The New Deal

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Contents

The New Deal

Anthony J. Badger. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989. pp. 392. Paper: ISBN 1566634539

Summary

Anthony Badger’s The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940 is a remarkable summary of some of the most difficult, and important, years in American history. The New Deal era is often cited as the time when the federal government began to assume its modern form. It was a time of unprecedented government intervention, and in many ways changed the way Americans viewed government. During the 1920s Americans were taking advantage of easy credit and purchasing luxury goods. By many accounts, the economy seemed to be in great shape. But the Stock Market Crash of 1929 proved otherwise. Millions in savings were wiped away. For weeks Americans watched helplessly as the Stock Market continued to bottom out. Although there were some private relief organizations in place in 1929, their resource were quickly exhausted. By 1933 it was clear that the government was going to need to take dramatic action.

The Crash alone did not cause the Great Depression: Other factors contributed to a perfect storm of economic misery. Farmers, for example, had been overproducing for some time. This had not caused problems when they were able to export their harvests. However, Europe was dealing with its own Depression around the same time and could no longer import as much. As a result, the US market bottomed out. Thus rural farmers and urban workers both suffered. The Great Depression required quick thinking and immediate action. The economic crisis actually appeared to worsen with Roosevelt’s inauguration, and something had to be done fast. The result was ideologically inconsistent and poorly implemented programs. Localism proved to be the enemy of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Programs proposed at the federal level often found little support at the local level—particularly those that asked for any type of sacrifice. Anthony Badger’s New Deal is a synthesis of previous scholarship. Badger makes no attempt to present new research. The seven years between 1933 and 1940 have been the subject of thousands of pages of history; Badger manages to cover the time period in 312 pages. His audience is neither New Deal scholars nor a casual reading audience. Instead he seems to be targeting people who are familiar with the general time period, but who are not intimately familiar with its historiography. Badger seeks to find a middle ground between New Deal apologists, conservatives who see it as the time when the federal government ballooned to an obscene size, and radical critics who condemn the New Dealers for not going far enough to enact real social change. Unlike many other authors discussing the New Deal, he makes it clear that, there was more to the Depression Years than Franklin Roosevelt. Although he gives a thorough discussion of the period’s politics and does not ignore Roosevelt, Badger makes it clear that the President was not the only actor.

Although Badger is careful to avoid sweeping claims, there are a few areas where he sees little room for debate. He agrees with historians who argue that real changes in America did not occur until the advent of World War II. The size of the federal bureaucracy is not a legacy of the New Deal but of World War II. What is more, it was not the New Deal that brought the country out of the Great Depression but World War II.

Badger also makes it clear that there were winners and losers in the New Deal. African Americans, the poor, and Native Americans were among the biggest losers. There were attempts to help each group, but deeply rooted prejudices against these minority groups remained. Labor groups and the consumer also suffered. The biggest winners, according to Badger, were business groups. Because of the scope of reform needed, the government was forced to try self regulation of businesses. Although some businesses acted in good faith, the majority took advantage of the opportunity to write new laws and codes that were to their advantage. However, The New Deal is not simply a book about the pluses and minuses of the New Deal. Badger prefers instead to focus on the results, intended or not, of the New Deal.


Commentary

David Houpt, fall 2008

The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940 by Anthony Badger is a remarkable summary of a complex time period. Badger manages to weave together a number of different interpretations and approaches to present a readable study of both the New Deal and its historiography. He covers the New Deal from a variety of angles including politics, women’s rights, Native American policy, African American civil rights, and agricultural reform. The New Deal is a tour-de-force of New Deal historiography. Badger does not use foot-notes, which is frustrating at times, but often times refers to specific authors within his text. This approach is supplemented by a comprehensive bibliographic essay at the end of the book. Despite the lack of specific references to works, Badger does a fine job at delineating different schools of thought and opposing interpretations of the New Deal. He does not attempt to hide contradictory views regarding the motivations and accomplishments of the New Dealers, nor does he take sides. Instead, his goal is to find a rational middle ground that avoids ideological extremes. Badger is not simply summarizing other works though. Rather, he examines an event from the New Deal, such as the changing role of organized labor, presents both a conservative and a leftist interpretation of the New Deal, and then throws out rhetoric and looks for ways that both interpretations can be right. The result is a much more nuanced argument

Badger also does a good job at highlighting some of the forgotten members of society. African Americans, women, the poor, and Native Americans were all losers in the New Deal. All too often history’s losers are forgotten. This author illuminates the ways in which the New Deal did manage to help while pointing out that much more could have been done for these groups. His approach is not overtly critical of the New Deal; instead he acknowledges that the New Deal faced significant hurdles when getting anything done. There was simply too many problems to deal with and the country was willing to make only so many changes. Although strong on social issues and economics, the section entitled “Partial Realignment: Politics” was the most interesting. As Badger points out, Roosevelt sought to completely change the political landscape during his first two terms as president. He dreamed of creating a truly progressive coalition. By 1940 it was clear that not only had not happened, but that if he wanted the New Deal to survive he was going to have to stay in office and fight to for it personally. He had set the stage for a national Democratic Party that allied urban ethnic workers with rural reformers, but the conservative Democrats in the South still had a stranglehold on the Party. What is more, Roosevelt had to deal with challenges to the New Deal made by political activists on like Father Charles Coughlin, Doctor Francis Townsend, and Huey Long. Although Badger concludes that the programs these men were offering lacked substance and were unrealistic, their challenge to Roosevelt was very real. The New Deal was under constant attack from the right and the left. The fact that Roosevelt was able to get anything done at all is remarkable. To have ushered in a major political realignment in the midst of trying to keep the economy afloat would have required a miracle.

Lacking in the book is any real discussion of many of the international or historical issues that influenced the New Dealers. Badger does not ignore that international markets played a significant role in the US stock market crash, nor is he blind to how Hitler’s rise and the international fear of communism affected events. He even ascribes most of the New Deal’s success to World War II, not to specific policies enacted by Roosevelt. What he misses is the ideological impact that countries like Great Britain may have had on the United States. Many of the social programs that were introduced under the New Deal had already been implemented in England or Europe at least a decade earlier. Similarly, Badger does not give enough credit to the Progressives in the United States. He mentions Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party, but never ties the Progressive cause of the 1910s to the New Deal. In fact, many of the agricultural reforms that were put in place in the 1930s were originally proposed by the Populists in the late 1880s. The New Deal was not born in isolation. It drew on a rich heritage of Progressives both in the United States and abroad.

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