Fear Itself; The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Kra Katznelson. Liveright, paper, 2014.

Fear Itself; The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Kra Katznelson. Liveright, paper, 2014.

Kra Katznelson’s book looks at the New Deal, including both the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman Administrations, a twenty-two year span dominated by Democratic control of both Houses. He admires both Presidents but does not fail to mention their omissions. “Fear Itself” is taken from FDR’s inaugural address in 1933, “[The] only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The author’s grand theme is the importance of the Southern Democrats in forming the New Deal. Its essential support in those years explains FDR’s unwillingness to take on its social system: Jim Crow involved white supremacy, a restrictive franchise, and racial segregation. The ‘solid South’ also opposed the international role that the Roosevelt-Truman Administrations resolved to play in World War II and its aftermath.

One criticism of Fear Itself is that Katznelson doesn’t discuss the Hoover Administration, its efforts to deal with the country’s massive unemployment prior to 1932 and the role that the alliance of Southern Democrats played in limiting Hoover’s response to the Depression. Roosevelt understood that revitalizing the national economy and rebuilding our armed forces in the face of German aggression would include a huge increase in military spending. that greater federal efforts to restore the economy would require a larger bureaucracy. Hence the construction of the Pentagon building in 1941-1943.

Not only did the Southern Democrats shape American response to depression and war, they were also able to shape racial policy during the New Deal. The new Pentagon was a segregated building as were most federal office space. The Armed Services also remained segregated throughout both world wars. Truman ordered their integration in 1948 at the beginning of his second term.

But African-Americans served in our segregated army and hence should be given the opportunity to vote. “Ballots for Soldiers” would seem to have been a given. Yet federal intervention to expand the franchise threatened Jim Crow. Katznelson points out that there were difficulties involved in facilitating voting by soldiers stationed overseas. Also voter registration in the South was in the hands of local and state officials. Collecting the poll tax, common in the South, could not be part of any federal initiative.  Roosevelt’s solution was to create a simple federal ballot, but leaving its administration in the hands of those state and local officials

Historians talk of two New Deals, the First New Deal (1933-1935) involved an array of federal interventions into the American capitalist economy. Those first hundred days of the Roosevelt Administration have become a model for nearly all subsequent pro-active Administrations.

The Second New Deal (1935 to 1941) was in part the result of the Southern Democrats and their continuing “veto” as a restraint on a federal response to the Depression. (FDR was also having difficulty getting his legislation through court challenges.) However the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the passage of the Civilian Conservation Corps got past the Southern “veto.” Both authorized relief programs that employed unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25.  The camps were segregated and the benefits to African-Americans fewer. The CCC was perhaps the most popular measure of the Second New Deal, and many of its projects are still around for everyone to enjoy.

Americans watched while fascist regimes triumphed in both Italy and Germany. We felt comparatively safe from European entanglements, oceans protecting us. From a distance the US could admire the Italian and German regimes addressed their own troubled economies in ways not open to a capitalist democracy.

We were divided over Roosevelt’s isolationist position. The various Neutrality Acts passed in 1930s were intended to ensure that the US would not become entangled in European conflict.

Roosevelt found ways, however, to support Britain, most notably the Lend Lease Act. War materiel from destroyers to machine guns were supplied on credit in exchange for bases on various islands within the British Empire – Destroyers for Bases. In the meantime we began our own rearmament efforts. This time the South was not left behind with the industrial surge resulting from that war production.

The fear of which Roosevelt spoke in his first inaugural was the result of economic collapse. We now feared German submarines sinking American merchant ships in the North Atlantic. We had no German bombers dropping their loads on our cities, or American boys dying on the battlefield. But we anguished as the British cities were bombed repeatedly and the Russians lost millions of young men on the Eastern Front. In 1941 we entered World War II.

Several final chapters discuss the anxiety of atomic warfare in the late 1940s. Looking back, it seems to have been an effort to keep the nation mobilized for a prolonged ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union. 1952 is a good year to end the story that Ira Katznelson tells. General Dwight Eisenhower’s two presidential terms provided a different set of fears and anxieties. Who can forget the grade school drills when we crouched under our desks fearing an atomic attack?

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