In a piece titled, “Biden’s Plan Isn’t ‘Spending’ but ‘Investing,'” Nicholas Kristof compares President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan to the New Deal programs that built the physical infrastructure of the nation. Using the example of the Yamhill-Carlton High School built by the Public Works Administration, Kristof argues that the Biden plan is, “not an ‘expense’ but an ‘investment’.” Read the full piece here.
Living New Deal Advisor June Hopkins, the granddaughter of key New Dealer Harry Hopkins, participated in a panel discussion with other descendants of the original F.D.R. Cabinet and Brain Trust descendants during a conference titled, “The New Deal Then and New: What is the Role of Government in Response to Great Crises?” and presented by the Roosevelt House.
The descendants of the original F.D.R. Cabinet and Brain Trust introduced a new public program presented in-person and on zoom “The New Deal Then and Now: What is the Role of Government in Response to Great Crises?”
As the nation awaits a vote on President Biden’s historic infrastructure bills—a “new New Deal,” as many have called it—Roosevelt House hosts a public conference examining the lessons of FDR’s original New Deal, and how those lessons can inform the federal response to the most challenging set of crises since the Great Depression. The program will be led by descendants of Franklin Roosevelt’s own Cabinet members and “Brain Trust.”
This in-person conference—also available to attend virtually on Zoom—is the result of the vision and determination of a group of descendants of the FDR administration who, for more than a year, have urged Congress to embrace a transformational legislative agenda—and launch a 21st Century New Deal for the benefit of all Americans. Joining them for the conference will be noted authors, historians, and advocates.
Three one-hour sessions examine the following vital and timely questions: How did FDR’s New Deal save the country, and how did promoters of limited government push back? What’s at stake now?—a consideration of jobs, climate change, filibuster reform, and voting rights; and, the central question: what makes this the time for a modern New Deal?
Participating descendants include:
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall is the grandson of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary, and founder of the Frances Perkins Center.
David Hopkins Giffen is the great-grandson of Harry Hopkins, WPA Administrator and Commerce Secretary, and the Executive Director of Coalition for the Homeless.
June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, WPA Administrator and Commerce Secretary, and the author of Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.
James Roosevelt, Jr. is the grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and serves as co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee.
Phoebe Roosevelt is the great-granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, a high school history teacher, and an attorney who served in the Affirmative Litigation division of the New York City Law Department.
Henry Scott Wallace is the grandson of Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s Vice President and Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce, and is a former congressional candidate and co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund.
Participating authors, journalists, historians, and advocates include:
Jonathan Alter is a journalist, historian, documentary filmmaker, and the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and, most recently, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life.
Nancy MacLean is Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
David Riemer is a Senior Fellow at Community Advocates Public Policy Institute in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the author of Putting Government in its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0.
Mary Ellen Sprenkel is President and CEO of The Corps Network, a nationwide network of public-service job corps, and helped the White House design the new Civilian Climate Corps.
Adam Jentleson was deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.
by GRAY BRECHIN | OCTOBER 4, 2021. Originally published in Zocalo Public Square
75 Years Later, ‘War and Peace’ Survives, But Its Ideals Have Not
As multiple crises pile atop one another in the young 21st century, a tripartite mural at a former San Francisco post office lobby rebukes us with its dated optimism.
“War and Peace,” by the artist Anton Refregier, is a reminder of what might have been had the U.S.—and the world—learned enough from two catastrophic wars and the rise of fascism between them to have chosen a different path. When Refregier painted it 75 years ago at one end of the Rincon Annex post office building in downtown San Francisco, the mural expressed the then-widespread hope for a future that didn’t happen.
In 1940, Refregier, a resident of Woodstock, New York, won a prestigious juried competition to paint 27 murals for the post office lobby. His award was one of the largest commissions sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal initiative to embellish federal buildings with work by leading American artists. It also was one of its most provocative commissions, because the mural cycle Refregier envisioned would represent the full, messy history of San Francisco, including its racial and class divisions—subjects rarely, if ever, seen on post office walls.
World War II postponed the project, and in 1943, Congress terminated the Treasury Section and transferred his commission to the new Public Buildings Administration. Refregier mourned the loss for himself and for the nation; he said that the Treasury Section’s commissions “would have eventually developed into a monumental art of world significance,” like Mexico’s murals, had it not been killed.As multiple crises pile atop one another in the young 21st century, a tripartite mural at a former San Francisco post office lobby rebukes us with its dated optimism.
In spring 1945, Fortune magazine sent Refregier to San Francisco to make drawings of the United Nations Conference on International Organizations. The gathering was designed to abort another world war, or worse.
Just two weeks before the meeting’s opening, a cerebral hemorrhage felled the man who’d conceived the United Nations. The conference delegates mourned Franklin Roosevelt’s absence at the opening, and a month later, they met in an ancient grove of redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument to dedicate a plaque that named him “the chief architect of the United Nations and Apostle of Lasting Peace for All Mankind.”
Roosevelt’s death and the political jockeying Refregier witnessed at the U.N. conference inspired him to create “a magnificent climax” to a mural cycle showing a city largely built on conflict. While keeping most of his original plan for the mural, he scrapped his design for the final piece (a panoramic painting of the San Francisco world’s fair of 1939) and replaced it with a triptych—a three-paneled picture—depicting the healing of old wounds through international cooperation and the price of not doing so.
In the left panel, an immense armored hand rises from a pile of burning books, a swastika flag, and concentration camp prisoners to confront the massed guns of the Allies. In the right panel, people of all races gather round a circular table covered with the flags of many nations, the sun of a new day rising behind them.
Refregier sought to bridge the two antithetical pictures with a portrait of Roosevelt in the center. He was inspired by a photo of the ailing president on his return from a hazardous wartime trip to meet Churchill and Stalin at Yalta. Roosevelt’s face, the artist said, was that of a “tired, sensitive, and completely beautiful” man who “lives in the heart and the minds of the people” and thus “belongs to the history of this city.” He would dedicate the entire cycle to the memory of the late president.
Refregier returned to San Francisco in June, 1946 to paint the lobby, but he quickly fell afoul of unsympathetic bureaucrats in the Public Buildings Administration. His new superiors in Washington ordered him to remove Roosevelt, telling him that the image of a recently deceased president was inappropriate for a federal building. With the support of intellectuals, unions, and other artists, Refregier resisted for seven months, but he ultimately capitulated to what he saw as the forces that were even then launching the Cold War.
“It was necessary,” he said, “to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace, and hope of friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people on to the Cold War.”
The artist replaced Roosevelt’s face with a multiracial group looking to the United Nations for a fulfillment of the “four freedoms” that the president had named in his 1941 State of the Union address. In addition to the freedoms of speech and religion, Roosevelt had insisted that two more freedoms—from fear and from want—should become global human rights. Four golden pillars stood on the Opera House stage during the U.N. conference to represent those freedoms.
But the world was not to be freed of fear or want. As Refregier foresaw, the Cold War erased the hopes Roosevelt had inspired for peace and economic freedom, while the McCarthy era brought purges against those who shared Roosevelt’s vision. Led by nationalist organizations and the Hearst press, efforts to censor or destroy Refregier’s murals began even as he was painting them. In 1949, Representative Richard Nixon responded to a concerned American Legionnaire, “I believe a committee should make a thorough investigation of this type of art in government buildings with the view to obtaining the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.” Three years later and just a few months into Nixon’s vice presidency, the House Committee on Public Works met in Washington to consider the destruction of Refregier’s murals.
With strong support from the San Francisco Establishment and beyond, the murals survived but the post office did not. In 1979, the building was redeveloped as a multi-use complex. Its current owners maintain the extant lobby as a public space listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, just steps from where the nations of the world once met to sign the U.N. Charter, a growing legion of the homeless, hungry, and sick shuffle city streets below opulent towers. They testify to how very far San Francisco, the nation, and the world have veered from Roosevelt’s freedom from want and freedom from fear.
At a time when collective global action is needed to address climate chaos, pandemic disease, nuclear weapons, and resurgent fascism, few today look to the U.N. as the congress of nations Roosevelt and Refregier hoped it would become.
Like Roosevelt’s face, the purpose for which it was created has been erased.
Gray Brechin is a project scholar at The Living New Deal in U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Geography. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (U.C. Press, 1999). Refregier’s quotes are from his papers at the Archives of American Art.
The Free Library of Philadelphia is hosting a New Deal exhibit called “For the Greatest Number: The New Deal Revisited.” Co-curated by Laura Stroffolino, who is Print and Picture Collection Curator, and and Caitlin Goodman, Curator of the Rare Book Department, the exhibit shows how workers shaped the nation during the Great Depression. Find more details here and here.
The Zakheim murals at the UCSF Medical Center will stay in place after a court order. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the work to remove the mural has been temporarily halted after Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch granted a motion for a restraining order requested by San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities.
Two New Deal paintings that depict industry and early settlement were recently found behind a wall of cabinets at the Beaver Dam Middle School in Wisconsin.
Installed in 1934, the paintings were removed in 1995, when the district remodeled the middle school. Read the full story here.
The Living New Deal invites submissions for the First Annual New Deal Book Award.
This award has been established to recognize and encourage non-fiction works about the history of the United States in the New Deal era, 1932-1942, or inclusive of a substantial portion of that remarkable decade between the nadir of the Great Depression and US entry into World War II.
Submissions for the award must have a 2021 imprint and be nominated by a publisher or colleague. Hard copy books or locked PDFs should be submitted no later than November 15, 2021.
The winner will be announced in Spring 2022 with a cash prize of $1,000. Presentation of the award will take place during the Roosevelt Reading Festival at the FDR Library at Hyde Park NY in Summer 2022, to which the five finalists will be invited.
For submission details please find information at the Living New Deal website.