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Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (Vintage) [Paperback]

Alan Brinkley
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Book Description

12 Aug 1983 Vintage
The study of two demagogues, whose vast popularity explains much about Depression-era America.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House USA Inc; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (12 Aug 1983)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394716280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394716282
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.3 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 612,431 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
EARLY in Huey Long's adult life, before he had become a political figure of any significance, well before he had accumulated the remarkable power that would make him a national phenomenon and that would ultimately destroy him, he sent a letter to the editor of the New Orleans Item. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book 21 Feb 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A very well written book. It is superbly researched. Relevant to anyone with a deed interest in American history and politics.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A New View of Depression-era Demagogues 15 Jan 2001
By charles falk - Published on Amazon.com
Alan Brinkley's book is a valuable addition to the history of the Great Depression. He has broadened and altered my perceptions of Huey Long and Father Coughlin dramatically. In addition to being populist demagogues, they both proposed radical economic reforms that put the New Deal to shame.
Long was not just a Louisiana or southern phenomenon. In 1936, when he was shot, he had created a national organization with the apparent intention of running for President. Brinkley has unearthed a poll commissioned by the Democratic National Committee that year that showed Long drawing as large a percentage of the vote as George Wallace or Ross Perot did in more recent elections. And the support was not limited to southern states. In Massachusetts, the DNC poll showed Long getting more than 13% of the vote.
Coughlin turned to fascism and overt anti-semetism only after his popularity began to wane when he split openly with Roosevelt. In his heyday he sounded like a socialist, proposing to replace the federal reserve with a true central bank and the nationalizing of the energy industry.
Brinkley thinks that Long, Coughlin and the California radical, Dr Townsend, pushed Roosevelt and the Congress into enacting a more comprehensive Social Security law than they would have otherwise.
Brinkley doesn't try to gloss over the dark side of Long's totalitarian rule in Louisiana or Father Coughlin's bloated ego and slide into ugly racism. But he does present a economic reformist aspect to their movements that is no longer known -- even among historians. It is more fashionable now to talk about the reform movements headed LaFollette and Norman Thomas as the sources of New Deal economic reform. While those may have been more highminded reformers, they never approached Long and Coughlin in mass appeal or in their power to frighten a President.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at dissident America, circa 1930s 13 Jan 2004
By Jeffrey Leach - Published on Amazon.com
In many ways the Great Depression marked a turning point for American society. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies significantly altered the scope and function of the federal government through a host of social programs engineered to revive the ailing economy. A restructuring of the banking system, restrictions on the stock markets, an increase in the size of the bureaucracy, and the development of Social Security were just a few of the changes wrought by the administration. Despite the various panaceas proposed and enacted by Roosevelt's government, the economic slump doggedly persisted year after year until World War II provided jobs for millions of out of work Americans. Roosevelt and his advisors were not the only people trying to cure the country of its economic ills, however. During the early and mid 1930s, several dissident social movements exploded onto the American scene promising an end to the Depression. Historian Alan Brinkley examines two of the biggest of these movements in "Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression."
The first 142 pages of "Voices of Protest" summarizes the life, rise, and various activities of Louisiana politician Huey Long and Catholic priest and radio personality Charles Coughlin. If you know a great deal about these two fascinating figures, you could probably skip these sections and not miss out on a great deal. Brinkley discusses Long's early life in Winn Parish, a Louisiana county with a long history of radical dissent dating back to the era of Populism. Arguing that this background imbued Long with a fondness for the common man, Brinkley outlines Huey's rise to power through the governorship of Louisiana and his eventual move into the United States Senate. Long was a corrupt politician who ran his state like a personal fiefdom, even after he went to Washington. Huey's political machine controlled every government job in the state, from the highest to lowest positions, and the man made ample use of this power to pack the state government with allies who would do his bidding. By the time the Senator proposed his "Share Our Wealth" palliative, he had an eager eye on the presidency. Long's plans for the country died with him when an assassin's bullet felled the Senator in the Louisiana Statehouse in 1935.
Charles Coughlin grew up in Canada and eventually joined the priesthood, moving to Royal Oak, Michigan in the 1920s. When his new church needed to raise funds to pay off a diocesan loan, he started a small radio program on WJR in Detroit. At first, the program consisted of short, harmless sermons. With the start of the Depression, Coughlin's broadcasts swiftly assumed political dimensions. His voice, described by many as one of the most arresting sounds ever heard on the airwaves, rapidly increased the size of his audience. As the donations poured in Coughlin expanded his radio network into a virtual empire. By the mid 1930s he was one of the most prominent figures in American society, a man looked up to by millions and a frequent guest at the Roosevelt White House. The priest and the president soon fell out over several issues, and Coughlin took his revenge on Roosevelt by forming the National Union for Social Justice and its attendant political branch, the Union Party, to unseat the president in the 1936 elections. The priest failed, and in a sign of decreasing popularity and bitterness he wholeheartedly embraced anti-Semitism and pro-German sympathies before the Catholic Church forced his retirement from public life in the early 1940s. Coughlin died in obscurity in 1979.
"Voices of Protest" takes off with chapter seven. Brinkley adroitly and convincingly analyzes the Long and Coughlin movements, explaining how the two men amassed such huge audiences with their populist rhetoric. The Depression, argues Brinkley, exposed the inherent flaws in a fundamental economic/social shift that had been going on in America for decades. The centralization and bureaucratization of business and government threatened traditional American ideas about the importance of localized society. When a stock market disaster in New York City caused workers in Lincoln, Nebraska or Des Moines, Iowa to lose their jobs, people worried anew about big business and power held in the hands of an anonymous few thousands of miles away. Long and Coughlin played on these fears by proposing programs that would restore power to local communities and the individual. Their programs ultimately failed because the economic move to centralization had already gone on for far too long. Additionally, the two men's ideas contained seeds of contradiction. In an effort to restore a traditional life highlighting locality and the individual, Long and Coughlin proposed big government schemes as a means of achieving their goals. The attempt to turn Share Our Wealth and the National Union for Social Justice into nationwide political organizations failed because of this focus on localization and an inability on the part of the two men to address the core issue of the problems they attacked, namely economic centralization.
The rest of "Voices of Protest" looks closely at the organization and followers of the Long and Coughlin organizations, other dissidents operating in the 1930s, and whether Long and Coughlin were American fascists. There are a few problems with the book. I think the author fails to strongly stress the positive aspects of these movements. For example, Brinkley barely mentions that these movements brought millions of Americans into the political life of the country at a time when participation was enormously important. Moreover, the dissident movements in the United States undoubtedly pushed Roosevelt to create important pieces of legislation during his second term as president. Social Security, for example, was an attempt to co-opt Francis Townsend's old age pension plan. Still, "Voices of Protest" is a winner that every person interested in 20th century American history should read.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Follies of Charismatic Leadership 19 Jan 2006
By estudiar - Published on Amazon.com
On the eve of the Great Depression the great Spanish existential and political philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset published The Revolt of the Masses. In it he predicted the rise of mass man -- undifferentiated, unanchored and unthinking citizens of modern, western societies attached to none of the traditional sources of community, which were being destroyed by capitalism anyway. For Ortega y Gasset, these folks all too easily moved to charismatic, emotional leadership to give meaning in their political lives. Twentieth century thinkers like Dwight MacDonald and Hannah Arendt have explored some of the implications of Ortega y Gasset's work, noting its eerie forershadowing of Nazism, Fascism and Stalinism. American historians such as Richard Hofstadter, meatime, found in American radicalism the same linkages between charismatic leadership and mass man. In Hofstadter's telling this phenomenon folded within the tradition of radical critiques of American capitalism.

Hofstadter's works, most notably The Age of Reform, were pretty critical of the causes of the American attraction to radical politics, such as it was -- that attraction was fostered by emotional anxieties that all too often morphed into nostalgic, irresponsible, politically conservative, anti-Semitic, racist movements.

Alan Brinkley clearly relies of Hofstadter quite a bit, but with a much more sympathetic treatment of American mass politics and its causes. For him, the anxieties were fully justified. He focuses on the alternative visions offered by Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Brinkley argues both men attracted large followings accross the nation by the use of the radio and mass-circulation print publications. By 1935 their combined popularity was enough to scared the hell out of the Democratic Party and President Roosevelt, with the result that FDR pushed through the Second New Deal in the run-up to his 1936 re-election effort. Brinkley argues that Long and Coughlin emphasized redistribution of wealth and economic justice for the common man/consumer, not the New Deal concern with "stabilizing business" and "restoring business confidence." In a sense we have these two rabble-rousers to thank for Roosevelt's turn to the left in 1935 in the form of specific public policies such as the Social Security Act (which Long opposed for some technical federalist reasons, actually).

As part of his argument, then, Brinkley streses the positive, substantive aspects of Long's and Coughlin's message over the psychological anxieties stressed by Hofstadter and his scholarly followers. In what is probably the best chapter in Voices of Protest, "The Dissident Ideology," Brinkley connects the Long/Coughlin program with the anti-modern, anti-urban, anti-capitalistic radical political tradition informing American protest politics, from Thomas Jefferson to Orestes Brownsen to William Jennings Bryan.

Long's Share Our Wealth scheme of income redistribution thus, in Brinkley's telling, represented a geniune, substantive response to the economic hardships of the 1930s and their root cause -- not enough consumer power!

This is good as far as it goes I suppose. But Brinkley certainly could have emphasized more the rank irresponsibility of Long and Coughlin -- they must have known, for example, that simplistic schemes such as Share Our Wealth had zip chance of success. Even if they could succeed in the abstract, they could never be implemented logistically as Brinkley notes in passing. As Voices of Protest makes clear, Coughlin and Long -- despite, or perhaps because of, their manic energies -- had no patience or desire to construct meaningful, sophisticated, sustained politices to help their constituiencies. Long, for example, had no interest in Senate business for most of his term in that august body, no desire to manipulate the institution (a la LBJ for example) and form effective coalitions to bring about meaningful change.

This is a beautifully written, beautifully constructed narrative. Brinkley is a fine heir to popular/scholarly narrative/analytical history in the tradition of Commager, Nevins and Schlesinger. Voices of Protest covers alot of ground already well plowed by masters such as T. Harry Williams in his biography of Long. But Brinkley adds alot more archival sources and fascinating letters from the common people -- mass men -- who Long/Coughlin attracted. But for reformers looking for historical models on which to base effective, modern, sophisticated methods for political and economic change, they'll have to look elsewhere than the examples of Charles Coughlin and Huey Long. I don't think Brinkley emphasizes that quite enough and himself falls for their charismatic qualities -- a serious shortcoming in an otherwise fine book
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an impressive piece of history... 21 Jun 2005
By Matthew Watt - Published on Amazon.com
I marvel at the depth and range written in Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression by Alan Brinkley. Without very much firsthand information from Huey Long and Charles Coughlin, Alan Brinkley was able to portray the lives of these two unlikely figureheads of the Great Depression. From their small town beginnings to their national prominence to their movement's downfalls, Huey Long's and Father Coughlin's stories are on display for the history buff or even the average reader.

The first three chapters are devoted to the rise of Huey Long. Starting in Louisiana, he gets his first opportunity to shine in the public limelight as a railroad comissioner. His grass roots campaigning and fight for the lower classes changed the landscape of Louisiana politics from a state voting along religious lines to one voting along economic lines. As governor and a senator of Louisiana, Huey Long continuously fought for the redistribution of wealth and the rights of the local institutions. Rising to national prominence after his campaigning for Hattie Caraway who was the first woman to be elected to a full term in the Senate, Long used his newfound popularity to influence American politics during the Great Depression like no other except for one (Coughlin of course). From his influence on the Presidential Election of 1932 to his Share Our Wealth Plan, Voices of Protest contains all of the information one would want to know about Huey Long's rise and sudden fall after he was assassinated.

After Alan Brinkley discusses Huey Long's rise, he delves into the rise of Father Charles Coughlin. Surrounded by Catholicism from a very young age, Charles Coughlin was destined to become a priest. After getting through seminary, he finally received a new parish in Royal Oaks, a suburb of Detroit. Coughlin was always thought of as a great orator, but even that wasn't enough to pay for the increasing debt incurred by the new parrish. To make money for the church, Coughlin went to the local radio station to use his special talents as an orator. His radio sermons were soon heard across the nation. His influence with the radio was tremendous, causing him to begin a series of politically based chats (starting with his dislike of communism) that would throw him into the political arena as a man of influencial capabilities. Coughlin's tumultuous relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and his National Union for Social Justice are a couple more of the many topics discussed in this section of Vioces of Protest.

Alan Brinkley then moves on to discuss the similarities of Huey Long's and Charles Coughlin's movements, along with their relation to other movements (Socialist, Progressive, Communist) of the time and the political forces that they each, in their own right, become. Alan Brinkley also touches on each of their efforts towards organization in their respective parties and discusses in depth the followers of each's movements, including some alliances that were created solely for Long's and Coughlin's advancement politically or for others advancement. Finally, Alan Brinkley brings Huey Long's and Charles Coughlin's stories to an end with their eventual downfall and also elucidates on the aftermath of those downfalls.

There are two main quotes I would like to share here that I enjoyed as I read Voices of Protest. The first is on page 216 when Alan Brinkley discusses the uneasy alliances, and it is as follows: "Were these many protest movements to unite into a single force, they might be capable of toppling the entire structure of traditional party politics." The second is on page 243 when Brinkley discusses the downfalls of Long and Coughlin, and it is as follows: "Far more troubling for the crusades Long and Coughlin were preparing was a single, debilitating weakness: inability to wean their followers from Franklin Roosevelt." Both of these quotes represent hom much political power Long and Coughlin could have had and how much political power Franklin Roosevelt actually had. It is impressive to think about and enjoyable to read about, so I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Everyone enjoy!
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars crisis and renewal 15 April 2003
By Yalensian - Published on Amazon.com
Brinkley offers a fascinating glimpse into the politics of the Depression era. Often, Huey Long and Father Coughlin are glossed over in US history textbooks and are given the "extremist" or "radical" label. These might not be entirely incorrect descriptions, but using them misses the depth of the national movements that rose up around these two figures and ignores the many followers they had.
It is interesting to see who was supporting Long and Coughlin. Their movements were not, as one might expect, composed of the dispossed or the bottom-of-the-barrel poor. Rather, they usually attracted people on the lower fringes of the middle class--people who had something and knew what it was like not to have it, people who feared losing their new status. Long and Coughlin expressed a sense of loss, too. They bemoaned the death of community-based business and local trade and their replacement with a growing number of chain stores and big businesses. Cold, distant, impersoal relationships now replaced the personal ties that bound communities together. They focused on economic issues--such as old-age pensions and Long's Share Our Wealth program. They placed blame on and demonized the "usual suspects." They proposed radical change and yet distanced themselves from socialists and Communists--especially Coughlin. Ultimately, they failed to create an enduring ideological movement, but one still cannot help wondering what course the 1936 election would have taken had Long not been assassinated in 1935.
The picture of Franklin Roosevelt that emerges here is that of a cunning and shrewd political operator. He deftly maneuvered the political waters and co-opted both Long and Coughlin. He adopted pieces of their programs--never the entire thing, but just enough to siphon support from his potential rivals. He maintained an ambiguous relationship with Coughlin and played on the priest's desire for power and attention--frequently ignoring him but slyly using him, for example, to garner the Catholic vote. He similarly cozied up to Long in the 1932 election, since the Louisiana politician had growing appeal, especially in regions of the south.
Overall, this is a fascinating book, based on excellent scholarship and many insightful analyses.
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