The New Deal is a era of history which of which I frequently heard but really knew very little about. We knew that it was a very important period of our history in which the Roosevelt administration attacked the depression with an alphabet soup of agencies. The New Deal managed to alter the political balance of the United States for the balance of the century, but which was really unsuccessful in ending the depression until the advent of World War II. It was to learn more about what really went on during the New Deal that I opened William E. Leuchtenburg's "Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal". I was very pleased as I read this book.
At the start of the book I was expecting this to be a propaganda piece for FDR. While the author seems to view the New Deal with favor, I did find the book to seem to be a rather even handed account of this period of history.
Leuchtenburg begins the book with an analysis of the conditions existing at the beginning of the New Deal. The advancing gloom of 1932 provides the background for the beginning of the story. The progressively desperate measures of the Hoover administration are contrasted with the rising tide of the Roosevelt movement in the Democratic Party. The shadows of despair lengthened in the winter between the November elections and the March inauguration. This section of the book both reinforced and challenged my prior understandings. The fact that the economy deteriorated significantly over the winter was confirmed. My prior readings, presented from President Hoover's point of view, emphasized Roosevelt's unwillingness to endorse any attempts by the administration to deal with the worsening crisis. Rather than illustrating a shallow and indifferent character, Leuchtenburg presents the time as one in which Roosevelt resisted Hoover's attempts to commit the new administration to continue programs favored by the old.
The section on the first 100 days emphasizes the uncritical manner with which the Congress rushed to approve most measures sent to the Hill from the White House. The session of 1934 was another time of accomplishment for the Administration although the front of solidarity began to crack.
The High Tide of the New Deal came with the election of 1936 in which Roosevelt carried all states except Maine and Vermont. In the aftermath of the election, as occurs after so many landslides, Roosevelt over reached his grasp and suffered a major rebuff with the defeat of his court packing bill in 1937. Over this issue, Roosevelt alienated some of his most loyal supporters, including his own vice-president. With that battle, the New Deal had, for the most part, exhausted itself. While domestic challenges remained, the New Deal had run out of answers. The hope of 1933 had given way to a sense of hopelessness as the economy plunged again in 1938. The specter of permanent massive unemployment was seen by more and more as the New Deal initiatives failed to end the depression.
Toward the end of the thirties, the challenges rose on the overseas horizons. Leuchtenburg skillfully narrates the change of focus of the administration from moving the country out of the fear of the depression to one of moving the country to face the dangers looming abroad. Roosevelt's struggles against the strong strain of isolationism are skillfully presented.
There are several things which I learned from this book. The New Deal as a modification to preserve the social order, rather than as a revolution to upend that order is a point well made. The delineation between the steps which Roosevelt would take as opposed to those which he would not consider were interesting. The mention that the main concern of the New Deal was the plight of the farmer came as a surprise to me. I had always thought that it was mainly concerned with industry. The acknowledgment that full employment was not achieved until 1943 says much about the economic effectiveness of the New Deal. I finished the book with a much better understanding of what the New Deal was than I started out with.
As the title indicates, this book is primarily about Franklin Roosevelt. While many other actors in the drama, both within and without the administration, play important roles, the focus is always on Roosevelt. This is proper because, in truth, Roosevelt was the master of the New Deal. The book makes the point that if the gun of Zangara has struck down the Roosevelt, rather than Cermak in Miami, a Gardner administration would have directed history much differently. Truly this was a case in which a great personality did make a great difference.
The treatment of FDR is very good. Stressing his initiatives, which met with both success and failure, Leuchtenburg gives us a view of the influence of Franklin D. Roosevelt on history through his leadership of the New Deal. There is no place in this book for an inquiry into personal lives, so common in modern historical and biographical literature.
This book is an excellent choice for anyone interested in an overview of the New Deal. I would recommend it for teachers at the high school or collegiate level for class assignments, students looking for materials for book reports, or anyone wishing to acquaint himself with a fascinating and influential period in our history. It fulfilled all of the hopes with which I opened the book.