Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The New Deal reconsidered: The war years

Dedicated to the memory of my parents

To organize a society for a cause means facing everyone in one direction, toward an external goal, and what better goal than crushing an enemy? If there is no foreign one, then, as FDR discovered, domestic ones have to be invented. After his 1936 landslide victory, FDR began to do just that, ultimately overreaching with his 1937 Supreme Court-packing scheme. This crisis proved the beginning of the end for the New Deal. And 1938 saw a recession, wiping out the partial recovery that had taken hold in 1935-36, and large losses in Congress for the New Dealers, who were replaced by Republicans and conservative Democrats. The court crisis set off a wave of disillusionment, as more and more voters realized how limited the New Deal's accomplishments were. Voters recoiled in horror at the blatant violation of separation of powers inherent in FDR's attempt to manufacture a Supreme Court that would rubberstamp what he wanted. America would not become a dictatorship.

And then international crisis came. The 1930s was the most isolationist decade in American history (check out Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks). For much of the decade, FDR not only went along with it, he helped to destroy the world trading system by leaving the gold standard. Central planning is a lot easier with a closed economy, after all. With the New Deal on the way out, however, Roosevelt, like many presidents frustrated with domestic stalemate, turned to foreign affairs. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) gave a preview of coming attractions, so to speak, not only with fascist Italy and Germany supporting Franco, but the Soviets trying to control the anti-fascist opposition for their own purposes. Roosevelt's distant cousin, Winston Churchill, then on the outs of British politics, was already sounding the warning about Germany. By 1940, the war was underway, and American shipping was being attacked by German submarines in the Atlantic.

But there was nothing close to approaching consensus about whether the US should enter or even support the Allies. Bad memories of Wilson and the "war to end all wars" twenty years earlier were still fresh. The largest peace movement in American history, America First, was formed in 1939 to head off American intervention. These isolationists were a motley collection: opponents of the New Deal and FDR mixed with labor, church, and pacifist leaders. Even with the New Deal gone, modern "total" war would mean a large and possibly permanent increase in federal and presidential power. In the Middle West, Republicans of German and Scandinavian extraction looked favorably upon the Third Reich. Democrats of Irish background (like Kennedy père) looked unfavorably upon Britain. At the fringe were a small but vocal (if embarrassing) group of Nazi fellow-travelers. With the Soviet Union an ally of Germany after August 1939 and the fall of France in June 1940, the anti-German cause looked lost anyway. Only after Britain refused to fold in the summer and fall of 1940, did American public opinion begin to change. Even so, while most Americans in 1941 hoped for an Allied victory, until Pearl Harbor, most were still unwilling to intervene directly. Only the attack on Pearl Harbor banished, at least for a while, the antiwar and anti-FDR voices.

Popular historian Thomas Fleming's witty, readable, and controversial The New Dealers' War: FDR and the War Within World War II details the suspension of normal politics "for the duration" and how FDR and his administration kept grumbling and discontent at bay. The result was remarkable: the US reached a level of consensus on international affairs in those years that, while attacked from various directions afterward, did not fully dissipate until the 1990s. This in spite of serious deception (hiding how ill FDR was in the 1944 election) and strong illusions in some quarters about Stalin's designs on postwar Europe.

The full disillusionment with the New Deal never had time to sink in before America began to turn its attention in 1940 to war. The economic build-up finally did what the New Deal never could, namely, end the Depression. In less than two years, the US economy went from idle capacity and high unemployment to shortages. International crisis - preparing for war, then hot war, the start of the Cold War - delayed the reaction against the New Dealers until the 1950s, in fact. Invented domestic bogeymen were not necessary; for a while at least, there were real ones, on the outside.*

Moral inequivalencies. In spite of the similarities of the different collectivist tendencies, comparison is not equation. In the 1930s, the United States had no concentration camps, no liquidation of political or class enemies, no genocides, no destruction of the Constitution. It did experience under FDR an astonishing transformation of presidential power: compared to the handful of 19th century executive orders, and the hundreds of Wilson, we got thousands in the 1930s and 40s. Congress alienated an entire chunk of its law-making power to executive agencies. Ordinary freedoms were partly suspended "for the duration," and a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans were put into temporary camps. But the political system mostly remained in place, limiting presidential reach. Towards the end of the war, as the nature of the fascist enemy become clear to Americans, an even sharper disillusionment with the all-powerful state set in. Whatever problems a free society suffered from, the modern omni-state had turned out to be the most lethal weapon ever created. Deeper awareness a few years later of the Stalinist system reinforced the lesson. This was era when everyone started reading Orwell's Animal Farm and Hayek's Road to Serfdom, both published in Britain in the war's last years.

Follow the yellow brick road. For FDR's subsequent reputation, the war years made all the difference. The New Deal ended on an ambiguous and largely negative note. It had, in all probability, prolonged the Depression and certainly not ended it. But if FDR is counted among the greatest presidents, it is because of his skillful leading of Americans into the largest conflict in history, one that it was not initially obvious could be won.

When we compare successful war presidents (FDR, Lincoln, Washington, as well as other democratic leaders like Churchill and De Gaulle) to less successful ones (McKinley, Wilson, Bush), the obvious thing that leaps out is the degree to which the political ground was properly prepared before the conflict was engaged. Pearl Harbor, like the attack on Fort Sumter and the battles at Concord and Lexington, was the culmination of a process, not its beginning. The other key to successful war leadership is that, however indispensable they might seem at the start, great democratic leaders, by evoking popular initiative and enthusiasm, make themselves superfluous in the end. Churchill and Roosevelt were indispensable at the outset. Yet the war ended successfully without them, one dead, they other turned out of office by voters. This is far removed from a cult figure like Hitler, whose suicide just a few weeks after FDR's death, marked the end of his entire regime and movement.

Two years before Americans went to war in 1941, they sat in theaters and watched the film version of The Wizard of Oz. In the story that everyone knows, Dorothy and her friends set off to receive prized human virtues from the mysterious and powerful Wizard, who turns out, after his booming, amplified voice is turned off, to be less than imposing. From him, they receive the courage, love, and intelligence they seek, but come to realize that they actually had them all along. After all, they defeated the Wicked Witch of the West and done other marvels without the Wizard's gifts. After the Wicked Witch, even Hitler would seem like a piece of cake.
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* Several hundred Soviet agents working in Washington in the late 1930s and during the war have been firmly identified from Soviet records available to historians after the Cold War ended. However, the defection of two of them (Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers) in 1945 caused the Soviets to shut down their espionage operations. By 1948, there was nothing left of it. Leading liberal lights, however, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and President Truman, could not bring themselves to admit that such things had been going on and that establishment figures such as Alger Hiss, of good family and reputation, were involved in it.

Their lack of honesty on this issue made liberals politically vulnerable. If the Korean War had not broken out, the resulting attacks, by McCarthy and others, probably would have remained on the fringe. But American soldiers dying in a country supposedly already secure made it an irresistible issue.

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