Blogs > Liberty and Power > My Open Letter to Daniel Gross of Newsweek (Historians and the Great Depression)

Jan 4, 2009

My Open Letter to Daniel Gross of Newsweek (Historians and the Great Depression)

This is an email than I just sent off to Daniel Gross a reporter at Newsweek:

Dear Mr. Gross:

I am a professor of history at the University of Alabama. Much of my research and teaching focuses on the Great Depression era in American history.

In an article in Salon on January 2, 2009, David Sirota quoted you as stating,"One would be very hard-pressed to find a serious professional historian who believes that the New Deal prolonged the Depression" (See here).

If the quotation accurately represents your views, it is very mistaken.

Off the top of my head, I can name “several serious professional historians” who would probably argue (and argue strongly) “that the New Deal prolonged the Depression.” In addition to myself, they include Jonathan Bean of Southern Illinois University, Brad Birzer of Hillsdale College, Brad Thompson of Clemson University, Jeffrey Hummel at San Jose State University, Larry Schweikart of the University of Dayton , Michael Allen of the University of Washington at Tacoma, Ralph Raico of Buffalo State College, Burton Folsom of Hillsdale College, David Mayer of Capital University in Columbus, John Moser of Ashland University in Ohio, and Paul Moreno of Hillsdale. All have doctorates in history from top-ranked universities.

This is just off the top of my head. If you want additional names, please feel free to call me at 205-348-1870.

Of course, I would happy to discuss my own views on this topic.


David T. Beito


Department of History

University of Alabama

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More Comments:

Stephan Kinsella - 1/8/2009

They do have PhD's--perhaps that's the reason why. Come to think of it, most PhD economists know less about economics than Joe Sixpack.

John E. Moser - 1/6/2009

Great letter, David. As for others who would argue that certain elements of the New Deal prolonged the Depression you might add Gary Dean Best, Alonzo Hamby, and even David Kennedy. True, Kennedy is generally pro-FDR, but he criticizes Roosevelt's anti-business rhetoric in the mid-1930s, arguing that it hampered recovery.

But when people talk about a modern-day New Deal they need to be more specific. Remember that the New Deal wasn't some unified program, but a scattershot of different programs. Today people calling for a New New Deal are likely talking about an economic stimulus package. But that wasn't what was so pernicious about FDR's program. What held up recovery was the administration's reputation for being dangerously unpredictable in its policies. This, coupled with his violently anti-business rhetoric, caused many investors and entrepreneurs to avoid taking risks.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel - 1/5/2009

Johnson is NOT a professionally trained historian, so I'm not sure he should be added.

David T. Beito - 1/5/2009

Hart, Eichholz, and Davies should be added. Is Johnson a professionally-trained historian? I'll send a revised open letter in a few days with more names.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel - 1/5/2009

Excellent letter, David. Like Jane, I want to know if you get any response. By the way, did you want to add Paul Johnson to the list? And what about Steve Davies, David Hart, and Hans Eicholz?

David T. Beito - 1/3/2009

Very good point. I've communicated with leftists at the HAW blog who seemed to pretty much concede that the New Deal failed to improve the economy.....though, as you said, that they defended him for bringing in more state intervention.

David T. Beito - 1/3/2009

I generally agree. The economists have led the charge. On the other hand, Gross's statement was so simplistic that it was almost begging for a response.

William J. Stepp - 1/3/2009

George W Bush can be cast as FDR's inept predecessor, Herbert Hoover, whose voluntarist, laissez-faire philosophy did nothing to address the human costs of the Depression.

This guy is a history professor?
In what cave?

A dose of this will relieve some frustration:

See if you can top 14.
Someone should make a "fear itself" equivalent with a bobbing and weaving FDR.

Mark Brady - 1/3/2009

For example, consider Tristram Hunt in this weekend's Observer:

"However, FDR's presidency was ultimately a question of economic survival. Seventy years on, historians remain generous when it comes to his alleviation of the US banking system. But in terms of sustained economic growth, the score card is mixed. Rather than curtailing the Depression, critics argue, the New Deal piled on costs for business, crowded out capital, failed to grow private sector employment and deepened the 1937 recession. The creative powers of capitalism were neutered by Washington bureaucrats and it was only thanks to the demands of Second World War rearmament that the US economy revived."

"But for Anglo-American progressives, FDR's achievements have always been as much political as economic. What the 32nd president did was to shift the 20th-century paradigm from neoliberal let-alone to state intervention. He convinced the American people that society as a whole, operating through the federal government, must and could protect itself against the impersonal and amoral vagaries of the market."

Jane S. Shaw - 1/3/2009

Sorry--I don't understand why historians can't have a clue about economics. They have Ph.D.s, don't they?

David T. Beito - 1/3/2009

I generally agree. The economists have led the charge. On the other hand, Gross's statement was so simplistic that it was almost begging for a response.

Thomas Woods - 1/3/2009

Nice letter, David. But who cares if "historians" (whose biases are not exactly a big secret) say the New Deal was great for the economy. Only someone with knowledge of economics can answer that question. It is an economic question, not a strictly historical one. History can tell us that phenomenon A was followed by phenomenon B, but only theory can distinguish causation from mere correlation.

In other words, moost historians do not know a blessed thing about economics, so the fact that they think government squandering of private wealth and government cartelization of industry are good things for the economy, their opinions are worth zip.

Jane S. Shaw - 1/3/2009

Keep us posted on his reply!