How young we were. There were six of us in the Monitor's Washington bureau 50 years ago - 1287-1293 National Press Building. Carl Jetton tapped stories to Boston in Morse code. Streetcars ran on Pennsylvania Avenue. Across the Potomac the cars were segregated. Herbert Hoover was President of course, but not for long. On Nov. 8, 1932, a half century ago, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President. After that everything changed.
Let's look at the incredible story. Thumb the front pages of the New York Times. Here's the issue of Oct. 30, 1929, telling how it started.
STOCKS COLLAPSE IN 16,410,030 SHARE DAY
BUT RALLY AT CLOSE CHEERS BROKERS;
BANKERS OPTIMISTIC, TO CONTINUE AID
That was Black Tuesday. Everyone went around being ''optimistic.'' The thing had been building for 10 years with farmers and workers not getting enough to buy the things they produced. Finally the crash. In less than three years stocks dropped from a peak of 381.17 to a low of 41.22, an 89 percent collapse.
Let's move ahead a bit to the headline at the end of the unfortunate President Hoover's first year, March 4, 1930: ''Senators Demand Action/To Check Unemployment;/ Hoover's Stand Attacked.'' There was trouble all over the world. But three days later in New York, the Times reported, ''Reds Battle Police in Union Square/Scores Injured, Leaders are Seized/Two Dead, Many Hurt in Clashes Abroad'' (March 7, 1930).
What does a president do? He says things are improving - stay the course. ''More Work, Says Hoover/And Depression Is Passing;/36 States Are Now Normal.'' On May 2 he repeats it: ''Worst of Depression Over, Says Hoover.'' Pictures tell more than headlines. One in October shows a breadline and soup kitchen, with street vendors and signs: ''Buy Apples 5.''
Catastrophe spreads. It shows up in the midterm election, of course: ''Democratic Landslide Sweeps Country'' begins an eight-column, triple-bank headline (Nov. 5, 1930). There is an artist's drawing of a ''Hooverville'' of squatters' shacks set of all places in Central Park. Keynes was just inventing his countercyclical doctrine then urging governments in conditions like this to spend money. Hoover did just the opposite; he wanted to balance the budget. Congress passed, the President vetoed, and Congress overrode the veterans' bonus bill. (On a more cheerful note the paper shows the new Empire State Building - all 1,200 feet of it, ''the highest structure raised by the hand of man.'' It opens May 1, 1931.)
On Sept. 21, 1931, the headline says ''Great Britain Suspends Gold Payments.'' In December Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon asks for an increase in income tax and when Hoover signs it he ''Sees Finances Now on a Sound Basis.''
Now it's mid-summer and the Republicans renominate Hoover, of course. The Democrats at Chicago choose the governor of New York. He creates a sensation, July 2, 1932, by flying, yes flying, to the convention. The plane is four hours late. I write from the convention floor: ''There appeared on the speaker's rostrum a big man - who speaks informally and permitted humor to run through the address. There is little doubt that his winning personality bolstered his hold.''
Events hurry on. Hoover orders bonus marchers evicted from their squatters' camp on Pennsylvania Avenue (the first time this reporter experienced tear gas). ''Hoover Sees Major Crisis Overcome,'' says the headline, Aug. 27, 1932. And then, of course, the election. Yes, it was Nov. 8, 1932, 50 years ago, that FDR won by a landslide. On a bleak March day four months later with umbrellas up and before 40 acres of people he took the oath and declared, ''The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.''
So it all began. There followed the famous 100 days. Roosevelt was in everybody's living room by radio. He and radio were made for each other. He was entranced when he discovered it. ''Sometimes I think,'' he wrote, ''that we are driving so wholly into a radio future that we shall get even our detective stories over the air instead of through the printed page . . .'' Ha, fancy that! He hadn't even guessed then about television.
FDR's incumbency saw three revolutions. As far back as Bismarck European governments accepted responsibility for the economy and social welfare, but the idea didn't jump the Atlantic until the depression. A second revolution was the end of isolationism. Anybody could see now that America was no longer protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific. A third revolution, I think, was the merger of the non-Anglo-Saxon half of the nation with the newer immigrant half. It was conspicuous under FDR.
The country started out under a man of whom Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared: ''a second-class mind but a first-class temperament.'' Rather harsh perhaps? Did he originate what happened or merely guide it? In any event it was the greatest movement of social advance in our history. It started 50 years ago.