The American public that elected Franklin Roosevelt president was ready for strong measures. On Inauguration Day 1933, a quarter of the work force was unemployed. According to a contemporary report in the New York Times, “Nobody is much disturbed by the idea of dictatorship.”
Yet the country never succumbed to authoritarianism. Why it didn’t is the subject of Ira Katznelson’s great big history of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.” It’s not nearly as soporific as that subtitle makes it sound.
The author, a professor of political science and history at Columbia University, has written a book for grown-ups, with a complex, troubling theme: “From start to finish, the New Deal flourished with ethical compromise.”
His point is not (on the whole) to chastise. “It would be facile,” he maintains, “simply to denounce, or even regret, such compromises. Nonetheless, it is important to assess their character and implications.”
His most consistent focus is on Congress and the powerful bloc of southern Democrats without whose votes Roosevelt’s programs would have been toast. These men belonged to a once common, now extinct species: the progressive racist.
They were anti-banker and pro-worker, as long as the worker was white, and they gave FDR the legislation he wanted -- until they began to fear that a stronger federal government might start tampering with Jim Crow.
In return for their support, “during his long term of office,” Katznelson relates, “Franklin Roosevelt never pushed civil rights legislation.”
FDR came to the presidency during a worldwide crisis of confidence in democracy. “Fascism is action,” Mussolini had declared. Along with Hitler and Stalin, he could claim “to have surmounted class conflict, the bane of market capitalism, while creating a united people.”
Meanwhile, the democracies, with their poky, deliberative parliaments, were in a state of paralysis even worse than what we’re seeing today. And so, as Katznelson makes clear, the New Deal was charged with nothing less than vindicating both democracy and capitalism.
And it did. Even during the busy Hundred Days that followed FDR’s inauguration, the laws, “however novel and far-reaching,” continued to issue from the legislative branch, not the White House, as the Constitution stipulated.
The catch was “the exclusion of maids and farmworkers -- fully two-thirds of southern black employees -- from key New Deal programs.”
As Southern Democrats proudly and publicly invoked the principle of white supremacy, the new laws intended to raise American workers out of poverty contained provisions for keeping southern blacks trapped in it.
The Nazis, for their part, were bewildered at their lack of support in a region whose ideology shared so much with their own. The higher-ups loved “Gone With the Wind”:
“Joseph Goebbels spent the hours after midnight on June 22, 1941” -- the eve of the Russian invasion -- “watching a prerelease German version with a group of invited friends, perhaps not aware that one of the film’s stars, Leslie Howard, was a British Jew.”
That may be the one (bleakly) funny moment in “Fear Itself.” Otherwise, the way Roosevelt balanced the New Deal on the backs of African-Americans is sickening to read about. And revelatory.
But long stretches of the book are pretty arid. The other ethical compromises Katznelson chronicles -- the wartime alliance with Stalin, the atomic massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the postwar culture of surveillance and anti-Communist paranoia -- are too familiar to merit this many pages.
For the reader’s sake, I wish Katznelson (or his editor) had been incisive enough to extract the shorter, sharper book buried in this long and often bland one.
“Fear Itself” is published by Liveright (706 pages, $29.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Zinta Lundborg’s culture interview.