A New Deal for Dalhart: Reviving a Rural Texas Town

Dust clouds over Dalhart, 1936

Dust clouds over Dalhart, 1936
During the Great Depression, winds swept away parched topsoil, dooming farms, businesses and the national bank in Dalhart. Photographer unknown. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

“The thirties began in economic depression and in drought. The first of these disasters usually gets all the attention, although for many Americans living on farms, drought was the more serious problem,” Donald Worster wrote in his 1979 Bancroft Prize-winning chronicle, Dust Bowl. This could not be truer than in Dalhart, Texas, the epicenter of the Dust Bowl.  

Born at the turn of the 20th century as an important railroad crossing in the northwest corner of the Texas Panhandle, Dalhart became a prosperous agricultural community, home to the XIT Ranch, then the largest cattle ranch in the world. But by the 1930s, extreme drought combined with the region’s notorious wind led to the soil erosion that ultimately devastated the town’s agricultural industry.

Abandoned farm near Dalhart, Texas

Abandoned farm near Dalhart, Texas
Photo by Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration, 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Things began to turn around in 1934 with the emergence of the New Deal, when the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service chose Dalhart, the county seat, for one of the nation’s first erosion-control demonstration projects—the first to focus solely on wind erosion.

Initially manned by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, these rehabilitation projects restored grasslands in areas not suitable for farming and introduced new methods of moisture retention, such as terracing, crop rotations and contour plowing. The success of the projects combined with new federal loan programs incentivized farmers to adopt the new practices, which boosted the local economy and popularized conservation practices. By 1936, more than 40,000 farmers throughout the region had adopted the new methods, accounting for more than 5.5 million acres of contour-listed conservation.

The drought committee from the Soil Conservation Service surveys sand dunes just a few miles north of Dalhart.
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration, 1936. Courtesy, The New York Public Library.

These restoration programs revived the agricultural economy of Dallam County, today one of the largest agricultural producing counties in Texas by value, with the city of Dalhart serving as an agribusiness hub for a region stretching across five states.

The impact of the New Deal didn’t stop at the agricultural revival of Dalhart’s farmlands. The destruction caused by the Dust Bowl also meant the city itself needed rehabilitation assistance. The WPA was responsible for damming the Rita Blanca Lake (now a city-owned recreation site), paving downtown streets, constructing underpasses to accommodate vehicle and rail traffic and building Dalhart’s downtown post office, today owned by Vingo Vineyards Winery.

Vintage Postcard, Dalhart, Texas Post Office

Vintage Postcard, Dalhart, Texas Post Office
The former Dalhart, Texas post office building was constructed with federal Treasury Department funds in 1934.

Dalhart owes much of its mid-century revival to the New Deal and the impact of the Soil Conservation Service. Today, the City is committed to historic preservation efforts, many of which highlight the New Deal-era. Restoring Dalhart’s historic downtown has become a priority.  

Paved with bricks laid by WPA workers, Denrock Avenue is lined with historic storefront buildings that, like the city itself, withstood the hardest of times. Restoring and preserving this history is part and parcel of the vision for the city’s future as a destination for visitors, a vibrant commercial center and a source of pride for Dalhart’s resilient residents. 

WATCH: Dalhart Dust Storm
Newsreel footage reveals the devastation of soil erosion and dust storms to the town and farms around the panhandle town of Dalhart,1930s. Courtesy, Texas Archive.org

Bryce Jones is the Community Development Manager for the City of Dalhart, Texas. In his role, he is focused on downtown development and historic preservation.

The New Deal Through the Lens of Arthur Rothstein

Self Portrait, Arthur Rothstein

Self Portrait, Arthur Rothstein
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

President Franklin Roosevelt had a remarkable ability to rally the nation using the mass-communication media of his time. He crafted intimate “Fireside Chats” to reach Americans in their homes by radio, but in this pre-television era FDR also needed compelling visual imagery to advance his New Deal agenda, promote national unity and counter the growing political extremism from both left and right.

Photography was central to the administration’s wide-ranging media strategies.

The most influential body of work was produced by a team of photographers in the Resettlement Administration (RA), an agency created by FDR in 1935 that later became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) within the Department of Agriculture.

Rehabilitation client repays loan. Smithfield, North Carolina, 1936

Rehabilitation client repays loan, Smithfield, North Carolina, 1936.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

One of the largest and most visible of the New Deal’s initiatives, the FSA assisted struggling rural families and dislocated industrial workers throughout the country.

The President appointed Columbia University professor and key New Deal strategist, Rexford Tugwell, as director of the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell brought a colleague—agricultural economist Roy Stryker—to Washington to create the RA’s publicity arm, referred to as the

Historical Section. Stryker believed the best way to fulfill the Section’s mission was through photography, so he immediately hired his former student and recent Columbia graduate, Arthur Rothstein, as the agency’s photo lab director and first photographer.

"Eighty Acres." Wife and child of agricultural worker.

"Eighty Acres." Wife and child of agricultural worker.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

Over the next eight years, Rothstein and a group of more than a dozen photographers working under Stryker gained renown as the FSA Photo Unit.

The primary mission of the Photo Unit was to document the hardships of those struggling through the Great Depression and how the FSA was working to address their problems. These iconic images portray Americans amidst drought, dust storms and failing crops; unemployment lines and communities abandoned by failing industries. But they also evince hope: farms stabilized by the agency’s loans, families resettled to greener pastures and farm hands who found respite in FSA migrant housing.

Children of sharecropper. North Carolina, 1935.

Children of sharecropper, North Carolina, 1935.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

A secondary, but crucial role of the FSA’s photographers was to provide images in support of other New Deal programs. At times, Stryker’s photographers were loaned-out for assignments with other agencies, including the Interior Department and the US Public Health Service. These photographs often appeared in government reports and publications describing such New Deal initiatives as reducing child labor, improving international relations and boosting domestic tourism.

The Photo Unit produced more than 175,000 photographs during the 1930s and early 40s. Stryker provided the best of these images to newspapers, magazines and book publishers free of charge. This put a human face on the economic abstractions of the Great Depression and helped justify the need for the New Deal’s far-reaching initiatives.  The FSA Photo Unit later became part of the US Office of War Information (OWI), employed to promote national unity as America mobilized for war.

Explaining the Rural Electrification Administration to farm women at Central Iowa 4-H Club Fair. Marshalltown, Iowa, 1939.

Explaining the Rural Electrification Administration to farm women at Central Iowa 4-H Club Fair, Marshalltown, Iowa, 1939.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

Arthur Rothstein and his contemporaries at the FSA contributed significantly to the nation’s collective memory of the New Deal-era. Rothstein served as a photographer for the US Army Signal Corps during WWll. In the decades after the war, he continued to influence the field of photojournalism as a teacher, writer and mentor to countless photographers. He helped shape the visual culture of post-war America as director of photography at LOOK and Parade, two of the most popular magazines at the time.

Ann Rothstein Segan, Ph.D and her husband, Brodie Hefner, manage the Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project. Together they develop publications, educational programs and exhibitions on the life and career of Ann’s father, documentary photographer Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985). Segan and Hefner are active members and contributors to the work of American Photography Archive Group, The Living New Deal and Archivists Round Table of New York.

Forging an Environmentally Just Civilian Climate Corps

FDR with CCC recruits near Camp Roosevelt, Virginia, 1933. Courtesy, National Archives.

When President Biden signed Executive Order 14008 on January 27, 2021, he called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps based on the New Deal’s original Civilian Conservation Corps. The new program would put unemployed Americans to work conserving natural resources, much like its 1930s predecessor, but also undertake projects aimed at the most urgent environmental problem of our generation—climate change.

The announcement for the proposed Climate Corps was only one paragraph long. To ensure a popular and productive program, the Biden administration must provide more details and build on the original CCC’s successes while avoiding its pitfalls.

During its nine-year existence, from 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps succeeded on the economic and environmental fronts. Financially, it gave jobs to more than 3 million unemployed young men who earned about $700 million (the equivalent of more than $10.5 billion today). The Corps was also successful in its conservation efforts, planting more than 2 billion trees, slowing soil erosion on 40 million acres of farmland, creating 800 new state parks and developing dozens of national parks across the country.

CCC Uniform Patch

CCC Uniform Patch
The CCC hired 2.5 million young men during its nine year existence. The camps were often racially segregated. Courtesy, National Archives.

Yet, there were also significant missteps. The original Corps excluded women and older men, assigned African American enrollees to segregated camps, and placed Native Americans into a separate program. The program stumbled environmentally as well by undertaking some ecologically destructive projects, such as draining swamps for mosquito control and introducing invasive species to conserve soil. There also were problems on the economic front. The great majority of CCC projects, such as soil work on agricultural lands and the development of parks for recreational tourism, benefited mostly white rural communities.

President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps must acknowledge and improve on this complicated history. First and foremost, the new program must be more inclusive and accept enrollees regardless of gender, age, skin color and marital status. A new CCC must also diversify geographically, locating projects more equitably throughout the country to ensure that urban and suburban communities can benefit. Finally, a new Climate Corps must be guided by scientific experts to avoid the ecological blunders of the original program.


CCC Fighting Fires in Willamette National Forest, Oregon. Courtesy, Oregon History Project.

An updated Climate Corps must also expand its efforts to tackle a host of environmental justice problems, many in urban neighborhoods. Working with local communities to remediate toxic waste sites, mitigate pollution and develop urban outdoor recreational spaces and community gardens are but a few examples.

Most importantly, a new CCC must focus on the most pressing environmental problem of our age: climate change. Enrollees should help develop green energy systems—from solar panel installations to wind farms—and build climate-resilient infrastructure by restoring wetlands and constructing green stormwater management systems. All of this work would train those in the program for jobs in the emerging green energy sector.

Such a new and improved CCC would be hugely popular. According to polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute, 79 percent of likely voters—including 80 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans—support reviving the Corps.

Planting trees in Illinois

Planting trees in Illinois
CCC enrollees planted an estimated three billion trees from 1933 to 1942. Courtesy, Cook County Historical Society.

The history of the original CCC illustrates that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was already green.  To succeed, today’s Green New Deal initiatives—including President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps—must also be environmentally and socially equitable.

Neil M. Maher is a Professor of History in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University at Newark. His first book, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (Oxford University Press, 2009), received the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award.

Why The New Deal Matters

Rural Electrificatio

Rural Electrification
Members of the REA cooperative in Hayti, Missouri at an annual meeting. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The New Deal’s legacy is everywhere, in ways both grand and modest. If you want to see the New Deal you don’t really need to know where to look: you just need to know what you’re looking at.

Our public spaces were, and still are, shaped by the New Deal. Almost anywhere in the United States you are probably near a post office, library, school, park, museum, bridge or sidewalk built or improved by the New Deal. So, it’s not surprising that the New Deal of infrastructure is probably the New Deal that first comes to mind.

But when I say that New Deal is everywhere, I really mean everywhere, especially in economic activity.

If you have a bank account, your deposits are insured by the New Deal’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, operating since 1933.

If you’ve used money to buy stocks, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Securities and Exchange Commission, established in 1934 to enforce trading transparency laws.

Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to Key West.

Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to Key West
Built by the PWA, the 100-mile-long highway stretches over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Courtesy, State Library and Archives of Florida.

If you’ve bought a house, you’ve certainly made use of, at least indirectly, the Federal National Mortgage Association better known as Fannie Mae, created in 1938 to enable a national mortgage market.

But you don’t have to be carrying on high finance to feel the economic impact of the New Deal in your daily life.

If you’ve joined a union, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Wagner Act of 1935, which protected the right to organize and bargain collectively.

If you’ve earned minimum wage, thank the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which also barred child labor.

If you or someone in your family has drawn a federal old-age pension, disability benefits, or unemployment insurance, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Social Security Act of 1935.

But even that summary underestimates the economic ubiquity of the New Deal:

The dollar we use today is a creation of the Roosevelt Administration’s first days in office, when the president took the dollar off the gold standard and secured from Congress the authority to change the value of the dollar to ensure the smooth functioning of the economy. If you’ve ever been paid, saved, spent or even handled a dollar, you’ve come into contact with the New Deal.

The New Deal shaped the land. Policies we still have today to control production and sustain use of the soil began with the Agricultural Adjustment Acts of the 1930s.

New Deal agencies, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, built dams to generate power for impoverished rural regions, transforming the kinds of industry that could take place there.

Developing National Parks

Developing National Parks
CCC crews leave for job sites in Grand Canyon National Park, 1934. Courtesy, Grand Canyon NP Museum Collection.

The original New Deal was—in its way and for its day—green. It introduced the idea of ecological thinking to large-scale policy. When we think about a Green New Deal, we should remember the innumerable trees, parks, trails and firebreaks installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The New Deal also brought an end to the 19th-century policies of homesteading and allotment, which broke up federal and Native lands and parceled them out to individual owners. It restored control of Native lands to Native nations, which renewed recognition of their sovereignty.

Road-building programs—by far the largest part of the Works Progress Administration—knitted disparate parts of the nation together, making remote locales accessible for travel and commerce, thus making the postwar economic boom possible.

The Air Traffic Control system is a result of the New Deal, as is the Federal Communications Commission.

  Workers at the Social Security Administration 

Workers at the Social Security Administration 
The SSA used IBM tabulators to keep track of enrollees in the system. Courtesy, Wikimedia.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and, indeed, the United Nations itself are institutions that carried New Deal programs and ideals into the postwar world.

To say the New Deal matters is to realize that it gave shape to our world and that we reckon with it every day. But its ubiquity is only one reason the New Deal still matters.

We remember the Great Depression as an economic crisis. But we should also remember that to Roosevelt and many who voted for him the Depression caused a crisis of democracy.

Americans went hungry as unemployment skyrocketed. Millions of Americans became refugees in their own country.

At least so far as FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover was concerned, government could do little, or at any rate, would do little, to help. When Americans protested this inaction, the government proved it could rouse itself quite swiftly to send out the army to teargas protesters and run them off.  Within the United States and around the world, many wondered if democracy had reached its end.

Roosevelt was, more than most people, sensible of this threat. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, just after FDR won election to the presidency. A friend told FDR if he succeeded he would be remembered as one of the greatest American presidents, and if he failed, he would be remembered as one of the worst. Roosevelt responded, “if I fail, I may well be the last.”

The New Deal was, and remains, imperfect. But it held out the promise and demonstrated the possibility of an improved democracy for Americans, which is why, even to those mindful of the New Deal’s shortcomings, the New Deal still matters very much today.

Eric Rauchway, a member of the Living New Deal’s Research Board, is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. He is author of several acclaimed books including The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction; and Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal. His Why the New Deal Matters, (Yale University Press) was published in 2021.

Republic of Detours—Rekindling Interest in the Federal Writers’ Project

FWP Poster

FWP Poster
Writers at work. Courtesy, NY City Municipal Archives.

During the Great Depression, improving the nation’s infrastructure wasn’t the New Deal’s only agenda. Economic recovery also meant providing useful relief jobs to creative professionals, leading to the establishment of Federal One, the umbrella organization for the Federal Art, Theatre, Music, and Writers’ Projects.

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) employed thousands of out-of-work editors, writers and others, and published hundreds of books in its quest to create a self-portrait of America. It supported writers through hard times and propelled careers, with authors such as Nelson Algren, Ralph Ellison, Saul Levitt, Kenneth Rexroth, Mari Tomasi, May Swenson, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright among the many authors who were part of this literary legacy.  This idealistic program endeavored, through its publications, to celebrate the mosaic of racial, ethnic and cultural identities in America. It also, unfortunately, attracted the attention of conservatives, anti-New Dealers and the first iteration of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), leading to the FWP’s shutdown.

 American Guide

American Guide
The FWP published travel guides to 48 states and some regions and cities. Photo by Addie Borchert.

After Congress defunded the FWP in 1939, it was soon nearly erased from the public mind. A host of books, starting with Jerre Mangione’s 1972 book, The Dream and the Deal, resurrected interest in the FWP, helping to re-establish the importance of the Project.

Scott Borchert’s new book, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, (2021 Farrar, Straus and Giroux) adds an important voice to understanding this seminal federal effort, particularly now that legislation has been introduced to establish a 21st century FWP

Borchert’s well-researched history of the Project is offered alongside a historical backdrop. The American literary scene converges with cultural and political themes, stretching from the aftermath of the Civil War through the 1930s. The narrative and inviting writing style are welcoming to both FWP scholars and readers new to the Project.

Gathering of Nuggets

Gathering of Nuggets
The frontpiece of the FWP’s 1939 book, “Idaho Lore”. Courtesy, LOC.

Borchert’ interest in the FWP began with the discovery of a treasure trove of American Guide books in his great-uncle’s attic.  The American Guide series, the centerpiece of the FWP’s accomplishments, spanned every one of the then-48 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C. and dozens of cities and regions. Each guide included not only travel tours, but also essays on local folklore, history and geography.

Borchert’s telling of the FWP encompasses everything that made the agency special: the oral history/slave narratives collected by FWP workers; aspiring, soon-to-be famous writers; the evolving American Guide book series; segregation and racism in the Southern States; the “secret” creative writing unit approved by FWP director Henry Alsberg—and much more.  

Temple Herndon Dunham, Age 103

Temple Herndon Dunham, Age 103
From “Born in Slavery, Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project.” Courtesy, LOC Slave Narrative Collection.

Borchert examines previously unexplored aspects of the Project, including important but lesser known editors and writers like Vardis Fisher, the director of the Idaho Writers’ Project. Fisher, a novelist who grew up on a homestead, almost singlehandedly wrote his state’s guide, the first to be published. Readers also learn about Katharine Kellock, the FWPs highest-ranking woman, a powerhouse who helped devise the tour sections of the guide books. Borchert also brings us the story of writer Sherwood Anderson’s little-known involvement in the New Deal, as he traveled the nation to write for the FDR-endorsed magazine, Today, reporting on the impacts of Roosevelt’s new policies.

Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939

Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939
Dies head a House Special Committee to combat un-American ideologies. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration. Courtesy, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

No book on the FWP is complete without the battle played out in newspapers of the day, between Congressman Martin Dies, who chaired HUAC, and FWP’s beleaguered director Henry Alsberg, who struggled to save the Project and its writers from reactionary elements. Borchert also highlights the cultural and historical events that influenced HUAC and triggered its creation.   

The legacy of the FWP is often wrapped around its famous writers and its work relief programs. Borchert points to yet another legacy.

Henry Alsberg

Henry Alsberg
The founding director of the FWP testifying at HUAC hearing, 1938. Courtesy, LOC.

“The FWP, utterly and explicitly, was anti-fascist by design,” Borchert writes. He reminds us that the FWP was created while fascism was taking hold abroad and domestic groups like the Ku Klux Klan tried to worm its way into American society. “This was the backdrop against which the FWP was initiated, the fascist upsurge that it sought— through the American Guides and other efforts—to oppose.”

Susan Rubenstein DeMasi is the author of the 2016 biography, Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. She is a visiting scholar in this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities program, “The New Deal Era’s Federal Writers’ Project,” as well as a contributor to an upcoming book on the literary legacy of the FWP, edited by Sara Rutkowski, for the University of Massachusetts Press. [email protected]

Revisiting the “Blue Bible”

The “Blue Bible,” compiled 82 years ago, is a “best of” the PWA’s thousands of construction projects. Photo by Gray Brechin.

President Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is merely a belated down payment on decades of cost-cutting neglect and deferred maintenance that has brought much of U.S. infrastructure to near third world status. If it passes Congress, his proposal would create a myriad of needed jobs, but it’s also a reminder of the stupendous feat that ”Honest Harold” Ickes achieved modernizing the country in just half a decade. During that time, he served as both a seemingly never sleeping Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a vast public works construction agency often confused with its sometimes rival, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins.

Harold Ickes
As U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout FDR’s presidency, Harold Ickes was in charge of implementing major New Deal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the federal government’s environmental efforts. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

I call the doorstopper of a tome with the snoozer title Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration, 1935-1939 the Blue Bible not only for its buckram binding of that color but also because of the volume of information, much of which the Living New Deal has used on its website. Published by the Government Printing Office in 1939, the richly illustrated book is proof of what could be accomplished in the future.

Contracting with both small, local and giant construction companies such as Bechtel and Kaiser, the PWA stimulated the economy by building dams, airports, schools, colleges, bridges, public hospitals, art galleries, sewage treatment plants, lighthouses, libraries and even sleek Staten Island ferries and Coast Guard cutters. At over 600 pages of text, black and white plates and floor plans arranged by building type, the book shows a nation transformed in short order, yet it is only an abbreviation of a larger report requested by President Roosevelt and compiled by architects C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. They culled hundreds of what they regarded as all-stars from more than 26,000 PWA projects, many of which remain to be discovered.    

Blue Bible Project page

Blue Bible Project page
The PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects. Many outstanding examples appear in these pages. Photo by Gray Brechin.

Despite the gigantic scale and quality of many of the buildings, the plates included in the book identify neither the architects nor engineers responsible for the projects, although the cost is given. They show the smorgasbord of styles popular during the New Deal, ranging from Georgian to Pueblo, from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne to hints of the new International Style. Lavish government patronage led many artists employed by New Deal agencies to compare their era to that of the Renaissance.  The architects who compiled the book wrote, “Today architecture in the U.S. is passing through a period of transition, thus creating a condition which has much in common with that which existed in Italy in the 15th century when the architecture of the Middle Ages was changing to that of the Renaissance.” 

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho
The PWA’s accomplishments include building LaGuardia Airport, the Tri-borough Bridge, and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City; the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy, Bridgehunter.com

Scanning the book reminds me of architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham’s famous command in the early 20th century: “Make no small plans,” he said, since “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Ickes himself said when dedicating California’s Friant Dam that “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

Short and Stanley-Brown closed their introduction with a claim you won’t find in any government report today: “This vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen. Perhaps future generations will classify these years as one of the epoch-making periods of advancement in the civilization not only of our own country, but also of the human race.”

Vintage poster describing some of the PWA’s construction projects across America. Courtesy, Digital.library.Cornell.edu

The Blue Bible reminds us today how far the U.S. once materially advanced civilization, even as forces in Europe conspired toward its destruction.

Copies of the book can be acquired on Amazon as originals or as a 1986 paperback reprint by Da Capo Press.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Harry Hopkins, The First and Final Task of Government

Harry Hopkins, (1890-1946).

Harry Hopkins, (1890-1946) 
Hopkins oversaw the New Deal relief programs. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1890-1946) stood at the side of President Franklin Roosevelt through the two terrible crises of the 20th century—the Great Depression and the Second World War. Hopkins was the president’s trusted advisor, his close friend, his gatekeeper, and for three and a half years, his house guest.  He was never elected to any office, yet he occupied a position of power in Washington that has yet to be matched. 

Hopkins served as FDR’s federal relief administrator from 1933 to 1939, first as supervisor of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); then heading the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which put four million unemployed people to work in four months, and later the Works Progress Administration (WPA),

FERA Vocational training camp for unemployed women in Pennsylvania, 1934.

FERA Vocational training camp for unemployed women in Pennsylvania, 1934
Hopkins supervised the first emergency relief effort, FERA, superseded by the CWA and later, the WPA. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

which created jobs for 8.5 million Americans, and left a legacy on the American landscape that endures to this day.

He also served as Secretary of Commerce from 1938 to 1940. Hopkins’ upbringing in America’s heartland and his education at Iowa’s Grinnell College prepared him for his lifelong fight for social justice. As a social worker, his goal was social justice for all Americans. He began his public career with a deeply embedded belief that the government on all levels—but especially the federal government— has the constitutional responsibility to ensure the general welfare of all of its citizens. 

He firmly believed that this included the right to earn a decent living and, if private industry could not absorb all those who wanted to work, it rested with the federal government to be the employer of last resort. 

Wife and children of a sharecropper, 1936

Wife and children of a sharecropper, 1936
Hopkins believed government must insure the well-being of all its citizens. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

During the dark years of the Depression, Hopkins stood out as the one who knew how to cut through red tape. He had the administrative skills to get things done and a sharp tongue for those who criticized the unemployed as lazy.

During the war years Hopkins deftly carried out power diplomacy, acting as the lynchpin for the Big Three—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—fighting a coalition war.  As Roosevelt’s envoy, he was constantly ill, often to the point of debilitation, but relentlessly served the president’s mission to defeat fascism.  For Hopkins, this was the goal of social justice writ large. 

For all his adult life, Hopkins worked as a public servant.  Human welfare was always his priority – for the welfare Americans suffering deprivation during the economic depression of the 1930s and then from 1940 through 1945, for people worldwide being terrorized by expansionist and militaristic dictators.

Hopkins and Churchill, 1941.

Hopkins and Churchill, 1941
Hopkins was FDR’s emissary during during WWII. Courtesy, Brittanica.com.

At Hopkins memorial service in 1946, John Steinbeck described Hopkins’ legacy: “Human welfare is the first and final task of government. There is no other.”

That dictum—the Americans have the right to live in security and that government has the responsibility to provide for that security— is Hopkins greatest legacy. In the aftermath of Roosevelt’s administrations, Steinbeck wrote, the federal government can no longer deny its responsibility for human welfare.

President Roosevelt and Hopkins in a car

President Roosevelt and Hopkins
Rochester Minnesota, 1938 Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Today, my grandfather’s legacy remains largely unrecognized.  It would serve the nation well to remember that the task of government is to insure the general welfare of all Americans in peace and in war. Those who have the honor to serve in government must understand that this is their first and final responsibility.

Learn more about Harry Hopkins on the Living New Deal’s website.

June Hopkins is professor of history at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. Before becoming a historian, she, like her grandfather, was a social worker in New York City. She is the author of Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer (1999) and ‘Jewish First Wife, Divorced’: The Correspondence Between Ethel Gross and Harry Hopkins (2003). She serves on the Living New Deal’s Research Board.

Why Not a Beauty New Deal?

Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, California

Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, California
Architect Bernard Maybeck designed the terraced garden. Constructed by hundreds of workers from the CWA and later, the WPA, the garden was dedicated in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Recently, progressive Democrats have proposed a Green New Deal, a massive transition to protect our planet from further damage from the juggernaut of climate change. It’s time to consider as well a Beauty New Deal to protect and restore America’s natural environment and enrich and deepen the quality of our lives.

There is an inherent human need for beauty and the vitality of creative expression. Beauty impacts all of life. Studies show that beautiful built surroundings and access to parks, nature and green space contribute to good health, social connection, altruism, equity, tolerance, reduced consumerism and increased sustainability.

While beauty’s private aspects are subject to the same unjust distribution as other private goods, beauty, as a public good, has equity as its larger dimension.

In the 1960s, amid antiwar and civil rights marches, members of Congress worked across the aisle, responding to President Lyndon Johnson’s warning that we were becoming “an ugly America” and needed to restore and protect a beautiful America for future generations.

“The Progress of the Negro Race,” 1938

“The Progress of the Negro Race,” 1938
A decorative frieze by Daniel Olney adorns the Langston Terrace Dwellings public housing complex in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

This led not only to expanding national, state and local parks and beautifying highways, but to beautifying urban America as well.

Encouraged by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Lady Bird Johnson led a broad “beautification” campaign, starting with the nation’s badly neglected capital, Washington D.C. and African American neighborhoods most deprived of natural beauty by institutional racism. The “beautification” initiative was among the most widely popular of Johnson’s Great Society.

Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal was multi-dimensional, not merely economic-material, but also green and beauty-oriented.

Robert Stanton Theater, King City, California

Robert Stanton Theater, King City, California
The high school auditorium, built in 1939 with WPA funding is embellished with sculpture by Joseph Jacinto Mora. The Art Modern-style building was designed by Robert Stanton.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

With a major focus on environmental protection and restoration, New Deal programs hired artists, writers, photographers, actors, playwrights and musicians to take public art and performance to cities and s towns across America, while providing inspiration and income to hard-hit creatives. Earlier, encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt, the City Beautiful Movement that flourished during the 1890s and 1900s added parks and other public spaces to beautify American cities.

The importance of beauty has been largely neglected in public policy discussions of our times, but these bygone efforts provide a rich store of ideas to draw upon.




Lake Michigan Beach House

Lake Michigan Beach House
The CCC developed Michigan’s Ludington State Park, including its beautiful beach house, completed in 1935.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

A Beauty New Deal should:

  • Provide greater public support for artists, writers, poets and performers by re-establishing the original New Deal’s WPA Arts programs
  • Educate students to appreciate, create and cultivate beauty in their communities
  • Preserve and promote natural beauty by expanding parks, wilderness areas and open spaces, while strengthening protections from commercial encroachment
  • Re-establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for beautification and environmental restoration projects
  • Encourage use of property taxes for urban beautification, including planting millions of flowering and shade trees
  • Build new public squares
  • Support urban mini-farms and gardens
  • Provide “Equal Access to Beauty” through free summer camps for underserved children
  • Support “Renaissance Zones” using grants and tax incentives for beauty-led economic development in poor communities
  • Support repertory theatre and other performing arts in small towns and cities
  • Direct beautification funding to areas other than the established cultural centers, and finally,
  • Support colleges to culturally enrich the communities around them.

Even as the current struggles threaten to tear us apart, the “Politics of Beauty” can bring Americans together and closer to the America the Beautiful of which we can all be proud.

Jerome Segal was the 2020 presidential candidate of the Bread and Roses Party and is a University of Maryland philosopher. His running mate, John de Graaf, worked for many years in public television. He is making a film about former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Email John de Graaf

A Near-Forgotten Black World’s Fair, Remembered

Official program and guidebook

Official program and guidebook
American Negro Exposition that opened the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940.
Photo Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The official program of the Diamond Jubilee of Negro Progress, which opened at the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940, proudly states, “This is the first real Negro World’s Fair in all history…The Exposition will promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world to the contributions of the Negro to civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”

Duke Ellington played during the Bronze America beauty contest. Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was lauded, as was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the man who performed the first successful open-heart surgery. The popular dance team, Pops and Laurie, performed in a production of “Tropics After Dark.” Mechanical Man greeted visitors to the Labor section of the fair. Paul Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ and poet Langston Hughes co-wrote a musical pageant for the Jubilee. Not to be outdone, choral director J. Westley Jones led a chorus of voices, a thousand strong, under seven large religious murals painted by Aaron Douglas.

Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition

Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition
With replica of Springfield’s Lincoln Monument at the Chicago Coliseum.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

The Firestone Rubber Company sponsored an educational exhibit on Liberia, the West African nation founded by freed slaves, then the focus of a Black repatriation movement by the American Colonization Society. The fair’s journalism booth showcased the mastheads of 235 Black newspapers. The greatest collection of Negro art ever assembled was on exhibit, as was the Court of Dioramas—33 dioramas the Exposition’s program extolls as “spectacularly beautiful,” and “historically important… illustrating the Negro’s large and valuable contributions to the progress of America and the world.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened the fair with the press of a button from his Hyde Park, New York home. The fair was the brainchild of James Washington, a Chicago real estate developer. He successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to appropriate $75,000 for the project. Soon after, Congress matched those funds. Washington hoped the fair would counteract the stereotypes of Black people perpetuated by the 1933 World’s Fair that also took place in Chicago. That fair included a “Darkest Africa” exhibit that offered visitors voyages in canoes “manned by dusky natives.”

Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition

Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition
The columns in the center surround the Court of Dioramas.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Archive

The fair was hoping to draw two million visitors to the mammoth convention hall to celebrate the contributions of Blacks to America since emancipation 75 years previous. The President was honored to participate, and Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly said, “The nation pays a debt of gratitude to the Negroes today.”

The exposition was dominated by booths showcasing the many New Deal programs and accomplishments. There was a booth for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); another for the Federal Works Agency (FWA). “The contribution of the Federal Government to the social and economic progress of the American Negro,” reads the official program, “is the theme of the Exhibit of the Federal Works Agency occupying a commanding space in the Exposition Hall.” The program goes on extolling the virtues of the FWA, citing that the previous year, 300,000 Negro workers were employed on WPA projects and were paid some $15 million in wages.

Mechanical Man

Mechanical Man
A popular exhibit of the U.S. Dept of Labor
Photo Credit: American Negro Exposition Official Program and Guidebook

The Illinois WPA’s Writers’ Program wrote a book on the fair, Cavalcade of the American Negro, published by the Diamond Jubilee Exposition Authority, it highlighted Black history along with the fair’s extensive offerings, including 33 plaster dioramas, which took center stage at Coliseum.

The dioramas depicted contributions of Africans and others of African descent to world events and culture since Black slaves built the Great Sphinx of Giza. Measuring about 4 by 5 feet, and exquisitely detailed, each diorama was populated with sculpted figures of wood or clay. One diorama depicts the Boston Massacre that ended the life of Crispus Attucks, thought to be the first colonist to die in the American Revolution. Another is of enslaved Africans disembarking a ship onto Virginia soil in 1619. There’s one of dancers celebrating Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, dating back to 1865. Another one honors the Black soldiers of World War I.


American Negro Exposition
Photo Credit: Live Auctioneers

African American artist Charles Dawson designed the 33 dioramas and supervised the 120 Black artisans employed to create them. Twenty of the dioramas are housed at Alabama’s Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum. Conservators with the Alliance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) oversaw the restoration of the dioramas, introducing Black students to the field of art conservation.

Dr. Jontyle Robinson, Curator and Assistant Professor at the Legacy Museum notes that those “who organized the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago understood the importance of African Americans to American History.” The dioramas reflect that, and are part of that history themselves.

Restoration. Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.

Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Winterthur Museum

Other than these twenty dioramas, little else remains of those 1940 Jubilee days. The fate of the13 missing dioramas remains unknown. The Mechanical Man who drew crowds has rusted into oblivion. The remnants of the Chicago Coliseum itself were finally cleared in the early 1990s. Coliseum Park, a dog park across from where the imposing building once stood is the only acknowledgement of the Coliseum in the neighborhood’s history.

When the exposition closed on September 2, 1940, only 250,000 visitors had taken in the exposition, far fewer than the producers had hoped. In the eyes of many, it was deemed a failure. Yet, the first real Negro World’s Fair still resonates 80 years later. As Dr. Robinson says, “All the police brutality, mass incarceration, lynching, health disparities, red lining, Jim Crow laws and economic discrimination cannot disrupt the truth.”

And the truth is, Black Americans contributions continue and continue.

Ticket Stub

Ticket Stub
American Negro Exposition celebrating 75 years of progress and achievement.
Photo Credit: Swan Auction Galleries

Diorama Detail

Diorama Detail
“The Landing of Slaves in Virginia, 1619”
Photo Credit: Julianna Ly


Watch: Preserving Dioramas of African American History  (6:40 minutes) CBS Sunday Morning

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.

From the New Deal to the Green New Deal

by Richard A Walker
Abstract:  A Green New Deal is the best way to deal with climate change, economic crisis and social-political disintegration in one sweep. The original New Deal offers the best model for a Green New Deal because it faced similar challenges of conservation, economic collapse, immiseration and political reaction in the 1930s and was successful in overcoming them. Indeed, like the New Deal, the United States today needs nothing less than a program of national reconstruction and renewal that is more than the sum of carbon reduction, infrastructure investment, more jobs and better wages.

Growing Together Illustration by James McInvale

Growing Together
Illustration by James McInvale
Photo Credit: Creative Action Network

The New Deal was not only successful in its time but provides an excellent model for public policy today. As a nation we face a set of profound challenges comparable to the era of the Great Depression, requiring an equally ambitious and thorough attack led by the federal government – the only entity with the power, money and scale to take charge.  The lessons of the New Deal enumerated here offer hope for an embattled nation and a guide to redirecting public policy following 40 years of neoliberal deconstruction.

The New Deal provides guidelines for how to attack the major crises of today. Climate change and economic recession get most of the attention because global warming is bearing down like a runaway train and the economy has gone off a cliff. But the nation faces a massive deficit of investment in infrastructure and lags behind Europe and Asia in modern public amenities.  A gulf between the rich and the rest has precipitated a social crisis marked by underfunded education, gnawing poverty and personal despair. The US is in the throes of a deep political crisis that has the republic teetering on the brink.

The only way to address these challenges is the kind of sweeping program that the Green New Deal has come to summarize. A half-century of experience with neoliberalism has shown that there is no alternative to strong government action led by mass popular mobilization. Nothing less than a Green New Deal will save the country from climate change, economic depression, a crumbling foundation, social malaise, concentration of power and political disintegration.

It needs emphasizing just how radical the New Deal was in terms of the long sweep of US history and how thoroughly it refashioned the country and its politics. The left has spent too much time criticizing the New Deal and FDR for what they did not do – bring the revolution, end White Supremacy, liberate women, etc.  We would do better to appreciate what they did, in fact, accomplish in just one decade, 1933-1942 – roughly the time left to deal with climate change.

How the New Deal Responded to the Crisis of the 1930s

The New Deal is a shorthand for the policies and achievements of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1942.  It encompassed far more than the best-known programs, such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, involving over 60 laws and programs in all. The Living New Deal is documenting that amazing decade, reviving historical memory and rethinking deeply ingrained political tropes – because so much of the conventional wisdom about the New Deal is wrong.

I will consider the New Deal’s accomplishments in six areas: economic recovery and regulation, employment and class, investment and modernization, conservation and restoration, programs for the people and national political revival.

Economic Stabilization and Recovery

The Great Depression was the greatest failure of capitalism in US history and one that challenged the legitimacy of the nation’s class system, dominant ideology and political leadership. By winter 1933, US output had fallen by one-third, unemployment risen to one-quarter of the labor force and profits and wages had declined sharply.

In 1933-34, the New Deal ended financial excess and put the banking system on a new foundation. This meant shutting down bad banks, separating commercial and investment banks and providing deposit insurance. In addition, FDR called in gold, devalued and solidified the dollar and stock markets were regulated.

Meanwhile, the administration set up price controls under the National Industrial Recovery Act and Agricultural Adjustment Act. The unpopular NIRA was later dropped, but the AAA became the basis of US farm policy for the next fifty years.[1] More important was the creation of the PWA in 1933 to start the process of federal investment in infrastructure; it would be the central pillar of New Deal spending.

A massive relief effort began with the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933.  FERA salvaged bankrupt state and local treasuries, ending the downward spirals of government revenues, spending and employment. In the winter of 1933-34, FERA created the first relief jobs program, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), for which Congress created a permanent replacement in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). 

The New Deal cost roughly $650 billion in today’s dollars. [2] With today’s population that would come to  over $1.1 trillion – a surprisingly modest sum. It was paid for by higher taxes on the rich and the corporations, aided by revived alcohol taxes from the end of Prohibition, and the administration was willing to tolerate peacetime federal deficits for the first time in US history.

Crucially, economic recovery came before World War II. Under the New Deal, GDP grew at an average rate of almost 10 percent and had fully recovered by 1939.[3] Contrary to popular opinion, the war did not solve the Great Depression, but it did dry up unemployment by recruiting millions into the military and by the greatest deficit spending in US history – the same formula as the New Deal. 

Employment and the Working Class

Green New Deal Artist Unknown

Green New Deal
Artist Unknown
Photo Credit: Oregon State University

A pillar of New Deal policy was aiding the working people. The New Dealers saved capitalism but they saved millions of people from desolation at the same time, chiefly through programs for mass work relief: FERA, CWA, WPA, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA). These agencies combined created more than 20 million jobs for the unemployed over ten years, giving workers dignity and injecting income into bankrupt households. Those are impressive numbers compared to the 15 million unemployed when FDR took office and the 5 million who were still jobless when the war began in 1942.    

The New Deal succeeded in raising working class wages and incomes by supporting unionization.  Unions were legalized in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935; New Deal public works required fair and prevailing wages of contractors; and the Fair Labor Standards Act was added in 1938.  It also created the first federal safety net through unemployment payments in the NLRA and the Social Security Act of 1935. Greater taxation of the rich and higher incomes for the working class sharply reduced inequality, ushering in the most egalitarian period in US history.

Not only were jobs programs life-saving financially, they restored workers dignity. Non-discrimination clauses brought jobs and wages to African Americans and other minorities. In addition, they aided economic recovery by raising wages, making relief payments to households and aiding state and local governments. Those flows stimulated aggregate consumption and raised net consumption out of the same total national income. 

Investment and Modernization

The New Deal was more than a short-term program of recovery and make-work projects. The federal government invested in the infrastructure of the country, or what was then called “public works.” The government built tens of thousands of civic facilities, such as city halls, courthouses, schools, sewers and parks, as well as regional systems like dams, aqueducts and airports.[4]

At the heart of this effort was the Public Works Administration (PWA). Just as important, the administration pumped money into existing federal agencies, like the Bureau of Public Roads and Bureau of Reclamation, and demanded contributions from the states.  Governments at every level – federal, state and local – were reanimated.  Moreover, the feds asked the state and cities to propose projects they wanted locally and thus gained important political buy-in. 

Crucially, the New Deal walked on two legs: big regional infrastructure and small local projects. For the latter, the relief agencies were absolutely vital. The CWA, WPA, CCC, and FERA undertook local improvements numbering in the hundreds of thousands: playgrounds, recreation halls, baseball fields, picnic areas, water lines, street trees, ranger stations, park roads and trails and more.  These, too, were projects asked for by local governments, with local financial participation.[5]

Almost entirely overlooked is the degree to which the New Deal modernized the United States. It brought the entire country into the 20th century. The 1930s witnessed the second greatest leap in economic productivity in US history after the 1920s – higher than the World War by far.[6]   The New Deal aided modernization through its massive investments in hydropower and highways, at a time when industry and transportation were shifting en masse to electric motors and trucks.

This infrastructure was long-term investment that continued to pay off after the New Deal ended. The war effort was the first beneficiary, as was recognized at the time. But roads, dams, schools and hospitals continued to function for decades after that, and many are still with us.

Conservation and Restoration

An essential element of the New Deal was conservation – healing the land and resources along with the people. This massive effort is too easily overlooked because it took place far away from the urban centers—on rangelands, forests, farmlands, marshes and coasts.  The New Deal was nothing if not green.[7]

Most of the New Deal’s conservation programs were small-scale works. CCC camps planted 3 billion trees under the direction of the US Forest Service.[8]  A massive soil conservation program was set in motion on damaged range and farmlands under the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which built erosion dams, regraded hillsides and planted windbreaks. Grazing controls were imposed for the first time on federal lands under the new Grazing Service. 

Around 200 national wildlife refuges were established during the Roosevelt years, often at the president’s personal direction, and a new Duck Stamp program channeled millions of dollars from hunters to wildlife programs. Several new national parks and national monuments were established, and national forests were expanded. The CCC built the waterworks, roads and campgrounds that rendered federal recreational lands usable. 

Many protected areas were purchases of degraded lands in the Dust Bowl or cutover forests, while agricultural policy paid for the withdrawal of millions of acres of farms from production, returned to wetlands and woods that aided wildlife.

Programs for the People

Green Jobs Illustration by Lisa Vollrath

Green Jobs
Illustration by Lisa Vollrath
Photo Credit: Creative Action Network

While the New Deal employment and relief effort was focused on the working class, it went much farther. It embraced farmers, retirees and the poor. In addition, there was an array of programs targeting the  forgotten and neglected. An essential principle was universal programs with non-discrimination clauses. This was not only a matter of principle. It made such programs more popular with the public.[9]

A number of programs aided tenant and marginal farmers and others targeted African Americans. The New Deal built the first federal public housing projects in both rural and urban areas. It also brought the first federal initiatives to meet the special needs of the handicapped and a major turnaround in the treatment of Native Americans.

A primary quality of New Deal activity was its wide distribution, or “geographic universality”.  There is hardly a county or city anywhere in the country that did not get federal funds for a high school, hospital or park from the New Deal – not to mention land restoration, farm subsidies and programs for poor farm families, such as the Resettlement Administration’s housing and town-building. When the New Deal invested in depressed places, the people saw the evidence of federal concern with their own eyes, both in what was built and who did the work.

Lastly, there was a firm belief in the need to address the whole person and the needs of the public as a whole. The New Deal prioritized aid to education from school lunches and teachers’ aides to college buildings and laboratories; built up health programs from school nurses to the National Institutes of Health; and invested in recreational facilities and programs from playgrounds to national parks. One of the most remarkable dimensions of the New Deal was its creation, en masse, of civic buildings, civic spaces and public art to edify and elevate the spirits of the people.

Political Renewal of the Nation

The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal
Illustration by Jordan Johnson
Photo Credit: Creative Action Network

Franklin Roosevelt was a master politician and dealmaker who played his cards carefully. But he was also a true leader, coalition builder, progressive reformer and believer in American democracy. These qualities ran deep among all the New Dealers like Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and Mary McLeod Bethune.[10]

The New Dealers first step was to take charge of a terrible situation with a real sense of urgency. They waded into the fray, ignoring precedent, deficits and naysayers to introduce legislation, issue executive orders and draw up plans for action. There was no blueprint, just a liberal pragmatism and willingness to try anything that might work.  For all his patrician background, FDR was able to speak to the public in a manner that restored their confidence in government and gave them hope.[11]

The New Dealers built a broad coalition across class, regional and racial lines. FDR knew that his legislative program depended not to alienating the South over race because he needed that left-leaning white populists of the southern delegation to pass New Deal legislation. That coalition frayed over the years as southern landowners reasserted their power.[12]

FDR was willing to bring unions on board and address the catastrophic conditions facing the working class. Conversely, his aristocratic origins gave him the confidence to stand up to the rich and the corporations when he needed to. He wisely sought to defang radical uprisings by meeting some of their demands, as in the case of the Townsend Movement’s demand for old-age pensions.

A vital quality of New Deal leaders was their ethical commitment to the public good and to the welfare of the common people. They recognized the importance of work to self-worth; the value of civic works in uplifting communities; and that education, recreation and the arts were essential to the human spirit.  Their sense of public service also meant no significant scandals hanging over the agencies dispensing such huge amounts of money.

Lastly, Roosevelt and the New Dealers understood that a nation devastated by the Great Depression and left rudderless by Republican leadership needed a new sense of national purpose. The New Deal gave Americans a project of national renewal in which they could participate, feel ownership, and witness in their everyday lives.

FDR was urged by many liberals to seize emergency powers, but refused. He was confronted by fascist movements, was abandoned by the capitalist class—many of whom were fascist sympathizers that feared FDR’s alliance with the working class.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt was a committed democrat who wanted, like Lincoln, to save the Republic from itself.[13]

The New Deal was a political earthquake in American governance. The power of the federal government grew exponentially and the federal system was transformed. The Democrats replaced Lincoln’s Republicans as the dominant party for the next half-century. And, despite many failings of the New Deal on racial grounds, there was an epochal shift of African-American voters to the Democrats.

[1] Both were overturned by the Supreme Court but the AAA was revised and passed a second time by Congress in 1938.

[2] Fishback, Price and Kachanovskaya, Valentina. “The Multiplier for Federal Spending in the States during the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 75, No. 1, 2015, pp. 125-62.

[3] Romer, Christina. 1992. What ended the Great Depression? Journal of Economic History. 52, no. 4: 757-84.

[4] Leighninger, Robert. 2007.  Long Run Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal.  Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.  Smith, Jason Scott. 2006. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Taylor, Nick. 2009. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam Books.

[6] Field, Alexander. 2011. A Great Leap Forward:1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

[7] Brinkley, Douglas. 2016. Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.  New York: Harper Books

[8] Alexander, Benjamin. 2018.  The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[9] There has been too much criticism of the New Deal as ‘racist’, which is not true. It was not the Civil Rights revolution, but its programs were of enormous benefit to the vast majority of Americans. Sitkoff, Harvard. 2009. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press.

[10] Smith, Jason Scott. 2014. A Concise History of the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[11] Leuchtenberg, William. 1963.  Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40.  New York: Harper Torchbooks.

[12] Katznelson, Ira. 2013. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.  New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

[13] Katznelson 2013.

Richard A Walker is the director of the Living New Deal.