Whitewashing FDR

A New Deal apologia arrives just in time for Barack Obama.

Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, by Adam Cohen, New York: Penguin, 352 pages, $29.95

When it started becoming fashionable to compare the current economic malaise to the Great Depression, decades of scholarship flew out the window overnight. In place of the policy nuances that have been debated over the years by historians and economists, we were offered a simple-minded, three-act morality play in which Herbert Hoover embraces unchecked laissez faire, producing and aggravating an economic crisis, until Franklin Roosevelt rides to the rescue.

According to this dubious story line, Hoover fought obstinately, against all evidence and prevailing wisdom, to block jobs programs, fiscal stimuli, agricultural supports, and other necessary government interventions at a time of profound business uncertainty, falling wages, and skyrocketing unemployment. Roosevelt, a pragmatic man beholden to no ideology, fixed America through common-sense policies that led us out of the Depression and into the halcyon days of prosperity, equality, and economic security. Things were good in the late 1940s and the ’50s, thanks in large part to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Into this rose-colored intellectual milieu strides Adam Cohen of the New York Times editorial board. Cohen’s new history of the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s administration, serendipitously released just in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama, puts some flesh on the skeleton of this fable, chronicling FDR’s early presidency through the eyes, words, and deeds of five of his closest advisers: Frances Perkins, the Socialist turned Democrat who served as secretary of labor; Henry Wallace, the middle-class Iowa farm boy who became secretary of agriculture; Harry Hopkins, the social worker turned technocrat who oversaw many of the New Deal’s biggest plans; Ray Moley, the Columbia professor of government who would later play the Judas role; and Lewis Douglas, a voice for fiscal prudence whose defeat allowed the New Deal to proceed.

Nothing to Fear claims to provide a “riveting narrative account of the personal dynamics that shaped the tumultuous early days of FDR’s presidency.” Although entertainingly written, it provides little new evidence and even less analysis. What it does offer is an account of Roosevelt’s first 100 days—what Cohen terms “the third great revolution in American history”—for readers whose faith in that revolution remains unshaken and who wish to reclaim the New Deal legacy today. Cohen’s heroes gamely overcome the “business interests” and “powerful financial interests” who try to derail or at least temper Roosevelt’s bold policies.

The result is a polemic that inadvertently raises more questions than it answers. Ray Moley, for instance, became an outspoken critic of the New Deal after leaving the administration, writing in 1939 that Roosevelt suffered from “a kind of mental autointoxication.” By 1948 he was warning about creeping statism, and by 1960 he was a full-fledged Goldwater Republican. Whatever doubts Moley had about the New Deal at the time go unmentioned in Nothing to Fear, and his recantation is the subject of just one paragraph in the epilogue. A pivotal character in American political history is thus reduced to a one-dimensional apparatchik.

Cohen tells story after story about the New Dealers, but he describes only a few internal conflicts. Henry Wallace is a notable exception, but only insofar as he is torn between the different interventionist policies available to deal with farm production.

Uninterpreted biographical details take the place of insight into the New Dealers’ thoughts. At the end of the book, there is no sense of why things happened the way they did, other than the will and “determination” of the people close to the president. This does not make for an intellectually engaging read. It’s the Washington version of an airport spy novel.

This absence of analysis allows Cohen effectively to place his subjects into two camps: the good guys, who pushed for reform, and the bad guys, who committed such sins as undermining the president or questioning the efficacy of some policies.

Cohen singles out Lewis Douglas, the president’s budget adviser, as a fifth columnist within the White House for his “conservative, laissez faire philosophy” and his “callous” attachment to balanced budgets and to the Economy Act of 1933, which reduced the federal budget and cut pay for federal employees and veterans’ benefits. Frances Perkins called Douglas “underhanded,” and Postmaster General James Farley believed (in Cohen’s words) that Douglas “reflexively represented big business and the wealthy.” Alone among the cast of characters, Douglas is seldom quoted speaking on matters of import; his political opponents and Cohen do the talking for him. Fortunately for whoever buys the movie rights, Douglas left the government in the summer of 1934, clearing the path for the angels to move forward.

The greatest sin in Cohen’s inferno is that of “ideology,” an invective he hurls against anyone who doubted Roosevelt’s agenda. The main ideologue thus portrayed is Herbert Hoover, whom Cohen describes as devoted to “free-market ideology” and possessing a “nearreligious commitment to ‘rugged individualism.’ ” Cohen uses the word callous to describe Hoover on multiple occasions.

This is silly. Hoover was not the Grinch that Cohen wants him to be; he believed in aid to the poor, preferring it to be raised and delivered through means as close to the recipient as practicable. (This was essentially the same position Roosevelt held as governor of New York.) More important, he was by no means a proponent of unfettered markets. An engineer by training, Hoover believed fully in the power of central planning and technocratic government to better society. As an aid administrator in post–World War I Europe, Hoover put his engineering acumen into building a supply chain to distribute food across the continent. As commerce secretary under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he supported central planning of industry in the name of efficiency, much as FDR would during the Depression. Speaking to the Republican convention in 1928, Hoover called agricultural deflation “the most urgent economic problem in our nation today” and advocated at least some central planning to battle “destructive competition.” In a campaign address, he argued that the American economy “is no system of laissez faire” but rather “demands economic justice as well as political and social justice.” Hoover was complex, both as a man and as a president. Cohen’s caricaturization may advance his angel-replaces-devil storyline, but it ignores the similarities between FDR and his predecessor, in both their philosophies and their policies.

But what of Cohen’s main point—that these 100 days were “the third great revolution in U.S. history” (after the Revolutionary and Civil Wars), and amounted to the “revolution [that] created modern America”? As evidence, he points to the entitlement programs created in FDR’s third year in office and the popular rejection of their privatization during George W. Bush’s second term. Revolutionary or not, Social Security was not passed during Roosevelt’s first 100 days.

Most of what Roosevelt did in those first three-plus months—and throughout the 1930s, for that matter—was a continuation and extension of patterns already in place. He grew government power substantially, but this did not mark a revolutionary break. As the economist Robert Higgs argued in his 1987 book Crisis and Leviathan, “Many of the institutional arrangements created during the Hundred Days merely reactivated programs and agencies employed during World War I.” The first Depression-era retread of World War I policy was in fact passed under Herbert Hoover in the form of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which was modeled on Woodrow Wilson’s War Finance Corporation.

To be sure, FDR’s first 100 days produced a great deal of legislation regulating banking and finance, creating job programs, and increasing the fortunes of (some) farmers. But there is a huge gulf between passing bills and fundamentally rewriting the social contract.

The Revolutionary War created a country. The Civil War settled the fundamental questions of secession and chattel slavery. Roosevelt’s 100 days produced a flurry of activity but did not settle any great debate about national purpose, identity, or existence. At most, his policies during this period were a lagging indicator of three decades’ worth of Progressive activity. He took government activism, which had been ramping up on the state level for years, and applied the same principles to Washington. Compared to, for instance, the post–World War II British political consensus in favor of a “cradle to grave” welfare state and an explicitly socialist ruling party, Cohen’s alleged revolution seems especially weak.

But then, Cohen’s actual agenda probably has more to do with influencing the present than understanding the past. The book was timed to appear less than two weeks before Obama’s inauguration, and its jacket carries an alarmist blurb from the historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, progenitor of the Eleanor-Rooseveltas-lesbian theory: “At this critical moment, with our nation imperiled by the ‘starve the beast’ crowd, this book offers a hope for what is now again most needed: the restoration of democracy, and the restitution of New Deal agencies to promote dignity and security for all.” This tale is not merely past but prologue.

Cohen’s perch at The New York Times has allowed him to promote his agenda for the new administration and besmirch President Obama’s opponents. In a January 12 op-ed, Cohen called the suggestion that FDR did not rescue America an “anti-New Deal talking point [that] is popping up all over.” Separately, Cohen has argued in the Times for federal policies aimed at cutting back working hours to forestall layoffs, an idea from Congress that Roosevelt himself rejected for its inflexibility and potential to do more harm than good.

You’d never guess it from reading Cohen, but there is no consensus on the New Deal’s legacy. Although the liberal journalist David Sirota, writing in Salon in January, called the suggestion that the New Deal did anything other than save America “abject insanity,” a 1995 article in the Journal of Economic History showed that about half of economists and a quarter of historians believed instead that the New Deal helped prolong the Great Depression. In 2004, the UCLA economists Harold Cole and Lee Ohanian estimated in the Journal of Political Economy that federal policies, particularly the cartel-creating National Industrial Recovery Act, extended the depression by seven years.

And in late January, as the stimulus went up for a vote, more than 200 economists placed an ad in The New York Times taking exception to Obama’s January 9 statement that there is “no disagreement” over the need for the government to “jumpstart” the economy. “With all due respect Mr. President,” they proclaimed, “that is not true.…[We] do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance.” Cohen, along with many others during Obama’s first 100 days, seeks to sweep aside the debate about the New Deal by declaring it settled and attacking dissidents as ideologues and cranks.

There’s nothing wrong with polemics. But it does us no good to confuse them with scholarship. When Cohen marshals limited historical evidence, ignores reasonable conflicting interpretations, and turns rich historical figures into cartoon characters, he may advance his political agenda, but he does little to inform a critical debate.

Daniel M. Rothschild (drothsch@gmu.edu) is associate director of the Global Prosperity Initiative at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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  • Cabeza De Vaca||

    Probably 70 years from now people will be talking about how Bush believed in a total laissez faire system & Obama's policies were completely different than Bush's.

  • ||

    Herbert Hoover embraces unchecked laissez faire, producing and aggravating an economic crisis, until Franklin Roosevelt rides to the rescue.

    Normally, empty-headed state worshipers believe this nonsense, but when you have economists and historians repeating the same lies, it gets to be scary - are people being set up for the Great Leap Ahead?

    Hoover was a Progressive that came straight from the Wilsonian circle of professional meddlers. He wasn't call "The Engineer" for nothing. Most of his bailout plans were taken by FDR with glee, even when he ran on a limited government and lower spending agenda (!). State and Il Duce's worshipers fail to recall this.

  • ||

    In place of the policy nuances that have been debated over the years by historians and economists, we were offered a simple-minded morality play in which Herbert Hoover embraces unchecked laissez faire, producing and aggravating an economic crisis, until Franklin Roosevelt rides to the rescue.

    Sounds like my junior high history class in the late 90s, not known as a period of economic malaise.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Something really needs to be done to put an end to this shit Hoover and Bush followed free market principles.

  • Paul||

    "At this critical moment, with our nation imperiled by the 'starve the beast' crowd,



    I don't know if I can muster the words to comment on this 'starve the beast' talking point anymore. It's so completely and demonstrably untrue that I feel like a rube by even engaging in an argument about it.

    It's like lowering yourself into debating with the Flat Earth society.

    But the left just keeps repeating this again and again and again and again.

  • Cabeza De Vaca||

    Paul,

    Milton Friedman was completely wrong about starving the beast. So his detractors use it as a strawman argument to discredit all the things he was right about.

  • Wino Rex||

    "Milton Friedman was completely wrong about starving the beast. So his detractors use it as a strawman argument to discredit all the things he was right about."

    a mere 200+ years is fairly young. At some point, the government just might find itself starving.

  • alan||

    It does sound like a 'Greatest Hits' from my 9th Grade History class.

    Hell, I recall learning that 'as bad as life was under Communism, it was much worse under the Tsars', in high school, only to study Soviet History in college and have my recently late professor, David McKenzie demolish that myth (standard of living had been steadily climbing from the emancipation of the serfs up to WWI, and then declined).

  • ||

    [Hoover]...was by no means a proponent of unfettered markets. An engineer by training, Hoover believed fully in the power of central planning and technocratic government to better society.



    To second FTG above, Hoover did not earn his reputation as "the Great Engineer" because of his exploits in the Western Australia goldfields where he made his fortune.

  • Suki||

    I need to learn more about this. I always suspected something was not right, or missing, from the Great Depression narrative in school.

  • ||

    Milton Friedman was completely wrong about starving the beast.

    He was right that the beast should be starved, but his mistake was in failing to realize that the beast would simply resort to writing bad checks to support its feeding habit.

    -jcr

  • ||

    standard of living had been steadily climbing from the emancipation of the serfs up to WWI, and then declined

    Describing the mass starvations of Lenin and Stalin as a "declining standard of living" is like describing Hitler's brown shirts as a "boisterous youth group".

    -jcr

  • Suki||

    jcr,

    Describing the mass starvations of Lenin and Stalin as a "declining standard of living" is like describing Hitler's brown shirts as a "boisterous youth group".

    I love that one!

  • ||

    FDR, hero to all public school students everywhere. Thank goodness I had a history teacher with some sanity who taught us that the New Deal was not all that great, and it was WWII that really got the engines of the economy started again.

    Plus my grandparents, all four of them, had various experiences with the Depression and all agreed that FDR could suck their collective asses. I think that did for my disagreement with what I was taught about the great Cripple than anything I learned in school.

  • ||

    should be "That did much more for my disagreement"

    also my disenchantment with that era as one that produced "the greatest generation." Indulgence in nostalgia is natural and nice from time to time, kind of like daydreaming at work when a mind-numbing project is waiting to be finished. Nostalgia, like a daydream, does nothing to better us. We only wish for better times that never really existed. Why do people not recognize this?

  • ed||

    Roosevelt rides to the rescue

    It was the only way he could get there.

  • Cabeza De Vaca||

    "Roosevelt rides to the rescue

    It was the only way he could get there."

    That made coffee come out my nose.

  • pulp||

    Yeah, old FDR is getting a nice new patina polishing. Why a man who suspended the constitutional right to free elections is a hero to anyone is beyond me. Even as a kid, I doubted the cartoonishly simplistic "new deal=good, capitalism=bad" line from history class. Too many anecdotes from my WW2-era grandparents simply contrary to what the (younger) teachers had to say. Remember they pushed the yellow narrative of child labor laws and all that Upton Sinclair stuff in the same breath. No mention of Smoot-Hawley, not a word of Stalin's ethnic purges, no mention of the Nazi "brain drain", no analysis of shortages and surpluses, no mention of the gold standard, not one hint of what we'd call an Austrian economic perspective, etc.

    But then again, most public schooling outside of the hard sciences and grammar seem to be to be little more than bald efforts at social engineering. Maybe some people just have the "liberty gene", and yearn for independence and some have the "control gene" and yearn for patronage. Or maybe it's just easier for people to believe a simple doctrinaire such as the New Deal narrative, as it is fed in schools-- rather than view the complexities in a critical light (the Left might say the same is true of the "laissez faire" doctrinaire, surely; the comedy continues).

    Anyhow, history is written by the victors, as some loser once said.

  • Mike M.||

    At some point, the government just might find itself starving.

    And it may happen a lot sooner than they think. The rest of the world is starting to get restless, and nervous.

  • alan||

    Describing the mass starvations of Lenin and Stalin as a "declining standard of living" is like describing Hitler's brown shirts as a "boisterous youth group".

    That misses the point. Progressives believe that despite the 'hiccup' of the Stalin era, Russians were better off in the overall Soviet era than they would be if the Tsars remained in power. McKenzie argued that wasn't the case at all.

  • Joel||

    Thank you, Mr. Rothschild. Yet another book I don't have to read, courtesy of the fine folks at Reason.

  • ||

    Too many anecdotes from my WW2-era grandparents simply contrary to what the (younger) teachers had to say. Remember they pushed the yellow narrative of child labor laws and all that Upton Sinclair stuff in the same breath. No mention of Smoot-Hawley, not a word of Stalin's ethnic purges, no mention of the Nazi "brain drain", no analysis of shortages and surpluses, no mention of the gold standard, not one hint of what we'd call an Austrian economic perspective, etc.

    I had never heard of any of those things (except the "yellow narrative of child labor laws...") until after I graduated from high school...and looked them up for myself.

    Modern K-12 textbooks of history are only good at taking up too much space to say so many things that just aren't so. The only things they get right are the names and dates, if that.

  • ||

    FDR was the best US President of the 20th Century, and the fact that he got elected four times is pretty solid proof.

    Reading you people trying to rewrite history is pretty sad. Haven't any of you seen the Grapes of Wrath?

  • ||

    >FDR was the best US President of the 20th Century, and the fact that he got elected four times is pretty solid proof.

    That's like saying that Saddam Hussein was elected with 99.9% of the vote every election with his most fervent supports making the selection in their own blood. That's the pretty solid proof that he was the greatest leader of them all! How many decades did he remain in power? Longer than FDR, for sure.

    Now that you've been shown the logical fallacy you just shared with us, allow me to add some history.

    Remember when FDR rounded up and interred all of those Japanese citizens in concentration camps during WWI, or when he tried to pack the Supreme Court with his cronies in an attempt to do an end-run around the Constitution?

    Wasn't that the greatest EVAH?

    You might want to retake those old history classes, Markus.

  • ||

    *WWII

  • ||

    What, a leftist NYT editor and former civil rights activist worships FDR but has a loose grasp on real history?

    Say it ain't so!

  • ||

    Can you change the name of your magazine to "Libertarian Ideologues Who Refuse to Look at Reality"? Seems like a much more appropriate name to me.

  • Stevie||

    I am basically apolitical, but I would like to comment on the comments. 1.FDR won 4 elections with 53 to 61% of the popular vote and electoral college landslides. He must have done something right. 2.Hoover was hardly the sensitive, humanitarian president you make him out to be. Take a look at his handling of the Bonus Army and his insensitivity to the unemployedand hungry. 3. Professor McKenzie was a rabid anti-communist who made the czar's look good in order to make the Reds look bad. 4. Many of the folks offering comments undoubtedly come from the monied classes that hated FDR, or they are simply ignorant.

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