Chapter VIII — NEW DEAL
“A great man is great not because his personal qualities give individual features to great historical events, but because he possesses qualities which make him most capable of serving the great social needs of his time. A great man is precisely a beginner because he sees further than others, and desires things more strongly than others. … he points to the new social needs created by the preceding development of social relationships; he takes the initiative in satisfying these needs. He is a hero. But he is not a hero in the sense that he can stop, or change, the natural course of things, but in the sense that his activities are the conscious and free expression of this inevitable and unconscious course.”
From George Plekhanov’s essay, The Role of the Individual in History, published in 1898,
“My anchor is democracy— and more democracy.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt August 18, 1937.
“I PLEDGE you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people . . . This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”
With these words Franklin Delano Roosevelt had accepted the Democratic nomination for President on July 2, 1932, and heralded the beginning of an historic era in America, which would be known to the nation and to the world as the New Deal.
The New Deal was to be a period of profound and sweeping democratic reforms affecting every phase of American life. But it was to be more than that. Complex, protean and often paradoxical, the New Deal derived its predominant character and assumed its form in the matrix of two epochal conflicts involving great masses of humanity: the revolt of millions of Americans against the ineffable suffering, want and human waste of the Great Depression; and the momentous struggle of the freedom-loving peoples of the world against barbaric conquest and enslavement by the Fascist Counterrevolution. 1
On the morning of January 30, 1933, almost exactly one month before President Roosevelt’s inauguration, the senile President of the German Republic, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, appointed the ex-Reichswehr spy Adolf Hitler Chancellor of the Reich. On February 27, five days before Roosevelt entered the White House, the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag, blamed the act of arson on the Communists, and Hitler, declaring a state of emergency, seized supreme power in Germany.
On February 27 also, British Foreign Minister Sir John Simon told the House of Commons that the British Government was imposing an arms embargo against both China and Japan — a year-and-a-half after Japan had invaded Manchuria, and at a time when the embattled Chinese armies were in desperate need of British arms . . .
Already, over the continents of Europe and Asia loomed dark presagements of the Second World War.
In America, too, crucial days were at hand. Millions were destitute and without work. Millions were homeless or living in dreadful hovels. Millions were frantically searching for food for their children. Fear stalked the land.
On Saturday, March 4, the day of the Presidential inauguration, the banks closed down throughout America, and the entire banking system of the richest country in the world ceased to function . . .
And this, in part, was what President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the stricken nation in his inaugural address:
This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself— nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror that paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance . . .
Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practises of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men . . . The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization . . .
We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their- need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action? They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.
Like all great statesmen, the events and currents of his time shaped Franklin Delano Roosevelt no less than he helped shape them. When Roosevelt began his first term as President at the age of fifty-one, he was an unusually erudite, dynamic and astute politician, a man of remarkable eloquence and great personal magnetism, whose liberalism was, in Karl Schriftgeisser’s words, “little, if any, advanced over that which had animated his predecessor [Governor Alfred E. Smith] in Albany.” Walter Lippmann regarded this scion of American aristocracy and wealth as “not the dangerous enemy of anything,” and had offered this trenchant comment on Governor Roosevelt’s Presidential campaign:
The Roosevelt bandwagon would seem to be moving in two opposite directions…
The art of carrying water on both shoulders is highly developed in American politics, and Mr. Roosevelt has learned it. His message to the Legislature, or at least that part of it devoted to his Presidential candidacy, is an almost perfect specimen of the balanced antithesis . . .
The message is so constructed that a left-wing progressive can read it and find just enough of his own phrases in it to satisfy himself that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s heart is in the right place. He will find an echo of Governor La Follette’s recent remark about the loss of “economic liberty.” He will find an echo of Governor La Follette’s impressive discussion about the increasing concentration of wealth . . . On the other hand, there are all necessary assurances to the conservatives. “We should not seek in any way to destroy or tear down”; our system is “everlasting”; we must insist “on the permanence of our fundamental institutions.”
More significantly, Lippmann remarked “it is impossible he can continue to be such different things to such different men” . . .
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died twelve years later, after shattering all precedent by being elected four times as President of the United States, there remained little that was equivocal about his position in the affairs of the nation and the world. Roosevelt stood among the titans of modern times. He had emerged as one of the outstanding if not the most outstanding of all American Presidents — as a great architect of American democracy, an historic champion of the rights of the little people and the underprivileged, and a world leader in the struggle against fascism and for lasting peace among the nations.
The initials, “F.D.R.” were spoken with familiarity and affection by millions on every continent. Roosevelt’s indomitable courage and confidence, Roosevelt’s speeches, Roosevelt’s personality— his debonair smile, his intimate, compelling voice, his way of cocking his head, the angle at which he held his cigarette-holder— were world famed. Roosevelt’s unforgettable phrases— “Economic Royalists,” “Quarantine the Aggressor,” “Good Neighbour Policy,” “Arsenal of Democracy,” “Four Freedoms”— had become an integral part of all languages.
“There was a bond between Roosevelt and the ordinary men and women of the country,” Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt Administration, writes in her book, The Roosevelt I Knew, “and beyond that, between the ordinary men and women of the world.”
Never before was a President so widely beloved by the American people. The profound personal affection America’s millions came to feel for Franklin D. Roosevelt was later vividly portrayed in the following recollection by the Columbia Broadcasting System correspondent, Bob Trout, who accompanied Roosevelt on many trips in the United States:
Often in the middle of the night, speeding through open farm country, or perhaps through the desert, some of the reporters aboard the train who stayed up late would look out the window— and there, almost always, over the miles and through the days, were the silent crowds: farmers, shop-keepers, miners, fishermen, factory-workers . . . they rode in their battered cars or drove their horses or walked, no one knows for how many hours, to stand beside the tracks in the middle of the dark night and watch the President’s train speed by. It seemed to satisfy them . . . just to stand there and look, or perhaps wave a handkerchief or a hat.
Once, in the rugged country of Idaho, we had roared along in the train for many miles without seeing a house or a man. Suddenly the train raced out from between the tall trees, and ran beside a quiet mountain lake. There, on a tiny home-made pier, beside his log cabin, stood a man— a trapper or a fisherman or a hunter perhaps— standing on his little pier, between two large American flags he had rigged up, standing at attention, with his hand in a military salute at his forehead as the train sped past. He had made his arrangements, put up his decorations, and he greeted the train for the few minutes it was visible to him.
From the outset, the members of President Roosevelt’s so-called “Brain Trust,” and his other aides and assistants contrasted sharply with the millionaires, politicos, rascals or embezzlers who had formed the entourages of the previous three Presidents. Some leading New Dealers, it was true, like the loquacious blustering General Hugh S. Johnson, head of the National Recovery Administration, were bureaucratic and dictatorial; some, like the smart young Columbia teacher, Adolph Berle, were later to become cynical and embittered; but almost without exception the individuals around Roosevelt were men of intelligence, energy, resourcefulness and social awareness. Among them were Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, blunt-spoken and short-tempered, a liberal Republican and former “Bull Mooser”; Secretary of Agriculture, and later Vice-President, Henry A. Wallace, lean-faced and idealistic, an affluent and eminent agronomist; Secretary of Labor Frances “Ma” Perkins, primly-dressed first woman cabinet member, a protege of the famous social worker Jane Addams; brilliant, plump, gentle-featured Judge Samuel Rosenman, holding no official Government post but known to be one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisers; Robert Sherwood, the towering solemn-faced playwright; Assistant Secretary of Labor Rexford Guy Tugwell, strikingly handsome former college professor; Archibald MacLeish, the well-known poet.
Closest of all President Roosevelt’s aides and intimates was the ailing former social worker, Harry L. Hopkins, son of a harness-maker and one-time Socialist, a man of swift intelligence and deep humaneness, with a passionate love for the poetry of John Keats. After serving as Federal Relief Administrator and Secretary of Commerce, Hopkins came to be regarded during the war years — to quote the words of a British official to playwright Robert Sherwood—as “Roosevelt’s own, personal Foreign Office.” Summing up much of Harry Hopkins’ character was his own statement as Federal Relief Administrator: “Hunger is not debatable.”
1. “The New Deal,” Louis M. Hacker and Benjamin B. Kendrick write in their history, The United States Since 1865, “has been described as a revolution and, although it showed none of the violence and turbulence associated with revolutionary overthrow, it did represent a shift in political power — from big industrialists, investment bankers, and the larger farmers to the lower middle classes and the workers.”
Playwright Robert Sherwood in his intimate study, Roosevelt and Hopkins, offers a very different definition of the New Deal. “It was, in fact, as Roosevelt conceived it and conducted it,” states Sherwood, “a revolution of the Right, rising up to fight in its own defence.”
While certainly not lacking in bloody violence and extreme turbulence – Hacker and Kendrick to the contrary notwithstanding —, the period of the New Deal did not encompass a revolution of the workers and the lower middle class; at no time during 1933-1945 was there any transfer of actual control of the economic-political life of the nation from American finance- capitalists to another class.
On the other hand, despite the authoritative tone of Sherwood’s observation, the New Deal, for all its contradictions, by no means constituted a “revolution of the Right”— or rightest counterrevolution; never before in American history had there been a more fruitful upsurgence of popular and progressive forces in the land.
Both definitions, like many contemporary evaluations of the New Deal, overlook the decisive impact of the international anti-fascist struggle in the shaping of the New Deal.