The New Deal We Didn’t Know

Marion Post Wolcott/SSPL/Getty Images
An African-American entering a movie theater through the segregated back entrance, Mississippi, October 1939; photograph by Marion Post Wolcott for the Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, the apogee of liberal political power in American history and a story with a relatively happy ending—the Great Depression vanquished, World War II won—has usually had its history presented, except by conservatives who disapprove of the expansion of central government and taxation in the 1930s and 1940s, as an uplifting, inspiring one. That is not how Ira Katznelson presents it. There is only one very brief personal note in his long, scholarly book—a snip of memory about having to wear military-style dogtags and practice responses to a nuclear attack as a schoolchild in the early 1950s—but all of Fear Itself is suffused with the same sense of pure terror during the Roosevelt and Truman years as, say, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. It’s easy to forget not just how dangerous the situation was, at home and abroad, during the New Deal, but how palpable were outcomes far worse than what we got.

Another difference between Fear Itself and most of the familiar histories of the New Deal is that Katznelson thinks like a political scientist. That means that, although he defines the period presidentially, as the twenty years when Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were in the White House, Roosevelt and Truman themselves are spectral presences. They are not the primary determiners of the course of government, and Katznelson has no interest in their personal qualities or their methods of leadership. Instead his focus is on Congress and government agencies, and more broadly on political systems, voting, and interest groups. This gives Fear Itself the feeling of a fresh look at a familiar story; what Katznelson loses in ignoring the inherent force of the hero narrative, he gains in being able to make an argument that largely ignores the presidency.

The argument bears laying out in some detail. Katznelson begins, usefully, by placing the New Deal in a global setting: the severity of the Great Depression presented an existential threat to liberal democracy everywhere, both as an ideal and as a reality. In response to the same economic crisis that confronted the United States, Germany turned to National Socialism, Italy to Fascism, and the Soviet Union already had a form of communism that no liberals except willfully blind ones could believe in. During Roosevelt’s first term, these alternate systems were on the verge of imposing themselves by force on many other countries.

It was not at all clear that democracy would survive here. George Kennan privately came to believe that the United States should become an “authoritarian state.” Walter Lippmann, on a visit to Roosevelt a month before his inauguration as president, advised him that “you may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” Even in public, all sorts of prominent people praised the…

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