Written a generation ago, this concise and well written book is still regarded as the best single monograph on the Great Depression of the 1930s. Kindleberger provides a nice description of the major economic and financial events involved in the Great Depression coupled with a generally convincing analysis of its mechanisms. While Kindleberger uses a fair amount of economics/financial terminology (par, terms of trade, etc.), the analysis is generally easy to follow and a modest amount of background knowledge of economics is all that is needed to follow his discussion.
Kindleberger sets out to answer 2 related questions; what caused the Great Depression and what made it so profound and durable? One criticism of Kindleberger is that the answer to the first question emerges implicitly while the answer to the second question is addressed explicitly. Kindleberger's narrative shows that the Great Depression was to a large extent a delayed sequel to WWI. The war generated a large number of structural and political problems that contributed significantly to the emergence of the Great Depression. These included the erosion of British dominance of the world financial system, the related problem of war debts and reparations, over-production of primary products, the considerable economic problems of Germany, and smaller problems like the deleterious economic consequences of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Kindleberger shows the Great Depression as a massive deflationary event emerging and sustained by a series of interrelated vicious cycles. Competitive currency depreciation, competitive tariff barriers, and problems of individual national central banks to cooperate. Once the vicious cycles were initiated, they developed momentum of their own, severely affecting the economies of many nations, and leading to an enormous decline in international trade and paralysis of the international financial system.
Kindleberger argues that this downward path could have been arrested only by intelligent leadership of the international financial system. But one of the sequelae of WWI was an absence of such leadership. The British, who had de facto occupied this role for much of the 19th century were no longer able to exert such leadership. The logical successors to the British were the Americans, but American governments were not inclined to undertake such responsibility. Kindleberger points out as well, though, that there were not international financial institutions for certain key roles. For example, with private international lending withering in the Great Depression, there were nothing like the IMF or World Bank to provide capital. Kindleberger, a self-described Keynesian, clearly believes that the Great Depression could only have abrogated by aggressive American use of fiscal and monetary policy, and American led reconstruction of the world financial system.
Written a number of years, some of Kindelberger's detailed discussion is probably incorrect. I believe the consensus is that the 1937 depression was due to the relatively tight fiscal and monetary policies of the Roosevelt administration. Adam Tooze has argued well that the German economy of the late 30s was not a "blitzkrieg" economy but devoted to maximum rearmarment and limited by balance of payments problems and other economic constraints.
Finally, Kindleberger makes a fascinating counterfactual suggestion. Would American leadership and reconstruction of the world financial-economic system occurred without WWII?