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An introduction to the history of the new deal period in the united states

University of Reading Citation: Dr Jonathan Bell, review of Fear Itself: More recently, Anthony Badger and David Kennedy have presented critical but sympathetic portraits of the Roosevelt presidency, while the likes of Amity Shlaes and Conrad Black have injected a strong dose of neoliberal scepticism into the mix.

The New Deal

So when I was first asked to review this new offering by acclaimed Columbia political scientist Ira Katznelson, my first instinct was to wonder what new perspective could be brought to bear on such a well-combed subject. The answer is robustly stated in the introduction to the book. The American state that emerged from the Second World War owed as much to the planning and political transformations of the war effort itself as it did to the policy experiments of the 1930s.

Secondly, Katznelson seeks to utilize his considerable expertise as an analyst of Congress and of the complex dynamics of the levers of American governance to shift our attention from the executive branch towards those political actors whose support or opposition to New Deal measures would ultimately determine the fate of the reform impulse in American politics in these years: This is in large part a study of the Faustian pacts with political forces at home and abroad deeply hostile to any attempt to take the New Deal to its logical conclusion and smash both racial segregation at home and totalitarianism abroad.

The New Deal: A Modern History

It is a story of the considerable and ambitious revolution in American governance between 1933 and the late 1940s, as the federal government both remade the relationship between the state and the people at home and an introduction to the history of the new deal period in the united states constructed a vast national security state that would alter the lives of Americans and countless others around the world for the rest of the century.

It is also the tale of the limits of that revolution in the constitutional compact between the government and the governed, demonstrating how the political structure of the United States allowed southern Democrats to shape the New Deal and to limit its transformative power over American society, particularly in terms of racial equality. The role of segregationist politics in making — and sometimes breaking — the New Deal is the centrepiece of the book, informing both the discussion of domestic policymaking and of foreign policy.

This claim explains some of the issues I have with the book as a whole, but it is important to stress first of all the important contribution it makes to the debate over the New Deal. Ira Katznelson brings his enormous experience of and expertise in the history of American politics and institutions to bear on this vast subject, and his impressive command of the material shows on every page. He has read widely and deeply, and has mined primary as well as secondary sources to paint a wide-ranging and satisfyingly rich portrait of this pivotal period in American and world history.

There is a portrait of the Soviet judge at Nuremberg, Iola Nikitchenko, as a case study of the difficult moral dilemma democracies like the United States had to face as they forged alliances with dictatorships. There is much useful material on the role of scientific research and development in the making of the post-war American state.

The major battles of the Roosevelt era, tackling both economic policy and the road to war and its aftermath, are interlinked in telling and informative ways. The book provides a rewarding and suggestive narrative arc that shows convincingly how racism and war both blunted the capacity of the United States to provide social justice for all and also sowed the seeds for future social upheaval and reform. Inevitably a book of this size and scope will raise many questions that would repay further investigation and consideration.

Certainly this reader, having read widely in the field and having taught the New Deal era since the start of his career, was both fascinated and frustrated by the book and its arguments. This assertion, poorly supported in the endnotes to the introduction, does historians like James T. Patterson, who wrote about congressional conservatives and the New Deal back in 1967, and Tony Badger, who has long married analysis of the New Deal order and the South, a disservice.

Foremost amongst these is the organisation of the book.

The American Depression years

There is no narrative arc to speak of in the first two sections but rather an attempt to place New Deal policymaking at home and abroad into the context of southern racism and an ambivalent relationship with dictatorship in Europe by interspersing analysis of key policies and events over time with vignettes and case studies of particular individuals or policies that illustrate the racist constraints.

The rationale for choosing these illustrative diversions over others is not always clear, and is not helped by the lack of chronological framing of the case studies. The first half of the book leaps about chronologically and thematically before the third and fourth sections restore a narrative and chronological structure to the work.

The book is at once a general history of the New Deal and Second World War period in the United States and a detailed analysis of Southern control over political institutions and the impact of the shadow of totalitarianism on the United States. The result is an overlong and unwieldy tome that might have benefited from some abridgement and consolidation. The organisation of the work also makes for some unusual emphases: Italian Fascist aviator Italo Balbo gets a third of a chapter devoted to his rapturous reception in the US after his transatlantic flight a reception due in large part surely to the fact that he had flown the Atlantic, not because he was a Fascistbut key congressional New Dealers a vital counterweight to the Southern bloc in Congress and influential in shaping much New Deal social and labour legislation get little treatment.

At times I had to work hard to keep the big issues at the forefront of my mind.

The New Deal

Most notable by its absence from the history presented here is the wider institutional and constitutional context in which Southern white hegemony over the political process played out.

Only mentioned in passing is the crucial role played by the United States Supreme Court in the shaping of the relationship between government — state and federal — and its citizens in the early 20th century.

Political hostility to a regulatory state transcended the white South: Furthermore, the author convinces in his fresh appraisal of the radicalism of the National Recovery Administration, passed into law with Southern support, but it was the rushed and sloppily conceived drafting of the legislation in the febrile early days of the administration that doomed it to destruction at the hands of a unanimous Court.

When the Committee on Economic Security was formed in 1934 to begin drafting what would become the Social Security Act, their legal team was acutely aware of the constitutional constraints that would force the administration to work within certain parameters if the law was to stand.

The notion that it was southern racism that was alone responsible for the glaring inadequacies of New Deal legislation simplifies a more complex story in which Southern Democratic control of congressional politics is part of a constitutional system of governance that has often impeded the creation of a more just economic and social citizenship.

Florida and the New Deal

I appreciate that constitutional jurisprudence is not the central focus of the book, but its near absence makes the work lop-sided and wrenches the impact of Southern lawmen from the larger context. This is a rich and enviably learned study of a formative period in the creation of the modern United States, a country with a hugely larger state apparatus than could have been imagined before FDR and with a significantly expanded role on the global stage.

New Deal Cultural Programs:

It brings timely perspective to a subject often poorly understood in contemporary political debate and yet often cited, by both liberals and conservatives, as signalling the birth of an era of governance still being played out. Yet in trying to be both a general survey of the age of FDR and a focused study of Southern politics as the central driving force of political change in the United States, it does not manage to be definitive, but instead should be read alongside works by Leuchtenburg, Badger, and Kennedy to place its major interventions onto a broader canvas.

And the national security state established as the last major contribution of the New Deal administrations continues to influence both American politics and the wider world in vitally important ways.

This book is a valuable contribution to helping us understand how we got here. Notes Frank Freidel, Franklin D. The American People in Depression and War. Champion of Freedom London, 2003. Back to 2 James T. Patterson, Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: Back to 3 January 2014.