The Bench Responds: The New Deal State and the Margins at Home and Abroad

From Aaron, this brilliant and fascinating question:

Don’t know if this is the sort of thing you’re working on, but I wonder how you would relate changes in the federal government’s relationship to “underdeveloped” parts of the country (whether geographic areas, like the South, or populations, like immigrants or African-Americans) to the American state’s changing relationship with the “primitive” world abroad in this period; Borgwardt seems like an appropriate point of departure, but I’m unsatisfied with her exceptionalist account (don’t know if you agree, but there it is) even while it seems like she does better at synthesizing that relationship than almost anyone else I know (since the foreign relations / domestic affairs schism always splits up people’s analysis).

Wow–thanks for starting me off easy, Aaron… 🙂  Seriously, this is a great question.  It actually is something I hope to be working on–the relationship between domestic affairs and foreign relations during the Cold War, to be a bit more specific.  But I haven’t got there yet, as my response below reveals.  It’s quite the piece of crap, this response of mine.  I read the question and wrote my response in an hour (that’s how my school’s exam process works: 4 hours to write 3 essays), so that’s part of the reason that it won’t make a lick of sense.  You’ve been warned.


During the Great Depression and New Deal (1929-1941), the Roosevelt Administration pursued a policy of tentative interventionism in domestic affairs and isolationism in foreign affairs.  Political anxiety combined with a commitment to perserving American capitalism to create these policies; victory in war would eventually erase that political anxiety and reject isolationism in favor of interventionism on behalf of American capitalism.

The federal government directly involved itself in the affairs of  marginal people and places at home during the New Deal.  The country’s land- and river-scapes show this interventionism in stark relief.  The Tennessee Valley Administration; Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River; the tree belts and relocation of farmers on the Great Plains–these and other massive state projects changed the landscape and intimately involved the federal government in the day-to-day lives of marginal people in marginal places.  Yet these projects were also limited by political circumstances and the administration’s commitment to capitalism.  As Sarah Phillips argues, A.E. Morgan was unable to realize his great dreams for the TVA–farming co-ops, etc.–because local involvement (particularly of landowners who were already unhappy with the federal government) was necessary in order to get the TVA going at all.  Thus was created the grassroots TVA–not one controlled by the federal government, but by local officials under the eye of local residents.  And on the Great Plains, as Donald Worster argues, the federal government refused to recognize the incompatibility of monoculture farming with such a marginal landscape, instead allowing farmers to continue their extractive practices.  To do otherwise would have signaled an inherent problem with capitalist agriculture–a step too far for FDR, even in his most “radical” experiments after his first re-election.

Indeed, the Roosevelt administration prefered in most cases to keep its hands off of marginal populations at home, allowing both for the replication of existing power relationships and the development of new centers of power.  FDR’s need to maintain friends among Democrats in the South led to a variety of legislation providing “affirmative action” for whites, as Ira Katznelson points out, from the clauses in Social Security that excluded domestic and farm labor (thus disproportionately excluding African-Americans) or allowing segregation in the CCC.  But the administration’s reluctance to get its hands dirty in local politics sometimes opened avenues for the development of what John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing” power, particularly in the development of union strength.  As Lizabeth Cohen shows using the case of Chicago, ethnic communities seized the opportunity to associate themselves with FDR’s administration while simultaneously building a new center of power in more radical union activity, particularly through the CIO.

During the New Deal, FDR’s administration also preferred a hands-off policy vis-a-vis the rest of the world.  The administration pulled inward during the Great Depression, walking out of international economic meetings, instead preferring to deal with its economic–and political–problems at home.  Even in its own sphere of influence, the United States decided to let things alone; Latin America got a brief respite from US interventionism with FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy.  And yet, in pulling out, the United States did not necessarily leave the stage empty for other countries to intervene.  Particularly as FDR’s attention turned to the global situation post-1939 (as David Kennedy argues), the United States sought not simply to leave the world be, but to encourage a world in which American capitalism might flourish in the absence of old colonial ties.  As early as the Atlantic Charter, FDR indicated a vision in which old European colonialism would die out, leaving open markets for the American economy.  And so, while the U.S. did not actively engage the peoples and places on the margins of the Western industrialized world, it did not ignore those people/places, instead seeing potential consumers and markets.

Emerging victorious from WWII, the United States would more actively pursue this vision of a world whose consumers could absorb American production.  With the Marshall Plan and American domination of the IMF and World Bank, the United States sought to impress its own brand of liberalism on the rest of the world.  In many ways, this liberalism had been born in the Tennessee Valley, the Great Plains, and the Columbia River, where the federal government had learned to exercise its muscle, but only insofar as to create producers and consumers, thus ensuring the salvation of American capitalism.

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