Designing a New America

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Patrick D. Reagan. Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890–1943. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1999. Pp. xii, 362. ISBN 1-558-49230-5. Cloth, $40.00



When Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised Americans a New Deal after being elected to his first term as president, not even he could envision what those words would eventually encompass. A veritable alphabet soup of agencies emerged that led to significant changes in the way the government operated during his administration. In Designing a New America, Patrick Reagan examines New Deal planning through the biographies of five members of the planning board. The book is essentially in three parts. First, Reagan discusses the nexus of New Deal programs. According to Reagan, “planning moved from Hoover to FDR” fairly seamlessly, but one wonders if Hoover could have mobilized Republicans to support the social reforms and the dollars needed to enact them (175). Roosevelt built on Hoover’s goal of promoting voluntary planning into the New Deal that would bring about political, social and economic stability. The next chapters provided biographies of some of the most influential minds that created New Deal policy and the experiences they brought to its creation. Finally, Reagan looks at how these programs survived in the years before, during and following World War II.

In many ways, this book illustrates that Progressive reforms did not die but were transformed into New Deal policy. The first phase of the New Deal from 1933-1934 was mainly geared toward providing depression relief. It was during this time that the Public Works Administration (PWA) was formed under secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes. The New Deal seemed to be on an inevitable path of legitimizing the new liberalism and national planning. The second phase, from 1935 to 1941 was more focused on social programs including the formation of the Social Security Administration and the Work Progress Administration (WPA). After 1937 there was growing Republic opposition to the National Planning Board. External circumstances caused disruption to the security of these initiatives. The recession of 1937, the concerns about the European situation, and the growing costs of these projects caused even some Democrats to question the continuance of the planning board as well. Reagan notes that some historians refer to a third New Deal phase from 1937 to 1943 during which the planning board expected to benefit from a reorganized executive branch and expand social welfare programs.

The five planners that Reagan believes were most influential include Frederic Delano, Henry Dennison, Charles Merriam, Wesley Clair Mitchell, and Beardsley Ruml. Most of these policy makers had strong connections to Chicago either as residents or university students. The Chicago connection is important because the experience that Delano, head of the planning board, gained with large-scale city planning provided them with valuable knowledge that they could apply to planning on a national scale. This group of Progressive Republicans believed in the importance of organizations to enact policy change in the modern era. Frederic Delano is now often only remembered as the uncle of Franklin Roosevelt, but Reagan recounts how Delano’s experience made him a valued member of the team. He was the first vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and the National Capital Park and Planning Board as well as on the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB). Charles Merriam, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, was a champion of progressive social intervention and change. Author of The American Political Ideal, Merriam espoused the idea of “social lag” which he defined as the time between political thinking and actual social developments (66 - 68). Wesley Clair Mitchell was an influential economist who was instrumental in the formation of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He later became director of the New School for Social Research, founded with his wife, Lucy Sprague and others. Mitchell left the board in 1935 and was replaced by Henry S. Dennison and Beardsley Ruml. Dennison’s family owned a manufacturing company to which he applied Taylorite efficiency. Dennison’s efforts to promote managerial professionalism brought him into contact with the four other planners. Ruml, like Mitchell, was an economist and advisor to President Herbert Hoover. He became the chairman of the New York Federal Reserve.

In an epilogue, Reagan analyzes the fate of the NRPB - abolished in 1943. Perhaps any “plan” that includes a National Planning Board, National Resources Board, National Resources Committee, and a National Resources Planning Board deserves an untimely death. Reagan states that the legacy of the NRPB survived as the Council of Economic Advisers. Part of the reason that Congress fought the NRPB so vociferously was because it was part of the executive branch with appointees. Reagan also suggests “the real issue in the planning debate of 1943 centered on the balance of power between Roosevelt as the president and the Congress (232).” Do New Deal policies survive into the present? Reagan believes they do, but his argument is not entirely convincing. Certainly no planning on the national scale survived after FDR’s death. While the biographies are interesting and provide support to Reagan’s thesis that New Deal planning had its roots in Progressive and New Era thought, more space could have been devoted to what Delano, Dennison, Merriam, Mitchell, and Ruml had as ultimate goals in their planning efforts.

Some appendices would have been helpful to clarify the names of the various government agencies involved (and their acronyms) and the people that served on each and their dates of involvement. Since the book is not arranged chronologically, it can be difficult to keep track of the players. This period contains a dizzying amount of boards, commissions, and associations – a roadmap would be helpful in keeping it all straight.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

In the epilogue of "Designing a New America," Reagan argues that the New Deal planners (which he names as Delano, Merriam, Mitchell, Dennison, and Ruml) are historically more significant than more well-known New Deal figures like Swope, Beard, Soule, Chase, and Tugwell. Though he certainly demonstrates how the planners were uniquely qualified to provide management and planning insight based on their life, work, and associational experiences, the book fails to explain how they made a difference in concrete terms. The majority of the book describes the pre-New Deal experiences of the planners, each of whom rose in their chosen fields and became involved in the social science and planning associations that led them the planning board. Little time is spent on the operation of the board itself, how it functioned, and how it affected the actual programs of the New Deal.

Reagan, like all historians, is selective in the stories he wishes to tell and the arguments he wishes to make, but some of his decisions are confusing to the reader. Even though a chapter is spent explaining the unique experiences of economist Wesley Clair Mitchell, his resignation, only two years after the board's creation, is discussed very briefly. That Mitchell questioned the benefit of crisis planning seems important, it is odd that Reagan didn't discuss it further. Likewise, George Yantis, who became a member of the planning board in 1939 was on the board far longer than Mitchell, but is mentioned in only 2 pages. Even if his role on the board was minimal, the exclusion is strange.

Reagan's argument, that the New Deal planners were uniquely prepared to participate in the first and only experiment in national planning in United States history, is certainly compelling. If any men were going to be able to accomplish large-scale planning, these were the men who could do it. Reagan fails, save for a few examples, to provide his readers with concrete examples of what they did. To make the arguments and comparisons that Reagan does, he needed to show his readers the influence of the planners went beyond the theoretical.

John Lillard, Spring 2010

Reagan’s Designing a New America is slow going for all but the most dedicated readers. The biographical chapters of the planners can be considered as overkill. It would be sufficient to summarize them in one chapter and emphasize their similarities (of which there are many), and describe how they happened to come together rather than deal with them individually. The meat of Designing a New America doesn’t start until the halfway point of the book. An interesting theme that weaves through Reagan’s history is not simply the evolution of the government’s philosophy from Hoover New Era to Roosevelt New Deal, but the evolution in political philosophy of those men who enacted it. Reagan’s five planners, the industrial planner (Delano), the political scientist (Merriman), the economist (Mitchell), the businessman (Dennison) and the philanthropist (Ruml) were not planning neophytes when they joined the Roosevelt team. All had cut their teeth in government service during the World War and all had considerable experience working with Hoover administration volunteerist efforts. In fact, these four where only examples of a larger group of men like Ickes and Stimson, who migrated from the Republican camp after the start of the Depression and provided balance for Brain Trusters such as Perkins, Hopkins and Berle.

Reagan’s “New America,” centered on Roosevelt statism replacing Hoover voluntarism, was a product of this migration and it’s coalescing with other factions in the Roosevelt camp. It featured a concentration of responsibility and authority in the federal sector, characterized by centralized economic planning as oppose to traditional laissez faire / hand-off posture.

In past discussions about 20th century histories, we graduate students have been asked to define Progressivism and determine when the Progressive Era ended. While our definitions have encompassed well-known social issues such as suffrage, labor, and vigilantism, our focus on these has been on the societal level. One aspect that we have neglected or missed is the expanding role of the federal government as the guarantor of those issues. Through this perspective, the welfare state and the preeminence of the executive branch of the federal government are the lasting legacies of Progressivism. Federal programs of the types proposed by the New Deal planners are an integral part of the national fabric today. After reading Reagan, Kennedy and other historians of the era, the question may not be when the Progressive Era ended, but rather whether Progressivism is immortal.

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Patrick D. Reagan fused biography with planning in order to create a study that examined the origins and long-term ramifications of New Deal planning. In the first part, Reagan offered biographies of the five key individuals who shaped planning during the New Deal era, Frederic A. Delano, Charles E. Merriam, Wesley Clair Mitchell, Henry S. Dennison, and Beardsley Ruml. The biographies showed that the planners had been long-term Republican supporters who stood out as prominent associational activists who supported social science research. Most of all, Reagan’s biographies set the foundation for the second part of his work, which advanced his contention that New Deal planning represented a bipartisan process that sought to modify liberalism within the time and circumstances of the twentieth century (2-5, 28, 33-4, 50-2, 54, 63-7, 72-5, 80, 83, 88-9, 108-9, 134-7, 166-7). Reagan noted that the planners had learned their lessons by not only witnessing the limits of Progressivism, but also through the social, political, and economic limitations highlighted by the nation’s mobilization during World War I. As a result, the planners suggested that a “positive state” had a role in planning by responding to economic changes, setting the stage for New Deal reform (169). Congress abolished the planning board in 1943, but, as Reagan concluded, the planning board’s legacy extended to the post-war need for economic stability, as illustrated by the GI Bill, the federal withholding tax, and the Employment Act of 1943 (2, 221, 239, 240-3).

Reagan’s conclusion regarding the long-term implications of New Deal planning appears problematic. As he admitted, Roosevelt viewed planning “as an ad hoc, piecemeal operation subject to the political needs of the moment” (214). Reagan’s admission does not seem to correlate with a conclusion that showed how New Dear planning influenced policy in the post-war era. Moreover, budgetary constraints on planning further hindered Reagan’s argument. Cathy D. Knepper showed in Greenbelt, Maryland how Rexford Tugwell of the Resettlement Administration received very little funds for community planning. In fact, Knepper noted that the greenbelt town program received only $31 million, representing “only a small portion of federal funds expended during the New Deal” (Knepper 14). Given Roosevelt’s attitudes toward planning as well as budgetary limitations, Reagan’s conclusion is not as convincing as it can be, and could be improved had he examined ways in which planners overcame these obstacles.

Nonetheless, Reagan’s study added a valuable contribution to New Deal scholarship by telling a story from the top-down. He thrived when examining the abolition of the planning board in 1943, highlighting the nation’s fear of an increasingly centralized state. As Reagan declared, “American political culture had long feared centralized state power, while celebrating the innovative power of private, voluntary action” (246). Yet, by focusing on the planners and the politicians that abolished the committee, Reagan’s analysis foreshadowed the problems policymakers had during the 1960s, especially as President Lyndon B. Johnson worked to sell his Great Society programs to the American public. Moreover, Reagan’s analysis added nuance. The changed political climate prompted the abolition of the planning board at a time when many Americans grappled with the implications of increased federal authority, an issue that they continued to fight with during the remainder of the twentieth century. Most of all, Reagan’s top-down approach opened up a new avenue of scholarship, namely the bottom-up planning and development that characterized Knepper’s study two years later.

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