My Father's Diary of The Great Depression



Daniel B. Roth is Chairman of the Youngstown, Ohio, law firm of Roth, Blair, Roberts, Strasfeld & Lodge, LPA; and also chairman of McDonald Steel Corp. He was co-editor of The Great Depression: A Diary, Public Affairs, 2009.

By Daniel B. Roth

“I’m proud to be your grandson.”

These words, expressed by one of my six grandchildren at my recent 80th birthday celebration, really choked me up because I know that it was a direct result of the publication of my father’s diary. My father, Benjamin Roth, was a 35-year-old lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, when the stock market crashed in October 1929. At first, he paid little attention to the crash because he had never invested in the market. However, by June 1931 he realized that the country was facing a major financial crisis, and he began writing a financial diary of what became known as the Great Depression. This was not a “diary” in the usual sense because he didn’t discuss family and friends. Instead, as he wrote in his initial entry on June 5, 1931:

For the first time in my personal business life, I am witnessing a major financial crisis. I am anxious to learn the lessons of this Depression. To the man past middle life it spells tragedy and disaster. But to those of us in the middle 30s, it may be a school of experience out of which some worthwhile lesson may be salvaged. With this thought in mind, I am going to write down brief accounts of developments as they occur from time to time.

When he wrote that, he had no idea that the Depression would last for a decade. Likewise, he couldn’t have foreseen that he would be analyzing the financial ramifications of the New Deal, nor did he realize the impact that his diary would have on future generations. As I re-read the diary, I clearly recognize the great impact that it has had on my life and how it has helped shape my basic beliefs. I share his faith in this country and his belief in our capitalistic system, as well as his fear of the government creating an unwieldy amount of debt that could result in serious inflation.

When growing up, neither my siblings nor I knew that my father was writing the diary. However, when I joined my father in the practice of law in 1956, my first assignment was to study his diary so that I could gain insight into the Depression mentality of his clientele. Reading it made a tremendous impression on me, and I was amazed by my parents’ strength in raising three children during a time when they were uncertain as to how to keep food on the table. Even more, I remain deeply impressed by my father’s ability to have studiously and objectively analyzed the great financial issues of those years. In re-reading his diary, I see a very bright and honorable man with an intense desire to understand the economic crisis and to learn how to protect oneself during such difficult times. His diary has provided me with a front row seat on the history of the Great Depression.

At times, he became quite emotional. On Oct. 17, 1931, he wrote:

As I bring to a close the first volume of my personal observations on the Depression, I must breathe deeply and pinch myself to be sure I am awake and not dreaming... It is all unreal to me. Each day I move about in a dream. I feel as tho I am experiencing a historic thing which will be long remembered. So far, I have not been badly hurt personally—we are all well—I still have faith in Youngstown and in the United States in spite of the dire prophecies that are heard on every side! Somehow it all reminds me of the war days of 1917-18 when with bated breath we asked "What next?"

On other occasions, he wrote positive sentiments. For example, on June 23, 1932 (the very bottom of the depression), he wrote:

These are stirring days and in spite of our troubles it is good to be alive. I am reminded often of the days of the world war when families and businesses were mercilessly uprooted and broken. It is same today. Fundamentals are being changed and new foundations are being placed for what we all hope will be a new era of prosperity.

He also developed strong opinions concerning efforts by the government to end the Depression. On March 1, 1938, he wrote:

After eight years of "pump priming" and other trick methods of bringing back prosperity, it is my conclusion that none of them are any good. In our capitalistic system, we must let the forces of competition and demand and supply work things out in a natural way. No man or group of men is smart enough to control prices or supply and demand or currency in a nation as large as ours.

Shortly before his death in 1978, my father gave me his diary and asked me to some day edit and publish his work; and although I promised I would, it was not until my son Bill (a money manager in New York) urged me to do so that I began editing the diary with the help of James Ledbetter, the editor of The Big Money, a web magazine on business and economics. The book was published by Public Affairs last October with the title, The Great Depression: A Diary. As a result, people from all over America have sent me correspondence telling me about their families’ experiences during the Depression. In many cases, they expressed fear that we are currently in another Depression with massive federal debt creation that will be followed by serious inflation.

I cannot adequately express my gratitude to my father for providing me and future generations with his detailed history of the Great Depression. His diary has become a window to the past and a link among four generations in my family.

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Daniel B. Roth is Chairman of the Youngstown, Ohio, law firm of Roth, Blair, Roberts, Strasfeld & Lodge, LPA; and also chairman of McDonald Steel Corp. He was co-editor of The Great Depression: A Diary, Public Affairs, 2009.


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