How radical was the New Deal?

As you read, consider, the questions:

1. Just how radical was the New Deal?

2. Was it, as its conservative critics claimed, a terrifying step down the road to socialism and collectivism?

3. Was it, as some of its critics on the Left claimed, a “halfway revolution” meant to paper over the flaws of American capitalism so that real reform would not take place?

FDR and the New Deal: The Roosevelt Reconstruction by William E. Leuchtenburg from http://www.fdrheritage.org/roosevelt_reconstruction.htm

In eight years, Roosevelt and the New Dealers had almost revolutionized the agenda of American politics. “Mr. Roosevelt may have given the wrong answers to many of his problems,” concluded the editors of The Economist. “But he is at least the first President of modern America who has asked the right questions.” In 1932, men of acumen were absorbed to an astonishing degree with such questions as prohibition, war debts, and law enforcement. By 1936, they were debating social security, the Wagner Act, valley authorities, and public housing….

The New Dealers displayed striking ingenuity in meeting problems of governing. They coaxed salmon to climb ladders at Bonneville; they sponsored a Young Choreographers Laboratory in the WPA’s Dance Theater; they gave the pioneer documentary film maker Pare Lorentz the opportunity to create his classic films The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River.

At the Composers Forum-Laboratory of the Federal Music Project, William Schuman received his first serious hearing. In Arizona, Father Bernard Haile of St. Michael’s Mission taught written Navajo to the Indians. Roosevelt, in the face of derision from professional foresters and prairie states’ governors, persisted in a bold scheme to plant a mammoth “shelterbelt” of parallel rows of trees from the Dakotas to the Panhandle. In all, more than two hundred million trees were planted-cottonwood and willow, hackberry and cedar, Russian olive and Osage orange; within six years,the President’s visionary windbreak had won over his former critics. The spirit behind such innovations generated a new excitement about the potentialities of government. “Once again,” Roosevelt told a group of young Democrats in April 1936, “the very air of America is exhilarating,”….

Under the New Deal, the federal government greatly extended its power over the economy. By the end of the Roosevelt years, few questioned the right of the government to pay the farmer millions in subsidies not to grow crops, to enter plants to conduct union elections, to regulate business enterprises from utility companies to airlines, or even to compete directly with business by generating and distributing hydroelectric power. All of these powers had been ratified by the Supreme Court, which had even held that a man growing grain solely for his own use was affecting interstate commerce and hence subject to federal penalties. The President, too, was well on his way to becoming “the chief economic engineer,” although this was not finally established until the Full Employment Act of 1946. In 1931, Hoover had hooted that some people thought “that by some legerdemain we can legislate ourselves out of a world wide depression.” In the Roosevelt era, the conviction that government both should and could act to forestall future breakdowns gained general acceptance. The New Deal left a large legacy of anti-depression controls-securities regulation, banking reforms, unemployment compensation-even if it could not guarantee that a subsequent administration would use them.

In the 1930’s, the financial center of the nation shifted from Wall Street to Washington. In May 1934, a writer reported: ” Financial news no longer originates in Wall Street.” That same month, Fortune commented on a revolution in the credit system which was “one of the major historical events of the generation.” “Mr. Roosevelt,” it noted, ” seized the Federal Reserve without firing a shot.” The federal government had not only broken down the old separation of bank and state in the Reserve system but had gone into the credit business itself in a wholesale fashion under the aegis of the RFC, the Farm Credit Administration, and the housing agencies. Legislation in 1933 and 1934 had established federal regulation of Wall Street foe the first time. No longer could the New York Stock Exchange operate as a private club free of national supervision. In 1935, Congress leveled the mammoth holding-company pyramids and centralized yet more authority over the banking system in the federal government. After a tour of the United States in 1935, Sir Josiah Stamp wrote: “Just as in 1929 the whole country was ‘Wall Street-conscious’ now it is ‘Washington-conscious.'”…

In the thirties, nineteenth-century individualism gave ground to a new emphasis on social security and collective action. In the twenties, America hailed Lindbergh as the Lone Eagle; in the thirties, when word arrived that Amelia Earhart was lost at sea, the New Republic asked the government to prohibit citizens from engaging in such “useless” exploits. The NRA sought to drive newsboys off the streets and took a Blue Eagle away from a company in Huck Finn’s old town of Hannibal, Missouri, because a fifteen-year-old was found driving a truck for his father’s business. Josef Hormann urged that fewer musicians become soloists, Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford joined the Screen Actors Guild, and Leopold Stokowski canceled a performance in Pittsburgh because theater proprietors were violating a union contract. In New York in 1933, after a series of town meetings in Heywood Broun’s penthouse apartment, newspapermen organized the American Newspaper Guild in rebellion against the dispiriting romanticism of Richard Harding Davis. “We no longer care to develop the individual as a unique contributor to a democratic form,” wrote the mordant Edgar Kemler. “In this movement each individual sub-man is important, not for his uniqueness, but for his ability to lose himself in the mass, through his fidelity to the trade union, or cooperative organization, or political party.”…

Yet the New Deal added up to more that all of this- more than an experimental approach, more than the sum of its legislative achievements, more than a an antiseptic utopia. It is true the there was a certain erosion of values in the thirties, as well as a narrowing of horizons, but the New Dealers inwardly recognized that what they were doing had a deeply moral significance however much they eschewed ethical pretensions. Heirs of the Enlightenment, they felt themselves part of a broadly humanistic movement to make man’s life on earth more tolerable, a movement that might someday even achieve a co-operative commonwealth.

Franklin Roosevelt did not always have this sense a keenly as some of the men around him, but his greatness as a President lies in the remarkable degree to which he shared the vision. “The New Deal business to me is very much bigger than anyone yet has expressed it,” observed Senator Elbert Thomas. Roosevelt “seems to really have caught the spirit of that one of the Hebrew prophets called the desire of the nations. If he were in India today they would probably decide that he had become Mahatma-that is, one in tune with the infinite.” Both foes and friends made much of Roosevelt’s skill as a political manipulator, and there is no doubt that up to a point he delighted in schemes and stratagems. As Donald Richberg later observed; “There would be times when he seemed to be a Chevalier Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche, and times in which he would seem to be the apotheosis of a prince who had absorbed and practiced all the teachings of Machiavelli.” Yet essentially he was a moralist who wanted to achieve certain humane reforms and instruct the nation in principles of government. On one occasion, he remarked: “I want to be a preaching President-like my cousin.” His courtiers gleefully recounted his adroitness in trading and dealing for votes, his effectiveness on the stump, his wicked skill in cutting corners to win a point. But Roosevelt’s importance lay not in his talents as a campaigner or a manipulator. It lay rather in his ability to arouse the country and, more specifically, the men who served under him, by his breezy encouragement of experimentation, by his hopefulness, and-a word that would have embarrassed some of his lieutenants-by his idealism.

The New Deal left many problems unsolved and even created some perplexing new ones. It never demonstrated that it could achieve prosperity in peacetime. As late as 1941, the unemployed still numbered six million, and not until the war year of 1943 did the army of the jobless finally disappear. It enhanced the power of interest groups who claimed to speak for millions, but sometimes represented only a small minority. It did not evolve a way to protect people who had no such spokesmen, nor an acceptable method for disciplining the interest groups. In 1946, President Truman would resort to a threat to draft railway workers into the Army to avert a strike. The New Deal achieved a more just society by recognizing groups which had been largely unrepresented-staple farmers, industrial workers, particular ethnic group, and the new intellectual administrative class. Yet this was still a halfway revolution; it swelled the ranks of the bourgeoisie but left many Americans-sharecroppers, slum dweller, most Negroes-outside of the new equilibrium.

Some of these omissions were to be promptly remedied. Subsequently Congresses extended social security, authorized slum clearance projects, and raised minimum-wage standards to keep step with the rising price level. Other shortcomings are understandable. The havoc that had been done before Roosevelt took office was so great that even the unprecedented measures of the New Deal did not suffice to repair the damage. Moreover, much was still to be learned, and it was in the Roosevelt years that the country was schooled in how to avert another major depression. Although it was which freed the government from the taboos of a balanced budget and revealed the potentialities of spending, it is conceivable that New Deal measures would have led the country into a new cycle of prosperity even if there had been no was. Marked gains had been made before the was spending had any appreciable effect. When recovery did come, it was much more soundly based because of the adoption of the New Deal program.

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