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The New Deal We Didn’t Know

Granger Collection
A poster for an all-black production of Macbeth, directed by John Houseman and Orson Welles, for the Works Progress Administration, 1936

The South has always had a more martial culture than the country as a whole. Still, it isn’t entirely clear why the South was so militantly anti-Nazi—Adolf Hitler was a big fan of Gone With the Wind, and many prominent Nazis assumed that many in the South would find their racial views sympathetic, but they didn’t. The crucial steps before the Pearl Harbor attack that made the United States as prepared for the war as it was—including large increases in military spending, military aid to Great Britain, and the establishment of a draft—would all have been impossible without the enthusiastic backing of southerners in Congress. In return, the South got some assurances that the militarization of the United States would proceed in ways that did not threaten Jim Crow, such as the maintenance of segregated army units.

As with all the positive outcomes in Fear Itself, the United States’ turn away from isolationism came at a price: the embrace, once again determined by the South, of a national security state that operated in secrecy outside the ordinary boundaries of democratic politics. Roosevelt declared a national state of emergency, giving him extraordinary power, six months in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbor. From this followed loyalty oaths for federal employees, the Japanese internment program, and a vast, overaggressive FBI program of surveillance of people who hadn’t been accused of anything (including African-Americans solely on the basis of their race). The program entailed the establishment of a network of 70,000 civilian informants.

The House Un-American Activities Committee was created by John Nance Garner, of Texas, and chaired by Martin Dies, also of Texas. The Alien Registration Act, which wound up registering five million people and designating nearly a million of them as “enemy aliens” with restricted rights, was the work of Howard Smith, of Virginia. This turn by the federal government would come up as a regularly recurring aspect of Washington’s role in the life of the country. It is recurring now in the PRISM program and similar activities launched by George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama.

Because of the war, the turn toward central economic planning that the country declined to take in the 1930s happened almost overnight in the 1940s, through executive action rather than legislation. The federal government grew tenfold, established control over wages and prices, and was deeply involved in planning the activities of most American industries. As Katznelson puts it, “the country learned to act as if it were one great unified corporation.” World War II proved that the United States could compete successfully with nondemocratic countries, but at the price of becoming significantly less democratic itself.

Like the Great Depression and the ascension of Roosevelt, the end of the war provided an opportunity to remake the American political order. Katznelson places the South at the center of this process. Its influence in Congress had grown because Republican gains in the 1942 and 1946 elections had increased the southern share of Democratic seats. The larger setting for policymaking was fear, as it is throughout Katznelson’s account of the New Deal. The war may have ended, but the fear did not abate.

Roosevelt and Truman, through their choices about how to conduct the war, made the quick onset of the cold war almost inevitable. Roosevelt formed an alliance with a totalitarian state and then allowed it to bear most of the human cost of the war: the Soviet Union’s military death toll during the war was over twenty times that of the United States. This meant that when the war ended, the Soviets were in control of Eastern Europe and had no inclination to give that up. Truman’s decision to deploy two atomic bombs in Japan ensured that a gripping terror would pervade international relations for decades, if not forever. It turned out to be impossible for the United States to contemplate its postwar competition with the Soviets calmly.

Anything pertaining to the cold war wound up as a permanently large part of government, likely to be protected from the ordinary legislative processes of a democracy. The reason Susan Rice just became national security adviser rather than secretary of state is that the National Security Council was created after the war outside the sphere of congressional oversight, so her position doesn’t require a confirmation hearing.

The CIA dates from the same period. So does the Department of Defense and its headquarters building, the Pentagon. So does the Air Force and its aggressive branch devoted to planning nuclear war, the Strategic Air Command. Defense spending and the size of the standing military dropped precipitously with the end of the war, but soon soared again, and has ever since. The kind of planning process in which government collaborated with business—which Katznelson calls “corporatist”—became the rule, again permanently, in military and defense matters. The military became the dominant funder of scientific research, including inside private universities. All these changes amounted to the United States’s becoming what Katznelson calls “a crusading state” with “a permanent war economy.” And they were all enthusiastically endorsed, often without recorded votes, by a Congress (especially the committees that oversee military matters) dominated by the South.

Domestically, the process was the opposite: the United States, which might have created a social democratic system like Western Europe’s, instead scaled back. The two pieces of legislation that encapsulate the change from the height of the New Deal to the postwar order are the Wagner Act of 1935, empowering organized labor, and the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Both had the South’s crucial support, and Katznelson attributes the change from one to the other to the South’s growing nervousness about its ability to maintain its racial order. “For southern legislators, labor had become race,” he writes, and Taft-Hartley was, to its southern supporters, a “triumph for the security of Jim Crow.”

Just as important as the shift in labor policy, Katznelson argues, was the idea that the government’s management of the economy should focus on taxation and spending, rather than on economic planning. In 1939, Congress established the National Resources Planning Board and the Bureau of the Budget; after the war, the former died and the latter became an important agency, now called the Office of Management and Budget. Agencies that could have established a larger central government part in the economy were prevented from doing so, for racial reasons, by the South. The United States Employment Service, quite a substantial operation, was taken out of the Department of Labor and put under the sort of local control that the South always favored. Southern offices routinely listed jobs as being for whites or blacks only.

The Fair Employment Practices Commission, created by Roosevelt in 1941 as a small wartime harbinger of the federal government’s commitment to civil rights, was abolished by Congress, against Truman’s wishes, after the war, because the South so deeply disliked it. Katznelson reminds us that the South’s role in the Democratic Party remained so crucial that both of Adlai Stevenson’s running mates in the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956 were southern senators, the first staunchly segregationist, the second less so.

Political scientists use the term “pluralist” to describe a system in which interest groups compete incessantly for advantage, and there is no overarching, determinative notion of the public interest. The side that wins gets to define the public interest, and the system’s moral commitment is to the procedure, not the outcomes. The final product of the New Deal, Katznelson argues, was a pluralist, “procedural” state in domestic affairs, and a far more expansive and less democratic state—corporatist, committed to planning in the “national interest”—in military affairs. This amounts to a liberal nightmare (and also demonstrates that one should not be confident that reducing interest-group influence in politics would necessarily produce pleasing results): the aspect of government liberals focus on was constrained, the aspect conservatives focus on was unbridled. And it was the South’s doing.

Ira Katznelson, who is a Columbia colleague of mine, has done something remarkable in Fear Itself in creating a large-scale, densely detailed tableau of the New Deal that feels fresh and unfamiliar. The book’s success comes partly from its insistent focus on material that lies outside the standard confines of the New Deal narrative, and partly from its powerfully tragic consciousness. Rather than seeing the New Deal as entailing a series of compromises, as with all politics, Katznelson presents us with a grand achievement, the preservation of American democracy, attained only through deeply corrupting alliances with Stalin’s Soviet Union and the pre–civil rights American South.

In Roth’s The Plot Against America, a relentlessly escalating series of horrors culminates in the Roth family of Newark being ordered to relocate to Kentucky (merely a border state!), where, we are made to understand, at any moment one of them could simply disappear. A similar feeling of utter horror about the South suffuses Fear Itself. The irony of Katznelson’s accomplishment here is that it has come, in part, through a Faustian bargain of his own: he has made the New Deal much more complex and interesting by oversimplifying one of its major actors.

Katznelson’s South has no black organizations of political consequence, no white racial liberals, no native union movement—indeed, very little internal variation on any issue, even though it’s a large region, because its focus on maintaining the Jim Crow system is so overwhelming. Although his account makes one appreciate how long the odds against the success of the civil rights movement were, it’s hard to imagine how, just a couple of years after Fear Itself ends, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference could have mounted its successful boycott of the municipal bus system in Montgomery; the elements underlying a nonquixotic act of resistance of that kind don’t seem to be in place.

More specifically, Katznelson’s treatment of race as the trump card in southern politics, though generally justified, leads him to treat the South’s views on economic issues as having been far less internally contentious and farther to the left than they actually were. Race could have been overwhelmingly important to the South and there could still have been—and was—room for differences on economic and other issues that had lasting regional and national effects.

On March 25, 1965, when Martin Luther King spoke from the steps of the Alabama state capitol building at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery march—a more dramatic civil rights moment, and a better speech, than “I Have a Dream” during the 1963 March on Washington—he devoted a significant part of his time at the podium to summarizing the work of historian C. Vann Woodward on economic strategies. It was an important intellectual event when the South began to produce prominent scholars—like Woodward (born in Vanndale, Arkansas, in 1908) and the political scientist V.O. Key (born in Austin, Texas, the same year)—who were not inclined to celebrate the Jim Crow system, as their predecessors going back to Woodrow Wilson had been.

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