Depression, New Deal
David M. Kennedy: Freedom From Fear. The American People in Depression
and War 1929-1945, The Oxford History of the United States vol. 9,
Oxford, OUP, 1999, 936 S. Order the book from Amazon.com,
Article added in February 2000
Depression, New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR and the Second World War
David M. Kennedy is a Professor at Stanford University. His book Freedom
from Fear is a substantial history of the USA from 1929 to 1945, from
the Great Depression and the New Deal to the Second World War, a period
that has been studied as closely as only the Civil War. Therefore, Kennedy
can take material from an almost unlimited number of sources and secondary
literature. His account of the American history is no glorification, no
success story, but a critical analysis. The reader has to fight his way
through the more than 900 pages since there is no introduction and only
a brief conclusion. Only the extensive index eases orientation.
The roaring 1920s were not a decade of growth and prosperity for everybody.
The income gap between the agricultural and the industrial sector widened.
Overproduction due to increased productivity (introduction of the tractor)
and agricultural land as well as falling prices created a crisis. Prices
recoverd only with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
Immigration in the early 20th century lead to the fact that in 1930,
10% of all Americans had been born abroad and another 20% had at least
one parent born abroad. In reaction to the immigration and the crisis in
rural areas, the Ku Klux Klan managed to unite around five million members
in its ranks. In 1930 over 80% of blacks still lived in the South of the
USA, mostly in poor conditions. The Jim Crow system of social and
economic segregation reached its "perfection" in the 1930s.
The beginning industrial mass production known as Fordismus had
its dark sides too. Due to the increased division of labor, qualified workers
were needed less. In the years of the Coolidge prosperity from 1923 to
1928, this modern sector of the economy had an unemployment rate of about
10%. At that time, there was no unemployment benefit (as in a lot of European
countries). Astonishingly, this was also due to the opposition of the American
Federation of Labour. Not surprisingly, the AFL lost 30% of its members
between the end of the First World War to 1929.
Kennedy, at least partly, rehabilitates Herbert Hoover as a precursor
New Deal. Hoover for instance initiated the most comprehensive
study of social sciences (up to that day) on the American society in June
1929 - Kennedy largely uses its information. Hoover wanted to improve living
conditions through a closer cooperation between economy and government,
public spending and specific direct state intervention. After the 1929
financial crash it took him up too 1931 to realize that the depression
was not part of the ordinary economic cycle. Hoover also understood the
negative effects of the Versailles Treaty that affected the German and
European economy. Though he favored tax increases in order to resolve
the crisis - a counterproductive action that was based on the then established
economic knowledge. Even as late as May 1931, Keynes favored lower interest
rates for the USA instead of public spending.
Hoover was a precursor of the New Deal since he created the Reconstruction
Finance Company (RFC) in January 1932. He abandoned his voluntarist
strategy in favor of direct state intervention. Rexford Tugwell, Professor
at Columbia University and a chief architect of the New Deal acknowledged later: "... practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs
that Hoover started." By the way, at the Democratic national convention
at Chicago in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said the simple phrase that
would give a name to an era: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal
for the American People." Kennedy does not mystify FDR. At that time, it
was not clear (probably not even to FDR himself) what these words meant.
The 1930s were ideal times for demagogues like Huey Pierce Long, Senator
from Louisiana (Townsend and Sinclair in California, Olson and the La Follettes
in the upper Midwest). In 1934, he proclaimed "every man a king". His program
included "confiscating large fortunes, levying steeply progressive income
taxes, and distributing the revenue to every American family in the form
of a 'household estate' of five thousand dollars". Enough, as he thought,
for a home, an automobile and a radio. Every household should be guaranteed
a minimum annual income of $2500, nearly double the median family income
at the time. Besides populists like Huey Pierce Long, also grass roots
movements within the Democratic party asked for reforms. Therefore, FDR
and the New Dealers were not only leaders of a movement, but at the same
time often followers.
That was the political climate in which Roosevelt came up with his "Big
Bill" in Spring 1935 that authorized more spending than the sum of
all federal revenues in 1934. Despite all efforts since 1933, the economy
was again in trouble in 1937 and in October of the same year trouble even
affected the stock markets. The "Roosevelt Recession" as
critics called it was in Kennedy's eyes "a depression within the depression".
In his conclusions about the New Deal, Kennedy writes that it did not bring
the end to the depression (only World War II did). The New Deal "did not
substantially redistribute the national income". No major state enterprises
were created and capitalism was not challenged. For Kennedy, the New Deal
brought instead "Freedom from Fear". Vulnerable individuals got security
- "without shredding the American Constitution or sundering the American
people." Social security and unemployment benefits, bank and stock market
reforms, integration of immigrants, modern comforts of electricity offered
to millions, schools and roads built, African Americans in the Southern
States had a better life (although a lot still remained theory because
of racist Democrats governing in the South), all these were accomplishments
of the New Deal.
According to Kennedy, Roosevelt's greatest achievement was to end American
isolation from world affairs. Kennedy points out the obstacles that had
to be overcome from 1935 to 1941. There was even a danger of impeachment
for Roosevelt if he dared to violate the American Neutrality Act.
Kennedy writes about American mistakes such as the internment of Japanese
American during the war or the shameful policy of the USA towards Jews.
The State Department pursued an obstruction policy towards Jewish immigration
that only ended when the Secretary of Finance Henry Morgenthau, the only
Jew in the government, wrote a "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence
by This Government in the Murder of the Jews", dated January 10, 1944.
By then, millions of European Jews had already perished. Only then was
War Refugee Board created. If one has a look at David S. Wyman,
The Abandonment of the Jews, a source also for Kennedy, one can
find words about Roosevelt that cannot be found in Freedom from Fear.
According to Wyman, Roosevelt only reacted as an imminent Senate debate
bore the risk of the uncovering of the scandalous policy pursued by the
State Department. A lot of American officials did not pay attention to
the reports of Nazi mass murders in concentration camps or remained indifferent.
David M. Kennedy describes the Second World War in detail, its battles,
conferences and debates. He thinks that the Americans let the Russians
fight with American material and intervened only late on the second front.
Kennedy writes about the stubborn insistence on the demand of Unconditional
Surrender by the allied leaders. He comes to the conclusion that America
won the war thanks to its immense capacity for production. The war production
efforts created prosperity in the USA while America's foes and European
allies were temporarily ruined. The war was fought in brutal ways - by
all sides. Kennedy does not forget to mention allied crimes such as the
incineration of German cities or the dropping of the two atomic bombs on
Japan. America fought a bloody war in Asia.
Less convincing is Kennedy's remark that America had "heedlessly [...]
provoked Japan into a probably avoidable war in a region where few American
interests were at stake". Correct are his comments on how poorly FDR had
prepared for the postwar era. In this context, "One World" would
have been a keyword he does not mention (not even in his index). Kennedy
questions American policies from the 1920s to the end of the Second World
War. No black and white thinking, no shining heroes, but a long list of
failings (there are more in the book, some of them controversial).
David M. Kennedy: Freedom From
Fear. The American People in Depression
and War 1929-1945, The Oxford History of the United States vol. 9,
Oxford, OUP, 1999, 936 S. Get it from Amazon.com,
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