British historian says FDR has some complex lessons for Obama





Anthony J. Badger is a University of Cambridge historian and the author of several accessible and well-reviewed books about the South and the Depression, among them"North Carolina and the New Deal,""FDR: The First Hundred Days" and"The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940." Given the current economic situation, it seems especially appropriate that the University of South Alabama's Department of History has selected Badger as this year's N. Jack Stallworth lecturer (his topic:"The New Deal and the Creation of the Modern American South"). Prior to his long plane ride, Badger graciously agreed to an email interview, and I began the exchange by asking how it was that an Englishman came by interests in the New Deal and Southern politics.

AJB: Almost half a century ago, I had my first introduction to the American South. My father had a book on his shelves from the 1930s by Sir Anthony Jenkinson."America Came My Way" was the story of an English baronet's travels across the United States, and it included a meeting with Huey Long. As a young boy in Bristol, England, I could not help but be impressed by the colorful antics of the senator from Louisiana, so different from the more prosaic politics of England.

But in 1959 what really stuck in my mind was the footnote that told me that Senator Long had subsequently been assassinated. Seven years later as a Cambridge undergraduate taking a survey course in American history, I read William E. Leuchtenburg's book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal and discovered that the exotic figure who had stayed in my memory was indeed a significant figure in the 1930s. In 1966 I regaled my fellow students with tall tales of Louisiana politics in a paper written for my college undergraduate history society. Huey Long and Bill Leuchtenburg made me want to study how the New Deal operated in the South...

... JS: What are the lessons from FDR's first term that most apply to our current situation?

AJB: First, the situation in 1933 was different from today. The Depression had lasted over three years. Unemployment was up possibly to a third of the industrial workforce. Agriculture (a third of the nation) was destitute. There were none of the stabilizers there are today to soften the blow -- no guarantee of bank deposits, no welfare system (private charities and local governments had been unable to cope), no Social Security. There was a sense of desperation that even in today's climate is missing. No wonder in 1933 that there were so many analogies with wartime conditions. No wonder there was so much talk about the desirability of dictatorship.

That talk is absent today. The key effect is on Congress. In 1933 politicians in both parties heard that they had to support the president -- particularly the normally conservative Southern Democrats, farmers desperate for relief, and the sizable bloc of progressive Western Republicans. Today it is clear that centrist Democrats and Republicans feel no such pressure.

In 1933 Congress was not air-conditioned. There was great pressure in a Washington summer to pass legislation in order to get home. Today there is not.

Second, I think 1933 shows that the free-market alternatives advocated by both economic historians and right-wing ideologues assume that the American people had an infinite capacity for endurance. Violence in rural America indicated that the patience of farmers was rapidly being exhausted in the early 1930s. Much has been made of the stoicism of the unemployed, but New Dealers going round the country were in no doubt as to the potential for violence and disorder. The notion that a government could simply reopen the banks and allow devaluation to take effect in the way that an Andrew Mellon or a Calvin Coolidge or a Grover Cleveland would have preferred completely ignores political reality and the danger of catastrophic social breakdown and the unleashing of anti-democratic forces. It is true, however, today that you don't see the ideological radicalism and grass-roots activism that could be found in the 1930s, although it is important to remember that the New Deal stimulated, as much as it defused, grass-roots activism...

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