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. This review first appeared at Reason.com.