May 12, 2020
Fireside Chat

The Crash of 1929 is generally believed to mark the start of the Great Depression. But that’s not quite right. The real beginning came a year later, in 1930, when 1,192 banks failed.

After that, things went from bad to worse. 

There were 2,017 bank failures in 1931 and roughly 1,100 failures in each of the next two years. By 1933, more than 5,500 banks had gone out of business, sending their customers’ deposits to the great bank vault in the sky.
The climax came in early 1933.

“Because of undermined confidence on the part of the public, there was a general rush by a large portion of our population to turn bank deposits into currency or gold,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first fireside chat on March 12, 1933. The rush was so great that “the soundest banks could not get enough currency to meet the demand.”

“By the afternoon of March 3 scarcely a bank in the country was open to do business,” Roosevelt continued. “It was then that I issued the proclamation providing for the nationwide bank holiday, and this was the first step in the government's reconstruction of our financial and economic fabric.”

Roosevelt was not the first president to use the radio to speak to the American people — Calvin Coolidge beat him to it by a decade — but he was the first to use it in a time of crisis.

What Roosevelt said in his inaugural fireside chat mattered less than how he said it. He used simple words, not jargon. He preferred brevity over verbosity. His goal wasn’t to sound smart; it was to be understood.

Skilled communicators are like musicians who perform without pyrotechnics or a backup band. They’re like mountain climbers who cast aside safety lines and supplemental oxygen. The beauty is in their simplicity.

Roosevelt’s first fireside chat marked a turning point in the Great Depression. The end was years away, but his confidence gave people hope.

We need the same today.

As the coronavirus crisis enters a new stage, with states relaxing restrictions, fear and uncertainty will grow. Assuaging these emotions calls for the clarity that accompanies confidence.

“Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan,” Roosevelt said. “You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear.”

“It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

• John J. Maxfield, executive editor of Bank Director