Building New Deal Liberalism

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Jason Scott Smith. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xiv, 266. ISBN 0-521-82805-8


President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was characterized by the creation of a huge public works program as a response to the Great Depression and the ensuing unemployment and economic decline. In Building New Deal Liberalism, Jason Scott Smith states that he is taking a fresh look at the archival record to show “how reformers built modern America (1).” He breaks with other historians that have dismissed the WPA and PWA as temporary measures that ultimately failed in their intended goals. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was established in 1933 and was mainly involved in heavy construction and large-scale building. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) of 1935 was established to undertake lighter construction and job training. The Federal Works Agency (FWA) was established in 1939 as an umbrella agency under which the PWA, WPA, and other agencies operated.

Smith believes that the New Deal transformed the American economy, political system, and physical landscape. However, there were negative aspects to the New Deal as well as positive ones. On the positive side, he states that the WPA, PWA, and FWA must be viewed as the “extraordinarily successful economic development measures that they were (258).” They produced numerous improvements in roads, bridges, and airports among many other projects. These programs were evidence of New Deal liberalism - defined as governmental taxing and spending to recreate the political and physical landscape of the nation. The programs included not only social programs, but also a substantial expansion of the federal payroll in an effort to revitalize the economy.

On the downside, these programs did not end mass unemployment during the Depression. Most jobs went to white males thus an opportunity to relieve the plight of women and African Americans was lost. Projects that were deemed to be improvements at the time turned out to be disastrous for individuals and the environment such as the hydroelectric dam built under the auspices of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It displaced thousands of people and increased pollution. As with any governmental initiative, politics played a role. There were numerous accusations of boondoggling, especially towards WPA programs. The administration defended itself from these charges by pointing out that the towns or districts that benefited also contributed to the costs, but many Republicans remained unconvinced.

Smith delves into some of the personalities that dominated New Deal programs, notably, Harold Ickes, director of the PWA. Ickes and other leaders favored projects that would pay for themselves rather than ones that would provide employment for the most workers. Smith stresses that New Dealers were builders and that solving the problem of mass unemployment had never been its primary goal. Consequently, to judge the Roosevelt administration by these criteria misses the point.

Smith agrees with several of Patrick Reagan’s points in Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943. He points out that such widespread public works initiatives were part of President Herbert Hoover’s planned response to the 1929 stock market crash. He also concurs that New Deal public works survived after World War II. The FWA eventually became part of the General Services Administration in 1949 and continued to improve highways, airports, and build military bases.

Smith provides valuable quantitative data that illustrates the spread of projects throughout the country and dollars spent. The tables demonstrate the breadth and depth of PWA projects. They break down per capita expenditures by state to show how federal dollars were dispersed across the country. Other tables illustrate the number of projects per state and types of projects (educational buildings, hospitals, water systems, etc.) as a percentage of all projects completed by the PWA. The presentation of this data emphasizes the enormity of what was accomplished throughout the country.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Jason Scott Smith frames a new interpretation of the significance of New Deal public works. His “political economy” perspective avoids typical comparisons of employment statistics as measurements of success as he asks the question if the “central dilemma of the New Deal public works [was] truly a choice between employing people and constructing projects?” (113). To combat historiographical trends that focus on the limitations of public works projects to employ certain categories of workers (including women and African Americans), Smith focuses on the less often considered aspects of the rise of state-sponsored economic development and debunks popular myths about the public works programs.

Concerned that the public would question projects for possible graft, public relations information highlighted that staff were chosen from military engineers (for impartiality and authority) and that projects would be based on the “ideology of self-liquidation” (86). Smith contends that popular images of New Deal political culture that emphasize “taxpayer resistance” or a “growing acceptance of the welfare state by ethnic workers” need revision in light of his research that indicated that “localities voted 83 percent of the time (in 2,613 local elections) to make direct contributions to their public works” (98). This high rate of local acceptance of public works projects from voting property owners, according to Smith, would suggest a much broader base of support for public works than currently granted. Smith also attacks charges that public works projects reflected government boondoggles by describing the research work of WPA staff member Amy MacMaster who quickly refuted spurious newspaper allegations against public works projects with facts as to their necessity, efficiency, and public support. In an interesting side note, Smith tracks the popular use of the term “boondoggle” to this period of time and his meticulous research of Joseph T. Robinson’s folksy interpretation of “boondoggle” (deriving from the toggles Daniel Boone used to carry his rifle) as yet another example of the extensive use of archival documents available in this work.

Smith combats the popular image of the WPA as a cultural arts project by asserting that “75 percent of WPA employment and 75 percent of WPA expenditures went to highways, streets, public buildings, airports, public utilities, and recreational facilities” to create a substantial infrastructure throughout the United States (87). When taken as a whole, public works projects were constructed in all but three counties in the United States. Smith’s charts showing the numbers of PWA projects and allocated funds (92-93) as well as the number of contractors hired throughout the United States (109) indicates the depth and breadth of involvement of the PWA in every state and the extent of infrastructure created prior to the war.

While many historians are content to let New Deal philosophy fade away with the opening salvos of the war, Smith underscores the importance of public works construction projects, especially in roads, airports, and in military applications, for helping to prepare the nation for wartime mobilization. Having a system for rapid implementation of construction projects and training workforces also transferred to wartime uses and WPA and PWA legacies were instrumental in creating training programs for over 330,000 defense workers, especially for women, unskilled and older workers, the groups typically overlooked by private employers (216). Another area in which WPA contributed to the war effort was by organizing and staffing assembly centers and relocation camps for Japanese American internments. Smith qualifies their involvement through many possible motivations, but this role is probably one of the least known roles of the WPA and one of the ways that administrators tried to retain some functions in an era when their roles were slowly being usurped by consolidating organizations.

After the war, the concept of New Deal liberalism through public works projects seemed to lose steam in favor of more streamlined and efficient government agencies with many groups combining into the General Services Administration. Even so, the significance of state-sponsored economic development retained a powerful memory as a way to rejuvenate a nation and improve infrastructure. Without considering the social structure of the country that formed this type of liberalism, presidents opted to use these strategies for international community building. President Truman’s Point Four Plan and Johnson’s TVA in the Mekong Delta were two examples Smith highlights to show how strongly the concept of state-sponsored economic development had entered the political consciousness.

Smith’s understanding of the key players in the public works organizations, their goals, and their relationship to politics makes this work a fascinating and critical approach to political history studies. His extensive use of archival sources locates key moments of decision for pushing forward the agenda of national, state, and local construction rather than employment or social focus. Smith peels away the layers of cultural imagery that cloud current impression of New Deal politics and goals to reveal the concerns and motivations that shaped the times and created an innovative way for government to reprioritize its fiscal policy while changing the contours of the political and physical landscape.

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