Thursday, January 29, 2009

FDR and the Hundred Days- New York Review of Books Essay

Seems that we had a bunch of books recently about FDR and the start of the New Deal. Russell Baker at The New York Review of Books has an essay that needs reading. Interesting how the Republicans do like their strongmen:

H.L. Mencken, after pronouncing Roosevelt "one of the most charming of men," wrote that, like most such men, he left the impression of being "somewhat shallow and futile." Other important journalists—Herbert Bayard Swope, Frank Kent, Arthur Krock—seemed to agree. Even more remarkably, after his election some of these very critics were saying he should be given dictatorial powers. Such was the sense of panic about the Great Depression as he took office.

"The nation expected Roosevelt to claim the powers of a dictator, or close to it," Adam Cohen states in Nothing to Fear. He quotes Senator William Borah, the highly respected progressive Republican from Idaho, declaring himself ready to put politics aside and "give our incoming President dictatorial power within the Constitution for a certain period."

"If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now," said Senator David Reed, a Pennsylvania Republican. Even Lippmann, having dismissed candidate Roosevelt just a few months earlier, wrote that the use of "'dictatorial powers,' if that is the name for it—is essential.'"

Roosevelt addressed the dictatorship question in his Inaugural Address, saying he intended to work with Congress on the nation's problems and hoped the president's traditional powers would suffice to help solve them. If not, he would ask for a "temporary departure," asking for "broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

As Cohen observes, this was "the most radical" passage in the Inaugural, "with its understated suggestion of autocracy." He notes that "it received an enthusiastic response from the crowd." Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany just over one month earlier; Benito Mussolini, as Italy's prime ministerial dictator since 1922, was fairly popular in the United States. In the astonishing tumult of legislation that immediately followed Roosevelt's inauguration, Congress proved so eager to vote immediately for anything he wanted that he seemed to have been granted dictatorial power without asking for it.

But FDR chose not to be a dictator. No unitary executive theorist, he worked with Congress. Which probably did extend the Great Depression. But what would his critics prefer: the United States we have or an United States that endured a Mussolini/Francisco Franco?

Raymond Moley, who was very close to Roosevelt in the early days, told him his view should be that "there is no room in this country for two reactionary parties," that Democrats should be "a party of liberal thought, of planned action" on behalf of labor, farmers, and small businessmen. And that was what FDR made it when everything looked as hopeless as it could be and there had never been a worse hard time.

Certainly he did not make it by design. Some may say that he blundered his way into it and, what's more, all that spending did not end the Great Depression either; it took Hitler and World War II to do that. Of course World War II was, among other things, the biggest public works program in American history, which invites the inference that FDR was on the right track before the war, but simply failed to spend enough

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