Conrad Black: Roosevelt revisionists

Roundup: Talking About History

[onrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.]

... The key to evaluating Roosevelt’s performance at combating the Depression is the statistical treatment of many millions of unemployed engaged in his massive workfare programs, which were called “internal improvements” in Jackson's time, and are called “infrastructure” now. The government hired about 60 percent of the unemployed in public-works and conservation projects that planted a billion trees, saved the whooping crane, modernized rural America, and built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, the Montana state capitol, much of the Chicago lakefront, New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the heroic aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. They also built or renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, 700,000 miles of roads, and a thousand airfields. They employed 50,000 schoolteachers, rebuilt the entire rural school system of the country, and employed 3,000 writers, musicians, sculptors, and painters, including the young Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Even pro-Roosevelt historians such as William Leuchtenburg and Doris Kearns Goodwin have meekly accepted the characterization of millions of people in the New Deal workfare programs as “unemployed,” while comparable millions of Germans, Japanese, and eventually French and British also, who were dragooned into the armed forces and defense-production industries in the mid and late Thirties were considered to be employed. This made the Roosevelt administration’s economic performance appear uncompetitive, but the people employed in government public-works and conservation programs were just as authentically (and much more usefully) employed as were draftees in what became the European and Japanese garrison states, while Roosevelt was rebuilding America at an historic bargain cost. If these workfare Americans are considered to be unemployed, the Roosevelt administration still reduced unemployment between 1933 and 1936 from 33 percent to 12.5 percent, to less than 10 percent by the end of 1940, and to less than 1 percent a year later when the U.S. was plunged into war. If the federal workfare employees are accepted as employed, the corresponding numbers are 33 percent, 7 percent, 3 percent, and 0.5 percent. Virtually all the genuinely unemployed received basic social-benefit payments from 1935 on.

After the Second New Deal, in 1934–35, came a period of relative inertia and reduction of welfare spending, to test traditional capitalist theory, which provoked what Republicans tried to promote as a “Roosevelt Recession” (having noisily demanded the measures that led to it). The Third New Deal, in 1938, involved a massive return to workfare programs, whereupon economic progress resumed. The Fourth New Deal was the greatest defense build-up in history, starting in 1939, including the first peacetime draft in U.S. history in the midst of the 1940 election campaign. Finally, there was the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, which, posthumously as to Roosevelt, transformed the American working class into a middle class. In the late Forties, half the students in U.S. universities were on GI Bill of Rights student grants.

In the vacuum created by Roosevelt’s unexpected death in office, without memoirs or a literary executor, a spontaneous coalition of McCarthyite Republicans, disgruntled British imperialists, and Euro-Gaullists propagated the Yalta Myth — i.e., that Roosevelt had been swindled by Stalin at Yalta into handing over Eastern Europe to the USSR. In fact, the Yalta agreement promised freedom and independence for Eastern Europe, as Eisenhower pointed out to Khrushchev at the Geneva Conference in 1955. If Roosevelt and Churchill had given Stalin everything he wanted, he would not have felt the need to violate every clause of that agreement, as he did. FDR had no sooner been acquitted on that score than some supply-side economic purists started alleging that he actually prolonged the Great Depression in the United States.

Roosevelt expressed frustration to Felix Frankfurter and others that his opponents didn’t recognize that he was “the greatest friend American capitalism ever had.” He wanted to, and did, make America safe for people who lived in 40-room houses on 1,000-acre estates, as he did. He directed all the anger and frustration of the Depression into a cul-de-sac of mythological characters — economic royalists, war profiteers, monopolists, malefactors of great wealth, money changers, and speculators — and preserved the moral integrality of the nation to focus hostility on its real enemies: Nazism and Japanese imperialism. He was no bleeding heart, and he reduced welfare outlays in the summer, explaining, “No one ever dies of starvation in this country in the summer.”

It is, to say the least, unrigorous for current spokespeople of the intelligent Right to claim that Roosevelt’s peacetime elimination of unemployment was a failure, that war-mongering was his real antidote to economic depression, and that the grateful electors of the most successful politician in the country’s history were hoodwinked, as FDR would have said, “again and again and again.” Instead of trying to debunk FDR, Amity Shlaes, Holman Jenkins, and even Jim Powell should complete his liberation from leftist kidnappers and claim him for themselves. He was a reformer, and also one of the very greatest conservatives in American history.
Read entire article at National Review Online

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Craig Michael Loftin - 3/6/2009

Fascinating take on Roosevelt. Indeed, for everyone who labelled and still labels FDR as some out of control socialist, the evidence suggests he was actually the savior of big business capitalism, and his policies (those that succeeded anyway) created critical frameworks for the conversion to the war economy as well as the postwar middle-class expansion and prosperity.