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The literature currently available to the public about Franklin D. Roosevelt and his era has already reached formidable proportions. Almost all the eminent participants in the hectic events of the Thirties have brought out their glistening personal axes and ground them or had them ground for the greater benefit of posterity. Frances Perkins, Harold Ickes, Henry Morgenthau, Rex Tugwell, James Farley, Cordell Hull, Raymond Moley, Harry Hopkins, and, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt have had their days in power but all of them now are pretty well sidelined.
But when the central figures retire, the historians come to life. Frank Friedel, James MacGregor Burns, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. are just the first of what will probably be a long and voluble wave of commentators. Among these academic pioneers in the already furrowed soil, Schlesinger takes the top honors--for scope, for literary ability, and for insight.
His second volume in the Age of Roosevelt series--The Coming of the New Deal--establishes his claims in all these departments and cements his reputation for wit and clarity of organization. Of course, it would require a particularly inferior historian to make a dull story out of material provided by the chaotic first two years of the New Deal. But Schlesinger has given new depth to the history with which he worked and has produced a book of singular power.
End of a Bad Dream
"Just now," Edmund Wilson wrote in the spring of 1934, "(Washington) is more interesting than I have ever known it before, and more lively than at any time since the war. The last administration weighed on Washington, as it did on the entire country, like a darkness, like an oppressive bad dream, in which one could neither speak nor act; and the talk and animation in Washington today are a relief like waking up from a bad dream . . . the place is like a Yale-Harvard-Princeton reunion.... It is equally true that, for a graduate of the school of New York liberalism, it is Old Home Week today in Washington." Schlesinger recreates this infusion of new life in the Capital in his book, but he is less interested in the aesthetic side of the renaissance than its practical results.
New Deal Cat-fights
These emerge not in any easy, step-by-step progression--but in the chaos of the cat-fights within the New Deal. Characteristic of these feuds is that between Hopkins and Ickes over the handling of relief--Hopkins' FERA and CWA (where the youngsters burdened with social consciences did battle) against PWA where Ickes took a cautious, yet constructive look at the nation's resources). Dean Acheson and Lewis Douglas (the forces of stabilization) are shown as they clashed with Morgenthau, Jesse Jones, a Cornell professor named George Warren, and, eventually, FDR (the forces of inflation). And there are even more squabbles, sometimes petty, sometimes vital: between Cordell Hull and Raymond Moley at the London Economic Conferences; between Jerome Frank, general counsel and an early casualty of AAA, against George Peek (a representative "of the older generation" in the battle for farm equality); and, in the most dominant fight of them all, between the two Franklin Roosevelts.
For despite the space and incisive consideration given to all the second-rank luminaries of the New Deal and to their alphabetical jurisdictional tangles, Schlesinger is most fascinated by the man who had to make all the final decisions. The verdict--in almost all the multitudinous skirmishes for the President's mind and in the Presidents's conscience--is two fold: for the people and for action. Perhaps a diligent student could achieve what Schlesinger has achieved in compiling--in a topical organization--the wealth of material about the tangible activities of the New Deal. But the decision-taking process at the top would still remain a mystery, the paradox of a Groton-Harvard-Hyde Park aristocrat becoming a hero of the proletariat. The author does a masterful job of detective-work on that mystery and produces a convincing explanation: 'He always cast his vote for life, for action, for forward motion, for the future.... He responded to what was vital, not to what was lifeless; to what was coming, not to what was passing away.'
But in determining the direction of movement, Roosevelt relied on something beyond "a basic simplicity of mind and heart" and "an instinct for the future." Schlesinger calls it "his extraordinary sensitivity to the emergent tendencies of his age and to the rising aspirations of ordinary people." It was also, as the Crisis of the Old Order detailed it, the temper of the times: threatening revolution, impending economic collapse and above all, human desperation. FDR may have been sensitive to the people's "aspirations," but he was also vitally aware of their needs and their sufferings. In combatting the wants of the economy and of the people, he chose not to fall back and regroup but to move forward, if need be, groping.
Welter of Theory
Unfortunately, from the stand-point of contemporary rationalizers of the New Deal, there seems to have been a great deal of groping with, of course, a maximum of philosophical and theoretical support for this blind exploring. But nowhere, try as Schlesinger may to produce one, does a coherent body of thought emerge to tie up the loose ends of the New Deal. There seems substantial validity in the view Edmund Wilson took of the New Deal in 1934: "The work which the New Deal is attempting--the stocktaking of the country's resources, the inquiry into the condition of the people and the development of some equitable plan for enabling the people at large to get the benefit of these resources--if it is not completed now by the Roosevelt administration, must eventually be carried through. But, in the meantime, one feels this spring that if Roosevelt's movement forward should suddenly go into reverse, the whole of the nesting brain trust might be swept out of the capital overnight, leaving not an idea behind."
The Cast of Characters
Schlesinger would not quite concur in this estimate, and in fact goes to considerable lengths to outline the ideological antecedents of much New Deal legislation. Nevertheless, the argumentation so carefully reported in the volume's chapters on agricultural, industrial, financial, conservation, labor and relief policies seems very much spur-of-the-moment philosophy. Schlesinger does manage to create one plausible clash of ideologies in explaining the New Deal: "The Tennessee Valley Authority ... became another battlefield in the struggle which divided the early New Deal--the struggle between the social planners, who thought in terms of an organic economy and a managed society; and the neo-Brandeisians, who thought in terms of the decentralization of decision and the revitalization of choice."
But this distinction is not a consistent one, or if it is, the author fails to maintain it as such. Far more often the decisions of 1933 and 1934 appear in the context of the welter of intriguing personalities who fought for them. Schlesinger is at his best in recreating these personalities; he is not at his best in presenting the economic thoughts which may have driven them.
And it was people--a strange breed of people--who made the New Deal a phase with vast and conflicting connotations in the mind and history of America. On the Right there were people like Richard Whitney of the Stock Exchange, more recently of Sing Sing; like Lewis Douglas, in 1952 an Eisenhower Republican; J. P. Morgan, Jr.; Raymond Moley who can now be found on the inside back page of Newsweek; an early anti-communist of the Dies-McCarthy school named William A. Wirt; plus Father Coughlin, Col. Lindbergh, Bernard Baruch, and a host of others. On the Left there were Harry Hopkins, Jesse Jones, Leon Henderson, Ben Cohen, Tommy Corcoran, Henry Wallace, and John L. Lewis. These are the people whom Schlesinger brings back from the sidelines of history into the prominence they deserve. And above them all, generally somewhere in the middle of their ideological and personal rampages is the central character of Schlesinger's gripping story, the President.
The most important part of the story--viewed twenty-five years later with the subjectivity which the author cannot claim to have suppressed--is that it is over. The contrast between the days of Roosevelt and the days of Eisenhower is striking and saddening. Schlesinger has performed a considerable service in recording the old ways of response to crises before the life has completely gone out of them. But the undergraduate of the 1950's cannot help feeling in reading this volume that he has missed one of the most fascinating and vital periods of American politics. Worse, he can see no guarantee that it can be revived.
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