Voices of protest

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Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression presents a short biography of each man and a social history of the popular dissent toward the New Deal their political movements represented. It was the nature of this dissent provides interest to this period. Both Long and Coughlin supported Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and the first two years of his national recovery program know as the New Deal. As time went on both became disillusioned with the president’s approach not from ideological reasons as much as from lack of results. Roosevelt’s reforms were not returning the country to prosperity. The initial euphoria of the first 100 days was turning into disappointment. If Roosevelt couldn’t or wouldn’t do what was needed then someone else was needed to do the job. Huey Long and Father Coughlin both stepped up to become that someone else.

In the two years leading up to the 1936 presidential election Long and Coughlin established popular social movements that sought to contest Roosevelt’s position as a true reform candidate. Long organized the Share Our Wealth Clubs. This group had local clubs in many states but mainly in the south and the far west. Coughlin formed the National Union for Social Justice. He had a following concentrated in the northeast. The purpose of both groups was to act a counter to the national political parties specifically the Democratic Party. If either of these groups were to become sufficiently large and nationally representative they would be able to impose their policy choices on the national party. These dissident movements failed for several reasons mainly through Roosevelt’s ability to co-opt their main issues. The assassination of Huey Long in 1936 didn’t hurt either. Brinkley finds both men troublesome. He is fascinated by both and agrees with many of their economic proposals but he has difficulty dealing with certain aspects of their characters. With Huey Long it is the way he ran Louisiana. With Coughlin it was his open admiration of Hitler and Mussolini and his strong anti-Semitic point of view. Still in the it’s the strong stand for social justice of each man that attracts Brinkley and keeps his criticism of attitudes which wouldn’t be tolerated today to a minimum.

The book is organized into two sections. The first section presents the biography of each man up to 1934 the year they really begin to split from FDR. The second section is a social history of their movements in the years 1934-36. A short epilogue covering the years after 1936, which deal mostly with Father Coughlin though, some space is given to the fate of the Share Our Wealth Clubs. A short set of appendices follows the first being the most important because it directly addresses the question of fascism and anti-Semitism. Brinkley has sought out many primary sources for this work dealing in large part with the manuscript collections of the principal historical figures. Still he seems to have relied mainly on secondary sources for much of the book. Also there are some significant statistical tables included as notes. If the notes were the academically preferable footnotes placing these tables here is not a problem. However, when endnotes are used these tables should be returned to the text. They are significant enough to the narrative that they need to be seen which they may not be hidden in the back.

Ray Clark--13:47, 25 Jan 2006 (EST)

Brinkley. Alan. Voices of Protest Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1982 Pages 348, Price ?

Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin could not have come from more different backgrounds. Long, from a Louisiana small town, was governor and Senator. Father Coughlin, born in Canada, became a Catholic priest. During the 1930’s, both men tried to influence Americans hit hard by the Depression. Alan Brinkley contends both men led ‘imposing political movements (ix) that represented a ‘popular insurgency more powerful than any since the populist movement of the 1890’s.’ (ix) Both men, like many in the 1930’s, wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. Unlike the workers of Chicago described by Cohen who supported the extension and patriarchal support of government, the movements led by Long and Coughlin were based on an ‘urge to defend the autonomy of the individual and the independence of the community’ (xi) from the modern industrial state.

Huey Long was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928. He established a strong, dominant power base in Louisiana. Patronage was ‘the cornerstone of the Long machine.’ (26) Distrusting the establishment and their newspapers, he made heavy use of radio and published the Louisiana Progress. Financing the political machine was accomplished by a ‘brazenly open system of deductions from the salary of state employees.’ (27) Even as Senator, Long continued to dominate Louisiana politics. Despite outrageous, sometimes hilarious, buffoonish and even lunatic behavior, Long maintained support in his home state. Brinkley credits his Louisiana administration with ‘creation of an infrastructure, the construction of basic services and facilities without which more complex economic progress would be impossible.’ (31)

Long ‘rarely mentioned’ (32) race but Brinkley concludes the he undoubtedly was not free from prejudice although Long himself claimed his concern was ‘all poor men.’ (34) In the early 1930’s, Long moved to extend his influence in the South. He endorsed a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate who won and proposed a ‘movement to forbid the planting of cotton in 1932.’ (37) This scheme failed but won support for Long from cotton farmers.

Long had few friends among professional politicians. He supported Roosevelt in 1932 but a rift developed. The administration was concerned that Long ‘was creating a potentially threatening national organization.’ (79) Republicans hoped Coughlin, Long and Townsend would attract voters from Roosevelt in 1936 and give Republicans a chance to take over the Presidency. Long’s death ended this hope. (Leuchtenburg, 79) Brinkley feels that the Second New Deal reflects Long’s influence. (80)

Father Charles Coughlin was Canadian born. As a Catholic priest, most of his work was in Royal Oak Michigan near Detroit. Coughlin, like Long felt the Depression was ‘deeply rooted in the economic system’ and financiers and bankers ‘had caused the problem in the first place.’ (97) Coughlin, like Long, used radio to reach a wide audience. As a priest, Coughlin did not seek elective office. M. Linhart January 27 2006



Commentary


Long, Coughlin and others blamed the rich for the economic disaster. Long’s central issue was the concentration of wealth and his Share Our Wealth Plan appealed to beleaguered Americans during the Depression. Brinkley claims Long was emphasizing the problem of ‘insufficient purchasing power’ that did not provide adequate ‘markets for the tremendous productivity of American industry and agriculture.’ (74) Brinkley points out Long’s plan had ‘insurmountable problems.’ (73) Wealth existed in a lot of forms besides cash and could not easily be ‘evaluated, liquidated or distributed.’ Furthermore, there was not enough wealth ‘to satisfy the needs of the nation.’ (73)

Brinkley attempts to determine why Americans supported Long and Coughlin. They were ‘flamboyant, charismatic personalities’ and used publicity and the media, especially radio, with ‘skill and imagination.’ (143) Yet Brinkley believes it was not the medium but the message that attracted support. They affirmed ‘threatened values and institutions’ and offered a vision where ‘these values and institutions could thrive.’ They explained the obstacles by way of a ‘set of villains and scapegoats.’ (143) Both found those ‘in possession of wealth and power were to blame’ including the rich in America and abroad. Both resisted American involvement in World affairs and Coughlin succeeded in having ‘thousands of wires’ (Leuchtenburg, 216) sent to Washington urging the Senate to vote against the proposal. Their vision of reform required a ‘carefully restricted expansion of the role of government.’ (143) Both men affirmed the ideal of community where an individual controlled ‘his own livelihood and destiny.’ (144) Long and Coughlin were committed to a ‘determinedly capitalist middle class vision’ (145) but wanted to restrain the excesses of capitalism and the accumulation of vast wealth. They favored ‘small-scale local enterprise’ (145) and much of their support came from small farmers, businessmen and merchants.

In many ways, both Long and Coughlin are mysterious figures. Long’s buffoonery and outrageousness overshadows serious aspects of his influence. Coughlin, the priest, is not clearly revealed as a political figure. Furthermore, Brinkley admits his research was hampered since ‘’neither the leaders themselves nor their organizations left any papers or records of significance.’ (x)

Despite emphasis on community, both Coughlin and Long appreciated that government was the only thing powerful enough to cope with mighty financial powers. Unlike New Dealers described by Leuchtenburg, they wanted government to be ‘strictly limited’ (154) without ‘large bureaucratic structures.’ (154) Coughlin and Long criticized the alphabet programs of the New Deal. Brinkley believes nether Long or Coughlin realized the causes of Depression problems were less simplistic than villainous international financiers, giant corporations and Wall Street brokers. The Depression had its roots in the problems of ‘modernization itself’ and ‘the idea that human progress rested on continuing economic growth and organization.’ (157) Brinkley believes their movements flourished because they were part of the American tradition of ‘opposition to centralized authority’ and a ‘vision of virtuous and independent citizens.’ (161. Thus they were in the tradition of the Jefferson notion of the yeoman farmer, Jacksonian democracy, the free labor ideology that was the ‘philosophical core of the Republican Party’ and the populism movement of the late nineteenth century. (161) Paradoxically their proposals of fiscal reform through a use of federal power did not fit with their vision of a decentralized economy.

Both Long’s and Coughlin’s prominence were relatively short-lived. Long was assassinated in 1935 and Coughlin’s influence waned in the late 1930’s. Coughlin is remembered for his anti-Semitism but Brinkley contends that Coughlin said very little about the Jews before the last half of the 1930’s. Both Long and Coughlin have been connected with fascism. Leuchtenburg observes ‘the success of Huey Long seemed evidence that fascism could come from within.’ (Leuchtenburg, 275) Brinkley thinks neither man ‘openly approved of fascism or maintained any meaningful connection with fascist movements or thinkers’. (276) Brinkley concedes that both fascism and the followers of Long and Coughlin were ‘reviving the still potent tradition of late-nineteenth-century populism.’ (279) However, Brinkley observes Long and Coughlin did not support the fascist ideas of a ‘belligerent super-nationalism.’ (281) The Americans were committed to a ‘major shift in the locus of economic power’ to ‘small community institutions and to individual citizens’ (281) Brinkley concludes, Long and Coughlin ’were not fascists in any meaningful sense of the term.’ (282)

Judging from the election results for Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal years, Long and Coughlin had little real impact. Brinkley’s view of the two men as part of the tradition of independent ordinary Americans who found support at a time when government welfare and the beneficent state were so widely accepted shows that many Americans realized the disadvantages of the New Deal. --Mlinhart 23:05, 27 Jan 2006 (EST)


Elizabeth Jones, Spring 2006

Written in 1982, Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression is an excellent overview of the enduring tradition of political protest in the United States. Brinkley expertly describes how this tradition—embodied at this time by the larger-than-life personages of Huey Long and Father Coughlin—expressed itself during the Great Depression. Though the subject matter might seem familiar, Brinkley’s jaunty, engaging style keeps the reader interested. The book should prove of interest to scholars interested in the historiography of protest, as well as the casual reader interested in Huey Long and Father Coughlin.

Brinkley states from the outset that the Long and Coughlin organizations left little in the way of written records. Furthermore, their movments came in the days before opinion polling, creating a challenge in how to assess the impact of their messages. (Brinkley, x) Brinkley has done an excellent job with the little evidence he has; however, he does run into a few problems. He labels Long and Coughlin’s adherents as the middle class; however, he himself admits “the term ‘middle class’ is a vague one, to be sure; and if the conventional, popular image of the American bourgeoisie were to be the standard, few Long and Coughlin supporters would qualify…[O]ften they lived precariously and somewhat shabbily. Their membership in the middle class was less a result of their level of material comfort than of a certain social outlook.” (Brinkley, 198) However, he also indicates that Coughlin had a broader appeal, including the skilled Catholic Polish and German union workers in Detroit. (Brinkley, 201) Indeed, Coughlin aligned himself with the more conservative elements of the labor movement. (Brinkley, 200). And even though Long was largely silent on union issues, many unionists, particularly the more conservative elements, rallied to his cause.

Despite some flaws, Brinkley has done well in showing how the protest tradition remained alive and well in twentieth century America. However, it would have been interesting if he had demonstrated more completely how far back the fear of modernization and the loss of localism actually went. Thomas Dublin and Alan Dawley are but two authors who demonstrated this fear—which extended back to the Jacksonian Era (and before)—in their works "Transforming Women’s Work" [1]and Class and Community [2]



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