Freedom from Fear; The US in Depression and War

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David M. Kennedy. The American People in the Great Depression: Freedom from Fear Part 1. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999. (Price). Paper: ISBN 987-0-19516892-1


The American People in the Great Depression is the first part of David Kennedy’s master narrative of US History Freedom from Fear. It covers the years between 1929 and 1939, and concludes with the outbreak of the Second World War. But this history, like the national economic and political philosophies of the period, deals with the United States in isolation. This is an American history of the causes, effects, and attempts to alleviate the Great Depression.

Kennedy’s argument concerns the true nature and impact of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the party platform that he carried to the presidency in 1932. Kennedy argues that the New Deal as a program for economic relief (which was how it was advertised) only lasted from 1932 until 1938 and was not very effective in that it did not provide much in the way of relief. Instead, Kennedy claims that its real legacy was political – that it transformed the way that the federal government viewed itself and also how the citizenry viewed their relationship with that government. From a minor organization that affected citizen’s lives very little if at all at the end of the Coolidge administration just eleven years before, by 1939 the federal government had trumped local influences and market forces to become the regulator, arbitrator, and enforcer of the citizenry (377). Most significantly, the federal government had established itself as the provider and guarantor of security (365). This meant protection from the 19th century cycles of boom and bust, and their attendant effect on the lower classes. Federal programs enacted during the “second New Deal” from 1935 to 1939 such as Social Security, the FDIC and FSLIC, and the Wagner Act were the real lasting legacies of the New Deal, not the NRA, AAA or any of the other programs swept away by the Supreme Court during the first Roosevelt term. This rise of the power of the federal government was most reflected in the primacy of the executive branch personified by Roosevelt himself.

Kennedy’s narrative is organized chronologically, but the cycles of the Depression and the New Deal phases that followed lend themselves to a flow that is chronologically thematic. Each era of the depression brought its own unique themes – from Herbert Hoover’s overthrow, through the initial euphoria of FDR’s first one hundred days, the eventual disenchantment with the economic reform programs of the first New Deal, and the transition to the second New Deal, and the final phase where the focus of the federal government was inexorably drawn into international matters.

Kennedy traces the lineage of reform, starting with the early vision of Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose progressivism (32) and the gradual move away from laissez-faire capitalism toward active government regulation of the economy (151). Kennedy shows the impetus behind that movement as a crystallization of an “attitude;” that the duty of the government is to provide relief and security (90-1). The ascendency of this attitude of modern liberalism – and the conservative reaction to it -- is shown as the root of current American political divisions (340). While the details of the differences of opinion between Democrat and Republican have changed over the decades since the New Deal, the basic philosophy centers on conflicting views on the government’s place in society -- proactive or not (340).

John Lillard, Spring 2010

Kennedy’s material and style evoke another master narrative of the Depression, William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream. Kennedy succeeds in creating a scholarly history that is readable and compelling. He does not restrict himself to a detached, non-committal view of the events he describes. Indeed, some of his passages cut very close to the bone. His powerful description of the followers of Radio Priest Charles Coughlin rings true in a disheartening way in 2010 just as much as it applies in 1935. He could be describing any number of radicalized groups in any period of modern history (234). His description of the effects of the depression on the agricultural community is surprising in its virulence (202).

But while Kennedy matches Manchester’s compelling literary style, he does not sacrifice scholarly content. Kennedy makes an especially interesting comparison of FDR situation in 1935 and that of Abraham Lincoln just prior to the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. He argues that a Union victory in 1862 would have minimized the opportunity for true transformation of war aims from simply restoring the pre-war union to a much more ambitious objective of the abolition of slavery. The parallel between 1862 and 1935 was that the “ambitious reform aspiration of the new deal would have never been attempted” (217).

This master narrative compliments other histories of the period. Kennedy’s description of the “corrosive effect of mass communication on old immigrant culture,” including ethnic community support such as banking and relief agencies, echoes Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal (306). Kennedy also evokes Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform in his descriptions of how the ideologues of a pure workers party repudiated radical politics and attached themselves to the political mainstream (322).

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