Chapter VIII 2. First Term
In his first inaugural address, President Roosevelt had promised action; and action there was, from the start— bold, hectic, intense, electrifying and sometimes confused and confusing action, action on a scale never before witnessed by the American people.
Within his first ten days in office, Roosevelt called Congress into special session, and demanded and received special emergency powers — seventy-five distinct grants of sweeping power— such as no peacetime president had ever had. He decreed a national bank holiday; drafted the National Economy Act; prohibited the export of gold and all dealing in foreign exchange; slashed Federal expenses; asked Congress to legalize beer; reopened the banks; and, as the opening week of his Administration ended, addressed the nation in the first of his famous, informal and warmly intimate Fireside Chats.
Within Roosevelt’s first three months in the White House, these were some of the pieces of legislation rushed through Congress:National Industrial Recovery Act Economy Act Emergency Banking Act Tennessee Valley Authority Act Civilian Conservation Corps Act Agricultural Adjustment Act A $500,000,000 Emergency Relief Act Home Owner’s Loan Act 3.2 Beer Act Glass-Steagal Bank Act Wagner Employment Exchange Act Gold Clause Resolution Railroad Co-ordinator Act Securities Act
And, as the feverish activity continued during the following months, as a vast program of Public Works was projected and the country blossomed forth with ubiquitous NRA Blue Eagle insignia and the slogan, “We Do Our Part,” sudden hope surged through the land. It was as if for three dark years the nation had held its breath in fear and now, all at once, the nation breathed again . . .
Reviewing Roosevelt’s accomplishments during the first year of his Administration, Walter Lippmann wrote early in 1934:
When Mr. Roosevelt was inaugurated, the question in all men’s minds was whether the nation could “recover” . . . Panic, misery, rebellion, and despair were convulsing the people and destroying confidence not merely in business enterprise but in the American way of life. No man can say into what we should have drifted had we drifted another twelve months . . . Today there are still grave problems. But there is no overwhelmingly dangerous crisis. The mass of the people has recovered their courage and their hope.
But even as Lippmann wrote these words, the nation’s mood was undergoing a deep and disturbing transformation. The “New Deal Honeymoon,” when big business and organized labor had joined in a tenuous unity in support of Roosevelt’s emergency measures, was ending in widespread discontent and rapidly mounting unrest. Roosevelt’s observation that the “money changers” had “fled their high seats in the temple” was proving more poetic than profound, and disillusioning compromises and contradictions marked the policies of the new Administration.
As Frederick Lewis Allen later wrote in The Lords of Creation:
Close observers of the New Deal noticed an increasing tendency to announce new programs with a blare of trumpets and then, as opposition developed, to moderate them . . . The NRA gradually stood revealed as a governmental arm which protected groups of businessmen in organising to maintain themselves against new competitors and against the reduction of prices to the consumer; as an agency which accelerated and only partially controlled that process of concentration which the government in earlier reform periods had so earnestly opposed!
The Wall Street publication, The Annalist, stated at the time: “The large aggregates of financial capital stand to benefit in the long run from the new regime— the elimination of competitive methods, closer welding together of the private banking with the governmental financial apparatus, the increase of control and coordination—all are elements of the strength of the future of financial capitalism.”1
While observing those NIRA regulations they found advantageous, many employers were brazenly violating sections of the codes supposedly designed to benefit employees. “For God’s sake,” a worker told the journalist George R. Leighton, who was investigating NIRA achievements in the fall 1933, “don’t tell anybody that you’ve been here. There are men in cement plants near here who have complained and now they’re out in the cold.” In Harper’s Magazine Leighton reported, “the spirit and intent of the National Industrial Recovery Act and the codes are being frustrated, openly and in secret.”
Workers began calling the NRA the “National Run Around” . . .
Even so, during 1934- 193 5, growing numbers of restive workers were aggressively taking at its face value Section 7a of the NIRA, which stated that “employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively.”
“The law is on our side!” boomed John L. Lewis, the histrionic beetle-browed President of the United Mine Workers, and staking his union’s whole treasury in an organizational drive tripled the union’s membership in four months. Twelve thousand Pacific Coast longshoremen headed by the militant rank-and-file leader, Harry R. Bridges, striking in May, 1934, together with maritime workers, brought shipping to a standstill from San Diego to Seattle; and in mid-July, after strikers had been killed by police, the entire city of San Francisco was tied up for four days by a general strike. In 1935 more than 40,000 National Guardsmen in nineteen states were called out to suppress strikes. From one end of the country to the other, industry fermented with bitter labor struggles, grim strikes and union organizational campaigns.
In November, 1935, in a revolt headed by John L. Lewis against the die-hard policies of the Old Guard in the AFL, the leaders of eight AFL internationals founded the Committee for Industrial Organization to build industrial unions and organize the unorganised . . . .2
Meanwhile, the rich had grown even more disgruntled than the poor with the New Deal. “The year 1933,” Lammot du Pont, president of the giant chemical concern of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, declared in January 1934, “has witnessed an adventurous attack by the Administration upon the political, social and economic ills of the country.” Other leading industrialists and financiers, who had at first smilingly accepted Roosevelt’s “radical” utterances as not unprecedented demagogy, reached the furious conclusion that the President actually meant much of what he said about the excesses of the “privileged few,” the “humane ideals of democracy,” the right of the workers to organize and of the “unfortunate to call upon the government for aid.” As the New Deal, responding to popular pressure, expanded its relief and public works program, and as the trade union movement swelled in size, big businessmen acrimoniously branded Roosevelt as a “traitor to his class” and launched a virulent propaganda campaign against “that Red in the White House” and his whole Administration. By the spring of 1935, Kiplinger’s Washington Newsletter estimated that eighty per cent of the businessmen in the country were opposed to the New Deal.
The bitter hostility of big business toward the New Deal was not lessened when, following a sweeping Democratic victory in the November 1934 congressional elections, President Roosevelt told the opening session of Congress on January 4, 1935:
We have … a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth, which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well.
In Washington the “political deputies of wealth” prepared to sabotage future New Deal legislation. According to a report in the New York Times on February 24, a “Committee of 100” had been formed in the House of Representatives “to hold secret meetings” to map out anti-Administration strategy.
The Times observed editorially:
…. we have a President with a nominal majority of two-thirds in both houses of Congress, faced and thwarted every day by divisions within his own ranks and threats of a spreading revolt against his most important policies.
In the mid-summer of 1935, the New Deal crossed the Rubicon. On May 27, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the NIRA. The opinion supporting the decision, in the words of Charles and Mary Beard, “seemed to block every loophole for the regulation of procedures, hours and wages in industry by Federal law.”
At a White House press conference of more than two hundred newspapermen. President Roosevelt declared that the Court decision was “more important than any decision probably since the Dred Scott case.” The President read excerpts from a few of the thousands of telegrams he had received asking him whether there was nothing he could do to “save the people.”
“The big issue,” said Roosevelt, “is this: Does this decision mean that the United States Government has no control over any economic problem?”
Roosevelt was determined this was not to be the case.
One month later, on June 27, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. Deriving its legal sanction from the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, the Act established a permanent National Labor Relations Board to investigate complaints and issue “cease and desist” orders prohibiting interference by employers in the collective bargaining of their employees, maintenance of company-financed unions, discrimination against union members in employment and other unfair labor practises.
The battle lines were now sharply drawn, and President Roosevelt made clear to the American people on which side he stood. In his first Fireside Chat of 1936, the President declared:
We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property. But our workers with hand and brain deserve more than respect for their labor. They deserve practical protection in the opportunity to use their labor at a return adequate to support them at a decent and constantly rising standard of living, and to accumulate a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of life . . .
There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and those of American history. They would try to refuse the worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent living and to acquire security. It is these shortsighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in life.
Throughout the 1930s the nation was to be rent by a bitter conflict instigated by the “short-sighted ones” of whom Roosevelt spoke.
The nature of this conflict had been prophetically described by Theodore Dreiser in 1931 in these words: “the great quarrel today in America is between wealth and poverty — whether an individual, however small and poor, shall retain his self-respect and his life, or whether a commercial oligarchy shall at last and finally take charge and tell all the others— some 125,000,000 strong now— how they shall do and what they shall think and how little (not how much) they may live on, the while a few others (the strong and cunning) exercise their will and their pleasure as they choose. That is the war that is coming!”
1. Expressing a more outspoken viewpoint, E. F. Brown, Associate Editor of the Current History Magazine of the New York Times had written as early as July 1933, “The new America will not be capitalist in the old sense, nor will it be Socialist. If at the moment the trend is towards Fascism, it will be an American Fascism, embodying the experience, the traditions and the hopes of a great middle-class nation.”
One of the most ominous anti-democratic developments during this early stage of the New Deal — a development receiving scant attention in commentaries on the period — was the rapid growth of a government secret police apparatus. It was at this time that the Federal Bureau of Investigation mushroomed into a government agency of extensive power and that FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover, began his climb to national fame.
The criminal underworld faced hard times in 1933. The repeal of Prohibition had dealt a deathblow to the multi-million dollar business of bootlegging; and, as an increasing number of criminals turned to less lucrative and more desperate trades, there was a wave of kidnappings and bank robberies. The FBI had done nothing to interfere with the vast depredations of gangsters during Prohibition; but now, with the children and property of even the most prominent and wealthy citizens menaced, there was a sudden demand for federal action. Congress enacted laws extending the jurisdiction of the FBI to cover bank robberies, kidnappings and various other crimes.
J. Edgar Hoover was quick to exploit the situation. Before long, the dare-devil exploits of his Special Agents, popularly known as “G-men,” were the talk of the country; and press, radio and motion pictures were chronicling blood-curdling battles between the G-men and bank robbers, kidnappers and escaped convicts. Overnight, the FBI became a household word.
“Five years ago, J. Edgar Hoover was practically an unknown as far as the general public was concerned,” Courtney Ryley Cooper, an FBI publicist who also specialized in writing articles on circus life and jungle animals, stated in his introduction to Hoover’s book, Persons in Hiding, in 1938. “Today he heads our best known group of man-hunters— the G-men. The small boy is rare indeed who does not look upon its director as his ideal. .”
Through the indefatigable efforts of his large publicity staff, Hoover’s views on “scientific crime detection,” “child delinquency” and kindred topics reached the nation in a torrent of articles, press releases, public speeches, newspaper interviews and radio broadcasts.
“He’s the greatest publicity hound on the American continent,” snorted Senator George Norris regarding Hoover. “Unless we do something to stop this furore of adulation and omnipotent praise, we will have an organization of the FBI that, instead of protecting the government from criminals, will direct the government itself.”
In Hoover’s Washington office there hung a framed statement, entitled “The Penalty of Leadership,” which read: “In every field of human endeavour, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity . . . When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few.”
Year by year, subsidized by constantly increasing congressional appropriations, the FBI grew in size and complexity. With much fanfare, Hoover established a Crime Laboratory and founded, in 1935, an FBI National Police Academy in Washington to serve “as a university of police methods” for training police officials from all parts of the country. According to Hoover, the fingerprints in his “Identification Division” numbered in the millions by the mid-thirties. “They come from the crossroads of America,” said Hoover, “from the villages, from the towns, cities and metropolitan centres, to be concentrated in Washington, and there to form a vast cross-index . . .”
Ray Tucker described the one-man dictatorship that Hoover had established within the FBI itself as early as August 1933 in an editorial in Collier’s magazine in these
“Under him [Hoover] the Bureau was run in a Prussian style; it became a personal and political machine. More inaccessible than Presidents, he kept his agents in fear and awe by firing and shifting them at whim; no other government office had such a turnover of personnel . . . He always opposed Civil Service qualifications for his men . . . He was a law and Czar unto
According to Ray Tucker, Hoover “carried on and enlarged the best— or worst— traditions of what amounts to a system of secret police”:
“ . . . the bureau’s shadows frequently had under surveillance such dignitaries as prospective Cabinet members, government officials, publishers, newspaper reporters, clerics, college professors, liberals, certain classes of the intelligentsia, alleged Communists, labor leaders— and some criminals . .
Under Hoover’s direction, said Tucker, the FBI by 1933 had become “a miniature American Cheka.”
In the years immediately ensuing, the FBI outgrew the “miniature” classification. (For additional details on the FBI, see Book Four.)
2. In September 1936 the Committee for Industrial Organization was suspended with its adherents from the AFL by the AFL executive council. The CIO held its first convention at Pittsburgh in November 1938, changed its name to Congress of Industrial Organizations, and elected John L. Lewis president.