The end of reform

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Alan. Brinkley. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1995.

Summary

Thomas Demharter. August 30th, 2005

For most Americans who came of age during the Great Depression, the various New Deal programs created by Franklin Roosevelt to combat the ills that were confronting the nation fell under what have collectively been called the Three R’s: Relief, Recovery and Reform. The first two of these – relief and recovery – held the most significance for those living throughout this terrible time. People simply wanted two things - food for their family and for the government to figure a way to bring the depression to an end. Reform was given little thought by most citizens – only those few individuals intimate with the administration, collectively known as the “Brain Trust,” looked to use the depression as a catalyst for reshaping both society and government in a more “liberal” manner. For these individuals, even the term liberal would have a new connotation. Instead of a government that was hands-off when it came to the economy and taking care of those individuals who had fallen on difficult times, those in the Roosevelt administration hoped to develop a system where every American could be “secure” in his or her daily life and in the future.

Traditionally, when historians have written about the New Deal, most of the focus has been given to the relief and recovery aspects. Little attention has been paid to the reform aspect, aside from Social Security and FDIC. While these two significant programs are examined as examples of reform by most historians, the complex thought process that went into their creation of these programs along with the offshoot ideas that developed as a result of discussion and debate, have not been thoroughly discussed. The men that Roosevelt surrounded himself with throughout his administration believed that the role of government itself had to be redefined. No longer could the government idly sit by as a few individuals determined the future for millions of people. Instead, government had to be given the tools to effectively combat the problems that faced the nation. While little change actually occurred during Roosevelt’s long tenure of office, the groundwork had been laid for future administrations; what government was supposed to be and do had undergone a complete overhaul in only one generation.

In his book, Alan Brinkley argues that it is time for historians to examine in detail the last of these three R’s. For Brinkley, the results of the New Deal, or the lack of results, are not the most important aspect of the New Deal programs. Instead, he argues that “The new liberalism that evolved in response to this changing world wrapped itself in the mantle of the New Deal, but bore only a partial resemblance to the ideas that had shaped the original New Deal.” Brinkley argues that there were two New Deals – the first of which only focused on relief and recovery. It was not until after the 1936 election that saw Roosevelt achieve the overwhelming victory he felt he needed and a Congress dominated by the Democrats friendly to him, that any type of reform could be attempted.

Commentary

Thomas Demharter. August 30th, 2005

Throughout his book, Brinkley examines many of the individuals that added to and created this second New Deal and developed an environment where real reform could continue to reshape America and its society over a generation. By providing a detailed analysis of these individuals and the philosophy behind their beliefs, Brinkley attempts to show how those involved overtly and behind the scenes were able to provide for the president a plethora of ideas on how America could be changed to provide a blanket of security for all Americans. By staying away from a more traditional chronological approach and instead examining individual themes such as economic reform, monopolies, labor and unionism, unemployment along with the shadows of war that began to creep towards the nation, Brinkley believes that he can provide for the reader a framework that shows how all of these particular notions were woven together into a cohesive new philosophy on what government should be.

While Brinkley does an excellent job of examining many of the individuals responsible for the various programs that were developed during the Roosevelt administration, the connections that he attempts to make both between the different strains of thought and to the future are often difficult to ascertain. Clearly, there were many philosophical ideas available for Roosevelt to choose from. What Brinkley does not make clear is that the final product developed was what Roosevelt wanted. Was Roosevelt really a liberal, or just an angry man of wealth who wanted to show those who shunned him in the past who had the last laugh? Further, after the Supreme Court debacle, Roosevelt believed that any chance of additional reform had come to an end. How this modern notion of liberalism could have developed if the president lacked the power to make it happen is not clear. Southern Democrats began to abandon the president as soon as they saw that reform could threaten their control over blacks; they did not want the federal government coming into the South telling them how to take care of business. How this affected the president is really not discussed. Finally, many of the ideas associated with liberalism also came from other groups/individuals. No credence is given to these factors. For example, the Black Cabinet is not even mentioned by Brinkley; the influence Eleanor had over her husband is rarely discussed. The Brain Trust was not the only group that developed the modern notion of liberalism but is the only group factored in by the author.

This is where I began to have problems with the book. More attention needs to be paid to the other people/groups involved in the shaping of America in its modern liberal sense. Further, Brinkley does little to complete his argument. He needs to bring the argument beyond WWII. If modern liberalism actually began to show results after the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal came to an end, Brinkley could have made the connections by providing examples. For example, a link to the Great Society programs developed by LBJ would have been obvious for me. Maybe, that is what Brinkley assumed – that the reader would make these assumptions. If so, he could have made that more clear. Finally, Brinkley pays little attention to how this notion of modern liberalism abandoned the African American community that it would become the champion of 20 years later. Maybe because Roosevelt was willing to abandon blacks to achieve some of his other goals does not fit well into Brinkley’s argument he simply misses this important fact.

Because this book provides quite a lot of detail and assumes the reader has a lot of prior knowledge on the subject, I do not feel that it would be effective to use it in a high school classroom. However, it would be an excellent text for an undergraduate class on the Great Depression. To use the book in a survey class would take up too much time because it does open up so many avenues for discussion. Because it does provide a good amount of information on a number of individuals, I could see the book being used in the development of a website on the effects of the New Deal on America and those involved in making these changes.

--Tdemharter 21:24, 8 Sep 2005 (EDT)

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