Alonzo Hamby: The Hundred Days ... What Worked, What Didn't, What Never Happened

The phrase "hundred days" came to mind so easily in 1933 because it already had been used to refer to the period after Napoleon's triumphal return from Elba. Alas, that ended with Waterloo. Franklin Roosevelt's hundred days still appear to many scholars a triumph of presidential leadership, but the end result was not much better. We all know that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression in the United States; it was an ambitious mixture of failure and accomplishment. One way to approach its initial phase is to sort through its ambitious list of programs and ask how they worked out economically. One also might ask what could have been attempted, but was not. A few thoughts follow:

Rhetorical Leadership: Here Roosevelt remains the master. His inaugural address and follow-up fireside chat uplifted the nation and restored a large measure of hope. This alone was no small achievement. Unfortunately, Roosevelt's rhetoric also became increasingly less unifying and more divisive. The gratuitous inaugural swipe at the "money lenders" would escalate accordingly. At the very least, it was an unpromising way of dealing with a continuing national crisis.

Stabilization of the Banking System: The Emergency Banking Act was clearly successful in averting a general wipeout. It was largely drafted by holdover Hoover officials. What on earth had prevented Hoover himself from doing it? What the New Deal did save, however, was greatly diminished after three years of sporadic bank collapses that wiped out a lot of wealth and made repairing the economy much more difficult.

Work Relief: The Hundred Days created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Public Works Administration. But these agencies provided no quick way out of the Depression. They foreshadowed, and indeed provided historical confirmation for the contemporary argument that public infrastructure projects cannot provide decisive economic stimulus. At best, they gave employment to a lot of workers who needed it.

Agricultural Bailout: The Agricultural Adjustment Act established a critical bailout for a sector of the economy that directly employed about twenty-two percent of the population. It the short run, it prevented an utter collapse of the farming sector. It also would demonstrate that in the longer run government subsidies tend to generate chronic surpluses that become increasingly unmanageable.

The Tennessee Valley Authority: Hailed at the time as a model of regional development and an exemplar of "grass-roots democracy," the TVA surely did more good than harm for its constituency, even if grass-roots democracy was more a manipulative tool than a reality. It also, however, increasingly became the focus of a government assault on the private electrical utility sector that was largely misguided and politically counter-productive.

Financial Regulation: One can argue about how much of this was really needed at the time or suited to the much different economy of today. Since last September, however, Glass-Steagall and later measures look considerably better than they did a year or two ago. Of course, they did not address the underlying easy-money policies that had enabled market excesses and some chicanery.

Monetary Tinkering: One can make a case for Roosevelt's devaluation of the dollar, but not for the capricious day-to-day manipulation of its value in which the administration would indulge for months. Few things can discourage an economic recovery as much as an unstable currency, even if the instability is at the margins.

The National Recovery Administration: The NRA was probably Roosevelt's biggest single misstep. A loose American adaptation of European corporatism, it wound up trying to regulate everything and succeeded only in tying the economy in knots. The Supreme Court did the administration a big favor by ruling it unconstitutional.

We've seen a rough balance sheet for the major things that happened. But what did not happen?

The Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon, greatly complicated by World War I obligations of war debts and reparations, and by a surge of protectionism that had been at the very least given a big boost by the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. Roosevelt took office at a time when a World Economic Conference in London was attempting to forge a comprehensive agreement that would restart a collapsing world trading system.

It was unlikely that the emerging rogue nations of the 1930s--the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or Japan--could be brought into a system of negotiated exchange rates and lower tariffs. The possibilities for an agreement among the Western democracies and especially between the United States and Great Britain surely existed and could have underpinned a democratic alliance in the dangerous years of the 1930s. Instead, Roosevelt torpedoed the conference in a way that a tabloid might have headlined: "FDR TO WORLD: GO TO HELL!" More generally, the belief that recovery could be achieved in one country got in the way of recovery everywhere, leaving the democratic world disunited and largely unprepared for its greatest challenge.

I suggested in my last book that historians should think in terms, not of the first hundred days, but the first one hundred twenty-five days, at the end of which FDR sent reeling the cause of revived world trade and the democratic revitalization that would have accompanied it. What Roosevelt did accomplish was to provide both rhetorical encouragement and material help to beaten-down ordinary people badly in need of both. This was no small accomplishment, but the hard, grinding six years that followed the hundred days should remind us of its limitations.

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David W Wilma - 2/25/2009

I am curious about the statement that the movement on privately-owned utilities was "largely misguided and politically counter-productive." I am in the Pacific Northwest where publically-owned utilities have been around for over 100 years. The public power movement was the result of high rates and poor service offered by the private utilities. How was this misguided?

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