Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940 (Anglais) Broché – 24 février 2009
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“Any list of the New Deal’s premier historians must include Leuchtenburg.” (Library Journal)
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When the stability of American life was threatened by the Great Depression, the decisive and visionary policy contained in FDR's New Deal offered America a way forward. In this groundbreaking work, William E. Leuchtenburg traces the evolution of what was both the most controversial and effective socioeconomic initiative ever undertaken in the United States—and explains how the social fabric of American life was forever altered. It offers illuminating lessons on the challenges of economic transformation—for our time and for all time.
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Many Americans today cannot appreciate the magnitude of the crisis which followed the stock market crash of 1929. National income had been halved. Over 5,000 banks had crashed, wiping out nine million savings accounts. Millions suffered the effects of hunger and malnutrition. "We are like the drounding [sic] man, grabbing at every thing that flotes by, trying to save what little we have," reported a North Carolinian. Fifty hungry men in Chicago fought over a barrel of garbage left outside the back of a restaurant. Men in Stockton, California waded through the city dump in search of rotted vegetables. Hundreds of children were kept out of school nationwide due to a lack of clothes. Hundreds of World War I veterans occupied buildings outside of Washington D.C to protest their dire economic conditions. Only after President Herbert Hoover called in four troops of cavalry to clear them out with tanks and infantry did they flee, along with their wives and children.
And the proximate cause of this misery?
Stop me when this sounds familiar--
"Frustrated by the failure of the economy to respond to his nostrums, Hoover encouraged a Senate investigation into Wall Street in the spring of 1932 to make an example of the "bears," who he believed had been organizing "raids" on the stock market.
Under the persistent probing of Ferdinand Pecora, the committee shattered the image of the investment banker as a man of probity whose first concern was the welfare of his customers and who operated in an institution that was a model of fair play. Pecora revealed that the most respected men on Wall Street had rigged pools, had profited by pegging bond prices artificially high, and had lined their pockets with fantastic bonuses. The leading financial houses, the committee learned, invited insiders to purchase securities at a price much below that paid by the public. When officers of Charles Mitchell's National City Bank faced ruin because they could not cover their investments, the bank gave them interest-free loans while ruthlessly selling out their own customers. The bankers seemed bereft of a sense of obligation even to their own institutions. Albert Wiggin, president of the Chase National Bank, had even sold short the stock of his own bank.
Yet it was less their financial transgressions than their social irresponsibility which caused the loss of faith in America's business leaders. At a time when millions lived close to starvation, and some even had to scavenge for food, bankers like Wiggin and corporation executives like George Washington Hill of American Tobacco drew astronomical salaries and bonuses. Yet many of these men, including Wiggin, manipulated their investments so that they paid no income tax at all. In Chicago, where teachers, unpaid for months, fainted in classrooms for want of food, wealthy citizens of national reputation brazenly refused to pay taxes or submitted falsified statements. In Detroit, the hardest hit of any large city, Henry Ford set the standard for businessmen by shrugging off all responsibility for the welfare of the jobless. Detroit bankers, in fact, insisted that before the city would be granted a loan to maintain relief, it would have to cut relief pittances still further.
The real responsibility for their poverty, insisted John Edgerton in his presidential address to the National Association of Manufacturers in October, 1930, lay with the jobless themselves. If, he asked, "they do not...practice the habits of thrift and conservation, or if they gamble away their savings in the stock market or elsewhere, is our economic system, or government, or industry to blame?" The tone of lament in Edgerton's remarks was common. One of the most popular themes of business literature of the period was that they wealthy businessmen had suffered more than the worker.
By the time Roosevelt took office, the country had been whipped to a fury at the performance of bankers and businessmen. The New York bankers especially were the target of popular wrath."
The charismatic senator Huey P. Long called for capping all annual income at $1 million to provide a higher standard of living for all as part of his "Share the Wealth" campaign. The American Communist party pronounced that Americans were witnessing the end of capitalism and an inevitable historic turn towards a collectivist society in which personal wealth would be outlawed.
"I come home from the hill every night filled with gloom," one Washington correspondent noted. "I see on streets filthy, ragged, desperate-looking men, such as I have never seen before." By the end of Hoover's reign, more than fifteen million workers had lost their jobs... In Seattle, jobless families whose lights had been cut off spent every evening in darkness, some even without candles to light the blackened room. In December, 1932, a New York couple moved to a cave in Central Park, where they lived for the next year. That same month, Rexford Tugwell wrote in his diary: "No one can live and work in New York this winter without a profound sense of uneasiness. Never, in modern times, I should think, has there been so widespread unemployment and such moving distress from sheer hunger and cold." (p.19)
One-quarter of all farmers in Mississippi saw their farms go up in foreclosure. Other farmers in Sioux City rampaged through the streets, committing acts of vandalism. Telegraph poles and railway cars were spiked with explosives. Unemployed coal miners looted over $100,000 worth of coal each day from their former mine in Pennsylvania, confident in the knowledge that a jury of their peers--fellow miners--would not convict. Trotskyites and a business-sponsored "citizen's army" clashed in the streets of Minneapolis in 1934, leaving two dead amid a throng of 20,000 protesters. Popular sentiment questioned whether the crash demonstrated the incapacity of democracies to resolve economic crises. Hanging over all was the specter of communism: the Bolshevik revolution had take place a mere 13 years earlier.
The Congress responded to this national tumult with halfhearted measures and gridlock. "Both political parties," wrote William Dodd, "have been bankrupted." Faced with an unparalleled national crisis, Congress failed to produce a single piece of meaningful legislation. Many observers remarked that a shift to totalitarianism might be just what the country required to break the paralysis--
"Of course, we all realize that dictatorships and even semi-dictatorships in peace time are quite contrary to the spirit of American institutions and all that," remarked Barron's. "And yet--well, a genial and lighthearted dictator might be a relief from the pompous futility of such a Congress as we have recently had." A popular topic of the day was whether the country was about to experience a violent revolution.
It is in this context that FDR and the New Deal took place. The oft-repeated observation that FDR did not seek to replace capitalism, but to rescue it makes sense in light of the rapidly-deteriorating environment in which he took the helm of the nation. Modern skeptics err in dismissing this as subterfuge, as if Roosevelt secretly harbored communistic tendencies. The reason we are so quick to dismiss Roosevelt's rescue of capitalism is because we cannot imagine its tenuous condition in the early 1930's, given our contemporary experience of capitalism as the undefeated victor over communism following the end of the Cold War.
Leuchtenburg navigates the glossary of new programs and departments formed by Roosevelt, Frankfurter, and Tugwell over the course of four administrations. It is not my intention to provide a comprehensive review of these agencies, but a few highlights should be recognized--
* The Home Owner's Loan Corporation (HOLC) refinanced 1 in every 5 private dwellings in America, saving a generation from foreclosure.
* The Civil Works Administration (CWA) invented jobs for over 4.2 million unemployed Americans in the span of 30 days.
* The National Youth Association (NYA) put over 2.6 million unemployed young people to work in a novel combination of vocational training and public service.
* The Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed 3 million people.
* Social Security ended senior poverty within a single generation.
* The Public Works Administration (PWA) constructed 70% of America's new schools, 65% of its courthouses, city halls, and sewage plants, and 35% of its hospitals.
* The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) effectively ended poverty in the Tennessee Valley--a region beset with malaria, soil depletion, deforestation, and persistently low incomes. It developed cheap electricity, modern home appliances, fertilizers to improve crop regeneration, rotation training to help farmers increase yield, improved fish and wildlife habitats, and lifted the entire region out of poverty.
* The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) brought electricity to the nation. Prior to its founding, 9 out of 10 farms had no electricity; by 1950, only 1 out of 10 lacked power.
* The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) provided price supports and foreclosure relief for farmers, causing farm income to increase 50%.
* The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reduced the ability to companies and financiers to manipulate the stock market for their private gain. It forced companies to subject their financial statements to the government for review and approval prior to listing on a public exchange, and placed shadowy financial transactions under federal regulation.
* Glass-Steagall separated commercial and investment banking, ensuring that banks would be prevented from using depositors' savings as collateral in high-risk ventures (a law that did an admirable job preventing financial meltdown until Bill Clinton and Barack Obama's financial chiefs eliminated it in the late 1990's.)
* The National Recovery Administration (NRA) ended industrial child labor and protected workers' rights to collective bargaining. It eliminated sweatshops, created minimum wages, and created an estimated 2 million jobs in the process.
* The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) guaranteed bank deposits and effectively put an end to the dissolution of financial institutions across the nation.
As a result of these and a host of other programs, Roosevelt infused the nation with a new sense of optimism it had not felt since before the crash. Although unemployment did not return to pre-crisis levels until World War II, people began to believe once more that good times would return. Far from seeming aloof and far-off, government showed that it could fulfill a direct role in the lives of Americans by creating economic opportunities for them to participate in the life of the nation--whether by teaching in rural schools, opening up a textile mill in the Tennessee Valley, or opening a bank protected by federal deposit insurance. So great was the sense of renewal that the Republican party got trounced in Roosevelt's first mid-term elections--an unheard-of phenomenon for the opposition party mid-way through a new president's first term.
And what of Roosevelt, himself? Was he a closet socialist who believed in the power of government to mandate the nuances of citizens' lives from a central planning agency in Washington? Hardly. Above all else, Roosevelt was a pragmatist. Although the dire state of the nation at the time of his inauguration may have necessitated bold action, FDR was under no illusions as to the need for trial-and-error in solving the nation's woes--
"All of this is perfectly terrible because it is all pure theory, when you come down to it... We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings."
And, in another instance--
"Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omission of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."
Henry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration echoed such sentiments when he observed--
"I am for experimenting... in various parts of the country, trying out schemes which are supported by reasonable people and see if they work. If they do not work, the world will not come to an end."
Even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt remarked upon the limits of government in 1939--
"[The programs of the New Deal] helped but they did not solve the fundamental programs... I never believed the Federal government could solve the whole problem. It bought us time to think."
Another misconception concerns the degree to which the Roosevelt administration was enamored by the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes. Certainly, at the present moment (2011), Keynesian economics have become an acid test of one's fiscal purity. Either one is for balanced budgets, we are told, or else one is for wasteful spending in the name of priming the economic pump. It should come as little surprise that the architects of the New Deal experimented with the concepts of both fiscal stimulus as well as austerity measures in their attempts to reboot the economy.
Hopkins, Eccles, and Ickes argued that when private investment fell, government had to spend more. Doing so would lessen the severity of boom-bust cycles which characterized advanced capitalist economies. "The Government," intoned Marriner Eccles, "must be the compensatory agent in this economy; it must unbalance its budget during deflation and create surpluses in periods of great business activity." (p.245) Despite this, Eccles was largely unfamiliar with Keynesian theory. Fiscal stimulus and fiscal austerity were but levers which could be tried and discarded as necessary. Indeed, when Roosevelt made sharp reductions in public spending projects in his second term to address the deficit question, it plunged the economic back into a tailspin--and he once more turned on the spigot of federal spending. This is but another example of how the administration elevated the pragmatic over the dogmatic. Roosevelt had a deep aversion to subscribing whole-heartedly to any economic theory--
"Total commitment was required, and total commitment he would not give. The Keynesian formula for gaining prosperity by deliberately creating huge deficits year after year seemed to defy common sense. Roosevelt was willing to countenance limited, emergency spending..." (p. 264)
Even when Roosevelt sanctioned huge fiscal expenditures during such emergency measures, he nearly always did so in a limited manner.
Consider the creation of the Civil Works Administration (CWA), a federal operation designed as an emergency rescue for unemployed Americans about to enter the winter of 1933. CWA paid minimum wages to Americans culled from the ranks of the unemployed. It invented jobs for over 4 million people within the span of about 30 days. It built or improved 500,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,500 playgrounds and athletic fields, and 1,000 airports. Workmen renovated Montana's State Capitol Building, and built Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. It put 50,000 teachers to work keeping rural schools open, hired 3,000 artists and writers, and, all told, pumped a billion dollars of new purchasing power into the economy by giving Americans the work they so desperately needed.
But Roosevelt was alarmed at the sheer cost of maintaining such a program, and ended it as quickly as possible. Leuchtenburg writes--
"[Roosevelt] feared he was creating a permanent class of reliefers whom he might never get off the government payroll. If CWA were continued... it would `become a habit with the country... We must not take the position that we are going to have permanent depression in this country.'" By early April, the CWA had all but disbanded, and had fired over 4 million workers.
Indeed, such concerns over the long-term effect of providing what was meant as temporary relief were shared by many New Deal architects, contrary to the thinking by modern conservatives that FDR cynically engineered a generation that would be forever dependent upon Democratic administrations. Roosevelt and his lieutenant, Harry Hopkins believed that charity sapped worker morale. "What I seek is the abolition of relief altogether," Roosevelt wrote to Colonel House in 1934. "I cannot say so out loud yet but I hope to be able to substitute work for relief." In January, 1935, Roosevelt proposed a large emergency public employment program. Those who enrolled would receive less than prevailing private wages so as not to "encourage the rejection of opportunities for private employment." Charity, Roosevelt warned Congress, was "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit... The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief." Vice-President Garner warned Hopkins that he did not like the implications of WPA officials referring to reliefers as "clients."
Roosevelt's focus on working-class America, his subjection of financial markets to federal regulation, and his redistributive tax reforms made him the target of deep resentment among the upper classes--
"Many of the nation's wealthy were almost incoherent with rage at President Roosevelt. They refused to say his name, but referred to him as "that man" or "he". One of Roosevelt's wealthy neighbors, Howland Spencer, hated the President so much that he exiled himself in the Bahamas and returned only after the Republicans won the congressional elections in 1946.Terrified by the prospect of confiscatory taxation, the wealthy viewed Roosevelt as a reckless leveler. Accustomed to having their authority unchallenged, businessmen resented the rising empires of government and labor. Many businessmen were openly defiant." (p. 176-177)
Not all members of the upper classes were united in their opposition to the emerging social order. Edward Filene, a prosperous Boston businessman, observed: "Why shouldn't the American people take half my money from me? I took all of it from them." Others, like Russell Leffingwell of JP Morgan, called upon Roosevelt to complain: ""It hurts our feelings to have you go on calling us money changers and economic royalists."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, working-class Americans increasingly viewed Roosevelt as an ally. One worker put it: "Mr. Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a sonofabitch." And it wasn't only working-class whites who flocked beneath the banner of the administration. By 1932, Republicans began observing that African-Americans were abandoning them in favor of the Democratic party. "They're getting tired of Lincoln," remarked one observer. Prior to the New Deal, black wards predominantly voted Republican; by 1938, nearly 90% of them were pro-Roosevelt.
Leuchtenburg weaves a solid narrative of the causes and effects of the New Deal. The account suffers in places from an excessive examination of the aforementioned alphabet-soup of agencies. In the process, the reader is momentarily unsure of the actual effects of these agencies, and it is only by careful cross-referencing that their impact upon the economic health of the nation may be understood.
Leuchtenburg also allows the pace of the work to get bogged-down in the foreign policies minutia. Although no record of Roosevelt's administrations would be complete without an account of Japanese hostility or the resurgence of German militarism, these events detract from the focus of the New Deal, and too much attention is given to these external events.
As mentioned earlier, it is hard to immerse one's self in an account of the New Deal without feeling that the present Obama administration has missed a unique opportunity to meet a similar challenge. Where Roosevelt grappled with the challenge of history forcefully, Obama makes speeches against fat-cat bankers while delegating the real decisions to financial Rasputins like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. Where Roosevelt made full use of the bully pulpit of the presidency, Obama assiduously sticks to the teleprompter and allows the radical right to frame the national discussion.
And the banks have only grown more powerful during the eighty years since the New Deal was framed. This issue, more than any other, defines the heightened challenge we face today in solving our own economic crisis--will Wall Street continue to drive public policy in the United States, or will we find a new FDR in our midst to forcibly align high finance with the public good?
The challenges we face today as a nation, while severe, are comparable with those faced by the generation of Franklin Roosevelt. They faced them. Whether we prove capable of doing the same remains to be seen.
In short, counterintuitiely, information on earlier history of the U.S. available in modern sources is harder to find and less reliable than in older literature. As the other positive reviewers suggest, Leuchtenburg's book on the New Deal is therefore an indispensable source of detailed and balanced information on that critical time in American history. Fore me it's among a handful of essential volumes on American government and politics. Others that can be mentioned include Paul van Riper, The History of the U.S. Civil Service, 1958, Eric Foner on the Reconstruction Period, and Richard Morris and William Greenleaf "USA The History of a Nation, Volume 2" , 1967. for history from the Civil War to Truman. I have been unable to find and buy a copy of v. 1- let me know if anyone can help. The best more modern (relatively) U.S. history I have found that gets into contemporary issues of race, feminism, newer research on the role of disease in decimating American Indian populations, etc. is Alan Brinkley's "The Unfinished Nation", 1993. However, Brinkley almost totally omits much of Gilded Age politics, corruption, reform movements culminating in the Progressive Era, and takes a somewhat fashion-oriented liberal view of the New Deal.
This book, Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal, is the next best book on the New Deal. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 also is good but I would read "The New Deal: A Modern History first."
I also recommend a great FDR biography, such as the ones by Jean Edward Smith, H.W. Brands, Conrad Black, Frank Freidel and Doris Kearns Goodwin.