Prelim Readings: What A New Deal!

It was a New Deal weekend here on the Bench, and I got through nine books.  Too bad I’m now two days behind, but whatever.

William Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Piss off, says Leuchtenberg to all the New Deal naysayers: the New Deal was truly a revolution, transforming the terms of political debate, the power of the executive, and invigorating a stagnant spirt of practical reform.  Those New Dealers were doing the best they can–and they did a lot.  I’m inclined to agree.

Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.  Hang on, there, Billy Leuchtenberg and Dickie Hofstadter–don’t forget the regular folks; workers helped make the New Deal.  In this case, ethnic workers in Chicago, who (a) understood the limits of local relief institutions (b) demanded that the federal government step up to the plate and deliver where welfare capitalism had failed (c) voted in overwhelming numbers for FDR and (d) were fundamental to the formation of the CIO, which was one of those nifty countervailing forces of which Eric Rauchway writes.  She goes deep on this one, and scores.

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s: The culture of capitalism caused the ecological and economic disaster that was the Dust Bowl, and the culture of capitalism precluded plainsmen and New Dealers from trying a sufficiently revolutionary approach to living on the Great Plains.  I love it; Worster minces no words, and it may be blunt, but it’s on the money.

Sarah Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal.  The philosophy (or ideology?  Policy pattern?  That’s not entirely clear) of New Conservation–use resources efficiently and make sure the benefits are distributed to farmers as well as cities–shaped the agricultural policies of the New Deal (AAA, TVA, REA), and its inherent conflicts (though perhaps not contradictions) eventually led to a shift from an agrarian to industrial approach.  Although slightly muddled in its explanation of New Conservation, still a good book for getting a sense of the importance of agriculture to the New Deal and of the various approaches within New Deal agricultural policy.

Neil Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement.  We all like the CCC–dude, have you seen Timberline Lodge?–and so did FDR and the rest of the country.  The CCC served a couple of purposes: (a) it spread support, geographically and ideologically, for New Deal programs and the growth of the federal government; (b) it transformed conservation into the environmental movement by bringing more people into touch with nature (through trails, parks, publicity, work) and by sparking debate over conservation/preservation because of the CCC’s occasionally anti-wilderness behavior.  Fascinating thesis, well-developed argument, and lots of great examples.

Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956.  Boy, those New Dealers sure built a lot of stuff–and they meant to, too, says Smith, who says we need to remember that fact when assessing the New Deal, which was, ultimately, a series of programs designed to use public works to encourage economic development; ending unemployment was gravy.  He goes too far with the latter part–we know that many of the New Dealers, like Hopkins and FDR himself, were interested/obsessed with unemployment–but his main point re: New Deal liberalism as Keynesianism state-spending for the purposes of economic development is sound.  Plus: buildings and bridges are neat.

Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War.  The Roosevelt Recession and World War II foreclosed on the imaginative, potentially revolutionary elements of the New Deal, instead creating a particular form of rights-based liberalism, focused on ensuring the rights of the individual, but uninterested in a class-based or economic planning approach.  Seriously, how does Brinkley do this kind of stuff?  Amazing.  He provides an explanation of modern liberalism that seems to flow naturally out of the pressures of the late New Deal and World War II.  Dammit this guy is good.

Faster and Gerstle, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980.  A post-mortem of New Deal liberalism, these essays mostly focus on how the 1940s spelled the end of it all (it’s Brinkley’s thesis, written 7 years earlier and with less coherency).  My favorite is the essay from Ira Katznelson, who argues that the lost opportunity of the Great Society was actually lost in the 1940s.  It’s like a case study of what Brinkley argues.

Elizabeth Bordgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights.  The ideas of the Atlantic Charter–to individualize human rights and guarantee them for “all the men in all the lands”–came at the right historical moment (when people were ready to think internationally) and found their embodiement in Bretton Woods (IMF and World Bank), the United Nations, and the Nürnberg trials, heralding a brief moment when the United States (for selfish purposes, naturally) sought to be a positive actor on the world stage.  As she states in an afterword, this is a book about ideology, which I usually don’t like, but I’m down with this book.  It’s got an interesting thesis–the Cold War wasn’t inevitable; the US was on the path to internationalism–and although Borgwardt doesn’t explain that thesis fully (what about US actions that brought on the Cold War, like the Marshall Plan, its actions throughout Germany at the end of the war, dropping the A-bomb on Japan?), she effectively demonstrates that there was a powerful strand of enthusiasm for a New Deal-y approach to foreign affairs.

My summary of the New Deal: The emergency of the Great Depression effectively silenced economic conservatives for a few years and opened doors for all sorts of policies that (more or less) permanently enlarged the power of the federal government.  Though policy specifics were set by the New Dealers (Hopkins, Ickes, Wallace, etc.), the general idea came from the interaction between FDR and the masses of people suffering through the Depression.  FDR started off as a conservative economic voice, but he faced voters who wanted–desperately needed–economic help, though most were not willing to take the fatal step to socialism.  The result was far-reaching, but at times tentative, programs.   When the New Deal didn’t immediately stop the Depression, conservatives got back in the game and were able to stop the flood of systemic changes, instead pushing New Dealers toward an intervene-during-emergency-only, individual rights-focused approach, capturing an anti-state tradition that has deep roots in American history.  Nevertheless, the New Deal left a permanent and irreversible mark on the American landscape, electoral system, and body of political ideology.  Something like that.

Prelim Readings: Nativists, Populists, and Racists

Sadly only got to three books yesterday.

Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. This is a fun read, tracking the comet-like rise and fall of Long and Coughlin during the 1930s, with the climax in 1935. Brinkley sees Long and Coughlin’s brief success in their ability to give voice to the anxieties of small farmers, conservative workers, and other members of the middle class who lamented the passing of small-town community interactions in the face of centralization and industrialization of American economy and society. The bad guys were financiers and bankers (for Coughlin) and the wealthy (for Long); the solution was government–but not big or centralized government. And there’s the rub, because Long and Coughlin were fighting against modernization, a force that could truly only be stopped with some sort of radical economic change–like a big, centralized government–which Long, Coughlin, and their followers were unwilling and unable to consider such an alternative. It’s a story of American political character (in the Hartzian liberal tradition), middle-class anxiety, and demagoguery. Fun stuff.

John Higham’s Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Higham sees three traditions in American nativism: anti-Catholicism, anti-radical, and racial nationalism. These rear their ugly heads in different degrees throughout this period in American history, usually during times of economic crisis/tension. This works for the late 1880s and 1890s (Haymarket, Homestead, Pullman), but as he admits in the epilogue, material conditions didn’t connect to nativism during the 1920s, when the US passes its most stringent immigration laws (1921 Emergency Immigration Act, 1924 National Origins Act). That said, his identification of the different strands of nativism is helpful, as his explanation of the development of racial nationalism, which required some scientific slight-of-hand (courtesy of eugenicists) to overcome the positive implications of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Way better than Daniels’s Guarding the Door.

Katherine Blee’s Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Holy shit this was weird. The second Klan got crazy powerful during the 1920s in Indiana, and it infiltrated every aspect of life: parades, weddings, funerals, junior auxiliaries, and, of course, women’s Klan chapters. The WKKK, though, rejected the female-submission aspects of the KKK, instead providing women with an organization through which they could form social bonds as well as act in highly political ways, such as helping each other get to the polls (remember: 19th amendment in 1920), boycotting Catholic and Jewish establishments, and spreading rumors about community members. Blee wants to argue that this demonstrates that not all right-wing women activists are submissive conservative types; I say “meh.” But she does a great job showing how pervasive the Klan was during the 1920s. Scary shit.

Over the next two days, I’ve got about ten books to read in order to catch up. I’ll be reading some under the influence of beer and with fireworks as my reading light. Stay tuned.

Prelim Readings: Hurtling Into Depression

I hit three books and three articles yesterday:

John Milton Cooper, Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920.  A synthesis history of two decades which, per the title, were “pivotal.”  By which he means “really, really important, because there was radio and cars and women’s suffrage and the NAACP and black migration and a fundamentalist backlash and OH! Roosevelt and Wilson were so cool.”  Cooper has a love affair with the two presidents (he wrote a dual bio of the two).  Not much of an argument, but certainly good on details about the era.  Tedious.

William E. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity: 1914-1923.  Another synthesis, but way more interesting and better written than Cooper because it–gasp!–has a thesis.  [Sidenote digression: it’s stupid to write a book without a thesis, even if that book is a synthesis.  C’mon.  Do your homework and make it interesting, even for the undergraduates who are forced to read your book.]  That thesis, in my awkward paraphrasing: During 1914 to 1932, the United States became an unwilling world leader while at the same time confronting domestic tensions rising from the increasing contact between the urban present and future and the rural past.  Country mouse vs. city mouse, and city mouse wins, though he pisses off country mouse and creates a ramshackle economy.  Which leads us to…

Lester Chandler, America’s Greatest Depression, 1929-1941.  Yet another synthesis–it was one of those days–that’s great on detail and short on argument.  The best I could come up with:  The Great Depression had deep and complex roots, had deep and complex effects, and was addressed by a series of deep and complex federal government responses.  A good book from which to jack some lecture material.

Roy Rosenzweig and Barbara Melosh, “Government and the Arts: Voices from the New Deal Era,” The Journal of American History 77, no. 2 (September 1990): 596-608.  Neat article about oral histories of people who were involved in all those marvelous WPA programs–the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the Federal Theatre Project.  Despite what some historians have argued, these projects actually produced good art, according to the people who were involved.  Okay, so that’s expected.  Still, these folks look back on WPA projects with a solid sense of their contribution to society and society’s (through the federal government) contribution to them.  Sigh.  I love WPA art.

Christina D. Romer, “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 105, no. 3 (August 1990): 597-624.  Holy economic mumbo-jumbo, Batman!  Still, a good thesis and thoroughly demonstrated: the stock market crash of October 1929 freaked people into uncertainty, which kept them from buying durable goods, which really damaged the economy and led to the Great Depression.  Romer’s found a way to prove the connection between the Crash and the Depression, and it’s pretty convincing.  With graphs and stuff.

Christina D. Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?,” The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (December 1992): 757-784.  Romer’s got an attraction to the Depression, which is a good thing, because she’s got a way of understanding and tackling the big questions.  Here, she argues that an expansion in the money supply–from an influx of gold after FDR’s revaluation and political instability in Europe in 1934–lowered interest rates and increased investment and spending on durable goods.  Not all that sexy, but an interesting contribution that goes beyond “The war stopped the Depression.”

Today’s reading: Brinkley’s The End of Reform and Voices of Protest, Cohen’s Making a New Deal, Skopol’s Protecting Mothers and Soldiers, Smith’s Building New Deal Liberalism, Worster’s The Dust Bowl, and Borgwardt’s A New Deal for the World.  Whee!

Today’s Reading: Fin de siècle America

Check it: I’m a French-using snob. Anyway, I’ve been plotting out my prelim reading (holy FUCK there’s a lot), and here’s what’s on tap for today:

Walter Nugent, Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914
Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882
John M. Cooper, Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920
David Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Lester Chandler, America’s Greatest Depression

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Concise book reviews that would keep me from having to read these things?  Kidding, kidding.