds."
During the Great Depression, General Motors saw significant fluctuations in its sales. By 1937, the biggest corporation in the world was facing a new reality in the United Auto Worker. In Flint, Michigan, which was home to factories producing Buicks, Chevrolets, and essential parts such as spark plugs, had seen a signal victory for organized labor in the Flint Sit-Down Strike when GM permitted unions to organize its workers. In less than a year, all the American auto manufacturers had unions representing their workers as union membership soared from 30,000 to 500,000.
Another reality facing GM and the rest of the country was the general economic situation as thousands of citizens remained out of work or partially employed. In Flint, where thousands of people had come to occupy shanty towns to find a better life, resources were stretched thin. The tumult of the Sit-Down Strike had pitted Flint residents against each other. In 1937, a sizeable group of vigilantes
was gathered at the local Masonic temple, having been called to supposedly defend the city from union organizers. Workers and company security had fought each other while strikers occupied General Motors factories to demand better wages and conditions.
The Great Depression caused severe economic hardship in Flint and the rest of Michigan. Thousands of auto factory workers, miners, and others were dismissed. Young men signed up to work in 50 Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Michigan’s rural areas. They were paid five dollars a month, plus room, board, clothing and medical care, while their families received $25 a month. The Works Progress Administration hired more than 500,000 unemployed people (80% men) in Michigan alone to build civic works such as roads, public buildings, and sewer systems, becoming a larger labor force that the state's entire auto industry. But this was not enough to address unemployment.
A caption on a news photograph of the time captures very neatly the policy sought by local authorities to remove what it termed “the load placed on relief authorities” in the form of 12,000 families who had emigrated from elsewhere to find work. It would not be until the outbreak of war, when thousands of men enlisted or were drafted for military service in 1941, that employment would get a boost in Flint and elsewhere in what became known as the "Arsenal of Democracy."
"Flint, Mich.-- Flint, once a thriving industrial city of 165,000 persons, one-quarter of whom came here since 1934, plans to solve the problem of the load placed on its relief authorities through the deportation of at least 12,000 families to the communities from which they originally came or to more prosperous sections. The city faces the gravest crisis in its history through the fact that there are only 12,500 bread-winners as against the 48,000 persons on relief rolls. Even if motor production should climb back to 1937 levels, authorities say that 7,000 families could not find employment. Among those facing "deportation" is John Sebastian, who came from Cape Girardeau, MO., with his family. He symbolizes the plight of the families. "If we were sent back," he says, "we'd have not place to go." 5/1/38"