The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts

Morgan-burstIn the autumn of 1929, between the months of September and October, the world was plunged into financial uncertainty as stock markets in New York City and other places saw a massive devaluation of stocks and bonds.  Some investors lost millions in the crash and others less financially secure, saw nearly their entire market portfolio crumble before their eyes.  In the wake of the crash, America plunged into the great depression that spread misery and despair across the nation for several more years.  The crash remains to this day, one of the greatest financial disasters in history.  However, its causes are still up for debate and there is no single reason for the catastrophe but numerous factors did combine to bring the economy to a grinding halt.  Authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts have studied the crash and tell the story here about the “day the bubble burst”.

Prior to reading the book, I was familiar with some of the names that are critical in the story. For example, I knew of William C. Durant (1861-1947), the founder of General Motors and the legendary Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969), former owner of RKO Studios and Ambassador to Great Britain. Incredibly, Kennedy comes out of the crash with minimal loss and would go to establish his own dynasty that catapulted his son John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the White House in the 1960 election.  But there are many others crucial to the story and their lives and actions are intertwined in the fabric of American society both past and present.

I forewarn readers that the story moves from one person to the next and then back again.  And although the book does follow a chronological order, it is actually several stories woven into one. Next to Durant, the life of Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973) comes into focus as the authors examine his role at General Motors and actions at the Union Industrial Bank which plays a very important role in the story.   The authors also take a look as A.P. Giannini (1870-1949) the founder of Transamerica known today as Bank of America. Continuing on, Jesse Livermore (1877-1940) enters the picture as the poster-boy for the successful stock trader.  Charles E. Mitchell (1877-1955) joins the cast of characters as chairman of National City Bank, known simply today as Citi Bank.  His financial policies are believed by many to be one of the direct causes for the crash of the market. John Pierpont “Jack” Morgan Jr., (Jack Morgan) is a strong presence as well and readers will take note of a key situation involving Morgan and Joseph Kennedy that seemed to grind the latter’s gears and set him on due course to become a financial titan of his own. And finally for the New Yorkers, John J. Raskob (1879-1950) will be of high interest for his enduring contribution to the New York skyline: the Empire State Building.

One of the book’s major strengths is the explanation of the stock market provided by the authors, which is helpful to readers seeking to get an understanding of how the traders were manipulating and playing the market. Of course, the book is not intended to be a stock market guide but simple enough for the everday reader to understand in relation to the story being told.  Today, the market is just a competitive but back then, less regulation existed and traders were far more willing to engage in dubious and illegal activity as can be seen in the story.  The thirst for wealth was so contagious that traders in other countries would also play a role in the crash such as British investor Clarence Hatry (1888-1965), who some blame for ingiting the spark that caused the panic resulting in the plummeting of stock values across world markets.  The authors do not convict him in the book but leave it up to readers to decide. However, they do say this to make their point clear:

“To say that Hatry caused the Wall Street Crash would be to put it far too strongly. But to say that his downfall played no part in it whatsoever would possibly be equally misleading.” 

Undoubtedly, the crash had many causes and the number of people who deserve blame is quite significant. Greed and disregard for financial risk, allowed unrestrained investing into a market, held together by carefully adjusted interest rates and the exchange of foreign currency and other commercial goods. And a ripple in that temperamental network of world markets resulted in a crash no one thought possible yet everyone feared. From housewives to savvy Wall Street players, the impact was brutal and drove some to the brink of suicide. And today that risk is present as the market fluctuates constantly. However, in the wake of the crash, the Federal Government stepped in and imposed tougher regulations to prevent a replay of 1929.  And if there is any doubt as to the severity of the crash, this quote sets the record straight in the most sobering of ways:

“In the five hours the market had gone mad on October 29, it was later estimated that almost as much money in capital value vanished into thin air as the United States had spent on World War I. The loss was around ten times the budget of the Union in the entire Civil War.” 

Towards the end of the book the discussion shifts slightly away from New York and on to Berlin where a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) is making a name for himself and using Germany’s dire situation and the crash to consolidate his power and grip of the Fatherland.  The connection between the market’s crash and Hitler’s rise to power will be of high interest to history buffs and aficionados of World War II.   And what the authors reveal about the relationship between Wall Street and Germany might leave some shaking their heads in disbelief.  There is far more to the story than I could possibly discuss here but what is disclosed explains why some elements of American society were hesitant to get involved in World War II.  The saying “follow the money” certainly does apply.

In the afterword to the book, the fates of those involved with the crash are detailed by the authors, and here we see how they ended up after devastating financial fallout.  The end result is often sad and in some cases involved criminal prosecution.  The government left no stone unturned and hardly any of the major places was ever the same again.  A few did rebound and fair quite well in later years but they are forever linked to that fateful autumn of 1929.  Some may wonder if another market crash could happen.I believe so but under extraordinary circumstances.  Regulations are far more stringent today and watchdog organizations keep a carefully trained eye on the market.  However, it is also true that if we do not know our history, we are condemned to repeat it.  The 1929 crash was nothing short of earth shattering and the repercussions were felt for decades.  This is the story of how and why it happened.  Highly recommended.


The Hoffa Wars: The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa – Dan E. Moldea

Hoffawars The disappearance of James Riddle Hoffa (1913-1975) still captivates audiences as shown by the success of Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman starring Robert Dinero as Frank Sheeran (1920-2003) and Al Pacino as Hoffa.  The film shows Scorcese at his best but the story told by Sheeran is known to be full of discrepancies.  Further, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has never acknowledge Sheeran as being one of Hoffa’s killers.  Putting that aside, the movie is done very well and one of the rare times when Robert Dinero and Pacino have appeared on screen together.  But there is far more to the Hoffa story that is typically remember because of his fall from grace and disappearance on July 30, 1975.  I personally do not believe his body will ever be found and those who know what happened to him are either deceased or taking that secret with them to their graves.  However, in examining the Hoffa case,  we can focus on why he was killed which is just an important as how he might have been killed.  Dan Moldea has spent years covering the Hoffa case and is considered to be one of the best sources of information on the former leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“the Teamsters”).  And the result is a spellbinding story that peels the layers back uncovering a story that is nothing short of clash of the titans. 

I find that even today there is still a lot of confusion regarding the Teamsters and what exactly did happen when Hoffa was in power. In the preface to the book, we get a fitting summary that sets the tone for what is to follow:

“The Hoffa Wars tells an important story: how a potentially great force for good—the unionization of America’s truckers and warehouse laborers—was captured by gangsters and converted into a monster that robbed its members of their right to a fair wage and pension, robbed businessmen of their right to a free marketplace and clamped a high tax on American consumers every time they went to the cash register.”

When I first read these words, I admit that I had to reconcile them with the image I have had in my head of Hoffa who is typically portrayed as a benevolent figure that only wanted the best for Teamster members.  And while I have no doubt that he truly believed in the union, I also have to acknowledge that there was many dark secrets about the Teamsters hidden from public light.  As readers will see in the book, behind the scenes there was a power struggle taking place as the deposed king tried to reclaim his thrown.  Moldea leaves no stone unturned and the more unsavory facts about Hoffa’s reign come to light, shattering the myth of the “clean as a whistle”  union president who simply loves ice cream as portrayed by Pacino on screen.  The real Hoffa was a hard-nosed leader who had been through his share of battles in the process of unionization.  And the infiltration of organized crime and politicians proved to be too seductive even for him. The author untangles the complicated web so that we can see just how deep in bed the Teamsters found itself with the Italian-American  Mafia. 

Hoffa was in the process of writing his autobiography at the time of his death. I previously reviewed that book called Hoffa: The Real Story.  Therein, Hoffa does portray himself a fairly positive light. Moldea is not a fan of the book and views it as nothing more than a self-serving account.  I will leave it to readers to decide on their own but I can say that it is a good read to learn more about Hoffa’s early life.  What is clear here, is that Hoffa’s death removed any chance of him completing what surely would have been an explosive best-seller.  And it undoubtedly would have earned him even more enemies who wanted him removed from Teamster affairs permanently. 

The nexus of the book is Hoffa’s battles with Rolland McMaster (1914-2017) and Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981).  Moldea takes a close look at Local 299, which dragged Hoffa into an ugly power struggled that developed in the wake of Hoffa’s convictions for fraud by the U.S. Department of Justice.  The verdicts were the culmination of the “Get Hoffa Squad” organized by former United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968). The author provides a recap of their battle which was nothing short of savage.  McMaster, who had his own dark past, figures prominently into the story and provides valuable information to Moldea regarding what was happening as Hoffa became the tyrant who would not let go of power. And Hoffa’s successor, Fitzsimmons, has always been a person of high interest not only for taking over the Teamsters in Hoffa’s absence but also for his close alignment with the administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994), whose connections to the underworld are interesting to say the least. 

Historians are well aware of the bad blood between the Kennedys and Hoffa. And it has been suggested that Hoffa was part of the plot that took John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) life in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  And although there is no smoking gun to be found here, Hoffa was not sad to hear that Kennedy had been shot. Whether he actively participated in the plot to kill Kennedy will always be up for debate.  Much of the information revealed in this sotry comes from Ed Partin (1924-1990) whose testimony was once used to convict Hoffa.  And on an even darker note, Robert Kennedy was also the target of assassins, years before his murder on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.  The story here by Moldea is quite disturbing and apparently, John Kennedy himself had been told of Hoffa’s thirst for revenge.  Exactly how Kennedy found out is not known but he did disclose it to reporter Ben Bradlee (1921-2014) as we learn in the book:  

“The President’s close friend, Benjamin Bradlee, who was then with Newsweek, noted in an entry in his journal for February 11 that the night before, at a private dinner party, the President had confided that Hoffa’s Teamsters had planned to send an assassin to Washington to kill his brother.” 

We know today that Robert Kennedy was not murdered while in Washington but the threat was very real. Robert Kennedy ultimately got his man and Hoffa was forced to stew in prison while the union he felt belonged to him, fell under the control of others.  And it was a position that Hoffa could not accept.  His obssesion with reclaiming the throne would have deadly repercussions later as Hoffa became suspicious of nearly all of his former subordinates. The list of enemies he had made continued to grow and dissent had resulted in splinter groups opposed to his dominance. Their stories are also included here as the story develops, showing that Hoffa was not idolized by all who knew him. 

The Hoffa story is further complicated by the association between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and organized crime figures.  This part of the book may surprise some readers and as Moldea hints, it might have played a role in Hoffa’s death for reasons that have flown under the radar for years.  At this point in the book, we step into different waters as Jack Ruby (1911-1967), David Ferrie (1918-1967) and Sam Giancana (1908-1975) take center stage in plots to remove Cuban President Fidel Castro (1926-2016) from power.  There is a wealth of information but I feel that it is only the tip of the iceberg.  But Moldea did a good job of keeping the story streamlined and focused on Hoffa as the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Castro can easily be a book on its own.  This is Hoffa’ story and these events are only part of the full account. 

Readers should be prepared for many revelations about Hoffa’s life and the Teamsters.  And to be clear, there is no happy ending here.  This is a dark story filled with imposing figures whose lust for power and money knew no bounds. It is a story of paranoia, betrayal and murder.  And as Hoffa, McMaster and Fitzsimmons engage in their three-way dance, the Teamsters’ is forced to hold on while the saga plays out.   Unquestionably, Hoffa’s murder changed everything and Moldea goes through that day to piece together Hoffa’s final moments.  He does not profess to know who killed Hoffa but does explore possible scenarios.  Charles ‘Chucky” O’Brien (1933-2020) had been the focus of attention for decades after it was alleged he drove Hoffa to his final meeting where he was killed. O’Brien always maintained innocence and the jury is still out on whether he set up his former mentor.  Moldea explores his possible role as well but stops short of making accusations against O’Brien.  It is possible that the FBI knows who did kill Hoffa but has never said due to lack of physical evidence and a corpse. The Hoffa disappearance will never fade away as researchers continue to revisit the life of a man who cemented his place in American labor history.  If you are looking for a balanced report of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa and his downfall, this is a good place to start.  Good read.