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Our New Deal Nation
James Nuechterlein

For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s

By Alonzo L. Hamby Free Press 492 pp. $30

Presidential reputations tend to fluctuate according to contemporary preoccupations. Andrew Johnson, to cite a random example, was once upon a time widely pictured as a martyr to the noble cause of Abraham Lincoln’s desire to bring reconciliation to the nation following the Civil War, a victim of vindictive Radical Republicans determined to extend, by any means necessary, GOP rule over the defeated Confederacy. Come the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, however, he was recast as a misguided compromiser and racist willing to undo the gains the war had brought to blacks and restore the former slaves to the malign control of their pre-Emancipation masters.

Johnson is by no means unusual as a revisionist target. Even our iconic Presidents–Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson–have at varying times and to varying degrees been the subjects of debunking, or at least skeptical, historians. Which makes the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt all the more striking. He, more than Ronald Reagan, is our modern Teflon President. Not, of course, that FDR and his New Deal have been immune from all criticism. The Roosevelt presidency has by now been the subject of detailed historical analysis, and students of the era have noted a mass of specific errors in judgment attributable to the President and those who advised him.

But, as Alonzo L. Hamby notes in For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s , the perspective of those historians who have attempted comprehensive interpretive studies of FDR and his times has been “largely celebratory,” or even, as he says at another point, “near-adulatory.” There was a brief period in the 1960s and ’70s when left-wing historians attacked the New Deal as insufficiently radical, but that moment passed quickly and the pro-FDR consensus was soon again securely in place. The tradition of what Hamby calls the “founding fathers” of New Deal historiography–James MacGregor Burns ( Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, 1956), Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. ( The Age of Roosevelt , three volumes, 1957-1960), and William Leuchtenburg ( Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal , 1963)–still reigns.

That tradition is notable not only for its consistently favorable judgment of Roosevelt, but also for its agreement on basic terms of analysis of the man and his administration. Most scholars agree with Hamby that David Kennedy’s magisterial Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999) is “the new standard narrative” of its subject, and the remarkable thing about Kennedy’s sweeping survey is how little it departs, in its interpretive framework, from the works the founders began publishing almost a half century ago. Historical judgments about FDR and the New Deal differ at the margins, but the patterns of analysis of the man and his administration–where he was wise or not so wise, the strengths and flaws of his personality and intellect, the successes and failures of his policies, the enduring legacy of his tenure in office–vary precious little among historians past and present. (Another recent study, Conrad Black’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom , is securely within the prevailing tradition.)

Hamby’s book is particularly illustrative of the enduring hold that the Roosevelt consensus has on historians’ imaginations. The author indicates in the preface that he began his study with a rather more skeptical take on FDR than is customary, and along the way he offers some sharply critical observations on the President and his policies. But, as we shall see, the criticisms, while more central than is common, are largely the traditional ones, and, in the end, the author’s summary judgment does not significantly depart from the prevailing consensus. FDR and his New Deal were intensely controversial in their day, but among scholars–and, it seems, among Americans more generally–that controversy has largely dissipated. Why that is so, and what it tells us about the particular and peculiar nature of the politics of the 1930s, is worth pursuing.

Presidential greatness is in part a function of opportunity. Theodore Roosevelt regretted that in his years in office at the beginning of the twentieth century he never encountered a crisis great enough fully to test his capacity for leadership. His distant cousin Franklin, of course, was President during the two most dramatic crises of the century, the Great Depression and World War II. (This essay addresses itself only to FDR’s response to the Depression.) The liberal consensus on the New Deal rests most fundamentally on the assumption that Roosevelt made an unprecedented response to an unprecedented catastrophe; in the words of Carl Degler ( Out of Our Past , 1959), the New Deal was “a revolutionary response to a revolutionary situation.” This “Third American Revolution,” in responding to conditions of poverty and unemployment never before encountered, brought into being something that Americans had not previously fully contemplated (though TR had offered glimpses of it), “the Guarantor State.”

Indeed, in its wide-ranging program of relief, recovery, and reform, the New Deal wrought a revolution in the role of government. Among other things, it fed the hungry, provided welfare, employed those out of work, set minimum wages and maximum hours for workers, propped up farm prices, refinanced mortgages, bailed out financial institutions, guaranteed bank deposits, supported the arts, produced electricity for rural America, organized and mobilized tenant farmers, established Brigadoon-like utopian communities, built public projects large and small, engaged in massive regional planning, created public housing, and offered old-age security. It put new limits on the operations of the free market and established once and for all the sense of the federal government’s responsibility for the health of the economy. It brought a collectivist sense and an emphasis on economic security to what had previously been a predominantly individualistic political culture.

In the process of doing all this, the New Deal also effected a revolution in politics. The Republican Party had, with brief interludes, dominated national politics since the Civil War, but the New Deal created a Democratic hegemony that lasted for decades. The impact of the Depression brought together under the canopy of the New Deal reform forces that had previously been divided on cultural and geographic lines: blacks and whites, farmers and workers, Catholics and Protestants, Southern poor whites and Northern ethnics. That new unity was most visibly represented in the rise of labor in general and the CIO in particular, a development that, however uneasily in some cases, covered over old antipathies with a nascent class consciousness, a sensibility spurred by the New Deal’s active support for union organizing and collective bargaining. By the end of the ’30s, so the consensus view argues, the previously unchallenged dominance of big business over the nation’s political economy had been checked by a new broker-state politics, with an energized big government exercising countervailing power both in its own right and also in conjunction with big labor and big agriculture.

There were lesser revolutions along the way. By the end of the ’30s, WASP domination of society was no longer so prevalent as it had been. The New Deal’s close involvement with organized labor and with urban political machines brought to prominence leaders from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Even blacks, still scarcely visible as political actors, edged their way into public attention. (Eleanor Roosevelt, who often acted as a kind of conscience-in-residence to her husband, relentlessly pushed the President in the cause of racial justice.)

There was, finally, also a revolution in the presidency itself (though again, TR, along with Woodrow Wilson, offered some precedent). FDR greatly expanded the powers both of the federal government in general and of the executive branch in particular. He dominated Congress as no President had before him. After him, particular occupants of the Oval Office might be ineffectual, but none of them would be institutionally weak.

Americans of the time granted the President extensive authority because of the depth of the national crisis. They did so as well, however, because of their response to Roosevelt the man. He was always more popular than his policies. Even many conservatives would concede that, whatever his failings, he was remarkably successful in gaining the trust of millions of ordinary Americans. The contribution he made to the nation, especially in the first days of the New Deal, was essentially psychological: he generated an atmosphere of hope, confidence, and affirmation. Transmitting to the public a measure of his own Hyde Park squire’s commanding confidence and essential security of self, he restored to Americans in a time of genuine desperation a sense of faith in their nation and its institutions.

He accomplished this in part through oratorical skill: there was, after all, more to fear in the spring of 1933 than fear itself. But far more than through his press conferences, fireside chats, and other public addresses, he did it through action. What Roosevelt grasped, what his tragic predecessor Herbert Hoover never fully understood, was that the fact of action was more important than its substance. The Depression, not in its origins but in its duration, was a profoundly psychological phenomenon. By 1933, in terms of public opinion (if not necessarily in the opinion of professional economists) too much had gone wrong for too long simply to wait for a turn in the economic cycle to set things right. Roosevelt’s activism, in part a natural product of his instinct for power, stemmed as well from his perception that government action was necessary to help restore the public confidence essential for economic recovery.

On all these matters, the liberal consensus established by the historiographical founders remains remarkably intact. It extends as well to the (generally mild) criticisms the founders offered of Roosevelt and his administration. FDR, almost everyone agrees, was a sloppy, impulsive, sometimes absentminded administrator; most concede that whatever benefits accrued to his habit of assigning overlapping jurisdictions and unclear mandates to his subordinates were fortuitous, not consciously intended. He had broad humanitarian sympathies–along with strong ideological and partisan instincts–but he was not a deep or consistent thinker.

In personal relations, he was far more complicated than his habitual jovial and welcoming demeanor indicated. FDR liked people and was genuinely curious about them–he learned by conversing, not by reading–but his relations with others were essentially manipulative. He used his immense charm to cultivate people until he tired of them or they lost their usefulness, but he confided in few and he needed none. In withholding himself, he maintained his personal and psychological independence. His energies were reserved for public uses; they were seldom dissipated in private involvements. As a public man, he was among the most artful of all Presidents, but he was also among the most devious. He regularly misrepresented his true intentions and left false impressions, sometimes intentionally (his dissimulations were legion) and sometimes inadvertently; he had a habit in conversation, for example, of vigorously nodding his head and saying “yes” when he actually only meant “I see what you mean.”

Even as liberal scholars have noted FDR’s personal flaws–while finding them more than balanced by his virtues–so they have tempered their overall praise of the New Deal with a number of criticisms of specific policies and programs. In more general terms, they have in various ways criticized the New Deal for not going far enough in its programs of economic recovery and political reform, for not creating a more effective reform coalition, for leaving too many social problems untouched or at least inadequately addressed.

It is these policy criticisms that radical historians of the ’60s and ’70s extended into an overall indictment of the New Deal as a well-intended failure. Thus, for example, Howard Zinn, who edited the volume New Deal Thought (1965), faulted Roosevelt for what others saw as his greatest accomplishment: saving capitalism.

Rather than working toward the establishment of democratic socialism that the economic crisis had made possible, Zinn argued, the New Deal “refurbished middle-class America” and gave just enough to the lower classes “to create an aura of good will.” Given the inevitable failures of a system geared to profit rather than human need, the Roosevelt administration left a legacy of problems in unemployment, inequality, slums, poverty, and inadequate education and medical care. The New Deal, like so many reform movements before it, was in the end an exercise in co-optation, making enough concessions to preserve the system “while isolated aggrieved groups fought their way up to the point of complacency.” Whether precisely intended or not, its effect was to strengthen the capitalist system by buying off radical grievances and dividing the forces of genuine reform.

Zinn’s critique, it might be said, represented the views of the Old Left, including those Socialists, Communists, and radicals of infinite variety who opposed the New Deal as it was unfolding. Theirs was an essentially economic and institutional analysis. The New Left, which arose in a time of prosperity rather than depression, did not ignore economic issues, but focused more on matters of morality.

Paul Conkin ( The New Deal , 1967), a reasonably typical representative of younger radical scholars, emphasized capitalism’s ugliness and spiritual poverty; the New Deal, he suggested, could prime the economic pump, but it could not purify the capitalist well. He called for a renewed moral and religious vision, the establishment of a just community that would offer “meaningful work, personal involvement, democratic participation.” Conkin in effect conceded the liberal view that FDR gave the public what it wanted. The problem lay not so much in the inadequacies of the New Deal as in the inadequacies of the American system. Conventional democratic politics, he said, is “a perennial interim accommodation with ignorance.” The final blame for the New Deal’s failure lay with the “appalling economic ignorance and philosophic immaturity of the American electorate.”

The radicalism of the ’60s, Old and New, came and went relatively quickly; so also did its critique of the New Deal. History professors keep radical arguments alive in their classrooms, but mainly for pedagogical reasons. Whatever their own ideological preferences, they know that it is Schlesinger and Leuchtenburg, not Zinn and Conkin, who represent the prevailing interpretation of FDR and the New Deal. And to the extent that their sympathies lie with the latter two, they are inclined to accept Conkin’s view that the New Deal did about as much as it could in shifting the American political spectrum to the left.

There have, of course, been critiques of Roosevelt and the New Deal from the right from 1933 onward, but even as they found little traction at the time, they have had little historiographical impact since. This is due, in part, to the dominance of the left in academic circles, but that does not explain everything. Other liberal heroes–Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson, for example–have in recent years come under considerable academic scrutiny and criticism, but there has been no real equivalent of that in the case of FDR.

Roosevelt was fortunate in his contemporary critics. Those who led the early criticism–Hoover, the Republican Party, the corporate moguls behind the American Liberty League–had been so discredited by the Depression as to have negligible influence on public opinion; if anything, their criticism was a boon to the administration. It was hardly persuasive, at least in the early years of the New Deal, to argue that if only FDR had left things alone, economic recovery would have developed on its own. The Depression had already lasted too long for the public to be convinced of that.

And given the severity of the economic crisis, the argument that the New Deal was destroying the constitutional order–exalting the President over Congress, the federal government over the states–had a peculiarly abstract air. If, as conservatives argued, Roosevelt was somehow undermining traditional American individualism, it seemed to many people that a measure of undermining of an ideology that had come to such a dead end might well be in order. Similarly, conservative worries about the loss of individual liberties fell flat when such liberties were equated almost solely with property rights and the obligation of government not to interfere with the traditional prerogatives of the business community. All in all, the fledgling New Deal seemed to most not an alien force but a breath of fresh air.

But that leaves unanswered the question as to why academics, given the advantage of distance and historical hindsight, have not been much more critical of the New Deal than were most of its contemporaries. It was not, after all (as even its liberal defenders indirectly suggested), immune from criticism. Enter, in a way, Alonzo Hamby.

Hamby does not lay out his political inclinations, and his book cannot fairly be described as right-wing in its point of view, but his own account of his original skepticism about the received wisdom concerning the New Deal and his occasionally sharp criticisms of FDR and FDR’s policies suggest that if he is not necessarily a conservative, neither is he conventionally liberal. (He also brings to our attention two works that are thoroughly critical of the New Deal: Gary Dean Best’s 1991 Pride, Prejudice, and Politics: Roosevelt versus Recovery, 1933-1938 and Gene Smiley’s 2002 Rethinking the Great Depression.)

The most original aspect of Hamby’s approach is his effort to put the New Deal in comparative perspective by interweaving his account of American developments in the ’30s with parallel treatments of events in Great Britain and Germany. (He also offers a sketchy account of the diplomatic events of the decade up to the outbreak of war in 1939.)

The results are mixed. The treatment of the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich is too compact and too familiar to be of use to readers, even for purposes of comparison. The Nazi story has been told so often and in so many venues that the most casual consumers of popular history–including viewers of television’s History Channel–will find little here to surprise them.

The discussion of Great Britain, however, partly because it is far less familiar and partly because it is far more germane for comparative purposes, is both fresh and suggestive. A central element in the defense of the New Deal is that it represented, in the midst of a world increasingly polarized between extremes of left and right, what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. termed “the triumph of the middle way.” In this view, the vitality of the New Deal kept hope alive throughout the Western world that the Depression did not necessarily indicate the bankruptcy of democratic capitalism; the liberal and social democratic left in Europe looked to FDR and his policies as proof of democracy’s continuing promise amid the totalizing alternatives of fascism and communism.

Hamby does not dismiss this argument–as the title of his book indicates–but he does complexify it. Great Britain had its own middle way, and it was rather different from that of the United States. From late 1931 to the end of the decade Britain was ruled by a National government dominated by the Conservatives with a scattering of Liberals and Laborites. It was a government of collective leadership, with Stanley Baldwin as the major figure in conjunction with his fellow Tory Neville Chamberlain and Labor’s Ramsey MacDonald. (Winston Churchill, Hamby says, was rightly thought too erratic to be trusted with leadership.)

In contrast to Roosevelt’s New Deal, the National government followed a path, in Hamby’s terms, of “stability and anti-charisma.” Its recovery policies were somewhere between those of Hoover and FDR, combining “fiscal conservatism...  with generous social provision for the unemployed and the poor.” Its “muddle way,” rejecting the more innovative social democratic prescriptions of David Lloyd George and John Maynard Keynes and the radical program of the socialist Labor opposition, was unexciting but broadly popular; the government won a landslide majority in 1931 and was easily returned to power four years later. Hamby is old-fashioned (and, in my view, quite correct) in his emphasis on the importance of political leadership to what happened in the ’30s, and he holds in high regard Britain’s undramatic but very competent Depression leaders, Baldwin in particular.

Britain’s middle way was less adventurous than that of the U.S. and gained less international notice. It was also, at least in economic terms, clearly more successful. Hamby reports that his initial suspicion of FDR stemmed from the fact that while other nations, including both Germany and Great Britain, had largely recovered from the Depression by mid-to-late 1935, the U.S. even at the end of the decade found itself “still deeply mired in economic distress.” That is no overstatement. Consider but one devastating statistic: as David Kennedy has noted, in no year of the 1930s did the unemployment rate in America average below 14 percent. Historians have commonly attributed Europe’s more rapid economic recovery mainly to its earlier resort to heavy military spending. There is something to that, but the early date of European recovery and the failure of the New Deal to match that recovery even by the end of the decade suggests that there were other factors at work.

Hamby’s argument, though he does not make it as directly as one might wish, is that the New Deal’s early failure in achieving recovery–it did much better, he thinks, in relief and reform–stemmed from misguided economic analysis. Much of the so-called First New Deal of 1933-35 was based on the assumption that what was needed was large-scale, long-term economic planning. With the end of the frontier, the exhaustion of free land, and the saturation of the domestic market, the United States had become, so the argument went, a “mature economy,” in which growth and expansion could no longer be assumed. The American economy, which had grown so rapidly for so long, would for the foreseeable future be restricted to limited growth at best. The equitable distribution of its benefits would require as never before the benign attention of the federal government; the only alternative was control of those benefits by a private economic oligarchy.

The economic heart of the First New Deal was the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a vast program of industrial self-regulation whose intention was, by establishing legally enforceable “codes of fair competition” across the entire American economy, to stabilize prices for industry, improve wages and conditions for workers, and protect the interests of consumers. It was an unprecedented (for America) effort at what Hamby calls “managed capitalism”–in the Depression context “managed scarcity”–and, to drastically simplify a large and complicated story, it did not work. (The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which dealt with the farm economy, was more successful.) Whereas European economies had revived by mid-1935, in America real wages had slightly declined. The idea that the American economy could be at once democratic, prosperous, and planned was dubious to begin with (a point made at the time by Walter Lippmann in The Good Society, 1937), and in any case, as Hamby emphasizes, America’s political and economic culture was still too individualistic to be hospitable to such a centralized, collectivist project. When the Supreme Court unanimously declared the NRA unconstitutional in May 1935, most Americans, whether of left or right, were glad to see it go.

The President was not among them. He never gave up his commitment to planning, and he always hoped that, in one form or another, the NRA might be resuscitated. As Otis L. Graham, Jr. noted ( An Encore for Reform: Old Progressives and the New Deal , 1967), Roosevelt was an “instinctive collectivist,” easily the farthest left of all American Presidents. His belief in planning–a commonplace on the left in his day–dovetailed with his understanding of the nature of the Depression. In contrast to Hoover, who viewed the Depression as a foreign disaster that had spread to America and could not entirely be overcome by domestic policies, Roosevelt saw it as essentially homemade, a product of Republican errors based, at bottom, on the GOP’s narrow concern for the interests of businessmen and bankers. Recovery in America would, in FDR’s view, depend on national economic planning as well as on political reforms that would make the structural and institutional changes necessary to secure permanent economic renewal.

Roosevelt therefore followed a policy of what Hamby disapprovingly terms “recovery in one country,” a policy that, despite the President’s rhetorical bow to the need for international cooperation, was essentially nationalistic. Hamby thus, in speaking of the policies of the First New Deal in 1933, refers not, as is the historiographical custom, to “the first 100 days,” but to “the first 125 days.” The longer time frame takes in Roosevelt’s totally unexpected July 3 “bombshell message” to the World Economic Conference in London, a message so harsh and dismissive that it effectively scuttled a major cooperative effort to fight the Depression on a global scale. The incident, Hamby thinks, “revealed [Roosevelt] at his worst.”

In addition to criticizing the early New Deal’s recovery policies, Hamby raises, more tentatively, the related issue of Roosevelt’s antagonism throughout his presidency toward the business community. From his first inaugural address onward, FDR used the business and banking elite as scapegoats for the Depression and as targets of political attack. Hamby is sure that Roosevelt held simplistic neo-populist views of businessmen, and he appears sympathetic to the idea that the President’s unrelenting antipathy to business leaders impeded economic recovery. Since history cannot be rerun, that argument can neither be proved nor disproved, but there is a certain common sense in supposing that reasonably satisfied capitalists are necessary to a healthy capitalist economy. And under Roosevelt, the capitalists were not at all satisfied.

Roosevelt was a patrician, and like most patricians, he held in disdain those who merely made money. Moreover, as a man of the progressive left of his time, he was, while not anti-capitalist, deeply anti-business. When he attacked businessmen he was not simply being opportunistic; he meant what he said. He truly, however erroneously, believed that it was the monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic powers of big business and the shady dealings of financiers that had been central to the coming of the Depression and that blocked economic recovery. Whenever the New Deal encountered economic difficulties, he resorted to conspiracy theories to explain them. The business community was refusing to invest because it wanted to discredit the administration; when the crippling recession of 1937-38 occurred, Roosevelt blamed it on a “strike of capital.” Like other New Dealers, he was given to making facile comparisons between the concentration of economic power and the rise of fascism.

FDR’s prejudices fit with those of his time. People needed explanations for the Depression, which meant, not incidentally, finding those to whom to assign responsibility for it. Republicans and business leaders had taken credit for the prosperity of the 1920s, and it was a form of recompense for their perhaps naïve arrogance that they were given oversimplified blame for the Depression.

It was during the so-called Second New Deal (1935-38) that relations between the administration and the business community became most embittered. By 1935, with the economy still sputtering, Roosevelt came under severe criticism, not just from the right but increasingly from the left. His response to the latter was at once shrewdly tactical and fully sincere: he moved sharply left in his policies and, in Hamby’s words, “open[ed] an offensive against the wealthy, the bankers, and the big corporations.” That offensive reached its rhetorical climax in Roosevelt’s famous Madison Square Garden address at the end of the 1936 presidential campaign:

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hatred for me–and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.

Conservatives and moderates were not alone in decrying FDR’s “class warfare” and the effect it might have on economic recovery. John Maynard Keynes, for example, whose own political views were to the left of the New Deal, cautioned Roosevelt in 1938 about the dangers of business bashing.

It was not just the rhetoric but the policies of the Second New Deal that opened a chasm between Roosevelt and his conservative critics in the business community and elsewhere. The NRA, whatever its failures, had been based on an appeal to national unity. Once it was gone, that appeal gave way to naked political conflict. It is impossible here to specify the myriad details, but the administration’s policies from 1935 to 1938 were unabashedly on the left: they attempted to reconstitute the Supreme Court so as to bend it to Roosevelt’s desires, uncritically supported organized labor and poor farmers, instituted high corporate and individual wealth taxes, imposed a series of regulations on business activity, increased antitrust prosecutions, created a commission to investigate the concentration of economic power, and engaged in public spending in a variety of programs that significantly increased the deficit.

These policies generated a complicated series of political counterreactions that, combined with the severe economic downturn in 1937-38 and significant Republican gains in the congressional elections of 1938 (preceded by failed interventions by Roosevelt in several Democratic primaries), brought an effective end to the New Deal as a reform movement. After 1938, in any case, the President was increasingly preoccupied with international affairs, and once the U.S. became involved in World War II, he announced that “Dr. New Deal” had been supplanted by “Dr. Win the War.” (It is worth noting, however, that Roosevelt did not forsake his reform dreams: in 1944 he proposed an Economic Bill of Rights, a program of cradle-to-grave security that went nowhere politically but that stands as a testimony to the New Deal’s aspirations.)

Hamby is by no means uniformly critical of Roosevelt’s reform policies. He does note, however, that when reform came into conflict with recovery, the latter gave way to the former. Thus, for example, Roosevelt knew that his social security program was, at least in the short term, anti-recovery. The payroll taxes that supported it were regressive, and, because it delayed payments for several years until an adequate fund to finance it was in place, it acted in the meantime as a fiscal drag on the economy. But here as elsewhere, he opted for the long-term benefits, as he saw them, of reform. He often, in fact, expressed concern that a too-rapid recovery might dull the reform impulse. Roosevelt, of course, wanted recovery, but he was persuaded that recovery over the long haul, not just for the moment, required fundamental political reform.

Several things need to be noted about Hamby’s criticisms of FDR’s economic policies. To begin with, they are not new (this is not meant as criticism). All of them have been noted by historians of the New Deal from Schlesinger onward, even if liberal scholars tend to give them lesser weight and prominence than does Hamby. And even liberals these days pretty much concede the failure of planning in general and the NRA in particular. The historical guild has caught up with Economics 101.

It is also the case that Hamby, as a fair-minded historian, concedes mitigating factors in what he sees as Roosevelt’s mistakes. While he offers hints that he finds Great Britain’s sober middle way preferable to FDR’s more radical and chaotic alternative, he admits that what was workable there could not simply have been transplanted here. The British right, for example, had a paternalistic tradition of “socially aware conservatism”–some called it “Tory socialism”–that had no significant counterpart in America. In shorthand terms, American conservatism had never seen the need of a Bismarck (though once again, TR had made gestures in that direction), and so the struggle to establish a major role for government in guiding the economy was bound to be more explosive in the U.S. than it was elsewhere. Hamby argues in general that responses to the Depression legitimately differed from nation to nation depending on particulars of history and tradition.

Even in his most intense criticism of Roosevelt–on the policy of “recovery in one country”–Hamby concedes that FDR was hardly alone in his error. His predecessor Hoover had signed into law the highly protectionist Hawley-Smoot tariff. Beyond that, most countries turned inward in fighting the Depression, adopting varying patterns of “self-concern, tariff protectionism, competitive currency devaluation, and beggar-thy-neighbor policies.” Roosevelt, on this matter, simply followed the crowd.

One final point on Hamby’s criticisms: If FDR’s First New Deal recovery policies were so mistaken, how do we account for his remarkable political successes in both the congressional elections of 1934 and the presidential campaign against Alf Landon in 1936? Hamby suggests several possible factors: the fecklessness of the GOP opposition, FDR’s unsurpassed political skills and personal popularity, and signs of economic revival in the summer and fall of 1936. He also emphasizes the very immediate rewards that millions of people obtained from the New Deal’s various relief and quasi-relief policies. As many as one-quarter of Americans, Hamby estimates, benefited directly from one or another New Deal program, and millions more had friends or family members who received such benefits. The government’s humanitarian policies, he concludes, had created “a hard core of electoral support willing to forgive almost any other shortcoming.”

At the end of the day, it is difficult to make out precisely what Hamby’s final judgment on Roosevelt comes down to. He is not, as we have seen, hesitant to offer criticisms, but he avoids definitive judgment. Instead, he goes uncertainly back and forth. There are, we learn unhelpfully, large failures and large achievements to bring into balance. On more than one occasion he says that FDR the man was more impressive than his policies, a comment that opens more questions than it closes. He shakily concludes that, in Roosevelt, “one senses a presence larger than can be conveyed by any balance sheet tally of pluses and minuses.” All this is not so much fair and balanced as terminally ambivalent, and it unfortunately weakens the effect of a book whose analysis is in so many ways penetrating and perceptive.

As for the New Deal itself, Hamby’s wavering summary judgment comes not in his introduction or conclusion but in a throwaway line at the end of a discussion of the Tennessee Valley Authority. “[W]hatever it had become and whatever its shortcomings, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that TVA did more good than harm. In this, its history paralleled that of the New Deal.” In the end, it seems, however halfheartedly, Hamby has signed on to the New Deal consensus.

We are left with the question of why that consensus has held up so broadly and for so long a time. Part of the answer, I suspect, lies with the sheer scholarly competence of the historiographical founders. Whatever their pro-FDR inclinations, they were thorough historians and biographers determined to see Roosevelt and his policies in as comprehensive a framework as possible. In viewing the man and his times in the large, they provided patterns of analysis, both critical and favorable, that have endured for decades. That is why, as noted earlier, Kennedy’s recent overview falls so neatly into step with what, for example, Leuchtenburg wrote thirty-five years previously.

There is also the matter of ideology. Liberals–as opposed to radicals–naturally look back with nostalgia and affection to a decade that was, in its politics, liberalism’s finest hour. It is hardly surprising that liberal scholars and activists find it difficult to be more than mildly critical of an epoch that they would give anything to be able to restore.

The case of conservatives–whether scholars or ordinary citizens–is a bit more complicated. During the many years when I taught the New Deal, I was regularly struck by the overwhelming pro-Roosevelt consensus among my students, even the more conservative of them. Young men and women who would have fervently opposed any revival of New Deal policies were relatively uncritical–or were at least understanding–of the original program. There was, simply, the unprecedented crisis of the Depression, a crisis so deep and baffling that it broke the normal rules of political economy. Those desperate times, even many conservatives retrospectively concede, called for desperate measures. And some of those measures, Social Security for example, brought an element of economic stability into American life unwelcome only to doctrinaire libertarians. Beyond that, the New Deal set in place government policies that, it is widely hoped, make a Second Great Depression unlikely if not impossible. In any case, the New Deal is thought to be safely in the past, born in conditions that few Americans can imagine being replicated. It is thus suitably domesticated for recollection in tranquility.

The legacy of the New Deal is clear up to a point, though not perhaps so obvious as the liberal consensus thinks. Prior to the 1930s, most Americans assumed that the nation’s economy required relatively little attending to. Given a reasonably nonintrusive government, it was thought, the dynamics of American capitalism were such that the economic pie would keep getting bigger; and if that was so, little attention needed to be paid to the problem, to the extent it was a problem, of the slices being so unequal in size. Americans characteristically cared about growth, not distribution. As John F. Kennedy famously put it years later, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

It was only after the Depression hit that the Progressive belief in economic planning–largely a result of the experience of economic mobilization during the First World War–gained wide attention and a degree of acceptance. If America’s economy was now truly “mature” in the negative sense, then growth could not be assumed, and the problem of inequality of distribution took on a significance it had never held before. The most dedicated New Dealers wanted a conscious commitment to a more equal division, under government aegis, of the nation’s economic rewards. They knew that such a policy would bring a measure of class conflict, but they did not shrink from that. While they never sold the country on their program, they did succeed in instilling in the public a greater concern for economic security as a legitimate and necessary public policy issue.

The widespread prosperity of the 1940s and ’50s–which came as a surprise to most New Dealers–restored assumptions of perpetual growth and ended any hope that liberals had retained of mandating economic equality. The economic aftermath of the New Deal was interest-group competition, not planning toward equality. But if Americans rejected a policy of equal division of the pie, the Depression experience had opened them to the idea of government’s responsibility for guaranteeing something approximating a minimum slice. That change in thought, the New Deal consensus assumes, is still secure.

Hamby is not so sure, and he wonders if the New Deal changed Americans’ ideas about government as much as is commonly thought. It is true, he admits, that most people are nowadays concerned with economic security and that in some ways they hold government responsible for securing it. Yet, he says, those beliefs coexist, however paradoxically or even contradictorily, with a stubborn, pre-New Deal suspicion of big government. That’s not a tidy conclusion, but even a cursory examination of post-New Deal political history suggests that it contains a good deal of complicated truth.

In the end, however, whatever Hamby’s marginal disagreements with the New Deal consensus, he has not strayed far from it. Nor have most of the rest of us. It is ironic that a highly politicized nation, narrowly and bitterly divided over partisan values of red states versus blue, should agree so broadly about the most ideologically divisive era in all of American history. The Whig interpretation of American history, which portrayed an extended struggle from 1776 onwards between implacably opposed armies of conservatives and progressives–and the inevitable triumph of the latter–saw the New Deal as that history’s culmination. It turned out instead to be, in its quite unrepresentative experience of economic disaster and response to disaster, less the paradigm of the nation’s history than a special and exceptional case. The New Deal made, in ideological terms, a big, but mostly fleeting, difference. That’s why we don’t fight about it much any more.

James Nuechterlein, former Editor of First Things, is Senior Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

If God Is My Bell-Metal

If God is my bell-metal,
     massive, cold,
     impatient in its long waiting
     to be struck
     and in that striking
     ring me in;
     first I seek a casting fire,
     my leathery heart a bellows
     breathing the blue flame
     of angels bearing the great
     mallet of God,
     knowing his tolling
     may well overwhelm
     my frail tower
     and bring me down.

Warren L. Molton

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