Freedom from Fear

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David M. Kennedy. Freedom from fear: the American people in depression and war, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Cloth: ISBN 0195038347. Paper: ISBN 0195144031



Few historians have openly attempted to attack both the record and significance of the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations in the same book. David Kennedy does just this in Freedom From Fear. Kennedy believes that the records of each of these presidents need to be reviewed in relation to the causes of the Great Depression and how each attempted to bring this calamity to an end. Throughout the first 380 pages of his book, Kennedy attacks the record that historians have provided for each of the presidents. Kennedy argues that Hoover has been given a bad rap and actually was aggressive in his ideas on how to bring the depression to an end. Roosevelt, who had the advantage of an amicable Congress that attempted to (and successfully did) destroy the last two years of Hoover’s presidency after the 1930 elections, has been given too much credit for many of the policies that were submitted to Congress during the first 100 days of his administration, policies that Kennedy argues were quite similar to many attempted by Hoover but thwarted by a Congress that wanted to see him fail.

Kennedy provides a comprehensive view of the causes and effects of the Great Depression. He analyzes the events leading up to the Depression and shows how application of contemporary orthodox economic principles exacerbated problems despite the good intentions of government policy makers. This summary is of the first half of the book relating to the Depression era and does not cover the second half relating to World War II.

Kennedy begins his book with a brief review of the period leading up to the Hoover’s administration, especially the post-WWI era where many of the men who would rise to power as a result of the depression began to polish their philosophic values and beliefs. Agreeing with Hoover, Kennedy believes that the seeds of the Great Depression were sown as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and allowed men such as Hitler and Mussolini to rise to power. Kennedy relates how WW I had benefited America by providing a mass market for its agricultural and industrial products. In the aftermath, however, demand was reduced and prices fell sharply. The benefits of prosperity during the 1920’s were unevenly distributed. Mass production through machine power lowered costs and increased productivity, which benefited industrialists, but the replacement of trained and skilled workers by unskilled labor reduced wages and the status of craftsmen. As Kennedy says, “Mass production made mass consumption a necessity,” but unemployed or low-wage workers could not afford the products. “Without broadly distributed purchasing power, the engines of mass production would have no outlet and would eventually fall idle.” (21) There was no unemployment insurance for workers to fall back on, and, in fact, unions were opposed to it as a socialist idea.

Stock market speculation surged in 1927, fed by the easy money policy of the Federal Reserve Board, which led to the crash in 1929. Kennedy explodes the myth that everyone was in the market, saying, “only about 3 million Americans – less than 2.5% of the population – owned securities in 1928,” and “accordingly, the Crash in itself had little direct or immediate impact on the typical American.” (41) A weak banking system composed of many small, undercapitalized banks inspired lack of confidence, and runs by depositors coupled with defaults by borrowers caused massive bank failures. Attempts to maintain prices through high tariffs backfired, producing both an "economic and a political catastrophe.” (50) A vicious cycle of price deflation, over production, and unemployment set in, resulting in crops rotting in the field while people went hungry.

Orthodox economic theory at the time held that business downturns were natural parts of the business cycle that should not be interfered with by the government. According to Kennedy, Hoover, contrary to popular historical portrayals, did not subscribe to this theory and wanted to use the powers of government to cushion the economy from the effects of the stock market collapse. He summoned business leaders to the White House and obtained their agreement to maintain wage rates. He sought support for farm prices and urged railway and public utility executives to undertake construction projects. These and other measures taken by Hoover belie the fashionable view of him as unresponsive to the unfolding economic crisis. As Kennedy points out, his “reliance on private business and on state and local governments for fiscal stimulus” . . . “is better understood if the relatively small size of the federal government at the beginning of the Depression is appreciated.” (55) Kennedy’s conclusion is that under the circumstances Hoover did the best he could. Hoover espoused individualism and voluntarism because, as Kennedy says, “It was decidedly not the government’s role arbitrarily and peremptorily to substitute coercive bureaucracy for voluntary cooperation.” (47)

In his examination of the Hoover administration, Kennedy makes a concerted effort to show the president in a better light than historians have in the past. Kennedy argues that Hoover was in fact quite aggressive in his attempt to revive the economy once the depression hit and was not the “hands off” president that he has been labeled previously. Instead, Kennedy believes that the Congress that Hoover faced caused much of this lack of action, refusing to act on many of the legislative acts sent to them. Instead of working with the president to find a solution to the Great Depression, Congress wanted to make Hoover the villain, which would allow a Democrat to be elected to the presidency in 1932.

Roosevelt won the election of 1932 in a landslide, and the Democrats controlled Congress. There was a new political alignment. The process of urbanization resulted in a large city-based vote. Through sheer force of personality and the prospect of aggressive action, Roosevelt inspired confidence. During his first one hundred days 15 new laws were enacted. The banks reopened. New farm subsidy programs stimulated the agricultural sector. The Civilian Conservation Corps was formed to provide employment. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created to bring jobs and power to an impoverished area of the South. These and other measures were important remedial actions, but they did not end the depression. Kennedy states, “Gross national product had fallen by 1933 to half its 1929 level,” and “25% of the work force, some thirteen million workers . . . stood idle in 1933.” (163)

Much of the New Deal was based on conservative economic theory, including the assumption “that overproduction had caused the depression and that in scarcity lay salvation.” This premise "underwrote the kinds of restrictionist practices traditionally associated with monopolies.” (189) For example, the National Recovery Administration promoted industry codes, which “amounted to nothing less than the cartelization of huge sections of American industry under the government’s auspices.” (184) Farmers produced more crops than the market could absorb at acceptable prices, and in response programs to reduce production through subsidies were introduced. Farm income rose by 50% between 1932 and 1936, but tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South were hurt by the withdrawal of land from production. (208)

The persistence of the Depression gave rise to various populist movements offering visions of instant relief. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana launched his “Share Our Wealth Society” in 1934, promising, “to make every man a king” through massive wealth redistribution. (215) In California Dr. Frances Townsend proposed to give every person over 60 the sum of $200 per month. Rev. Charles Coughlin of Michigan, the “radio priest,” formed the National Union for Social Justice. Kennedy points out that some historians have claimed Roosevelt’s reform proposals were in response to pressure from these demagogues, but he says, “That judgment is exaggerated.” (242) Roosevelt had an agenda whose dominant motif was security and stability. According to Kennedy, “Roosevelt sought instead a new framework for American life,” a structure that would permit government “to sustain balance and equity and orderliness throughout American society.” (247)

The labor movement gained momentum, especially after the Wagner National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave workers the right to organize. Sit-down strikes resulted in unionization of the auto industry, followed by other major sectors. Roosevelt supported labor, but he was not a big fan of unions. Kennedy says, Roosevelt “was more interested in giving workers purchasing power than in granting them political power.” (297) He believed that pension and unemployment laws, along with wage and hour regulations, would improve their lot more than collective bargaining rights.

Kennedy concludes that the New Deal was more a program of reform than recovery. Its most lasting and consequential effect was acceptance of the idea “that the federal government had not merely a role, but a major responsibility in ensuring the health of the economy and the welfare of its citizens.” (377)



David Houpt, Fall 2008

David M. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: 1929-1945 covers 16 of the most important years in American history. Simply attempting to tackle such a broad time period is notable—let alone covering these particular years. Kennedy not only accomplishes this, but does so in an interesting and readable fashion. His prose is beautiful and he is a master of storytelling. There is little question in my mind that he deserved the Pulitzer Prize.

The book is essentially broken down into three (general) parts: the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge and the onset of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. Although there are some points where these events overlap, or that Kennedy mentions something from a previous section, he basically moves along thematically. While this certainly helped keep the book simple, there are some instances where he could have done a better job at relating events at home with those abroad. For example, Kennedy posits that New Deal legislation stopped being passed in 1938. A few chapters later, we learn that this was about the time that things were heating up in Germany. There are a few scant references to the foreign situation in the first two sections, but for the most part it is as though the end of the New Deal had nothing to do with the coming of war. It would have been interesting to learn how events abroad impacted Roosevelt’s ability to focus on domestic reform.

Kennedy’s strongest suit may be his mastery over the politics of the 1930s. The New Deal is sometimes seen as something that was ushered in by liberal Democrats who met little opposition. Kennedy demonstrates that this is categorically false. There certainly were liberals who helped push the New Deal legislation through, but there were also many conservative Democrats or progressive Republicans whose support was critical. Although the first 100 days may have met with relatively little opposition (of course the Supreme Court would later strike down some of the biggest changes) most of the New Deal faced strong opposition from both the right and the left. Roosevelt himself often struggled with radical proposals and was constantly pushing to balance the budget and cut federal spending. Kennedy’s profile of Father Coughlin, Huey Long and Dr. Townsend are particularly interesting and help explain why Roosevelt may have become more liberal in the late 1930s.

Kennedy also does a great job discussing the disadvantaged groups and reaches similar conclusions as Anthony Badger did in his book The New Deal. The real “winners” of the New Deal were business groups while African Americans, women, and the poor all lost out. Both historians seemed to agree that labor made some gains but that an opportunity to fundamentally alter worker’s relationship with management was missed. Kennedy, however, does a much better than Badger in relating the New Deal to previous movements in the United States and elsewhere. Kennedy points out that some of the reforms enacted dated back to the Populists and that many New Dealers were heavily influenced by the Progressives in the United States and abroad.

Thomas Demharter, Fall 2005

Clearly, Kennedy has his bias as to how history should be treating both Hoover and Roosevelt. For Kennedy, Hoover has been given a bum deal and needs to have additional revisionist work done on his presidency; recently Hoover “saviors” have come into vogue. Kennedy does not stop there – he further delves into Roosevelt’s record in an attempt to show how history may have treated the president with too much kindness. Much of what Kennedy provides the reader for this time period is a refreshing revision of both the Hoover and Roosevelt administration. Much of what is said would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. However, as additional information and research has occurred, both presidencies have been really been given an overview.

I believe that this book would be an excellent resource for both a high school classroom and a college American History survey class. Because the book does follow a more traditional chronological path, it is quite user friendly. Because it also provides an alternative view of the time period, this book could be compare/contrasted with a more traditional history textbook to get a much clearer view of the late 1920’s through to the Second World War. I also like the job that Kennedy does in dealing with the American society on all levels – from top to bottom. After reading the book, you truly get a better picture of how the Great Depression affected all regions and groups.

One interesting note that I found about the book occurred in chapter 12 – Kennedy, with the hindsight of the Brinkley book, was able to accomplish in less than 20 pages what it took Brinkley nearly 300 to do. Instead of trying to lead the reader to follow many paths to one point, Kennedy simply provides his interpretation and moves on, making the book much easier to follow.

-- 19:25, 1 Sep 2005 (EDT)

Dave Smith, Fall 2006

In Freedom from Fear David Kennedy provides the background for the economic crisis of the 1930’s, showing that it was far more than just a reaction to the supposed excesses of the 1920’s. America’s economy had experienced repeated booms and busts as the industrial revolution proceeded unfettered by government regulation, and the excesses of unrestrained capitalism produced swings in economic activity. Business monopolies, greedy capitalists, unorganized labor, wasteful resource allocations, a weak banking system, along with international economic consequences of World War I all combined to form a perfect economic storm that generated the Great Depression.

History has dealt harshly with Herbert Hoover, deriding him for his inability to deal with the exploding problems effectively through early remedial action. Kennedy comes to the defense of Hoover, however, and shows how he responded prudently in accordance with accepted contemporary economic theory and did the best he could under the circumstances. Limited by the small size of the federal government and political opposition to any government social programs, Hoover sought to promote voluntarism and state and local government projects to restore economic vitality. Kennedy concludes, “Given the constraints under which he labored, in short, Hoover made impressively aggressive countercyclical use of fiscal policy.” (57)

Kennedy also disputes the popular concept of the 1920’s as being a time of prosperity for everyone. He shows how many farmers, recent immigrants, and African Americans failed to share in the prosperity. While the depression affected them, it only added marginally to the insecurity and poverty they were already experiencing. As Kennedy says, it was a “sobering reality that for many Americans the Great Depression brought times only a little harder than usual.” (168)

Kennedy demonstrates how ineffective the New Deal was in promoting economic recovery. Roosevelt was initially limited by the same laissez-faire economic philosophy as Hoover, and his early policies were equally if not more deflationary in their impact as Hoover’s. Kennedy describes how Roosevelt proposed and Congress approved a variety of programs to stimulate the economy in the first one hundred days of his administration. “But none of the measures thus far enacted provided positive fiscal stimulus for the economy. All to the contrary, the net effect of Roosevelt’s budget cutting and tax hiking was decidedly deflationary.” (149)

According to Kennedy, the lasting legacy of the New Deal was not recovery but reform. Legislation passed under Roosevelt sought to mitigate the harsh effects of unregulated capitalism by imposing limits and standards. The primary objective of New Deal policies was security. As Kennedy put it, “ . . . achieving security was the leitmotif of virtually everything the New Deal attempted.” (365)

--Dsmith 15:20, 1 Sep 2006 (EDT)

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