Wednesday, January 27, 2016


IF Roosevelt had not lifted the Depression in his first hundred days as President, he had dissipated the pall of fear which hung over the United States. It was a task that had seemed impossible when he took office. At the beginning of March 1933 one supporter had written, "I really tremble for the new administration because the great rank and file of the people are expecting a miracle."58 After Roosevelt's inaugural address many Americans felt that he was the man to perform it: "They were ready tc believe that he could see in the dark."59 By the middle of June they con-cluded that a miracle had indeed occurred. As the New York Times noted, Roosevelt had turned the emergency into a personal triumph: That was because he seemed to the American people to be riding the whirlwind and directing the storm. The country was ready and even anxious to accept any leadership. From President Roosevelt it got a rapid succession of courageous speeches and efforts and achievements which inclined millions of his fellow citizens to acclaim him as the heaven-sent man of the hour.6°
Roosevelt's measures may have been largely unpremeditated, surprisingly incoherent and frequently ineffective. All too often his overlapping agen-cies engaged in feuds of their own and he never harnessed their energies to achieve real economic recovery. Yet in just over three months the President averted catastrophe, restored the nation to psychological equilibrium and incidentally buttered his own political parsnips for life. He imbued the United States with a sense of purpose, unity and dynamism. He epito-mised compassion in government. He reinvigorated public service and, li like John F. Kennedy after him, got the young involved. He gave promis that the resources of democracy were equal to the crisis and that capit " could heal itself. He exuded optimism. As Harold Ickes said, "It's m than a New Deal. It's a New World."6' Roosevelt's achievement was indeed a personal one. He conveyed a sense that the New Deal was a great adventure, a heroic struggle which would culminate in victory over the Depression. His zest for this enter-prise found expression in the obvious delight he took in the appurte-nances of his office. The White House itself was transformed by his exhilarating presence. When H. G. Wells had visited Hoover there he had found "a sickly overworked and overwhelmed man" inhabiting "a queer ramshackle place like a nest of waiting-rooms with hat-stands everywhere, and unexpected doors . . . through which hurrying distraught officials appeared and vanished." Calling on Roosevelt he "found that this magic White House had changed back again to a large leisurely comfortable pri-vate home."Where Hoover had addressed Wells like a public meeting, everything under Roosevelt was informal and relaxed. The house was lived in to the point of shabbiness. The food was notori-ously bad: gourmet visitors were particularly revolted by the salads, which sometimes concealed "bits of marshmallow in their dreadful depths."63 The patrician President sent away for bargain mail-order shirts. His bed-room was almost Spartan: he slept on a thin mattress in a narrow iron bedstead covered with a white seersucker counterpane; there was little in the way of decoration except pictures, a collection of miniature pigs on the marble mantelpiece and the tail of his father's horse Gloucester over the door. The adjoining second-floor Oval Study was scarcely less modest. The walls were painted battleship grey and a large green rug covered the floor. The President's massive oak desk, made from the timbers of the Resolute, was crowded with curios, gadgets and souvenirs. Books, model ships, photographs, naval paintings and flags added to the clutter. The impression that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a family home was strengthened by the First Lady, whose hospitality was as warm as it was frugal. Vulnerable and impulsive, radiating "spiritual energy" but pos-sessing the common touch, Eleanor Roosevelt not only acted as her hus-band's (frequently ignored) liberal conscience, she also acted as his hostess in a singularly unpretentious White House. Her efforts had more than domestic import since, as one of her staff said: "This goldfish bowl is made out of magnifying glass."65 What people saw inside it was the smil-ing face of democracy. Nevertheless critics, some of whom had earlier called for a dictatorship, increasingly damned Roosevelt for having established one. This charge, which reveals much about the power of ideas to transcend reality, soon became the common currency of polite conversation. It was repeated in the press, most rabidly by Colonel Robert R. McCormick's Chicago Trib-une, which described Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and Roosevelt as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It was first heard from the pulpit in the sum-mer of 1933, when Roosevelt was denounced as a "dictator" by the Presi-dent of the Church of Latter-day Saints.66 Similarities can be adduced, it is true, between Roosevelt's remedies for the Depression and those of fas-cist and Communist leaders. FDR himself said that he was doing, in a more orderly way, "some of the things that were being done in Russia and even some of the things that were being done under Hitler in Germany."67 The President built highways while the Rihrer built autobahns. Roosevelt regarded the CCC work camps as a means of getting young people "off the city street corners"; Hitler described similar projects as a way to keep the youth from "rotting helplessly in the streets." When Roosevelt refused to cooperate at the World Economic Conference of June 1933—he feared its attempts to stabilise international currency would interfere with his price-raising efforts in the United States—Hjalmar Schacht, President of the Reichsbank, congratulated him for being an economic nationalist like the Fiihrer. He may even have been influenced by writers such as Stu-art Chase, populariser of the term "New Deal," who likened Communism to "the flaming sword of Allah" seen "over the plains of Mecca." However, Roosevelt's diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union in November 1933 was not prompted by any ideological sympathy. On the contrary, religious Americans went so far as to hope that he had "restored God to Russia."7° In fact the President wanted good relations with the USSR to counter Japan and to promote trade. At home he was clearly try-ing to preserve the American way of life. His version of the planned economy was not socialism but state capitalism. His purpose was to rein-vigorate private enterprise with injections of public spirit—and public money. Roosevelt's New Deal was a world away from Stalin's perelom, his break with the past. Despite what Hearst might say, the TVA was by no means Soviet. The AAA could not be confused with Stalin's agrarian revo-lution: Wallace was trying to save American kulaks. The public works schemes of Hopkins and Ickes were designed to restore individual dignity, not to promote collectivism. Though often called a "Parlour Pink," Rexford Tugwell was, as General Johnson said, "about as Red as a blue hen." Sinister enough in all conscience, J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was no "miniature American Chekevz in fact, pro-moted with Hollywood hoop-la, it smacked less of the secret police than the Keystone Kops. Roosevelt's emergency measures aimed to increase national prosperity rather than to augment presidential power. Nothing could have induced him to emulate the brutal Caesarism of Stalin. Equally, the President was repelled by Hitler's organised savagery, espe-cially as expressed in war-mongering and anti-Semitism--though in prac-tice FDR would do as little to succour German Jews as to assist Ameri-can blacks. As chief of the world's greatest trading nation he did not, like Hitler and Mussolini, lust for autarky; though at a time when Euro-pean states were refusing to pay their war debts Roosevelt was inclined to ignore the warning of his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that eco-nomic wars are the germs of real wars. While the President was influenced by isolationism—he wrecked the World Economic Conference with his bombshell message urging each nation to set its own house in order—he aspired (as his later policies showed) towards internationalism. Further-more Roosevelt's New Deal hardly compares in essentials with Hitler's Gleichschaltung (coordination). The Blue Eagle could not be mistaken for the swastika. The fireside chat was the antithesis of the Nuremberg rally. Organised labour flourished under Roosevelt, whereas Hitler smashed the trade unions. Roosevelt's manipulation of the media bore no relation to the national brainwashing attempted by Goebbels. The President did not possess, as the New York Times sagely observed, "a private army of, say, 2,000,000 Blueshirts." The American constitution remained intact. No senators were sent to concentration camps; no congressmen were forcibly fed on castor oil. True, there were Americans who believed that a little castor oil might have started the wheels of industry going, not least the red-necked, red-suspendered, Red-hating Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia. But Roosevelt organised no "Fascist movement"—a vital necessity, in the opinion of Sir Oswald Mosley, if the President were to become a bona fide dictator. The fact is that, more than most presidents, Roosevelt existed in a deliberate dimension of ambiguity. He was eclectic and evasive to the point of contradiction and obfuscation. He was prepared to try whatever expedient looked good at the time. When the small boom that coincided with the first hundred days of the New Deal began to falter, Roosevelt initiated another of his overlapping relief agencies, Harry Hopkins's short-lived Civil Works Administration, which found temporary employment for over four million people during the cold winter of 1933-4. On the false assumption that the Depression could be cured by fixing prices rather than stimulating demand, over the winter he juggled with the value of gold over the dollar. To his admirers Roosevelt was a bold empiricist who was wonderfully accessible to new ideas. To his enemies, he was an unscrupulous opportunist who would embrace any creed to remain there.
In the 1936 election, Roosevelt shamelessly wore his warm heart on his sleeve. Alf Landon, the modest, liberal REpublican candidate could not match his opponent's rhetoric let alone FDR's comment on his emblem the Kansas sunflower: it was yellow, had a black heart and always died before November.
From... The Dark Valley by Piers Brendon

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