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ROOSEVELT ASKS DICTATOR'S ROLE cried the headline next day in Hearst's New York Sunday Mirror. With unemployment still climbing and much of the banking system shut down, there was indeed a widespread sense that the American political system was getting its last chance. "The biggest and finest crop of little revolutions I ever saw is ripe all over this country right now," a Farmers' Union leader testified before a Senate committee. Conservatives were no less apocalyptic. "Even the iron hand of a national dictator is in preference to a paralytic stroke," said Republican Governor Alf Landon of Kansas. "If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now," declared Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania. In Europe, indeed, the week of Roosevelt's Inauguration was the same week in which Adolf Hitler used the Reichstag fire to win emergency powers and suppress all opponents of his New Order for Germany.
On the morning after the Inauguration, Roosevelt ate an early Sunday breakfast, then had himself wheeled into the Oval Office to get his New Deal under way. In the vacated presidential desk he could find neither a pencil nor a pad of paper. He could find no buzzer with which to summon an aide. He paused for an echoing moment in this vacuum of power, then threw back his head and shouted until a secretary came running.
The first order of business was to save the nation's banks. The largely unregulated banking system, which Democratic Senator William Gibbs McAdoo of California said "does credit to a collection of imbeciles," was on the brink of total extinction. During the last week of the Hoover regime, $250 million in gold had been withdrawn by frightened depositors. Overall bank reserves now stood at a mere $6 billion against liabilities of $41 billion. Roosevelt decided that he had no choice but to proclaim a nationwide "bank holiday" to last until he could push a recovery bill through Congress. And so it was done. The banks were closed.
"All business came to a complete halt," Ruth McKenney* reported in the typical industrial center of Akron, Ohio. "The rubber shops closed. Streetcars ran on half schedules. Coal companies shut. Thousands and thousands of men, still employed despite the Depression, were sent home from work 'temporarily laid off.' Money nearly disappeared from circulation. Payrolls were not met. Checks were not honored . . ."
While housewives around the country begged food on credit and businessmen started bartering goods or issuing private scrip, Roosevelt's financial experts worked late into the night to patch together a rescue bill. That bill effectively took the U.S. off the gold standard and thus promised easier money in days to come; it also authorized the Treasury to inspect all closed banks and gradually reopen them with various guarantees of solvency. The only copy of the bill was rushed to the House as soon as it reconvened at noon Thursday, and after half an hour of debate, there came cries of "Vote! Vote!" That vote