The New Deal: A Modern History

This lively and engaging survey of the New Deal is written by Pulitzer Prize winning Los Angeles Times journalist Michael Hiltzik, a financial and political writer for the newspaper. The twists and turns of the New Deal era serve as a judicious jumping off point for the author, who primarily is concerned with the political and economic history of the period — an era in which many of our existing ideas about government and society were forged.

Hiltzik reminds us that what now serves as a major frame for study started off as a mere turn of phrase. Samuel I. Rosenman, one of Roosevelt’s speech writers, working late one evening, wrote an important phrase for the President, though not one he expected to survive the editorial process. He penned, “I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.” FDR included the phrase in an important speech made at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Some newspapers covering the speech didn’t immediately note the use of the phrase, but soon enough the term New Deal quickly caught on with both the press and government officials. The term came to define a broad and complex series of reforms put forward by the FDR Administration,though the origins and results of these reforms were unclear and sometimes even contradictory.

Inherent to the Roosevelt administration’s response to the staggering economic crisis were internal uncertainties about what actually led to the Great Crash. It was then difficult to create a plan to respond to something that those in Washington didn’t — and ultimately couldn’t — fully understand. FDR turned to a myriad of responses organized around two major goals, which the author views as having mixed success.

The New Deal, Hiltzik argues, was successful in its efforts at direct relief to those in need. Less successful were FDR’s attempts to reign in and discipline the business community. Although the New Deal would come to be the subject of intense criticism from both the Left and the Right, some of the earliest reforms seemed so desperately necessarily as to seem anything but radical. Indeed, Hiltzik argues that Roosevelt repackaged many ideas from the Hoover Administration, though presenting them with more political skill and charisma.

This survey not only sheds light on the decisions made by Roosevelt himself, it also explores the characters and unfolding drama taking place within his circles and between various government agencies. Although some New Deal agencies were quite popular, the apparent expansion of the federal government alarmed many critics. Some proponents of the New Deal — and Roosevelt personally — were members of the upper class; Hiltzik explores a question of historical debate: was Roosevelt a “traitor” to his elite origins, as some bourgeoisie periodicals labeled him in the 1930s?

Through compelling storytelling the book arrives at several key conclusions. Although complicated by internal discord and confusion, many of the efforts that put people to work and reshaped the national landscape proved extraordinarily successful. The WPA built 124,000 new bridges, 41,300 schools, and 18,000 new playgrounds and athletic fields. Building projects included dams, highways, and airports.

But Hiltzik argues that the success in reshaping the physical landscape and the temporary relief the programs offered to the unemployed were somewhat overshadowed — in the long run — by other aspects of the New Deal. Hiltzik allows that the FDIC and SEC worked to help shore up banks and markets in the United States, which helped provide a stable framework for future growth. He reminds his audience, however, that these reforms failed to regulate private sector expansion on Wall Street.

Despite the contradictions and the mixed record of success in policies and reforms, Hiltzik sees the New Deal as a key turning point in US history, both dramatic and filled with contradictions. The New Deal established the belief that government could effectively respond to modern problems, but was also capable of failure and inaction.

Hiltzik builds his narrative on published archival and oral history sources. This survey will prove particularly useful to new students of the New Deal, yet Hiltzik’s consistently compelling narrative will likely be of interest to more advanced scholars as well.

Reviewed by Sam Redman

Dr. Sam Redman is an Academic Specialist at the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

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