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Part 2: Slouching Through the Great Depression

November 24, 2008

Chapter Five
“Slouching Through the Depression”

Read Part 1

In January 1931, after the Doriots returned to Cambridge from their unorthodox honeymoon, Georges needed to find a new place to live with his wife. They soon found an apartment in Cambridge. The first Sunday after they moved in, a throng of friends and colleagues called on them.

Doriot, the self-described “most unsociable bachelor,” never led much of a social life, allowing most of his evenings to be consumed by work. This history made his colleagues and their wives even more curious about Doriot after he got married. Friends and coworkers continued to drop by their apartment to see the quirky professor and the woman who had agreed to marry him.

So, after a few weeks, having realized that “all my evenings would be wasted and I could not do any work,” the Doriots cancelled their lease and escaped to the Hotel Bellevue in Boston, where they stayed while Edna looked for a new apartment less central to the Cambridge social scene.

Even though Doriot was a professor, he and Edna led a spartan lifestyle. In the early 1930s, Doriot made about $4,000 or $5,000 a year, a comfortable middle-class income. But that security was compromised by the obligation he felt to regularly send money home to help take care of his parents and sister.

Still, the Doriots had it better than most Americans. In 1931, when the Great Depression kicked in, the U.S. unemployment rate surged to 16.1 percent, tripling from 3.1 percent in 1929. By 1930, breadlines broke out as desperate people lined up for free food doled out by states and cities.

Hoovervilles—those shantytowns comprised of hundreds of shotgun shacks cobbled together with cardboard boxes, egg crates, or corrugated tin—began sprouting across the American landscape. If Georges had strolled by Central Park’s Great Lawn on a visit to New York, he would have gaped at a vast squatter’s village with thousands of “utterly spiritless” people, in the words of writer Joseph Mitchell.

At least Georges and Edna had a job, a roof over their heads, and money to pay for food and clothes. But they still pinched every penny. At the Hotel Bellevue, Georges and Edna studied the breakfast menu very carefully to see whether they could find a breakfast that would feed the both of them. Porridge, they learned, was the best choice. As for beverages, they concluded that tea was preferable to coffee. Coffee would usually yield one cup of drink, but a teapot provided enough water for two cups.

Luck, that mercurial commodity, was in short supply during those bleak times. One day, Edna splurged and bought a bigger heater for their living room, but when Georges placed the heater on top of a glass table, the glass broke.

A short while later, Edna found an attractive apartment at 5 Arlington Street in Boston. It was a second floor unit with a balcony overlooking a garden and three high-ceilinged rooms. Most importantly, it was finally a place they both liked. “At the time there were few automobiles running on Arlington Street and we were not annoyed by their noise or smell,” said Doriot.


Late in 1931, Doriot became transfixed with the idea of globalization, or as he called it, the “international mind.” He viewed the increasing interdependency of the world as a means of maintaining peace. In a series of articles and speeches, Doriot developed these ideas, and his remarks received significant coverage by the press.

In one essay picked up by various U.S. newspapers, Doriot boldly called for the internationalization of all transportation systems in Europe—air, railroads, and steamships—as the most effective way to promote peace in that war-ravaged continent. By merging these transportation lines into a unified system owned by a group of international investors, Doriot argued that it would create a more efficient transportation network and, more importantly, “make national secrecy impossible and tend strongly to minimize national jealousies.” World peace could not be produced through political negotiations, he felt, but through industrial cooperation and coordination.

In November of 1931, Doriot expanded upon these ideas in an address he gave to the Two Hundred Fifty Associates of the Harvard Business School, a group of well-heeled donors. The address, titled “French and German Crisis,” offered a comparative analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the French and German economies.

Doriot praised Germany as “clever, very clever,” arguing that the nation’s reindustrialization was “undoubtedly one of the outstanding feats of the century” and that “others should adapt themselves to it rather than try to duplicate or compete.” France, on the other hand, was following the “habit…of not talking very much about their troubles.”

In order to keep France and Germany from waging war against one another, Doriot proposed the formation of an international bank that would be given the power to “control and investigate all international loans.” By this means, loans intended to finance military purposes would be greatly hindered, thus preventing the suspicion that leads to a secret run-up to war, as had happened during the Great War.

Some of Doriot’s high-minded ideas would eventually become realities, but once again he was too far ahead of his time. In just a few years, European nationalism would reemerge with a vengeance, making a mockery of his pleas for cooperation.